POST ACTIVATION POTENTIATION: WHAT IS IT, AND DOES IT WORK
SO WHAT THE HELL IS POST ACTIVATION POTENTIATION?
Basically it’s picking up something heavy, resting a specific amount of time, and then picking something up lighter and having it feel even lighter than it would have felt had you not picked something up that was heavier before picking up the lighter thing (the thing, in this case, being something like a barbell or a dumbbell).
If you want or more scientific and thorough definition, here is one I found on the internet: Originally defined by Robbins, PAP is a phenomenon by which the force exerted by a muscle is increased due to its previous contraction. Post-activation potentiation is a theory that purports that the contractile history of a muscle influences the mechanical performance of subsequent muscle contractions. In other words, lifting something heavy excites the nervous system and sort of tricks the muscles into being able to produce more force/have a stronger contraction, with the subsequent load, making the subsequent load feel easier than if you would’ve performed it alone and not prior to something heavy.
HOW DOES PAP ACTUALLY WORK?
There are two proposed mechanisms of PAP. The first 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.13,15–17 As a result, the force of each successive twitch contraction is increased.
The second is that strength training prior to plyometric exercises causes increased synaptic excitation within the spinal cord, which in turn results in increased post-synaptic potentials and subsequently increased the force-generating capacity of the involved muscle groups. (this information was taken from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3164001/)
Somewhat complicated when you delve that deeply into it. It’s nice to know why something works but often times you just need to know that it works, and there’s some contention on if it works at all, and I’ll cover some of the controversies shortly.
One popular training method that supposedly utilizes the PAP effect is called wave loading. There are many different variations of wave loading but one of the most popular is a 5,3,1 wave. There’s even a popular book written on it by Jim Wendler, which I have and like. So with a 5,3,1 wave, you take a weight that is hard (part of the controversy I briefly mentioned earlier) for a set of 5 reps, rest, then go heavier for a set of 3 reps, rest, then go heavier for a set of 1 rep. That would be one wave. One very popular coach typically recommends that you would repeat the wave at least one more time and go heavier on each successive wave (example: 5,3,1,5,3,1,) and that is what I have a lot of people do at Urban Strength Institute.
Often times when I think something works but not sure if I’m right I’ll ask others in my industry what they think by posting on Facebook, which is what I did on the topic of PAP. What confused me is how doing a set of a lighter weight could potentiate the nervous system to perform a heavier set next and make that heavier set feel easier. It makes sense to me why lifting something heavy would make a subsequently lighter load feel even lighter, but not the other way around.
So here was my question on Facebook: “If wave loading with a 5, 3, 1 is good ( a common wave), wouldn’t a 1, 3, 5 be better due to the PAP effect?”
The first comment I got was from Stephane Cazeault. Stephane was a course conductor at the Poliquin Strength Institute and now he runs his own gym around the Huntington Beach area called Kilo Strength Society. You don’t get to teach seminars and certifications at the Poliquin Strength Institute without being very smart in my field. I first met Stephane back in 2013 and knew how bright he was, so I have a ton of respect for him as a strength coach and anytime he answers a question of mine or posts something on his FB page I pay attention. The dude is damn smart.
Here’s Stephane’s comment on FB: “Both options would create a post-activation effect but the 1,3,5,1,3,5 wave would potentiate the performance of the highest rep while the classic wave would prime the single. So from a pure strength perspective, the 5,3,1,5,3,1 is more effective.”
There were quite a few comments on my question and some interesting thoughts on the matter, however, I still didn’t see how a 5,3,1 wave would potentiate the nervous system better than a 1,3,5 wave. I figured if I measured the velocity of each set I could know which of the two waves had the biggest PAP effect by seeing what sets got faster comparing the two different waves. Whichever sets got faster between the 5,3,1 wave compared to the 1,3,5 wave would be the one that provided the biggest potentiating effect. Of course, the weight used would have to be the exact same. Make sense?
So first I did this with one of my athletes that trains and competes in jiu-jtsu. His name is Antonio. Antonio has been training with me off an on for roughly two years and has been consistent since Novemeber of 2016.
155 for 5: .rep 1 @.50m/s, rep 2@.48m/s, rep 3@.44m/s, rep 4@.43m/s, rep 5@.36m/s. Set Average: .44m/s
170 for 3: rep 1@.47m/s, rep 2@.37m/s, rep 3@.35m/s Set Average: .39m/s
185 for 1: rep 1@.36m/s
165 for 5: rep 1@.49m/s, rep 2@.42m/s, rep 3@.38m/s, rep 4@.32m/s, rep 5@.33m/s. Set Average: .39m/s
175 for 3: rep 1@.36m/s, rep 2@.31m/s, rep 3@.26m/s Set Average: .31m/s
195 for 1: rep 1@.23m/s
185 for 1: .25m/s
170 for 3: rep 1@.26m/s, rep 2@.29m/s, rep 3@ .27m/s Set Average: .27m/s
155 for 5: rep 1@.40m/s, rep 2@.40m/s, rep 3@.40m/s, rep 4@.38m/s, rep 5@.24m/s. Set Average: .36m/s
195 for 1: .19m/s
175 for 3: rep 1@.33m/s, rep 2@.31m/s, rep 3@.21m/s Set Average: .28m/s
165 for 5: rep 1@.41m/s, rep 2@.35m/s, rep 3@.37m/s, rep 4@.34m/s, rep 5@.24m/s Set Average: .34m/s
I know there’s a bunch of numbers here and you might not want to bother going through them so I’ll just say that he had faster velocity with the 5,3,1 wave than the 1,3,5 wave, which means there was a greater PAP effect with the 5,3,1 wave.
