By Mark Hoover
Velocity-based training is definitely not a new tool for sports performance professionals. However, its widespread use, especially at the high school level, is still an up-and-coming trend. I first heard of “VBT” at an NSCA Regional Clinic a few years ago. Gary Schofield was presenting and telling us about measuring speed of the bar using a device that could give you data such as meters per second, power output, wattage, etc. I was interested, but it seemed confusing and the price of the device he was using was well out of reach for my program. I began researching and the more I read, the more I loved the idea of using VBT as a tool. Price was the real issue though.
This article aims to show anybody interested in VBT how we use it at York Comprehensive High School (YCHS). I hope that you can take what we have found useful to our program and incorporate it into yours. I believe that once you see how easy it is to use and the results you can get from using it, you will be as anxious as I was to give VBT a try.
My Story with Starting Velocity-Based Training
Soon after the conference, I came across PUSH bands. Due to their affordability, I was able to obtain three units. I immediately knew I had made a good investment. They seemed accurate and the data was extremely valuable in documenting the athlete’s progress. Although the bands were helpful, we had issues with the time and complications that came with having the unit attach directly to the athlete. I continued to use the bands, but not on a widespread basis.VBT had immediate positive effects on our athletes. It also became clear how multifaceted a tool it can be in a team setting, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Jump ahead about 18 months, to the release of the PUSH 2.0 with “bar mode.” With the ability to attach the unit directly to the bar, we could now use it in a group setting quickly and effectively. I added a fourth band and began to see how much useful data VBT provided. VBT had immediate positive effects on our athletes. It also became clear how multifaceted a tool it can be in a team setting.
“The single most impactful thing you can do is convince your athletes to move the bar as fast as they possibly can. Coach them to ‘make the plates clang’ and you will see dramatic results.” A legend in our profession, Coach Johnny Parker, said this to me directly. He firmly believes that moving the bar as fast as possible on each rep is a major key to any strength and conditioning program and a major factor in his team’s successes in the NFL. Maybe even the No. 1 factor to success. We have embraced that idea at YCHS. In fact, I bet if you ask my athletes what one instruction they hear from me the most, it would be: “Bar speed! Move the bar faster! Make the bar POP!” We have found that VBT is a huge factor in getting the most pop from our athletes.
It’s human nature to have a certain level of reluctance to push yourself too much. Anyone who coaches at the high school level knows this is a serious limiting factor for our athletes. To that end, it’s easier to lift slower. To really be at top speed, you have to push yourself. Often, the athlete doesn’t realize they are not moving the bar at full speed. As coaches, we can say all day long, “Hey, you have to move the bar faster!” However, that’s such a vague cue that it’s unlikely the athlete will really know what you mean. It’s kind of like saying, “You have to be better.”I want to give my athletes truly actionable information. Instead of just saying “faster,” I want to show them faster. VBT lets me do that, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
I want to give my athletes truly actionable information. Instead of just saying “faster,” I want to show them faster. VBT allows me to do that. Without data, they can simply say “Coach, I’m moving as fast as I can.” However, the data provides us with facts that they can’t really argue with. If you have 70% on the bar and are moving at .3 m/s, something is wrong. I can say with near certainty that 100% of my athletes move faster at any set intensity after using PUSH than they ever had before. The use of VBT enables us to hold our athletes accountable to do their best on each and every rep.
Measuring Intensity – Taking Load to the Next Level
VBT also provides me with data on the actual intensity for the athlete on a rep-by-rep basis. If the athlete does what should be their 85% on back squat and they move faster than what the chart says they should, that tells us that athlete needs to adjust the weight up. By the same token, if they are slow, it tells us we need to lower the weight for that particular day.
