By Carl Valle
Unless you have been living under a rock for 10 years, you know that velocity-based training (VBT) is here to stay with strength and conditioning. What started as feedback in the late 1980s is now a major part of training, but some coaches are a little intimidated to go full into barbell tracking beyond a few experimental reps or “playing with a device.”
This article has one purpose: Getting anyone interested in VBT to feel comfortable doing the basics and helping those that are familiar and experienced to remove the friction points that teams may run into. SimpliFaster is the leader in VBT education, simply because multiple companies and expert coaches want barbell tracking to grow and know this online resource is the best platform.
What Does This VBT Resource Cover?
It doesn’t matter if you are a complete neophyte to training or a shrewd veteran who does actual sport science research with barbell tracking, this article will help you. Instead of rehashing the same boring and vague information that you can get anywhere, I will share the essentials but still include enough details that you can refine the process of barbell tracking. This resource includes four important areas: the science, the hardware, the workout, and the software analysis aspects of barbell tracking. Besides the logistical needs of using GymAware in a group environment, the reader will learn the following:
- What exercises and sports training movements are worth tracking.
- How to make barbell tracking effective and smooth for better training workflow anywhere.
- How to test athletes to extract better data during training or workouts.
- How to program and plan training based on barbell metrics and feedback.
- How to manage large squads with athlete management systems or GymAware Cloud.
- When to leave the technology side alone and train without any feedback or measurement.
Each section is complete, but more information and refinements are sure to come down the pipeline. Kinetic Performance, the founder of GymAware, does provide a user manual, but this article highlights other areas and expands on essential topics. What separates the information you may be able to get directly from the manufacturer from this guide are the small details that coaches demand, the nuances to make workouts click, and the ability to prevent headaches by recommending the right steps necessary to organize training properly.
What Is Velocity-Based Training?
Measuring the speed of the bar is a simple but revealing pursuit, with the promise that knowing the speed of the barbell in training will improve the outcomes of training. The science supports that knowing the speed of the bar improves effort, and using specific techniques that employ speed are effective. The real question is whether barbell tracking as a whole is worth the time and money, as weightlifting and powerlifting don’t exclusively use barbell tracking to achieve their success. Based on the cumulative research, athletes benefit from using not only the feedback, but the planning of training that incorporates measurement. The force-velocity and load-velocity relationships are two discussion points with barbell speed, but they are not the entirety of the science of training.
The term “velocity-based training” was coined by Dr. Bryan Mann, a strength and conditioning coach and researcher. His manual on training with barbell velocity was instrumental in moving the popularity of barbell speed tracking and feedback forward with U.S. coaches, and eventually the international community as well. Historically, barbell velocity was tracked 60 years ago using technology similar to chronophotography. It wasn’t until the 1980s and early 1990s that the use of a linear encoder became commercial.
The history of VBT is important because most coaches use two metrics to describe barbell performance: mean velocity and peak velocity. While those two measures are useful, they are incomplete. Peak velocity is exactly what it sounds like—the maximal speed the bar is traveling. Mean velocity is the average of the bar speed from start to finish. While both measures are useful, they only represent a very small fraction of what is going on in a lift because those gross speeds only represent the concentric part of the lift.
What must be understood is that contemporary training is no longer about the two barbell speeds of the concentric part of the lift, but about all relevant measures of the barbell. Basic biofeedback of common lifts with speed is perfectly fine, but analysis of what is going on should never be limited to one number. In addition to barbell speed, the barbell path or trajectory is extremely important in the snatch, clean, and jerk lifts. All of the information is interesting and promising, but so far, the only downfall is that very few research studies have made their way forward to show that training with specific speeds and loads is essential.Barbell tracking isn’t that difficult and is worth incorporating into any serious training program. Click To Tweet
Video 1. Workflow is fast and simple, and the product can be used alone if needed. Keep in mind GymAware is a powerful tool and worth every penny, so it requires an honest investment of time and energy.
Some measures are starting to grow in interest but still haven’t taken flight, and that is actually a positive. Coaches are skeptical about other measurements that might be poor representations of what is going on during a lift, such as propulsive velocity, rate of force, and barbell stroke distance. With so much information collected within a fraction of a second, coaches are simply overwhelmed when training live, and are drowning later when entire rosters of athletes have hundreds of repetitions that they must comb through. All of the challenges of training plus the additional demand of barbell tracking do sound daunting, but the truth is barbell tracking isn’t that difficult and is worth incorporating into any serious training program.
About the GymAware Powertool
There is enough science and practice of training with barbell speed and performance measures available on SimpliFaster, but the actual tools are only mentioned in passing. Most of the information is on the training, and should be. Still, without the sharing of details about the equipment, a coach can get frustrated and feel lonely in the process of using systems like GymAware. Starting from scratch, this section covers the main “need to knows” of the hardware and reviews what is essential to troubleshoot it if needed.
