Nothing beats the feeling of knowing you're stronger today than you were yesterday. If you train with weights on a regular basis, chances are you know how exciting it is to nail a heavy lift you could once barely budge.
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To score your next PR (personal record), give post-activation potentiation (PAP) a try. This method can help you go heavier on maximum-effort lifts like squats, bench presses and deadlifts — today.
Exercise physiologist Dean Somerset compares PAP to a priming button on a lawn mower. "You pump that a couple of times to get some gas into the chamber, and that helps you to start it up a lot easier and generate some power at the go," he says.
Incorporating PAP Into Your Workout
To prime the pump, warm up with maximum-effort movements that mimic the demands of the lift you're about to do. Since heavy lifting requires your nerves to fire into your muscles at a very high rate, movements that get this process started will help when it comes time to squat, bench or pull that weight.
But don't go all out. You only need a few reps of a PAP exercise. "If you do too many reps, you can actually fatigue the nervous system," Somerset says. And a fatigued nervous system means you generate less power during your lift. If you're chasing a PR, try out one of the following five PAP exercise pairs (and a sprinting warmup).
1. FOR: Bench Presses; DO: Plyo Push-Ups
This supercharged version of a standard push-up gets the nerves firing in your chest and triceps — the ideal preparation for a heavy bench press.
- Assume high plank position, either with hands on the floor or elevated on a box.
- Perform a standard push-up, but at the bottom of the movement, explode upward so your hands leave the ground.
- Complete one to three reps as quickly as possible, aiming to spend minimal time with your hands on the ground.
- Proceed to your bench press attempt as soon as you're done.
2. FOR: Squats; DO: Vertical Jumps
The quick, explosive nature of the vertical jump will get your glutes fired up and ready to do their job as soon as you duck under the bar.
- Begin standing with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bend the knees slightly and then immediately explode upward, swinging your arms overhead to help you gain height and momentum.
- Land softly on the balls of your feet.
- Complete one to three reps before your heavy squat.
3. FOR: Deadlifts; DO: Kettlebell Swings
A fast kettlebell swing helps prepare your hips to extend with the force needed to lift a loaded barbell off the floor.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent.
- Grip the handle of a kettlebell with both hands and hike it back and between your legs.
- Squeeze your glutes and forcefully extend your hips to propel the kettlebell upward.
- When the kettlebell reaches shoulder height, actively resist as it swings back down between your legs.
- Complete five to 10 swings as quickly as possible.
- Move right into the deadlift.
Use a kettlebell that’s 20 percent of the weight you plan to deadlift (e.g., a 40-pound kettlebell if you’re lifting 200 pounds).
4. FOR: Overhead Presses; DO: Overhead Medicine-Ball Throws
Fire up your shoulders and triceps with a few reps of the overhead medicine-ball throw. This power exercise will prep your upper body for the demands of an overhead press.
- Hold a medicine ball at your chest with both hands and bend your knees.
- Explode upward, throwing the medicine ball as high as possible overhead.
- Let the ball land in front of you.
- Reset before repeating.
- Complete three to five reps. Focus on gaining maximum height with every throw.
- As soon as you finish your reps, go for the overhead press.
Choose a medicine ball that’s 10 to 20 percent of the weight you’ll pressing (e.g., a 10- to 20-pound medicine ball if you’re pressing 100 pounds).
5. FOR: Snatches; DO: Hard Stomps
A few hard stomps will spark the nervous system and create extension from the hip, knee and ankle — just like the snatch.
- Begin standing. If needed, grab a doorframe or pole with both hands for extra stability.
- Lift your right foot, flexed, and bring your knee to hip-height.
- Then, stomp the ground angrily with your right foot.
- Pause a moment to reset, then repeat with the left foot.
- Complete one to two reps per side before moving on to the snatch.
6. FOR: Sprinting; DO: Power Skips
Not every sprint session can benefit from PAP (see the next slide for more), but for your shorter sprints, get your body ready by performing a few power skips per side.
- Begin standing with feet hip-width apart.
- Lift your right knee to skip as high as possible, simultaneously extending your left arm straight overhead.
- Land softly on the ball of your foot and immediately lift your left knee to skip while extending your right arm overhead.
- Continue forward, alternating sides. Aim to gain as much height as possible with each skip.
A Note About Sprinting
Getting into the habit of doing a PAP exercise before every short sprint helps remind your body that it's time to go fast. "Doing one or two reps of PAP before a sprint can help serve as an indicator as much as a preparatory device," Somerset says.
According to Somerset, PAP works well for 100- to 200-meter sprints, but is especially beneficial for shorter distances (10 to 40 yards). For longer, repeated sprints, however, PAP will only fatigue the nervous system.