One of the hottest recent topics in the world of High School Strength and Conditioning, it has exploded in popularity amongst the rank and file coaching world.
To be clear, we are not talking about the efficacy of In-Season training and the consistency of strength training through a competitive schedule. Rather, we are referencing the quickly growing trend of high school coaches who seek to use a targeted weight training session as a direct and immediate precursor to improved athletic performance on the field of competition.
In a relatively short amount of time, the common convention has shifted from one extreme to another:
“Lifts should occur as far before competition as possible” → “We lift on Game day to give our team an advantage”
With such a drastic swing in popular opinion over such a short time, we thought it’s worth a deep dive into ALL the facts surrounding “GameDay Lifts” and their possible use and benefit. (If you haven’t already, check out our podcast on the GameDay Lifts.)
“GameDay Lifts” vs. Lifting on Game Day
Before we do anything else, let’s first clarify the VERY important distinction between lifting for a perceived benefit during a following competition, and performing a standard developmental lift on the same day you play a game.
The “GameDay Lift” is meant to incite better performance in the moment, the science of which we will dive into in a moment.
However, sometimes, game day performance isn’t the actual priority.
Sometimes, there are circumstances at the High School level, and even the elite level, that warrants a lift performed on the day of a game.
For example, a Freshman soccer player engaged in his or her first bout of consistent strength training may benefit far more from additional days of training and less of a focus on competitive results. It would be hard for any multi-sport athlete to develop over their initial months and years of training if they were perpetually considered “in-season”.
Maybe, younger athletes are less “in-season” than they are in the developmental process – with their sport seasons taking a back seat. Getting 3 days of training in a week may trump any competition schedule or desire for performance on the field in the moment.
Additionally, some sports are less taxing. Your JV baseball team may not exert themselves as much during a competition due to the nature of the game and/or the number of athletes and substitutes. These athletes may achieve more benefits from spending more time in the weight room, adding in lifting sessions rather than removing them.
In each scenario, a coach is placing greater emphasis on strength & athletic development than performance during competition.
We are actually great proponents of providing more training for athletes who don’t play much, or play at a lower level, as they are still in a developmental stage and the extra training won’t take away from the game since they don’t participate much.
However, when it comes to the rising concept of “GameDay lifts”, it is very much a different scenario. Instead, coaches are having athletes lift prior to games for a perceived ergogenic aid.
We’re talking in-the-moment performance, not development.
The Rise of GameDay Lifts
For decades, In-Season strength training has been a consistent staple of great programs. This training included carefully selected strength exercises to preserve a resiliency to injury and maintain maximal strength & power output during competition.
In fact, this approach to training has been widely regarded as an essential component in all athletic seasons.
In-Season Strength Training: Maintaining strength levels during a competitive season in order to reduce susceptibility to injury.
Over the past year or two, however, a new facet of In-Season training has risen…
The “GameDay Lift.”
A “GameDay Lift” is a specifically programmed weight workout, performed in a specific window of time prior to competition, intended to elicit a biological response that results in improved performance on the field.
Most simply, Coaches across the country are using maximal intensity movement at low volume as a stimulus to “wake the team up” before a competition.
Proponents of this new training protocol are pioneering an attempt to harness the power of “PAP”, or “Post-Activation Potentiation”, and the biological response found in humans after physical activity.
Here, at the concept of PAP, though, is where the murkiness begins.
Specific exercises DO, in fact, cause excitement of the body and mind. BUT, the research and reality of its application are far more complicated than a simple yes or no use case.
All Hail Post-Activation Potentiation
So, what the heck is PAP, really?
Officially, PAP is the documented excitation of the central nervous system producing an increase in contractile function, following a heavy load lifting stimulus (3). It is a phenomenon by which the potential force exerted by a muscle is increased in subsequent attempts due to previous contraction (1).
So, even more basically…lift something heavy, and your muscles and nervous system will be better primed to do so again afterwards.
Not to get too science-y here, but PAP is believed to be the sum of 3 specific biological reactions:
- An increase in Phosphorylation of the regulatory light chains — which means an increase in the cross-bridge cycling rate or how quickly you can produce force (4,5)
- An increase in potentiated H-reflex excitability — which in turn means increased recruitment of high-order motor neurons, leading to faster and more forceful muscle contractions (4,5,9)
- A decrease in the pennation angle of the muscle fibers — which is an advantage as more force can be transferred through the tendon and eventually to the bone (3,4,5)
To cause such a reaction, athletes must perform compound strength or power movements (the back squat or power clean, for example), using loads of 80% or greater, relative to their 1 Rep Max, for just 1 to 2 reps and sets (1-5).
This resulting excitation or “alertness” is temporary, but can cause significant improvements in explosive movement (particularly countermovement jumps), sprint speed, and throwing ability (1-9).
