Compensatory acceleration training is one of the most important and most effective training methods for building strength.
The idea is simple: you want to perform the concentric phase of your reps as explosively as possible in order to maximize force production. Many of the world’s best powerlifting coaches such as Dr. Fred Hatfield, Louie Simmons and Josh Bryant use this training method with their athletes.
If you want to get as strong as humanly possible then compensatory acceleration training is for you!
- Part 1: The Dynamic Effort Method
- Part 2: Cluster Sets
- Part 3: Contrast Sets
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to use compensatory acceleration training to get as strong as humanly possible.
Compensatory acceleration training is an advanced training technique where you lift the weight as explosively as possible through the entire concentric range of your exercise. Performing your reps explosively helps you to produce more force in your muscles and stimulates various nervous system adaptations including improved inter- and intra-muscular coordination.
Here is a perfect demonstration of compensatory acceleration training on the bench press:
Look at how fast Jon Irizarry is pressing the bar from his chest to the lockout position! Now THAT is what compensatory acceleration training is all about!
Performing your reps in compensatory acceleration style maximizes the amount of force you can produce on every rep. Just take a look at the following equation:
- Force = Mass x Acceleration
If you want to maximize your force production then you have to EXPLODE as fast as possible on every rep! It does not matter if the weight is 100% or 60% of your 1-rep max: if you want to get as strong as possible then you must accelerate the bar as quickly as possible!
There are two different ways you can use compensatory acceleration in your training:
- Lifting submaximal weights as explosively as possible
- Lifting heavy weights as explosively as possible
The first strategy is known as the “dynamic effort method” and is one of the most popular ways ot use compensatory acceleration training.
The idea is simple: you lift weights that are around 50-80% of your 1-rep max as fast as possible. Even though the weight is relatively light you are able to maximize force production by accelerating the bar as quickly as possible. This is the strategy that Dr. Fred Hatfield used to squat over 1,000 pounds when he was 45 years old!
In part 1 of this article I will teach you how Louie Simmons and Josh Bryant use the dynamic effort method to train some of the strongest powerlifters in the world.
The other strategy is to lift heavy weights in the 1-5 rep range as explosively as possible. We know from research that as long as you are trying to lift the weight as fast as possible then you will still maximize force production and get the full benefits of compensatory acceleration training.
Two training methods that work especially well for maximizing force production with heavy weights include cluster sets and contrast sets. In parts 2 and 3 of this article I will teach you how some of the world’s best strength coaches like Charles Poliquin and Christian Thibadeau use these advanced training methods together with compensatory acceleration training to build maximum strength.
Note: if you have any trouble reading the routines presented here then check out this article on how to read a training program. Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: The Dynamic Effort Method
The dynamic effort method was popularized by the powerlifting coach Louie Simmons and the Westside Barbell powerlifting team.
The basic idea is that you can get stronger by lifting submaximal weights as explosively as possible. Most of the time you will be lifting a weight that is around 50-80% of your 1-rep max with the dynamic effort method.
Take another look at the following equation:
- Force = Mass x Acceleration
As long as you lift the weight as explosively as possible then you will still maximize force production. This is the exact strategy that Dr. Fred Hatfield used when he squatted over 1,000 pounds at 45 years old!
Fred rarely squatted over 800 pounds in training. Instead he focused on lifting weights in the 700-800 pound range as fast as possible. Even if he only had 800 pounds on the bar he was still generating more than 1,000 pounds of force!
There are two ways to incorporate “speed sets” into your training program:
- Perform speed sets on the same day as your heavy sets
- Perform speed sets on a separate day from your heavy sets
Both of these approaches work. Josh Bryant likes to perform his heavy sets and his speed sets on the same training day. On the other hand Louie Simmons likes to perform his heavy sets and his speed sets on separate training days.
Now let’s take a closer look at both of these options…
Option #1: The Josh Bryant Powerlifting Program
Josh Bryant is one of the world’s best powerlifting coaches. He trains many world record holders including the world’s strongest bench presser Julius Maddox. Josh is a huge fan of the dynamic effort method and uses it with almost all of his clients when they are peaking for a powerlifting competition.