That is one big reason VBT is such a great tool for in-season athletes. If you want them to hit six reps over three sets at x%, PUSH lets you know very quickly how to adjust for that athlete’s overall readiness for that day. I tell our kids all the time that “the weight will go up and down based on your body’s preparedness for that day. However, the speed doesn’t lie, so work toward the m/s goal, not the poundage.” If the athlete is tired or dragging a little from the season, it will be reflected in the weight room. Using strict poundage for programming can often lead to missed reps or failure. Using VBT will not, because you will be able to hit the intensity you need for the day, even if the poundage has changed by using VBT data to adjust.
Oftentimes, especially with my football athletes, it can be a battle to get them to use the prescribed weight. It seems too light to use 80% x3 for those athletes. “If I can do 200 for three, why do you want me to JUST do 160?” I get that type of question a lot. In fact, I address it every day pre-workout. “Do the weight and reps it says in Teambuildr, unless you talk to me first.”
Some of our guys would max out daily if allowed. VBT allows me to have tangible data to educate our athletes on the “why” of what I am asking them to do. “We train to be strong and fast for sports, right? Well, today I want you in the zone that is moving 80% fast. Hit the .5 to .7 range. Add weight if you need to, but you have to get all reps in that range.” In my experience, that, or a similar explanation, works better than “just do what I tell you to do.” What you find out very quickly is the athletes will begin to understand the system. Soon, even the most stubborn athletes will begin thinking first in meters per second and then in pounds.
Building Confidence with New Lifters
Another group that has benefited tremendously from the use of VBT is our female athletes. I’ve found that female athletes are often the opposite of the aforementioned male athletes that want to overload the bar each set. In my experience, many female athletes are intimidated by increasing weight on the bar, even if it is well within the range they are shooting for. Many of my females would put a 25-pound plate on each side of the trap bar and do five reps over and over again for months on end.
One strong point I have found in working with females as opposed to males is that they are much more willing to listen and adjust if provided with a good reason. For my female athletes, it isn’t a “I’m a superstar and I want to lift the most regardless of what I’m told” attitude we have to work with. Instead, it is a pure lack of confidence in their ability to lift an increasing intensity of weight.
VBT gives me the data to instill that confidence in our female athletes. By explaining that the speed of the bar has a direct correlation to the intensity of the weight, it helps our less-confident athletes see hard data that proves they can lift more weight. For that reason, I actually use our PUSH bands more with less-experienced female athletes than with less-experienced male athletes. Our males will put any weight on the bar we tell them to, even if it is above the usual tested max. We adjust their maxes with testing and APRE and assign intensity with confidence they will complete the sessions as assigned. Once they reach our “elite” level, we put them on VBT to get them to move faster.Before VBT, our female athletes lacked confidence in their ability to lift an increasing intensity of weight. Now, the confidence VBT has built in them is staggering, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Our females are put on VBT much earlier, at the end of “novice” or beginning of “advanced” in our athlete blocking system. Instead of having a workout designed around m/s, we use poundage. We let them start at the level they feel confident at. We have found that most female rep maxes tend to be lower than they could be. The data given to us by PUSH almost inevitably shows them that they use an intensity much lower than we want during the set. That information allows us to add weight to the bar without fear. Once the athlete progresses to “elite,” their training shifts to centering around speed as the primary judge of intensity. The confidence VBT has built in our female athletes is staggering.
Video 1. Training for power is great for athletes who need to rehearse effort rather than just assume a higher weight will work out in the long run. Athletes must treat each repetition like it’s their last in order for VBT to make a difference.
We have a junior volleyball player that weighs in at just about 100 pounds. She can do trap bar deadlifts at 170 pounds at a speed of .63 m/s, which puts her in about the 70-75% of 1RM range. She has a 3RM record of 190 at .47 m/s, which is about 85%. Her 1RM is over 2x body weight. She had never gone over 100 pounds before we used the PUSH band. That means she had been training at +/- 50% and probably had long adapted to that. This is just one example of how using the data VBT provides helps our females become confident lifters. It’s an amazing tool for that, indeed.
What About Technique and Power?