The GymAware Powertool is a linear encoder that uses a thin cable spool to measure distance and speed of a barbell. The sensors sample not only the rate and distance the cable line is traveling, but the angle as well. The angle sensor does not increase the accuracy and precision of the lifts significantly, but it does enable a coach to estimate barbell path with great accuracy.
While accelerometers such as the PUSH Band and Bar Sensei have gained popularity recently, the Tendo Fitrodyne, MUSCLELAB Encoder, and OpenBarbell products have flourished. The advantage of using an encoder is simple to see—the data is always a direct measure rather than a calculated estimate. Accelerometers are great for peak velocity, but they are poor at knowing where they are in time in space. Gyros and other sensors are usually included in other systems to assist the calculations, but again, the algorithms are usually a step behind the technology. Small, subtle idiosyncrasies such as gripping the barbell, and small micro-movements will throw off calculations with accelerometers and their algorithms; hence, the reason validations must be done in the wild, not with selectorized machines.
Most of the exercises that matter are barbell options, such as deadlifts, squats, clean and jerks, bench presses, snatches, and jump options. Beyond those lifts, I have used the device for some machines, as well as rehabilitation exercises and even Nordic hamstring curls. I found out about the GymAware system not from barbell training, but from a hamstring researcher in Australia, long before the Nordbord.
Coaches should be concerned not only about what exercises to measure, but when measuring makes sense. A combination of highly polished lifting with and without bar tracking is smart, as training with measurement has direct value but periods of time away can help as well. Training with barbell tracking equipment does not have baggage; it only becomes a distraction if no plan or etiquette exists with using it.
Attaching the cable line to the barbell is easy, and some coaches have asked about reliability when bar whip is an issue with some lifts. True, even a barbell will have some baggage with readings, but the absolute difference is so low it’s not worth worrying about. Most of the bar whip comes from very heavy competitive loads, not the typical ones used in sports training.
Encoders are great because they are like a video camera: just record and let the athlete train without worrying about the limits of calculations from accelerometers. On the other hand, accelerometers are improving and are convenient for technology companies because of their price point and ability to be refined with newer algorithms and a smaller size. Encoder accuracy with distance and speed is a great starting place, but calculations of power and force are indirect thoughts. All systems assume that the weight entered into the tablet or smartphone is actually the true load. No matter how great a technology system is, the athlete or coach will usually still be at fault when readings look strange.No matter how great a technology is, a coach or athlete is usually at fault when readings are wrong. Click To Tweet
Troubleshooting the GymAware Powertool is simple: Pay attention to battery life and Bluetooth connectivity. The indicator lights are indispensable. Knowing the light codes is everything, since most of the errors come from the iPad or coaches forgetting to charge the device. Since I got my first system years ago, I only had one day when the system acted strangely, and I found out later it was a user error. You can solve most of the potential problems by following directions and keeping up with preventative maintenance, as well as through experience.
About the GymAware App
Most coaches get tripped up on the GymAware app, as they don’t have a roadmap for managing a lot of athletes. Don’t worry—if you upload your roster and add in the pertinent training information, the app does the work for you. The app is designed to display bar performance in real time and to adjust players and barbell load. You can use a free mode, training on the fly without a true plan, but it’s really designed to manage groups.
Step 1: Pair the Unit to the iPad – The first step before pairing anything is to ensure that the Wi-Fi is strong and secure. If you train in a basement or underground weight room, test the saturation of the Wi-Fi connection to each iPad and lock it down. GymAware Cloud needs internet access, and that is a priority because Bluetooth is easier to manage. Simply label each GymAware to each iPad and make sure the stations are organized in a way that allows three to five athletes to train efficiently. You may wish to remote-manage your iPads for security and reliability, with services such as Cisco.
Step 2: Synchronize with GymAware Cloud – Each iPad must be securely connected to Wi-Fi and then each GymAware App needs to be connected to GymAware Cloud. Connecting is super simple and only requires a username and password, and the rest is basically done for you. It is important to know that the GymAware Cloud software does have additional tools outside of management and reviewing data, so a laptop or browser view is required to fully review all the data sets and analysis.
Step 3: Set Up Leaderboard – This is technically an option, as some programs will not use a flat screen or projection of live squad data. I have mixed feelings about leaderboards, meaning I love them when they are used properly and hate them when they are overly relied on. If the instant feedback is a Turbo button from adrenaline, the leaderboard is Super Nitro, so be careful. Leaderboards are great, but you can also customize additional views with partnered products for summary-style breakdowns.