Here is how Josh sets up his clients’ powerlifting workouts:
- Phase 1: Heavy set of 1-3 reps
- Phase 2: Speed sets for 2-4 reps
- Phase 3: Supplementary exercises
- Phase 4: Accessory exercises
Josh has his athletes perform 3-10 “speed sets” early in the routine right after their heaviest set for the day.
For example at the start of a powerlifting meet prep cycle you might perform a heavy triple at 85% of your 1-rep max followed by 8 sets of 4 reps at 65% of your 1-rep max. The 8 sets of 4 reps would be performed in compensatory acceleration style. In other words you would explode as fast as possible through the concentric range of the lift!
Josh loves to use compensatory acceleration training leading up to a meet because it helps you build strength without eating into your recovery ability. As you get closer to your meet you would lift heavier weights for lower reps for your compensatory acceleration sets.
Here is a deadlift workout that Johnnie Jackson performed as he trained for a 700 pound deadlift. Check it out:
Josh Bryant Deadlift Workout
- A1: Conventional deadlift, 1 x 3**, 1/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Speed conventional deadlift, 6 x 3, 1/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- C1: Deficit conventional deadlift (1 inch deficit), 2 x 3, 1/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- D1: Cable pull through, 3 x 12, 1/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- E1: Bilateral lying leg curl (feet dorsiflexed / neutral), 3 x 6, 1/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- F1: Suitcase deadlifts, 2 x 3, 1/1/1/1, 60 seconds rest
- G1: Pull ups (wide / overhand grip), 3 x 6, 1/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed with 85% of your estimated 1-rep max
***Performed with 70% of your estimated 1-rep max
Here is the complete training video for this workout:
Just look at how fast Johnnie Jackson accelerates the bar on his speed sets. Johnnie is an absolute animal! Josh says that these compensatory acceleration sets work for several different reasons.
First of all they help you to build maximal strength. Even though there is only 70% of your 1-rep max on the bar you are accelerating the weight as fast as possible so your force production is also maximized.
These compensatory acceleration sets also increase your rate of force production. In other words you teach your body to reach maximum force production sooner in a set.
Finally these compensatory acceleration sets give you a chance to perfect your technique on the competition lift.
Option #2: The Westside Barbell Powerlifting Program
The Westside Barbell powerlifting program was invented by the powerlifting guru Louie Simmons. Louie believes that the best way to get stronger is to train the squat, bench press and deadlift twice per week.
On one day you perform “max effort” work where you lift weights around 90-100% of your 1-rep max. On the second day you use the dynamic effort method to build strength using relatively lighter weights.
Louie really wants his athletes to lift as explosively as possible on these sets. Here is what a typical dynamic effort bench press workout looks like:
Talk about an explosive bench press – the bar is practically flying out of his hands! Now THAT is how you produce maximum force with a relatively light weight!
Louie Simmons has his powerlifters perform about 10 sets of 3 reps on the bench press on the dynamic effort day. These sets are usually performed with about 50-70% of the athletes’ 1-rep max but this varies from person to person.
Louie is a HUGE fan of using bands and chains on the dynamic effort day. The bands and chains make the top part of the exercise harder which forces you to explode all the way to lockout. If you let the bar slow down then the bands and chains will pull the bar right back down to your chest!
Here is a typical Westside Barbell style dynamic effort bench press workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Matt Wenning Speed Bench Press Workout
- A1: Speed bench press against bands and chains (3 grips)**, 9 x 3, X/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- B1: Bench press against bands and chains (shoulder-width grip), 1 x 20-30***, 1/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- C1: Rolling flat DB extension, 3 x 8-12, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- D1: Lying kettlebell extension (hanging bands), 3 x 8-12, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- E1: Lat pulldown (wide / neutral grip), 3 x 8-12, 1/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- F1: T-bar row, 3 x 8-12, 1/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
Here is the training video for this workout:
This workout was demonstrated by the Westside Barbell expert Matt Wenning.
So which dynamic effort training strategy is superior? Is it better to perform your speed sets and your heavy sets on the same day like Josh Bryant? Or is it better to perform your heavy sets and your speed sets on two separate training days like Louie Simmons?
