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
It’s time to let go of traditional velocity-based training (VBT) and move on to a more modern and complete way of managing the weight room. VBT had its time, and frankly we now just need to do better with both science and technology. In this article, I cover a lot of issues and recommend real solutions that will make a difference, with the goal of presenting a strong case for moving on from what may have been a good starting point.
The truth of the matter is that monitoring a barbell’s movement in training is actually far more complex than just its speed moving upward. Lifts like bench press may seem straightforward, but if you do your homework, it will surprise you how much is happening. When you start looking at other exercises and the accumulation of training, you can no longer track concentric speed readings, commonly referred to as mean and peak velocity.
If you want to put your head in the sand and just continue to use proxy metrics or thin slices of time, don’t bother reading this. If you want to do the best for your athletes, please consider the value of seeing the complete picture.
Load Vector Tracking – Should We Dump VBT?
Bryan Mann is immortalized, and for good reason, as being an evangelist for barbell tracking. He coined the phrase “velocity-based training,” and now a decade later we still view the term as doctrine. In reality, it was just an ebook title, not a summary of what we can do with barbell measurement. Yet if it wasn’t for Bryan, I wouldn’t have written this article, as it stands on the shoulders of his work.
A new crop of researchers is rightfully calling the process of barbell tracking, “load velocity training,” due to the interrelation of the weight of the barbell and the speed of the movement. While I agree that term is better and arguably more appropriate, it’s still incomplete. The issue is that tracking barbell load and speed is not the whole story, as coaches care about technique and how the body interacts with the load. Vectors or tracing of the barbell action is a better direction, but still far from perfect.
I recommend “load vector tracking” only as a placeholder, and someone with a gift for catchy acronyms needs to create a better term. It’s not that Dr. Mann was wrong with his term—he wasn’t claiming that observing concentric velocities was everything—it’s that the coaching community just stopped thinking for themselves and failed to ask what is possible with weight training measurement. The more we use VBT and fail to include other discussion points such as barbell path and descriptors of force, the more we will continue to stagnate as a profession.The more we use VBT and fail to include other discussion points such as barbell path and descriptors of force, the more we will continue to stagnate as a profession, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The key takeaway is simple: We need to know what valuable information we can extract from strength training outside of sets, reps, and weights. Sure, those are essential variables, but they won’t help more advanced athletes, who have more precision requirements. Paradoxically, the use of barbell tracking technology is great for beginners as well, as there is far more to how fast an athlete benches, such as reinforcing ranges of motion and even position. Strength training isn’t just speed, it’s mechanics and output, and it’s time to evolve.
Bryan Mann literally did the heavy lifting to make VBT valuable, and we have much to thank him for. However, we collectively need to make progress with all of the information we have now to help athletes get better with barbell tracking.
The Right Path Is Bar Path
If your current barbell tracker can only measure mean or peak velocity, it’s time to upgrade to a system that can actually provide the entire event trajectory, not just a snapshot or averaged summary. Some companies have falsely claimed that they have bar path available for coaches, but based on either hardware specifications or lousy research findings, they can’t deliver. GymAware and the German Vmaxpro product can trace lifts rather well, and that is important if you want to see how loads interact with different exercises.
If a company doesn’t provide bar path now, why not? What will they do in the future?, asks @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Technique matters, so if a company dismisses it, be careful. It’s likely they are either hiding the poor long-term vision of what the product should be, or they don’t want the market to catch up because it will force them to change marketing and product development. Bar path—specifically, the lack of an ability to measure it—is a black eye to many companies that want the discussion to go away. If a company doesn’t provide bar path now, what will they do in the future? Maybe a better question is why don’t they have bar path, when the science is sitting on the side, waiting for the market to catch up?
Simple measures, like barbell stroke distance, don’t just help high school coaches make sure athletes repeat their technique; squat depth and range of motion in the bench press are also important measures. Monitoring work is an advantage for those who need super precise management of loading in the weight room. We study, coach, and need barbell path in sports performance for the reasons just mentioned.
