By Carl Valle
The interviews with Dan, Mike, Bryan, and Mladen originated with the apparent confusion many coaches have with training and how Velocity Based Training interacts with preparing athletes. Looking at their questions, ranging from the most frequent to the highly sophisticated, I asked what I felt they especially wanted to know. I also answered the questions myself after looking at the great responses to the thoughts of these four men and found room to keep improving.
SimpliFaster: Olympic-style lifts are very specific to body types and technique, making them more than just a simple summary of peak or average output. Besides using feedback for motivation and accountability, what else can be done to use the data beyond estimating work?
Carl Valle: The amount of data from something as common as a block snatch is enormous, but the useful information is limited. Keep in mind that two options exist: the pull and the more complete lift. What samples of force and time does a coach need to make better decisions in training?
Mladen and Coach Baker made some very important points, and I’m adding a few more. Bar tracking technologies are focused on velocity changes with some orientation information. My concern is that raw data without kinematic information and even body dimensions reduces the possible choices coaches can make. Everyone is interested in bar outputs of power and speed, but the path and interaction of a human body are more compelling.
Coaches in team sports say they want more power using the lifts, and some have used Tendo for a decade. But what is the relationship between body speed and bar speed? When we start with that focus point, bar information is interesting and of some use. Rugby, American football, and other team sports care about momentum of athletes. How fast are they on the field or the court relative to body weight? Countless systems in the weight room resemble blueprints to stealth bombers, but when asked how they transfer specifically to speed we get crickets.
Getting off the soapbox for a moment, I will share what I have learned using a dozen sensors for bar tracking and how they relate to getting athletes better, since some indices are very slow-moving and may never get better. Most equipment measures the change in concentric acceleration of the bar in the X and Y planes. To me this is low-resolution data. Olympic lifts are binary when performed with a catch, since you can’t do a 2-second clean. If the lifts are the same velocity (average and peak) with more load, output is increased provided the technique is solid and similar. We see issues when coaches want to get better numbers and perform the lifts with excessive swing away from the center of mass. I usually see big numbers in the lifts and lousy jump numbers. Technique is hard to see with one-number summaries. So without video it’s a tossup if the performance was valuable or not.
Coaches need to move into what some call “Livestock Metrics,” though I prefer “Human Performance Descriptors.” Average and peak power relative to body weight and bar displacement is important. Coaches need to focus on impulse and how that score helps the athlete generate more performance in speed and jumping. Bar path is about how the barbell travels from start to finish relative to earth and a body, and the length of force application will change as technique evolves. Athletes may learn to catch earlier and wattage or power may not increase, so be sure that the goal is more output in power and carryover to some sort of field test. Most of the time I don’t see changes compared to those who don’t Olympic lift, except for RSA (repeat sprint ability). I have seen massive improvements to RSA and looked at the Bishop studies and think something is going on to the neuroendocrine system. But this is all conjecture.
Key takeaways are fairly simple with evaluating Olympic lifting training for other sports:
- Choose modalities first and throw away ideas of simple summaries but do use composite metrics. AMS products like CoachMePlus can fuse multiple descriptors for more intelligent training and working with VBT equipment. I believe that coaches should focus on training peak or average velocity to keep things honest on effort, and be vocal on the technique. When analysis is needed, move from bar velocity to bar output relative to size of the athlete (size and limb data).
- It’s possible to improve load and decrease bar output, especially when athletes are gaining mass and learning to time the catch earlier. The eccentric action of the lift exists with intermediate athletes, but decreases when the lifter advances in the competitive style of technique. Power options provide some eccentric action and elastic contributions, but they are not as good as jump squats and plyometrics.
- RFD may be lower from the floor than speed lifts with some athletes and studies, but using blocks and lifts above the knee can generate high outputs. Take caution, however, and remember the first suggestion above: Make sure you choose the right modality and each has normal and standard loading protocols. I find that RFD in jump squatting is valuable within my program, and I also encourage self-experimentation. My motto is “squat heavy, snatch properly loaded, and go light on the jump squats” so the RFD can be extrapolated. Olympic lifts should stay heavy and be fast, and add more load only when the athlete hits an upper threshold. Dumbbell lifts for Olympic lifting have yet to show value since most loads are less than 50% of body weight, making me wonder why coaches expect transfer when even body weight may not move the needle!
- Technique will change outputs by 20% or more. Even skilled athletes who change grips, postures, and rhythms will find themselves getting increases in expressed power because of the technical elements. As the athlete hits a ceiling with technique, the outputs will mean more in the jump data and hopefully general power on the field. I only use the velocities and outputs for beginners to make them aware of things. If an athlete is snatching 70% of body weight the numbers are unlikely to make an impact on the field unless the athlete is untrained.
SimpliFaster: Jump testing sensitivity is not perfect from the sensitivity being limited, but more reactive options that utilize the stretch shortening cycle add more validity. Is jump training worth doing regularly, a waste of time, or perhaps valuable enough to explore?
