S&C

A Guide to Introducing a Post-Activation Potentiation Protocol in Soccer

Sean Flannery

[7-min read]

In a previous blog post I discussed Post-activation Potentiation, or PAP, as a training protocol. The blog highlighted the positive impact of PAP on speed, agility, power etc. in my recent role as Strength and Conditioning Coach with a League of Ireland Club. As evidenced in my previous blog, PAP has many benefits when applied to training and competing in soccer. Depending on the resources you have available in your context, every recommendation may not always be feasible, but drawing on the benefits of PAP in some capacity is always possible.

Introducing a Post-activation Potentiation protocol to maximise performance begins in the gym. As with every sport, preparation and hard work are precursors to success in soccer. Culture, buy-in, and commitment from the players up to the management team are crucial in determining the success of any S&C programme. In this blog, I’ll suggest how aspects of PAP can be implemented in soccer, as well as the barriers or challenges to implementation.

Post-activation Potentiation is based on our muscles and nervous system being primed or pre-loaded to perform well. If we lift at 90% of our max and then reduce the weight to 75% we can make our second set feel as easy as a warm-up set. This is because the body was ready to go full-tilt again and instead channelled all that potential energy into a reduced weight. Essentially, performing a heavy strength movement prior to an explosive exercise helps muscles generate power more effectively.

Introducing a Post-activation Potentiation Protocol in the Gym

When introducing a Post-activation Potentiation Protocol it can be implemented both in the gym and on the pitch in different ways. Ideally, both protocols should complement each other, and both have a place and an important role in soccer. Prior to introducing a Post-activation Potentiation protocol, players should already be benefitting from a well-balanced gym programme. PAP is essentially a manipulation of already established movements, which players should be well-familiar with.

It is the implementation of these common, well-practiced movements in a certain combination or order, which allows the benefit to be reaped. It makes sense to carry out movements you are familiar with so full focus can be on the generation of power as opposed to learning new movements. With inexperienced athletes, for example, this may require utilising jumping lunges instead of box jumps if they haven’t mastered box jumps yet.

Below is a sample of a simple gym-based PAP protocol that could be implemented prior to pitch training or match days. I would like to add the caveat that whilst the below offers a general guideline on implementing a PAP protocol, it would need to be tailored based on an individual’s ability, training age etc.

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Example of a Gym-based PAP Protocol

The benefit of introducing a Post-activation Potentiation protocol is seen on the pitch, with significant well-evidenced improvements in speed, agility and power as discussed in my previous blog. The importance of players developing proficiency in common, relevant movements cannot be underestimated. Without player proficiency, it is impossible to determine 1-rep Max (1RM) or estimated 1RM capacity.

At times it can be viewed as an unnecessary risk to carry out a 1RM as it is a top priority to have players on the pitch and not out of action due to a gym injury, though they are rare when movements are properly supervised and performed correctly.

The priorities of an S&C program are reducing injuries and boosting performance. PAP lends itself to enhancing performance markers. It is important to draw from the benefits of this protocol whilst weighing up the risks in terms of injury. As such it is common practice to perform a 3RM and calculate a 1RM from that. In layman’s terms, the weight a player builds up to in warm-up sets should feel like an 8 out of 10 in terms of their max load.

Introducing a Post-activation Potentiation Protocol on the Pitch

The PAP effect can be generated on the pitch in speed or agility exercises utilising bands, teammates, or sled-provided resistance. Again, similar to the PAP effect generated in the gym, the resistance achieved by an athlete pushing against a teammate, band, or sled creates the desired response. When performed correctly, with appropriate effort, the athlete achieves a boost to certain performance indicators by virtue of the PAP effect. Completing these resistance-based drills in the correct dosage prior to the general speed work will likely have a positive impact on speed and agility-related performance.

When talking about pre-training and pre-match preparation plyometric work such as leaps, bounds, jumps, hops, bilateral or unilateral, are in my opinion crucial in adequately preparing the body to optimally perform from the outset. Again completing these movements on the pitch draws from the principles of PAP, allowing players to reap the benefits on training or match days. 

