Q&A: Effectiveness of Max Contraction Training

Hi Drew,

After reading some of your articles on HIT and after having started training in HIT form, I then found reference to John Little’s Max Contraction Training book and bought it. After reading it, I have to admit that I am fascinated by the book and am curious to know if you ever trained in the Max Contraction protocol – specifically holding the maximum weight you can hold for a given exercise when the muscle is in its fully contracted position – thereby recruiting all muscle fibers because the muscle is strongest in the fully contracted position.

I am curious to know based on your personal experience if his method is even more effective than the one you follow currently – 1 set of reps to failure doing 6 – 8 reps. Perhaps you do your workout because you are at a sufficiently big size that you are interested in gaining 30lbs of muscle in one year like one of his students. I am just curious to know why you don’t follow his method, considering that it “seems” to be more efficient than yours.

The bottom line is that I am just trying to find the most effective/safe way to gain strength and size in the shortest possible time and I willing to do whatever it takes to do that cleanly.

I tried his method yesterday and I was expecting to be very sore today (Shoulders, Chest and Triceps) considering I was holding the heaviest weight I could for 1 – 6 seconds for 4 reps and I did only four exercises as he recommended. However I have absolutely no soreness at all today and as a matter of fact I did not feel light headed or nausea after performing those exercises giving them my best effort. I am wondering if I really put in my best effort or perhaps those muscles are not big enough to deplete my body’s glycogen store sufficiently enough to cause lightheadedness.

Regards,
Hameed

Max Contraction training is highly effective, and I have gotten good results from it in my own training and with clients. However it requires at least one and ideally two strong training partners to lift the resistance into the fully-contracted position for the trainee to hold, and unfortunately my schedule makes it difficult to train regularly with  a single partner, much less coordinate workouts with two other people.

While it would be ideal to perform Max Contraction on a properly designed machine with strong helpers to lift the weight into the fully contracted position for you, it is possible to perform Max Contraction on some upper body barbell exercises such as arm curls using a power rack and assistance from your legs to get the resistance in the finished position. This is one case where it is not only acceptable but necessary to curl inside a squat rack or power rack. To perform Max Contraction barbell curls, set the safety pins to a point a few inches below the height of the barbell when held in the fully contracted position. While holding the barbell, squat down while bending your elbows until you are in the finished position of the curl, then contract your biceps and hold the bar in that position while standing up, lifting the bar off the safety pins. Contract your biceps as hard as you can, attempting to hold that position for as long as possible. When you can no longer hold the bar in the fully contracted position, slowly lower it to the bar and repeat for a few more reps. The Omega Set described in Advanced Max Contraction Training can be performed the same way, with a lower safety pin setting to allow for a partial negative after static failure.

You can’t gauge the effectiveness of a workout by the soreness it does or doesn’t cause. Keep accurate records of your workouts and measurements and let those be your guide. If you’re getting stronger and bigger, you’re doing things correctly. If not, you need to reexamine your training, diet, and other factors supporting recovery and growth and make improvements in areas which may be holding you back.

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30 Responses to Q&A: Effectiveness of Max Contraction Training

  1. DH March 17, 2009 at 9:59 pm #

    Hi Drew, I have had some questions in my mind regarding this type of training. I have read your article where you talk about static contractions. I have read Max Contraction Training. There is a guy posting reviews on Amazon who advocates this type of training. A great deal of what he has written and what John Little has written reagarding this type of training makes a great deal of sense to me. Like you have written before, the requirements for an effective strength/bodybuilding program are saftey, progression, and a high intensity stimulus or contraction of the muscles. The one area I feel I don’t fully understand is what is the ideal way to do those contractions. Is there something that your muscles miss out on by performing fully contracted holds that they would otherwise get from from full range or close to full range reps? I know that if you don’t do full range reps your muscles do not recieve any stretching. I guess my big question is how important is range of motion in the whole equation. I know I have read other writings regarding static contraction where strength increases were greater or only at the angle trained.

    • Drew Baye March 18, 2009 at 2:44 pm #

      Most research on this, including several studies performed at the University of Florida with MedX testing equipment, has shown strength increases to be specific to the range of motion trained. However, many people have increased muscle size significantly using isometrics and partial repetitions, so a full range of motion is not necessary for bodybuilding purposes. Since the Omega Sets involve both isometric and eccentric contraction, they cover both.

      If you feel your flexibility is not being improved or maintained when training with isometrics or partial repetitions you could supplement it with light, post-workout stretching, but I do not believe this would be necessary.

  2. Anatoly March 18, 2009 at 4:21 am #

    Muscle Soreness are result of micro trauma of muscle fibers
    Static holds doesn’t cause that micro trauma, only eccentric or ballistic movements.
    HTH

    • Drew Baye March 18, 2009 at 8:06 am #

      While the inflammation resulting from microtrauma may contribute to soreness, there are many causes, some of which have nothing to do with growth stimulation. If I kick your thigh it will be very sore, however this would not stimulate muscular strength or size increases.

