Moving the Bar FAST!
By Theo Pickles, Lead Strength and Conditioning Coach
Since 2013 Theo Pickles has been the Lead Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Dutch National Rowing Team and has been working for the Netherlands Olympic Committee for nine years, including the National Swimming Team. Previously Theo worked at the Queensland Academy of Sport and with the Bangladesh Cricket Team. Over the last four years he has introduced Velocity Based Training (VBT) using the GymAware system in the Dutch National Rowing and Swimming Teams with great success for both coaching staff and athletes.
GymAware has been an incredible addition to our programs, increasing our athletes’ engagement and motivation, as well as improving realization of their training goals. The system is easy enough to learn to use and within a few short sessions the athletes are able to control it themselves. Coaches can better supervise, motivate and instruct while the technology looks after the details of exactly how much load each individual is going to lift for the training session.
My role with the Dutch Rowing Team is what led me to GymAware. Like most strength and conditioning coaches, I had always followed the custom of using strength testing to set baselines and determine an athlete’s intensity for the next four to six weeks. I’d then be aiming for incremental increases in strength each week.
Yet our athletes’ progress rarely aligned with my calculations. It wasn’t that my calculations were inaccurate but that I was dealing with full-time athletes completing two to three training sessions a day. By the time they arrived at the gym at four o’clock in the afternoon they were tired. Furthermore, each athlete is an individual who reacts to training stimuli differently. On top of that, I needed to find a solution for coaches who complained that our testing protocol prevented teams from rowing for the next week.
We solved a lot of these problems by using the GymAware ecosystem to introduce them VBT. I go over some of the core principles of VBT below using examples from coaching the Dutch National Rowing and Swimming Teams.
Anyone who has lifted weights knows that their strength does not increase linearly. There are good and bad days, and this is just part of training. Being able to regulate load based on the athlete’s current state of readiness has in many ways been the holy grail of strength training for some years now.
Selecting training intensity based on a subjective or objective measure rather than following set weights or percentage of 1RM is called autoregulation. Some examples of such measures include perceived repetitions in reserve and rate of perceived exertion. Or, if technology like GymAware is available, lifting speed.
Because velocity remains constant at a given percentage of 1RM regardless of the changing strength of the individual (Gozalez-Badillo & Sanchez-Medina, 2010), velocity can be used as an accurate prescriber of percentage 1RM in real-time without the need for testing.
Further, the process of self-selecting load has been shown to be more effective than linear increments in training load as per a linearly progressed program in college football players (Mann et al., 2010).
When we introduced autoregulation, we started with the concept of repetitions in reserve. With some practice, most athletes become pretty good at leaving reps in reserve, but on lighter days they complained they weren’t working hard enough. And while they were always instructed to concentrically contract as fast as possible, some were either cruising through the workout or lifting too heavy for the goal of the program. This led us to believe that the concept of perceived repetitions in reserve was not accurate enough to achieve the adaptations we were looking for.
However, when we introduced GymAware we were able provide athletes an objective metric in real-time that guides their training and reflects their state of readiness for that training session. By prescribing training intensity on the basis of velocity we had a reliable means to normalize for daily variance in athlete strength while ensuring that the session goal was met. This meant we were able to perform less testing and more training and made it easy for athletes to autoregulate their daily intensity.
Moving the bar fast
VBT has been used intuitively for a long time in high performance strength training. Programs throughout the year may involve strength phases (slow and heavy), power phases (fast and heavy) and speed phases (fast and light). The universal understanding is that moving at different velocities with maximal intent will bring about different training adaptations.
There is some persistent discussion over two different perceptions of whether it is best to intend to move the bar as fast as possible, even though the weight is heavy (as argued by Behm and Sale, 1993), or, that the movement must actually be performed fast, as shown by McBride and colleagues (2002) and Kaneko and colleagues (1983). Notably the discussion conclusion is that either way the athlete must always try to move as fast as possible regardless of the weight.
There have been a number of studies that have shown that training with the intent to move fast is better from a velocity outcome than intending to move slowly (Feilding et al. 2002, Kawamori & Newton, 2006). The Kawamori and Newton literature review (2006) suggests that a range of loads (and therefore speeds) should be used throughout the training plan always with the intent to move the load as fast as possible.
In fact, they stated it may be beneficial to work on all aspects of the force/velocity relationship to extract the various benefits that each has to offer, culminating in the most sport specific velocity. Keep in mind that sport specific training velocities can be individualized depending on the force/velocity balance of the individual, as suggested by Morin and Samozino (Morin & Samozino, 2016).
