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complex pairs

Discover the Power of Complex Training

[A variation of this article was originally published on EliteFTS.com]

Here’s what you need to know:

1.Post-Activation Potentiation is the driving force behind the benefits of complex training.

2. Complex-pair training, when scheduled in appropriate training blocks, can improve power and rate of force development (RFD).

3.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, stop watching Miley Cyrus twerkin’ it, go pick up heavy stuff, and raid the fridge.

Adding 5 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 s-medium T-shirts no longer get the job done.

You’ve hit the dreaded plateau.

Plateaus will occur in the weight room. Luckily, one strategy reigns supreme in helping you bust through your current levels of strength, power, and muscular development. The time has come to add strategically designed complex training to stimulate explosive growth and strength.

Enter complex-pair training, an advanced training strategy to add some spring to your static strength, 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 in 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, so the advanced technique is best used to maximize performance of explosive based activities such as weightlifting, sprinting, jumping and throwing activities (2,6).

Luckily, type 2 muscle fibers are also the muscle fibers with the most potential for muscle growth.

*Note: This is awesome.

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

1.) 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).

Basically, the chemicals in your body that make your muscles contract get hyper sensitive and contract harder. 

2.) 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).

In other words, your nervous system get’s jacked up full go from a heavier exercise that matches the movement pattern of the unweighted movement, such as a power clean. When an explosive exercise such as a vertical jump is performance, the body is primed and ready to fire on all cylinders.  As a result, the fully engaged nervous system powers up your jump to new heights.

The complex pair is then repeated for a number of sets. Over time, this improved neuromuscular efficiency improves the muscles ability to generate power.

It’s fun to be jacked, but the real bad-asses are jacked and explosive. You should have a little pop to go with your physique, not be as soft as melted butter.

Here are some common sample exercise pairings

Main Exercise:                        Explosive Movement:

Bench Press                               Clap Push Up, medicine ball chest pass

Shoulder Press                           Overhead medicine ball slam/ throw

Squat                                          Jump squat, vertical jump, box jump

Deadlift                                      Broad jump, kettlebell swing

Explosive Exercises For Complex Pairs




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, the explosive movement will be performed with more force and a higher rate of force development.

Bingo! Then we have both acute and long-term benefits of PAP.

But how long do we rest?

As it stands there is no uniform agreement about the optimal recovery required between the pre- load stimulus and subsequent muscle performance 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 3-7 minutes and 7-10 minutes to yield significant power increases due to PAP, whereas longer time periods did not.

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.

As a Coach I must work within the time constraints of a typical session. For this reason, I   keep rest periods anywhere from 1-3 minutes between high intensity resistance exercises and explosive exercises, with active rest and mobility exercises performed between. A 1-3 minute rest period allows for PAP training stimuli while promoting a higher workout density and sufficient training volume, both important variables.

complex training

(Contreras, Post-Activation Potentiation: Theory and Application)


To develop power, training 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% 1-RM have appear to have the greatest potentiating effect(4,12). In explosive exercises that use resistance (if at all) stay light, under 10 lbs. This places focus on moving fast and speed development.


Volume is a 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, by increasing the number of sets total, the reps in each set, or both. Gilbert and Lees (2005) found performing as few as one set, and up to five sets, of an exercise has been successful in eliciting potentiation.

Gullich and Schmidtbleicher (1996) found sets consisting of greater than five total repetitions or 5 seconds of total contraction time are not advisable because of the fatigue induced.

In most cases, I use 3-5 sets of 3 repetitions. Do 3 Sets if you’re shooting more for strength/power gains and 5 sets if you’re aiming for hypertrophy and more power endurance.

Complex Training 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.