Here’s a screenshot of the velocity measured on both types of waves. We used a Push Band to measure the velocity.
I was somewhat surprised so I decided to do the same test on myself. I’ll spare you more numbers and just show a screenshot of mine below. I had a greater velocity improvement with the 1,3,5 wave.
Antonio’s nervous system is not as well trained as mine. As mentioned earlier, he’s only been training a few years and I’ve been training for over 27 years. Because of this, his rate of force development (RFD), which is basically your ability to generate force quickly, is not as developed as mine. That’s why potentiating the nervous system with a 5,3,1 wave works better for him. Because the loads are lighter initially he can better prime or coax his nervous system (just as Stephane has explained).
Now here’s the controversial aspect I mentioned earlier. Research on PAP is contradictory. Some research shows a statistically significant increase in the speed of an unloaded exercise (like a body weight jump) after a heavy loaded movement such as a back squat, and other research did not detect an effect despite some test subjects “claiming” that their unloaded movements felt faster after using a heavy load. There’s a couple of reasons for the different results.
- The heavy load used to prime the nervous system may not be heavy enough. The research that I’ve seen and the info I’ve gathered from talking to some smart people in my field is that the load must be at least 80% of your 1-rep max.
- The rest between the heavy exercise and the lighter exercise must be in an adequate range for the individual. I personally believe there’s no set range for everybody but has to be individualized based on the person. So for some people, PAP might not work because the rest is either to short between exercises or too long (according to some great strength coaches a predominantly fast-twitch athlete will need more rest than a predominantly slow-twitch athlete).
- I believe PAP works better when someone has a better trained nervous system developed from a longer training age. If someone’s been in the gym training only for 6 months PAP might not work as well as it could for someone that’s been training for several years. However, this probably isn’t written in stone. I believe some people are just born more explosive due to a more responsive nervous system than others. Some people are born with a Ferrari engine and some are born with a honda civic engine.
The picture below is another great example of PAP at work. My training partner Eddie has been training for several years now. A few weeks ago we did a barbell bench press with a band attached employing a method called dynamic effort. Basically, the dynamic effort method is where you take 50-60% of your 1-rep max in bar weight and 25% of your 1-rep max in band tension. The 25% of band tension is measured based on the end range of motion where your arms are completely straight. This method was popularized by Louie Simmons, one of my favorite strength coaches. Here is a video to showcase.
Of the 3 photos above the photo on the left, Eddie was using 125 pounds of bar weight (and about 62 pounds of band tension at the top) and moved the weight an average of .66 meters per second. We got into a discussion about the differences in the load I was using compared to his load based on our body weight. For his load to be equivalent to mine he’d need around 190 pounds of bar weight, not 125. So he said to put 190 on to see how fast he could move that. The second picture shows his average speed with the 190 pounds to be .33 meters per second. For the dynamic effort method to properly work you need to move the load much faster than that, so he went back to the 125 pounds for the next set, which is the last photo on the right. Because of his previous set of the much heavier load of 190 pounds now he moved the 125 pounds at a velocity of .74 meters per second, which is a lot faster than his .66 meters per second in the first photo. That is PAP at work.
I’ve been using different training methods for several years now to illicit PAP but searching for info on PAP in books has been surprisingly difficult. The only book I could really find info on it that I own was in Super Training. There is plenty of info on it online.
If you choose to research PAP online I also encourage you to research why it doesn’t work as well so you can be as objective and unbiased as possible. Here is an article claiming that PAP does not always work.
Robbins DW. Postactivation potentiation and its practical applicability: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res. 2005; 19: 453–458 [PubMed]
Daniel Lorenz, DPT, PT, ATC/L, CSCS. Postactivation potentiation: An introduction. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2011 Sep; 6(3): 234–240. [PubMed]
Super Training: pg. 163 3.4.2 The after-effect of muscle activity. Paragraphs 2, 3, 4, 7.
Lim, Julian J. H.1,2; Kong, Pui W.2: Effects of Isometric and Dynamic Postactivation Potentiation Protocols on Maximal Sprint Performance. J Strength Cond Res. October 2013 – Volume 27 – Issue 10 – p 2730–2736