Velocity Based Training
Velocity Based Training (VBT) is a contemporary method of measuring and prescribing strength training. It has many advantages because it introduces a unit of measurement, velocity, that is both objective, and precise.
Any athlete, coach or personal trainer can benefit from Velocity Based Training. Professional sports teams, olympic lifters and weightlifters all clued into the benefits decades ago. Uptake in the wider community is gaining momentum and now Velocity Based Training is used in high school sport, gyms and private training facilities. It can be applied for any sport where strength and conditioning is applied or where strength training is the sport itself.
Velocity Based Training (VBT) uses ‘velocity to inform or enhance training practice’ (Weakley et al, 2020).
In practice, a piece of technology, commonly called a ‘VBT device’, measures the speed that a barbell or person moves during an exercise. These days, a smartphone or tablet based app is linked to the device and relays performance information to the lifter or coach.
Coaches and athletes use this real time data to make adjustments to training in the moment or review stored data for longer term programming and coaching decisions.
Velocity can complement or replace traditional strength training methods (percentage based training) and guide training for speed, strength, power or hypertrophy.
For example, velocity can be used to:
- Measure and prescribe specific intensity
- Set training zones
- Auto-regulate daily training
- Gauge athlete readiness
- Control volume and manage fatigue
- Monitor Development Over Time
- Estimate 1RMs
- Create Load Velocity Profiles
The app based software that comes with VBT devices also offers unique benefits. Coaches can use real-time feedback to motivate athletes to greater performance, display virtual leaderboards that create competition within a team, record videos synced with data and even observe real-time data from athletic performances remotely.
Further, VBT devices make other performance metrics available. In the case of GymAware and the FLEX device, this includes mean and peak power, the distance the barbell travels, the height of jumps and bar path visualisation.
The common standard of using a percentage of 1RM to set intensity is well understood and quite effective. However, there are limitations. Setting percentage based loads is an informed estimate of suitable intensity for an individual, but it is not objective or precise. It does not take account of daily fluctuations of a person’s readiness to train. Nor does it easily describe the variance in different athlete’s physiological makeup.
Velocity solves these problems by quantifying intensity. Now a coach can see immediately how multiple athletes are performing under the same relative load. They can also identify when and how much fatigue is impacting performance. Velocity then offers a simple, quick method for adjusting daily training.
Similarly, velocity will show when an athlete is not executing with intent and needs to be nudged to apply more effort.
This is all thanks to some simple relationships between load, intensity and fatigue. As load increases, velocity decreases, and this relationship is very linear. Simply put, as weight increases an individual will show a highly predictable decrease in speed. Velocity also decreases when fatigue builds, giving us another measurable, comparable variable to use in programming.
Maximal Intent to Move the Bar Fast!
Velocity Based Training works when an athlete is coached to lift concentrically as fast as possible for the weight on the bar (without sacrificing form). This is an expression of intent, and whether they are lifting at 90% or 50% of 1RM, the lifter needs to ‘move the bar fast’.
When a coach is struggling with Velocity Based Training they have often overlooked the importance of this concept. This is especially true at lighter loads. Any athlete underneath a 1RM load puts as much effort into lifting the bar as possible. At 50% of that load, athletes can tend to pace their effort and need coaching to continue to express maximal intent (assuming Velocity Based Training is being applied at that load).
Are Velocity Based Training Devices Accurate?
It is important to choose the right VBT device for your purposes. The major pitfall is that the data from some devices is unreliable and cannot be used for coaching decisions. Others miss repetitions all together, or log ghost repetitions, which can harm any trust an athlete has for that data.
As a starting point for research into the reliability of different VBT devices, we recommend The Validity and Reliability of Commercially Available Resistance Training Monitoring Devices: A Systematic Review (Weakley et al, 2021)
Currently there are four different core technologies used in VBT devices that can impact accuracy, portability and usability.
Accuracy is especially critical for any coach that wants to rely on data to make important coaching decisions. If a VBT device is inaccurate, you simply cannot make regular, ongoing decisions based on the information the device delivers. A device prone to error is not reliable when deciding when to stop an athlete, or worse, when to push them harder.
Imagine making small incorrect decisions based on flawed data during a single strength session. Now expand the impact of these small decisions across a week of Velocity Based Training sessions, and then over a long term program. Take this thinking one step further, and compound the impact of incorrect decision making over the years you might be working with an athlete.