A Sample 6 Week Progression may look something like this:

Week Load Sets/Reps(Strength Movement) Sets/Reps(explosive) Rest Between strength/ explosive movement
1 80% 5X4 5×4 60 s
2 85% 5X3 5×5 90s
3 90% 4X3 4×6 120s
4 (back off) 85% 3X3 3×3 60s
5 90% 5X2 5×5 90-120s
6 95% 5X2 5×4 120-150s


Monday: Movement Focus Squat Pattern

1a. Strength: Squat

1b. Mobility: Ankle/ Hip Mobilization

  1. Explosive: Countermovement Vertical Jump

Accessory Work: Vertical pulling, pressing, sled work


Tuesday: Movement Focus Horizontal Press

1a. Strength: Close Grip Bench Press

1b. Mobility: T-Spine Mobilization

1c. Explosive: Supine Medicine Ball Chest Pass

Accessory Work: Single leg, hinge pattern, weighted carries/ offset loading


Wednesday: Active Recovery/Off


Thursday: Movement Focus Hinge Pattern

1a. Strength:Deadlift

1b. Mobility: T-Spine/ Hip Mobilization

1c. Explosive: Broad Jump

Accessory Work: Horizontal Pulling, horizontal pressing, sled work


Friday:Movement Focus Overhead Press Pattern/ Olympic Lift

1a. Strength: Split Jerk

1b. Mobility: T-Spine/ Hip Mobilization

  1. 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 strength training 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 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.


1.)Contreras, B. (Designer). (2010, 05 4). Post-Activation Potentiation: Theory and Application [Web Drawing]. Retrieved from http://bretcontreras.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/capture.jpg

2.)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.

3.)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.

4.)Gullich AC and Schmidtbleicher D. MVC-induced short-term potentiation of explosive force. N Stud Athlete 11: 67-81, 1996.

5.)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.

6.)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.

7.)Horwath, R., & Kravitz , L. (n.d.). postactivation potentiation: A brief review. Informally published manuscript, Exercise Science , Retrieved from http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article folder/postactivationUNM.html

8.)Macintosh BR and Rassier DE. What is fatigue? Can J Appl Physiol 27: 42-55, 2002.

9.)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

10. 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.

11.)Robbins, D.W. Postactivation potentiation and its practical applicability: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res. 2005, 19(2): 453-458.

12.)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.

Complex Pair Training: PAP Explained

I’m officially half of a Complex Pair– married, tan, and still awful at Spanish…which didn’t work out well with the taxi drivers in Mexico. All in all I was in Mexico and Minneapolis for the better part of two weeks getting married and honeymooning. Everything was great as I used the time to enjoy time with my wife, refresh my mind, and rest my body with cheese-cake, push-ups, and cervezas.

Note: (As a result, I felt like a ball of fail and was kindly greeted by double leg cramps during squats today.)

complex pair, pap, Complex Pair training

Fitness is an industry…

filled with trends and troughs. Some fancy-pants method pops into the limelight and becomes THE magical way to rapid results and then magically disappears overnight. Only the time-tried and best methods last long-term.

Case in point, Complex pair training.

Also known as Post Activation Potentiation (P.A.P.), complex pair training is an advanced method that utilizes a light, explosive movement (i.e. speed: Jumping) paired with a heavy movement ( heavy squat, >80% 1-RM) to increase nervous system activation, strength, and total power.

Sounds pretty badass, right? It is, but it’s also very advanced; requiring planning and some beastmode skills to maximize it.

post-activation potentiation, PAP, complex pairs, Complex Pair training
Still some power in those hops!

Today I’m sharing my own spectacular iteration on complex pair training on Elitefts. For advanced athletes complex training provides a great recipe to shatter plateaus in athletic, strength, and muscular development. Plus, there’s a bomb-diggity complex pair workout program included.

Complex Pair Training: What you need to know:

  1. Post-Activation Potentiation is the driving force behind the benefits of complex pair training.
  2. Complex-pair training can improve power and rate of force development (RFD).
  3. 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.
  4. Adding five pounds to the bar each workout might work when you’re a rookie, but not once you’ve advanced as a trainee.

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…

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 spring to your static training, produce new slabs of muscle, and develop a powerful physique.

This advanced strategy combines 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 phenomenon known as post-activation potentiation.