The truth is both of these strategies work. I suggest you try both and figure out which one works best for you. Of course you don’t have to lift submaximal weights to get the most out of compensatory acceleration training. You can also use this method with sets in the 1-5 rep max range.
Remember, as long as you are *trying* to lift the weight as fast as possible you will produce maximum force. Parts 2 and 3 of this article will show you exactly how to do that…
Part 2: Cluster Sets
Cluster sets is one of the best training methods you can use to build strength. It is also one of the best training methods for compensatory acceleration training!
To perform a cluster set you take short rest breaks in between the reps of your set. The most famous cluster set protocol was popularized by Charles Poliquin and is often called a Poliquin-style cluster set.
You are going to perform sets of 5 reps where you rest 10-20 seconds in between each rep. For example:
- Perform rep #1, rest 10-20 seconds
- Perform rep #2, rest 10-20 seconds
- Perform rep #3, rest 10-20 seconds
- Perform rep #4, rest 10-20 seconds
- Perform rep #5, done!
Because you are taking short rest breaks in between your reps you can use a heavier than normal weight for your sets of 5. In fact Charles Poliquin says that most athletes can use their 3-rep max with this training method!
Here is a perfect demonstration of cluster sets on the bench press and preacher curls. Check it out:
Take a close look at this video. The athlete is exploding as fast as humanly possible on every single rep. In other words he is performing compensatory acceleration training! If you don’t believe me then just listen to the coach in the background – he is telling his athlete to explode on every single rep!
Cluster sets are perfect for compensatory acceleration training because you only have to focus on performing 1 perfect rep at a time. You just explode the weight back up to lockout and then take your 10-20 second rest break.
Remember, as long as you are *trying* to accelerate the bar as fast as possible you will still maximize force production. It does not matter if the bar is moving slow as long as your intention is to move it fast!
Here is a sample cluster set arm workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Poliquin Cluster Sets
- A1: Bench press (shoulder-width grip), 5 x 5**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip), 5 x 5**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Decline ez-bar extension with chains (to chin), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Bilateral standing cable curl (reverse grip), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed as a Poliquin-style cluster set protocol. Use your 3-rep max and rest for 10-20 seconds in between every repetition.
Cluster sets are ridiculously effective for building maximum strength. Just remember to explode as fast as possible on every single rep. If you slowly lift the weight up to lockout then you are completely missing the point of this superior training method!
Part 3: Contrast Sets
Contrast sets might be the single most effective way to use compensatory acceleration training to build maximal strength.
I know, I know – this article is starting to sound like a bad Shamwow infomercial. “But wait – there’s more! Shamwow will take your dead bedroom and bring it back to life! Your neighbors will make a noise complaint to the cops six nights a week!”
All kidding aside, contrast sets and compensatory acceleration training are literally made for each other. The basic idea behind a contrast set is you alternate back and forth between two different types of sets. The two different types of sets “excite” or “potentiate” your central nervous system so you are stronger and more explosive as the workout progresses.
There are three types of contrast sets that I want to teach you:
- Isometric contrast sets
- Chain contrast sets
- Eccentric contrast sets
All three of these methods maximize the benefits of compensatory acceleration training so you can become stronger and more explosive all at the same time. Now let’s take a closer look at each of these methods…
Option #1: Isometric Contrast Sets
Isometric contrast sets were popularized by the powerlifting coach Josh Bryant. They are an unbelievably effective way to train. The basic idea is to alternate back and forth between an isometric set and a compensatory acceleration set performed around 60-80% of your 1-rep max. For example:
- Perform a set of isometric deadlifts, rest 2 minutes
- Perform a set of speed deadlifts, rest 2 minutes
- Perform a set of isometric deadlifts, rest 2 minutes
- Perform a set of speed deadlifts, rest 2 minutes
Josh believes that isometric contrast sets work best for improving your bench press and deadlift. For safety reasons he doesn’t use them on the squat.
