How Can Co-Contraction Exercise Make YOU Stronger and Healthier?

Strength Training -

How Can Co-Contraction Exercise Make YOU Stronger and Healthier?

Co-contraction refers to the simultaneous activity of antagonistic muscles. These are muscles that act in opposite directions on the same joint or structures – such as the bicep and tricep, which both move the elbow.

The importance of Co-contractions is a seriously overlooked part of health and fitness, even though it’s a significant part of training and is even valued in strength sports. You might not be training co-contractions, but they’re definitely a great way to improve your health, longevity, and performance!

Read on – we’re going to take you through the basics of co-contractions and a few of the real-world applications they have for your training.

What are co-contraction exercises?

The co-contraction is a form of isometric exercise that specifically focuses on contracting muscles on the opposite side of joints against each other to stabilise the joint/hold position. You might already be performing the occasional co-contraction exercise – like a plank (if done properly!).

The point of a co-contraction is to task muscles with working against each other – with or without external resistance. You’re tensing the muscles on both sides of a joint, which is obviously going to produce no movement since these muscles match each other’s force output.

Other examples include the wall sit, various “90/90” hip control drills, and many other isometric movements.

The point of these exercises is a maximal voluntary contraction. Muscles on every side of the muscle should be contracting as hard as possible – even without producing movement. If you’re not contracting maximally, you’re missing the point!

Why are they beneficial?

Why should you be bothered by co-contractions? After all, they’re not as glamorous or “big” as high-intensity strength or power training.

Fortunately, they have a whole host of secondary benefits that contribute to better strength training, joint health, and beyond.

Building specific strength

The most direct and attention-grabbing benefit of co-contraction exercises is improving your strength and familiarity in sport-specific positions.

We already know that strength gains are specific to joint-angles and muscle-lengths and improving these areas can rapidly adjust your overall performance on that exercise.

You want to squat more/better? There’s a co-contraction for that.

You want to bench better? Co-contraction training can help.

How do you use this in your training?

These exercises can be made specific to whatever movement you’re training or testing. Co-contraction exercises for the knees are a great way of developing positional strength and awareness.

Perform co-contraction isometrics during your squat at “sticking points”, for example. This can be done with bodyweight, though a goblet squat is more likely to be useful if you’re a stronger or heavier individual.

Squat down, thinking about pulling yourself down with the hip flexors and hamstrings. In the bottom position, maximally contract the glutes, hip flexors, and hamstrings against each other. Perform this same stop-and-contract halfway up, at the sticking point of your squat.

Preparation and technique

This is overlapped with, but builds on, the last point.

You can cue important positions through co=-contraction that should be replicated in your heavy lifting.

This can speed up your acquisition of the key technical positions for the bench press and makes for an excellent warm-up exercise if you’re really trying to dial in your movement quality.

How do you use this in your training?

For example, the position of the core and shoulders/scapula during the bench press are the foundation from which you move the weight.

Getting better in these key isometric positions is an important part of improving your overall strength and technique – both for the weight you can lift and the health of your shoulders. You can perform this exercise with absolutely no weight, but a barbell with (at most) 40% of your 1RM is also viable.

Lower the bar to the chest as you would in a competition-style bench press. In the bottom position, perform a maximal co-contraction, focusing on the muscles of the shoulders, chest, and upper back.

If you’re struggling with this, we recommend performing the position using a hand-release pushup. The hand-release should be your maximal co-contraction, using the same hand/shoulder positioning as your bench press.

Practising this position with a maximal voluntary contraction in a co-contraction exercise is a great way to build strength and familiarity.

Improving joint health and injury-resilience

The original use of co-contraction exercises was rehabilitation – and you’re never too strong or jacked to benefit from improved joint health.

Co-contraction exercises are a significant player in the rehabilitation of injured joints for their focus on improved joint stability, reducing joint imbalances (we talked about these before), and improving tendon quality.

These applications are universally awesome. You’re never going to regret improving the health and wellbeing of your joints and connective tissues. These are common sites for injury and discomfort in athletes – and strength athletes specifically.

If you want to lift huge weights, you’re going to need to develop joints and tendons that can support these goals. Nothing ruins your progress like time off due to injury, and co-contraction exercises can help buffer you against injury.

They’re not glamorous, but these exercises can make for a fantastic investment in your longevity. Strength sports have some of the longest “maturation” gradients of any sport – build your strength to last.

How do you use this in your training?

This applies to every form of co-contraction. Perform 30-45 seconds of maximal co-contraction at weak or vulnerable parts of your joint range, such as the parallel position for the squat (co-contracting the quads/hamstrings).

This can be applied to any joint, so any of the positions we’ve discussed here will be effective. This may be more useful for hinge joints, however – so make sure you’re getting some knee/elbow/ankle exercises into your injury-prevention!

Improving mobility-through-control

This is a significant benefit to building mobility through control (as we talked about in our blog on mobility in the real world). If you’re struggling with stubborn mobility challenges, try some co-contractions at end-range, mixed in with regular mobility work.

There’s unequivocal evidence that improving your control and strength in end-ranges is a seriously-effective method for improving flexibility and mobility. Co-contractions are a great way of leveraging this to your benefit, with incredibly specific, versatile exercises for mobility.

You may find that improving control on both sides of the joint is the change your body needs to support a better range of motion!

How do you use this in your training?

We already mentioned the 90/90 position, and this is one example of how co-contraction is a fantastic way of developing joint control and improving your mobility.

This a key movement for developing hip control and mobility. They force you to get strong and develop control in uncomfortable end-range positions, as well as making you stronger in positions that are often associated with injury and poor positioning.

Our other key suggestion here is ankle mobility. This is a common stubborn area for most athletes and training enthusiasts. They’re slow to adapt and absolutely horrendous to stretch!

Use a regular kneeling ankle stretch – moving from comfortable to stretching positions – but co-contract maximally at the end of your comfortable range every time.

Final thoughts

Putting time and effort into assistance work and prehab exercises is always worthwhile. There’s never a bad time to be more injury-resilient or have improved joint control.

These are universal goods when it comes to training. The more you have, the better you’ll do.

Co-contractions are one of the best ways to support your joint health and movement quality. They can be used for everything from positions and technique to mobility and tendon-health. They’re not glamorous, but they’re definitely going to be a benefit to your training.

Try the exercises we’ve discussed here and be sure to consider the value of co-contraction in your workouts. There are plenty of examples out there and we recommend finding what works for your goals.


About the Auther: Liam Rodgers:

Good coaching and good writing rely on attention to detail, forward planning, and deep knowledge of the technical aspects. As an Olympic weightlifting coach and the director of Apex sport and fitness content, Liam lives these out: he has huge enthusiasm for sports performance, nutrition, narrative and immersive, engaging writing.