Such an athlete could end up being trained anywhere on the spectrum from vastly under trained to terribly over trained. You would never know.
The question then becomes, what is the point of Velocity Based Training?
In our opinion, this is why the best VBT devices are precise. Based on scientific studies, there are only a very small selection of products that meet this benchmark. GymAware and FLEX are two such products. GymAware in particular is the most challenged VBT device on the market.
What is the Different Velocity Based Training Technology?
- Linear Position Transducers (or LPT’s) have a tether that attaches the measurement mechanism to the barbell or athlete. Linear Positional Transducers have the potential to be highly accurate when compared to other types of devices.
In simple terms, the strength of the LPT is that it measures distance moved directly, other technology types do not measure distance as such. In these cases the raw data collected by this technology is initially unusable and would make little sense to anyone that isn’t an expert. Algorithms are applied to try and derive a useful value, but even after significant adjustment the data can still be very messy. In which case, more algorithms are layered onto the data to smooth and mold into a metric that seems correct.
Overall, for technology that does not measure distance directly there can be a lot of data manipulation between the device and the end user, and therefore a lot of room for getting things wrong.
GymAware is a linear position transducer and, based on the literature, it is the undisputed champ of precision VBT devices (across all commercial technology types).
The most common criticism of Linear Position Transducers is that they have a physical tether that attaches to the bar or lifter. This tether supposedly gets in the way and breaks all the time.
The tether in GymAware units is high tensile and will only break if misused or excessively over-extended. If a breakage occurs, a new tether can be installed easily. In terms of GymAware getting in the way, pay particular attention to the point below.
A note on LPTs and Angle Sensors:
Most LPT devices suffer from large errors when the LPT device itself is not placed directly beneath the barbell. This is a problem because lifters will place the LPT unit either in front or behind them to avoid crushing the device when they drop the barbell.
GymAware is the only LPT with an inbuilt correction for the tether not being extended vertically. This means GymAware measures the tether angle and factors that information into its measurements. As a result, GymAware is not limited to being placed directly under the barbell for accuracy and can be well out of the way of the lifter or barbell. As a bonus, GymAware also accurately reports and graph bar paths.
- Accelerometers (or Inertial Measurement Units) are small, often wearable devices, that can be placed on the lifting equipment, or the arm or leg of the lifter.
Accelerometers are cheap but they are tricky for developers to work with and the raw data is extremely messy. The raw data is unusable, and that foundation means final measurements are generally not reliable.
We see accelerometers as an affordable entry point to Velocity Based Training and a way for coaches to engage with students or young athletes. The drawback is the data tends to be questionable, making them unsuitable for making important coaching decisions.
- Camera-Based Systems are available as iPhone apps or stand alone products that are placed on the ground or attached to a rack in front of the lifter.
Camera Based Systems have great potential, but are very expensive. Despite appearing to liberate athletes, they can be somewhat restrictive in terms of portability and athlete positioning. An athlete must ensure they are in range of the camera, and any change in where the camera is placed, or where the athlete is relative to the camera, might require some sort of re-calibration.
Based on our own research, the level of camera technology required to get the precision we expect is far too expensive to offer a fairly priced product. Currently, no camera based VBT device has been independently validated. Without this insight, we do not know how well these products work in the real world.
- Laser Optic Devices attach to the barbell and use lasers to take key measurements.
FLEX is currently the only product of this type. We built FLEX as a cost effective option to compliment GymAware. We are very pleased with how it performs and the long term potential is exciting.
The main criticism we hear about FLEX is that it requires a reflective surface to get the best data. FLEX is sold as a package with a reflective mat that takes only a moment to position underneath the barbell. The tradeoff from using the mat is that FLEX enjoys high levels of precision, sitting just under GymAware yet better than any accelerometer or camera-based systems.
Just like GymAware, FLEX measures distance moved directly, and there is far less data manipulation between the sensor data and the end user compared to an accelerometer or camera based system.
In fairness, there are pros and cons associated with any technology powering a VBT device. They all have their own setup needs, positioning requirements and physical drawbacks. Even the smaller wearable products will have problems with velcro straps ageing, fitting poorly or coming loose. Not to mention the tiny products could be prone to being lost or stolen.
This is why when we develop a VBT device we always work under the principle that garbage data in equals garbage data out. Both GymAware and FLEX measure displacement over time in a more direct way and give us the best chance of reporting with great accuracy. For us, we are revealing the data for the user. With other technology, the data needs to be manipulated until it ‘looks’ right.