Carl Valle: I am a moderate with data, since too many teams use force plates like a Holy Grail and some are not doing anything. While boring, a middle-ground option is best. In my experience using the Raptor Test, defined by 3 sets of 5 explosive jumps sequenced to show interrelationships, is practical, especially during the competitive season. Variability of jumping is rather high with jumping athletes, never mind team sports like soccer. Still, testing 2-4 times a month is a great way to see willpower, or the gap between physiological, physical, and mental differences. Even motivated guys will find themselves bored from jump testing, so I like to do it only as much as needed.
The Raptor Test is integrated as part of the warm-up and is far superior to using a force plate with “proprietary software” to track fatigue or athlete power. Force plates break the P.E. rule of no lines, and setting up 10-12 power racks with force plates could fund another coach, a more valuable option than limited technology. Within a few minutes an athlete warms up with a squat jump, a countermovement jump, and then a series of reactive jumps. Coaches should compare absolute scores during conditioning periods that are low and see how they are tolerating volumes.
We see this with athletes who are monsters in the combine but become Popeye without spinach when fitness demands rise, so I like to see what an athlete can do in both environments. Coaches can see the elastic utilization ratio, a comparison between the squat jump and countermovement jump, and the elastic abilities compared to the previously aforementioned tests. The last test is very indicative of neuromuscular fatigue only when enough data is present and when other data sets are combined. Doing this twice a month during the season is a great way to track a trend, but will not be a crystal ball and predict a performance or game as well as other assessments. Jump testing is volitional, so lazy athletes can appear fatigued while some athletes will find the dark side of the force and perform well.
Video 1: Velocity Based Training is not about barbell speed only, in fact, it’s about human speed and body velocity and ball velocity matters just as much. This video we see an athlete expressing a lot of wattage using a Ballistic Ball from Assess2Perform.
The data Dan shared is something I have witnessed, and a drop from 8-10% of baseline may indicate a flag. But things like practice need to be incorporated or it’s a wild-goose chase. Jump testing isn’t perfect, so looking at what is popping out and what isn’t doesn’t need a sport scientist to figure out that things look bad. Also look at wins and losses or other mental states, because I have overreached athletes and they improved from going down to Florida when the Northeast looked like Siberia this winter. Again the benefit of the Raptor Test is that it’s a warmup and elicits a small skill and training benefit if done honestly. I have modified the Raptor Test with the Ballistic Ball as seen by the video above. I thought the LSU tables on projecting ability based on the back tosses were limited, but now I understand that absolute tests matter just as much as relative one when focusing on maximizing athletes.
SimpliFaster: Submaximal loads are great for estimating repetition maximal abilities, and research is showing evidence that general exercises and lift velocity can predict what one can do if the load is heavier. One worry coaches have is that submaximal loads with maximal effort for velocity is fatiguing. What is the best way to implement one-repetition estimation with submaximal loads?
Carl Valle: I don’t have a lot of experience with lifts that are moderate load and high effort. Usually I try to do heavy lifts like bench press and squats with polished technique and build up to 90% and stay in rep ranges that at first glance are supportive. Fatigue is fatigue and output based on best performances will show that. An athlete maxing out once may elicit a lot of neural fatigue, but an athlete doing heavy volume with maximal effort will have residual fatigue as well.
My main concern is removing grinding loads during the competitive season as I see overreaching that leads to non-functional states. When Mladen and his colleague focused on extrapolating bar speed of submaximal loads to predict 1 repetition maximum, it was a milestone in sports performance but does require high effort. It’s less taxing to see a lighter strength load done faster than a heavier near-maximal load done slower. The best way to show value is training in the ranges that drive strength improvements without frequent testing, but at times a true rep maximum may be necessary to break through barriers.
I have not seen loads past twice body weight in the squat show anything special, but that is a reflection of the program I run. Squatting deep and heavy just enough to support eccentric deceleration that primes the body for ballistic lifting is working, and making it secondary ironically enough has yielded better maximal and absolute numbers than ten years ago. After watching countless sprinters who barely lift run incredible times in all phases of the dash, I feel that strength trumps powerlifting pursuits.
SimpliFaster: Most holistic programs in the weight room and on the field use different strength training modalities, not just one type of lift. Besides alternating intensities and volumes, does bar velocity-type tracking help with better adaptations biologically to the body? Many coaches are looking into hormonal and gene activation as part of the training process. Is this a wrong path or a good idea?
Carl Valle: Blogs and tweets of gene activation studies with non-athletes doing very soft training programs annoy me. So does the lack of understanding of androgens and growth factors in training. Dan has some good points about people with the best lactate reading, mTor signaling system, or even total testosterone. Unfortunately relying only on-field testing is like trying to understand why a person is obese rather than overweight. The trinity of testing outside the sport should be physiological monitoring, performance testing, and the training program.