The value of bar path is huge, and it rightly deserves a three-part series, as it’s vastly complex and demands more attention than my earlier blogs. I am actually disappointed that the coaching community has very little shared information on bar path, but if companies don’t make it acceptable, it’s tough to blame the field. I expect this to change now that FLEX and other systems are more mainstream. The app market really hasn’t done much to move things forward, mainly because video analysis takes time after training, and coaches demand feedback during the process or automation for more effective post training reviews.
To me, bar path is embracing the entire “animal,” if you will. Let’s say a rhino, for example. The uninformed are causing a mass extinction by incorrectly assuming that a small part of the creature is everything and the rest should be discarded. I know this isn’t a perfect analogy, but it’s good enough to make us all rethink why we need to value the entire movement, not just one or two metrics.
Measurements That Matter and What Athletes Need
My article on rate of force development (RFD), specifically titled “Explosive Strength Development,” is a good primer on the topic, but hardly complete. The use of RFD is extremely controversial, as it must be carefully analyzed to ensure that the measure accurately portrays what is truly happening or actually valid. Most rate of force measures are not valid or useful to coaches, and without measuring, claiming that an improvement in RFD is occurring is just pretending.
I don’t get emotionally distraught when coaches who barely record reps and sets claim RFD enhancement, but I quickly lose confidence in them. Barbell training helps produce better abilities to accelerate a load, but it’s a stretch to use a metric with a narrow time frame on a few exercises and assume it will create better athletic development later. We shouldn’t discard RFD from our evaluation of how strength training is trending, but we can’t make blanket statements that are excessively bold and misleading.
Nearly all the popular lifts use average or mean velocity of the concentric phase, or slice just the peak speed out of the partial motion. How the bar descends and transitions is instrumental to the reading of positive net velocity, but due to the complexity, coaches tend to accept sampling the speed of the concentric motion. I am okay with that and do it myself, but only because I know what is happening surrounding the reading.
Comparing actions between athletes and various exercises is hard without context, so relying just on peak or mean velocity is a problem. Eccentric velocity and other measures such as barbell stroke distance are important. Squatting is the most obvious example of comparing apples to apples. When the load increases, athletes tend to want to decrease their depth. Comparing speeds concentrically may not be a good idea unless you know the athlete is repeating the movement exactly.
Other measures such as mean propulsive velocity (MPV) and power readings are promising, but I will cover both their limitations. MPV was explained by Dr. Loturco, and while it has value, it’s not a measure that will dramatically shake things up. The combination of MPV and other data points is intriguing, but again, it’s similar to mean velocity and not every lifting exercise and load is a good fit. I like power readings because the load and velocity have an excellent relationship with performance. Cluster sets, the crown jewel of barbell speed training, are a must with intermediate to advanced athletes.Wattage, specifically relative to the context of the athlete’s body weight, is a direction we need to move in, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Power training works when athletes are sufficiently strong, but we now know you don’t have to wait in a sequence of “get strong first” and then attempt to be explosive later. Wattage is great for those wanting to see how they are improving when a load may not increase due to logistical or philosophical needs. Wattage, specifically relative to the context of the athlete’s body weight, is a direction we need to move in.
Thresholds, Zones, Profiling, Testing, and Monitoring Fatigue
This section is a huge one, perhaps the most popular with coaches, and I will attempt to cover a lot of research and science. Barbell tracking had a lot of promise 10 years ago, and plenty of smart coaches found success using GymAware and other tools like the Ergotest Linear Encoder. I have seen studies that at first glance looked conflicting, but they merely hinted that for specific circumstances, velocity-based training is not a panacea. The experience I have had for the last 10 years will not change my beliefs on the available science, but it will make me question opinions that oppose the research.
