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COLUMNS: Bridging the Gap

The Application of Postactivation Potentiation to the Track and Field Thrower

Judge, Lawrence W PhD, CSCS

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Strength and Conditioning Journal: June 2009 - Volume 31 - Issue 3 - p 34-36
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181a62960
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Bruce Craig, PhD, FNSCA

Column Editor

Successful throwers are strong and powerful, and a sound strength training program is essential to build the physical traits they need to excel in the sport (6). In my 20-year coaching career, I have sought the training/competitive edge by developing specific throwing strength. Training to improve throwing strength that is specific to the technical positions in the throw can only be accomplished by incorporating special strength work into the strength and conditioning program of the thrower.

The vehicle to achieving this goal for my athletes has been a throw training philosophy involving the use of strength-power potentiating complexes (SPPCs) (6,8). This training technique takes advantage of postactivation potentiation (PAP). The SPPC involves the performance of a high-force or high-power movement to potentiate a subsequent high-power or high-velocity movement (6,8). Although the idea of PAP is not new, the use of SPPC has been receiving a great deal of recent discussion and study (8).

What exactly is PAP and how does it work? The contractile history of a muscle influences the mechanical performance of subsequent muscle contractions. Fatiguing muscle contractions impair muscle performance, whereas, nonfatiguing muscle contractions, typically at high loads of brief duration, may enhance muscle performance (8). Thus, PAP is the increase in muscle force and rate of force development (RFD) that occurs as a result of previous activation of the muscle. The proposed mechanism for PAP is the phosphorylation of myosin regulatory light chains, which renders actin-myosin more sensitive to Ca2+ released from the sarcoplasmic reticulum during subsequent muscle contractions (3-5,9,10).

Although PAP is a well-known property of muscle, the impact of PAP on human performance is less understood (1,6,7). The research is equivocal to date as to whether PAP enhances human performance (1,6,7). Theoretically, PAP would increase the RFD that would lead to an increase in acceleration and velocity (7). The PAP effect would shift the traditional force-velocity curve upward and to the right, which may potentially enhance strength and speed performance (7). Brief high-intensity contractions preceding a brief maximal effort during an athletic event that involves jumping, kicking, or throwing may increase the RFD (6,7). Increasing RFD would in turn increase the strength and speed attained during the performance of an athletic event that involves a brief maximal effort. For example, the throwing of any field implement could be improved using the PAP techniques (6,7).

The benefit of using PAP in training is clear in theory, but research using SPPC has not been able to clarify its practical application. One report shows improvement in jump squat performance 5 to 18.5 minutes after a heavy-load SPPC warm-up in power-trained athletes without a concomitant effect in recreationally trained individuals (2). If SPPC is to be used for enhancing athletic performance, the specifics of the conditioning or warm-up protocol need to be addressed (6,7). The training variables requiring consideration include type of contraction (e.g., isometric, concentric-eccentric), intensity, volume (e.g., repetitions, sets, cadence, time under tension), rest interval(s) between possible multiple sets, rest interval within the complex pair, and possible varying responses of different muscle groups (8). Research also highlights the effect of PAP and categorical variables (8). These include training status, training age, chronological age, genetics (fiber-type composition), anthropometrics, gender, relative strength, and absolute strength.


Before any conclusions can be made as to the efficacy of exploiting PAP in a precompetition warm-up protocol designed to enhance performance, it is important to introduce the concept in training by incorporating overweight implements in practice. It is important to acknowledge that the SPPC is part of a complete warm-up. To be used correctly, athletes also should engage in warm-up activities before the SPPC. Throwing heavy implements sets up a sport-specific SPPC that provides a high-force load and creates PAP. This has not been studied with throwers, but a recent study examining PAP in weightlifters suggests that the first SPPC activity should not be exactly the same as the second (8). That study also recommends the usage of high loads, but that is not practical in sport-specific situations related to shot-putting (Figure 1).

Figure 1:
The preactivity warm-up in the shot put is limited to strength-power potentiating complex (SPPC) activities that can be performed in the competitive area and throwing ring like throwing a heavy implement.

In addition, throwing heavy implements makes the thrower strong in a way that is very specific to the technical pattern of the event. It helps to develop core strength and gives the thrower the ability to stabilize the mid section during high-velocity throws. The control and kinesthetic awareness of the legs and the right side of the body in the power position is critical. The larger implement weight induces increased electrical activity in the involved muscles, consequently working the muscles in a fashion that improves the coordinative potential of the movement: In short, facilitating better recruitment of functional motor units. A sample warm-up and SPPC workout session for an 18+ m female shot-putter are shown in Table 1.

Table 1:
Sample warm-up and SPCC workout session for an 18+ m female shot-putter

Although SPPC can be useful as a training method, it can also be used as an acute performance-enhancing factor immediately before competition (8). Warming up the nervous system before competition generally results in greater strength and power output. An intense (but not fatiguing) activity before the start of an exercise can increase the reflex excitability of the exercising muscle (7,8). To incorporate SPPC into a precompetition routine, start the athletes with a general warm-up followed by a specific warm-up that includes some drills that are specific to the throwing event.

The problem with most throwing implements is they feel heavy, so a preactivity strategy that helps make the throwing implement feel light could subsequently help improve performance. The goal of the SPPC is to create an increase in muscle force and RFD as a result of previous activation of the muscle (8). In developing an SPPC for throwing, use implements 10-20% over the competition weight in a ladder system. Use 2 different weight implements and keep the technique as similar to the competition technique as possible. The athlete would then perform power position and full technique throws with an implement 20% greater than the competition implement. After completing, the athlete would then perform the same movement with an implement 10% greater than the competition implement. The potentiating exercise with the heavy implements raises the “fitness” level of the athlete (8), and the athlete should not touch a competitive implement until competition begins. A sample precompetition routine for an 18+ m female shot-putter is shown in Table 2.

Table 2:
A sample precompetition routine for an 18+ m female shot-putter

Some debate exists among the coaching community concerning the validity of the use of heavy implements in training and during the throwing warm-up before competition. The biggest criticism is the effect on the rhythm and timing of the movement. Critics believe that heavy implements will disrupt the timing of the movement and set the nervous system to a slower speed. I have witnessed the opposite. I have employed the concept of SPCC by using heavy implements to warm up very successfully throughout my coaching career.

Although this preactivity warm-up has never been tested scientifically, I have witnessed some positive results using this concept. Future research needs to address the impact of PAP on human performance and provide evidence for warm-up routines with heavy implements that may enhance athletic performance for track and field throwers. This is an area where more research is needed and lends itself to collaborative efforts between coaches and researchers. Working together, they should be able to collect more sport-specific data that can lead to effective PAP protocols.


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