How is Velocity Based Training used?
Velocity can be used in such a large number of ways that it can make the concept as a whole confusing. However, Velocity Based Training does not have to be integrated into your coaching in one go. It is more like a toolkit that you can build up over time. You do not need to understand everything before starting. Even the most basic use of Velocity Based Training can have an immediate impact.
Velocity Based Training is not necessarily used all the time either. Coaches might use VBT devices to measure key exercises only, or during specific training cycles. And we know of some high schools where only the more experienced, reliable students might access VBT devices.
There is no ‘one way’ to use Velocity Based Training. Just many options that can be leveraged by coaches to improve their job.
We cover the most common uses below:
- Provide Feedback and Enhance Performance
- Using General Velocity Training Zones
- Autoregulate Load
- Monitor and set fatigue targets (drop-offs)
- Monitor Development Over Time
- Estimate 1RM
- Load Velocity Profiling
Before reading about the seven common uses listed above, it is helpful to understand the key metrics used in Velocity Based Training, Mean Concentric Velocity and Peak Velocity.
Mean Concentric Velocity (‘mean velocity’)
Mean velocity is the average speed of the concentric phase of the lift. It is used for measuring compound and strength-based exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press, bench pulls and split squats.
Mean velocity is preferred for these types of exercises because the average accounts for changes in speed during the movement.
However, mean velocity is still a reliable metric for measuring ballistic lifts, such as the power clean, but it will depend on the quality of the algorithm used to tease out the concentric phase.
Both GymAware and FLEX utilise an algorithm that is uniquely advanced in its ability to zone in on the concentric-only portion of the complete movement.
Peak Concentric Velocity (‘peak velocity’)
Peak velocity is the fastest speed reached during the concentric phase of a lift. It is generally accepted as the metric for measuring Olympic lifts and ballistic exercises like hang clean, snatch, jump squat and bench throw.
Peak velocity is generally preferred where there are different phases of a lift with distinct speeds that would skew an average and make it less meaningful. Many researchers resorted to using Peak with the olympic-style lifts as their measurement systems proved ineffective at consistently teasing out the “concentric only lift” portion of the movement.
One additional complicator when measuring olympic style lifts is that often athletes will change their technique as the lift weight is progressively increased. Inevitably a power clean for example will progress more and more towards being a full clean. Asc the weight is increased the catch depth is also increased. These changes in technique then make it more difficult to compare like for like when measuring and comparing the performance.
Using Velocity to Provide Feedback and Enhance Performance
The ‘low hanging fruit’ of Velocity Based Training is using visual and verbal feedback to enhance training performance. It can be as simple as setting up an iPad so an athlete can see the results of each rep in real-time. This sort of feedback almost guarantees an athlete will work harder to match or improve their efforts.
An athlete striving to improve velocity is in effect working to move faster at the same weight. This is an instant increase in intent, which is a powerful bonus from a relatively simple intervention
GymAware and FLEX also allow users to set targets, and will indicate success or failure with different sounds and visuals. GymAware’s ‘ding’ is the sound the App makes when a target is successfully reached. Coaches often mention the ‘ding’ as their favourite feature due to how simple yet effective it is in the weights room.
Another example of feedback is live leaderboards. Coaches can generate team wide competition by showing live results of the current training session on a screen somewhere in the gym. If an athlete watching their own numbers generates intent, then team-based competition is going to see them truly fired up.
Using Generalised Velocity Training Zones (Velocity Zones)
Every coach will be familiar with the concept of training zones and how to set loads to target training for strength, power and speed. With velocity, the speed an athlete lifts determines the training zone they are in.
Velocity zones can differ across individuals and exercises. However, it appears that generalised velocity zones, or the ‘velocity continuum’, is going to be suitable for most applications.
One great benefit of VBT devices is they show, in real-time, if a rep was completed within the right zone. If an athlete is moving the bar as fast as possible for that weight, they can very quickly autoregulate based on their results. Are they moving at speeds above the training zone? They need to add weight. Are they moving at speeds below the training zone? They need to decrease weight. It can be that simple.
The names of the velocity zones refer to observable athletic traits. ‘Starting speed’, for example, is not a beginner’s start point for speed training. It is a training zone that aims to improve general capability for acceleration from a complete stop.
- The ‘ability to overcome inertia from a dead stop’ (Bondarchuk 2014).
