When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
By Carl Valle
I am approaching a decade working with GymAware, and coaches often ask why I refer to it as a strength lab “power tool” rather than a VBT device. The truth of the matter is it’s great for barbell speed tracking, but distilling it to concentric bar velocity is only the tip of the iceberg. Tendo hit its peak years ago, but GymAware continues to evolve as a product and grow in popularity with its users for good reason: It delivers.This article shares some of what is fully possible with the GymAware system, so coaches know they can do more than measure how fast athletes bench and clean, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I should disclose the fact that I train athletes in mixed environments and need to be able to travel at all times. In this blog, I share perhaps the cream of what is fully possible with the system, so coaches know what they can do besides measuring how fast athletes bench and clean. While the need to gauge the speed of a squat concentrically is important, if we continue to use metrics that are not explicit, then we do our athletes a disservice.
Are Linear Encoders Dated and Why Should Coaches Care?
Before I get into the eight techniques in the article, I want to discuss how the GymAware works so coaches know they can invest in it and feel confident they won’t have sports tech FOMO later. I have multiple barbell tracking systems from various brands and they all have pros and cons. In addition to the equipment that is readily available, I have prototypes of new systems that are in the motion capture space.
What is absolutely important to know is that GymAware has more research behind it than any other system and can be trusted. Many investigations use the Tendo as part of their research study, but the device hasn’t been under the microscope like the GymAware for its validity and reliability. Other systems have shown that they are nice for feedback, but they simply are not accurate or precise enough for testing or training with real confidence.
Why should you care about the workings of the device? It’s 2019, and even the best of the best companies that have tried to enter the market have failed to deliver. The Beast sensor tried to get traction and had potential, but recent studies put it dead last on the totem pole for data quality. The FORM Lifting Collar was a good idea, but the product is dead in the water. I can go on, but the point is that the product has to work in order for it to be a business, and you need a product to be around in the next few years if you are going to invest in it.
Several IMU companies point out that the GymAware still uses a cord to measure barbell motion. They are right—the technology is not new and may seem dated. We can’t hype the wireless benefits of an IMU-based product and then use bands and chains in training.
You can use different systems with athletes, but I keep coming back to the GymAware because it is an LPT and I can trust the calculation more than a start-up guessing with a fleet of rookie engineers. Sports technology is littered with start-ups scraping by with young and inexperienced hardware engineers, and their algorithms are often created in a vacuum and then tested by coaches later. What usually comes out is a calculation based on known variables, and this leads to missed reps and phantom reps from not being able to perform in real-world conditions. I have no patience for a device that has a job to do and fails. Even if a system comes in and proves it’s spitting out quality data and its company is dedicated to sports performance, GymAware will still be a great solution for coaches.
Breakdown of the GymAware Power Tool
You should know that the GymAware is designed to help measure strength training, but you can use it for jump testing and even evaluating the Nordic hamstring exercise (NHE). I have said a few times in the past that the GymAware was recommended to me because it was being used for NHE testing. For those wanting a guide to getting started, I have a quick and dirty article on the basic needs.The GymAware is designed to help measure strength training, but you can use it for jump testing and even evaluating the Nordic hamstring exercise, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Note that this article will not cover basic measures such as peak concentric velocities and mean power. I don’t like including calculations of calculations, meaning anything that is either an indirect measure or a proxy, unless it helps to manage volume. Monitoring or estimating training loads in the weight room is a different beast than using GymAware for testing or biofeedback.
If you want exact forces or wattage, I recommend using a force plate system. Also, I am more than familiar with the research on barbell deformation by Chiu and others, so make sure you track what bar, exercises, and load for progress monitoring. Do not compare athletes unless you mount the attachment to the middle of the bar and know the model of the barbell.
I personally don’t do jump testing with a GymAware, not because it’s not reliable to get an estimation of jump height, but because jumping is better suited for plates or contact grids. This is true especially for reactive work that benefits from the horizontal capabilities of an Ergotest Grid or the deep metrics of a force plate. I still use the Raptor Test, but infrequently, as I am able to capture other monitoring data points. What I have learned from years of using the GymAware is that you don’t need to train with it every day to benefit from the information it registers.
