By Carl Valle
Coaches care about simple and easy ways to get meaningful data, and Ergotest’s MuscleLab contact grid is one of those tools that delivers. A few performance specialists have asked me to write something about the MuscleLab contact grid and make sure they had a best practices “cheat sheet” to work off of.
As someone who has spent a big part of their life in technology, I am well aware that coaches want to get the best out of a system, not do everything possible with measurement equipment. Still, coaches should get as much out of a device as they can to maximize its value. In this article I solve three needs, making sure you know what the MuscleLab system can do, how to use it properly, and how to use it to train your athletes smarter.
What Is a Contact Grid and Why Should Coaches Use One?
A contact grid is a field of infrared light that detects a person making contact with the ground. The field of light is millimeters off the ground and a little more than a meter wide, and covers a range of up to nearly 40 meters. Imagine a long red carpet, only the field is invisible and the device is sensing the ground at a very high sampling rate.
Coaches should know that the field is not tangible, and this is huge for durability when athletes are performing hundreds of jumps. Most force plates are designed for years of heavy use and testing, but some contact mats are not rugged enough to handle years of use. Even if a mat is durable, they tend to be only for jumping and can’t provide the benefits of sprinting due to their size.Practical measurement with a contact grid is a great option for those who know what they need. Click To Tweet
Coaches and sport scientists want to know how much time an athlete spends on the ground and in the air, as those measures have relevance to understanding the power and speed of athletes. Contact grids are direct measures of foot contact, but their inferences are calculated. If you want actual force measures you will need a force plate, but with large running surfaces this becomes exponentially expensive and not all research universities can afford those types of setups. Therefore, a focus on practical measurement with a contact grid is a great option for those who know what they need from the system. Here are the main benefits of using a contact grid, especially in sports performance and sports medicine.
- Measure jumping performance with Bosco tests (SJ, CMJ, and rebound jumps)
- Measure reactive jumping qualities (using a ratio score)
- Measure acceleration and maximal speed contact times
- Measure bounding and hopping performance
- Measure right and left leg function and performance (symmetry and power)
It should be noted again that contact times are great for calculating performance, but are not direct measures. If you want to get a direct measurement, you will need to use force analysis. To be safe, consider the solution great for speed, agility, and jumping. Do not assume it’s for strength assessment, as you will need load cells to acquire that type of information.Contact grids measure speed, agility, and jumping—you’ll need load cells for strength assessment. Click To Tweet
Microgate offers a solution that resembles a train track, or a series of strips that run parallel to capture data. The MuscleLab and Microgate systems provide nearly identical data, but the price tag of the Italian system is far higher than MuscleLab’s, though it does have a few benefits that could be necessary for coaches. For example, I love the drift test as it’s really useful for single leg jump testing, but with pressure mapping being more performance-oriented today, that test may be obsolete in the next year or two. If you look at the price per meter, the MuscleLab system is a huge value compared to alternatives.
How to Set Up the MuscleLab Contact Grid
Instruction manuals are far from perfect, even IKEA’s, so this section will likely be the most-read. If you are not great with technology, don’t worry—you can get started testing simple measurements like countermovement jumps in minutes. If you don’t read the instruction manual, spend time doing your homework and come back to this section. Like many, I was tempted to get started by plugging things in and experimenting, but I read the instructions first and began with software installation. I was worried that the system would be too technical, as we live in a smartphone world, but after an hour I was ready to go and doing things that I couldn’t imagine.
Before you do anything, make sure you have four hardware items and the license key. If you don’t have the key, you will be stuck halfway. Doublecheck to make sure nothing is missing—while highly improbable, anything can happen. If you have the hardware and software, you will then need to make sure your computer functions properly. As a Windows platform, the tablet, laptop, and desktop need to be in working order. It isn’t necessary to have constant internet access, and while a good wireless connection is important for general use, it isn’t a requirement of the system.
Coaches must remember this simple troubleshooting tip: Indicators lights are the Morse code rescue flare for technology. I can’t stress enough how much I hate when devices don’t have indicator lights, but I realize that sometimes this is not possible with all hardware. Indicator lights are easy to understand, and help regular users quickly see what is wrong. Power, connectivity, and readiness are three important indicator points you must respect. If you forgot to charge the contact grid bar or the sensor isn’t reading from a poor surface, don’t blame the technology.
Coaches are often surprised to find that their track was installed poorly or they have turf with mounds and dips. The beams of infrared light hover just millimeters away, so make sure you inspect your running surface first. I like using a laser pointer that is visible to scan the ground or using a laser measurement tool so I know the ground is good. It’s embarrassing how many professional installations are done with poor leveling these days.
