Here’s what you need to know:

Post-Activation Potentiation is the driving force behind the benefits of complex training.
Complex-pair training, when scheduled in appropriate training blocks, can improve power and rate of force development (RFD).
Complex training works best in trained, advanced-level athletes. Unless you can move a decent amount of weight, this isn’t for you. If this is you, then stop watching Miley Cyrus twerkin’ it, go pick up heavy stuff, and raid the fridge.
Adding five pounds to the bar each workout might work when you’re a rookie, but not once you’ve earned your keep in the power rack.
Long term gains aren’t achieved solely by linear workouts. Soon, your linear periodization and small to medium T-shirts no longer get the job done.
You’ve hit the dreaded plateau…

Plateaus will occur in the weight room. Luckily, there are numerous strategies to bust through your current levels of strength, power, and muscular development. The time has come to add strategically designed training to stimulate new gains.

Enter complex-pair training—an advanced training strategy to add some spring to your static strength, produce new slabs of muscle, and develop a powerful physique.

This advanced strategy has an athlete perform a high-intensity strength training exercise followed by an explosive exercise that mimics the biomechanics of the strength training exercise, such as a deadlift and a broad jump. The driving force behind complex training is a phenomena known as post-activation potentiation.

What is Post-Activation Potentiation?

Post-activation potentiation, commonly abbreviated as “PAP,” is a physiological adaption describing the immediately enhanced muscle force output of explosive movements after a heavy resistance exercise is performed (Robbins 2005). It is believed that the contractile history of a muscle influences the mechanical performance of subsequent muscle contractions. Essentially, the nervous system becomes excited due to the heavy load from the previous exercise, causing an increased response in the subsequent explosive exercise (Rixon et al. 2007).

How PAP Works

Post-activation potentiation primarily occurs in Type 2 fast twitch muscle fibers. Therefore, the advanced technique is best used to maximize performance of explosive-based activities like weightlifting, sprinting, jumping, and throwing activities (2,6). As a fantastic benefit, those same Type 2 muscle fibers have the most potential for maximal muscle grow.

*Note: This is awesome.

There are two proposed mechanisms for PAP. (Stay with me on this one as the science gets a little heavy.)

According to Hamada et. el (2000), there is an increased phosphorylation of myosin regulatory light chains during a maximum voluntary contraction (MVC). This allows the actin and myosin binding (for muscle contraction) to react to the increased calcium release. This reaction triggers a cascade of events leading to enhanced force muscle production at the structural level of muscle (Horwath & Kravitz ). Thus, increased muscle activation yields a greater duration of calcium ions in the muscle cell environment, yielding a greater phosphorylation of the myosin light chain protein (Rixon et al. 2007).
The second theory is based on the H-reflex, an excitation of a spinal reflex elicited by afferent muscle nerves. It is theorized that the PAP intervention enhances the H-reflex, thus increasing the efficiency and rate of the nerve impulses to the muscle (Hodgson, Docherty, Robbins, 2005). Your nervous system get’s jacked up full-go. When a jump is performed, your body is prepared to fire on all cylinders. So, when only your body weight is used, the over-stimulated nervous system and muscles will be primed to the max for a higher jump.
Complex Training

Complex training is an advanced training strategy where an athlete performs a high-intensity strength training exercise followed by an explosive exercise that mimics the biomechanics of the strength training exercise.

If training sticks in a constant rep range—whether it’s using slow, grinding reps with no dynamic work or strictly higher hypertrophy rep ranges, one risks becoming slow and losing explosive power over time. Following the heavy potentiating exercise, neural drive increases, allowing for greater power output in the ballistic exercise. The complex pair is then repeated for a number of sets. Over time, this neuromuscular efficiency improves the muscles’ ability to generate power.

As fun as it is to be jacked out of your gourd, having some power to go with your physique is better.

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Common sample exercise pairings:


Rest Periods

There is a balancing act between fatigue and PAP following a heavy strength movement. The key is finding a balance between the two, and I’ve found everyone to be different. If the potentiation of the nervous system exceeds the level of fatigue, then the explosive movement will be performed with more force and at a higher rate of force development. Bingo! Then we have both acute and long-term benefits of PAP.

But how long do I rest?

As it stands, there is no uniform agreement about the optimal recovery required between the pre- load stimulus and subsequent muscle performance in order to gain optimal performance benefits (Macintosh et. al). A comprehensive meta-analysis (Wilson et. al.) of post activation examined multiple variables, including rest periods, and found both rest periods between three to seven minutes and seven to ten minutes to yield significant power increases due to PAP, whereas longer time periods did not.

Contreras, B. (Designer). (2010, 05 4). Post-Activation Potentiation: Theory and Application [Web Drawing].
It’s important to note that the explosive exercise tested in many trials happened to be competitive sprint testing, rather than solely potentiating to bust through lifting plateaus. For this reason, I prefer to keep rest periods within the one- to five-minute range between high intensity resistance exercises and explosive exercises, and I do so with active rest and mobility exercises performed between. A one- to five-minute rest period allows for PAP training stimuli, promoting a higher workout density and sufficient training volume—both important variables.
Obviously, longer rest periods would need to be used following a 3-rep set at 90% of a 1-RM back squat than would be for a 3-Rep set at 80% of a 1-RM. Rest periods should be varied according to training status and load/reps used.