We know that the intent is to have the athlete move a range of loads as explosively as possible, which can be measured using a percentage-based system. However, because strength can vary considerably day to day (Jidovsteff et al., 2009), it is difficult to prescribe appropriate loads based on a point in time test. For example, a jump squat intended to be performed at 30% of 1RM may actually be performed at 45% or 15% of 1RM due to daily variations in strength, which can lead to different training effects and loads on the neuromuscular system.
Some authors suggest regular estimated 1RM testing to prescribe loads for the week. This process has been advocated by Jovanovic and colleagues (2014). The process of estimating 1RM assumes a linear relationship between movement speed and load on the bar. Using results from 3 to 4 warm up sets at a variety of weights from around 30% of 1RM (fast) to relatively heavy at 80% of 1RM (slow), a linear regression analysis can determine what load would be achieved at the minimum velocity threshold (the speed just before failure occurs, which is equivalent to the velocity of 1RM for that lift).
As it happens, we know with a fair degree of reliability the 1RM speed for many lifts. For example, it has been shown that the minimum velocity threshold or 1RM speed is approximately 0.3m/s for a squat, and 0.15m/s for a bench press (Izquierdo et al., 2006).
However, there can be slight variations from person to person and day to day that may not reach statistical significance in the literature but may make a difference in training. This suggests that load/velocity profiling is required with athletes at their actual 1RM speed. This is possible in the GymAware app where the 1RM or minimum viable threshold speed used in calculations of estimated 1RM can be changed.
Using the GymAware Cloud you can then quickly estimate an athlete’s estimated 1RM, allowing for easy and immediate reporting back to the athlete in setting daily training goals.
Figure 1 Variance and progression of an athlete’s estimated 1RM. Both progression and variation can be observed and needs to be accounted for in training.
Given that strength gains are found to be specific to the speed at which the athletes are trained (McBride et al., 2002; Kawamori & Newton, 2006), VBT seems like an ideal solution. With GymAware providing live feedback of each repetition it is possible to dial in the exact speed at which the athlete’s sport is performed or at the speed at which adaptation is required.
To this end I use Bosco’s strength/velocity continuum. For example, for an athlete to gain absolute strength they should lift at a velocity under 0.5m/s. Or, for developing very high speeds of contraction an athlete will need to move a weight faster than 1.3m/s. By simply requiring the athlete to lift a weight as fast as possible at a specific weight, the athlete is lifting at an appropriate intensity to achieve the training goal.
It is easy to set these zones in the GymAware app and then all that is left is to instruct the athlete to move the weight as fast as possible. If the athlete executes the repetition faster than desired, weight should be added to the barbell. If the athlete cannot reach the required speed, weight should be removed from the barbell. As a general rule a +/- 10kg change in weight equates to about +/- 0.1m/s. This lets us nail the desired training outcome and adjust it for a heavy, moderate or light day. For the most part athletes are self-guided, receiving immediate feedback from the GymAware app and freeing the coach to motivate and supervise the session.
Figure 2 Bosco’s strength/velocity continuum. This can be used as a programming tool to ensure that sets are training the strength/velocity quality that is required.
Periodization with VBT
Knowing some of the practicalities of VBT, we can then apply concepts of periodization. For instance, that may mean beginning pre-season training in an absolute strength phase and progressing speed over the course of the season to sports specific speed.
As an example, our women’s rowing team will spend the majority of our specific preparation phase moving at 0.7-0.8 m/s and our men’s rowing team at 0.8-0.9m/s (in house data). These speeds equate to 45-55% of 1RM for the women and 45-35% 1RM for the men. Moving at these speeds makes up the majority of our specific preparation phase, and we look to increase load at this particular velocity range over time to ensure that athletes are developing power at the most essential speed for success in their sport.
These speeds vary per boat (due to the momentum and speed of the boat), thus one can assume that a woman’s lightweight scull will require a slower weight room training speed than the men’s heavyweight eight.
There are multiple ways to control volume using VBT. For example, cut off percentages are commonly used as a way to signal an athlete to stop a set. This can be as simple as instructing an athlete to stop if their speed drops below 90% of their best rep in that set (the target can be easily set in the GymAware and app provides the feedback to the athlete).
Another means is to set a velocity range. Personally, I like to use a combination of the two. As in a normal program I dictate the sets and reps but I also add a target velocity range. If the athlete performs two consecutive reps below the bottom velocity threshold, they end the set and the weight is revised. We also use this to increase weight. For example, if the target zone is 0.4m/s – 0.45m/s and the athlete performs the set at 0.5 – 0.55m/s, the athlete should add 10kg to the next set.
