By Carl Valle
I waited for more than a decade to get my hands on my own MuscleLab system because what you can do with it is unlimited. What started as a simple test of reactive strength turned into a full revelation of how athletes can get better from training data that means something. Data is still a buzzword, but honestly, when you have information about your athletes that was either a pain to get or was not previously available, data is valuable.
MuscleLab is a quantum leap for me, and every private facility and coach should get either the entire set of components or what they need specifically for their situation. Everyone who knows what they want and has a system loves MuscleLab, and I am sure you will too.
Who Is Ergotest and What Is MuscleLab?
Coaches get Ergotest and MuscleLab confused all the time—the first is the company, the second is the product line. Ergotest was founded decades ago by Ole Olsen in Norway, and he is truly the genius of sports technology. Ole is an inventor, and created everything from force plates and contact grids to the first power-testing devices, and even robotic resistance before it became mainstream in sport science.
If you are in your 20s, the velocity-based training (VBT) equipment you see now was likely built off the foundation Ole forged before you were born. I was in middle school when his inventions were used, and I am in my 40s now. Hakan Andersson from Sweden was the one who introduced me to Ergotest, and I am forever grateful for his support and guidance with both science and the right technology.
The Components of MuscleLab
MuscleLab is not a kit—it’s a product line, and each component integrates seamlessly to the other as you add more devices. Most standalone systems work wonderfully, but if you want to do a little more with them, many companies get stuck or look the other way because the engineering is difficult. Simultaneous data, or fusion of information, is diamond quality because it creates both reference and context to the information collected.
The software is more of a platform than an operating program, because you can create your own tests and customize them to perform the way you want. Many sports technology companies create cookie-cutter tests and, while convenient, many of them are not tight enough to work in training. The best tests are the ones you don’t notice because they extract ecologically valid data. The software has two settings, one for outdoor and one for indoor, so it can be easily seen on a small or large screen.
#MuscleLab’s strength is that it’s easy to combine sensors with just the click of a button, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Here are the main components that I use and love, and you can allocate each one to a station or combine them to create your fully embedded training experience. The strength of MuscleLab is that it’s easy to combine sensors with just the click of a button, and everything is intuitive.
Contact Grid: This unit creates a field of infrared lasers that can detect contact time and air time with razor-sharp precision. You can do more than jump on it—you can sprint and hurdle with it like a smart runway.
Timing Gates: The timing gates are conventional for collecting splits, but the device has an MP3 and allows for sound stimulus for sprinters or other athletes.
Laser System: Erogotest has a high sampling laser to measure speed and distance with amazing range and precision. When combined with a contact grid and other units, it expands its value to include other metrics like stiffness and stride length.
Load Cell: The wireless strain sensor is perfect for resisted sprints, reliable isometric strength tests, and validating claims of simple equipment like resistance cords.
IMU Motion Tracker: The wearable IMU is a great way to do gait analysis or get simple data on the movement of the thigh or lumbar spine. Anywhere you can fit it comfortably, the sensor can pick up motion in time and space.
LPT Device: The first velocity-based training system on the market was the digital encoder, later copied by Tendo. It can collect speed and distance of a barbell or other dynamic activity.
Electromyography Sensor: The EMG sensor is wireless and research-grade, providing muscle activity during sprints and other explosive movements.
Ergotest offers a force plate, electrogoniometer, and other systems like the Dynaspeed, but the components listed above are the heart and soul of the MuscleLab system. All of them work in isolation, and all of them can work together at the same time. Nothing beats having multivariate data work together instead of failing to synchronize. In order to see the time course of what happens in sport, synchronization is necessary.
Finally comes reports, with quick and simple summaries of the data. There’s nothing complicated or extensive—just the right amount of data, listed in a way that connects the data to the coach or therapist. I am a huge fan of the software because of its ease of use and speed of reporting. Export options exist as well, so those using athlete management systems can quickly upload if needed.
Wireless Features and DSU and SDI Cables
Coaches love wireless and many of the products operate without a cable, but sometimes for practical matters you need to synchronize data with perfect precision when sampling at very fast rates. Lots of equipment is now battery-supported and wireless, but at the end of the day something needs to be wired to charge the battery and provide wireless internet connectivity. Bluetooth is useful for simple physiological data, but when you need video and other data sets, you’ll want to use cable.
Sometimes it’s necessary to test or train outside at an area with low power and/or poor Wi-Fi coverage. That’s fine because Muscle Lab provides a solution. The DSU is like a portable generator, and has the battery to test and train athletes for hours.
