BY LEE WINER Juggernaut
“WHAT I GAVE I HAVE, WHAT I DIDN’T GIVE IS GONE FOREVER”- DAN DEVINE
The use of velocity-based metrics and their incorporation in training has been around for some time now, dating back to Soviet researchers who were trying to understand what optimal weight was to be used for a variety of training exercises, and who used velocity of the barbell to determine the loading parameters. In a sport setting, the use of velocity-based resistance training has been shown to improve performance on sport-specific tests such as the squat jump and its relation to vertical jump, 10m sprint, and horizontal jump improvement, among others. Let’s look at a couple of quick formulas for moving forward.
Power = Force X Velocity
Force = Mass X Acceleration
This type of measurement is used in combination with improving the athlete’s rate of force development. Rate of force is simply the speed at which force can be produced, which is pretty important in athletics. It helps the coach or athlete understand if there is a transference of skills in power, speed, or endurance relative to desired goals for a sport.
Before beginning to dig into velocity-based training, it is important to note I did not come up with any of this. I have simply enjoyed the concept and utilize it with some of my athletes who have earned the right to implement this type of training into their programming. Much more research needs to be done in this area of velocity-based training. The figures and facts presented are due to current work being done by Dr. Bryan Mann, Dr. Mario Marques, Henk Kraaijenhof, as well as information based in old Soviet texts (Verkoshanky, Roman) that have been translated and adapted for use, as well as some client data I have collected.
Let’s use a quick example so that we have a basic understanding of what velocity-based training is. I am coaching an athlete, and we are trying to develop his/her strength-speed with squats. The velocity-based training device I am using says the athlete moved the bar at 0.35, when our desired range of meters per second (m/s) is 0.8-1.0 for developing strength-speed(more on this below). There is now objective feedback to both the coach and athlete showing that the load is too heavy and needs to be adjusted so that the athlete can continue to squat in the 0.8-1.0 range, developing the quality we want at that time (strength-speed/power output). There is no guesswork, and the athlete cannot dispute the reading. Numbers don’t lie. This can be applied to a whole range of exercises among the force velocity curve, of which we will discuss below.
One of my mentors, Dr. Zourdos, always said that our goal is to go after what is optimal in training but that “optimal” is an illusion. Our goal as coaches is to get the athlete as close to that theory of optimal as possible. For the athlete, this translates to the goal of developing force as quickly as possible necessary for their sport, improving one trait while ensuring maintenance of another or recovering as quickly as possible for the next training session or simply ensuring consistent performance across a competitive in-season. As they say: Hit hard. Hit fast. Hit last.
WHAT IS IT?
Velocity-based training is a way for coaches and athletes to maximize training for that session based on cumulative stressors. In a simpler sense, you can use it as a form of auto-regulation for athletes to optimize training goals. Instead of using rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or percentage-based training off a 1RM that may be outdated, inaccurate, or no longer relevant due to changes in stressors, the loading is adapted based on the velocity of the barbell or piece of equipment. The weight is then loaded/unloaded as the training goes on to stay within the range desired, developing the traits we want to see improved, or the particular exercise sets/reps are stopped when the percentage rate drop-off between sets exceeds the loss parameters. The reason why auto-regulation and velocity-based training is becoming more popular is because coaches are finally realizing that every athlete is different. Not only that, but depending on the athlete, goals may be different in terms of the traits we want to develop. This is often reflected within sports that have multiple positions requiring different abilities (outfielder vs. pitcher, lineman vs. wide receiver).
Many athletes are high school- or college-aged and dealing with a host of stressors and life situations that affect the athlete at a physiological level unbeknownst to them. Let’s use the earlier example of strength-speed squats. Tim is a college-age athlete that is currently studying for mid-terms, hasn’t gotten great sleep because of this, and just broke up with his girlfriend. The reason Tim is having a different day of training could be due to all of these various stressors that are affecting him at a physiological level. Basing our training off Tim’s 1RM that happened before mid-terms and while Tim was still happily in the throngs of college love isn’t the most “optimal” way of approaching his training for performance.
The velocity-based measuring device or training system takes all of these stressors into account without the athlete needing to focus on what is affecting his or her training. Athletes know when they have a good or bad training session, but cannot quantify it; with VBT, we can. Our VBT will tell us if the athlete is having an “off” day, or conversely, if the athlete is “feeling it” and we can then load up more than we had planned or thought, provided they stay within the desired average m/s range for that trait, stressing the neural adaptations in a productive way. Additionally, during in-season, it can help coaches to monitor the athlete’s variables important to performance such as fatigue, readiness, recovery, and more.
