Training with speed with load is hardly new, but the evolution of technology has elevated the popularity of velocity-based training (VBT) to new heights. Tracking barbell speed and using the information from sessions is now a staple within the strength and conditioning community. This Academy Guide covers all of the essential information for using VBT in the weight room, with a focus on potential benefits and current research. Also included in this guide are the common measurements used for feedback and power management, along with the known limitations. As the science continues to improve our understanding of barbell performance—mainly the speed of exercises—the practice of training within the continuum of speed will improve as well. VBT is a growing part of modern strength and conditioning programs, and coaches must stay current with both its science and application.
Origins of Bar Speed Feedback and Velocity-Based Training
The main difference between training with VBT and training with intent is the simple feedback provided by a device. While any athlete who moves a load with a degree of velocity is technically training with speed, it’s when the athlete receives direct or indirect knowledge that the process moves to VBT. Training with fast barbell velocities is not VBT; training with the appropriate speed of the bar is the purpose of the methodology. Athletes have been using various loading schemes, intent, and exertion levels for decades. Bryan Mann coined the concept a decade ago with his book on velocity-based training, Developing Explosive Athletes, and the use of barbell tracking technology took off.
It is important that coaches know the history of the training from the early approaches a half century ago and understand how to interpret research that is published today. Training with VBT devices is trendy, but only some of the technology is valid and many methods are unproven. Research is not infallible, as some studies involve athletes or non-athletes with poor training histories and do not account for equipment limitations and unfounded measurements. Therefore, coaches should take note that while a research study may disprove a technique from the field, the paper can only make conclusions based on the specifics of the study design. It will take years of collaboration and investigative research to truly know the capability of VBT in sports performance.
Theoretical Beneficial Adaptations of Training
Training with optimized loads and speeds is the theoretical benefit of VBT. Coaches know that immediate feedback will increase the output of a session, and doing so will increase the chance of the strength training transferring to sports performance. Knowing the speed of the bar can help both the coach and athlete enhance their training experience, theoretically improving performance on the field over time. Unfortunately, most of the research covers less-applied benefits, and still touches on the validity and reliability of devices and methods. Still, the available science does conclude that VBT methods will likely be more effective in improving athlete performance acutely and in the long run than training without them. Most of the benefit of VBT is seeing objective information on bar speed, which is usually more accurate than a coach’s eye or athlete’s perception. Experienced athletes and coaches may have a similar ability to detect the loss or gain in barbell velocity, but a device does have merit in training, especially with developing athletes and those coaches that may not the visual acuity to see bar speed with confidence. Using changes in bar speed allows coaches to make adjustments to athlete training load on the fly for optimal training.
Most of what we know with barbell speed is the expression of power versus the actual development of power. Training with optimized loads may allow a coach to determine the best load for reaching the highest peak power, but training with power may not be as effective as the coach believes. The combination of field-specific work with athletes and general strength training leads to most of the adaptations. Adding specific loads and speeds may be a better option, but the magnitude of that difference is unknown. On paper, training sessions where athletes are completing better workouts should add up over time to more favorable results than those that are inconsistent, but it’s still too early to know if this is indeed true. Adaptations are about concrete changes that are measurements observed in the scientific evidence, and greater outputs in strength and power are what VBT delivers.
Common Barbell Speed Measurements
Velocity-based training devices primary collect concentric peak speed, concentric average speed, and concentric mean propulsive velocity. It’s important that coaches remember that VBT data overall is just a tiny part of how the barbell moves in time, as the activity or inactivity around the concentric moment is useful information as well. Concentric velocities are the current cornerstone of modern-day VBT applications, but even those measurements are partial or limited.
Defined by the greatest speed reading during the concentric phase of the lift, and perhaps the most useful for explosive exercises such as ballistic-style lifting. Peak velocity and take-off velocity in several jumping exercises are very similar in speed, but are not interchangeable measurements and should be treated differently. Display athlete velocity training conveniently side by side with other athlete data using athlete dashboards.
The average speed from the start to finish of strength exercises is popular when measuring exercises such as the deadlift, squat, and bench press. Other exercises that are not ballistic in nature will use mean velocity as a summary of the lifting performance. Unfortunately, mean velocity has limits with exercises like the power snatch where the complexity of the lift requires more contextual information. With any averaged measurement comes its limitations, but mean velocity has value as a summary of the lifting performance.
Mean Propulsive Velocity (MVP)
The primary difference between concentric mean velocity and propulsive measures is that the measurement includes only the portion of the lift that overcomes the acceleration of gravity. Strength exercises using light loads may encounter a braking effect, causing mean velocity readings to poorly represent the performance of the lift. Thus, MPV can serve as a great measurement for those wanting to know the essential propulsive contribution of the exercise, not the component that may be protective to the athlete.
Other measures, such as eccentric speeds, the rate of force development, barbell stroke distance, and even the path of the bar during the movement are available to coaches. Unfortunately, those measures are less researched and the methodology to use such metrics is incomplete at this time. The expectation is that more measurements, deeper understanding of available measures, and a combination of measurements will be the new normal. It’s imperative that coaches be aware of the validity and accuracy of the reported measures in their equipment and know when they can be used for feedback or for actual scoring of the exercise.
Fatigue Monitoring and Athlete Testing
Several attempts to monitor fatigue and estimate performance with VBT have—of course—shown both promise and poor results in the scientific research. The main takeaway is that a number of problems currently exist for VBT with athlete testing and monitoring. A primary challenge is the reliability of the devices; meaning, the data is too inconsistent to depend on the information to detect real change. Second is simply the realities of individual athletes, who may experience fatigue and express their strength qualities differently than one another. The detection of fatigue in an athlete during a lift versus detecting athlete fatigue is dramatically different. Also, some research has shown promise using the load-velocity relationship to extrapolate submaximal performance to one-repetition maximum performance, but not all research has supported that testing approach.
Fatigue detection and monitoring has shown some promise, but the studies have drawn conclusions that training-induced fatigue requires accuracy that current methods are unable to provide. Researchers have recommended that VBT may be helpful in the warm-up to motor fluctuations in performance, as well as using the measurements with other monitoring tools for possible value in fatigue monitoring. Data extrapolation at lower loads for predicting maximal abilities will likely improve, as multiple arguments, not isolated metrics, are key to understanding the trends of force production. Athlete management systems play a special role with barbell performance as they combine physiological and wellness monitoring. As devices improve in precision, accuracy, and reliability, so will the methodology of using those tools.
Analysis and Future Directions of VBT
Companies and coaches already utilize barbell speed to support athletes and improve the training experience. Various equipment and software vendors have developed leaderboards, apps, devices, and property measurements for athlete training. In the near future, we will see more options with velocity-based training systems, including a focus on motion capture for even better convenience for the athlete. New measurements and previously unavailable metrics will be popular and require the proper scientific vetting, but coaches should have faith that time will resolve such questionable approaches to training. VBT is not going anywhere, and you should expect it to grow at all levels as the technology improves and the research sorts out what is valid and what is reliable. Science and technology may be driving the popularity of VBT, but it will be up to the practitioner—specifically the coach—to ensure it’s used properly.
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