Many youth coaches are parent volunteers looking to help their children and other kids learn a sport and stay fit and healthy. Too often they fall back on the same tired drills that they themselves used when they were youth athletes. With that in mind, Jeremy Frisch set out to develop an updated basic framework that coaches can use to provide athletic development training during youth practice sessions.
Currently, barbell and weight room tracking devices are one of the largest sports technology markets. First coined by Bryan Mann, velocity-based training (VBT) has evolved to weight room monitoring, since determining bar speed is just a fraction of what the available technology can do. Still, the majority of coaches want tools that can effectively measure the speed of the barbell, as well as provide other measurements such as motion and displacement.Barbell and weight room tracking devices are currently one of the largest sports technology markets. Click To Tweet
Companies are making efforts to calculate barbell path and system performance with the body and barbell, and even measure for rate of force. Most of the legacy systems that use tether systems are fading in popularity, but new companies see the timeless value of direct measurements because microsensors are very difficult to work with. In addition to the hardware advancements over the last decade, the software has been quickly improving. Partnerships with athlete management systems (AMS), subscription-style added-value programming tools, and even connectivity to flywheel systems are all now common in the space.
Defining Barbell Tracking Technology
The most common approach to managing strength training performance and workout expectations is to observe the change in barbell speed and sometimes distance. Since the inception of barbell tracking in the early 1990s, the primary focus has been velocity, either mean or peak, during concentric movements. As the technology evolved in the mid-2000s, a growth of metrics emerged, such as eccentric activity and attempts to detect explosive force production.
Clearly, from the early days of linear encoders, the concept of barbell tracking evolved from velocity-centric to a more comprehensive evaluation of strength training. Understanding the capabilities of the entire market will help a coach or sport scientist determine how to invest in the solution and anticipate budgeting for the future. Not much has changed in the last 20 years outside of refinements in hardware and software features. Scientifically, the progress in load-velocity and force-velocity training for performance is now practical in application for coaches. Employing methodologies that leverage barbell tracking and other strength implements is a new normal for performance coaches, as well as those involved with sports medicine.
In order to future-proof the market, the use of velocity-based training terminology needs to evolve into a modern and accepted nomenclature. As the technology improves, the hardware will be able to measure valuable metrics beyond concentric barbell speed. A comprehensive analysis of the exercise and the response to the workout will require greater advancements in machine learning and other artificial intelligence solutions. The expectation is that, in a decade, the market will be totally different, with only a few key players left after the market shift.
Limitations and Potential with Current Technology
Barbell tracking is motion detection, not a direct kinetic measure of force and power. Thus, the coach must be aware that user error strongly determines the effect of training. Most of the systems directly measure the barbell, meaning they are physically connected to the barbell. Indirect measurements from the wrist or camera system require specific protocols and setups to effectively measure barbell performance. Some products can estimate performance with machines and other strength implements outside of the barbell, but development time and validation make less-common exercises questionable. We strongly advise you that exercises with equipment must be validated, otherwise it’s unknown if all the motions are appropriate.Exercises with equipment must be validated, otherwise you don’t know if all motions are appropriate. Click To Tweet
Each system has limitations and strengths to barbell and weight room monitoring. For example, a linear position transducer is very effective at measuring distance, as the tether-based system is designed to handle changes in displacement very well. Accelerometers tend to do poorly in estimating distance though, as they are indirect calculations that are imperfect. In addition to displacement, linear encoders are great for slow motions since they are effective for continuous sampling without struggle. Conversely, accelerometers are useful for detecting rates of change in speed, so they are excellent for explosive motions.
Scientific Validation of Devices and Methods
Three primary driving needs shape the market: the reliability and validity of the device, the effectiveness of the acute training that is dependent on the technology, and chronic adaptation of the training method. Without having the device fully validated, it’s highly unlikely that training techniques in the short and long runs will be effective. Analog estimates of training are useful for athlete awareness, but without objective feedback, those techniques are extremely crude and limited.
