If you’re in this industry and you haven’t been living under a rock, you’re aware of the emerging popularity of velocity-based training (VBT). Velocity-based training is not new, and some of the best texts I’ve read on the subject are Fundamentals of Special Strength Training by Yuri Verkhoshansky and Training of a Weightlifter by R.A. Roman. Louie Simmons brought the Tendo to America’s attention, and more recently, Dr. Bryan Mann helped to further attention and knowledge on VBT with his excellent work. (There are many other pioneers, including Carmelo Bosco. The point is that VBT is not new).
With the influx of VBT tools and educational material available, many coaches are realizing the many benefits of training in submax special strength zones to increase high velocity strength and further aid athletic development. Gone are the days when absolute strength was the end-all be-all of training in most coach’s minds, which is a good thing.
Universal Principles of Strength Development
Before we start, there are two points I would like to make regarding VBT:
Strength is not overrated. I’ve heard a few coaches say that it is, and I don’t like it. I think it’s great that a lot more coaches understand the need for training more specific to the velocities attained in sports, but let’s not get carried away. Strength, or more specifically peak force, is still an extremely valuable quality for many athletes to train. The key is to figure out who needs more force, or who is better off working at higher velocities.
However, if we start throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we will do a disservice to our athletes. Younger or weaker athletes still need to improve their force capabilities, while athletes who have strength trained for years might not need to improve their force capabilities and might be better off training at higher velocities. Like all else, we need to consider the context and provide the right stimulus for each individual athlete, which is beyond the scope of this article.
- Velocity-based training is not a method of improving dynamic strength at higher velocities. Sure, the use of VBT devices correlates with an increase in coaches implementing higher velocity strength work, but not all VBT is high velocity. Instead, velocity-based training is simply an objective method of evaluating intensity of a given movement. That’s all it is.
Due to the linear nature of the force-velocity relationship, we can objectively quantify the intensity of any given exercise using velocity rather than % of 1RM. Just as percentages are a method of quantifying exercise intensity and you can program strength, hypertrophy, and dynamic effort work using percentages, you can do the same with velocity. The belief that VBT is only useful for dynamic effort work shows a misunderstanding of what VBT really is.
I make this point because there are some coaches out there who believe you should only use VBT for higher velocity training. I’ve even surprised some coaches when I used VBT for my athlete’s strength work or for my own higher rep training. VBT is very much an objective method of quantifying intensity, just like percentage- based training, but with the benefits of autoregulation.
There is research by Mladen Jovanovic and Eamon Flannagan that suggests that 1RM strength can vary by 18% in either direction on any given day.1 This means that the prescribed percentages can be wildly inappropriate in either direction. Let’s say an athlete’s 1RM is 300 lbs. On a great day, it could be as much as 354 lbs. and on a bad day it could be as low as 246 lbs. If the program called for 5 x 5 @ 80%, let’s see how it could fluctuate:
Scenario A (Normal Day, 300 lbs., 1RM)
5 x 5 @ 80%, which is 240 lbs.
This is an ideal scenario. The athlete is prepared to train today, and the prescription is an appropriate challenge.
Scenario B (Excellent Readiness, 354 lbs., 1RM)
5 x 5 @ 240
80% of 354 = 283
240 = 67%
This is not an ideal scenario, but is not the worst scenario either. The 80% is actually more like 67% 1RM for the day. If we stick to the prescribed program, this will be a very easy workout and may not result in the adaptation we want. This is also an example of what can happen if an athlete gets stronger over a longer program and the coach continues to use the original 1RM for percentage-based prescription.
Scenario C (Poor Readiness, 246 lbs.)
5 x 5 @ 240
80% of 240 = 192
240 = 98%
This is probably the worst-case scenario. The prescribed 80% is actually closer to 98%, which will make this workout impossible. If the athlete can somehow complete it, it may result in injury or overtraining.
This is where VBT comes in.
There are numerous options and methods for implementing VBT for strength. I will list a few here, but this barely scratches the surface. These are just some of the options I have used.
Option A: Switch Traditional Percentage to Velocity Equivalent
This option is the most basic method of using VBT for strength prescriptions, so it is where I tell coaches to start when they ask about using VBT for strength work. Instead of prescribing a percentage, prescribe a velocity that corresponds to that percentage. For example, 80% of 1RM will equate to .48 M/S in the bench press, on average. (Individuals will have slightly different corresponding velocities to percentages due to their unique force-velocity characteristics, so you should test and plot individual profiles to ensure accuracy. A little Excel knowledge goes a long way here.)
5 x 5 @ 80% turns into 5 x 5 @ .48 M/S
That’s it for VBT Option A. The only change that you need to make to start implementing VBT for strength work is turning the percentage into a corresponding velocity. This is a great place to start because it will account for the daily fluctuations in 1RM on any given day, while still being really easy to implement. If using the example above, that .48 M/S should automatically equate to 283 on the good day and 196 on the bad day.
Just work up as you normally would until you hit around .48 M/S and start your sets there. The .48 M/S is for the first rep in the set, not the average velocity of the set.
Option B: Implementing Velocity Stops
Now we start to get into it a little bit more. With this option, we start to add a range of velocities that we must stay between. By adding the second number, we now have a cutoff velocity, or a velocity stop. The goal is to stay above this cutoff velocity for the entirety of the set, and cut the set short when we go below it.
For example, it might look like this:
5 x 4 @ .48 M/S-.35 M/S
The second number should correlate to an RPE, or reps in reserve (RIR) number.
Now you might ask how you determine what velocity stops to use or, more specifically, how do you know which numbers correlate to RPE numbers. The easiest way to determine this for an athlete is to have them perform a reps-to-failure protocol in the specific exercise that you plan to program. You can use anything from 60-75% of 1RM. Simply have them perform a set to failure with the given load and monitor velocity for each rep. Figure 1 shows mine from bench:
You can see that my MVT was 0.18 M/S. I was alone, so I kept half a rep in the tank without a spotter. I’m usually around .12 for bench, but we’ll go from 0.18 here. Now we can use the corresponding velocities to RPEs for training prescriptions. If we want to have an 8RPE, the velocity stop will be 0.23 M/S, 0.27 M/S for a 7RPE, and so on.
To program this method, I first determine the set and rep scheme I want to perform. Then I determine at what intensity I want the athlete performing the work. Instead of writing an intensity in percentages, I find the corresponding velocity and list the velocity as the first number. Finally, I determine how many reps I would like in the tank and then find the corresponding cutoff velocity according to the chart listed above.The belief that VBT is only useful for dynamic effort work shows a misunderstanding of what VBT is. Click To Tweet
Note that the number of reps performed and the cutoff velocity will not always match up perfectly based on the readiness for the day. That’s fine. I don’t worry about going slightly under the cutoff velocity as it is a guide, but getting below cutoff velocity can be indicative of very poor readiness for the day. In this case, the coach should make some changes on the fly. If this happens often, consider the next option.
Option C: Undetermined Number of Reps
This option is very similar to Option B. The only difference here is that we don’t list a set number of reps to be performed. Instead, we use the initial velocity and cutoff velocity, and predetermined number of sets.
5 x ? @ .48 M/S-.35 M/S
The goal is to try to get as many reps in as possible before you hit the cutoff velocity. This can be a great way to control fatigue. There is research that anything above a 30% velocity loss begins to increase ammonia levels and correlated fatigue, so at certain times of the year, (peaking, tapering, in season) it may be wise to use this method with a velocity cutoff correlation of less that 30%.2
I’ll say that I have enjoyed using this method more with accumulation emphasis than in true strength phases. If we attempt to perform more reps in the range and/or progress by lowering the cutoff velocity, we can accumulate greater volumes each week through an accumulation cycle.
Option D: Velocity Stops as a Percentage of Initial Velocity
Everything about this method is the same, except for one factor. We use a set number of sets, an undetermined number of reps, and an initial set velocity, but we will not correlate the cutoff velocity with a RPE. Instead, we can use a percentage as our cutoff velocity. Here is an example of how to program it in a three-week block:
5 x ? @ .48, cutoff at 10% velocity loss
5 x ? @ .48, cutoff at 15% velocity loss
5 x ? at .48, cutoff at 20% velocity loss
We still use a number in M/S as a cutoff velocity number, we just use a percentage of the first rep to get there. I can set the Gymaware for a certain percent drop-off, and it will automatically spit out a number. Coaches can use this when they prefer adjusting by velocity loss, or when they do not have experience with correlating cutoff velocity to RPE. Option D is better when you have an exact RPE in mind, but if coaches want to go off velocity loss, then I would recommend this method.
Option E: Cutoff Velocity Percentage, Undetermined Number of Sets and Reps
Now we really start to use VBT to its fullest extent. All we know going into the session here is the initial velocity and cutoff velocity. Adjust the sets and reps based on performance. You can use RPE or percentage stops here. I will use % for this example.
Say we want to perform strength work in season. We stay below 20% drop-offs in velocity. We hit our initial rep at, let’s say, .5 M/S and then perform as many as possible until we drop below 20% of that, or .4 M/S. When we hit .4 M/S or below, we terminate the set. When the initial rep velocity of any given set falls below .4 M/S, we terminate the workout.
Wrapping Up the VBT Training Options
As mentioned, this is not an exhaustive list of VBT methods for monitoring strength work. These are just some of the methods I have used. It would be outside of the scope of this article to list all of the available methods. Some other options are: using a very low percentage drop for cluster sets, using an undetermined number of sets with various combination of the other factors, etc. As with anything, the possibilities can be endless if we have a grasp on the principles of velocity-based training.
There are pros and cons for each method of prescribing intensity for strength training. The decision of whether a coach uses velocity, intensity, or subjective RPE comes down to preference and logistics. However, VBT can be an excellent method to use when logistics allow for it. In my opinion, you get the auto-regulatory benefits of RPE without the flaws of subjective monitoring, and you get the objective prescription of percentages without feeling bound to what’s on the paper for the day.
As always, a coach should experiment by implementing these methods on themselves before programming for their athletes. Once a coach is familiar with some of these methods, they can be an excellent way of prescribing training load in an objective auto-regulatory fashion.
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- Jovanovic, M., & Flanagan, E. (2014). Researched Applications of Velocity Based Strength Training. Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning.
- Sanchez-Medina, L., & González-Badillo, J.J. Velocity loss as an indicator of neuromuscular fatigue during resistance training. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 43: 1725–1734. 2011.