Here is what an isometric bench press looks like:
As you can see the athlete is pressing an empty 45 pound barbell into a pair of safety pins. These pins are set right at the powerlifter’s “sticking point” or weak point in the bench press. He isn’t just holding the bar against the pins – he is pressing it like he is trying to shatter the pins into a million pieces!
And here is what an isometric deadlift looks like:
On the isometric deadlifts Josh likes to use a bar loaded with 135 pounds. This helps to prevent the bar from moving all over the place while you pull.
Once again your goal is to pull the bar into the safety pins as hard as you can for 6-8 seconds. Your whole body should shake if you are pulling hard enough!
OK, it’s time for the big question: what makes isometric contrast sets so special? I’m glad you asked! Research shows that all-out isometric contractions allow you to recruit up to 5-7% more muscle fibers and produce up to 15% more force than concentric or eccentric contractions.
After an all-out set of isometrics your nervous system will be more excited than Thor when he realized he is still worthy!
Then you rest 2 minutes and perform your speed set. The difference is this will be the fastest and most explosive speed set of your entire life!
Just think about it: all of those muscle fibers that were activated by the isometric set will now be firing on your speed set! So the isometric sets potentiate your nervous system to produce more force on the speed sets, but the reverse is also true: your speed sets potentiate your nervous system to produce more force on the isometric sets! Talk about a potent training stimulus!
Here is just one example of how Josh Bryant might structure an isometric contrast set for the deadlift. Check it out:
Josh Bryant Deadlift Isometrics Routine
- A1: Conventional deadlift, 1 x 2**, 1/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Conventional deadlift isometric***, 4 x 1, 120 seconds rest
- B2: Speed conventional deadlift****, 4 x 3, 1/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Conventional deadlift with reverse bands, 2 x 4*****, 1/1/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- D1: Glute ham raise, 3 x 6, 1/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- E1: Seated machine row (pronated grip), 3 x 10-12, 1/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
- F1: Standing DB shrugs, 3 x 10-12, 1/0/1/3, 60 seconds rest
**Performed at 90% of your estimated 1-rep max
***Performed with 135 pounds. Put the safety pins right at your sticking point in the deadlift and pull against the pins as hard as you can for 6-8 seconds.
****Performed with 75% of your 1-rep max. These are compensatory acceleration sets so pull the bar as fast and explosively as you can all the way to lockout!
*****Perform 2 reasonably hard sets of 4 reps. Once again you must pull the bar as explosively as possible all the way to lockout!
Isometric contrast sets are an awesome way to train. There is a reason Josh Bryant uses them with so many of his world record holding powerlifters.
Unfortunately there is also a dark side to isometric contrast sets: they are very taxing on your central nervous system. Josh recommends that you use them no more than 3-6 weeks at a time and no more than 2-3 times throughout the year.
You also need to make sure that your recovery is absolutely perfect when using them. Isometrics don’t cause any muscle damage but they are incredibly taxing on your central nervous system.
If you don’t have your nutrition, sleep and stress management dialed in then isometric contrast sets will eat you up and spit you out alive!
Option #2: Chain Contrast Sets
Chain contrast sets were invented by Charles Poliquin. He never gave this training method a formal name so this is what I’m going with! The basic idea is to alternate back and forth between a set with chains on the bar and a set with straight weight.
Charles recommends that you perform sets of 3 reps with the chains and sets of 1 rep with the straight weight. For example:
- Set 1: Triple with chains
- Set 2: Single with straight weight
- Set 3: Triple with chains
- Set 4: Single with straight weight
- Set 5: Triple with chains
- Set 6: Single with straight weight
I can’t get over how smart this training method is!
The triple with chains forces your body to tap into new motor units and lift the weight as explosively as possible. If you do not explode then you will get stuck halfway up because of the chains!
Then when you go to perform your single you will be more explosive than normal and able to tap into more motor units than normal. The set with chains potentiates your central nervous system to produce more force and be more explosive on the single with straight weight!
In other words the chain contrast method is like compensatory acceleration training on steroids! How cool is that?
I know some of you reading this are thinking “This guy is nuts! No one trains that way!”
