Postactivation Potentiation: A Brief Review

by Roxanne Horwath and Len Kravitz, PhD on May 01, 2008


A new strategy to optimize athletic performance.

The goal of many researchers, strength and conditioning professionals and personal trainers is to enhance the acute and chronic effects of resistance training on a person’s overall athletic performance. To that end, many resistance training methods, strategies and ergogenic aids have been investigated. Some of the underlying mechanisms of these strategies include increased motor unit recruitment, muscle spindle firing and activity of the synergist musculature; reduced inhibition of the Golgi tendon organ; and a phenomenon called postactivation potentiation (Hilfiker et al. 2007).

Postactivation potentiation (PAP) has recently gained popularity in the strength training community because it offers a proposed approach for optimizing muscle force and power production above and beyond performance achieved through traditional training methods (Robbins 2005). This phenomenon describes the enhanced and immediate muscle force output of explosive movements after a heavy resistance exercise is performed (Robbins 2005). The PAP phenomenon can potentially maximize performance of explosive-based activities such as weightlifting, sprinting, jumping and throwing activities (French, Kraemer & Cooke 2003; Hilfiker et al. 2007).

Two Theories of PAP

The underlying principle surrounding PAP is that prior heavy loading induces a high degree of central nervous system stimulation, resulting in greater motor unit recruitment and force, which can last from 5 to 30 minutes (Chiu et al. 2003; Rixon, Lamont & Bemben 2007). There are two proposed theories for PAP. The first involves an increased phosphorylation (addition of a phosphate for the production of ATP) of myosin regulatory light chains (proteins of muscle contraction) during a maximum voluntary contraction (MVC). This allows the actin (the other protein of muscle contraction) and myosin binding (for muscle contraction) to be more responsive to the calcium ions released (from the sarcoplasmic reticulum), triggering a cascade of events leading to enhanced muscle force production at the structural level of muscle (Hamada, Sale & MacDougall 2000). The greater the muscle activation, the greater the duration of calcium ions in the muscle cell environment (referred to as sarcoplasm) and the greater the phosphorylation of the myosin light chain protein (Rixon, Lamont & Bemben 2007). As a result, faster contraction rates and faster rates of tension develop (Chiu et al. 2003).

The second theory involves the Hoff­mann reflex (H-reflex), named after the scientist Paul Hoffmann who first described it. The H-reflex is an excitation of a spinal reflex elicited by the Group Ia afferent muscle nerves (specialized nerves conducting impulses to muscle). It is theorized that the PAP intervention enhances the H-reflex, thus increasing the efficiency and rate of the nerve impulses to the muscle (Hodgson, Docherty & Robbins 2005).

Muscle Fiber Type and PAP

It has been assumed that muscles with shorter twitch contraction times show predominance in fast-twitch (type II) muscle fibers and exhibit greater force than muscles with longer twitch contraction times, such as slow-twitch (type I) fibers. It was the purpose of a study conducted by Hamada et al. (2000) to investigate the correlation between muscle fiber type distribution and PAP in human knee extensor muscles. The study was completed in two phases. The first phase tested a group of 20 male subjects. The subjects were measured by a dynamometer and were hooked up to an EMG machine that measured muscle twitch response to a 10-second MVC.

In the second phase of the study, four subjects with the highest and lowest PAP scores underwent a needle biopsy of the vastus lateralis to determine the distribution of fiber type. The results showed that PAP is most effective when type II fibers are a greater percentage of the muscles being used. Thus, this phenomenon can be correlated to improved performance in athletes and recreational enthusiasts who rely on shorter twitch contraction times for optimal athleticism in spurt activities such as sprinting, jumping and throwing.

Athletes vs. Recreationally Trained Individuals and PAP

A study conducted by Chiu and colleagues (2003) investigated the impact of training status on the response to PAP in athletes involved in explosive strength activities compared with individuals involved in recreational training. Over four sessions, 12 men and 12 women performed jump squats 5 minutes and 18.5 minutes after a controlled (moderate-intensity) or heavy (high-intensity) PAP intervention. The study found that recreationally trained athletes exhibited fatigue 5 minutes after the acute heavy-resistance stimulus, and thus showed no enhanced performance. However, in the athletically trained individuals, the heavy PAP stimulus enhanced power performance during both tests (5 and 18.5 minutes after the intervention). The authors concluded that PAP enhances explosive strength performance in highly trained individuals, largely because of their fatigue-resistant, high level of conditioning.

PAP Effects on Endurance Training

Endurance athletes typically have lower percentages of type II muscle fibers compared with type I muscle fibers. Past research has shown a greater PAP response in individuals engaging in activities that involve more type II fiber types (Hamada, Sale & MacDougall 2000). However, the same study revealed that endurance-trained individuals also show an increase in the maximum shortening velocity of their type I fibers after a PAP intervention. Additionally, the study authors concluded that endurance athletes may have an increased resistance to fatigue, allowing the PAP effect to prevail over fatigue.