To develop power, intensity must be high enough to produce a potentiation effect. Workloads between 70-95% have shown the greatest positive effects on subsequent explosive exercises, although loads above 80% of a 1-RM appear to have the greatest potentiating effect(4,12).

On explosive exercises that use resistance (if at all), stay light—under 10 pounds. This places focus on moving fast and speed development.


Volume is tricky when it comes to PAP. Too much and you risk fatigue and limited PAP response. Too little and there isn’t a large enough training response for your ambitious goals.

“So what do I do?”

Volume can be achieved in a few ways: 1) by increasing the number of total sets, 2) by increasing the reps in each set, or 3) both. Gilbert and Lees (2005) found that performing as few as one set (and up to five sets) of an exercise has been successful in eliciting potentiation. In turn, Gullich and Schmidtbleicher (1996) found that sets consisting of greater than five total repetitions or five seconds of total contraction time are not advisable because of the fatigue induced.

In most cases, I prefer three to five sets of three repetitions. Do three sets if you’re shooting more for strength/power gains and five sets if you’re aiming for hypertrophy and more power endurance.

The Workout Program

Complexes maximize workout efficiency by combining a strength movement with an explosive movement. By maximizing the rate of force development (RFD), you will blast past stubborn plateaus and reach uncharted levels of muscular development, power, and strength. Here’s a six-week progression to sample:

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Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 4.59.02 PM


Movement Focus ⇒ Squat Pattern

Strength: Squat
Mobility: Ankle/Hip Mobilization
Explosive: Countermovement Vertical Jump
Accessory Work: Vertical Pulling, Pressing, and Sled Work

Movement Focus ⇒ Horizontal Press

Strength: Close-Grip Bench Press
Mobility: T-Spine Mobilization
Explosive: Supine Medicine Ball Chest Pass
Accessory Work: Single Leg, Hinge Pattern, and Weighted Carries/Offset Loading

Active Recovery/Off

Movement Focus ⇒ Hinge Pattern

Strength: Deadlift
Mobility: T-Spine/Hip Mobilization
Explosive: Broad Jump
Accessory Work: Horizontal Pulling, Horizontal Pressing, Sled Work

Movement Focus ⇒ Overhead Press Pattern/Olympic Lift

Strength: Split Jerk
Mobility: T-Spine/ Hip Mobilization
Explosive: Overhead Medicine Ball Press-Throw
Accessory Work: Squat Pattern, Single Leg, Weighted Carries/Offset loading
Wrap Up

Unleash the power of complex training to shatter your plateaus. As Yuri Verkhoshansky described PAP, “Imagine lifting a half-full can of water that you thought was full.” In other words, your jumps will feel like you are jumping on a trampoline after an extra scoop of pre-workout powder in your shaker cup.

The combinations included are by no means an end-all, but it’s important to match the movement patterns of the strength exercise and the explosive exercise. I wouldn’t advise training this way for long bouts of time, but strategically-planned complex cycles will add plates to the bar, new found power, and pack on new slabs of muscle.


Contreras, B. (Designer). (2010, 05 4). Post-Activation Potentiation: Theory and Application [Web Drawing]. Retrieved from
French DN, Kraemer WJ, Cooke CB. Changes in dynamic exercise performance following a sequence of preconditioning isometric muscle actions. J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Nov;17(4):678-85.
Gilbert, G, and Lees, A. Changes in the force development characteristics of muscle following repeated maximum force and power exercise. Ergonomics 48: 1576–1584, 2005.
Gullich AC and Schmidtbleicher D. MVC-induced short-term potentiation of explosive force. N Stud Athlete 11: 67-81, 1996.
Hamada T, Sale DG, MacDougall JD, Tarnopolsky MA. Postactivation potentiation, fiber type, and twitch contraction time in human knee extensor muscles. J Appl Physiol. 2000 Jun;88(6):2131-7.
Hilfiker R, Hübner K, Lorenz T, Marti B. Effects of drop jumps added to the warm-up of elite sport athletes with a high capacity for explosive force development. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):550-5.
Horwath, R., & Kravitz , L. (n.d.). postactivation potentiation: A brief review. Informally published manuscript, Exercise Science , Retrieved from folder/postactivationUNM.html
Macintosh BR and Rassier DE. What is fatigue? Can J Appl Physiol 27: 42-55, 2002.
McCann, MR and Flanagan, SP. McCann, MR and Flanagan, SP. The effects of exercise selection and rest interval on postactivation potentiation of vertical jump performance. J Strength Cond Res 24(5): 1285-1291, 2010
Rixon KP, Lamont HS, Bemben M. Influence of type of muscle contraction, gender, and lifting experience on postactivation potentiation performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2007; 21: 500–505.
Robbins, D.W. Postactivation potentiation and its practical applicability: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res. 2005, 19(2): 453-458.
Saez de Villarreal, E.S., Gonzalez-Badillo, J.J. & Izquierdo, M. (2007). Optimal warm-up stimuli of muscle activation to enhance short and long-term acute jumping performance. Eur J Appl Physiol, 100 (4), 393-401.
Wilson JM, Duncan NM, Marin PJ, Brown LE, Loenneke JP, Wilson SM, Jo E, Lowery RP, Ugrinowitsch C.Meta-analysis of postactivation potentiation and power: effects of conditioning activity, volume, gender, rest periods, and training status. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):854-9. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2bdb.