Do you find yourself at the gym sometimes, lifting the same weight, for the same amount of reps and sets and feeling like there’s just no way this is going to get any easier? Which is frustrating considering how much time you’ve spent already trying to improve your strength and it’s 3 weeks in and you’re still where you started in the beginning.
But what if I told you that you could instantly improve your strength by 10% in less than 20 seconds? Well you can, and it’s all based on one training technique which has been gaining momentum in the last decade or so, especially in strength and conditioning circles. This technique is known as Post Activation Potentiation or PAP for short.
What is PAP (Post Activation Potentiation)?
Post Activation Potentiation (PAP) is a phenomenon in training whereby acute muscle force output is enhanced as a result of contractile history1. In layman’s terms, this is where a short but heavy set of a resistance exercise will result in a boost to explosive movement (power). This boost can translate into a better performance of the same or a similar resistance exercise at a more moderate weight. The idea of PAP has been around for about three decades now and there have been some amazing examples in sport. For example, there was a rumour that 10 minutes before Ben Johnson’s world record 100m sprint at the 1988 Olympics, he performed a 600lb squat for 3 reps. This would have, according to PAP principles, allowed him to exert greater power during his subsequent sprint. However, PAP is considered to have been around even earlier, having been used in Eastern European and Russain sprinters, powerlifters and bodybuilders in the 70s.
A Rose by Any Other Name
Post Activation Potentiation is perhaps the most common term used for the technique, but is also known by many other names. These include Post Tetanic Faciliation (PTF), Pots Tetanic Potentiation (PTP), and/or Post Activation Facilitation (PAF). PAP is also considered the basic principle behind other training techniques such as ‘Complex Training’ or ‘The 1-6 Principle’. Complex training involves the combination of biomechanically-similar heavy strength training exercises and plyometric/ballistic training methods in an attempt to transfer strength into power. The 1-6 Principle on the other hand aims to improve strength via the use of a set amount of reps using quite heavy weights.
What is PAP Good For?
Post Activation Potentiation techniques have been utilised most for increasing power ability in athletes and powerlifters. So anything that requires a powerful movement can generally expect to be improved with PAP training. For example, sprinters, baseball players and basketballers are just some athletes who could benefit from explosive power to either run faster, hit harder and jump higher.
What is the Difference Between Strength & Power?
Hold on a second, so if PAP is used mainly for power, how can we use it to benefit weight training? Well, it pays to know that strength and power are two interconnected concepts. Strength is essentially how strong you are and how much you can lift without any time constraints. Power on the other hand is how fast you are able to move a particular weight. People with greater power are always quite strong. However, strong people may not always be powerful. In addition, power is often considered more important than strength.
Take for example a boxer. He or she might be naturally strong, but if they can’t move their fist fast enough, then they’re rarely going to be as successful as the boxer who is both strong and powerful and can move their fist faster. In addition, the difference and the relative importance of strength and power are more pronounced in old age. As we become older, we lose muscle mass, strength and power. However we lose much more power than strength. Maintaining strength is important as we age because it helps with activities of daily living. For example, even the simplest of activities such as walking requires strength. However, power is what will help you avoid falls by allowing you to react quickly enough to correct your balance.
In essence, if you are able to increase your power through PAP, then you’re naturally going to also increase your strength. As a result, you will be able to lift more and therefore grow more.
What's the Science Behind PAP?
For all the technical buffs out there, the underlying principle behind Post Activation Potentiation is that heavy loading (heavier weight) will induce a high degree of central nervous system (CNS) stimulation. This results in greater motor unit recruitment and force, which can last anywhere between 5-30 minutes2,3. There are two proposed theories as to how PAP actually works physiologically:
1. One of the theories is the phosphorylation of myosin regulatory light chains, which renders actin-myosin more sensitive to calcium released from the sarcoplasmic reticulum during subsequent muscle contractions. Calcium is what causes contractions to occur and if motor units are more sensitive to calcium, then their successive contractions will be increased4.
2. The second theory is that strength training prior to a plyometric exercise will cause increased synaptic excitation within the spinal cord leading to increase post synaptic potentials and enhance subsequent force generation capacity within those muscle groups. Basically the nerve impulses to the muscle are boosted and therefore the muscle’s ability to increase power is also boosted4.