Sounds Great! Though, I feel like there is a “but” coming…
Considerations for PAP Application in Athletics
While the results of PAP excitation seem to be nothing but beneficial to athletics and performance, there are a number of additional considerations that must be made when attempting to utilize it in a team setting, especially with high schoolers.
Small Window of Opportunity – Timing & Duration
Perhaps the most notable conclusion in the research that is worth your consideration is the timing and duration of the desired effect.
In fact, the window for potentiation (excitement) peaks at about 6 minutes post-lift, and has completely dissipated by the 14-minute mark (4,9). It has been suggested that such timing of peak potentiation is because it is the period in which light-chain myosin remains phosphorylated, creating a contraction “memory” and fatigue has subsided (7).
This window of opportunity has been coined: the ‘‘fitness-fatigue model’ (4,5). To further complicate things, this window is also HIGHLY dependent upon the exercise (different exercises cause different fatigue rates) and training status of the athlete (e.g. trained or untrained), all of which call for different protocols to see an effect (4-8).
Because of this ‘window’, it is worth mentioning that in all of the research, PAP has only shown positive results in single event tests (all-out sprint, maximum jump or throw), not repeated events (1-4,7,9).
So, when thinking about team sports, competing in games spanning multiple hours, with on-field warm-up periods beforehand, utilizing PAP through weight training becomes tricky.
Training Status & Amateur Athletes
Furthermore, High School coaches should take into consideration who they are training.
Almost without exception, high school athletes are amateurs – with relatively limited experience in the weight room.
PAP is proven to be less effective, or not effective at all, in amateur athletes; regardless of the type of training method performed (4,7,9).
In fact, PAP effect from lifting protocols may not be effective until the lifter has become elite (10+ years of training experience) and any form of lifting could cause immediate detriment in subsequent performance tests for less trained individuals (8).
Putting aside the effect of nervous system excitation, we must look at the other subsequent effects of training.
We must remember, any form of lifting causes muscle damage, an increase in cortisol, and a decrease in testosterone, no matter the amount thereof or intention of training (4,8,12).
From the research, we know that during any lifting session of maximal muscle contraction, there are a number of other, potentially detrimental, physiological reactions:
- a rapid depletion of creatine
- an accumulation of extracellular potassium
- an increase in intramuscular calcium and hydrogen
All three contribute to a subsequent decrease in force production and strength (8). This problem is greatly intensified with less trained individuals, and the effect can last from several days to even weeks, post lift (7-11,13).
Additionally, beginner lifters will suffer from metabolic fatigue due to decreased storage and availability of energy substrates, and a brief decrease in performance from circulating hormones (8).
Younger populations (22 and younger) generally do recover faster from muscle damage, however, this is often overstated.
Once muscle damage has occurred, regardless of age or amount, there has to be a recovery process in order to repair the damage. It’s during this time, that peak power output, average power output, and maximal strength are compromised, combined with elevated soreness, fatigue and inflammatory markers (14).
To complicate matters further, we also know that on game-days, cortisol levels are already significantly elevated (8,12).
Any additional exhaustion, no matter how small, will be chiefly evident towards the end of the game (e.g. 4th quarter), when fatigue is the single largest factor in determining team success; particularly at the High School level with small teams and limited subs (12).
Long story short, athletes can only excite the CNS enough times before the system becomes exhausted, overloaded, and fatigued – often times resulting in injury or illness in the athlete (13).
If sporting events are 2 hours long or more, and volume on the field is high, a coach must consider whether CNS activation is of benefit relative to any pre-fatigue to muscles, hormones, or energy substrates prior to the start of a game.
Our Approach for High School Athletes
It is of our own personal opinion, here at PLT4M, that the “GameDay lift” may not be the most advantageous approach to maximizing on-field performance.
So what would we do?
DAY OF: Reducing Stressors
Candidly, if we had a team hours before the game, we would try to reduce unnecessary stressors, rather than adding them, such as having them wake up early or changing daily routine to get in a lift.
Instead, we may opt to bring the team into a dark, quiet room, and have them lower their heart rates with breathing techniques to activate their parasympathetic (calming) nervous system, all while having them visualize their jobs on the field or court (footwork, plays, or winning).
This will drop stress-hormone levels and improve their ability to control their emotions (13). Moreover, visualization training and anticipating success has been strongly correlated to success on the field (15). Lastly, enhanced breathing warmup techniques can improve performance on the field by up to 15% (16).
Additionally, self-myofascial release performed on game day could be an advantageous use of time, as this has been demonstrated to significantly improve performance markers.
With foam rolling, heart rate does not rise above the top end of resting – an example of effective exercise that DOES NOT increase fatigue, yet improves performance, and gives the athletes a sense of “feeling good” before a game (17).
Most significantly, there is no damage done to muscles that are about to be taxed.