Step 4: Fine-Tune Targets – Another option is creating razor-sharp targets, or what I call velocity bands. This is one of the features I simply can’t say enough good things about. Targets are not just goals, but ranges that are relevant to squads and individuals. When it comes down to personalizing training, the target feature includes not only a range, but past PB performances, and uses an intuitive color code to track. At first, I thought this was too much information and athletes couldn’t suck up the feedback, but after seeing what Formula 1 drivers are using at 300 kilometers per hour, the feedback on the display is just fine.The GymAware app’s target option is a feature I simply can’t say enough good things about. Click To Tweet
Step 5: Select the Timer and Auto Skip Settings – The final tweak is making sure the workflow is streamlined but not rushed. Timers are speed bumps to slow down the process to ensure the athlete is not rushing through the session. Auto skip is the opposite, making sure things are efficient and organized during training. The features are preferences, not hard best practice configurations, so don’t follow what others do—mirror what is happening with your weight room environment and culture. Remember that leaderboards, if included, will be part of using auto skip, since the data will be pushed to the cloud and sorted based on the results.
Obviously, you’ll require more than those steps to get all of the benefits maximized, such as cluster sets and other appropriate features. If you notice, the exercise list is extensive with GymAware, but it doesn’t measure fluff exercises and they only focus their energy on tightening up the relevant exercises that need to be measured. Small details such as connecting Apple TV or an external cloud for video are part of a connected weight room, so be prepared to do some monthly reviews of the technology. I recommend three days a year of both preventive maintenance and in-house education for staff.
Remember, the placement of the tablet really doesn’t matter that much, but you should put it specifically where athletes need it for feedback and conveniently out of the way of weights. Make sure you use the right mounting option, as the tablet sometimes needs to be mobile, and label each tablet properly. Each unit pairs within a specific iPad, but the data is universal so technically any athlete can train at any station. It’s best practice to assign athletes to stations or racks for both logistical needs and device repeatability. The equipment is very reliable with athletes, but for scientific purposes, it’s ideal to train with the same unit so the data is tighter with regard to statistical integrity.
About the GymAware Cloud and AMS Connectivity
Some confusion is possible with coaches wanting to understand the difference between local data and cloud data. Local data is stored on the device, while cloud data is stored offline on a server and sometimes synchronized to a local device. Why is this important? The bulk of the challenge with barbell tracking is not capturing the information or even training with velocity—most of the headache is managing all of the athletes and all of the repetitions performed afterward.
The goal of using GymAware Cloud isn’t creating reports, as I rarely see tables of bar speeds sent around like a quarterly investment summary, but to manage player benchmarks and velocity bands in training. Velocity zones as proposed by Bryan Mann are not the same as velocity bands. Velocity bands are designated thresholds for exercises and fatigue or individual effort rather than a pure neuromuscular performance.
You have three ways to look at your data: using the app in two different views or on the backend with the web portal. The athlete’s and coach’s views are very similar on the iPad, but the main difference is the coach sees everyone’s data and the athlete only sees the data of the other athletes they are training with. Technically, the Leaderboard is a combined view, but it only shares a fraction of the information—specifically, best performances with the squad during the session. As I mentioned before, with small groups a coach can use the app to both film and manage athletes during and after training, but in larger team environments you must use the GymAware Cloud product to have everyone synchronized and managed.You must use the GymAware Cloud in larger team environments to synchronize and manage everyone. Click To Tweet
A common decision is to use an athlete management system, or AMS, to customize and integrate barbell tracking into all of the data a team collects. Coaches love to see loading integrated with practice GPS systems, physiological monitoring, and player subjective readiness. Composite metrics such as total body strain or simple training updates can be made with the right system. A few companies do connect to GymAware Cloud via an API (data connection), but only one has added value services beyond dumping raw data into the server.
A comprehensive article on all of the GymAware Cloud features will be available later, but the key is to know that the purpose of the license is to manage a lot of athletes and provide batch analysis of important data. The license cost is a flat fee and you can add an unlimited number of athletes if you wish, but what you are paying for is a connection to the data from the iPad or smart device.Don’t Just Talk About VBT, Walk the Walk
It’s easy to discuss ideas and theories of training; it’s much harder to implement them in a team setting or even with just one athlete. For years, coaches have debated concepts and methods only because they had no evidence to back up their claims—otherwise we would have made more progress. You don’t need to use barbell tracking to be a good coach, but a better set of tools will always help a great craftsman. Don’t use VBT concepts or tools just to be relevant; use bar tracking to solve problems that are unique to your environment.You don’t need barbell tracking to be a good coach, but better tools always help a great craftsman. Click To Tweet
Sometimes I use technology in training for every repetition on the track or the weight room and sometimes I use nothing at all, so no true rules exist with barbell tracking. If you are ready to take the plunge, this article should be a rich enough guide to get anyone at any level competent to track performance, and help those that are motivated to become masters of barbell performance.