The idea of velocity zones, especially the work of earlier researchers from decades ago, needs to go away. If I hear speed-strength and strength-speed mentioned one more time by coaches, I may need to walk away and work on mindfulness training! Zones are constructs that look good on paper, but we need to think about thresholds for what is happening, not try to hit speeds that really don’t mean much without bar path and load information. I understand coaches love percentages, but honestly, like the word “functional,” it’s about how useful a concept is to improving outcomes, not whether it looks like the sport.
Thus, we need to appreciate thresholds in relation to relative loading, such as squatting heavy enough to improve maximal strength without exhausting an athlete or jumping at specific joint angles. It’s important to have an estimate of an athlete’s maximal strength, but wisdom is knowing how much strength works best and how to get there. My recommendation is to use bar speed to:
- Determine when an athlete is grinding heavy on a lift based on their lifting style and training experience.
- Know when to intelligently add more load to exercises such as cleans, snatches, and jerks with razor precision.
- Potentially know when an athlete is overreaching, entering planned fatigue, or needing a day off.
- Decide when to cut off an athlete for the day or testing session without risking unwanted baggage such as central and peripheral fatigue.
I don’t recommend chasing loads, and speeds improve neuromuscular qualities. When I see speed deadlifts for 5–6 reps, they’re just faster because they’re lighter, and they’re unlikely to improve an athlete’s power. I am not saying athletes have to train in a polarized fashion, but progressive overload is a great card that you need to play as long as possible until you stop winning the iron game.Velocity zones are constructs that look good on paper, but we need to think about thresholds for what is happening, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
When an athlete is advanced, maybe use specific power and velocity methods, but I mean highly advanced and super elite. If you are not able to express your strength beyond relative body weight, then I am suspicious of attempts to extract physiological responses from zones. Thresholds, or identifying when the load is playing with fire or when athletes are looking sharp, are everything now.
Other areas, such as profiling and specifically the force-velocity relationship, are used for estimating or predicting what an athlete can do with heavier or lighter loads. Most coaches like to use lighter loads rather than a true all-out attempt so they can estimate maximal strength without reaching potentially risky numbers. Based on the research, it makes sense to go slightly higher than 90% of a repetition max on strength exercises, and just use thresholds on ballistic and Olympic lifts and their derivatives. Taking a lift and testing three loads from 40–80% may work with some skilled athletes who fit well within that model, but many athletes don’t have the experience or technique working with very heavy loads, so their abilities don’t match their barbell skills. The opposite is also true. Some athletes are skilled, but their physiology doesn’t scale at higher or lower loads, so they need to find other means to train power or maximal strength.
The last issue that is controversial is fatigue monitoring with barbell training and even force plates. Most of the research that fails to support its use is well-designed, so it’s likely that fatigue needs to be deep for an acute measure to be sensitive enough to trigger an accurate alert. Machine learning and modeling will help automate this process, but for now, the objective biofeedback, a coach’s experience and skills, and athlete interaction are enough to observe fatigue that renders a workout problematic. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if an athlete is tired, but you don’t want to find yourself months into training having made no progress.
The goal of barbell tracking is to ensure the mitigation of common roadblocks, friction points, and surpluses, and I know this is possible with the right program. Research showing basic rep schemes not being able to detect fatigue with drop-offs in velocity is understandable, as I have witnessed the same limitations. Still, if programmed right, training can reveal fatigue when you monitor all areas, not just the bar.
The Dangers of Transfer and Correlation
Some coaches have noted (correctly) that sprinting at 10 m/s is far different than 2 m/s, and this argument was brought up more than 30 years ago with Tudor Bompa’s conversion phase. It’s not a new point, and we have known for decades that specificity matters, but we have to look at the majority of athletes, and they don’t all compete in the 100-meter dash. I agree that trying to get an athlete faster horizontally with fast lifting is kind of foolish, but performing a better job in the weight room is wise if it’s done safely and effectively.
