What is French Contrast Training (FCT)?
French contrast training is a training method that uses 4 exercises combined in a superset with 20 seconds rest between each exercise. 3-5 sets are typically performed, with 2-5 minutes rest between sets.
While this sounds like your typical circuit style workout, the FCT method differs from a traditional circuit style workout because each of the four exercises are not randomly chosen and the exercises have a very specific goal. Each movement is preparing you for the next. In the words of Joel Smith, MS, CSCS is a NCAA Division I Strength Coach, “French Contrast is two ‘waves’ of potentiation-based training, all rolled into one big complex set.”
The 4 exercises that make up a FCT set are outlined below:
1. Heavy Strength
The strength movement serves as a primer to make the following plyometric movement as explosive as possible. This strength movement can be a partial range lift or an isometric contraction and should be heavy, but not so heavy that the athlete is too fatigued to be explosive in the subsequent plyo move. Doing partial range or isometric lifts can avoid fatiguing the athlete, as well as keep the athlete in a more sport specific position. In regards to maximal isometric contractions, studies examining bat velocity in softball players have shown increased velocities when primed with an isometric contraction.
Whether using partial range, full range, or maximal isometric contractions, use 80-95% of your 1 RM for that lift. If doing partial or full range lifts, perform 2-5 reps. If doing full range lifts, stay on the lower end of the rep range to avoid fatiguing the athlete. If doing a maximal isometric contraction, hold the position for 3-8 seconds .
Squats, split squats, deadlifts, and bench press are the typical heavy strength movements associated with FCT. If working on vertical jump, an isometric squat hold, quarter squat, or half squat could be an optimal choice for the heavy strength movement. If working on sprints or acceleration, a deadlift weighted isometric back extension hold, or good mornings could be an optimal choice. Upper body strength movements could be advantageous for throwers and this could look like a heavy bench press or isometric bench press holds.
2. High Force Plyometric or Speed
This is an unweighted plyometric movement, aiming to be as explosive as possible with each rep. This could look like hurdle hops, depth jumps, box jumps, broad jumps, single leg hurdle to box jump, or bounding. An upper body movement here could be medicine ball chest pass. Stay in the 2-5 rep range and perform each rep for quality.
This is essentially a lighter version of the heavy strength movement. The speed-strength component typically looks like a weighted jump, olympic lift or pull, or band resisted jump. DB or BB speed squats are commonly used and a jumping component can also be incorporated with these. An upper body movement here could look like an explosive landmine bar press. Again, stay in the 2-5 rep range.
4. Accelerated Movement
The goal with the accelerated movement is to achieve high speed or overspeed, typically using assistance from bands. Using the band creates overspeed, allowing you to jump higher than you would be able to without the band. This accelerated movement could be in the form of a jump or a sprint. Band assisted squat jumps are commonly utilized here, and this can also be done in the split squat position. If bands are not available, rapid tuck jumps are another good option. An upper body movement could be an explosive push up, attaching the band to the top of a squat rack. Again, stay in the 2-5 rep range and be as quick as possible through all the reps.
How does French Contrast Training work?
Now that we understand what FCT is, it is important to note how FCT actually works to increase power output. FCT uses a combination of complex and contrast training. Both complex and contrast training have been shown to be effective in improving power and speed. The terms complex and contrast are often used interchangeably and while they are similar in nature, there are differences between the two training methods.
Complex training involves a heavy strength exercise followed by a plyometric exercise of a similar in movement pattern. This could look like a heavy back squat followed by a vertical jump.
Contrast training also involves a heavy strength exercise but is followed by a lighter, more explosive drop set of that exercise. Contrast training is more of a manipulation of loads in the weightroom rather than the incorporation of a plyometric component that we see with complex training. This could look like a heavy back squat and then DB squat jumps, utilizing the same movement pattern, just using less weight and being more explosive now. A contrast set could also look like heavy squats (80% of 1 RM) alternated with lighter squats (30-50% 1 RM), aiming to perform both sets at the same speed.
With both contrast and complex training, the emphasis is on the speed and explosiveness of the movement. The goal is not to be completely fatigued or go to failure.
The combination of these methods builds upon the concept of post activation potentiation (PAP). PAP “is a phenomenon by which the exerted muscle force is increased due to his previous contraction” (Alves et. al 2010). Basically, the body is more explosive following a heavy lift or maximal isometric contraction because the body thinks it's gonna lift heavy again. The body essentially prepares itself by “storing up” force and power after the strength lift and then is able to transfer this force and power into the subsequent plyometric move. Using PAP produces greater power output and over time, this can improve the rate of force development in athletes, an obvious advantage in sport.
French contrast training can improve explosiveness and speed in athletes. It can also improve strength and reactive ability through CNS adaptations. It is most commonly used to help improve vertical jump, acceleration, and can even be used to improve change of direction abilities.
While this style of training is most commonly reserved for highly trained athletes who are preparing to compete in sport, it could be utilized by a highly trained gym goer who has hit a plateau, needs a change up in their training program, or is trying to peak.
Important considerations when using FCT:
Should not be used long term
Use FCT as one training cycle, typically 3-4 weeks and when trying to peak or break away from a plateau.
Use in highly trained athletes
FCT is typically reserved for highly trained athletes because of the high loads and intensities used.
Use movements that mimic what you are training. If you’re training acceleration, you should deadlift not doing back squats. All we are trying to do with the strength lift is potentiate the plyo movement, so be smart with the movement you choose.
Explosiveness and speed need to be emphasized.
Yes the initial strength movement should be heavy, but not so heavy that the athlete is too fatigued and thus, unable to be explosive in the subsequent plyometric movement.
Minimal rest between reps (20 seconds); maximal rest between sets (2-5 minutes).
Here at Prime, we mainly focus on injury rehabilitation. However, our therapists also are strength and conditioning coaches who have extensive knowledge of sports performance training. Are you an athlete looking to improve your vertical jump, acceleration, speed, or change of direction ability? Are you an athlete who has been unable to get in the weightroom due to COVID restrictions? Or are you an avid gym goer looking to switch up your training program and improve your explosive abilities and strength? If any of these apply to you, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a consultation and see if French Contrast Training could benefit you!