Any avid Beyond Strength reader knows how important a solid warm-up is for health and longevity. That’s why you spend those first 15 minutes at the gym getting your mind right and readying your body for the proverbial storm to come. Consider your bouts of movement prep, active-isolated stretching and activation exercises, the training equivalent of ‘battening down the hatches.’
There is no way to deny the importance of prepping the body to move, however, my outlook on warming up leans more towards ramping up the nitro-boosters and taking off in a cloud of smoke. In this respect, your CNS is the engine and your endocrine system is the nitro. Before I create a whole new generation of Fast and Furious fans, because that would do the world a huge disservice, let’s stop with the analogies and move on to a quick definition and just a wee bit of research.
What is PAP?
Postactivation potentiation (PAP) is the result of a high-force muscle contraction, after which, there is an improvement in subsequent muscle performance. In response to the high-rate of contraction, the CNS increases neural drive and enhances the production and utilization of ATP. PAP has been widely studied, mainly with heavy resistance or a supra-maximal hold, followed by a biomechanically similar exercise. For example, squatting at 95% of your 1RM and then sprinting for 10 yards. As the theory goes, the heavy squat will excite your central nervous system and boost performance on the following sprint (2). The same goes for biomechanically similar plyometric and jumping exercises before either resistance exercise or sprinting. And…definition over.
The question is; does the PAP movement have to be biomechanically similar to the subsequent movement? I say nay, and so do researchers out of Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. They studied 30 professional and semi-pro rugby players using upper-body cycle sprints, lower-body cycle sprints or a control group that performed no cycle sprints. Both test groups performed one cycle sprint for 40 seconds after a brief warm-up and rest period. Following the sprints, saliva was harvested from every athlete and measured for levels of testosterone and cortisol for comparison. Then the ruggers mixed it up in the weight room, performing an upper-body power/lower-body strength workout, consisting of push-ups, bench throws and box squats or a lower-body power/upper-body strength workout consisting of vertical jumps, squat jumps and bench press. By comparison, the lower-body cycle group performed better on both the bench press and box squat when training loads were used to calculate a 1 rep max for each. The lower-body sprint group also had higher saliva levels of testosterone (1).
So, what does it mean for us? The first thing that we can extrapolate is that the response to this type of sprint PAP is systemic and not restricted to the local musculature, judging by the lower-body cycle group outperforming the upper-body group on both the bench and the box squat. Not only did they outperform them, but it allowed them to use greater loads while lifting. It’s not rocket science that using greater loads when lifting turns in to greater gains in size and strength. I’m betting that boost in testosterone stuck out to you as well. Not only is there a strong CNS response, but there is a strong hormonal response. Seems pretty productive, doesn’t it? However, it’s important to keep in mind that sprinting for 40 seconds is a relatively long time and that rugby players, especially elite ones, are ridiculously conditioned. Let’s take a look at how we can use sprint PAP to our advantage.
Research is all well and good, but making it work in the real world is the obvious concern. Over the past year I have been experimenting with sprinting for PAP on myself and my gracious clients, whom have so heroically volunteered themselves. The results were mixed, but we had some great successes! (is the movie Borat too old for that to be funny?)
It’s important to note that every bout of sprint PAP was preceded by some kind of general warm-up, at least foam rolling and a little static stretching. So, don’t hop out of your car, drop your gym bag and turn on the burners. Something bad will most likely happen.
Here’s what works:
20-30 Second Airdyne Bike Sprint: I know, the Airdyne bike looks like something your grandfather bought at a yard sale in the seventies, used as a coat rack and then sold at his own yard sale, but when used properly it can be a valuable piece of equipment. Using it for a PAP sprint is my go-to when I am pressed for time because it requires the least amount of preparation. A little foam rolling and active-isolated or short static stretches should be enough because you will be moving through a fixed range of motion, the resistance is controlled and your feet aren’t striking the ground. Do it by getting on an Airdyne bike and going at your absolute maximum effort for 20 to 30 seconds. Then, jump off, finish up your mobility training and grab some weights.
One Sprint of 60-200 yards: Fortunately for me, I have an indoor track at my disposal. So, despite the fact that I live in Upstate New York, where winter lasts until July; I can use this technique year-round. However, it takes a bit more prep than the Airdyne sprint. Be sure to hit a couple dynamic warm-ups before sprinting, protect the sacred hamstrings! Then, sprint for 60 to 200 yards. Start toward the 60 yard end of the spectrum and progress up to 200. Going for longer than 200 yards seems to be counter-productive. I don’t have a scientific explanation for you; I’ve just seen diminishing returns. Afterward, bring your heart rate down by doing a few mobility drills. If you haven’t sprinted on solid ground in a while, this probably isn’t the best choice for you. Stick with the Airdyne bike.
Four 15-20 yard sprints: This probably looks reminiscent of high-school football conditioning, but I promise you that it takes about one minute and will have you feeling awesome after it’s over. Find about 30 yards worth of open space, to give you enough room to decelerate, and sprint for 15-20 yards. After each sprint, walk back to your starting point and sprint immediately. Repeat 4 times, and again bring your heart rate down by hitting a few more mobility drills. As with the 60 to 200 yard sprint, do some prep work before sprinting.
Get-up and Go: Body awareness and proprioception require the attention of the peripheral and central nervous systems. Considering that half of our goal for sprinting is to activate our nervous system, adding movement that requires an increased amount of proprioception is a good idea. I use Get-up and Go’s to start off my set of 20 yards sprints. It’s a drill that is used frequently by strength and conditioning coaches during movement training sessions, but also works great for our purposes. They consist of lying either prone or supine on the ground and going from that position into a sprint as quickly as possible. In the prone position, do a push-up, get your feet underneath you and take off. Don’t segment the movement, scramble to get up and get your feet underneath you. If you are starting supine, roll into the prone position, get up and take off. For some added stimuli, have your training partner clap and react to the sound.
A warm-up’s purpose is to ready the body and mind to kick ass, not spend a half an hour dilly-dallying around the gym (trust me; I used to be a dilly-dallier). Using postactivation potentiation is a great way to cut your warm-up time down while sending your body into over-drive. Sprinting for PAP can get your testosterone flowing and turn your nervous system into an electrical force to be reckoned with.
- Crewther, B.T., et al (2011). The effects of short-cycle sprints on power, strength, and salivary hormones in elite rugby players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(1), 32-39.
- Khamoui, A.V., Jo, E., & Brown, L.E. Postactivation potentiation and athletic performance. Proceedings of the Nsca hot topic series (pp. 1-5). www.nsca-lift.org.