By Carl Valle
One of the best demonstrations of applied science I have seen in my career was Tim Pelot’s warm-up presentation at the 2017 NSCA conference in January. While the information on warming up for a training session was solid, the key takeaway was the big picture of working with athletes in the real world. Sport science is only as good as the coach who wields the information, and lately I am seeing more knowledgeable coaches but less applied skills in coaching.
One of the reasons that application fails in the real world is that the pace of information is far faster than experimentation in the field. While it may take many months to produce a research study, it could take years to fully understand the information when applying it in practice. I have written about warm-ups extensively and even reviewed potentiation earlier, but this article is different. I have read the research over the past two years to update what coaches can use practically, and found a way to weave potentiation into nearly every training session instead of just the most advanced ones.
A New Paradigm in Potentiation
For years, I believed that potentiation training was an advanced option for athletes, meaning only small groups of elites could benefit. I was half right, since sufficient strength levels are necessary to fully exploit the method, and personalized prescription was likely necessary. I still stand behind my earlier writing on potentiation for greater outputs in speed and power, but I think we can expand its use beyond just elite athletes.I now believe we can expand the use of potentiation to all athletes—not just elite ones. Click To Tweet
The issue I see is that potentiation is far more impactful and likely more valid than the term “activation.” Muscle recruitment with EMG (electromyography) is important research, but only if it results in a performance or training benefit. In the early 2000s and later, everyone seemed to be activating muscles; however, in reality, they were just doing isolation exercises from decades past. Low-load activation exercises may have merit, especially when a lot of the main training work is done, but in most team environments, it’s just not possible to spend an entire warm-up or training period doing a million exercises.
The new paradigm is just an old training principle with more specific guidelines. This means we are not revamping how we train; we are just refining it in a way that coaches can decide what is best for them. I strongly argue that we need to look at activation as a part of EMG evaluation and look at potentiation as more of a spectrum of recruitment and arousal. Also, we need to more fully see the long-term advantage with potentiation, as most of the studies are only weeks in length, and not years.
Much of the activation prescription by some proponents of isolated physical therapy exercise for training performance is not shown to be superior to conventional warm-ups. Again, most research with no activity being the control will likely show that something is better than nothing, but as Coach Alejo stated to me, we really care about what works best, not just what works.The science of potentiation is growing, but there’s a gap between research design & its application. Click To Tweet
The core of this article is about a comprehensive framework of potentiation in acute sessions and over seasons. Coaches need better ways to use their time, not new ways of training that may be less effective. Much of the dark ages in sports performance came from unstable surface training or functional training gurus promoting silly balance exercises. The science of potentiation is growing, but the gap between research design and actual application of it is the reason I wrote this article.
Why the Science of Potentiation Makes Application Difficult
I have read plenty of potentiation articles and many of them were excellent, but a few let me down because the study design was simply impractical to replicate. A fantastic review of the science of potentiation can be found at the Science for Sport website, and I recommend reading it a few times. The literature presents four unique challenges for potentiation that you must review first before applying them in training.
High Personalization Demands: Potentiation training is more demanding on individualized prescription than general training; thus, it becomes an administrative nightmare for colleges or schools with poor coach-to-athlete ratios. The research is very solid on who responds well, who responds inconsistently, and who doesn’t respond at all.
Time Windows: The delicate balance between waiting long enough to take advantage of the neuromuscular enhancement and waiting too long is a real issue. Even the same athlete repeating a workout may have different rest periods because of seasonal changes and daily readiness volatility.
Fatigue Risk: Fatigue is an acute and chronic issue with intense training, and pairing exercises may work with some sessions but expose an athlete to risk in other similar ones. You must factor in more volume from potentiation or density. Highly trained athletes are great responders, but still at risk for fatigue.
Space and Equipment Needs: Pairing many exercises together creates a demand on equipment in training, as well as on required space. Coaches with limited resources struggle to implement potentiation because they simply can’t watch everyone at once. Sport venues are also less dependable for the same reason, as games and matches usually constrain coaches in what they can do to prepare for competition.
If these four challenges aren’t an issue for you, by all means, potentiate away. None of them are new, but there have been countless times where I have seen coaches systematically apply complexed or contrasted sessions and betray the principles and considerations above.
The Cauldron of Neurological Factors That Influence Power
One of the challenges with a good holistic program is that many elements are mixed into the training equation, thus clouding the analysis process with additional variables. How does a coach know which element hampers or helps, especially when the timeline of training is up to three hours with some sessions? SimpliFaster has explored the influence of arousal, feedback, and potentiation on specific applications like sled training.
Yet, even with those resources, the process will always be complicated by the fact that training is not individual puzzle pieces linked together, but more like a card came with multiple biological systems working in harmony or occasional opposition. In order to help paint a clear picture and program more easily, I have asked some great coaches about the way they look at training from a distance before drilling down into the details of program design.
