Introduction to Velocity Based Training for Powerlifting
Since strength sports have existed, the bar velocity has been a missing variable in all equations that analyse power and force. It opened a world of information about an athlete I couldn’t have imagined. It was like plugging a USB into an athlete’s nervous system, giving an insight that isn’t possible through any other means. I’ve been using Velocity Based Training for Powerlifting for five years now and, with it, I’ve created some of the strongest powerlifters in Australian history. Most notable is my athlete Sarah Rainbow, on the weekend of the 18th of March 2023, she officially became the strongest female in all of Australian history. She got a 280kg squat, 170kg bench (an all-time AUS record) and a 262.5kg deadlift giving her 712.5kg total. I thank a significant portion of our success to velocity-based training. So, let’s talk about velocity-based training (VBT) for powerlifting.
- What is Velocity Based Training?
- Why should we use VBT in Powerlifting?
- Why does VBT work for powerlifting?
- Implementing VBT in Powerlifting
– Monitoring Neuromuscular Function
– Replace Percentage-Based Training
- Case Study with the Australian Champion
What is Velocity Based Training?
VBT is the tracking of the concentric velocity primarily or ‘bar speed’ as most know it; you put a device on the barbell, giving you velocity readouts. Learn more about introduction to Velocity Based Training here. Interpreting this data lets you make a more informed decision about your training and programming. VBT can be implemented across all types of resistance training, supporting all prescriptions of load, sets, reps and autoregulation [1,3]. Due to its broad implementation, VBT should not be defined as a method but as a tool that informs you as a coach or athlete to make better decisions about your training . The practical integration of VBT is used with varying degrees of emphasis, from monitoring performance to full-scale velocity-based prescription for all loads, reps, sets and volume. So why should we use VBT in powerlifting?
Why should we use VBT in Powerlifting?
The goal in using Velocity Based Training for powerlifting is to increase maximal strength in the squat, bench press and deadlift. To achieve this, coaches typically prescribe specific loads relative to an individual’s maximal ability (1RM). Load prescription can be based on the percentage of this 1RM or based on the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). RPE is an athlete’s subjective rating on proximity to failure . Load is also commonly assigned to a specific number of sets and repetitions (reps) to complete (5 sets of 3 reps at 8RPE or 85% of 1RM) based on desired training outcomes . However, using historical 1RM to prescribe training load can be problematic if the athlete’s 1RM decreases due to training fatigue which can result in overreaching or from 1RM increasing due to training adaptations which can result in underreaching . RPE also has its problems where the rating is subjective, which can be influenced by external factors (mood, fatigue, sleep, anxiety, stress, ego), potentially resulting in higher ratings that don’t have a particular correlation with neuromuscular function. In addition, it is known that the number of repetitions that can be performed with a given % of 1RM differs between athletes, so assigning the same sets and repetitions for all athletes may induce different levels of effort and fatigue. Therefore, training tools such as velocity-based training (VBT) are now utilised to provide accurate and objective data to support resistance training prescription [3,7]. We have a good reason, but let’s explore why it works.
Why does VBT work for powerlifting?
There are three reasons why Velocity Based Training for powerlifting just works. Firstly, it is well established that as a load increases, reductions in velocity constantly occur until a 1RM load is achieved . This loss of velocity until 1RM corresponds with the minimum/terminal velocity threshold (V1RM) [1,5]. Secondly, a nearly perfect linear relationship exists between velocity and intensity as a percentage of 1RM . Last but not least, exercise velocity decreases as fatigue accumulates through exercise . By acknowledging these fundamental concepts, coaches can use this information to interpret data outputs to accurately and objectively prescribe loads, reps and volume for each session, irrespective of fatigue and athlete readiness fluctuations.
Implementing VBT in Powerlifting
Before getting into the methods of implementing VBT, we must understand our velocity variables. The 2 velocity variables most commonly used in practice are mean velocity (MV) (i.e., average velocity across the concentric phase) and peak velocity (PV) (i.e., maximum velocity reached during the concentric) . The advantage of MV over PV is – MV varies less between different devices designed to measure movement velocity , and MV also has a stronger relationship between load and velocity . It is recommended to use PV for low-load, high-velocity exercises and MV for high-load, low-velocity exercises; hence, for powerlifting we use MV. Let’s dive into the methods:
Monitoring Neuromuscular Function
The first way I like to utilise Velocity Based Training for Powerlifting is simply monitoring neuromuscular function. Monitoring works best with athletes first familiarising themselves with the device whilst still using traditional methods. I continuously monitor all athletes to understand their individual preparedness/readiness (‘snapshot’ of an athlete’s fitness-fatigue status). For example, when lifting a fixed external load, MV over time may indicate altered neuromuscular qualities . Reductions in velocity may be symptomatic of fatigue, overreaching/overtraining, or detraining/maladaptation, whereas faster velocities could signify improvements in neuromuscular capacity or acute potentiation [12,13]. This unique insight lets you see your training methods’ effectiveness more quickly. It’s like doing 1RM testing every day without having to do 1RM testing. Simply put, if the projected 1RM increases, we are adapting, and if it decreases, we are fatigued. This simple metric provides a significant advantage.