Here are the eight topics I will cover:
- Depth or Dip of Movements
- Concentric Distance for Work
- Eccentric Mean Velocity
- Rep Duration or Tempo Details
- Nordic Hamstring Strength Evaluation
- Barbell Path for Olympic Lifts
- Estimating 1 Repetition Maximum
- Loaded Rebound Jumps
If you want to skip around and just pick one or two items and come back from time to time, bookmark this page and don’t feel like you have to do all of what I share. GymAware does measure and record other parameters, but these are the best that help me in environments ranging from high schoolers learning to squat all the way to an elite athlete rehabbing a muscle group that was not responding to conventional treatment.
Better Squatting with Dip or Movement Depth
Dip is technically when the bar drops below standing height, but I would rather just call it squat depth as it confuses coaches who may be thinking about jerks. I wrote about the barrel displacement being a secret gem of the product a long time ago, and Bryan Mann nailed the considerations of squat depth in his awesome piece here on SimpliFaster. When using the GymAware, I prefer instant feedback of displacement or trusting an athlete to learn to use their own dogfighting skills and believe in their body.The precision of depth with GymAware is better than any other system available, even the single-camera motion capture systems trying to penetrate the market, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
When you are not great at something, objective instant feedback is highly useful. Eventually, an athlete will need to get away from technology and rely on themselves, but you need to get there first. The precision of depth is better than any other system available, even the single-camera motion capture systems that are trying to penetrate the market.
Video 1. Squatting consistently at the same depth encourages better control and focus with athletes. Also, a reliable squat is better for testing when the loads get heavier.
Going too deep with athletes is still a problem. When athletes have been coached by a well-meaning parent or strength professional to go deep without context, excessive lumbar motion and hip impingement are possible. I have found that knowing the length of an athlete’s leg, their total height, and their depth of squat is very useful for other estimations of work done in the weight room. Obviously, the lean of squat motion can potentially disrupt the validity of the measure, but remember the system corrects with the horizontal displacement tool.
Concentric Distance for Work
Volume is not easy; we just need to be careful of doing too much. Now the risk of doing too little is growing because of the addition of microloading concepts. The issue with microloading is that if you get injured, you start rotting quickly, as you don’t have reserves. When you don’t have a big bank account, the spending (volume) is not as big of an issue as the lack of earning (training investment). Therefore, athletes need to see their hard work add up, so they know they have a chance to get back in the game later if they do get ill or injured.
The researchers have used distance as a proxy metric to workload, and we desperately need better metrics for the weight room as everything seems to be evolving on the practice side. One of the other benefits for concentric work is the units of measurement, as load isn’t just weight, it’s a product of the total output.
Obviously, general volume is not granular to dissect problems, but those who consistently break down over the long course of a season tend to fail because they have a poor capacity to train. If you don’t start a season with some sort of work capacity, specifically in the weight room, an athlete can detrain so fast they may never recover. The use of the Jules measurement for work is a little odd, but I think it’s refreshing for athletes to not be so worried about the load, especially taller athletes who are sometimes at risk of not getting a true assessment of what they do in the weight room.
Eccentric Mean Velocity
I am surprised that eccentric measures are not as popular with coaches, since many professionals love doing eccentric exercises. The reason I still use mean velocity with eccentric activities is that braking RFD is a better measure than peak value, and averages keeps the process honest. Peak velocity is more congruent for nearly all exercises for feedback, while mean velocity is more for estimating the negative work of the repetition. The measurement is popular during heavy and early training blocks, when athletes have established sufficient consistency in depth. Similar to concentric distances for work, eccentric mean velocity is extremely useful for managing eccentric overload to the body.
Video 2. During combine preparation, lots of coaches care about speed, but eccentric velocity is just as important. High-speed reps are not about force production, they’re about speed throughout all phases of the exercise.
