Velocity Based Training: A Holy Grail or Hoax

 

Your favorite social media weightlifting influencer is hammering Velocity Based Training daily on their feed and story. You sit in front of your screen pondering those thoughts that every lifter is thinking, “Is this what I need to bump up my total? Is this the secret to adding some kilos to my clean and jerk and finally making the podium?”

 
 

The training pieces aren’t cheap but your ego is beaten down and struggling. The dreams of running off the stage and jumping into your coach’s arms and celebrating those massive PR’s flood your mindset. What if this culminates into a fantastic experience?!?! Is it true? Can an electronic tool finally give you that weightlifting experience you have been yearning? Let’s dive deep into whether or not this is the Holy Grail or a hoax!

Methods: What is it and what does it do?

Velocity Based Training (VBT) is not a new concept in the realm of strength and conditioning. The very basic premise behind VBT is the speed of movement is used as the primary means of feedback. This premise must be clearly understood. The key concept behind volume-based training is using the speed of the bar as a means of feedback to comprehend the awareness of the athlete and potentially manage overall fatigue. This takes a bit of emphasis off the weight that is actually on the bar because the goal is to maintain, in most cases, a predetermined speed.

This premise is by no means new in strength. For years, weightlifting coaches and throws coaches have discussed monitoring the speed of the bar. Many coaches have even noted a special knack for just knowing when it’s time to potentially shut down a set or move on to another exercise.

When interviewing two time Olympian and throws coach at UNC, Amin Nikfar, he specified that much of his training is based around how smooth the bar is moving when they are doing an Olympic lift or even a strength movement. Nikfar’s system has created World Championship caliber athletes and he has coached two NCAA champions in two different events. He is incredibly successful.

Is this established success behind the rage of current VBT? I don’t believe so. Ironically, Nikfar does not use any tool or machine to gauge his athletes' velocity on the bar. The current rage behind VBT is rooted in the fact that the methods of actually measuring bar speed are much more available. Meaning, tools like PUSH and GymAware and, to a point, even Tendo Units have become more affordable to the budding strength coach.

Some aspects of VBT revolve just a little past the edge of solely monitoring bar speed. In monitoring bar speed, this metric essentially replaces percentage-based training (for the most part). For example, if an athlete takes a snatch and they need all of their three reps to remain above 2.0 meters per second as the peak velocity (per rep), their goal MAY be to build to a triple until the feedback has them under 2 m/s.

These measurements can also be used on strength movements to determine an average velocity. Take the back squat, a lifter walks out the squat, and each rep the tool will measure the velocity of the bar. After the set, it is possible (in some applications) to find the average velocity throughout the entire set. This can aid in creating a type of formula that connects the mean of strength movements to peak production in the competitive movements of Olympic weightlifting.

The basic theme behind VBT is behind the usage of the tool to replace percentage-based training AND ultimately be a greater, science-based monitor for autoregulation. Weightlifters love to discuss fatigue of the Central Nervous System. Heaven forbid they go a week without saying, “My CNS is fried!” while having little to no comprehension of what that even means. The hope is that these VBT tools can prevent the CNS from being “fried.”

But is it really that easy?

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CNS Fatigue….What DaFEK is it?

This is one of my favorite things to hear from weightlifting coaches and athletes alike. If you want to know my TRULY in-depth analysis of CNS fatigue, head over to this VIDEO and find out my entire thoughts on the concept.

CNS Fatigue is usually based around the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine and dopamine’s relationship to adrenaline. If training is held at too intense of a level or too much volume is being executed, the receptor sites for these neurotransmitters may be desensitized, leading to dopamine depletion and adrenaline resistance.

In regard to Velocity Based Training, some of the biggest attributes that proponents for the method seem to support are surrounding the usage of the tools for autoregulation and management of fatigue. Some of the underlying problems behind this revolve around the concept that fatigue should always be managed.

To a point, this is accurate. However, I believe there is a lot to be said in a program to work fatigue to a certain level and a certain stage, look for performance from that standpoint of fatigue, back off slightly in some loading perspective (intensity, volume, the complexity of movement) and then learn what the duration of recovery will be for that specific individual. Fatigue can lead to injuries but the perception of fatigue can also change and mature tremendously throughout an athlete’s career and recognizing that is key to long term development.

What VBT seems to miss is the actual cause of specified fatigue, and the general cause of fatigue is what needs to be monitored and understood. If an athlete in one day takes 12-14 sets of snatch because they are upholding 2.0 m/s on all of their snatches and they continue to groove that speed at 1.6+ on their cleans in the same session, is there an easy way to comprehend what work or lack of work from the previous day impacted the following day of training?

In the same light, if an athlete is destroyed in a given day of training and they have low levels of motivation and are moving horribly slow, what would the difference be between just working to a weight on the bar and getting reps in or using VBT to govern the athlete to the same load on the bar (or relatively same) and just get consistent reps executed?

