While we can’t change how many fast twitch muscle fibers we’re born with, luckily we can actually make some improvements on our genetic predisposition when it comes to how well our brain is able to get our muscles to do the things it wants in order to jump higher.
One of the biggest genetic factors when it comes to how high you can jump is how your central nervous system is wired. Some people are just set up to be super fast, highly reactive and excitable.
Post-activation potentiation is a training concept used to essentially manipulate the CNS into allowing us to perform better, at least in the short term. But by incorporating this style of training into your routine, you may well see long term benefits of improved CNS efficiency when jumping.
In the realm of jumping higher, we’ll typically achieve PAP via adding a load, performing the loaded movement, and then expecting a short period where our body will supercompensate by allowing us to jump higher once the load is removed.
We can use PAP to immediately increase our VJ (useful when testing your vert), to immediately make us stronger (when attempting a big lift), and to condition our brain to recruit more motor units and gradually become more efficient at performing explosive movements.
The Science Of Post-Activation Potentiation In Jumping
If you’re still confused as to exactly how this works, it’s easiest if I give an example.
In this study, highly trained athletes were told to perform heavy half-squats for very low repetitions before testing their vertical jump.
Overall, significant improvements were detected in individual CMJ heights after each activation protocol. It can be concluded that the use of 1 to 3 sets of half squats performed at moderate-to-high loads may be an effective strategy to improve jump performance in highly-trained subjects.1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6458568/
Another 2007 study looked at sprint times immediately after performing two sets of four reps of back squats.
It was found that the group that did two sets of four back squats at 85% of their 1RM five minutes prior to their sprint were able to sprint 2.98% faster compared to the control group who didn’t do squats.2https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229058969_Rahimi_R_2007_The_acute_effects_of_heavy_versus_light-load_Squats_on_sprint_performance_Facta_Univ_Phys_Educ_Sport_52163-169
This phenomenon affects specifically the fast twitch muscle fibers and has a fairly short duration, which means the effects may wear off if you wait more than 10-15 minutes.
Using Post-Activation Potentiation To Immediately Jump Higher
So how can we use post-activation potentiation to improve our vertical jump?
Well my first recommendation is to use it in your warm up. In my article How To Warm Up For Vertical Jump Testing I explain in more detail how we can make use of this affect while warming up for max vertical jump attempts.
If you’re about to test your vertical and want to get as high as humanly possible, after your dynamic warm up you should include a couple sets of jump-specific loaded exercises, such as weighted box jumps or squat jumps.
The tests showed a significant difference between the weighted jump warm-up and all other warm-ups… We concluded that utilizing a weighted resistance warm-up would produce the greatest benefit when performing the vertical jump test.3https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16095424/
This is PAP at work.
You also don’t need to be testing your max vertical to integrate the PAP principle into your training. It’s totally possible to ‘stack’ resistance work with plyometric work in the same workout.
For instance, if you had a bunch of depth jumps or max jump attempts as part of your plyometric routine, if you do a set of five squat jumps with just the bar beforehand, when it comes time to jump, your nervous system is going to be primed and you’ll jump higher.
You might be thinking, well does it really matter or make a difference whether I potentiate my jumps every time I’m doing a plyometrics workout? I’m not aware of a ton of research to back it up, but the belief is that by using PAP in your sessions you’ll gradually condition your central nervous system to become more efficient at doing the plyometric movement than you would without it.
This doesn’t mean you should do those speed strength/ballistic movements before every jump you make now either, because you may end up frying your CNS, but it’s definitely something to be thinking about next time you’re doing a jump-focused workout.
Kelly Baggett of the Vertical Jump Bible recommends only doing this sparingly such as when you’re looking to peak during a training cycle.
Using Post-Activation Potentiation To Get Way Stronger
The same exact phenomenon can be witnessed when you’re doing a strength-focused workout.
Maybe you’re doing some really heavy squats and are looking to test your 1RM. If you load up the bar with more weight than you can squat and unrack it, wait for a few seconds, and then rack it again, after you’ve rested and are ready to do the attempt, you should be able to lift slightly more!
This might not be particularly practical or worthwhile practicing unless you’re really keen to set a new personal record.
One PAP study looked at a group of bench pressers who put 120% of their 1RM on the bar before lowering the weight slowly during the eccentric and then pushing it back up with the help of spotters. After they’d rested, this group were able to do a higher number of repetitions in the following set compared to the control group.4https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330057646_Effects_of_post_activation_potentiation_on_eccentric_loading_Is_it_possible_to_do_more_repetitions_after_supra-maximal_loading
Again, it’s not a good idea to start looking for ways to integrate PAP into every workout you do. Your central nervous system cannot be in such a high state of arousal consistently without your performance dropping. But knowing what it is, how to implement it, and when it might be a good idea is definitely better than not knowing about it!
How I Use Post-Activation Potentiation In My Training
Personally, I like to keep this stuff to a minimum because I’m not really worried about testing my vertical or max squat all that often. I’m okay with leaving some in the tank when I do test, since for me it’s simply more important to be moving in the right direction at a good pace.
But if I was coming off a speed strength training focus and it was time to test my VJ again, I’d 100% implement some form of PAP into my warm up to ensure I can jump as high as possible.
If I was in a strength/hypertrophy training block and hadn’t done a ton of jumping, I’m probably not going to jump super high anyway, so I might not bother trying to potentiate my performance.
Similarly, if I was coming to the end of my strength phase within a training block and wanted to see where my squat was at, I may look to unrack some really heavy weight before a max attempt. Or do a really heavy attempt, fail it, rest for about 8-10 minutes, and do a high rep backdown set as I should be able to get an extra rep in from the potentiation effect of failing the supramaximal earlier attempt.
A lot of my speed strength work has PAP built-in anyway. I’ll often pair a set of med ball tosses with some max vertical attempts afterwards. Or if I’m doing barbell jump squats, I’ll follow those up with some depth jumps. By pairing the weighted and unweighted versions of similar exercises in this manner, you can bake a great deal of PAP into your routine without really trying.
At the end of the day, PAP is a cool concept and definitely something any thinking athlete or coach should be aware of when programming their workouts. It is definitely possible to jump higher, squat heavier, and run faster in the short-term by implementing this into your routine occasionally.
It is important to remember not to go crazy on PAP style training because it is pretty taxing on your central nervous system and it’s not going to help you perform better long term if you’re overdoing it by being in this highly stimulated state often.
It’s the same reason we don’t try to max out deadlifts on every leg day: it’s too difficult not only for your body to recover from, but mainly for your CNS to recover from.
Use PAP when peaking or coming into a training phase where it makes sense to test your maximal effort.
I find PAP is best saved for when your training focus is speed strength orientated.
Stack all your quick but slightly loaded movements with similar quick, unloaded movements and you’ll be training your CNS to become highly efficient at the unloaded movement (i.e. jumping).