- Trained using very light weight or body weight where the maximum achievable velocity is from 1.3m/s up to around 1.6m/s.
Examples: Jumps, throws and some olympic lifts where a higher velocity is needed to complete the lift.
- Moving as fast as possible under load. It is the trait exhibited when speed is the first priority and strength the second (See Mann B).
- Trained with relatively light weights where the maximum achievable velocity is between 1.0m/s and 1.3m/s.
Examples: Cleans, weighted jumps, repeated jumps and weighted throws, banded exercises.
- Moderately heavy weight as fast as possible.
- Trained at loads where the maximum achievable velocity is around 0.75m/s to 1.0m/s.
Examples: Compound and strength based exercises like bench press, squat, split squat, bench pull and deadlift.
Peak power is normally achieved roughly within the Speed Strength and Strength Speed zones. To simplify the velocity zones further, these two zones could jointly be considered a Power training zone.
- Moving heavier loads as fast as possible,
- Observed in sports/movements like driving in a rugby scrum or blocking in a scrimmage.
- Trained with heavy loads where maximum achievable velocity is around 0.5m/s to 0.75 m/s.
Examples: Compound and strength based exercises like bench press, squat, split squat, bench pull and deadlift.
- The ability to exert force maximally.
- Generally trained to improve maximal strength.
- Trained with very heavy loads where the maximum achievable velocity is 0.5m/s or less.
Examples: Compound and strength based exercises like bench press, squat and deadlift.
Velocity and 1RM’s
There is a minimum velocity required to succeed in a lift of maximum effort. This is called the Minimum Velocity Threshold, and it is different across individuals and exercises.
For example, an intermediate lifter attempting a bench press 1RM might move at around 0.15 to 0.10m/s, while an advanced lifter can achieve speeds under 0.10m/s, down to as low as 0.5m/s. The Minimum Velocity Threshold for the squat is generally around 0.3m/s, but can be much lower for elite powerlifters.
The Minimum Velocity Threshold generally corresponds to the velocity of the last successful lift in any reps to failure effort. A lifter than can move a 1RM back squat 0.25m/s would expect to lift the final rep of a 5RM at the same speed.
If you need to determine an individual’s Minimum Velocity Threshold and judge failure on a light load as more suitable at the time than a 1RM attempt, the final value will generally be reliable.
Auto- regulation is a word used to refer to methods of adjusting training based on how an athlete is performing. Velocity makes this very easy. In its simplest form, if a coach has set a velocity target or zone, an athlete hitting speeds in that zone immediately knows if they are in the sweet spot. If they fall outside that zone, they immediately know they need to try harder, go heavier or go lighter. And, they can make this decision based on an objective metric rather than feel or gut.
Auto- regulation using velocity automatically accounts for daily fluctuations in the actual maximal strength of an athlete. This is especially important with some research suggesting maximal strength can vary by as much as 18% above or below a recently tested 1RM (Jovanovic & Flanagan, 2016).
A static program that does not change in response to an athlete’s readiness to train could result in some athletes attempting highly inappropriate training loads.
Take the example of a high school athlete during an exam period. They are stressed and distracted, but keen to maintain strength training for mental balance and to maintain some conditioning. During this time, it would not be a surprise if a 1RM attempt delivered a lower result than normal. However, a 1RM attempt is not an appropriate prescription at this time. Another test could substitute, but velocity solves this problem without other interventions.
If the athlete has been asked to lift a specific weight at 0.75m/s but they cannot achieve this speed, they can drop weight until their speed picks up. Their training is still within the right training zone, and they have adjusted intensity to account for the external stressors in their life.
Use Drop-Offs to Control Volume and Manage Fatigue
Recall that velocity decreases as fatigue accumulates. This is predictable and repeatable, to the extent that researchers are confident in using velocity ‘drop-off’, or fatigue targets, to determine how many reps an athlete should complete (Weakley et al 2020).
What makes this feature more compelling is that it can help coaches account for biological variations as well. Two athletes with very different muscle fibre makeup would not be expected to express the same athletic capabilities outside the gym, but we expect similar output in the gym.
An endurance type athlete, for example, might be able to lift 70% of their 1RM for more reps than a power based athlete. Yet most percentage-based programs will prescribe the same rep count for all individuals. In this case the power-based athlete who fatigues quickly ends up doing too many reps, finishing with slow reps below the prescribed training zone. The endurance based athlete does too few, and finishes with plenty more left in the tank.
