Post-activation potentiation (PAP) is a training concept that has garnered a lot of attention among lifters and strength coaches in recent years. Why?
Because it has been shown to boost athletic performance both in research studies and practical settings. Most training techniques utilizing PAP involve a strength exercise paired with an explosive movement. You lift a moderately heavy weight for low reps (usually 1-3 reps at around 85-90% of 1RM) which "potentiates" your nervous system. Next, you perform an explosive movement: a Jump, Sprint or Throw. The heavy weight allows you to express greater power on the subsequent explosive exercise. Common PAP pairings include:
- Barbell Squat + Vertical Jump
- Trap Bar Deadlift + Hurdle Jump
- Bench Press + Bench Press Throw
- Sled Sprint + Unresisted Sprint
You can also reverse exercise order by performing a power movement first, followed by a heavy strength movement. For example, Depth Jumps followed by Barbell Squats. This has been found to increase 1RM performance in the Squat.
But a third, relatively unknown PAP variation also exists. It involves performing a heavy, low-rep set before lifting a lighter load in the same exercise. In what was a first of its kind study, researchers recently investigated whether lifting a heavy weight in the Barbell Squat could improve repetition performance at a lower intensity.
Brazilian researchers rounded up 10 male subjects with at least a year of training experience and divided them into two groups. The first group squatted four sets to repetition failure at 70% of 1RM with two minutes of rest between sets. The other group did the same thing with a small tweak. They performed a single set of two reps at 90% of 1RM to take advantage of the post-activation potentiation phenomenon, rested for five minutes, then did the four sets at 70% with two minutes of rest between sets.
The result? Trainees in the PAP group were able to complete a whopping 6.5 reps more on the first set at 70% then those who didn't perform the PAP set. On the following three sets at 70% , there were no differences in Squat performance between the two groups.
I found three big takeaways from this study.
First, it confirmed that a heavy, low-rep set done to stimulate the nervous system improves lifting performance on a subsequent set with a lighter weight.
Second, the potentiation effect was present on the first set at 70%, but dissipated right after it. That means you may have just one set to take full advantage of PAP to increase repetition strength. Your performance from the second set forward remains more or less the same with and without the previous PAP set.
Third, the study also confirms what top strength coaches and lifters already know. It has been said that research catches up to what successful practitioners have been doing to generate results for themselves or their clients/athletes for years. That's the case here also.
I first learned about the strength-boosting effect of this type of PAP from Paul Carter back in 2012 and have been using it in my own training ever since. Later, I began applying it with my athletes as well. So despite the fact that the first study to investigate the effects of PAP on repetition performance in the Squat came out in 2018, it is by no means a new concept.
Over the years, I have seen this technique referred to as an "overwarm-up" or "primer" set. Regardless of the terminology, the application is the same. You hit a heavy, low-rep set to stimulate the nervous system before stripping some weight off the bar for your true work set. I prefer to use singles for the PAP set to keep fatigue at a minimum. But as this study shows, a double done at 90% of 1RM works well to boost Squat performance, so the number of reps isn't set in stone.
Now, let's quickly touch on the magnitude of the study results. Frankly, I was a little surprised by how big of a boost the PAP set gave. 6.5 reps is a huge improvement! I have witnessed performance increases of one or two reps with my own eyes, but never anything that would come close to six reps as was the case here. It will be interesting to see if such a favorable outcome can be replicated in future studies.
A Simple PAP Protocol to Boost Your Strength
You now know the concept behind PAP and how it works for increasing repping strength. So, how do you apply it in practice?
First, you'll want to use it with heavy strength exercises like the Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift. After your warm-up sets, you go above your work set weight, but not past your max. In fact, you'll want to stay well away from failure. Lifting a weight that is too heavy fatigues your nervous system which beats the entire purpose of the PAP set. That begs the question: how much weight should you load on the bar?
The PAP single should be done with a weight you can lift any day of the week without getting amped up. Focus on a smooth and technically flawless execution. Move the bar with good bar speed. No slow grinders here. The goal is to excite the nervous system, not tax it to a point where your performance on the first work set suffers.
Below is a PAP example for a lifter with a 500-pound 1RM in the Trap Bar Deadlift who's shooting for five reps with 440 pounds in his first work set. Remember, you should rest between each set, but give yourself several minutes of rest after your PAP set (the above study allowed lifters a five-minute rest between their PAP set and their first working set).
- Warm-up set 1: 135x5
- Warm-up set 2: 225x5
- Warm-up set 3: 275x3
- Warm-up set 4: 315x3
- Warm-up set 5: 365x2
- Warm-up set 6: 405x1
- Warm-up set 7: 440x1
- PAP set: 475x1
- Work set 1: 440x5
All athletes want to learn tricks that increase performance immediately. For intermediate and advanced lifters, the PAP set is one of them. Hit a heavy, submaximal weight to get your nervous system going, then reap the rewards on your lighter work set. Doing this only takes a few extra minutes at the beginning of your workout, so there's little excuse not to take advantage of it!
Photo Credit: miljko/iStock
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