      While eccentric contractions cause far more microtrauma than concentric or isometric, microtrauma can occur during any type of muscle contraction if the tension is high enough. The Omega Set combines Max Contraction with partial negatives, and involves more of this.

      I do not recommend ballistic or explosive repetitions as they provide no benefit over performing repetitions in a slow and controlled manner and are more likely to cause an injury.

  3. rob salyer March 18, 2009 at 10:22 am #

    drew,
    my workout partners and such are looking at doing a cycle of rest pause training..You have alot of experience in this area and i was hoping you might suggest a workout with reference to exercise, exercise technique, sets,reps, days per week, wholebody or split, etc..

    We are pretty advanced lifters, although i am limited in lack of testosterone due to health problems..still much stronger than an average person.

    OUR EQUIPMENT AVAIALABLE
    1] full line of medx
    2] 15 nautilus machines, first gen – 2st models including compound leg and sp/ta
    3] 7 hammer strength machines
    4]freeweights: squat rack,trap bar, bench press and incline press and dumbells

    thanks for your response
    Rob

    • Drew Baye April 24, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

      Rob,

      Check out my article on rest pause training for my specific recommendations. The bodybuilding book I am writing also covers rest-pause training in detail.

  4. Matt Manning March 18, 2009 at 2:46 pm #

    Hi drew

    Muscle soreness may not be ‘muscle soreness’. I think the soreness is felt in the tendons not the muscle. My understanding is that the muscle tendon unit have sensors that are situated in the tendon not the muscle. When you have DOMS you rub the muscle which causes the muscle tendon unit too stretch slightly triggering the sensor in the tendon to fire off a message. I will go even further and claim that a muscle fibre will not register soreness from exercise. Finally has anyone actually seen ‘microtrauma’ from exercise, and if so when does microtrauma become just plain damage?.

    Thanks Matt

    • Drew Baye March 18, 2009 at 3:22 pm #

      While muscle soreness is not yet completely understood, it is well established that microtrauma occurs in muscle fibers during intense exercise and is one of the triggers for muscular growth. If allowed adequate time for recovery between bouts of exercise the body responds to this by increasing the myofibrils in the damaged muscle fibers, increasing their size and strength.

      For an overview of the process I recommend reading Ryan Hall’s article Biochemical Model: Stimulus and Growth Process of Skeletal Muscle

  5. Karthik March 19, 2009 at 4:16 am #

    Drew, just curious about performing Barbell Curls using Max contraction. At the top position of the curl when the biceps is in its fully contracted position, the effective resistance provided by the barbell to the biceps is almost zero. Do U think the Barbell Curl is an effective exercise in Max Contraction terms?

    • Drew Baye March 19, 2009 at 8:53 am #

      This would be true of the way most people perform barbell curls, which is incorrect. Most people allow their elbows to move forward, sometimes even under or past the bar, while leaning back, resulting in the biceps working against little to no moment arm at the top. If the elbows are kept at the sides and never allowed to move under, much less past the barbell the moment arm will not be reduced nearly as much, and the biceps will still encounter significant resistance in the fully-contracted position. This can be made even more challenging by leaning forwards slightly, which moves the elbows further back and the bar further forward, increasing the moment arm the biceps are working against.

      If using a power rack to perform Max Contraction barbell curls, the weight that can be used is much, much heavier as well. The combination of proper body positioning and a heavier weight will keep the biceps loaded in this position. A properly designed biceps machine is still a better option for this, but if you do not have a training partner to help you lift the weight this is an effective alternative.

  6. DH March 19, 2009 at 10:11 pm #

    Have there been any studies done showing any significant difference between the muscle growth results of Max Contraction Training compared to full range of motion training?

    • Drew Baye March 24, 2009 at 10:39 am #

      DH,

      I am not aware of any studies specifically comparing John Little’s Max Contraction protocol to full range training, but both of the books cite numerous studies and large amounts of empirical evidence supporting his recommendations. Most of the questions you may have about Max Contraction training are covered in the book.

      • JLMA June 27, 2014 at 7:16 am #

        Drew,

        In your opinion, for a given muscle group, would one full-range-of-motion set IMMEDIATELY followed by one Contraction hold (alla Little) set TO FAILURE be an acceptable approach for those of us working out at home doing weightvest+bodyweight exercises?

        And, if so, what would be the best position to do the Contraction at for the weighted-pull-up and weighted-dip exercises?

        Thank you.

        • Drew Baye June 27, 2014 at 11:14 am #

          JLMA,

          This would probably be effective if done for a few exercises occasionally, but I wouldn’t do back to back dynamic and static hold sets for the same exercise too often.

          Technically, Max Contraction requires holding the weight at the end point of an exercise, and this only works well for exercises where there is significant resistance in this position, mostly simple/rotary machine exercises like pullover, chest fly, leg extension, and leg curl. Max Contraction works for a few free weight exercises where the muscles encounter the most resistance at the end point, like dumbbell lateral raise and dumbbell bent-over fly, but for most free weight and bodyweight exercises you would perform a static hold in the mid-range position instead.