The greater the size of the velocity range the greater reps an athlete will achieve, so we decrease or increase the velocity range to account for fatigue. This means I can control training volume and load while ensuring that neural or energy system fatigue is within the intended parameters of the training session.
Generally, I have seen velocity drop across a set with the second rep the fastest followed by a steady decline at approximately 0.025 m/s. However, motivation levels can vary during the set and an athlete may perform a bad (slow) repetition and then finish the set well simply because they have seen the velocity drop. Some extra verbal encouragement at this stage can also be very helpful.
Figure 3 Velocity Zones and decrements for different exercises. These numbers provide your velocity cut offs for different exercises assisting with programming.
Based on the concepts outlined above and using Bosco’s strength/velocity continuum, we can quickly determine a velocity-based training goal on a daily basis that aligns with longer term periodised programming.
With GymAware, the athlete is then empowered to self-guide their training, and both the coach and athlete can be confident the desired adaptation are still being targeted.
With VBT, athletes have a new training goal that is more specific to their sport. That is, rather than endlessly striving to lift more weight, they can instead be challenged to move the weight faster than before. GymAware will reward them with a whistle if they manage to do so.
Given the ease of use with GymAware it is possible to set velocity zones for the exercises each day and from there the athletes can run the session themselves. They are simply required to choose their name and go.
With a big squad like the Dutch National Women’s Rowing Team with 32 squad members, the short list function allows for fast athlete transition of the two or three athletes training on a particular rack. This ease of use combined with the auto-record functions and rest timers means that the technology doesn’t interfere with, or slow the session down. Instead, GymAware facilitates and makes for a more dynamic, engaged session where the focus is on muscle contraction and movement quality.
Adding in the leaderboards on the television or directly on the iPads increases intensity, athlete engagement and creates a competitive environment which our athletes thrive in. We also have the ability to choose between squad speed zones or individual speed zones.
In the example below (figure 4) we have made the squad goal (in green) the primary target but the personal best goal is also active, alerting the athlete if they have achieved a new personal best for speed at the current weight. In this instance the athlete was lifting at approximately 80% of daily estimated 1RM and left 2 reps in reserve (assuming a minimum velocity threshold for this athlete’s bench-press of 0.12m/s).
Figure 4. An example set of bench press with a target set at 0.33-0.2m/s. The average speed drop-off is 0.02m/s and displaying a typical pattern of the second rep being the fastest followed by a steady decrease. All reps were executed within the squad training goal for the day. Three areas have been highlighted. Bar-graph showing all reps are in the training zone and mean velocity selected as the best measure of velocity
In rowing generally, we have the same periodization and events for all athletes. On the other hand, with the National Swimming Team I often make use of individual zones as athletes are going to different events and require different periodization. Once again this is easy to program before the session in GymAware and only requires one iPad which can sync all programmed training across all other iPads.
While I am a huge proponent of VBT, I have learned that there are certain caveats.
Firstly, it is an advanced training method. Athletes need to first develop sound, deeply ingrained movement patterns and base level strength, which are essential before attempting this kind of training. Athletes with poor motor patterns will have a tendency to resort to poor(er) motor patterns as they try to increase the speed of the movement.
Secondly, in my experience lifting off the ground is preferably avoided. This can be overcome by lifting from blocks or from the hang position. One must be careful in their application of VBT and have a clear objective as to why it is being performed and what they want to get out of it.
Coaches will also need to decide what metric(s) suits their programming best. We choose to use mean velocity as it relates best to the athletes’ 1RM (Garcia-Ramos et al., 2018). We have found peak velocity can be cheated with very high lock out speeds or letting the bar jump off the shoulders or other “non-standard” techniques. Mean velocity, while not stopping these methods, dampens the cheating effect and minimizes potentially dangerous behaviors as good technique tends to give the best result.
Overall, the introduction of GymAware has been revolutionary, easily facilitating the introduction of VBT to the coaching team and the athletes. Athletes are now lifting loads appropriate to their current strength levels and intensity was accurately individualized. Plus, our athletes are highly enthusiastic about the GymAware system and much better engaged with their programs.
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Feilding, R.A., N. K., Lebrasseur, A Cuoco, J. Bean, K. Mizer & M. A. Fiatarone Singh. High-velocity resistance training increases skeletal muscle peak power in older women. J Am. Geriatr. Soc. 50:655-662. 2002.
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