I don’t use mean for ballistic activities or movements that experience high velocities. Mean velocity eccentrically should be strength exercises, not Olympic lifts or jumping exercises. My recommendation is to use the measure with athletes applying heavy loads and high volumes to ensure the weight isn’t too heavy. Usually, athletes with great springs—those blessed with attachment points anatomically and/or have neuromuscular systems that can express power—tend to get into habits of relying on their genetics and not their weight room skills. Eccentric mean velocity is a great building block measure for early training phases.I recommend using eccentric mean velocity with athletes applying heavy loads and high volumes to ensure the weight isn’t too heavy, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Rep Duration with Tempo Details
Going slow matters for early-stage rehab, and those in sports medicine should think of time under load and tempo as ways to control the remodeling process. Eventually, an athlete will need to explode, but sometimes slow, controlled motions are necessary. Tempo is something I wrote about earlier and stand behind. An athlete needs to be disciplined in the weight room or things get a little sketchy later. With IMUs, the tempo of the lift—especially isometric and slow actions— doesn’t fare well. In fact, the faster movements tend to do well with accelerometer-based products like Bar Sensei and the PUSH band.
Video 3. Very specific tempo prescription is a great way to instill the ability to follow directions. Adding tempo prescriptions, and knowing the bar is tracking the repetition in detail, helps athletes become disciplined lifters.
Time under load, not tension, can help athletes who are highly dependent on elastic responses to get stronger concentrically and even eccentrically. A combination of eccentric velocity and tempo data is important in the early phases of training. It’s not that an athlete needs a “base” of slow contractions, it’s just that developing athletes can benefit from being challenged beyond the load of the barbell or dumbbell.
Tempo is especially important for taming athletes who are a little bit rebellious. If you can’t trust them with basic tasks, when they start working heavier and faster things will break down. Romanian deadlifts, eccentric calf work, rehabilitation exercises, and conventional training can all be enhanced with biofeedback or just a simple auditing process.
Nordic Hamstring Strength Evaluation
I have shared the story of how I first really got sold on the GymAware product when the Nordic hamstring exercise was under the microscope in Australia. A few researchers were using the displacement feature of the GymAware, and I frankly found the data a bit odd to view. If you want to get the best reading of the exercise, you will need to get a Nordbord or use two Ergotest load cells mounted on a Sorinex hamstring bench.
Using load cells, you get true force analysis and the ability to see dual leg strength, but a global measure of distance, while not a true measure, is excellent for pre-season screening of who is good and who needs remedial work. For the record, I have seen plenty of impressive numbers for hamstrings with Nordbord testing without doing the actual Nordic hamstring exercise. Having great hamstring strength is just one variable with injury rates, but it’s better than being weak.
You can use a weight belt or a sled sprint harness to collect the distance the hip moves, but the total length isn’t indicative of actual load as athletes will fall into a push-up at the end. Determining the true tension breakpoint requires a velocity calculation, and this is where there’s a limit to the product. If you want to include testing in your program, I suggest using a flagging system based on the weight of the athlete and the range under control (velocity included), rather than trying to equate distance and strength of the hamstrings. Also, you should evaluate the hip extensor qualities, which is why I like testing with the reverse leg press.
Barbell Path for Olympic Lifts
Now comes the area that has the least applied research, but the most value: barbell path or tracing. Even if you have the most precise barbell path measurement, what do you do to improve it either live or over the course of a training phase? Is the data ornamental or is it really useful? I had the same questions a long time ago, when many of the methods of accurately extracting barbell path from a lift were laborious, but if you finally got the tracing everyone was wowed.
Nearly instantaneous or immediate barbell tracing on paper sounds like a dream come true, but the reality is you want to be careful with information overload. While it’s a vertical line plot, a barbell tracing requires interpretation. Therefore, the benefits of knowing the barbell path of common lifts are limited unless you know not only what success looks like, but how to use it in real time.
I’m currently not a fan of feedback during the set as only a few athletes and coaches will find this approach useful. If you see a bar path issue, you are likely seeing just a symptom of a starting position not working or a weight shift from a gross error. Smaller issues such as catching the bar in the snatch can all be remedied without barbell path analysis, so why bother? My answer is simple: The more reps you see during the lift, the more revealing the problems are.
Most intermediate athletes struggle to do simple things such as keeping the bar close in the Olympic lifts and not having the bar creep forward on squatting. Otherwise, I am not sure why an athlete would use barbell tracing. Post-training analysis is the responsibility of the coach, but making the lift accessible after the session is great for athletes who want to know how they are improving. The feature is useful and is something I use more and more, but it’s really going to be up to the community to shape this benefit of the GymAware.