The best example of the realities of cable and wireless limitations is the contact grid. The satellite bar charges with a USB wire and doesn’t need a wire to the other primary sensor at all, so you don’t need cables to connect the two. The SDI cable powers the lead sensor and communicates to it via either a tablet or desktop. The DSU is both a hub and a power source. Connecting multiple systems allows you to synchronize and display the data in real time on a computer screen or flat screen monitor indoors and out.
Collect Bounding and Hopping Contact Times and Speed
Speed bounds and speed hops are great-to-have options for kinematic data, but because force plates are expensive, vertical jumps are favored for collecting data. The beauty of having a contact grid is that it can cover up to 40 meters of distance if you have a well-built surface and use Astroturf. If your surface is grass and can be cut short, the sensor will work provided you elevate it a few centimeters. It’s not valid for true measures, but it’s reliable to see patterns that matter. Tracks and runways are perfect for contact grids, and using a laser helps show how conservation of horizontal speed is trending in training and instruction.
Video 1. Horizontal bounding with a contact grid is a great way to see if progress is made, and why. This video shows Hakan Andersson testing his athletes with extensive bounds, and testing is quick and easy to perform during training.
The addition of the Ergotest Laser is the game changer for anyone wanting instantaneous speed and not just splits. Splits help create a sense of how speed is changing, but if you want precision, combine the laser with the contact grid. I wrote an article on hurdle plyometrics, but the use of bounding with a contact grid probably needs its own instructional guide as well.The @Ergotest Laser is a game changer for anyone wanting instantaneous speed and not just splits, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Perform a Gait Analysis and Create a Smart Treadmill
The Buyer’s Guide to Treadmills showed two choices for collecting data. You can buy an instrumented treadmill, which has all of the hardware embedded, or you can add sensors and simply turn your treadmill into a smart treadmill with MuscleLab. Most professionals involved in rehabilitation find treadmills useful because they’re clinic-friendly.
The curved treadmills popularized by their novelty do have some limits and baggage that must be better identified and addressed outside of the gym. Derek Hansen talked about curved treadmills in his great article months ago, and we are both following up that summary with MuscleLab data. Using IMUs is great for those times when contact grids are not possible, as you can’t integrate force plates and bars on a curved treadmill. With Muscle Lab sensors, this problem is mitigated and professionals can perform numerous tests while training.
For simple gait tests, you only need a clear carpet or clear hallway and a contact grid to get started. Adding a laser, timing gate, or IMU sensor set means more data that really has value for a PT clinic or performance center. Video does make a big difference in explaining what is happening, but video relies heavily on manual operation and is best done with preloaded template workflows. Sensors automate the process, so if you have a camera get Dartfish, but if you want to maximize the software, invest in MuscleLab sensors to do the heavy lifting for you.
Assess Short Sprints and COD Speed
I thought about including this section first, as player speed is the most coveted talent in sport. Regardless of the game played, player speed matters. Sure, skill and strategy are huge parts of winning, but most coaches and therapists care about developing and maintaining player speed. MuscleLab can collect speed from traditional timing gates every 10 meters, or with a laser to slice it by the centimeter. In addition to the speed of the horizontal velocity, the contact grid can make starts a breeze with first step or first departure motion.
Change of direction testing is usually about total time of a 5-10-5 or similar pattern, but the use of a contact grid can help show the details of every step, especially in and out when changing direction. Deceleration is about the steps before, the eccentric force exchange, and the efficiency of the steps out. Additional sensors like EMG and the IMU motion options can add more insight, as you can place them on the body quickly and they synchronize beautifully.
Test Muscle Strength with Load Cells
Sometimes the gross strength of a joint or movement is valuable to coaches and therapists, and the load cell is something you can use easily. Coaches are likely familiar with this technology as the Nordbord has two load cells that attach to the ankle cuffs of the device. The hamstrings are assessed by the force applied on the backs of the leg from the torso and thighs, thus estimating the work done and peak forces on each knee joint. Coaches can recreate this type of testing on any static strength test such as the Isometric Mid-Thigh Pull (IMTP) or similar.
Recently, the use of a portable load cell and handle system was shown to have value in testing maximal force, but if you want right and left symmetry with absolute values, you should use a force plate. The system also doesn’t have interchangeable data with force plates, as it is not the same test and some caution should be taken with the interpretation of the data.Both coaches and researchers can use load cells—the information you get depends on your environment, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Load cells are not just for squats and hamstring testing, they’re for any test you can do isometrically with maximal effort. You can estimate the rate of force development, but you need to add EMG for research studies unless you have a very strict protocol. Again, both coaches and researchers can use load cells; how much information you get is dependent on your environment.