Systemic Factors: Global arousal is a shotgun approach to increasing output, and riding the adrenaline train works very well. Unfortunately, too much constant arousal can lead to burnout, so think about using the cliché “dimmer knob” instead of the “Frankenstein wall switch” with workouts. Environment and task can both influence arousal levels.
Regional Influences: Some potentiation work doesn’t show up beyond the local area, such as squats before throwing or bench pressing before sprinting. It’s hard to isolate central mechanisms from peripheral influences because nothing is truly isolated in an athlete’s biology. Potentiation is mainly local, but it’s hard to not get arousal from lower body or general training. Technically, phosphorylation is the mechanism of potentiation, but secondary collateral enhancements occur that benefit output later.
Joint or Limb Targeting: Research on narrow muscle recruitment exercises and single limb training is not only fascinating, it’s also useful for deciding the value of specific training options with outcomes and time involved. For example, low load activation seems to have some small carryover with speed, but I will illustrate later why better options exist.
There are more neurological interactions than this, of course, but managing these three general ones is enough to have a solid outline for improving workouts. I personally can’t stretch or push the envelope further as I have enough on my plate, including worrying about the equipment working properly or whether everyone has a partner during medicine ball circuits. In a few years, I will again stop and review potentiation, but for now these primary three factors are a good start.
How to Surgically Apply Potentiation in Warm-Ups
Anyone who knows me knows that I have a strict policy on warming up for training. If athletes don’t buy into the warm-up, they are likely not committing entirely to the program. My main issue is that most coaches don’t do it right or long enough, or have athletes engaged enough to do it well. Earlier in the article I explained that low load exercises, usually done supine, prone, or seated on the ground, have a small effect performance preparation. The argument I have against this approach is that good training removes many of the corrective or last-minute fixes in the warm-up over time, but coaches are often compelled to do what works now and not program for the long run.
A structurally developed body, as well as a well-crafted warm-up, will address all of an athlete’s immediate and long-term needs. Warming up is not just getting hot (though it’s still a major requirement); it’s a period of training that allows coaches to improve areas with slightly less demanding forces and velocities. The end of a good warm-up period should blend the needs of the primary workout with the starting point of a session.
Preparation for training is currently in chaos, with some programs dependent on joint mobility routines, self-therapy demands, therapist-guided preparation needs, and/or countless exercises to provide a temporary fix in athletic readiness. Some of the most effective performance warm-ups deliver a gradual increase in high output while still providing a pathway to ensure risk of injury is avoided. Often, a factor in preparing for training is inflated for its benefit or slighted unnecessarily for potential impairment. For nearly two decades, there was an argument that static stretching was the bane of training, but like potentiation, the time windows of inhibition only lasted a short period and didn’t affect the primary needs of training later down the line.
A simple solution to warming up more effectively is to always include a primary resolution in the main training to what is temporarily done in the warm-up. If a posterior chain deficit exists, train it hard and smart later in the weight room, and don’t Band-Aid it in the warm-up. If a muscle or joint system is chronically not working properly, reevaluate the entire training plan and don’t just resort to quick fixes. A quick fix is not a bad thing, but it’s just a temporary solution that scaffolds a correction until you can apply a long-term solution.
Athletes will likely respond better to more demanding exercises with smaller volumes and higher intensities because a neurological overflow response will occur from excitation. I have seen carryover of training from one limb to another from neural drive, but full-body actions like medicine ball tosses, small amplitude jumps, locomotive drills, and submaximal sprinting all require very little equipment to succeed.Athletes need more potentiation exercises for training and more easy work for games and competition. Click To Tweet
Last, but arguably the most important comment on warming up and potentiation, is knowing the difference between preparing for training and preparing for competition. While the needs are very similar and the warm-ups should resemble each other, competition usually requires less work to get athletes amped up and ready, especially as they are tapering or purposely resting. I find that athletes need more potentiation exercises for training, and more easy work for games and competition.
How to Amplify Power Training on the Track
Speed and power in athletic motion can be enhanced with complex and contrast work with heavy lifts, speed exercises like plyometrics, and resisted sleds. Jumping seems to be the one overlapping exercise between lifts and sprinting, so some programs will wait to potentiate in the weight room. I prefer to split potentiation equally between speed work and lifting. I find that jumping helps with sprinting acutely, but sprinting seems to do very little the other way around unless it provides maximal strength levels down the road. There is not much research on speed and potentiation as it shows up with weight training and slower activities.
Multiple permutations and combinations exist with contrasting and complexing exercises, and I shared some good workouts in my potentiation article earlier. Below are suggestions I found that jived with my personal experiences and the supporting research.
