Lay the groundwork for a high school program with one of the most respected high school strength coaches in the country. In this week’s Friday Five, Scott Meier, a strength coach with experience in both physical education and sports performance, reviews what it takes to run a thriving high school strength and conditioning program from the inside out.
As sport evolves, the line between scientific research and applied coaching becomes thinner and more blurred. Decades ago, coaches would read the research on force plates and draw conclusions based on the results of a study. A decade ago, some coaches were using force analysis with their athletes, but this was a rarity. Now, it seems that even the lower level teams are looking to investing in force plates.
In this article, the promise is direct: We outline the important considerations for making decisions on buying a set or multiple sets of force plates. We also list the commonly advertised systems for coaches, and which are used more for research.
Are You a Coach, Researcher, or Team Sports Scientist?
Those investing in force analysis are usually coaches wanting high-quality data, a researcher needing to investigate a hypothesis, or a team sports scientist wishing to add more evidence-based approaches into the performance model of a team. These three different roles may have overlapping demands, but the differences in each profession do create unique needs that make decisions much more complicated. Coaches demand workflow and ease of use, researchers care about data quality, and sports scientists usually want a combination of both. In a few years, the market’s expectations will be less narrow and specific, and will require companies to create a product that meets a wider audience’s requirements, not just the compartmentalized needs of a few.
Performance specialists are starting to play a bigger role in team performance, and most of the buyers of force plates are strength coaches. While a force plate being purchased by a strength coach isn’t shocking, what is disturbing is the imbalance between budgeting for equipment and the required education needed to not only understand force analysis, but also to know what to buy. Most of the time we see coaches buying force plates without a background in the knowledge required to identify what to look for. So far, we have seen many overpriced products adopted with huge amounts of buyer’s remorse.
Several companies have taken advantage of the sports data hype and have infiltrated management and ownership to work around coaches who know better, but that approach doesn’t work in the long run. With the cost of a typical set of force plates nearing the price point of a luxury car, some coaches have made the mistake of going cheap and buying concept education products, only to end up letting the equipment collect dust. The good news is that the market is starting to wake up and listen to coaches. We are seeing new players in this space and it’s really exciting.
While a force plate being purchased by a strength coach isn’t shocking, what is disturbing is the imbalance between budgeting for equipment and the required education needed to not only understand force analysis, but also to know what to buy.
Every coach should know their limits as to how much sports science they can manage in their craft, as the added information they know may not help manage problems in front of them. A sports scientist is an advisor or a resource, and has to compromise their knowledge of biology to the constraints of team and Olympic sport. Researchers, on the other hand, need to connect more with those in the trenches to help create insights on how to train better. The integration between art and science is improving, but the disconnect is still a problem.
What Are You Trying to Measure?
Sometimes the simple question we ask coaches can be perceived as snobbish, so instead of asking what they are trying to measure, we ask what exercises they are trying to evaluate. Asking what exercises they want to evaluate first and then using the term evaluation is a gentler lead-in than asking the rhetorical question of what they want to measure. A force plate is nothing but a glorified weight scale that samples changes in applied force at a high rate. The data from a force plate is useful, but it’s only one part of the puzzle, and it’s important to clear up what that information can do for a coach. Marketing can create hyperbole for the value of the force-time curve of a vertical jump, but dismissing the data is just as dangerous. Force analysis through a platform is the gold standard, even in the age of smaller and cheaper IMU sensors.
A force plate is usually an industrial platform that is robust, and connected to a computer or tablet. Due to the size of it, most of the time it’s used as a jumping device, but we are seeing more exercises like isometric pulls and even traditional barbell lifts. One important reminder though: A force plate is capable of looking at all forces, such as lateral and horizontal force, not just the vertical plane. You can argue that, most of the time, a strength coach wants to measure vertical force with most of the exercises they test in the weight room, but most of the non-contact injuries come from cutting or changing horizontal direction. Ground reaction forces (GRF) are often what many researchers are trying to extract from athletic motions, so they can look at what makes an athlete great and what can cause injury.Knowing the actions you want to measure makes it easy to decide on your best force plate options. Click To Tweet
Knowing the actions you want to measure makes it easy to decide what the best force plate options are, as they vary greatly in price and function. Buying based on cost is a fool’s errand—many of the least-expensive options are a time drain and will cost more overall in the long run.
- If you are trying to test jumps and pulling exercises, get a system that focuses on vertical force analysis and is semi-portable.
- If you want to look at athletic motion, floor-embedded 3-D platforms are necessary, and require a lot more time and analysis.