How Do I Incorporate PAP Into My Training?
Perhaps the most pertinent question is how you can incorporate PAP into your training program to help support progression. Because it is still a relatively new concept, there is no defined PAP training program, however there are a few basic principles. The listed principles below will detail the PAP technique rather than other training techniques based on PAP such as Complex Training or The 1-6 Principle.
1. Plan and choose your exercises carefully - In general multi joint exercises work well as do machine based exercises. As it is a taxing exercise technique, stability is an important factor to prevent injury and as such, barbells are better than dumbbells, overhead exercises are generally not recommended and single joint exercises would require some tweaking. For example, you might need to utilise more reps.
2. Warm up with a couple of sets of moderate weight – Avoid pushing these warm up sets to muscular fatigue, as this can detract from the potentiation.
3. After you’re warmed up, begin with a PAP Set – Pick a weight that is roughly 60-85% of your 1RM and perform around 1-5 reps. Heavier weights can be used, but only for more experienced trainers. A popular strategy is to use a 3RM weight (a weight that you can only lift 3 times) and lift for a maximum of 2 reps.
4. Rest adequately after your PAP Set – Research has suggested 7-10 minutes as being the best rest period to elicit the greatest potentiation benefits, but 3 minutes is the minimal amount of time to still support power benefits.
5. Immediately after your rest, perform another set of the same exercise – With this set however, drop the weight by roughly 10% and then proceed to complete as many reps as possible before starting over with another PAP set. Aim to complete about 3-5 sets of this protocol per exercise.
6. Complete the rest of your exercises for your body part but only the first one or two exercises should utilise a PAP protocol.
How Does PAP Differ From Drop Sets?
A lot of people question the difference between PAP and drop sets. In essence, you could consider PAP a type of drop set. Typical drop sets tend to employ a certain weight that you lift to failure before dropping the weight and then immediately performing another set to failure and so on. They tend to focus heavily on endurance and buffering capacity. PAP on the other hand is a drop set method where you employ quite a heavy weight and perform a small number of reps before dropping the weight down only a tiny fraction and completing a set to failure. This method tends to emphasise both power and strength a lot more than just endurance. Both methods are great plateau busters and are ideal techniques to prevent stagnant results.
Does PAP Work for Everyone?
PAP is still a relatively new and under researched area of conditioning and training, but studies so far have shown that this method isn’t beneficial for all populations. PAP is ideal for trained and seasoned athletes thanks to their superior buffering capacity and resilience to fatigue. This is ideal as performing a PAP set will invoke both PAP and fatigue at the same time. As previously mentioned, those who benefit greatest from PAP are those that can minimise the fatigue component of a PAP set.
In addition Post Activation Potentiation has been shown to work better for strong people than weak people and also for people who have a greater amount of type II muscle fibres, as they tend to generate more power than type I fibres. Endurance athletes have still been shown to benefit from PAP, but not to the same extent5.
Post Activation Potentiation - Advance Your Gains to the Next Level
As you become a more experienced trainer, making gains and building muscle becomes ever harder as your body becomes accustomed to the training stimulus. While there are many different ways to try and overcome this stagnation, there will always be newer training methods developed to combat it. Post Activation Potentiation is definitely one method that will not only allow you to see benefits pretty much straight away, but ensure that you’re improving your body’s functionality so you can keep training at high intensity’s for years to come.
1. Robbins, D.W. (2005). Postactivation potentiation and its practical applicability: a brief review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(2), 453-458.
2. Chiu, L.Z., Fry, A.C., Weiss, L.W., Schilling, B.K., Brown, L.E., & Smith, S.L. (2003). Postactivation potentiation response in athletic and recreationally trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 17(4), 671-677.
3. Rixon, K.P., Lamont, H.S., & Bemden, M.G. (2007). Influence of type of muscle contraction, gender, and lifting experience on postactivation potentiation performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(2), 500-505.
4. Lorenz D. ‘Postactivation potentiation: an introduction.’ Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2011 Sep;6(3):234-40.
5. Wilson JM, Duncan NM, Marin PJ, Brown LE, Loenneke JP, Wilson SM, Jo E, Lowery RP, Ugrinowitsch C. ‘Meta-analysis of postactivation potentiation and power: effects of conditioning activity, volume, gender, rest periods, and training status.’ J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):854-9.