Most of the equipment available has been validated on a few exercises—usually the bench press and squat exercise. Some systems have been validated for jump squats and even jump testing, but no system has been validated for every exercise, so we must trust in the brand and constant internal experimentation for now. Most new products are algorithm-driven, as camera- and accelerometer-based measures are the primary method of measurement. Velocity-based training ideas, such as estimations of 1 repetition maximum, fatigue detection, and reinforcement of methodology such as cluster training, all conflict in the research. Therefore, it’s important that the studies that do demonstrate validity are replicated carefully, as each study will likely have nuances that explain the lack of cohesion between studies.Outside of scientific reliability, the manageability of the product is important. Click To Tweet
To be useful with immediate and real-time feedback, the device should be reliable enough that the smallest worthwhile change is displayed with enough accuracy to guide athletes properly. Outside of scientific reliability, the manageability of the product is important, as products often fail to be effective in applied settings due to poor design and limitations with natural environments.
Emerging Methods of Barbell Tracking
As mentioned earlier, progress, from partial representation of exercise repetitions to comprehensive measurements, is necessary to evolve the market. A few companies are claiming barbell path or the trajectory of the motion in time and space, but the accuracy and precision of those measurements are unknown in the research right now. The most common approach to measuring barbell path is via camera systems, but due to the difficulty of capturing a proper measurement in real time, only video apps and three hardware companies claim the capability.
Besides Olympic lifts, there is increasing attention on other areas of the lift outside the concentric velocity and calculated force and power. Eccentric velocity readings, isometric detection, range of motion summaries, and even explosive measures of performance are all currently available. Due to the market adoption of velocity measures and thresholds, most barbell tracking has failed to evolve as quickly as the research.
As mentioned earlier, a focus on how the body and barbell interact with one another is promising, as the real need of strength and conditioning for sport is not the actual performance of the barbell, but the interaction of the athlete’s body, the load, the barbell motion, and time and space. In the future, expect more detail of existing exercises and more movement representation in both the elite and consumer markets.
Hardware Options and Methods of Measurement
Motion can be measured with inertial measurement units (IMUs), linear encoders, and camera systems. Simple high-speed cameras with smart devices are able to manually estimate simple measures and even estimate distance, but due to their limitations, they are typically used for testing or experimentation. The power of the smartphone has disrupted the market, forcing companies to either innovate or work on other added-value features such as strength and conditioning software integration or other metrics outside of barbell performance.
Each hardware option has pros and cons that you should carefully consider, as they will affect the measurements and workflow of team use and even individual use. For example, a wearable system on the wrist will always be limited to the strict demands of exercise motion adherence. If measuring the barbell directly, the idiosyncratic behaviors of weightlifting style could be affected as well, but only by accelerometer systems with algorithms that are overly sensitive and not robust enough for typical athlete behavior.
Linear encoders are excellent for barbell velocity, as most movements are under 3 meters per second—a threshold where an adequate sampling rate can be useful for simple feedback and accurate displacement at slower velocities. The challenge with linear encoders is obviously the issue of dropping weights and having the device become permanently damaged. Some exercise modifications or mounting options are required to keep both the encoder and tether safe from damage. Due to the hardware having accuracy, there is far less development than with camera- and accelerometer-based products.
Accelerometers and other sensors on IMU boards are very useful for barbell tracking and other measurements in sports performance. The issue is detection of the motion, and exercise completeness is an obvious obstacle. Accelerometers have been popular because their price point makes earlier encoder systems expensive, but the costs of developing algorithms and wearable hardware have yet to cause earlier systems to struggle.
The sale of camera systems, whether traditional video or motion capture solutions, is growing. Entry-level solutions like apps have saturated the smartphone market, and several options with enterprise professional systems are available. The expectations are that the new products will consist of camera and accelerometer systems, while legacy systems will continue to be sold and supported.
