Post-Activation Potentiation (PAP) is an advanced technique that allows you to lift heavier weight than normal, improving your growth potential and strength, almost immediately. It sounds too good to be true, but this method is beginning to make waves in the lifting community.
PAP in essence, works like this. You have a target rep range and weight you would normally use. You work up to a weight that is heavier than your working weight and then reduce afterwards, making you stronger. Personally, the best explanation I've heard is from Travis Mash of MashElite.com, which states "PAP is essentially contractile history, influencing motor unit recruitment."
While that sounds confusing, we'll dive into what that actually means and how you can use it to set a new PR in almost any lift, immediately.
Baseball players swing a weighted bat before hitting because of the PAP principle. The heavier bat recruits muscle fibers and motor units to a greater extent than normal. Once they remove the weight, it gives the perception of the bat being lighter, allowing for a faster swing.
Fiber Types, Motor Units & Muscle Contraction
In order to understand the premise behind this method, you need to understand what factors influence strength and then, how to manipulate them.
First, we start with fiber types. Of course you've heard about muscle fibers such as Type I & Type II. Really, that's an oversimplification as there are many different Type I variants, as well as Type II variants. Essentially, Type I fibers are quite useful for endurance, as they are quite fatigue resistant, whereas Type II fibers are primarily optimized for fast, explosive contractions; the kind you need for improving strength.
Now, you probably have noticed that when you contract your muscle, you can do so in a fast manner or a slow manner. Well, as it turns out, the speed and frequency that this "message" gets sent to the muscle via the neuron, actually influences how the muscle contracts.
If this motor neuron innervates Type II fibers (fast twitch, optimized for strength) and the signal is sent very fast and very frequently (the message is being sent very rapidly, over and over again), then the muscle will do the same (contracting very fast and frequently), resulting in strength.
Alternatively, if the motor neuron innervates Type I fibers (slow twitch, optimized for fatigue resistance) and sends the signal slowly and less frequently, this will be optimized for longer durations and fatigue resistance.
Lastly, it's important to remember the size principle. This theory is in essence stating that muscle fibers (and thus, their ability) are recruited sequentially based on need and fatigue. This is one of the reasons why your first few sets may feel more heavy than normal. It's essentially because your largest, strongest muscle fibers aren't recruited maximally yet. This is a really important point to keep in mind moving forward.
Enter Post Activation Potentiation
Now that you have a basic understanding of what we are manipulating here, we can discuss how PAP actually works. Essentially, Post Activation Potentiation is a way to encourage the muscle (and of course motor unit as a whole) to work at a higher rate than is actually required for the weight being used. It is in essence, a way to trick your muscle into being stronger.
The whole point of PAP is dependent on the previous information we touched on about muscle fibers, motor units and the size principle. By using a weight heavier than you normally would, you're recruiting muscle fibers and initiating faster, more frequent signals from the neuron, and then reducing the weight you're using. You're then lifting a lighter weight, but have your muscles activated for a heavier weight.
Let's say for example that you can normally bench press 225 pounds for 5 repetitions. Typically, when benching for 5 reps, you'd work up to 225 and then complete 5 reps. This would also be about the maximum that your muscle can do before failing.
While that may be a typical workout, with PAP, you lift just above 225, for fewer reps FIRST, and then drop back down to 225. For example, you may work up to 245-250 for 2 repetitions and then reduce back to 225.
When you do this, you're increasing the activity of motor units (frequency and rate) to accommodate the higher weight. When you reduce the weight afterwards, the muscle and motor units are still primed for a heavier weight. Thus, you're muscle (and motor unit) will contract as if you were lifting 245-250, but with only 225 on the bar, giving you the feeling of being immediately stronger (and really, you are immediately stronger).
As a result of doing this, you should be able to lift your normal working weight for either more repetitions or you should be able to use a heavier weight for the normal amount of repetitions.
This is in essence, that quote I mentioned earlier: Contractile history - or the extent to which the motor units and thus the muscle itself contracted; influences motor unit recruitment - or how frequent and fast the motor unit sends the signal. I.E. If your previous sets made the muscle and motor unit contract quickly, your next sets should follow suit, even if the weight is lighter, giving you the feeling and reality of being stronger.
Here's a clearer representation of how PAP works. Baseball players swing a weighted bat before hitting because of the PAP principle. The heavier bat recruits muscle fibers and motor units to a greater extent than normal.
Once they remove the weight, it gives the perception of the bat being lighter, allowing for a faster swing. PAP with weights is exactly the same concept: Lift a little heavier than you normally would and then remove the extra weight, giving the perception of increased strength.
How To Use PAP
Using this technique will depend largely on 1. The rep range you're working with and 2. Your normal working weight (i.e. the ideal amount of weight you would use for a given rep range).
First, you'll need to determine the exercise, the rep range and of course the typical amount of weight you would use for that rep range.
Typically, once you've determined these variables, you'd work up to a typical working weight and continue. However, with PAP, we'll work up to a weight just above your normal weight and then reduce afterwards.
Typically with PAP, a good starting point is to work up to around 110% of your normal working weight and perform that amount of weight for 20-30% of your normal working rep range. Here's an example of what I mean.
As you can see, with the PAP set, you work PAST your normal working weight, but only for a repetition or 2 and then reduce the weight again. Upon reducing weight, you should be able to either increase repetitions, increase the weight you're using for your reps or in a perfect world, both.
While it sounds quite simple, that's because it is and fortunately, it actually works. In fact, when using this regularly, I often set new personal records every time I lift. Just this past year, in a matter of 3 months, I put on around 50 lbs onto my bench and over 100 lbs on my squat, just from incorporating this technique. It truly is amazing.
PAP is An Advanced Technique, Not Great For Beginners
It's important to keep in mind that this won't be a great technique if you're a beginner. I say this because it's likely the difference between your working weight(s) and 1 RM are just too close. For example, if 110% of a working weight for you is only 5 pounds heavier, you run the risk of fatiguing your muscles rather than potentiating them.
For example, If your 5 RM for bench is 185, but your 1-RM is only 205, the difference between those two numbers is too close. for example, 110% of 185 would be around 203.5 lbs. The chance of failing and reducing performance is too great to warrant using this method. If you're a beginner, stick with a linear progression of training and worry about advanced techniques at a later time.
Don't Go To Failure
While I almost never recommend going to absolute failure (unless you're using lightweight, of course), it's important to never go to failure when using PAP sets. If you do, you're missing the point.
As you'll notice above in the PAP progression example, you only want to complete 1, maybe two repetitions at most. The purpose is to potentiate the muscle not fatigue it to the point of reducing performance.
At first, you may find that you're becoming too fatigued after PAP sets. This is a great indication that you either went too heavy, did too many repetitions, or that you're simply not strong enough to use this technique appropriately (which is okay, strength takes time).
Make sure to constantly adjust how you use this technique according to how you respond. Keep in mind that everyone is an individual, with different responses.
If you find that 110% of your working weight is too heavy or too light, adjust accordingly. If you find that 3 reps works better for some days and 1 rep for others, then run with it.
Personally, if my working sets for the day are 2-3 reps, I typically have my PAP sets only for 1 rep. Alternatively, if my working sets are higher, around 8-10, then I typically use 2-3 reps for PAP. Everyone is individual with optimal responses. You need to constantly adjust to find what works best for you.
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