Strength coaches, if they are worth their salt, are technique experts with all of the lifting exercises they use. So, if I said I could help you improve the consistency and quality of your athlete’s lifting technique, I am sure you would be interested. In my opinion, the best feature of velocity-based training technology isn’t the speed of the movement but the motion that can be captured. The right technology could act like an extra coach.
Barbell path, or trajectory evaluation, has been a very disappointing area in sports performance, usually left to a few biomechanics experts or weightlifting aficionados. We should not place the blame on sport science but the actual sports technology companies that are unable to provide barbell path. The path of the bar is part of technique for athlete development, and we should value it just as much as the speed measures we see in cleans and bench presses.The path of the bar is part of technique for athlete development, and we should value it as much as the speed measures we see in cleans and bench presses, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I have been a staunch advocate of barbell path for years, and I know I have made a better case for using it at all levels, mainly because I have sold the concept as a way to extend coaching instruction. This blog article is not as much about the science of barbell training as it is about connecting the art in a meaningful way. If you care about improving sports performance, especially through instruction and quality teaching, this article will certainly satisfy you.
Why Bar Speed Is Secondary to Technique
You will likely be surprised at how I use barbell tracking technology, as the goal of improving athlete performance is often aligned to strength and power. Of course, bar performance—specifically how much force and speed you attempt to create—is important, but it’s not everything. Coaches who are worth their salt know that the big picture matters, and bar performance includes the actual motion of the exercise, not just raw speed or a sliver of information from the exercise. Movement quality, or what is typically good technique to the naked eye, is really about smooth, coordinated motion that can be evaluated with video, motion capture, and barbell tracking devices.
To me, bar speed alone is overrated; it’s important for advanced programs, but very inflated because many companies only track barbell speed. Most of the device providers (usually the same companies) didn’t have expertise on the bar path and wanted the inconvenient truth of what you can do with VBT SF and other technologies to go away. Don’t be fooled, as the companies that don’t have bar path don’t want you to request it because it’s a burden to provide and very expensive to develop.
So, if you were to list the priorities of strength training, technique would always be ahead of load and velocity. Down the road, of course you want outputs to be heavy and/or fast, but load and speed come later as an athlete becomes proficient in the lifts that matter. Strange though, bar path seems secondary to speed, so we should rethink the path and equate it to technique. I don’t want to sound preachy, but here are some strong suggestions that are extensions to the rules from the earlier article on VBT.
- Biofeedback for power or strength is demanding physically and psychologically, so use it sparingly, not every time you lift.
- Use feedback purposely to improve athlete focus on the task process rather than chasing a single number or even a set of numbers.
- Use speed of the bar only for lifts that need to be fast or to help manage maximal loads, such as heavy compound exercises.
- Don’t add velocity to strength exercises until you coach an advanced athlete and need to find a way to challenge the athlete.
- Barbell path matters because it helps with technique over time. Use it first when possible.
In summary, if you only look at concentric mean or even the peak summarized speed of the rep, you’re taking it completely out of context. I can make a case that barbell speed is helpful for intent and effort of the repetition, but you can better understand what is going on with the movement of the bar in time and space. I will explain this in detail in the next section, but from now on, coaches need to think about the entire bar motion and velocity, not just speed.
What Is Bar Path?
A few years ago I wrote about barbell trajectory, and I think I could have explained things in a better way. The issue wasn’t my definition; it was my lack of inclusion of speed and path at the same time. So, for simplicity, bar path can be defined as the two- or three-dimensional tracking of both time and distance of the barbell during an exercise.
I will expand on this definition in extreme detail, not because it’s complicated, but because a lot of misinformation is purposely shared on social media. I will not get into agendas and narratives now, but I want to be clear that I am fighting an uphill battle because a lot rides on concentric average and peak velocity. Depending on the exercise and relative strength and power of the athlete, the bar will have various points of speed based on the technique and load of the lift. A case was made to use “load velocity training” as a replacement to the conventional VBT (velocity-based training) acronym, but it didn’t stick because most coaches struggle to understand the lift beyond a simple number range. We can point fingers or lay blame later, but for now we need to move on to selling the value of barbell motion and speed, not just a slice of the rep.