Finally, the indicator light for the software ensures that everything is working and ready to record a measurement. In review, power is obvious and the connection from the grid to the source is clear, but the most common issue is that the two grid bar sensors are not reading because of user error or the environment, not the hardware.
Next is where many coaches tend to get stuck: making a test. The first step with the software is adding the names of the athletes. After you add the basic information for each athlete, remember that the calculations are not dependent on information. Just estimate if you can, but don’t expect extrapolated information outputs to be perfect if you are guessing weight.
This is where force plates are great, as they literally weigh an athlete each time they test them. Making a test is about knowing how to add the selected hardware and how to trigger things, as some small automation exists within the program. For example, you can select an athlete and record the event, and the software knows that you are measuring when the athlete jumps. This is very handy when you are by yourself.Coaches with a solid AMS product will love the contact grid data for monitoring training. Click To Tweet
It’s easy to export data or make a report; I prefer not to send reports because I read them myself and generally like to customize them. Parts of the reports are in my articles on SimpliFaster, specifically the speed profiling data with the laser. Contact grid reports are easy to make and emailing the data means just attaching the pdfs. Exporting into a .csv file is just as quick, and coaches who have a solid AMS product will love the contact grid data for monitoring training.
Common Tests and Training Uses
Technically, the system has no default tests, and this is both good and sometimes a little nerve-racking for coaches who like preloaded exercises or testing routines. Again, the product’s power is its only weakness, because flexibility is perfect for coaches who want to get a lot out of a system, but designated tests are convenient. Thus, this section will help you brainstorm likely essentials that most coaches will want.
So that it’s clear, this list of tests consists of common examples and is not an exhaustive compilation. Coaches should think about contact times and what you can do with that type of measurement, and not be limited to what I or other coaches do.
While most coaches will want to test athletes with conventional assessments of speed and power, small changes to tests make a big difference. Again, the ability to build tests is why I prefer using Ergotest products. I usually like sport science assessments, but need to make tests more ecologically realistic and turn workouts into data. I also prefer sitting down after watching Brooks Johnson coach, so a tablet with a wireless trackball is perfect outside, and a flat screen connection is ideal inside. Since I don’t own a facility, I prefer a mobile system, but many teams and training centers like a semi-permanent install.
Jumping, Bounding, and Hopping
Vertical jump tests and workouts are simple to implement, and I covered how to perform the tests using a Swift contact mat a few years ago. I also recently wrote about one of my favorite uses of the contact grid with hurdle jump measurement, as the spacing of hurdles and contact times is a great way to see how athletes produce leg power. Single leg hops in place for symmetry analysis or even horizontally for speed and skill can be done, due to the fact that the length of the testing area can range from 8 feet to about 100 feet if the surface is level and flat.
Video 1. Horizontal jumping is a hard exercise to evaluate with most instruments, but the contact grid is perfect for jumping and sprinting. Here, Swedish sprinter Stefan is using bounding to work on explosive power. Two key benefits of jumping with a contract grid are the range of space and the native surface. Click To Tweet
There are two key benefits of jumping with a contact grid: the range of space and the native surface. The problem I have with a mat or non-embedded force plate is that coaches who do repeated jumping tend to see athletes drift, causing issues with data accuracy from the athlete steering. As for using the native surface, an athlete can jump on hardwood or tight turf, creating convenience and realism for those collecting data.
So that no confusion exists, contact grids require a laser or timing gates to capture linear velocity and change of direction. You don’t use a contact grid to “time athletes”; you use it to understand times. The strongest areas are early acceleration, peak velocity, and common lateral change of direction tests. If you want speed assessment for agility, I recommend IMUs or camera systems for chaotic environments.
Contact times are great ways to see how an athlete sprints, including hurdling, if coaches want to collect data over three hurdles. With the right setups, coaches can use blocks or leverage first step triggering with various stances. Remember: The absence of both feet contacting the ground is a reputable milestone, but doesn’t represent first movement. Make sure you know what you want before deciding which tests to use.
Gait and Movement Analysis
Simple assessments of walking or running can be done, and while some coaches use treadmills for gait analysis, I prefer pressure mapping and IMU options along with video. The goal of contact grids is not to solve every problem or collect every data point; it’s literally to ground the process to see how other measures interact with foot strike. I provided a “hardware fusion” section at the end of this guide, but rhythms of contact time and flight time alone are excellent starting points, especially if you have a lot of normative data or baseline scores. Usually, sports medicine and rehabilitation environments want to see simple walking and running analysis patterns.