Studies have proven that a loss in velocity can be directly tied to neuromuscular fatigue (NMF). With that in mind, being able to understand when an athlete is done with a particular exercise and ready to move onto the next can be tied to a decrease in velocity where a percentage loss is the judgment call for the experienced coach and includes the velocity loss from the first rep to last rep, or first set to current set.
Within this construct, it will be helpful to understand the Force-Velocity curve (shown below) and what qualities these ranges develop.
As you can see from the diagram, the meters per second readings or velocity readings develop certain traits, as I explained above. Force and velocity have an inverse relationship due to the fact that as your weight/load goes up (force), the speed at which you lift will slow down (velocity). For athletes, it is helpful to understand the velocity continuum in this way; when you are training with a high load, your velocity will be slower and vice-versa. Due to this, specific trait identification for your sport is necessary.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF SPECIFIC TRAITS
I am always trying to understand and find that perfect blend of training variables that produces the necessary training stimulus to maximize an athlete’s performance regardless of their sport. The velocity of our work performed and our choice of loading based on that velocity will have a direct effect not only on the movement of the exercise but also how it will affect the training stimulus we desire and subsequent adaptations. This is directly tied to your neuromuscular fatigue as well as your perceived level of effort. Your perceived level of effort cannot be “faked” with baseline metrics established, as we will discuss below. It lets the athlete know when they are not giving each rep or set 100% and the intensity of moving the weight must be increased.
We know that our bodies are amazing machines and able to adapt to the specific demands that we place upon them. This is otherwise known or referred to as the SAID principle, or specific adaptation to imposed demands. Knowing this, we can then understand that we are able to develop different traits within the same exercises (squat, clean, squat jump, etc) by changing the velocity or bar speed on the exercise and that our bodies will adapt accordingly. For this reason, velocity-based measuring can be used as a way for us to improve certain traits within our system for specific goals we have set for our sport. Being able to produce more force at higher velocities has been shown to improve neural communication as well. This is important because many sports are skill-specific and require a high degree of neural communication to perform repeated fast movements well.
Olympic weightlifting-based movements (snatch/clean and jerk) present difficulty in reliability of using VBT to the newer weightlifter or Crossfitter because these lifts are heavily technique-influenced and the numbers presented are based on highly skilled athletes performing the movements. This difference between highly skilled and learning athletes can be shown with a high peak m/s reading but a low average m/s reading or just a skewed ratio between the two. In the work I have seen and used on weightlifting and VBT, it is the consistency of technique in the lifter that produces this difference. Often, weightlifters that are learning or who have not yet mastered the lifts will have a faster-than-necessary or rushed first pull as they transition to the second pull and extension – resulting in a higher peak m/s. The more skilled lifters will have better consistency throughout the movement and better technique, leading to a more normalized average m/s reading and peak m/s relationship.
The bar path is also affected, which can turn out a weird reading as there is a lot of swinging, hard hip-hitting, and movement away from the body on the barbell. More experienced lifters can keep the bar closer, and the heavier weights are achieved because of better timing and neuromuscular adaptation.
Beginner to intermediate weightlifters do not have efficient enough technique yet to use these as reliable indicators, but VBT can be used as a general guideline for performance improvement while continuing to refine your technique in addition to being used in your accessory work in squats, plyometrics, etc. Other than this subset of the performance population, these measurements have been proven to be a reliable outline from which to base our readings regardless of sport.
Quick note: Implementing traditional periodization at this point will help put a sound plan in place. We cannot train all of these qualities at the same time. In periodization, we move from general preparation to more specific preparation as time goes on and then toward competition. Strength is considered general preparation for the athlete, whereas power and speed are components of strength and are more of the specific preparation necessary for athletic success.
In beginner athletes or trainees, max strength can have a direct effect on power production. Therefore, if the athlete trains to produce improvements in their maximal strength, power and speed can be developed naturally as a sub-product of this. In your collegiate or advanced athletes, there is less of a transfer and more specific power/speed work needs to be performed to make sport-specific improvements as well as maintaining the existing strength the athlete has. It’s also necessary to make adjustments to their programming at certain times to help increase this maximal strength for more power and speed production.