For simplicity, bar path can be defined as the two- or three-dimensional tracking of both time and distance of the barbell during an exercise, explains @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
After a few years of making a case for barbell tracking instead of just velocity, my elevator pitch for the value of the bar path is better. Coaches should now focus on the velocity of the bar and how it moves in time and space. I realize that plenty of coaches will ask about peak velocity or mean velocity during training for output purposes, but honestly, many uses of bar speed are more an exercise in glamour measurement than truly essential. To be blunt, barbell path is more important than bar speed for the majority of athletes. Most athletes need to do the exercise consistently well, and speed matters only if you are trying to fine-tune the load selection and manage possible fatigue during the training phase.
We are still early days in determining how much fatigue and a drop of velocity in repetitions matter in training, but we already have great science on cluster training and other techniques now. I am a fan of strength and power, but those qualities should only be emphasized after an athlete can safely and effectively perform a movement over and over. The temptation to train with advanced techniques is problematic because coaches are not patient, and barbell paths can help us be more disciplined and responsible.
In parting, the best way to appreciate the barbell path is as a motion signature that can identify errors in an athlete’s execution of the primary lifts. Barbell tracing of the exercise helps coaches because it acts as a biomechanical distilling agent and tells more of the story than an average speed or even peak speed can ever do alone. Instead of seeing speed and motion as competition, recognize the fusion between each data set and take advantage of the merging of kinematic motion with speed.
How to Keep Analysis Simple and Practical
The ad nauseam explanations from the countermovement jump with force plate marketing campaigns taught me a lot about the value of not getting too excited over the analysis or interpretation of the barbell path. Yes, you need to understand how to interpret the reporting or feedback of the bar path, but after that readout, the real work begins. Sport science is often disconnected from coaching because those who work with athletes want to understand the biomechanics just enough to help athletes and make better decisions. Frankly, bar path research on exercise tends to be either confusing or poor in application.
In this section I will simplify the information we currently use with the available science, and I will explain what the research says without watering down the valuable insight. The #1 temptation and problem with analysis of the bar is the ego of a coach being overconfident in their coaching abilities or their program design. Be humble, and you will see dramatic improvement in both the athlete’s engagement and the polish of their exercise movement.
Most of the science on barbell path is video analysis of major weightlifting events or internal studies. A few studies on strength exercises exist, but most of the ballistic exercises are not analyzed because projectile motion can’t be calculated with certainty. The more complex the exercise, the more likely the barbell path matters, but don’t reduce bar path to a weightlifting solution for the Olympic lifts—remember that basic elements like depth of squats are timeless and wonderful solutions for assisting athletes. Even the bench press is a surprisingly intricate expression of motion when looked at carefully.
We don’t need to break down every exercise in full detail now, but coaches should put their efforts into understanding how anatomy connects to the kinematic bar path. When viewing most of the reported data, you are only seeing changes in force over time or velocity over time. As we learned from the ACWR fiasco, humans are more complex models than line plots. Still, we can use simple line plots with caution to make sound choices in instruction and load modification.
Most bar path readouts are just tracings of the collar without plates standing from the side in two dimensions. You can do three-dimensional analysis of barbell path, but the majority of errors are found with X and Y axis issues, not elsewhere. We do see athletes tend to favor a side, and they may move asymmetrically from time to time, but usually it’s not as visible kinetically. That’s why I recommend dual force plate screening of barbell lifts such as the isometric mid-thigh pull (IMTP) to fully discover actual impairments of acceptable symmetry.
For practical purposes, watching a lift from the side or three-quarter view works because you can see both the necessary signal and frontal information for general coaching needs. With bar path tracing, technology can illustrate what is going on with fast motions and create a kinematic vapor trail to let us know how the athlete is executing the motion. The shape and patterns demonstrate milestones in the lift and can help a coach easily see where an athlete needs support with either their strategy or execution of the lift.
Generally, compound exercises are about how the body accommodates gravity, and that means how the athlete moves mechanically to overcome the bar’s load. You do not see joint angles or muscle activation with barbell motion; you infer what is going on, especially if you are familiar with video analysis and exercise technique. I recommend that a coach learn how to analyze explosive or complex lifts with bar path using Dartfish and prune information so training is efficient. Too much information becomes an example of paralysis by analysis, so you want to know how to quickly extract the right information from tablets when needed.
