Today I am going to write about a topic I am very familiar with, complex training and post-activation potentiation (PAP). From the theoretical point of view, I have recently published a research on this topic (find my research here, I was also interviewed about it here. On the practical side, all my customers have performed complex training sets at some point during their programmes.
If you are a reader of my blog, it should be clear by now that increases in strength enhance aerobic performance by decreasing the relative force (%max) applied during the loading phases of ground contact , leading to an improved running economy (http://goo.gl/bgHo17).
However, when it comes to do gym work with a runner, maximal force is not the only component that should be aimed to be improved. Power, that can be defined as the ability to apply force to the ground very quickly, is also an obvious element of a strength & conditioning plan.
Ultimately, we can be very strong, but we have limited time to apply force against the ground, with ground contact times raging from 0.085s for sprinters, 0.180 for elite marathon runners and a bit longer for the average runner. In this scenario, power development seems to be evidently beneficial for a sprinter. However , marginal improvements in each stride adds up over the course of a 26.2 mile race…
Undoubtedly, power is a key element to improve performance and whilst some phases of a S&C programme are solely focused on this element, complex training is a valuable tool that allow us to maintain or develop strength and power simultaneously.
What is complex training?
Complex training involves combining a heavy resistance exercise and a biomechanically-similar explosive exercise, in an attempt to transfer strength into power. The most obvious example of a complex training set incorporates heavy squats followed by box jumps.
How it works?
The physiological rationale that explains the efficiency of complex training is a phenomenon called post-activation potentiation, or PAP. That is, the explosive capability of a muscle is enhanced after it has just been subjected to maximal or near maximal contractions. This acute power augmentation is mainly due to an increased neural activation that occurs through recruitment of more motor units. A motor unit consists of a specialized type of nervous cell that runs between the central nervous system (motor neuron) and all the muscle fibers it stimulates.
I won’t go into further detail about the other possible underlying mechanisms that explains PAP, Yuri Verhoshansky, the well known sport scientist explained PAP in plain English:
“When you perform 3-5 repetitions of a heavy resistance exercise followed by a light explosive set…to your nervous system it’s like lifting a ½ bottle of water when you think its full.”
Why should I incorporate complex training to my strength & conditioning programme?
These are the reasons why I think complex training is a great tool for coaches and I often include complex sets in my S&C programmes:
1) Even though long-distance events have not necessarily been identified as having a major strength or power component, a certain amount of variance in middle- to long-distance running performance can be related to power capabilities in jumping.
The contact times required in economical and high-speed running suggest that fast force production is important for both economical running and high top running speed in distance runners. Hudgings et al. reported that both heavy and explosive resistance training improved maximal endurance in long-distance runners. The present study also indicates that running performance in long-distance events, at least to a certain extent, may also be related to jumping ability as well. As a result, strength and power training should be considered for both sprinters and middle- and long-distance running event athletes.
2) It is an exceptionally time efficient and organized method to incorporate resistance and explosive training in one training session, we can enhance or preserve power while training heavy. Most distance runners are limited by time availability and are unable to perform multiple gym sessions during the week, adding vertical or broad jumps after a set of squats is simple and increases workout density.
3) Promotes dynamic transfer. By combining biomechanically similar exercises, athletes channel more efficient neural patterns by learning to perform the drill in a manner more specific to the athletic activity.
4) It is a great introduction to more complicated plyometric work. Unfortunately, most distance runners devote their training time to just one activity, running. Consequently, when you take them out of their element and ask them to perform a different activity, a simple drill such as jumping onto a box is really challenging. These jumps serve as an introduction to more complicated plyometric work and allow runners to learn proper landing technique. Ensuring proper form with simple drills such as box jumps are key for a safe long-term athletic development.
Recommendations for complex training:
Complex training sets should be performed at a high intensity level for both components, the heavy resistance exercise and the explosive exercise.
The volume of complex training should be low enough to avoid excessive fatigue so the athlete can focus on quality of work performed. 2 to 5 sets of any complex pair are recommended. The athlete does 2-8 reps during the weight training component and 5-10 reps during the plyometric component.
Finally, the precise optimal rest between exercises is really hard to prescribe because the research uses numerous protocols to try to induce power enhancement. It seems that a rest interval between exercises of 1–12 minutes is suitable . The most practical advice would be to base your decisions on the time allotted in the weight room. In my opinion, 1 to 3 minutes of rest between pairs of exercises works great.
Find below samples of exercise pairs to build complex sets:
CATER, J, GREENWOOD, M. Complex Training Reexamined: Review and Recommendations to Improve Strength and Power. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 36 (2). 2014
EBBEN WP AND WATTS PB. A review of combined weight training and plyometric training modes: Complex training. Strength Cond J 20: 18–27, 1998.
HUDGINS, B, SCHARFENBERG, J, TRIPLETT, NT, AND MCBRIDE, JM. Relationship between jumping ability and running performance in events of varying distance. J Strength Cond Res27(3): 563–567, 2013
PAAVOLAINEN, LEENA, KEIJO HAKKINEN, ISMO HAMALAINEN, ARI NUMMELA, AND HEIKKI RUSKO. Explosivestrength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. J. Appl. Physiol.86(5): 1527–1533, 1999.
TURNER, A. Training the aerobic capacity of distance runners: A break from tradition. Strength and Conditioning Journal.Vol 33, No.2, 2011.
WILLIAM P. EBBEN. Maximum Power Training and Plyometrics for Cross-Country Running. National Strength & Conditioning Association. Volume 23, Number 5, pages 47–50
YAMAMOTO, LM, LOPEZ, RM, KLAU, JF, CASA, DJ, KRAEMER, WJ, AND MARESH, CM. The effects of resistance training on endurance distance running performance among highly trained runners: a systematic review. J Strength Cond Res 22(6): 2036–2044, 2008