Potentiation – simply a matter of what loads to use, not so simple.

Charlie Francis, coach to Ben Johnson, described the pre-race routine Ben used. Ben would squat a maximal load in the period before his immediate race warm-up. Such a warm-up routine was indeed common for many Eastern European speed and power athletes during the 1980’s. However, as we all now know Ben’s dramatic 100m victory in the 1988 Olympic games was followed by revelations of a positive drug test. He was stripped of his gold medal as a result.
Even so, Ben’s pre-race routine became a topic of interest and then research years later. The original study on this phenomenon of ‘potentiation’ was conducted in 1996 by Arne Gullich and Dietmar Schmidtbleicher. They showed that if a near maximal load was used in either the bench press or in a leg press isometric contraction that well trained athletes would invariably potentiate or achieve a greater force output in the bench press and in the counter movement jump and drop jump. Since then many coaches have used this routine in the belief that their athletes or players will attain greater force or power outputs. Interestingly, many researchers have taken this potentiation phenomenon as a topic of their research and found that ‘yes indeed’ well trained subjects can achieve greater force outputs following a potentiation warm-up.
However, the original study highlighted at least three key findings which seem to have been forgotten by subsequent researchers. Firstly, Gullich and Schmidtbleicher noted that if the athlete or player was involved in anaerobic type training (such as interval training) on the previous day then a reduction in performance with little or no potentiaion was the likely outcome. They emphasized that if speed-strength training were to occur 24 hours after heavy anaerobic training (such as sprint intervals) then one should not expect any potentiation or indeed one could not reach the normal maximal force levels.
Secondly, the effort required to enduce a potentiation effect was maximal. This required an effort of 100% of maximum effort in the isometric leg press or isometric bench press where the initial effort or contraction is also maximal. Gullich and Schmidtbleicher also noted that 3 repetitions was sufficient to gain a potentiated effect.
Finally, and what appears to have only been studied by a few researchers, the time lapse between the maximal effort and the subsequent explosive performance could last for up to 20 minutes for some athletes. Further, some athletes would not attain their potentiated levels until several minutes after the maximal effort. Thus determining the time period on an individual basis following the maximal effort was seen as critical in ensuring that the athlete attained this enhanced force or power output.

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