Jump analysis and change of direction analysis are the primary drivers for force plates in sport, and gait analysis and sprint evaluation favor video and other kinematic data. Kinetic forces from plates are invaluable, but are less prescriptive in technical nature (technique) and are more about training.
Hardware, Firmware, and Software Considerations
Before getting into the different companies and options, it’s extremely important to know how to make a wise investment in force plates by first learning how they are made. Force plates are measurement tools, so they are instruments and not toys, by any means. When buying force plates, coaches should consider the entire solution; not just make a decision based on the size and shape of the system, like they’re buying a sofa.
Hardware – Force analysis can be performed by two primary methods, using strain gauges or a set of piezoelectric sensors. Other options exist, but generally the market uses these two approaches. Strain gauges are extremely popular for simple household appliances and even novelty items, but they are also perfectly acceptable as research tools. Piezoelectric sensors are currently far more expensive—they can triple the cost or more—but some new technological innovations are resolving these price limitations. Generally, 3-D force analysis is more expensive than vertical force products.
Outside of sensor type, the next decision is to choose between a single plate and dual force plates. One plate can get the gross height of a jump or isometric pull, but two plates can reveal asymmetry problems or improvements. On the record, anyone wanting to invest in jumping or lower body analysis should get two plates because they’re a huge time-saver. A prominent researcher did correctly point out that you can use a single plate and perform multiple jumps to tease out information, but doubling the time is not practical in modern sport.
Firmware – Before skipping to the software and charting, it is essential to talk about firmware, or the lack of it. Most coaches will draw a blank on the importance of firmware because they assume the force plates are just magically sending over the force data to a laptop or tablet. The truth is, newer force plates process the information onboard and then send the near-final data to another location. Similar to velocity-based training options, you can use a tablet or phone for a brain or use the smart device just as a display. Different pros and cons exist, but, for the most part, having a “box” improves the user experience.
Most of the market has what we call “zombie plates,” meaning they are pure sensors with a relay device to move the raw information to a second hardware piece. We think that one integrated option is a better design, but some top-of-the-line products remove the PCB board so they can be thinner or easier to manufacture. We prefer composite products with easy replacement construction, but that is just a personal preference.
Software – There are three key things we look for when evaluating the software of force plates. The first is how easy it is to capture data. If it requires training or an instruction guide, it’s likely fine for research but a bad idea for coaches. Even if a researcher has all the time in the world, good studies have time windows, so the software needs to run quickly. Most software is on a laptop, which is not a best practice for a weight room even if it’s on a new Microsoft Surface.
Second after capture is the analysis side. When a coach decides to invest in a force plate, they want sharper data integrity and more richness with information. A force-time curve has a lot of milestones and is perfect to dissect if you know what you are looking for. Some software allows for easy automated review, while others are better equipped for a deep dive with sports scientists. A good table is all you need, and Contemplas is a good example of pushing out a lot of metrics instantly. We are currently seeing a possible trend with a web application, as many coaches want to “test now and analyze later” with teams.
Finally, we have the third key priority with software—export options. Some teams want to track the changes over the season to manage their athletes, and demand at least a .csv export. Ideally, an API can help streamline this, but only a few products are currently supporting this feature request.
Popular Force Plate Options in Sport
Seven primary options are available for coaches, and all of them vary in price and function. Before shopping around, make sure you are committed to using force plates at least quarterly with your program. Otherwise, it’s just about making the general manager happy and recruits think you are doing something special. Just having force plates can help win games from placebo or talent acquisition, but coaches need to think development, not showmanship.
Video 1: Athletes who are new to jump testing, especially the Bosco tests, will find the strict procedures to be awkward and very tight. Familiarization will come over a few rounds of testing, and in time the data will be more useful. Most athletes in the US are comfortable with a traditional Combine jump of using arms and reaching, so they will have to be educated on the differences.
If you are using jump mats that estimate lower body power and want more accuracy and information, upgrading to force plates is an easy move now. Be warned though, if you are not experienced with testing athletes and don’t have a good process in place, it’s too soon to buy force plates. We recommend getting good data before you start tinkering with something more extensive.
Bertec – The Ohio company, the Bertec Corporation, is one of the leaders in research and gait analysis. They offer many serious tools and have specific jumping plates and even a hardcore treadmill system. Bertec is more known for their hardware, as they really do a good job making sure the equipment is durable and designed to stand up to the most rigorous testing environments. In addition to ground reaction forces, some of the equipment is excellent for impact forces like medicine ball throws and other athletic actions.