Software and Third-Party Integration
The user experience and/or workflow of the product determines much of the success during training. When researchers test athletes, they aren’t as concerned with time constraints and other coaching needs, as they focus on the integrity of the data and how the system performs scientifically. With group and team environments, coaches have additional requirements outside of the accuracy and validity of the product.
A tradeoff exists between data quality and how team-friendly the system is. In addition to simple feedback demands, another responsibility of the software might be pushing workouts to athletes in advance, as enterprise workouts that are preloaded radically improve the workflow. Nearly all of the systems use a reactive approach to training, meaning the athlete is expected to select exercises and record weights. Therefore, efficient apps are instrumental to accomplishing more in the weight room.A tradeoff exists between data quality and how team-friendly the system is. Click To Tweet
Several athlete management systems have partnered with hardware vendors, and some turnkey solutions have made their data available for export and API integration. Cloud options that provide a simple or extensive web application are the new normal, as data synchronization, storage, and integration are expected to be a starting point versus an option now that the market has matured. Nearly every new company that has emerged in the last few years provides a web application, proving that strength and conditioning software needs to either partner or provide a way to reduce the athlete’s burden of inputting the data.
The Weight Room Tracking Market as of 2018
We have removed a few companies from this list because they no longer support or sell equipment, and we didn’t include a few systems because they are not agnostic to barbells and are for internal equipment such as flywheel and mechanized resistance. All of the systems listed are available as of 2018, but many of them may no longer be available for sale in time.
The Colorado company Assess2Perform provides a very straightforward VBT system, and both the company and Bar Sensei product have the ability to evolve due to their agile natures. The system is completely dependent on the iOS platform, and has an efficient workflow due to the simple design of the app. In addition to the Bar Sensei, Assess2Perform also invented the Ballistic Ball and has other medical products. Founder Scott Damman spent years with Myotest, another velocity-based system that was popular with some coaches years ago, until the market became more competitive. Anticipating this change, Scott launched his own line of equipment and has led the small company into the professional market.
Most coaches in the U.S. will be familiar with TENDO systems, as the popularity of their device permeated the strength and conditioning world in the early 2000s. Their product provides simple feedback information with data delivered via a digital readout, as the equipment was designed before smart devices and consumer-friendly wireless technology. TENDO is based in the Slovak Republic and their product hasn’t changed over the last 10 years. While coaches will likely continue to use it, they probably won’t invest in the system because TENDO lacks features that make workflow efficient, such as partnerships with AMS products and the ability to push workouts.
Beast is an Italian company that supports a wearable system incorporating wireless convenience with conventional metrics, including measures such as explosiveness. A web portal and its ability to measure explosive movement are valuable parts of the Beast Sensor solution. At first, the Beast system measured the bar directly, then it went to wearable technology while its competitor Push went to the barbell directly. Beast is popular with some individuals, but doesn’t have the following in elite sport to leverage like other companies, so we don’t know what the future holds for it. The Sensor provides a very rich UX and is available internationally.
This Canadian company just released a new version of their PUSH Band. It’s more versatile for placement on the bar or wrist, and is one of two wearables available. The other notable factors for PUSH are its workout builder web application and other benefits like the open measurement feature that came out last year. PUSH recently started NEXUS in an attempt to connect to the CrossFit market. In addition to the VBT system, they have a monitoring tool that was released to help teams and organizations monitor athletes, but the system has not made significant inroads into the AMS market. Their AMS solution is novel and very pragmatic, but with limited research, not many companies are able to provide everything to everyone.
Kinetic Performance, based in Australia, is the company that sells the GymAware system, and they’re the current leader in barbell tracking technology. Kinetic Performance’s founders started the company to support elite athletes. They have distributors in the U.S., and GymAware is internationally known as a valid and reliable system for barbell performance. In addition to the hardware, Kinetic Performance also has GymAware Cloud, a solution that enables users to create reports, gather extended data such as barbell path, and even do more analysis if needed. The GymAware system is wireless and works with iOS devices. In addition to the VBT system, the company also has a simple monitoring system, but seems to focus mainly on their GymAware hardware.