Sprinting can help reduce hamstring tears if programmed correctly, but I don’t think it’s enough to help decelerate an athlete and redirect momentum. So, while sprinting is the ultimate solution, remember that to support growth, we need to do more than just rest between the speed sessions. Do the exercises right and in the way they were intended, and use the information properly.Instead of smirking about sprinting being better than lifting for developing body speed, we need to respect the lifting process, as it will help amplify the field, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I still make the case that barbell tracking is part of athlete development and will eventually pay dividends, but wanting it to directly transfer to peak sprint velocity is pigeonholing a movement into a very limited application. Strength is never a weakness unless other qualities are ignored. Every well-trained athlete will hit a genetic ceiling, so even sprinting experiences diminishing returns later in a career. Expecting a fast barbell motion to produce fast 40-yard dashes is wishful thinking, but being explosive does give you a better chance for the first few steps, especially with larger athletes.
Instead of smirking or muttering under our breath that sprinting is better than lifting for developing body speed, we need to respect the lifting process, as it will help amplify the field. As a profession, we need fewer areas of contention, as most of the arguments are really pointless and just wastes of time. Strength training is a great resource for sports performance, so let’s do a better job with both modalities (speed and strength) and leave the debates for high school clubs.
Make Technology Work for You, Not the Other Way Around
I know this section will create a little frustration, but don’t shoot the messenger. We still have a lot of coaches asking what to buy, and the answer is the same every year, but things are changing. Velocity-based training is a combination of coaching and technology. Don’t worry if you don’t have the latest technology; just know that companies are improving the outcomes of hardware and software.
Push has done a marvelous job with a turnkey solution, but I still don’t use the product because the data isn’t the best available. GymAware and Tendo are reliable, but the online software world is growing—thus the desperate need for a fully robust solution. Coaches want to design, implement, and analyze their athletes, not just see a number flash during power cleans. It’s 2019, and the world has moved forward, but it seems that technology has only added wireless data transmission and little else. Tracking a simple velocity for a barbell isn’t easy, but we have done a good job for 30 years, and we can do better.
Many coaches point out that the world’s best weightlifters often never use barbell tracking, but should we rely on them as an example? They are the best in the world and have amazing coaches who are experts in a narrow domain, so perhaps they’re not appropriate models for generalists like strength and conditioning coaches. That sport has had a long shadow for decades, and team sport athletes don’t have the same competition schedule—I dare say luxury—as those who need to be ready a few times a year. It’s comparing the bodybuilder who peaks a few times a year with a fitness model who must look their best monthly to make a living.
With outside practices and the games themselves, we need barbell tracking to help monitor training just like heart rate sensors help a chaotic environment estimate stress. While many of the best endurance runners may opt not to use a heart rate monitor, we have to also be cognizant of what artificial means have shaped recent advancements in their sport as well.
I am a huge fan of technology, mainly because the right information can help you make a better decision if you use it properly. I don’t like technology if it becomes a burden, and when it becomes a nightmare to work with, it hurts the field. Most companies sell features and possibilities, and while those are nice to have, coaches have a finite amount of time and need a training environment that is laser-focused. Too much of the wrong equipment spoils the fun, not because it’s technology, but because it’s invasive and ruins workflow. Repurposing the technology to the role of administrative assistant is far better than being captive to the technology. My only recommendation here is to be vocal and collective as a coaching group, as most companies will not have their development team work on something while the squeaky wheel is quiet. Be loud, specific, and professional about how you need the tools to function in your environment.
Ditch the Old Bar Speed Readings and See the Complete Picture
As you can see, a lot goes into barbell tracking beyond how a squat reaches peak velocity. Instead of continuing to ride the wave of what is trendy or what is heavily marketed, we need to do what is right for the profession and that means improving athletes with the best available means.Don’t toss away your hardware and chase new systems. Focus on knowing what is right for your situation and stay stubborn to following both science and practice, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Don’t toss away your hardware and chase new systems; focus on knowing what is right for your situation and stay stubborn to following both science and practice. It’s perfectly acceptable to use concentric mean velocity and peak readings for biofeedback, but it’s not embracing what we really need to make a difference in barbell tracking.