Discover Muscle Recruitment of Exercises
A time comes when you, as a coach or physical therapist, must blaze your own trail with the discovery of how active a superficial muscle is in a specific movement. Several experts in the field did this in the 1990s when EMG was seen as a research device, and we see coaches using prosumer systems now. Evidence-based training or rehabilitation is not just about what the research says—it’s about whether your program really replicates some of those findings and whether it, as a whole, gets results from the training. It’s easy to have confirmation bias when so many variables are unknown, but EMG goes right to the jugular of strength and conditioning debates. Is there muscle activity during a movement?
Take, for example, the step-up exercise or lateral lunge. How much activity does one of the adductors have? Beyond activity levels, you can see muscle timing with biofeedback—a benefit that is growing in popularity with rehabilitation. In the past, using EMG was a burden; now it’s clinic-friendly and coaches can use the information from small experiments with all of their athletes. EMG is growing, and we have plenty of resources on EMG science and its best practices in sport.
Measure Resistance and Power of Sled Sprints
The load cell is a perfect example of applied sport science, as it’s useful in training but invaluable in analysis after training. Coaches have always seen testing as a compromise with time and data quality, giving up training time to get insight on how a program is improving. The use of sleds for speed development is enormously popular, but the burden of knowing how athletes need to be loaded based on F-V relationships and other measurements is cumbersome in training and in the office. Real-time force analysis with sleds is not a dream—it’s a current reality.
In addition to sled data, coaches can connect the EMG sensors and lengthen the cable of their resistance machine of choice and get contact times as well. Not only does MuscleLab work well with internal devices, its external tools work nicely or play well with others. Sled sprints are not the only options—you can use resisted belts and other resisted sprinting devices like cable- and cord-type technology-free machines, turning any non-sensored system into a smart device.Not only does #MuscleLab work well with internal devices, its external tools play well with others, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Customize Conditioning Tests for a Tighter Protocol
A stopwatch is fine for collecting data from a long run, as evaluating something like a 1.5-mile test doesn’t need much. For athletes who are in the dog house or training room, shuttle tests became an issue because many athletes missed the interval and/or false started to roll into the run. I see this all the time, especially with the fast athlete who is smart enough to game the test to inflate their scores. With the fitness coach already vying for acceptance in some bad cultures, always making them the bad cop is unfair, but technology comes to the rescue here.
Timing gates and contact grids make excellent shuttle tests instruments, as the way an athlete conducts a test with a coach is just as important as the end score. Other methods to game the system, like hard acceleration and run-throughs with mild effort change of direction, are known ways to save the legs. Deceleration is far more demanding than slightly faster linear running. Since most shuttle tests are under 30 meters, athletes run hard by doing rolling starts or walking fast into the repetition, and float the exchange. After they finish, they run hard at the end because that is more efficient than trying to do a faster change of direction.
Repeated sprints can be done with timing gates but, like shuttle tests, this is for single athlete assessment only. Multi-athlete timing can’t be done with timing gates, but Freelap is excellent when you want everyone to run or sprint at the same time, and timing gates are for a group of athletes going one at a time, like a combine.
Force Profile Loaded and Unloaded Jumps with Ease
Force plates, contact grids, and VBT devices are all part of profiling and prescribing loads in training. I favor the solution that coaches are actually using, not what is best. Obviously, the use of a force plate is the best option for coaches, but it may not be the right one.
Sometimes a mixed environment is necessary because coaches can test more frequently with less extensive and expensive instruments, but they still need to get absolute data that is valid for interventions. A contact grid is great for the reactive strength index, but it can’t get right and left forces, along with eccentric data. VBT devices are great for concentric information and displacement, and sometimes those are great as well, especially with the barbell exercises.
So, what is the solution? I highly recommend monitoring with as many systems as possible, not just because it can collect more data, but because more systems may fit better with specific needs. For example, a basketball team may want to do weekly RSI testing and have three stations as part of their warm-up on the court, and perform monthly assessments in the weight room with other tests.
A great test is comparing squat jumps to jump squats, as 30% of your athlete’s body weight is enough to remove the talent factor from clouding the data and see how strength training is trending. True, this is not a perfect test, but I want to know whether the athlete is becoming explosive or is simply underpowered from poor strength. It’s easy to analyze maximal strength as it’s clear how fast someone is—it’s harder to see how a training program is providing progress. While far from perfect, the loaded jump without countermovement is safe and simple.
Build Your Own Lab
You don’t need to purchase an entire system to get started—just a contact grid to begin with is a great idea. Contact grids are not just for vertical jumping: they are practical for sprinting and change of direction testing and training, as well as horizontal bounding. After that, start thinking about timing gates, the laser, and even EMG if you are really interested in getting the right data.If you can dream it, #MuscleLab can measure it, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Truly, if you can dream it, MuscleLab can measure it. With all of the components available, MuscleLab is like Legos for coaches in sports performance. It’s fun, practical, easy to use, and, most of all, useful for getting athletes better.