RepOne (Squats and Science Labs)
New York-based Squats and Science Labs is attempting to disrupt the market with a low-cost hardware system and potentially a lite AMS solution, similar to PUSH. They are the last company to integrate a linear encoder, as every new barbell tracking system is now likely IMU- or camera-based. There have been problems with product availability, as they are new to the market and are expanding their system to include a weight training workout builder. The app is a clean design and the users find the experience to be efficient and straightforward. Buyer confidence will likely grow if their system can be easily purchased and supported.
Ergotest is one of the founders of velocity-based training equipment, as they invented solutions decades before many of the other players entered the space. Based in Norway, the company designs and manufactures all of their systems. They have a linear encoder, timing systems, contact grids, load cells, electromyography, IMU sensors, laser tracking systems for speed, resisted and assisted machines, and even a force plate. What makes Muscle Lab compelling is their systems all synchronize together, so all the data fuses seamlessly. Many Muscle Lab users are from Europe, but use of the product is growing rapidly in the United States. The systems are reliable and many of the validation studies show the data is interchangeable with more expensive options.
This Massachusetts-based company is new to the VBT market, and sells one of the two systems that employ motion cameras to estimate barbell performance. Perch uses sophisticated algorithms and can capture the data of the bar without any attachments. In addition to the backend, the system mounts to nearly any type of squat rack, and can measure the key movements in real time. Founded by MIT graduates, the company is small but very agile for development, and the startup is in the Techstars program for entrepreneurs. The system is now available for college and pro teams, and sales are expected to grow over the next year. Other similar systems are currently in stealth mode, but expect them to launch in 2019.
The second motion capture system on the market is from a company in Nebraska, and provides both strength and conditioning software and the hardware to monitor barbell speed. The system is mainly popular with colleges, and recently found success with the NFL Philadelphia Eagles and teams in the NCAA, NHL, and other professional institutions. EliteForm has several features besides barbell performance, but the system is primarily concentric velocities and video feedback. The software planner is currently free, but it’s unknown what the future holds for the company as new competitors in the camera market are under development.
This Spanish company provides an array of open source solutions for those with a smaller budget, and offers a linear encoder for barbell tracking. Chronojump is known for their contact surface technology and for promoting the work of Carmelo Bosco. In addition to barrel speed tracking, the company has timing gates for speed analysis and other simple solutions like load cells. They have had some top clients, mainly because the sport scientists love the ability to use open source software and custom solutions. Chronojump has experience working with flywheel technology as well. A few other Spanish companies do have solutions, such as T-Force and Speed Lifts, but the international adoption of those systems is unknown.
Expect a little increase in the number of new systems in the future, as the market opportunity is low due to the small market and poor monetization abilities. Unlike endurance products that make remote training possible, most subscription or remote monitoring programs are unavailable in the speed-power market. A probable revolution in commercial fitness may disrupt the entire market, but without years of development it’s unlikely a product will dramatically alter the landscape of the weight room monitoring space. PowerLift and other apps are excellent for small scale use, but are not common in training for teams and large groups.
Suggestions for Budgeting and Final Recommendations
The most important part of strength and conditioning is knowing if the training program is eliciting favorable adaptations in performance and injury reduction. Barbell tracking is only a small part of that equation; thus, coaches must budget for all of the needs of sports training, including other technologies as well. Overall, most organizations will want to invest in weight room technology to collect data and deploy training programs.Coaches will want to invest in weight room technology to collect data & deploy training programs. Click To Tweet
We recommend that before investing any money into a system, you make sure the device has peer-reviewed research validation or there’s the opportunity for your sport science department to conduct independent evaluation of the product. Reliability is a starting point, and higher levels of accuracy and precision will enable a coach to program with far more sophistication and confidence. In addition to the initial purchase, it is important to consider the entire cost of servicing the equipment, replacing hardware, budgeting for software subscriptions if needed, and training.