Throws are great for acceleration work, but don’t provide much with potentiation. Total body throws, like behind-the-back tosses or similar, seem to only improve with depth jumps or something that is more reactive. In general, throws are just neutral to the potentiation spectrum as they don’t seem to fatigue athletes, but they also don’t provide a potential for exploiting the PAP effect.
Lifting before jumps or sprints should be very specific, as high-volume sprints might benefit from Olympic lifting, and low-volume speed work might employ heavy lifts above 80% (but closer to 90% with advanced athletes). You should use bar velocity to make sure athletes perform the loads sharper so they can do more quality work. Jump squats should be in the higher rep range and done with medium to high volumes of speed work.
Athletes can do jump exercises as part of the warm-up that leads into speed later, or as preparation help for change of direction work as a preventive measure. I find that one or two sets of jump exercises wake the body up without exhausting the nervous system. Change of direction is a risk when done under fatigue, but it is also risky when an athlete is not “firing” under all cylinders. Reactive work with plyometrics is the ultimate solution, as it does not exhaust the body like maximal lifting but it does directly turn on muscle groups due to the specificity and intensity.
Sprints are unique, and I have rarely used training modalities before sprinting. Due to the extreme velocity required, a body needs to be as fresh as possible to really elicit gains in speed. When a program becomes stale, I change the sequence, but I rarely combine something before a sprint due to the technical nature. When I do use potentiation, it’s mostly during acceleration work. If I have a talented athlete with some springs, I may use conventional hurdle hops (jumps) during the special preparation phase.Potentiation use should favor warming up and preparing for intense work. Click To Tweet
Overall, I don’t mix modalities together unless I know we have maxed out the simple order of operations. Potentiation use should favor warming up and preparing for intense work, and not just be a primary way to deal with plateaus.
How to Maximize Training Time in the Weight Room
When enough energy is left after practicing, potentiation is an option, but this is rare in team sports. Generally, team sports preparation time is far less than Olympic sports preparation time, so opportunities for potentiation are less common in the weight room. Athletes are hesitant to push themselves before practice if they are lifting first, so potentiation usually fits best in the off-season.
I have written on training density in great detail, and this is why I like potentiation in the weight room. Many programs that are pressed for time seem to be seduced by, and fall for, circuit-style training and line up many workouts to get athletes in and out quickly. As rest drops, most of the time power does as well. The solution is simple: Keep the workout’s demand as low as possible and don’t pair strength exercises.I like potentiation in the weight room because it helps maximize training time. Click To Tweet
Training density is only effective when athletes are reaching levels that matter—meaning, intermediate and advanced. When athletes are novices, even if they are chronologically older, rest is best. Rest isn’t just about resynthesis of ATP or managing fatigue, it’s also when athletes need help to spot and adjust weights. Rest is also a natural time to give instruction or correct faults in technique.
Since a large proportion of strength and conditioning coaches are involved with the allocation of resources, most will conclude that they want to spend their time and energy getting the primary lifts up and leave potentiation for a few athletes in the off-season or in Olympic sport. This is the reason team sports suffer with athlete compliance; not because the work is hard, but because the work can get dull. Training monotony is not the same as boredom, but a great way to keep athletes excited is to push them instead of relying on workouts that seem to be stuck in limbo.Potentiation may help prevent athlete boredom in team sports, and increase athlete compliance. Click To Tweet
When pressed for time, don’t treat potentiation as a mad dash to the end or make workouts seem like a human Rube Goldberg. Simply pair them logically and let the athletes reset their focus between exercises. I have seen paired sets all the way to quad sets done really well, but only when the exercises have been learned in isolation. Never, ever teach and do potentiation at the same time, as it leads to very poor results in either output or learning.
More exercises done doesn’t mean a stronger stimulus; it may actually decrease adaptation, so only use potentiation as a way to use time more effectively, increase learning from movement variability, or raise intensity during stagnation. The weight room is nothing more than a library to the athletic brain; it just happens to have barbells and dumbbells instead of books. Teaching and training require interaction, and potentiation should only occur after an athlete masters the exercises first. I have a rule that only upperclassmen can use potentiation, as most of the incoming freshmen just need to learn to do the exercises right.
A Mantra to Remember When Using Potentiation in Training
Coaches like myself will have the gears turning in their brains after reading this article and either rush to apply potentiation or put it on the mental shelf for later. A good rule of thumb is to apply the concept in a small way in the warm-up, on the field, and in the weight room.Take advantage of potentiation for your athletes, but don’t overuse it. Click To Tweet
Instead of trying to wake up the body repeatedly by relying on potentiation like caffeine, use it as a laser-guided weapon for specific needs when necessary. Every rose has its thorn, and potentiation comes with the same wear and tear on the body and mind as other methods. Take advantage of potentiation, but don’t overuse it, and you will see noticeable differences like I do now.