#1 Resources

It is crucial to highlight that there can at times be a seeming apprehension around the gym and soccer, with a fear that correctly implemented strength work detracts from speed and power, as well as the ability to recover. Players in the League of Ireland are professional or semi-professional athletes, but this does not mean there are always the resources to carefully monitor every relevant aspect of a player’s preparation and lifestyle, such as sleep, hydration, nutrition, and mindset.

In my work with teams or individual athletes I have at times found that the finger is often pointed at gym work when an athlete is feeling fatigued or under-performing, when other relevant, often obvious variables are not being appropriately looked after, such as sleep and hydration. This can be a barrier to implementing training protocols involving lifting heavier weights, as is part and parcel of the PAP protocol.

#2 Buy-in

Without having full buy-in from players, it is very difficult to ascertain a 1RM. There is a significant amount of preparation involved in getting a player to the standard required to safely perform a back squat, for example. In a squad of 20 players, the majority will generally be competent in gym movements relevant to PAP. However, there will always be inexperienced or unwilling athletes who are unable to benefit from a PAP protocol.

#3 Athlete Experience

Players who are inexperienced in more technical movements are encouraged to complete safe bodyweight movements that can elicit a similar but not as potent effect. A negative attitude or mindset around gym work is generally more challenging to overcome, particularly in set-ups with budgetary limitations or a culture of more pitch-based work.

Unfortunately, it is also the case with professional or semi-professional soccer that there is often quite a high turnover of both players and coaches, which does not always allow for trust to be fostered. This lack of consistency in terms of coaching staff can prove a significant barrier to establishing solid foundations in core gym movements, with different coaches having different priority areas. 

#4 Facilities

In an ideal world, the training pitch, gym and match pitch would all be located beside each other, so players can benefit from the application of the protocol in the gym when they are on the pitch. However, this is not the set-up that many of our clubs have at present.

In these instances, I would recommend getting some benefit from PAP on game days by including plyometric work such as jumps, leaps and bounds, double and single leg, into the warm-up. At times there can be again a fear that including plyometric work in the warm-up will serve the opposite effect, draining players as opposed to boosting performance markers. This theory is completely contradictory to all relevant research; however, it is still a mindset that needs to be fully overcome.

Whilst PAP has been well evidenced as lending to great gains in key performance indicators, in my experience overcoming apprehension around gym-related injuries is the biggest barrier in terms of consistent implementation. I have worked with some great athletes and managers down through the years who have had an openness to committing to my recommendations in terms of strength and conditioning.

Many have had great success in their respective sports when recommendations were adhered to fully. Confidence in the process is crucial. In terms of PAP, I would recommend any team or individual to try introducing a Post-activation Potentiation Protocol as a strategy for enhancing performance. In terms of soccer, it is not going to put the ball in the back of the net but it will help a player get into a position to do so. If there is apprehension around introducing a Post-activation Potentiation Protocol, a coach or manager could always carry out a battery of tests with and without a PAP Protocol to assess the benefits and draw their own conclusions.

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About the author

Sean Flannery

Sean Flannery is owner/operator of SFX Sports & Fitness based in Sligo while also managing his role this season as head S&C Coach with Sligo Rovers F.C in the League of Ireland. Sean has worked as an S&C coach for several years, spending two years previously as head of S&C with Sligo Rovers 1st Team from 2016-18. He has also spent three seasons working with Sligo Senior Men's Hurlers where they secured three All-Ireland titles back-to-back. He has coached numerous elite individual athlete's from the north-west region, most notably Irish International swimmer Mona McSharry who was coached for 5 years up to her departure to Tennessee Vols in 2020. Sean has a MSc. in Sports Strength & Conditioning (Limerick Institute of Technology, 2017) and a BSc. in Exercise and Health Fitness (University of Limerick, 2010-2014). Prior to beginning his academic journey Sean spent many seasons playing in the League of Ireland, most notably for Sligo Rovers where he won League Cup honours in 1998 and the 1st Division title in 2005.

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