Post-Tetanic Potentiation: Supercharge Your Fitness Training
This article will detail how you can use the Post Tetanic Potentiation (PTP) principle to optimize physical training for your own purpose. We can use the principle to supercharge training for serious Weightlifters, Powerlifters, Bodybuilders, Strongmen, Crossfitters, or general fitness trainees looking to improve their performance, health, and appearance. I will detail how we can apply PTP in different ways.
What Is PTP?
To use PTP in training, we must first understand what it is:
Post-tetanic potentiation (PTP) is a form of synaptic plasticity which is short-lived and results in increased frequency of miniature excitatory postsynaptic potentials (mEPSPs) or currents (EPSCs) with no effect on amplitude in the spontaneous postsynaptic potential. It usually lasts in the range of several minutes (shorter potentiations are typically referred to as 'augmentations') -Wikipedia
Synaptic plasticity is a neuroscientific concept that refers to the ability of synapses to strengthen or weaken over time in response to increases or decreases in their activity. In the nervous system, a synapse is a structure that permits a neuron (or nerve cell) to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron or the target effector cell. (Wikipedia)
When you move, motor neurons throughout the body communicate via synapses to coordinate motor unit engagement to complete the movement effectively.
According to biologydictionary.net, a neuron is a single nervous system cell that receives, processes, and transmits electrochemical messages to and from other cells. Neurons connect different areas of the central and peripheral nervous systems.
From its types (Sensory, Motor, Interneurons), a motor neuron is a neuron whose cell body is located in the motor cortex, brainstem, or the spinal cord, and whose axon (fiber) projects to the spinal cord or outside of the spinal cord to directly or indirectly control effector organs, mainly muscles, and glands (Wikipedia).
A group of individual muscle fibers that are activated by a single motor neuron is called a motor unit (dummies.com).
Essentially, your brain's motor cortex sends out a signal, which is like a neural blueprint of a particular movement. This signal engages the motor neuron-synapse system, which controls the magnitude, rate, frequency, and sequence of muscle cell contraction-relaxation to complete the action. It is like the function of a large military ship —the captain (motor cortex) makes a decision and sends the message out to the crew (neurons) who activate and communicate (synapses) with each other and use the ship's equipment and tools (muscle fibers) to complete the task.
How your Neuromuscular System Interacts with Force
To understand how the PTP principle supercharges training, we must first understand how the neuromuscular system interacts with force. When you lift a barbell (or dumbbells, kettlebells, bodyweight, weight on cables and pulleys, etc.), you overcome a certain amount of force. The amount of force overcome is the kg (or pounds) multiplied by gravitational acceleration (9.8 meters per second squared); it is measured in the international unit of Newtons (N). For instance, if you bench press 100 kg, you overcome 980 Newton (100 *9.8) of force.
Your motor cortex-nervous system complex only engages the number of motor units necessary to overcome the force you are dealing with in a given movement; the more force you have to overcome, the greater the magnitude, frequency, rate, and sequence complexity of the neural engagement.
Practical Application of PTP
Have you ever walked a distance carrying a heavy load (like a backpack loaded up with textbooks), then noticed after putting it down that you had some pep-in-your-step for a few minutes afterward? This is the most simple example of PTP in action. We can use this principle in the gym in a systematized way to significantly improve training effectiveness.
Intra-Spatial Form PTP
To use the PTP principle as a way to optimize your performance and adaptation from a single spatial form (Bench Press, Powerlifting Squat, Deadlift, Bent Over Row, Dumbbell Raises) in a training session, you simply perform an ascending warmup up to the first main set and lift the heaviest weight for the exercise in that first set. After that, you decrease the weight for each successive set. In this way, each subsequent set is performed in the neural electro-chemical afterglow of the previous heavier set. Since you just lifted a heavier weight, you feel much greater technical control for the next set. This simply makes training feel better, but even more importantly, it makes your technique on each set better, thus driving greater technical mastery and sharper biological adaptation(s). This format is perfect if you desire to develop adaptation(s) to the different intensity and reps ranges (variable metabolic conditioning, Met-Con). Table 1 shows a practical example for a bench press activity for a lifter with a training maximum of 115 kg.