What Is Post-Activation Potentiation? Click me and Find out 🙂

Dirty 30: Twigs To Tree Trunk Legs

The last few posts we talked about quick workouts: 30-minute fast-moving workouts to blast a body part in minimal time.

The feedback back has been an uproariously positive both here and on Facebookso thanks for being awesome. In case you haven’t been hangin’ around you can see yesterdays workout right here. >> 30 Minute Back Blitz <<

30 minutes is plenty of time to promote explosive growth and shred body fat: Especially when you’re blasting squats, jumps, and lunges.

Bach Performance Twigs to Tree Trunk Legs
PhotoCredit: www.niashanks.com/2011/08/train-like-a-girl-weekend-recap/

A balanced physique goes a long way towards a completely awesome body, and no area of the body is consistently neglected like the legs.

Guys with athletic and muscular legs…ergh butts grab the attention of females because a well-developed lower body screams power, confidence, and athleticism.

Similiarily, ladies with toned and shapely legs are the ultimate display of feminine strength and beauty.

This lower body blitz consists of compound exercises combined in super-sets to build strength, muscle, and burn fat. No leg extensions here! You’ll go from Twigs to Tree Trunks in less time than it takes driving to the gym.

This workout utilizes a highly effective strategy known as the contrast method. The contrast method combines heavy loaded exercises with explosive exercises performed in pairs. The contrast method utilizes the phenomena of PAP, which improves motor-unit recruitment and stimulates more muscle fibers.

30 Minute Muscle Building Tree Trunks Workout


Superset 1:

Barbell Front Squat: Squats are a staple in great workouts. Front squats challenge the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and core to maintain position while taking stress off of the spine when compared to the back-squat.

Box Jumps: Combining this body-weight jump directly after a high-intensity strength exercise engages the muscles of the legs and train explosive power. Perform three sets of 10 reps directly after sets on the front squat. Be conservative with your box height and focus on landing in solid, stable position.

Superset 2:

Back Squats:Back squats place a greater emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes than the front squat. Perform one set of 10-15 reps with the heaviest weight you can handle, this should be NEAR failure.

Body weight jump squats: Immediately following your set of squats perform 1 all-out set of jump squats for 60 seconds. Rest one or two minutes and proceed to the next superset.

Superset 3:

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts: This hip-dominant lower body exercise blasts the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. Perform three sets of eight, moving immediately to the next exercise between sets.

DB Calf Raise: Holding the same dumbbells from the Romanian deadlift immediately proceed to knock out 20 calf-blasting raises. Perform each rep slowly and deliberately rather than bouncing.

Alternating jump lunges: Using your bodyweight assume a lunge position and proceed to perform 20 jumping lunges, 10 on each leg. Stabilize your body between each jump.

This combination of heavy compound exercises, jumps, and varying rep ranges blasts the legs and promotes powerful training response in 30 short minutes.

 The Workout: Twigs to Tree Trunk Legs

1a. Barbell Front Squat 3×5 Rest 0

1b. Box Squat Jumps x8 Rest 60 Seconds

2a. Back Squats 1×10-15+ Rest 0

2b. BW Jump Squats x60-120 seconds

3a. DB RDL 3×8-10 Rest 0

3b. DB Calf Raises3x20 Rest 0

3c. Alternating Jump Lunges 3×20 Rest 1 minute

There you have it: A quick lower session to build powerful, dense legs and develop a fully rounded physique.

72 Hours and Counting

If you’re looking to build muscle, shred some fat, and build a healthy lifestyle I’m opening up my coaching program for a few lucky clients. I want to help you. 

Personal Training, build muscle,shred fat

Apply for the Coaching program today, as the I’m having a short-term Holiday Sale! This rate is normally top-secret and reserved for a few close friends and family, so take advantage before it goes away.  You can check it out here.

What is your go-to legs exercise? Better yet, how to you speed up workouts when short on time? 

photo credit: Gregor Winter via photopin cc

photo credit: Beverly & Pack via photopin cc

Strong. Shredded. Athletic.


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