Best Exercise Uses for Barbell Path
Most of the efforts with analyzing barbell path should be on the big lifts, specifically the Olympic-style weight lifts and the power lifts (bench and squat). I have not included the deadlift because the motion is simple enough that bar path analysis is perhaps unnecessary for the majority of coaches. Other exercises can be included, but I would rather focus on lifts that are fast, heavy, or a combination of both.
Apply bar path to make sure the athlete is using the load that best challenges them, as general maximal strength that is improved will transfer later with some sports, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Bench Press: As I am not an expert in this area, I don’t know if advanced bench pressers are simply better prepared strength-wise so the lift falls into place or just skilled because of experience. Causation and correlation errors seen in statistics hold true with advanced athletes because we assume that better tissue is what makes them great, rather than great performances acquiring technique over time. Most strength coaches focusing on the bar path with upper body lifts usually work with throwers or collision sports, where an impressive upper body has value. Apply bar path to make sure the athlete is using the load that best challenges them, as general maximal strength that is improved will transfer later with some sports.
Squat: I look at range of motion more than anything, as I am able to see the technique rather well compared to faster lifts. Usually, speed of the bar during heavy training is more important if technique is perfect, but sometimes depth is lost as the load increases. You can use barbell path or displacement for quarter squats and other exercises such as split squats and step-ups. I currently use the bar path to see if the technique is consistent and to see how form changes when an athlete is fatigued. In my experience, squat depth changes are perhaps the most telling, even more useful than speed. I don’t use any lower load speed lift for squats and just stay 80-92% over the season, because I just want to prevent unnecessary residual fatigue.
Clean and Jerk: Nearly all the research is on pulling the clean and jerk, with very little information on the receiving details of the exercise. The obvious need to keep the bar close to the body is a humbling experience when the body is removed from the visual feedback and just the bar is displayed. If an athlete is able to keep the bar closer to them and reduce unnecessary horizontal displacement, they can load the motion higher. This is especially useful for developing a capacity for power of the legs while reducing lower limb stress. The jerk phase of the lift is the least studied and I don’t have much to offer here.
Snatch: Similar to the clean, the bar path will be extremely useful to see, especially with intermediate athletes who are trying to polish their lifts and add load. With feedback, we are now seeing older soccer athletes—who are not commonly compatible with the Olympic lifts—use the exercises better than before. I must give credit to other coaches who have helped me learn the lifts, as I am constantly making progress, but having feedback that is instant and recorded is especially useful for those who are not fans of strength training.
Ballistic Exercise: Jump squats with load or other lifts that have a propulsive force that overcomes gravity can use a bar path. What coaches mainly need to see is the ideal range of motion that produces power safely. The question is what load should be used, and I am hesitant to recommend anything that looks to be optimized with force-velocity profiling. In isolation, training with prescribed loads works when other exercises and modalities are used, but we don’t tend to see the same outcomes as the research. The more isolated the variables in the investigation, the more likely the outcomes will be favorable. Also make sure you look at the negative work done with ballistic exercise, as repeated explosions must accommodate the work coming down from gravity.
Video 1. Bar path feedback is about what is not the same, and if the motion error is made consciously or not. Coaches can simply glance at what they see after the exercise is done and choose what is best for their athletes with instruction or guidance.
I am looking at other lifts such as step-ups and Romanian deadlifts, but those are mainly for maintaining range of motion (displacement) rather than analyzing bar path. Video feedback is sometimes more important with accessory lifts, but when the loads and speed increase, using the bar path makes sense to me. Whatever exercises you use and methods of training you apply with your athletes, look at the entire picture, not just slices of data or crude summaries. Athletes are smart, and if the bar path is shown right after attempts or even later, they will get better without unnecessary cueing and instruction.Athletes are smart, and if the bar path is shown right after attempts or even later, they will get better without unnecessary cueing and instruction, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
How to Apply Bar Path in a Team Setting
First things first, the primary reason bar path hasn’t taken off is that it has remained a research topic for the last few decades. Coaches knew about it, but it wasn’t popular because video processing techniques took too long to do in real time. If the measurement or feedback isn’t instant, it’s difficult to implement in an applied setting, especially with groups. I share this because marketing and social media efforts to squash bar path have lured coaches away from utilizing bar path with their teams.