PRE GAME: PAP in the Warm-Up
This does NOT mean that the concept of PAP is completely moot in our minds.
There are techniques to using the post-activation potentiation response to your advantage that does not impact fatigue on athletes; namely using CNS stimuli during the official pre-game warm-up.
A proper warm-up targets a few necessary conditions, increasing the following:
- heart rate
- body temperature
- respiration rate
- blood flow
- joint viscosity
All of which, in turn, means faster muscle contractions and relaxations, improvements in the rate of force development and reaction time, improvements in muscle strength and power, improvements in oxygen delivery, and enhancements in metabolic reactions to name a few (17,18,19).
Moreover, a systematic warmup will progress from general movements (raising overall heart rate, respiratory rate), to specific exercises the sport or athlete will face.
During the specific phase, joint range of motion and similar isolating mimicking exercises are used to prime the body, muscles and tendons (18,19). (Examples could be A-Skips, glute bridges, hip or hamstring activation exercises, rotator ROM movements).
During the final phase, short sprints, explosive plyometrics, agility training, and change of direction drills are used to elicit PAP.
In fact, using elements of plyometrics (both bilateral and unilateral) have been found to improve subsequent sprint and vertical results, suggesting that by simply adding in forms of jumping or bounding into the final stage of a warm-up, coaches could theoretically take advantage of this phenomenon (19-22).
That being said, while research has demonstrated significant improvements using this technique in warming up, how this will affect the course of a match lasting several hours has yet to be determined.
But what about the professional athlete I saw on Social Media, lifting on the day of a game?
Inevitably, this discussion always leads to a response about Michael Jordan’s game day training, or professional MLB athletes lifting on game day, and how this must be proof as to the power of “Gameday Lifts” for performance enhancement.
In reality, the strength coach is simply navigating a 160-game schedule, complete with travel days and other professional obligations. Sometimes, maintaining consistent strength training to prevent injury may trump game schedules and individual performance in a given day.
Just like with developmental athletes at the High School level, sometimes, the priority is NOT maximal performance in the moment.
Outside of clinical research, rehabilitation scenarios, or during contrast training, there are little to no concrete examples of elite athletes using a PAP to gain a competitive advantage in competition or training.
Even for elite athletes, many unique factors come into play and designing a program to maximize the PAP effect. It is this individualized dose-response that is difficult to control for, to say the least.
Somewhat similar training has been used by elite track and field coaches and athletes who follow a periodized tapering program and perform a maximal intensity lift on the same day or just prior to their track and field event.
PAP has also been documented to improve single event swim sprints, and bat swings in baseball, but implementation during a sporting competition is far and few between (10, 11).
Most often, the cost-benefit ratio of lifting weights just prior to a game outweigh any temporary benefit. The added stress, the logistics, the temporariness of PAP, and the difference in results per athlete – it all means the concept is best left in controlled, clinical environments.
This is the conclusion that S&C coaches and exercise scientists agree on: PAP is powerful, but implementing a protocol outside of training, for use around competition, is practically impossible and potentially detrimental.
Wrapping it All Up
We know we threw a lot at you, here, but we really wanted to do the topic justice. “GameDay Lifts” are a complicated, multi-faceted concept that deserve a truly deep dive.
In our humble opinion, what this whole discussion boils down to, is simply a complete consideration of ALL the circumstances at play in any situation.
- Who is the athlete in question?
- Is development a priority, or performance in a given event?
- What are the timing, duration, and logistics involved in the competition day?
There is no one answer for all.
As a football coach, for example…
Perhaps, during school on Fridays in the fall, you are training your underclassmen as “developmental athletes” with full lifts, and your Varsity Athletes/Starters as “competitive athletes” with lower-key stress-reduction.
Then, during the on-field pre-game, you utilize such a warm up as described above, designed to induce PAP responses and “light up” the entire team for competition.
Or, let’s say your a PE teacher who meets with athletes every day of the week…
First, you separate out your developmental athletes from experienced athletes. The former get consistent weight training education regardless of sport schedule. The latter get true “In-Season” lifts on days when competition does not take place.
For the experienced athletes truly focused on the day’s competition, you can regiment a formal game day protocol that relieves stress and prevents undue fatigue:
- 5 minute easy steady state cardio
- 15 minute total body dynamic warmup progression
- 15 minute foam roll
- 5-10 minutes of static stretching
Each section should be explicitly planned and prescribed, down to each movement and its duration. This should take at least 45 minutes but can be stretched as long as needed, as it shouldn’t be rushed in the first place.
In the end, personalization, with consideration for all the factors involved, is the key.
Inevitably, everyone will have their own take and opinion based on the research at hand. BUT, as with anything in terms of training, the key is to simply use your discretion.
Do you have arguments/questions/comments to add to the discussion? We would love to hear them!