Hawkin Dynamics – Hawkin Dynamics, a U.S./U.K. company, is the most progressive option on the market for coaches who want to monitor jumps and other exercises. They specialize in team strength coach tools that maximize workflow and simplicity. Boasting the first kiosk-style testing system for athletes, they have designed the most cutting-edge acquisition system for sport. Their product is for vertical forces, such as the jumps and pulls, and should be evolving to address other needs in the future. Hawkin Dynamics offers very competitive pricing and a web portal, and they are part of a new trend of companies coming down the road.
Kistler – This Swiss company provides force and torque measurements for applications outside of sport, but their force plate grew in popularity when some teams adopted their hardware from a third-party vendor. While their system is top of the line, their price points are not for small teams or colleges with limited budgets. We recommend Kistler only for serious research and for human locomotion like cutting and running, but not for general jump analysis. The software available for Kistler is not known to be very coach-friendly, but when you invest in Kistler you are mainly looking for hardware.
PASCO Scientific – We were hesitant to include what we consider an educational product, meaning something for experimental or teaching use, but not for coaches. True, the PASCO option is very inexpensive and several schools use the system because they are either connected to the research departments or have geeks like us wanting to hack the product to get some data. Be warned, you must know how to do some programming and have external software to calculate measurements outside of raw force changes. PASCO durability is not designed for NFL monsters and the data can be tainted if not constantly calibrated. Some people on social media brag about using the system as a sign of intellectual superiority; however, it’s more of a sign of small budgets and big egos, since it’s not a great option for the average coach.
ForceDecks – This new U.K.-based company is growing in interest, mainly because of their history working with soccer. ForceDecks has just recently entered the international market and has done a lot of client support over the years to help with education. They make dual force plates and mainly focus on jump testing with monitoring and talent identification. ForceDecks is a very small company, but has grown recently because of their visits to conferences and educational workshops.
AMTI – This company is located in Massachusetts. AMTI is a very industrial-driven company, committed to the general needs of human force and ergonomics, not just sport. Like Bertec, AMTI is a large company and has a history of working with international federations and researchers. The company’s strength is, again, the hardware, and they seem to be absent from many of the coaching conferences. Several professional teams use this force plate brand as we write this, but AMTI seems at a crossroads with providing products for institutions and sports medicine rather than directly for coaches.
Contemplas – This German company’s system is very dry but straightforward, and it simply performs well. Contemplas provides both hardware and excellent software as well. One feature of their software is that it can be used with other force plates outside of its own ecosystem, and this is very useful because most native software options are done with limited budgets. The force plates are very thick, and while they are technically portable, they are better for moving easily between facilities than for airline travel. The best feature of the Contemplas solution is the integration of video—something we love seeing in near real time.
A few white-label products or added value companies are not listed here, for good reason. If they do not make the force plate then they are likely an added-value service, and this isn’t worth mentioning. Some smaller players are not included simply because they are not producing a sound instrument. Measurement demands precision and accuracy, and if their system is unstable and fails to even provide a number, it’s better to exclude them.
Parting Thoughts on Force Plates
You can spend months calling and visiting coaches to see what is right for you, but the reality is that it’s only a good idea to buy plates if you know what training changes you are ready to make. Several soccer leagues do jump testing as a way to monitor fatigue, but what is the point of measuring something you know is coming if you can’t get athletes to lift? Force plates are great for force management in training, not passive sideline observation of practices. In our opinion, both sports medicine and sports performance professionals should include force analysis as a primary metric for keeping athletes healthy or getting them back into health. Movement screens have some value, but weakness and strength are cardinal signs of performance and injury.It’s only a good idea to buy force plates if you know what training changes you’re ready to make. Click To Tweet
Another important reminder is that horizontal forces, and the least-explored lateral force components of sport, are not available with pressure mats or in-shoe products. The strength of force plates is that they directly measure what happens when the foot makes contact with the ground, but they are not great “in the wild,” meaning with large groups in chaotic environments. Force plates are great for indoor use, and are terrible for outdoors because of the nature of weather and difficulty viewing data when it’s sunny.
While we don’t like making predictions, we believe we will see a return to force analysis because coaches want a true measure, not just synthetic calculations from IMUs. Although wearable sensors and barbell options can provide valuable insights, coaches love the simplicity of a system that can get to the heart of what an athlete can do: produce large forces quickly into the ground. Prices and feature lists will certainly drop and expand correspondingly, but for now the market is fairly stable. Expect a surge in coaches adopting user-friendly systems in the coming years, and athletes having more opportunities to get tested as well.