IN THE ZONE
Let’s take a step back before we take a step forward. We need to understand who we are working with, or what your sport is. Football players are not professional weightlifters and powerlifters are not 100M sprinters, for instance. The use of VBT will be different dependent on what we are aiming to accomplish. It is not my goal to take a high school offensive lineman and make him the best powerlifter in his weight room. My goal is to improve things like accelerative strength, strength-speed, max strength, etc., as these qualities translate on the field. Let’s use a powerlifter I’m working with, since some of you reading this are actively competing in the sport of powerlifting. For powerlifting, we will have a slightly different set of goals with max strength, circa-max strength and accelerative strength for instance.
First, you need to know this isn’t a straight set. This was an AMRAP or “plus” set I had him doing at the end of his normal straight sets of work. As you can see, even after completing numerous sets before this, his average m/s reading during the set was 0.44, right in the range I would like to see as an average for him based on our experience working together. The average m/s reading is exactly what you think it is, an average of the repetition velocities across the set. You will also notice his device provided a peak m/s of 0.80. The peak lets us know whether or not the athlete is truly committing to the whole rep or set, or is simply taking their foot of the gas once they are past their difficult point in the lift. If the peak was lower in relation to his average m/s, that would be a concern possibly, as the loading or technique would need to be looked at. There is no general guideline for the ratio of peak to average; however, average m/s is the more commonly used measuring tool for VBT training and the one I use with powerlifters more. Peak just gives me a peek into that athlete’s intensity of focus and commitment during the set.
Different trait “zones” will mean different things depending on the athletic goals of that individual such as:
- How old they are
- How long they have been training
- What sport they are training for
- Their position within that sport
- Demands of that position and sport
Conducting a thorough needs-analysis of what is required of that athlete will dictate what zone(s) you begin and work your way into, reset too, etc. Please note: These are general guidelines, but EVERY athlete is different. For convenience, I have classified some sub-zones together. However, let’s be clear of one thing: Strength builds power and you cannot have speed without power. Okay? Moving forward.
Absolute/Circa-Max/Accelerative Strength: This is the absolute amount of force an athlete can exert irrespective of size or body mass. Think of it as moving heavier loads with a slower rate of speed (velocity). This is where a lot of pure strength work is done and this is where a lot of athletes, regardless of sport, need more work to improve their relative strength. Powerlifters spend most of their time in these zones and could include some targeted relative strength work in the strength-speed zone to help improve their specificity for performance. Examples are squat, bench press, and deadlift. The general consensus is that not enough sport athletes spend time in this zone. Coaches lose sight of the fact that strength is what builds power, and power builds speed.
Strength-Speed: This is often confused or combined with speed-strength. However, this is incorrect. Strength-speed places an emphasis on the strength portion with speed being a secondary focus for the training. Think of the Olympic lifts here. We are trying to move heavy loads quickly, placing a larger emphasis on the speed at which these loads are lifted relative to your absolute strength. This is more of the “power” zone relative to its close partner, speed-strength.
Speed-Strength: Shift your priorities around from strength-speed and you have this zone. It’s a literal 180-degree turn as now you are focusing more on speed as the dominant factor with strength being a secondary focus. Training exercises like jump squats and weighted vest work are examples of this.
Absolute Speed/Starting Strength: At the other end of the curve, we have absolute speed. This is where most sport athletes spend their time during in-season performance. This is where the athlete is focused solely on developing speed and explosiveness and there is no focus on heavy or moderate loading. This zone will involve more sprint work, plyometrics, and could include medicine ball work, which may also fall in the speed-strength area.
DEVELOPING A LOAD-VELOCITY PROFILE
By now, I hope you are wondering how to go about creating the initial load velocity profile to establish parameters so that you can use this to make continual improvements. As I mentioned, I am not inventing anything new and that doesn’t change here. Opinions differ on how to develop this profile, but I like to use the work of Henk Kraaijenhof when developing the athlete’s velocity profile, and it has shown early consistency in its application. How this is done is by setting up the measuring device whether it be Tendo, GymAware, PUSH, etc., and having the athlete perform 3 to 4 sets of repetitions based on an existing 1RM. The repetitions may decrease as the athlete’s testing load increases, but that is completely dependent on the athlete’s ability to maintain their best form for data purposes.
