Post Activation Potentiation

Speed is one those things every athlete wants more of. It may be described as quickness or having a faster first step but ultimately it comes to having more horsepower.

But how we go about developing speed is a good question. Ask five different coaches what they do for speed training and you may get five different answers.

Recently there was an article published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research by Hancock et al which looked at how post activation potentiation (or PAP) affects swim performance.

This research team took 30 collegiate swimmers and had them do a standard warm-up followed by a 6 minute rest. After the rest the swimmers performed a 100 m time trial with splits at the 50 m mark plus blood lactacte was sampled. One grip did 4×10 m maximal swims on the minute against the resistance of a power rack before taking the 6 minute break. These four swims lasted an average of seven seconds and the resistance for each swimmer was set based on their mass and 100 m swim time so as to equivalent for everyone.

What they found was that performing the four maximal sprints resulted in a swim times that were 0.54 seconds faster than the group that didn’t perform them.

Think 0.54 s doesn’t matter in the 100 m freestyle in swimming? It would if you were #11 and you were the only to perform this kind of warm-up. In theory it could shave 0.54 seconds off his time and take him from 48.67 to 48.13 and the gold medal.

Rank Heat Lane Name Nationality Time Notes
1 6 5 Nathan Adrian United States 48.19 Q
2 6 1 Gideon Louw South Africa 48.29 Q
3 8 2 Sebastiaan Verschuren Netherlands 48.37 Q
4 8 4 James Magnussen Australia 48.38 Q
5 8 5 Brent Hayden Canada 48.51 Q
6 6 7 Brett Fraser Cayman Islands 48.54 Q
6 7 8 Pieter Timmers Belgium 48.54 Q, NR
8 6 3 Nikita Lobintsev Russia 48.60 Q
9 8 7 Cullen Jones United States 48.61 Q
10 7 7 Konrad Czerniak Poland 48.63 Q
11 6 4 César Cielo Brazil 48.67 Q
12 7 4 James Roberts Australia 48.93 Q

I point this out to show that a half second is a huge amount of time in this race.

So how is it that PAP can help? Well when do something with high loads there is a high muscular effort that goes along with performing that lift. The effects of performing that lift are retained and allow for higher power outputs in subsequent performances.

But it’s not simple as straightforward as lifting something heavy and then seeing a performance boost. There are a few things to consider regarding PAP including:

1. Transfer effect

If I perform a couple of heavy reps on the bench press I will have worked my upper body and stimulated my nervous system. I really shouldn’t expect a huge increase in my vertical jump if I test it after benching.

Now if instead I do 2-3 relatively heavy squats I am stimulating some of the same muscles used for jumping. Additionally am performing the lift on my feet with has better carry-over than if I were to perform a heavy leg press.

2. Training age

If a world record power-lifter does 3 reps at 87% of their max they would probably recover and be fine with this. Not only would they be fine later in the same day they would be fine in the same workout.

Now imagine someone who has never lifted before. We do some quick tests to determine their max and then we have them perform 3 reps at 87% as well. This person may be done for the rest of the training session. Not only that they may be stiff and sore for days after.

We need to consider how long the athlete has been resistance and at what level before we introduce something like PAP into their training.

3. Load

There is quite a variation in terms of the protocols used for research on PAP. Some studies describe using loads in the mid to upper 80% of 1 RM. Others refer to using loads that are 3-5 1 RM which would be about 85-87% as well.

In the swim example the resistance applied was proportional to the mass and speed of the swimmer. And the effort lasted all of about seven seconds.

You can see the challenge in selecting a load to yield a PAP. To low and enough of the musculature, and the nervous system, are not stimulated. Or choose the appropriate load and only perform one rep and there not be enough of a stimulus either. And if you go too heavy or too long you will end up fatiguing the athlete.

4. Rest

This is a tricky part of PAP. How long do you rest after a muscular effort to allow the body to recover yet still reap the benefits of PAP.

For example, if you perform 3 squats at 87% and immediately try and perform your best box jump for height things probably won’t go well. Give yourself five minutes to rest and you may just hit a PB. Wait 15 minutes and again you may notice no benefit.

Here’s a graphical representation of this.

How long to wait? Too short of a rest and fatigue lingers. Too long and PAP benefits are gone.

How long to wait? Too short of a rest and fatigue lingers. Too long and PAP benefits are gone.

In this study the swimmers rested six minutes. Would the same result have occurred after four minutes? After twelve?

This is a hard question to answer and requires further research. The range appears to be four to twelve minutes but would be dependent on the participants of the study, the percent of the load and the length of the muscular effort.

Here is the citation for the study for any that are interested.

Hancock Andrew P, Sparks Kenneth E, Kullman Emily L. 2015. JSCR. Postactivation Potentiation Enhances Swim Performance In Collegiate Swimmers. 29(4):912-917.

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