Subjects in this trial were triathletes, distance runners, active controls and sedentary individuals. Each group contained 10 subjects who performed 10-second maximal isometric contractions of the elbow extensors and ankle plantar flexors. Twitch responses were then elicited at 5 seconds and 1, 3 and 5 minutes post-MVC. Results showed that the triathletes, who trained both the upper- and lower-body muscles, had an enhanced PAP response in both the elbow extensors and plantar flexors compared with sedentary individuals. The runners, who trained only lower-body muscles, were found to have an enhanced PAP reaction in the plantar flexors but not in the elbow extensors.

The active control group, who trained both upper- and lower-body muscles, had an enhanced PAP effect in both muscle groups, but the increases were not as significant as those observed in the triathletes. The authors concluded that PAP can indeed enhance endurance athletes’ performance by offsetting fatigue. However, this enhancement is limited to the muscle groups that are trained and is somewhat proportional to the training status of the individual.

Incorporating PAP

Research has shown that PAP can enhance athletic performance by increasing force development (rate and quantity) to maximize explosive power. There are a variety of differing strategies and methods for eliciting PAP, with no known approach being identified as the most preferred. However, the conclusion of the studies examined in this brief review point out a few concrete concepts. First, PAP is best for activities that require explosive power movements, such as sprinting, high jumping, ski jumping, weightlifting and boxing (French, Kraemer & Cooke 2003; Hilfiker et al. 2007). Second, the PAP ergogenic stimulus has been found to last 2–30 minutes (Chiu et al. 2003; Rixon, Lamont & Bemben 2007). Last, the preconditioning load amount appropriate in the PAP intervention is dependent on the type of contractile activity used, a point that needs further elucidation through research (Hilfiker et al. 2007). From this review it can also be concluded that each individual athlete is uniquely different, and what works for one athlete might not work for another.

As scientists advance and develop more consistent PAP usage strategies, they will surely present (as they have done with periodization models) methods of adaptation that will also help recreationally trained clients optimally enhance their muscular fitness performance. n

SIDEBAR: Complex Training

The theory of complex training incorporates a training stimulus that involves coupling heavy and light loads alternately in an orderly sequence to lead to a higher PAP response (French, Kraemer & Cooke 2003). For example, a typical complex training exercise could pair a maximal-contraction exercise, such as a squat, immediately followed by a plyometric exercise, such as a depth jump (stepping off a box and then exploding upward upon ground contact). This training protocol offers an exercise sequence that enhances the involvement of the nervous system by heightening central nervous system excitability (French, Kraemer & Cooke 2003). Although some research into complex training has been completed, much more study is needed.

Roxanne Horwath, ATC, LAT, is a licensed and certified athletic trainer. She is a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (UNMA), currently majoring in exercise science. She plans to pursue a degree and a career as a physician assistant after completing her master’s program.

Len Kravitz, PhD, is the program coordinator of exercise science and a researcher at UNMA, where he recently won the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award. In 2006 he was honored as the Can-Fit-Pro Specialty Presenter of the Year and as the ACE Fitness Educator of the Year.


Chiu, L.Z., et al. 2003. Postactivation potentiation response in athletic and recreationally trained individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17 (4), 671–77.

French, D.N., Kraemer, W.J., & Cooke, C.B. 2003. Changes in dynamic exercise performance following a sequence of preconditioning isometric muscle actions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17 (4), 678–85.

Hamada, T., et al. 2000. Postactivation potentiation, fiber type, and twitch contraction time in human knee extensor muscles. Journal of Applied Physiology, 88, 2131–37.

Hamada, T., Sale, D.G., & MacDougall, J.D. 2000. Postactivation potentiation in endurance-trained male athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 32 (2), 403–11.

Hilfiker, R., et al. 2007. Effects of drop jumps added to the warm-up of elite sport athletes with a high capacity for explosive force development. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21 (2), 550–55.

Hodgson, M., Docherty, D., & Robbins, D. 2005. Post-activation potentiation: Underlying physiology and implications for motor performance. Sports Medicine, 35 (7), 585–95.

Rixon, K.P., Lamont, H.S., & Bemben, M.G. 2007. Influence of type of muscle contraction, gender, and lifting experience on postactivation potentiation performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21 (2), 500–505.

Robbins, D.W. (2005). Postactivation potentiation and its practical applicability: A brief review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19 (2), 453–58.

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About the Authors

Roxanne Horwath

Roxanne Horwath IDEA Author/Presenter

Len Kravitz, PhD

Len Kravitz, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Len Kravitz, PhD, is the program coordinator of exercise science and a researcher at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he recently won the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award. Len was also honored as the 2006 Fitness Educator of the Year by the American Council on Exercise.