Estimating 1 Repetition Maximum
The load-velocity relationship with elite athlete testing is tricky, since the variance of an absolute maximal rep is not supported in the current research. I appreciate Jovanovic and Flannagan’s research, along with Jason Lake and colleagues, but I am not a blind fan. When research is conflicting, you summarize the findings to the population tested, not for the entire population of all athletes.
I have seen 2% accuracy with projected 1 repetition maximums when the loads are within 5% of their absolute maximal load. What happens when the last PR was months ago, and a coach is juggling a host of variables? It becomes a crapshoot, as even the time of day can interfere with extrapolating maximal strength qualities. My solution is to limit estimating maximal lifts to only when you are within two months of testing a true maximum attempt. If you are not close to maximal effort, the estimations are not much different than a percentage chart.
Video 4. The key to training heavy is not to miss, but still take the risk that you could miss. Experienced athletes who are strong and skilled benefit from estimation formulas, while some athletes are not good candidates for extrapolating load-velocity patterns.
Exercises that have lockout issues, like benching and deadlifts, are not ideal for estimating maximal ability with submaximal loads and speed. Power cleans are better than snatches, in my experience, and squats tend to be fine for trained athletes. Again, my own data is not representative of your possible experience, so you will simply want to try testing athletes with a true maximal assessment and then see how close the formulas and the relationship look. Usually, a little regression analysis will find the obvious trend, that an athlete who is more skilled, stronger, and closer to their maximal ability will test well.
The rationale of using estimated one rep maximum numbers with load-velocity data come from my experience with cluster sets. I love using low-repetition work with athletes due to the rapid reacquisition of strength, but repetitions without near failure are hard to forecast with. A combination of cluster training and load-velocity regression analysis is gold because it allows you to train with a fresh burst of power and get sharp estimates of conventional maximal strength.
Loaded Rebound Jumps
Loaded rebound jumps are controlled jump squats that focus on the optimization of propulsive power, not the reduction of ground contact time. While reactive measures, such as the Scandinavian Rebound Jump Test, are great to have, they do take a long time to adapt to. Maximal velocity is the slowest to evolve of all speed qualities, so loaded jumps require a very patient coach and athlete to see big improvement.The research on velocity of barbells doesn’t support #VBT as a monitoring tool, but I am still optimistic because I have seen it work with very skilled lifters, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Loaded jumps require a longer time frame for developing power, so it’s more about ensuring the training remains sharp and fresh while respecting the sampling rate of the device. Elite sprinters take 80 milliseconds on the ground, so when training for speed in the weight room, don’t think about bridging the gap between the iron and the track. Loaded jumps help improve the power-to-weight ratio, but coaches should note that it’s really a momentum game of speed and body weight.
Video 5. A good squat jump uses enough time to gather maximal power so it’s an efficient contraction. You don’t need to train with peak power to develop explosiveness, but great technique usually means the athlete is moving cleanly.
Unloaded or light loads are heavy enough to be part of a warm-up before intense training, but you should not see them as a magic window to monitoring fatigue. You can use rebound jumping in many forms to help assess tired athletes, but without subjective data, it’s only a little better than a coin flip. Again, the research on velocity of barbells doesn’t support VBT as a monitoring tool, but I am still optimistic because I have seen it work with very skilled lifters. Much of the early research is highly dependent on mode (type of exercise) and measure (velocity metric), instead of something more zeroed in, like power exercises with very skilled athletes with composite approaches.
Take Your Barbell Tracking to the Next Level
Whatever you do, don’t just limit your training to instant feedback—take things as far as you can. GymAware is not just a “velocity-based training device,” it’s a “lab in a lunchbox.” If you are serious about taking the weight room to its limit, invest in the system. Athletes love using technology when it serves a purpose, rather than just being a way to look busy.GymAware is not just a “velocity-based training device”—it’s a “lab in a lunchbox,” says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Other areas such as the video feature and the leaderboard function are entire topics that deserve their own articles, but for now, the above eight topics are a great start for anyone trying to polish their game with strength and conditioning. Whatever you think of technology in the weight room, make sure you realize it’s not just about advanced athletes, it’s about making all levels better.