Potentiating Performance, Physique Development, and Strength with PAP

by Joe Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS

Jeremy Hoornstra taking advantage of  PAP (With a maximal Isometric)   At some point during a lifter or athlete’s career, the proverbial well of physiological improvements eventually runs dry. A once steep trajectory in progress becomes tempered over time. Plateaus are encountered. Biomotor skills and capacity to express them seemingly don’t budge in spite of consistency and diligence.  

Cautionary Tale of Progressive Overload   I always iterate to my clients, students, and athletes that progressive overload, while immensely valuable for novice and intermediate lifters and athletes, has fewer applications in working with advanced individuals, or those who possess years in the trenches, provided they trained with deliberation and diligence.   A novice gym member who proudly stakes their claim the flat bench on their first day of training has far greater potential than the guy grinding out circa maximal singles with three wheels per side on the adjacent bench. When we remove genetics and drugs from the equation, it stands to reason that the newbie in this scenario can attribute comparatively greater potential due to his lower training age, or in the trenches experience. He will assuredly benefit from the progressive overload principle than his neighbor, whose max bench press sits a couple hundred pounds north of his. Progressive overload works to an extent, but in its traditional application, which involves the increase of sets, reps, and volume, won’t elevate lifters and athletes out of a training rut or push their strength and performance to stratospheric new heights.   Lifters and athletes who are looking to burst through a plateau should strongly consider including protocols, especially ones such as PAP, which render impactful improvements of the neuromuscular system.  

Enter PAP   Post-Activation Potentiation, or PAP for short, is a phenomenon occurring when an intense muscular contraction elicits acute improvements in force during subsequent bouts. Scientists have clung tightly to the belief that this PAP effect stems from an increased phosphorylation activity transpiring at the cellular level.   In order to better explain the chemical activity which drives muscular activity, I have provided a brief summary for your convenience…and for you exercise phys folks, a mere refresher.   During phosphorylation, a phosphate group is added to create ATP, permitting the formation of a high energy myosin light chain-ATP cross bridge which then attaches to actin and releases potential energy contained within its bonds.   The cross bridge then pulls actin toward the center of the sarcomere. Next, ATP binds to the cross bridge from actin to begin contracting. Calcium ions are activated when the motor neuron which innervates the cell depolarizes, and travel through the transverse tubules where they enter the cell and cover the sarcoplasmic reticulum, preventing two inhibitory proteins, troponin and tropomyosin, from blocking the fusion of myosin and actin. It has been purported in the literature that prolonged calcium ion presence in the cell correlates with greater activation and tension as well as more forceful and quicker contractions.   Neural wiring is also supercharged as PAP hastens the excitation of spinal reflexes involved with afferent or feed forward processes, which describe the medium in which the nervous system communicates with the muscular system to generate movement.  

Training Strategies to Enhance PAP   Throughout the years, coaches and athletes have utilized contrast and complex training to yield improvements in performance, physique development, and strength.   Contrast training consists of using heavy loads and light loads in an alternating fashion during the course of a training session. Contrast training is similar to wave loading in that it involves loads which are constantly varied during the course of a training session, however, unlike wave loading, it is used to increase power.   For instance one exercise would be selected, in this example, deadlifts, and would be performed in the following sequence:   1 set of 1 repetition at 90%   1 set of 3 to 5 repetitions at 30-50%   1 set of 1 repetition at 90%   1 set of 3 to 5 repetitions at 30-50%   Complex training involves pairing a heavily loaded exercise with biomechanically similar movements which are typically performed with far lighter loads or as plyometric exercises.   It should be mentioned that neural activation networks are highly movement specific, therefore, it is crucial that exercises be prudently paired as to not establish faulty motor engrams. Before deciding to combine exercises, first consider force vectors and planes as well accruing fatigue throughout the training session.   Suggested pairings may include the following:   Anteroposterior Vector and Sagittal Plane   Conventional Deadlift followed by a Broad Jump Bench Press followed by a Plyometric Push Up or Smith Machine Barbell Throw or Supine Med Ball Toss   Axial Vector and Sagittal Plane   Hex Bar Deadlift followed by Double Legged Vertical Jump Barbell Squat followed by Jump Squats or other vertical plyometric exercise   Anteroposterior/Axial Vector in Sagittal Plane   Loaded Walk, Push, Pull, or Drag followed by sprinting, linear jumping, single legged bounding   Lateromedial Vector in Coronal Plane   Lateral Squat, Lateral Sled Drag, or Resisted Lateral Lunging followed by Lateral Bounding or Shuffling  

Introducing PAP Training Strategies   Based on my review on existing literature as it pertains to PAP, I have seen reports of PAP requiring extensive rest periods, in some instances, reports of up to 20 minutes! The impracticality of incorporating rest periods that extensive will undoubtedly interfere with training other biomotor qualities and if applicable, time focused on sport skill development.   Rest periods intercalate each bout. Keep in mind that the amount of prescribed rest is dictated by desired bioenergetics and neuromuscular adaptations. For athletes wanting to increase muscular force and power, it is best if they rest between 3 to 5 minutes between pairings. For individuals wanting to reap the rewards of a fitter physique, briefer rest periods will suffice, provided movements are not taken to failure or induce significant metabolic fatigue. Individuals who have never performed PAP training protocols would be best served by performing a single bout of a maximal effort, followed by subsequent bouts of lesser effort.   For instance one exercise would be selected, in this example, barbell squats, and would be performed in the following manner:   Strength and Rate of Force Development   1 set of 3 repetitions between 87.5-92.5%   3 sets of 3 to 5 repetitions at 55-80% (Speed Squats)   Or   Powerbuilding Hypertrophy   1 set of up to 5 repetitions exceeding 82.5%   3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions at 60-70%   Athletes and lifters may conservatively progress to implementing traditional PAP protocols if they wish, beginning with up to three sequences, broken up by appropriate rest periods. However, never should the second exercise within the sequence be taken to failure.