Technique of the Week- Potentiation Sets

Technique of the Week- Potentiation Sets



Potentiation serves to "prime" the neuromuscular system, increasing force/power generation as well as decreasing psychological inhibition during subsequent bouts. Used correctly, Potentiation Sets (PS) can potentially lead to greater muscle activation, improved performance, and increased muscle growth.

Slowly work up to a weight that is ~110-150% of your target load for volume work (this will depend on %1RM of target load). Perform a single rep at ~7-8RPE with as much power as possible. This should NOT be systemically fatiguing. Then drop back down to your planned load and perform your volume-additive sets.



⁣Counterintuitively, progression should not be the goal on PS. Instead, look to the subsequent work for markers of progress. Volume load increasing over time is a good indication that PS is fulfilling its role.



In start contrast to traditional intensity techniques that we’ve covered in previous weeks, PS are more abstract in their effects. This means that even though the mechanisms by which they should work are sound, tangible progress is still not a function of the PS itself but rather the volume work done after (as mentioned above).

Having said that, Advanced athletes who have exhausted other means and are looking for that extra hypertrophic edge will be the best candidates here. The caveat remains that this technique is mostly experimental in the bodybuilding realm and should be approached as such. 

Additionally, PS might be particularly useful for those with psychological blocks or anxiety with training. This can occur for a multitude of reasons (that we need not dissect here), but the use of a PS can boost confidence and calm nerves before volume work with near-maximal loads.



It should go without saying that PS are contraindicated in beginners and intermediates.

In the advanced demo, those with fragile technique, inaccurate intensity gauging, poor nervous system recovery, and/or lacking a foundational work capacity should steer clear of PS until these limitations are addressed.



Volume blocks or hybrid phases (i.e. power building or blocks of training that commingle strength/hypertrophy goals) are best suited for PS. Another useful time to consider using PS would be during phases of specific technical work or for strength athletes looking to maintain technical prowess with high absolute loads while shifting to volume.

Due to the mechanisms by which PS work, it’s best to only use the technique with one movement in a single session, preferably the primary exercise that progressive overload is being applied to.



When nervous system recovery is paramount, time is a constraint, absolute intensity is the primary driver of progression (rather than volume), or during periods of intentional fatigue-reduction, PS are contraindicated.



The concept of PS is much easier than the correct application.

First, we need an exercise that is bilateral, stable, efficient, and tolerant of high absolute and relative intensities. In most cases, this movement will also be multi-joint and free-weight to increase the neuromuscular “priming” effect. (Note that machines/cables and single-joint variations CAN be used but they’re going to have a dampened systemic output comparatively). Traditional “strength” based movements will be the best candidates for use as well as correlates that mimic them, especially less risky alternatives (e.g. Smith Squat instead of Barbell Squat, Smith Bench Press instead of Barbell Bench Press, etc). 

Getting the load of the PS right is a challenging task. Undershooting load/intensity won’t create the necessary “priming” effect. Overshooting it will be unproductively fatiguing and reduce the subsequent volume load. When the load being used for the volume work is a lower %1RM, there is a higher margin for error and vice versa. Therefore, it is good practice to have a clear and conservative number in mind (in terms of predicted PS load) the first time this technique is used with adjustments to be made in the following weeks.


1)Conventional Deadlift- Slowly work up to a single rep with 500lbs @8RPE; Then reduce the load to 405lbs and perform 3 sets of 6/5/5 reps, respectively

2)Barbell Bench Press- Slowly work up to a single rep with 315lbs @8RPE; Then reduce the load to 275lbs and perform 4 sets of 4/4/3/3 reps, respectively

3)Box Squat- Slowly work up to a single rep with 455lbs @8RPE; Then reduce the load to 365lbs and perform 3 sets of 8/6/6 reps, respectively



We can take the reciprocal of the above guidelines to create a “do not” list: avoid variations that are unstable, have a taxing set-up,  inefficient power output, unilateral, or have a higher risk than is acceptable. The name of the game here is maximal motor unit recruitment and to achieve this, we need a very controlled environment. If the exercise chosen has inherent limitations on power output or is contraindicated with low-rep work, we should not attempt to use it for PS.

Another important aspect here is the specifics of the intensity and volume of PS: ~8RPE and one rep, respectively. And this is for a reason! Ideal intensity here is shaped like a bell curve; deviating in either direction has progressively diminishing (or negative) effects. Likewise, doing more than a single rep is unnecessarily fatiguing, risky, and counterproductive to the overarching goal.

On a macro level, PS is best implemented in very specific spurts of 4-6 weeks MAX—and only for very specific use cases. The load being used for PS does NOT need to be increased or progressed week-to-week as this would too closely resemble max-effort work. Instead, use the same load (once the perfect load is found) and attempt to move it faster and with better technique. Best practices would see PS used for a single block (I.e. 4-6 weeks) then cycled off for at least 2-3 blocks (i.e. 10-16 weeks).


1)Flat DB Press- Too unstable and energetically wasteful

2)Bulgarian Split Squats- Unilateral movements are contraindicated with PS

3)Leg Press- (Slowly work up to a single rep with 500lbs @10RPE; Then reduce the load to 455lbs and perform 3 sets of 5/3/2 reps, respectively)- Though the variation is viable, the PS was too intense causing carry-over fatigue to the volume work that limited, rather than amplified, performance



-⁣Increased power output (as compared to no PS)

-Decreased psychological inhibition and anxiety

-Increased potential volume load (as compared to no PS)

-Doubles as technical practice with near-maximal, low-rep work

-Combines specific strength and hypertrophy work in a unique way that limits the typical conflation effects



-Difficult to measure if tangible progress is being made

-Narrow applicability for trainees

-Fine-line between the PS being understimulating (thus ineffective), just right, and overstimulating (thus fatiguing)

-Relatively limited choice of exercise selection

-Limited duration of use means less margin for error

-Potential for injury is relatively high compared to other intensity techniques

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