Replace Percentage-Based Training
The primary method in powerlifting is replacing percentage-based training with velocity prescription. The secondary function of this method also works as a form of autoregulation, so it also replaces RPE. Due to the linear velocity relationship to 1RM, we can directly correlate a percentage of that 1RM to a specific velocity. We can work this out by creating an individual force-velocity profile (FVP). FVP is a 1RM assessment collecting velocity reading at increasing intensities until a maximal load (90-100%). Then plot velocity and relative load (%1RM) on a linear line of best fit to extrapolate the regression equation as seen in Figure 2 below.
The final step is to create a velocity table from the regression equation, as shown in Figure 3. This table uses the MV of the training set, corresponds with a percentage of maximum, and can be implemented in much the same way a coach would traditionally prescribe from a relative load (%RM) table. For example, 85% of your 1RM might equal 0.35ms. So rather than prescribing 85%, we would prescribe 0.35ms with a load estimation and allow the athlete to adjust the load based on velocity readings.
Personally, I use ranges to account for error, fatigue and adaptation when prescribing load and velocity so the athlete can autoregulate more effectively. You start to work out ideal ranges from monitoring neuromuscular function as outlined in the first strategy (monitoring neuromuscular function). An example of this can be seen in Figure 3 where you have upper and lower ranges for velocity and load with their corresponding percentage. I would initially prescribe the lower load range to start so athletes can ‘earn’ their way up, as it can be a hit to the ego if they have to come down in weight. I also prefer utilising the first rep to create the FVP and autoregulate load, especially for loads above 80% of 1RM. I reason for this since powerlifting is judged on one rep. Using an average velocity (average MV of 2 or more repetitions) makes no sense because you will fail your maximal attempt if the average velocity of 2 repetitions is greater than the first repetition velocity. Seeing a discrepancy of your second or third rep being faster than your first needs to be interpreted as a deficiency in the lifting technique to optimise your first repetition.
Case Study with the Australian Champion
A great example of the effectiveness of both monitoring and replacing percentages to optimise training is the competition preparation with Sarah Rainbow from 2022 to 2023 ProRaw13. Let’s start back in 2022 in preparation for the BreakThrough Invitational. We worked with the same level of volume that had worked in the past; however, there was a minimal indication of training-induced adaptation. Also, as we got closer to the competition, velocity loss would be significant post a maximal session for extended periods indicating significant neuromuscular fatigue carried over into other sessions, missing reps and increasing injuries. There was no significant improvement in daily V1RM, nor was there an improvement in actual 1RM. After this competition, I hypothesised we need to train with less volume and allow for more time between maximal sessions for greater recovery.
The preparation for ProRaw13 started with testing my hypothesis for an 8-week block to see if less training volume and time between maximal sessions was more effective. We reduced the total weekly volume and rearranged her training split so that squat and deadlift were further apart to allow for more recovery between maximal sessions. At the end of the 8-week trial, there was a significant increase in V1RM compared to the BreakThrough Prep. Coming into ProRaw13 prep, we continued with the same method and projected a substantial increase of 1RM of up to 60kg by the end of this phase. In the final weeks, we allowed for more time to build up to her projected maxes and allowed for greater recovery between maximal sessions. The training ended on a 270kg squat (+20kg PB), 165kg bench (+5kg PB) and 275kg deadlift (+20kg PB). The final result on the platform compared to Breakthrough was an 11% increase in performance which was a 640kg total to a 712.5kg total.
Using Velocity Based Training for Powerlifting filled the gaps and pitful that traditional-based methods of powerlifting programming have. Additionally, it provides an objective reference allowing one to understand the athlete’s neuromuscular function and make more informed decisions about training for both; coach and athlete.
- VBT replaces percentage-based training, allowing the coach and athlete to make live adjustments based on daily preparedness
- Removes the subjectiveness of RPE or RIR, replacing it with an objective indicator
- You can monitor progress more frequently without having to do 1RM testing
- Able to monitor training-induced adaptation to see if your training method is working
- Able to monitor training-induced fatigue to prescribe better loads, schedules, and volume or prevent overreaching
- Able to give a more specific prescription of load, sets and reps to create a stimulus individualised to the athlete
VBT for powerlifting is a significant advantage for a coach and athlete. Monitoring and objectively measuring daily 1RM without testing can give you a considerable advance to optimise and individualise a training program. Additionally, you give the athlete the ability to objectively autoregulate their training without the error of subjective indicators such as RPE or RIR. I believe you will be left behind as a powerlifting coach if you are not using VBT for at least your intermediate to advanced competitors.
Gus Cooke is a highly experienced powerlifting coach and academic. He also competes at an elite level in powerlifting. His team has collected 76 gold medals and 65 National, World and All-Time records creating one of the most successful teams in Australia.