Ever had a buddy compete with you to see who could touch the basketball rim? What if I could share a method to help you win that competition without weeks of training?
Post-activation potentiation is a phenomenon associated with acute improvement in muscular performance after a pre-conditioning protocol. For example, jumping higher after a set of heavy back squats.
Surely it can't be that easy? All you need to do is squat heavy, then jump? That's one way to go about it. Still, by understanding post-activation potentiation, you can make modifications to suit your individual situation and maximize power development.
Table of Contents
- What Is Post Activation Potentiation?
- How Does Post Activation Potentiation Work?
- Post Activation Potentiation Benefits
- Factors Affecting Post-Activation Potentiation
- Post Activation Potentiation Examples
- Other Interesting Post-Activation Potentiation Applications
What Is Post Activation Potentiation?
Post-activation potentiation is the idea of performing a maximal or near maximal force-generating exercise (the conditioning activity) to enhance the subsequent power exercise (PAP exercise) . While the mechanism is a PAP response, the method is termed complex training.
Complex training is the pairing of biomechanically similar high-load strength exercises with low-load power exercises . Another example would be the bench press followed by an explosive push-up.
I believe legendary Soviet sports scientist Yuri Verkhoshansky best described the PAP phenomenon. He states:
“Imagine what would happen if you lifted a half full can of water when you thought the can was full. There'd be a mismatch between your perception of the force needed to move the can, and the actual force required. The can would move twice as fast as you intended, and you can only hope someone else will clean up the mess you make.”
How Does Post Activation Potentiation Work?
Multiple mechanisms have been reported to explain the post-activation potentiation phenomenon. However, we still can’t isolate any one mechanism as the cause of this effect. Instead, it is possibly the combination of them all.
One purported mechanism is that muscular performance is affected by its contractile history . So, if you perform a strenuous, high-force task before a lightly loaded power exercise, the contractile history indicates extremely high forces need to be generated.
Contractile history is influenced by the increased myosin light chain kinase activated by increased calcium leading to increased actin-myosin crossbridging (how our muscles contract, the more crossbridges, the more force generated) through increased energy availability .
In other words, performing a heavy exercise increases the muscle’s ability to contract, enhancing force generation capacity. However, the problem is this tends to occur at low-frequency contractions (i.e., slow strength exercises). So, this mechanism may not be the one to enhance power output.
While these are muscular mechanisms, there is also the theory of a neural mechanism. You may have heard about the excitation of the nervous system. Essentially, the idea is the conditioning activity increases the drive of the neural system (everything becomes more sensitive).
This increased neural drive could occur through a combination of many factors, such as increased motor unit recruitment (more muscle fibers) or increased motor unit synchronization . Overall, it is likely the PAP response is likely caused by a combination of muscular and neural mechanisms.
All you need to know is you are supercharging your nervous system!
Post Activation Potentiation Benefits
Acute Increase In Power Output
The primary benefit of the PAP response is instantaneous, where the subsequent PAP exercise is boosted. For example, a 2 cm increase in jump height, a 0.1-second reduction in 15 m sprint time, and a 7-8% increase in peak power output have all been reported after performing a conditioning activity .
Chronic Increase In Performance
The idea of long-term performance increases comes down to eliciting greater power outputs in training. Doing this weekly means you are operating at higher intensities and, therefore, should make more significant performance improvements.
Complex vs. contrast training studies have demonstrated this. Contrast training is known as combination training, where all high-load strength exercises are performed at the beginning of the session and low-load exercises at the end . A recent meta-analysis found complex training far outperformed contrast training .
Another randomized control trial found that well-trained track & field throwers enhanced throwing performance by 5.5% after a block of complex training vs. 2% improvement when using compound training . Compound training is performing strength and power exercises on separate days.
Pairing exercises together in a superset can save you time versus performing the exercises separately. For example, you can get a great training session performing only two exercises as a complex. For example, back squat and box jump.
Factors Affecting Post-Activation Potentiation
Post-activation potentiation may not be for everyone. And depending on a few factors, you may need to modify how you perform a PAP protocol.
The leading meta-analysis on the PAP phenomenon found multiple sets are far greater than a single set . Since then, research has continued to confirm this with greater broad jump performance from sets 1-4 after paused box squats .
Regarding the rep range, there is a trade-off between fitness and fatigue. 1-5 reps are deemed optimal for the conditioning activity to induce a PAP response .
FIGHT MAINSTREAM FITNESS & MAKE ASTRONOMICAL GAINS
Intensity can have many definitions. However, intensity is defined as a percentage of your one rep max in strength training and research. Performing the conditioning activity at a repetition maximum elicits a greater PAP response than using sub-maximal loads .
However, in the team sports population, intensities <85% 1RM were found to better stimulate a PAP response .
Long recoveries between the conditioning activity and PAP exercise elicit the most significant response . Typically, anywhere from 5+ minutes of rest. This can potentially be reduced to as low as 3 minutes when using loads >80% 1RM to potentiate vertical jump performance .
But what is most interesting is rest period intervals vary based on the conditioning activity used, as you'll see below.