Table 1: Utilization of the PTP principle for a bench press activity.
This format is excellent for a powerlifter in a mass-building period and bodybuilders in all periods. It is also great for non-competitive trainees since it will provide both strength and muscle mass adaptations and the development of muscular endurance across different intensity zones.
We can also use the PTP principle in an inter-spatial-form manner; this is done by performing a spatial form that is heavier in nature before completing a lighter one in a sequence to supercharge the lighter one. An excellent example of this for bodybuilding would be to perform the bench press activity above, followed by a flat dumbbell fly activity. The intra-spatial form PTP principle is applied to the flys as well. Table 2 shows how this would look in training.
Table 2: Application of both intra and inter-spatial form PTP for bodybuilding.
The inter-spatial-form PTP effect works best if the sequential forms are spatially similar or use the same muscle groups. Bench Press is great before dumbbell or cable crossover flys, tricep cable press downs, overhead tricep dumbbell extensions, etc. The seated press is great before all sorts of dumbbell raises for the deltoids. Powerlifting Squat is great before leg extensions, sissy squats, etc. Conventional or Sumo deadlifts are great before upright rows, bent over rows, cable rows, one-arm dumbbell rows, leg curls, etc. Strict curl is great before alternating dumbbell curls, incline dumbbell curls, hammer curls, etc.
PTP For Weightlifting
Serious Weightlifters have used the PTP principle for decades. It is very common for a lifter to perform heavy Olympic back or front squats in training before moving onto snatch or clean & jerk work. It is best to keep the squat reps low to avoid too much fatigue into the highly technical snatch or clean & jerk work for serious weightlifting. Heavy snatch or clean pulls, presses, or conventional deadlifts can also be used like the squats in this fashion. You could also put both a high-intensity/low-rep Olympic Squat and Olympic Press Activity before Clean & Jerk to supercharge the whole body first. Table 3 shows an example of this.
Table 3: The PTP principle applied to Weightlifting in an Olympic Squat - Olympic Press - Clean & Jerk sequence.
Interspatial-form PTP sequences should only be used in weightlifting once technical mastery of the snatch and clean & jerk is proficient.
The PTP principle can be very effective for supercharging athletic techniques in many sports. It is the most potent method in a strength coach’s toolbox when peaking an athlete in a competitive period. The method is implemented utilizing a complex of spatial forms performed in a sequence with little rest (after specific warmups for all are done) in the following order:
Maximum Strength (Max Force) lower body spatial form
Maximum Strength (Max Force) lower body spatial form
Maximum Strength-Speed (Max Power) spatial form
Maximum Speed-Strength spatial form
A practical example of this for a serious Boxer or Mixed Martial Artist is displayed in table 4.
Table 4: A PTP Complex for peaking punching power for a Boxer.
The heavy lifts on the powerlifting squat and bench press drive a very high level of neural integration and force output in the whole body. When the athlete reaches the heavy bag, their power output will be at a near maximal level. A nearly maximal amount of motor units are engaged. They then move to a maximal power (watts) lift in the power clean & jerk. Medicine ball throws follow, which are high power (though not nearly as high as the clean & jerk) and serve as a bridge between the barbell work and the actual sports technique. When they start hitting the heavy bag, they will be doing so with a much higher level of neural integration and power than could ever be done by just punching alone; this is due to Post-Tetanic Potentiation. If this is done across several weeks to peak for a fight, the fighter will eventually be able to punch much harder without doing the heavy lifting beforehand. They will bring this power to the ring/cage on fight night, and we can accomplish this for literally every sport that requires a high power output, including most all bat and ball sports. Gymnasts, dancers, and cheerleaders can even use it.
The PTP principle is the most potent physiological phenomenon that can be exploited in a training program. It is most definitely not being used to its fullest potential in the fitness world. You can use it to supercharge your own training or your trainees’ programs now that you know about it.