          • JLMA July 20, 2014 at 12:02 am #

            Thanks, Drew.

            If/when you do back to to back STATIC and DYNAMIC exercises for the same muscle, does it make a (significant) difference whether you do the dynamic or the static exercise first?

            Thank you.?

            • Drew Baye July 22, 2014 at 8:32 am #

              Hey JLMA,

              Yes, because it is possible to achieve a very deep inroad with timed static contractions and static holds due to the greater tension possible. Whether you should do the static exercise before the dynamic depends on the exercises, equipment, and what you are trying to accomplish.

  7. Drew Baye March 22, 2009 at 8:13 pm #

    John and others using this method have produced very good results with it, even in people who have plateaued using regular repetitions. I recommend reading his Max Contraction books for specific examples or studies.

  8. Ed Hansen September 9, 2009 at 6:49 pm #

    Just a quick question.
    How does your program compare to Pete Sisco’s SCT?
    I need serious advise comparing the two programs.

    Cheers,
    Ed

    • Drew Baye September 9, 2009 at 8:37 pm #

      Ed,

      Both are highly effective ways to train for muscular strength and size, however I prefer Max Contraction as it emphasizes heavier loads and shorter hold durations, which research shows is more effective. I suggest reading both John Little’s Max Contraction Training and Pete Sisco’s Static Contraction Training if you want to compare the specifics of each.

  9. Donnie Hunt November 21, 2009 at 7:02 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    I have been reading some about Moment Arm Exercise. Its seems that Max Contraction Training is very similar. In that you are avoiding dangerous areas of a range of motion and avoiding areas with little resistance. If one was to add a small range of motion to Max Contraction would one method have an advantage over the other? I know you have talked about the overlapping of fibers that occurs in the position of full contraction being good for microtrauma and also having at least some range of motion.

    • Drew Baye November 22, 2009 at 2:04 pm #

      Donnie,

      While Max Contraction is a very specific exercise protocol, Moment Arm Exercise is more like a set of principles or guidelines which can be applied to the performance of any resistance training protocol, including Max Contraction. For example, if you were to perform Max Contraction using free weights, the best way to do so would be to apply the principles from Moment Arm Exercise to achieve the desired resistance curve for the exercise being performed. I see Moment Arm Exercise as being complimentary to the various high intensity training methods, rather than an alternative to them.

  10. Terry April 17, 2014 at 8:52 am #

    Drew,

    What do you suggest if one wants to train using the Max Contraction protocol but use adjustable dumbbells (IE Bowflex, Power Blocks, etc.)? I’m really interested in trying this out at home.

    • Drew Baye April 18, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

      Terry,

      Unless you have two spotters to help I don’t recommend using dumbbells for Max Contraction. The only way to practically perform Max Contraction at home is with a power rack or squat rack and barbell, and this only works for upper body exercises.

  11. Lifter June 9, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    I used MC for 6 weeks back in 2005, and was delighted to gain all over…with a waist drop. I used a simple 6 set full-body routine, once weekly (every Wednesday).
    I found seated bb curls did a wonderful, convenient, job on my biceps. IMO one of the best exercises I adapted for MC.
    Keep up the great articles Drew…I enjoy them greatly!

    • Drew Baye June 11, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

      Thanks Lifter,

      I plan to write more on this in the future, including an article on how to use a power rack to perform max contraction for various exercises.

  12. Lifter June 11, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

    That is grear to hear! I look forward to reading your future work.

    I am still in awe how well rest-pause has paid off. The way you applied it in your exoeriment was a more sensible way than PITT-Force or Max-Stim. It’s been months now and I am yet to have a workout progress free.

  13. Flavio Mori July 13, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    After reading the book Advanced Max Contraction Training, I agree that the Omega Set can recruit all muscle fibers types, but it seems that because of the short time duration – up to 4 repetitions of 1 to 6 seconds, it cannot effective work the slow-twitch fibers.

    The protocol that you advocate – with time under load of 50 to 80 seconds – seems superior because besides working all muscle fibers types, has sufficient time to work effectively the slow-twitch fibers.

    I would like to know your opinion.

    Thanks for the great work!

    • Drew Baye July 15, 2014 at 11:07 am #

      Hey Flavio,

      A longer duration would more thoroughly recruit and fatigue the slow twitch fibers, and would not require a weight so heavy you need one or more assistants to help you get it into position, making it a more practical option for most people.

      • JLMA July 16, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

        Drew and Flavio,
        Are you here referring to 50-80 secs of TUT with static exercises? or dynamic?
        or either?
        Thanks.

        • Drew Baye July 19, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

          JLMA,

          A TUL of 50 to 80 seconds is a good starting point for most people for both isometric and dynamic protocols. I prefer slightly higher times for legs and trunk exercises – around 60 to 100 seconds. Some people will do better with higher or lower rep ranges, however, so like everything else you need to experiment and find what works best for you.

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