This is helpful for a few reasons. The first reason is – again – every athlete is different. Two athletes of the same sport performing the squat could be moving the bar at different speeds based solely on things like height, bodyweight to strength ratio, or muscle fiber makeup. Second, by using the load-velocity profile, we can then chart the athlete’s progress within these described ranges, ensuring we are seeing the line move up and to the right: something every competitive athlete wants to see regardless of sport. If we do not adequately address the variables, we may see an increase to the left in overall strength but not see incremental gains in the power or speed areas we want improved. This concept is what separates the use of VBT with barbell sports and the use of VBT with classical sport athletes.
Let’s use 200 kg. (420 lb.) as an example. I can have the athlete perform these repetitions with 40 kg., 80 kg., 120 kg., and 160 kg., taking the rep with the highest velocity output from each set and charting it along a graph. Say the athlete achieves 1.5 m/s peak with 40 kg., 1.2 m/s peak with 80 kg., 0.80 m/s peak with 120 kg., and 0.40 peak with 160 kg.
With this testing model, which I use from Henk, they use the peak reading for the set during testing. So maybe an athlete hits rep peak readings of 1.0, 1.2, 0.9 with the 40 kg. weight in the squat. We would take the 1.2 from that set. For the 80kg set, the reps are 1.1, 0.9, 0.7; we would take 1.1, and 120 kg. repeat and so on. Then, after the 3-4 sets and making appropriate rep adjustments (we may use fewer reps as the testing weight goes up), this could give us something like 1.2, 1.1, 0.8, 0.5 for plotting purposes and to gauge whether that athlete at the end of their next training cycle and re-test has made appropriate progress on what we want to achieve. If he/she is moving the last loading at 0.65, then we know progress has been made.
For powerlifting, we just need to get the bar from A to B – however fast or slow; therefore, using average m/s is a more reliable indicator of progress/performance – especially when 1RM testing. 1RM testing after using VBT for a while can give the strength athlete a reliable indicator of how much they have left in the tank and allows for appropriate jumps for the next attempt.
You could use it on more athlete-based testing with jump squats or other exercises. The peak will give us the most powerful output that athlete had during the set, and that is what I use to move forward with based on the skill set we want. In the case of the powerlifter, absolute, circa-max, accelerative strength is the focus.
We then chart both of those factors along the graph to give us our force velocity spectrum with the desired trait-specific goals we want to improve. (Hint: Strength is always a goal.)
From there, when we go to re-test, we can take the first set of numbers shown above and add in the second round of testing showing our improvement, like below.
In this test and re-test example, we can see that the athlete since our first test has improved the velocity at which he/she moves the same weight. Theoretically, a new “1RM” would also be achieved based on the improvement shown. But the most important thing has happened: The athlete is now more powerful than they were at the first test and that translates across all areas of improvement.
WORKING WITHIN THE VELOCITY PARAMETERS
Any coach or athlete needs to understand that they should be working within a defined or closely defined set of parameters in terms of velocity. There are a few ways that coaches can go about prescribing the exercise as it relates to the force production and its effect on neuromuscular fatigue. These suggestions are taken from the study related to movement velocities as a way to control resistance training:
1) “First repetition’s mean velocity, which is intrinsically related to loading intensity.”
2) “A maximum percent velocity loss to be allowed in each set. When this percent loss limit is exceeded, the set must be terminated.”
The first one refers to simply taking the velocity from the very first rep, which is when the athlete is at his or her freshest. This is okay, but I like using the second parameter a little better. Please note this is anecdotal, but the second parameter seems to be shown more consistently across the literature.
The percentage loss variable is interesting for a few reasons. For one, as much as we want it too, rep form will differ slightly, and that may contribute to changes in velocity. Second, if we establish a percentage we as coaches can be okay with, both the athlete and coach know the set OR exercise is done when the percentage allowed is exceeded.
This percentage can be based on a few factors. As I mentioned above, the training experience of the athlete in addition to how well the coach knows that particular athlete is important. In addition, we need to know what the focus of this training block will be and what we are looking to accomplish during this training block. I find that 10% seems to be a pretty reliable percentage, but this is not a suggested percentage; you will need to determine that based on your goals.
MORE RESEARCH NEEDS TO BE DONE
Apart from some literature and application-based evidence, there needs to be more studies and research done on the use of this type of training and more specifically within barbell sports/classical sport. For now, velocity-based training serves as an important part of developing athlete traits and improving specific areas of focus regardless of sport by allowing you to chase the illusion of optimal within a given training session, week, or training cycle.