I am not a sport scientist (a common claim by Americans who strangely have no PhDs) but I listen to the smart ones. When combining bar tracking data and other measures, it’s important to see what is going on between rest and nutrition with heavy training. Countless times I see athletes not eating enough or eating too much, yet asking questions about amino acid profiles among whey protein companies. Like my explanation of how anemia can sabotage any runner with the best training program and coach from ferritin absorption issues, androgens and IGF-1 markers are valuable for coaches in the weight game with lifting. Testosterone alone is not a measure of anabolic status, since the research shows it’s great for fatigue. Acute responses are interesting if they show up with resting status, but coaches need to see how bar information relates to internal chemistry.
With three hormone panels timed properly, coaches can move out of how bar tracking is working to get better results, not perform miracles. As for genes, it’s interesting but not there yet. There’s too much talk about genes activating, and not enough on how the adaptations are showing up physically or chemically. For example, the idea that low-carbohydrate diets stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis is real, but you don’t need to ride on an empty stomach to get those changes. We need to see how workouts improve outcomes and the mechanisms, not look at mechanisms and hope they result in improvements in performance. A few researchers got lost in looking through a microscope and started pontificating on what lifting programs coaches should use. Things like 2×6 reps with machines are examples of the disconnect between applied sport science and generic biological investigations.
SimpliFaster: Following up on genes and hormones, muscle-fiber profiles of athletes are gaining interest. Could coaches do a better job of individualizing training based on one genetic trait—specifically the amount of fast and slow fiber distribution?
Carl Valle: Fiber estimation can show up with bar tracking when athletes are well-trained. My colleague and friend Jose Fernandez has collaborated on fiber estimation with androgen profiling and power testing since 2012, and the information is very useful with sports that tend to have athletes who don’t have the training biography. I have found that athletes with poor work tolerances are lumped into the faster type group because they are out of shape, not blessed with Type IIX fiber. Those who are not trained properly are sometimes lazy, and a fresh test may look like talent. But it’s usually guys who are brilliant in pacing their training to feel good. Learn from them but be warned that in the long run the talented but lazy always get hurt.
Like I stated earlier, interpreting bar tracking data can reveal the blessed, but remember that exotic cars need extreme personalization on conditioning or they will get hurt. When one knows type I fiber (via TMG), the faster myosin types are tricky without biopsy. The spectrum of aerobic qualities outside of Type IIX becomes a game of enzymes and mitochondria estimation and that can only be done with both high-velocity explosive testing and myoglobin/ hemoglobin tracking. This is very time-consuming now but will be consumer-friendly in a few years.
Coaches need to treat lifting and conditioning as ways to maximize fiber gifts and do damage control to the faster athletes by looking at what is left in the aerobic type I fiber and focus on improving the oxygen transport system properly. We tend to see a vicious circle of fast athletes being chronically injured, so the very Achilles heel that they need to work on to keep them from fatiguing (conditioning) is usually not available when they are nursing strains and doing workouts that are great for senior citizens but not elite athletes. Bar tracking can keep guys from grinding and depleting, and coaches need to have a wide set of data or they can undertrain and break a talented athlete down.
SimpliFaster: The final need of coaches is to make training work better in reducing injuries, improving speed and size of players, and transferring to sporting actions like deceleration and jumping. How does Velocity Based Training do this with athletes?
Carl Valle: Sport is entertainment so training is always second fiddle. Look at elite soccer and ask what can be done with 4-6 weeks of training before the competitive season begins. Knowing the constraints and time limitations, training can get better when transparency increases. That starts with recordkeeping.
Transfer or carryover needs to be talked about more. For example, eccentric abilities in exercises are rarely tested and this is why I like metrics outside of peak and average output, measures that are concentrically biased. I do think limits exist with barbells so sometimes looking for answers with the wrong tools is a fool’s errand. At that point other instruments are appropriate.
In summarizing the benefits of VBT tools with sports performance, three major points are useful.
- VBT moves away from eyeball estimation to precise measurement. Some coaches may be able to see changes in barbell velocity with power exercises, RFD and speed actions is superhuman and should be measured with the right tools. I reviewed the big players in an article on Greg’s site here and gave the pros and cons of all three products.
- VBT gives raw and simple kinetic feedback. Coaches need to shape numbers and not chase them. Seeing sloppy lifting with the Tendo systems in the early 2000s made me realize that while powerlifters may get attacked for trying to get better weight numbers on the bar, many coaches with Olympic lifting make the same mistake in trying to get better numbers on the iPad. Learn when to pull back and keep athletes training hard by immediate feedback.
- I keep learning about power development or management versus fatigue monitoring. This is more of a culture than something scientific because power is a combination of training and rest, so it’s a half empty and half full debate at times. What I do think VBT can do with testing is audit the entire program by seeing gross changes or lack of changes in power and explosive abilities.