One thing that needs to be a real focus across the board as you move forward with VBT is technique. In my experience, nothing can throw an athlete into bad technique faster than trying to move the bar as fast as possible, especially in the back squat. In an attempt to move faster, athletes often forget what got them to that level. I can’t speak from experience with other accelerometers, but with PUSH, the athlete must stay under control. Also, there has to be a recognizable pause between reps. Failing to pause will not only put the athlete at risk, it could also cause the data to be off and/or miss reps.
As previously mentioned, athletes sometimes desire to lift heavier than they should, based on programming. A different but related issue is when an athlete can lift such a high amount of weight that the risk-reward for them on a daily basis can be a potential problem. VBT data allows you to monitor and adjust to keep these athletes safe, while continuing to progress.
Another great piece of coaching wisdom I received from Coach Parker was on this very topic. He shared with me a conversation he had with a Russian strength coach in the late 1980s. He had asked the coach what one thing he could do for an athlete to make him more powerful. The Russian coach had a simple answer: Stop using the actual 1RM on back squats once an athlete reached 2x their body weight, as that amount of weight was strong enough for sport. Set their max at that number and time them. Progress them not by adding weight to their max, but by adding speed to that 2x BW number. He did that with resounding results. We are preparing to do the same with all of our athletes who are over that mark.
We currently have a 215-pound athlete who has a 1RM of 585 on the back squat. He moved 435×5 at a .5 m/s speed in his last workout. We did let him go up to 455×3 at a .41 m/s speed, but then stopped him. We feel like that is “strong enough” to translate to sport. Our way of progressing this athlete moving forward will be to improve his speed at those weights. There is very little risk of injury at that intensity, and the reward of moving a load like that at ever-increasing speeds and power output is tremendous. It will translate better to his sport than getting him to a 620-pound 1RM possibly ever could.
Another Way to Build Competitiveness Outside of Maximal Load
One final thought on the advantages of VBT for your team is that it evens the playing field and develops a true sense of competition among athletes. It is usually pretty tough for an athlete who has less strength or is smaller to compete with stronger or bigger players for a poundage total. VBT evens the field. I have seen that athletes recognize that, if our programming in Teambuildr has them doing 83% x5 on bench press, the stronger athlete has the poundage advantage. However, our guys really compete within their groups to see who can get the highest set average velocity. That type of thing makes everyone better!
Another way I have had athletes compete is in total power output. In fact, at my previous position, we had a male and female leaderboard for power output in cleans and presses. It became a real point of pride to beat your previous output or see your name climb the board. (It also allowed me to show our administration how we implemented across-the-curriculum learning by teaching the force/velocity curve and other physics applications. But that’s an article for another day.) We are always looking for different ways to push our athletes and increase competition. VBT is only limited in that area by your imagination and your willingness to teach the athletes the metrics.
VBT and the use of bar speed helps us ensure that what our athletes do in the weight room transfers to sport, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Using PUSH has allowed me, as a coach, to gain a much greater “coach’s eye” when it comes to bar speed. Not just with our athletes who use PUSH, but with all our athletes. Seeing what an appropriate speed-to-intensity lift looks like over time allows me to coach bar speed on the run much more accurately.
PUSH has enabled me to look at a lift and be pretty accurate about whether it moves at an appropriate speed for the intensity desired. In turn, I am able to provide even the non-VBT lifters with real-time information that improves their experience. This has been an invaluable tool to help make our athletes stronger and more explosive. VBT and the use of bar speed helps us ensure that what our athletes do in our weight rooms transfers to sport.
Don’t Wait to Get Started
I highly encourage you to think about the use of VBT. If you don’t have funds to purchase a VBT measuring unit, there are other ways. Coach Parker’s advice on “making the plates clang” is a perfect example. If the athlete is moving fast, the sound of them finishing the rep is different and will let you know they are fast.
Another way (if you have fewer athletes or more coaches) is to use a stopwatch. Three reps in three seconds is pretty fast, and I bet it will sound that way. Regardless, if you are not using VBT, I hope you at least give some thought to it. It can be a real game-changer and is based in the sound science of the force-velocity curve.