If a system can measure it, it’s likely that the marketing and sales team is forced to attack the measurement or be left behind. The common point of contention that coaches don’t care about bar path is a misdirected argument designed to keep coaches fixated on peak and mean velocity readings of the lifts. This is disappointing but not surprising—what else do you expect from those who are unable to either measure or educate the masses?
Before I start with my three-point approach to using bar path readings in training with groups, I will talk about safety. My problem with velocity-based training is not the approach, it’s the lack of training coaches have with the topic. Buying a device doesn’t make you an expert and even experience using a system is not enough. Athletes must have stellar listening skills and be able to perform the lifts properly before adding barbell tracking technology. You don’t need them to be perfect; you need them to be safe and respectful of the process.Athletes must have stellar listening skills and be able to perform the lifts properly before adding barbell tracking technology, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Teach the athlete to be consistent. Athletes who try to do too much are erratic and impossible to coach well. If an athlete is not consistent, what flaw or error do you try to fix? A moving target or inconsistent technique is far harder than a still (consistent) target. Therefore, focus on having athletes follow the same setup and execution over time so that their true form is revealed. Only then, after an athlete has established their “first draft” of technique, does editing makes sense. I usually have year one athletes focus on doing the exercises correctly and consistently for a season before moving on to tailoring the technique more.
Personalize the movement only when necessary. A common mistake I see is that coaches love style and sometimes assume that an athlete performing the lift uniquely means they have found a special technical strategy due to the hype cycle of movement gurus. Style and intrinsic motor skill expression should be the end result of knowing the exercise biomechanics and leaving some room for an athlete’s anatomy and coordination abilities is fine. Just make adjustments based on need and don’t let the soul of the exercise be replaced by ornamental style that is more attention-seeking than purposeful.
Maximized approaches are great for athletes who enter a plateau and need something to break out of it. This period of time is when looking at the bar path—both video and bar outputs from testing or training—is wise. Coaches first need to know when fatigue and programming are leading to poor outcomes before changing mechanics. Usually the program that does too much at once struggles to make changes due to the lack of training resources such as repetition and energy.
Optimized is a buzzword I try to stay away from, but often it’s used to illustrate the right or sweet spot approach in training. Bar path optimization isn’t really about the shape as much as it’s knowing the trend of how all training forms in conjunction with the exercise motion. When an athlete is not able to achieve motions, it’s then a question of whether the change is worth the effort and time.
Most of the changes I make on exercise technique are to ensure the athlete is properly prepared generally, so if errors show up or inefficiencies exist, I try to solve them indirectly and hope that the lifts respond. One example is cleaning from the floor and not having a strong back and hips, something I see with skilled speed athletes who have very minimal weight programs. They are able to get better quickly, but they stay stuck because they rushed the prerequisite exercises that form a strength foundation for training.
All of the above is very embryonic and desperately needs to evolve past this article. I have not made dramatic changes to my coaching, as the obvious need is to run a session so that loading the body and learning for the future are carefully balanced. If you have a better approach, I am all ears, but remember this sequence is based on having tools as part of the winning formula, not front and center. This approach is excellent for strength coaches or track coaches who want to use barbell exercises for sports performance.
Teach Athletes to Lift with Deadly Finesse
Polished lifting ensures an athlete is progressing and not sustaining foolish gym injuries. Barbell path tracing and feedback aren’t about showing off a deep budget or how much knowledge you have; it’s about making sure you do the foundational training well, so the movements are no longer basics but are seen as a true craft. Barbell tracking technology has its share of limitations and misuse in the field, but if you wish to master an exercise, objective feedback is needed.In no way does barbell tracking remove the coach; it helps add more firepower to those who are experienced and talented, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Coaches have a gift for seeing a lot of movement and knowing how to quickly guide an athlete. In no way does barbell tracking remove the coach; it helps add more firepower for those who are experienced and talented. You must do your homework on exercise and know when and when not to use feedback, otherwise information overload could be a problem. Whatever you do, be consistent and have a plan. The best program will benefit from bar path analysis, as it’s the heart and soul to technique.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF