Safety First: Implementing VBT Protocols for Youth Athletes

By Matt Johnson

Safety First: Implementing Velocity-Based Training Protocols for Youth Athletes

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Introduction

The use of velocity-based training (VBT) has become a widely accepted and valid method for assigning and tracking loading in resistance training (RT) for college aged and adult athletes (Signore, 2021). Some of the most commonly touted benefits for VBT include: load-velocity profiling, auto-regulation, increased motivation, maximising performance, targeting different qualities optimally (maximal strength, power, etc.) and increased safety (Moore & Dorrell, 2020). However, VBT has received less attention from coaches and in academic literature in relation to youth populations (children and teenagers). Importantly, the known benefits of implementing VBT in adult populations are equally applicable to youths. In this article, I am going to discuss how integrating VBT in a youth RT program can be used to promote and enhance safe lifting in the weights room. 

Load-Velocity Profiling

To help understand how VBT can be used to enhance safety, we first need to ascertain what is load-velocity profiling and why it matters. Research (Loturco et al., 2018) has shown that all major lifts have a consistent load-velocity profile that can be applied to most individuals. For example, Dos Santos et al. (2022) reported that for a hex bar deadlift, moving the bar at 0.80 m/s (mean velocity) equated to approximately 50% of their 1 repetition maximum (RM), while 0.40 m/s was approximately 95% of a person’s 1-RM. With this knowledge, as a coach, we know that if we want our athletes performing a set of 5 repetitions at 80% of their 1-RM, for the hex bar deadlift, the initial repetitions need to be performed at around 0.60 m/s. 

For load-velocity profiling, as a coach, you have two options, using normative data from the literature (as per the example above) or creating individualised load-velocity profiles for each athlete for all key lifts you plan to track with VBT. Using the normative data from the literature is a solid starting point when you are first implementing VBT – it is valid and accurate, time efficient and allows you to begin training immediately.

This is particularly important in the high school context, where you are often training large groups of student-athletes and have limited time to dedicate to RT. However, if you are able to individually test each athlete, you can create individualised load-velocity profiles which will allow you and the athlete to gain a better understanding of their capabilities. I would recommend using a sub-maximal pre-determined cut off velocity for all lifts.

For example, if testing the back squat 0.45 m/s or approximately 85% of their 1 RM for most lifters would be an appropriate velocity to cease lifting. This is close enough to a 1 RM that you can program with good accuracy and creates a set of data points that you and your athletes can refer to when lifting. I recommend starting at approximately 50% of their estimated 1 RM or approximately 1.0 m/s mean velocity and increasing by around 10% until you reach either your pre-determined cut off value or a true 1 RM.

How VBT Enhances Safety 

Now that we have established what a load-velocity profile is, I am going to discuss how using this knowledge can enhance the safety of a RT session in the school environment. Over the years, I have trained many student-athletes who are chronologically the same age, but have varying maturational differences, training histories and ability. For example, in a recent squad I coached, there was a 120 kg (200 kg vs. 80 kg 1 RM) difference between the strongest and weakest members of the teams’ back squat, with the 30 other student-athletes falling somewhere between these two bookends.

This varied range in absolute strength levels makes programming a challenge when you are trying to promote different performance qualities (strength, power, hypertrophy, etc.), particularly when using the traditional percentage-based prescription model. I have found that student-athletes typically overestimate their capability and load too heavy, which can lead to injury, as well as potentially missing the desired stimulus the session/block of training was designed to promote. 

Appropriate Loading

Since I introduced VBT into our RT sessions, I believe the overloading and missed stimulus issue has been completely resolved. Using a back squat as an example, in pre-season the focus may be hypertrophy and the prescribed session requires 4 sets of 8 repetitions at 70%. Without VBT, each student-athlete or coach would be required to assign a load value in kilograms to represent this 70%.

However, with VBT, coaches can tell the squad that the first 2-3 reps need to be at 0.67 m/s mean velocity and based off normative data, coaches and student-athletes know that if their initial lifts are within 0.05 m/s (0.62-0.72 m/s), they are training at the desired intensity for the session. If the initial lifts are more than 0.05 m/s out from the selected velocity, the loading will need to be adjusted to compensate. So, despite the significant strength discrepancies between members of my squad, when I have 32 student-athletes all performing their back squats, I can be confident that the loading each individual has on the bar is safe and appropriate for them.

Minimising Fatigue

Another aspect that VBT can be used for is minimising fatigue and stopping sets at a pre-determined velocity loss value. In the pre-season when accumulated fatigue is less of a concern, I often use 40% velocity loss across a set to determine when the last rep should occur. From the example above, if the first repetition was 0.67 m/s the last repetition should be at least 0.40 m/s. If this occurs on the 8th repetition, perfect, but if it occurs earlier, I would adjust the loading down to allow for the full 8 repetitions to occur within that 40% velocity loss window.

I have found that using velocity loss to determine when to end a set minimises student-athletes “grinding” out repetitions, thereby maintaining their techniques and minimising the chance of injury. In-season, where strength and power development/maintenance are the priority, I like to use a 20% or even 10% velocity loss value to determine when to stop sets. This has been shown to be an effective way to minimise fatigue (Guppy et al., 2023), and again maintaining technique in the weights room, mitigating the risk of injury. 

Using the above examples, I have found that VBT can allow you to adjust your session instantaneously for an individual. Student-athletes are juggling playing, training, academic, work, family and social commitments. They are not robots! Like adult athletes, they do not always walk into the weights room able to perform at their absolute best. If the velocity for the warm-up sets is below usual levels, it’s a good indication that the athlete may be having an “off” day and lowering load to allow the desired velocity to be achieved will still promote the desired stimulus, while avoiding any grinding repetitions or break down of technique.

In contrast, the opposite also applies. If an individual is having a great day, and velocity is showing above usual levels of performance, it can be an opportune time to promote additional load, knowing the student is ready to safely handle the additional stimulus at that time.

Making Progress

I now reach my final point about how VBT can be used to promote safety in the weights room for the student-athlete. VBT is an excellent tool by which to determine progression. For example, if an individual bench presses 100 kg at 0.60 m/s at the start of a block of training but moves that same 100 kg at 0.70 m/s during the next block of training that is a clear, objective indication that there has been an increase in strength levels for that exercise (Guerriero et al., 2018).

The use of VBT eliminates the guessing, every individual must earn the right to progress their load by surpassing an objective goal that cannot be manipulated or influenced. Within my squads, I generally inform my student-athletes that when there is a 0.05 m/s (mean velocity) increase in speed for an exercise, it is time to increase the loading by 2-5% (Guerriero et al., 2018). This allows each individual to progress at their own pace, but always staying within the intended velocity range to develop the physical qualities desired for that session or phase of training.

Conclusion

In the pursuit of youth athletic development, prioritising the safety and well-being of high school athletes is paramount. VBT offers a modern and evidence-based approach that aligns training intensity with an individual’s capabilities, while simultaneously reducing the risk of injuries. By embracing VBT protocols, high school coaches can foster a culture of safety first, ensuring that each athlete reaches their full potential while minimising the physical toll of intense training schedules. As we look to the future of high school sport, integrating innovative and individualised training methods like VBT can pave the way, where safety and development are not mutually exclusive.

Continue reading about VBT for youth athletes

Matthew Johnson created a PDF, especially for High School S&C coaches and faculty leaders. Download it via the form below or learn more about our velocity based training devices for High Schools:

Download: 4 Steps High School coach Matthew Johnson took to start using VBT

4 Steps High School coaches take to start using VBT

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Matthew Johnson Ignatius Park College

Matt Johnson

Matthew Johnson is the Faculty Leader – Physical Education (PE) of Ignatius Park College. He’s also the strength and conditioning (S&C) coach. He oversees all elements of the PE program, as well as coaching and data collection and analysis work with the sports teams. In both departments, there is significant time spent in the weights room, where students are taught to lift for development, as well as required to collect and analyze data for assessment purposes.