What if I told you the chain contrast method was a favourite training method of the 4x World’s Strongest Man Brian Shaw? It’s true! Here is Brian Shaw himself explaining the benefits of the chain contrast method and why he continues to use it in his training:
If you follow Brian Shaw then you already know he is more than happy to test new ideas in the gym if they will help him reach his goals. Brian is the poster boy for the “growth mindset.”
Here is a Brian Shaw style overhead press workout featuring the chain contrast method. Check it out:
Briant Shaw 3/1 Routine
- A1: Seated overhead press with chains, 3 x 3, 1/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- A2: Seated overhead press, 3 x 1, 1/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- B1: Machine incline press, 1 x 8-12**, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Flat pin press**, 1 x 8-12**, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
If you are looking for a novel training method that will help you become more explosive with maximal singles then the chain contrast method has your name written all over it.
Option #3: Eccentric Contrast Sets
Eccentric contrast sets are very similar to chain contrast sets. You are going to alternate back and forth between an eccentric-only set and a more traditional set. One very effective version of this method is the “3 then 1 method” as popularized by Charles Poliquin. Here is the exact protocol:
The 3 Then 1 Method
- Set 1: Triple with straight weight
- Set 2: Single with weight releasers
- Set 3: Triple with straight weight
- Set 4: Single with weight releasers
- Set 5: Triple with straight weight
- Set 6: Single with weight releasers
As you can see you are alternating back and forth between a regular triple and an eccentric-only single with weight releasers. Weight releasers are giant metal hooks that attach on either side of a barbell. They make the exercise heavier during the eccentric range and lighter during the concentric range.
Here is Josh Bryant giving a perfect demonstration of weight releasers on the bench press:
Weight releasers are so effective because they overload the eccentric range of the exercise.
Charles Poliquin says that when you perform a maximum single with weight releasers you are recruiting the “survival fibers.” In other words you are recruiting literally every muscle fiber possible to prevent the bar from crushing you in the bottom position!
When you go to perform your set of 3 reps with straight weight you will till be able to tap into these survival fibers so your set will be far more explosive than normal! In other words the eccentric contrast method potentiates your central nervous system so you can produce more force with your heavy triples.
Here is an eccentric contrast method workout that you may want to try. Check it out:
Lower Body Eccentric Contrast Method Workout
- A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 3 x 3, 3/0/X/1, 4 minutes rest
- A2: Back squat with weight releasers (medium stance / heels flat), 3 x 1, 10/0/1/0, 4 minutes rest
- B1: Leg press against bands, 2 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: Unilateral lying leg curl (Poliquin method / feet neutral), 2 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- D1: 45 degree back extension (against bands), 2 x 8-10, 2/0/X/2, 120 seconds rest
I have to warn you: eccentric training is an advanced training method and should only be performed by advanced trainees. You need at least 2 years of hardcore training experience under your belt before you start experimenting with weight releasers. If you use weight releasers before you are ready for them then you increase your risk of injury.
If you want to be more explosive with heavy weights and reap the benefits of compensatory acceleration training then you have to give the eccentric contrast method a shot. It is one of the best ways for advanced trainees to blast through strength plateaus.
Compensatory acceleration training is one of the most important training methods ever invented. The basic idea is to perform the concentric range of your exercises as explosively as possible.
There are many different ways to use compensatory acceleration training to build strength as fast as possible. Josh Bryant and Louie Simmons love using the dynamic effort method. They have their athletes perform multiple “speed sets” to build strength in the squat, bench press and deadlift.
Another great strategy is to perform your heavy sets in compensatory acceleration style. It does not matter if the bar is moving slow: as long as you are *trying* to accelerate the bar as fast as possible you will still produce maximum force and get all the benefits of compensatory acceleration training.
Of course you can experiment with advanced training methods like cluster sets and contrast sets to trick your body into being even more explosive. These methods are like compensatory acceleration training on steroids!
The bottom line is everyone should use compensatory acceleration training in their long-term programming.
“My first rule is: find your vision, and follow it. I think it is the most important thing that we have a very clear vision of where we go. If you don’t have a goal, if you don’t have a vision then you are just going to drift around and you’re never going to get anywhere. This is why it is so important to create that vision.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
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