There are other tests, but keep in mind that many possibilities require more hardware add-ons. The strength of the MuscleLab line is that it works like Lego pieces and synchronizes with other hardware—hence the name MuscleLab. Universities and elite sport centers tend to buy entire systems and use all the data points to create a better understanding of athlete performance and health.
What to Do with the MuscleLab Contact Grid Data
A modern strength coach or sport scientist in an applied setting demands real-time feedback, monitoring qualities, and deeper analysis opportunities. The MuscleLab equipment provides all three. One of the reasons I am not a fan of radar is that it gives limited visual feedback during training, making it very useful for scientists but lousy for coaches who want granularity and visual feedback. Just posting the charts after sprinting or jumping is enough to make athletes aware of what they are doing without much dialogue. Flat screens are cheap—say $100 for a 24- to 32-inch screen—and they offer numerous benefits to athletes who may feel what they are doing but really respond well to visual feedback.
Video 2. Immediate feedback is great, as it allows each bout of jumps or sprints to be their best. Coaches can help keep things transparent for the athlete with direct feedback or enhanced feedback if they are filtering the information for the best interest of the athlete.
Monitoring is both instant and slow-moving data, since coaches must reflect on past measurements to make choices. Usually, if a coach doesn’t see what they want, they will change the program or ask better questions about rest and problems outside the training arena. Often coaches like to use force analysis for richer views, and contact mats or optical measurements for weekly assessments. Coaches often use force analysis for richer views, and contact mats for weekly assessments. Click To Tweet
MuscleLab is great for teams that need a good rhythm of checking on changes that matter, such as the reactive strength index or reactive strength ratio measurement. Sprinting has some relationship to reactive strength, but the time frames of 80-100 milliseconds with hip extension aren’t the same as two leg stiffness jumps or drop jumps of higher contact periods. With limited time, coaches can’t spend hours counting frames on video—they need the data pronto.
Last, but certainly not least, is deep-diving into either wide data sets (populations) or specific experiments (case studies). Ergotest recognizes both needs and exporting to other solutions such as data visualization and machine learning programs is common. The software is designed to organize and collect data, not do heavy analysis outside of basic reporting. If you want to do research and data science on the information, understand that exporting is not a limitation of the product, it’s just providing the resources that the majority needs, and that is basic feedback and testing.
Expanding the System with Other Measurements
Limited budgets make purchasing complete labs difficult, but if you are going to get started with Ergotest products, the MuscleLab contact grid is a great initial purchase. After the grid, the addition of EMG, IMUs, laser and timing gates, and even a video system like Dartfish is perfect to be comprehensive with athlete evaluation and training.
You can even integrate other systems, but realize the data may not synchronize; hence the value of investing in a DSU (data synchronization unit). If you want to collect multiple types of data, the synchronization device is necessary and important to keep the information collected on the same timeline. The laser offers the most exciting possibilities with high performance because it gathers real-time data instead of time segments. I love timing gates and believe that spits will always be relevant, but for advanced athletes a laser is a logical next step.
You can combine cable-based resistance devices with the contact grid, such as a Run Rocket or Vertimax Raptor. Coaches love jumping with loads without worrying about targeting, or artificially changing mechanics to land on smaller fields. Don’t think about changing much of what you do already with training; think about how you can capture data with your workouts.
My initial experience with MuscleLab was surprising, as I felt it would be overly technical, but the user interface is so simple and convenient you can use it in groups. If you work with youth athletes, make sure you manage them and teach them to respect the system though, as it’s not a toy. While the system is durable and engineered wonderfully, it must be appreciated. If you are serious about making an impact in training, I recommend investing in two or three systems from MuscleLab as the synergy is unmatched.
Final Thoughts and Recommendations
One goal of this article was to make sure I included points to ensure coaches wouldn’t invest time into technology that doesn’t fit their needs. If you are in a situation that makes training and testing difficult to do with a contact grid, an alternative may be a better fit. Sometimes not collecting the data is a stark reality we must face, but something can usually help fill the gap.The MuscleLab contact grid is more than a jump test option—it’s a great option for performance. Click To Tweet
If you want to make an impact with athletes or need something simple, a contact grid can make a big difference. Sure, there are other options such as apps and other devices, but what you give up is simply not worth it. If you are a coach looking for a great value with sports technology, this is one of the best options for performance. In the past, coaches considered contact fields a jump test option, but the MuscleLab contact grid system is, frankly, so much more.