The back squat and bench press are the most common pre-conditioning exercise or conditioning activities. These exercises are what lead to the long rest intervals between exercises. But when using plyometric exercises as the conditioning activity, rest periods can be as short as 15 seconds .
Further, plyometric exercise may be a more potent stimulus for inducing a PAP response . For example, 40 plyometric ground contacts increased vertical jump height after 1 min rest in professional rugby players .
Isometrics are another interesting conditioning activity that shows varying results. For example, the leading meta-analysis found a negative effect when isometrics are used as the conditioning activity .
If we look deeper at the individual studies, it seems to be a fatigue issue. As an example, 3 x 3-second maximal isometric knee extensions induced greater drop jump height and peak force . However, 3 x 5 seconds did not elicit a PAP response.
Similar results were found in another study with maximal isometric contractions ranging between 5 and 60 seconds, where 5-second isometrics were most effective .
Another neat trick is the use of accommodating resistance with resistance bands. The two research papers investigating this used the same protocols, paused box squats at 70% 1RM + 12-15% 1RM in band tension .
They then took a 90-second rest before performing broad jumps and found enhanced performance over all 4 sets.
It’s important to note that both these studies used team sport athletes where sub-maximal loads seem to be more beneficial.
The post-activation potentiation exercise also plays a role in the effectiveness of the phenomenon. Sprinting has the strongest benefit, with jumps, throws, and upper body ballistic exercises not far behind .
An interesting application currently used in the strength & conditioning world is treating the PAP exercise as the sporting skill. For example, a golfer may swing the club as fast as possible. Or the boxer may throw power rear hands against a bag.
Strength Level & Experience
This is where all the factors are pieced together. If you’re a beginner or have a low training age, you can ignore everything you’ve just read. You have special guidelines. Firstly, if you’re brand new to the iron, you will show little to no benefit using a PAP protocol .
The athletes who show the greatest response to post-activation potentiation are those who have trained >2 years in the gym. Further, stronger athletes fair much better in their PAP response than weaker athletes .
But what’s strong and weak?
Relative Back Squat
Relative Bench Press
But what if you fall under the weak category? Does that mean you can’t use complex training to induce a PAP response and reap the benefits? Here are modifications for weaker individuals to use:
Essentially, you’re doing the opposite of the guidelines listed earlier in the article.
Post Activation Potentiation Examples
Here are some examples of post-activation potentiation complexes you can use within your training.
A1) Back Squat 3 x 3-5 @85-90% 1RM
Rest 3-5 minutes
A2) Vertical Jump 3 x 3-5
Often, the rest period is wasted dead time where you can do something productive without negatively affecting the PAP exercise. For example, performing an upper body mobility exercise.
A1) Heavy KB Swing 3 x 5
Rest 5-7 minutes
A2) Sprint 3 x 20 m or Broad Jump Bound 3 x 3-5
Change Of Direction
A1) Half Squat 3 x 3-5 @85-90% 1RM
Rest 3-5 minutes
A2) Skater Jump 3 x 3/side
A1) Pendlay Row 3 x 5 @85% 1RM
Rest 5-7 min
A2) Overhead Medicine Ball Toss 3 x 3-5
A1) Bench Press 3 x 2 @90-95% 1RM
Rest 5-8 minutes
A2) Ballistic Bench Throw @30-40% 1RM until 95% velocity decrement
The upper body plays by slightly different rules regarding post-activation potentiation. One factor is the rest periods, where you may require rest intervals longer than 8 minutes to maximize the PAP response .
Further, throwing medicine balls is load specific as the PAP exercise . Meaning you should use heavier medicine balls when performing a heavy conditioning activity. For example:
A1) Bench Press 3 x 2 @90-95% 1RM
Rest 5-8 minutes
A2) Medicine Ball Chest Throw 3 x 3 @4 kg
Other Interesting Post-Activation Potentiation Applications
As inducing post-activation potentiation is a trade-off between fitness and fatigue, one unique application can potentially be beneficial. That is the use of cluster sets. Cluster sets are a form of rest redistribution where instead of performing all reps in the set, you rest between each rep or 2 reps.
The rest between reps will typically range between 10-30 seconds. The goal is to maximize the quality of each rep within the set. Quality meaning bar speed and power output. One study took professional basketball players and had them perform 3 x 2+2+2 with 20 seconds rest between reps of jump squats at optimal power load .
The control group performed the reps continually with 3 x 6. At 4- and 8 minutes after the jump squats, the cluster group significantly improved vertical jump compared to the control. At 30 seconds after jump squats, the control group had a sharper decrement in vertical jump height.
There are two factors likely benefiting the cluster group:
Another method that is rarely talked about is self-selection. There is a fantastic body of research surrounding self-selection and enhancing performance.
Regarding post-activation potentiation, we see self-selecting reps for jump squats at optimal power load resulted in greater jump height, ground reaction forces, and impulse compared to the prescribed rep group .
Post-activation potentiation is a phenomenon you can take advantage of within your training to maximize power development. However, many factors influence how potent of a stimulus you will receive, so it's essential to consider those.
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