Benefits

The benefits behind Velocity Based Training are found in another method of feedback. This feedback can then be compared to load on the bar, general baselines of volume and intensity, and potentially related to specific movements. VBT can replace percentage-based training and can be a very strong guide around autoregulation.

One of the biggest benefits behind VBT can be based around a macro-perspective of programming. Laying out a block and highlighting intensities and volume for specific days and then simply understanding the general feedback from the tool can provide a great idea of what those loading parameters do to an athlete. This global feedback can be much more effective for the preparation of peak conditions because it will enable coaches to see a correlation between long term prescription of training and daily response.

 

Having an instant result from a tool can be highly motivational for an athlete as well. It brings about the concept of beating the machine, trying to best the previous training speeds which can lead to greater output from the athlete. This is an easy way to motivate elite athletes and get them to remain focused throughout their training sessions.

Downsides

Every summer we have some of the best sprint cyclists in the world train at our gym. Team Canada, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, amongst many other teams. Some of these teams are fully outfitted with every piece of velocity-based equipment that you can possibly utilize. One of these teams has one of the very best cyclists in the world. A cyclist that has been to the Olympics, won his continental title and has done incredible things in the sport.

I noticed something while observing their training. The very best cyclist on their team was not partaking in their measurements. Their programming was impressive, the feedback was extensive with peak velocity per rep and mean velocity per set with every single set completed. Their strength coach did an okay job explaining to me how he uses the feedback. But I kept going back to the number one athlete not using their measurement system. Finally, I sat down and asked him, “Why not?”

“I don’t need to beat a machine. I know my body. I know my speed and strength and what needs to improve. I need to beat myself every set. That machine will not help me on the track but my mind will.” This reminds me of a great line from an awesome song…

“The power of the universe is within; free your mind and your ass will follow.” - Parliament Funkadelic

I know this sounds like some “Vision Quest” statement but it struck me pretty deeply. He has been at the gym for over 2 years on and off training and he consistently reminded me that the success of our athletes at Garage Strength were not based around VBT but instead based around their understanding of the full-blown system and the execution of their movements with precision.

Gym owners and weightlifting coaches love to focus on the next big thing. The next tool or piece of equipment that will get their athletes to the elite level of performance. The downfall is based in the fact that many of these coaches and gym owners struggle to even plan and understand their current system of feedback and then take that feedback and apply it to their next training block. VBT is the tool that many coaches are looking at as the immediate key to getting the necessary gains for their team to conquer all competition on the platform.

My fear is the tool of VBT could further separate the coach from their athlete in a sense of communication and from a relationship perspective. It could also hinder the coach struggling to fully understand the feedback they are analyzing and in turn they may neglect to see glaring technical issues.

I also believe using VBT on strength-based movements can be counterproductive. In a recent study on VBT (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32049887/), the conclusion was relatively simple. For power and explosiveness, keep the speed of the bar pretty snappy and keep the positions strong and fast. In regards to hypertrophy and even strength gains, the speed of the bar will move slower to elicit the necessary adaptations for strength enhancement. My interpretation of this study is pretty simple...the conclusions made were by no means groundbreaking. Pay attention to movement execution and listen to your athletes!

Conclusion

If the system is fully set up, the gym owner and coach want to spend a fee to bring in a VBT tool and the feedback is completely understood, VBT can be a productive means of performance development. I do not believe that VBT is necessary for any coach and in fact, believe in some cases it can actually hinder the development of the athlete and their approach to training and overall feeling of movement. The technique in weightlifting is imperative and when feeling is entirely based around effort and speed, the technical feeling may be hidden beneath the overall motor learning.

My aggressive conclusion: Many of the VBT tools sound like data creators, giving maths and science to what the eye/mind of a capable coach can already see. VBT may just be for academics or high end sports performance training in large group settings (overfunded strength programs at the Division 1 level). These are metrics that may clutter the mind of a good coach who thrives off experience and intuition. This does not necessarily make VBT bad, just useless to anyone not in an ivory tower. Keep your expensive tools, I will use my stopwatch to gauge speed.

Dane Miller

Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of elite athletes building comprehensive programs for strength and sports performance. Several times a year he leads a seminar for coaches, trainers, and athletes.

 

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1 comment

  • Hi Dane, Thank you for writing this article, I just presented at the NSCA’s virtual conference on sprinting (I’m a T@F coach). I did a good amount of research on speed-strength (power) and read Tidrow’s “Aspects of Strength Training in Athletics” and Sandweiss Wolf’s “Biofeedback and Sports Science” among multiple other articles and books. I’ve coached a world-class javelin thrower and National champions in distance running and duathlon, so the sprinting world is new and fascinating to me. Do you work with runners, specifically elite runners? I’m working on strength programming for my athletes, and although I’ve written two books for Human Kinetics (Running Anatomy vol. I and II), I would like to “pick the brain” of someone like you. I’m fascinated with the role of SSC in force development, and am working with a sensor company to collect data.

    Joe Puleo

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