Velocity drop-offs, or fatigue targets, are expressed as percentage decreases. They are based on a benchmark value selected by the coach, which is normally a training zone based target, an athlete PR or a previous best rep.
For example, if an athlete has a target of 0.6m/s with a 20% fatigue target, they will continue the set until they drop by 0.12m/s (they hit 0.48m/s). Some coaches prescribe their fatigue targets with ‘one under’ or ‘two under’, meaning they want their athletes to continue until they complete one or two reps under the cut-off.
Velocity drop-offs also autoregulate. If an athlete squats two days after a hard game, their high fatigue will mean their velocity drops faster. For this session, they will complete less reps than otherwise and therefore account for that fatigue, without additional testing or intervention by the coach.
Monitor Development over Time
Using a VBT device to monitor key lifts means athletes are logging performance results every session. We know of teams that use GymAware often enough that athletes even forget they are being monitored. In this way Velocity Based Training becomes a regular, non-intrusive performance test.
An athlete is generally improving if their velocity at a specific load trends up over time. Acknowledging that there are always trade offs, that athletes might lose speed elsewhere, but this can also be easily observed. Coaches can also use long term data to track the impacts of travel, study or tightly scheduled games.
‘I’ve gotten stronger and faster than I ever have in my life, by using velocity’ – Travis Mash
Using Velocity to Estimate 1RM
Many studies have been conducted on the subject of using velocity to predict 1RM. Researchers are generally confident that velocity based 1RM predictions using submaximal loads are accurate for free weight upper body lifts. They are little less in agreement about lower body lifts like the squat or deadlift, suggesting the differences might be due to the more technical nature of those exercises.
Our internal research suggests 1RM predictions can be highly accurate for at least the three main lifts (squat, bench press and deadlift) if an athlete has:
- Experience lifting and familiarity with their capabilities
- Experience lifting at a range of loads
- An understanding of the 1RM prediction protocol
- An understanding of the requirement to lift with maximal intent and the ability to express it.
In theory, we can predict 1RM due to the linear relationship between velocity and load. Recall that as the load gets heavier, velocity decreases.
- A standard test protocol is to complete five sets of 2 – 3 reps at progressively heavier weights from around 50% to 80% of 1RM.
- Take the mean velocity from the best rep in each set and plot a graph with velocity on the x-axis and load on the y-axis. Y
- Use an individualised Minimum Velocity Threshold and find where it intersects the line. This is the predicted 1RM.
A simpler method, called the 2-point method, has been shown to be valid and only requires two lifts. So long as they are distant loads, such as 45% and 85% of 1RM, a linear regression with a Minimum Velocity Threshold intercept will give a usable prediction.
We tend to feel there is too much variation in velocity at light loads to rely on the 2-point method in practice. Unless, that is, the athlete is well trained in Velocity Based Training. If not, we find more data helps improve accuracy, although it does increase the length of the 1RM prediction protocol.
In our experience, there are a few tricks to getting a good 1RM prediction:
- Make sure athletes are lifting as fast as possible.
- Ensure they execute all lifts at all loads with similar form, especially squats (do not ‘shorten up’ as the weight gets heavier!).
- Pay particular attention to intent on loads below 70% of 1RM. Lifting with less than maximal intent at lighter weights will skew the results upwards, sometimes significantly.
- Adjust the Minimum Velocity Threshold for the exercise.
- Even better, adjust the Minimum Velocity Threshold for the individual as well.
- Complete a warm up prior to starting the protocol.
- For powerlifters, start the protocol at a heavier relative load i.e 60%, and finish the protocol at a heavier relative load i.e 90%.
Create Load-Velocity Profile
A Load-Velocity Profile maps an individual’s lifting speeds at a range of loads. It is a way to determine an athlete’s current physical capability and allows more accurate prescription. It is also a way to distinguish between normal fluctuations in velocity or genuine adaptation (or deconditioning).
A load-velocity profile is relatively stable in a trained individual, meaning it can be created once and relied upon for an entire season.
There are two parts to creating a Load-Velocity Profile
1: Complete a 1RM test
2: After at least 24 hours rest, complete an incremental loading test. The protocol described in the 1RM prediction above might suit. Or, follow the suggestion made by Weakley et all and complete three reps at 20%, 40% and 60% of 1RM, and then one rep at 80% and 90% of 1RM.
3: Take the rep with the fastest mean velocity and plot that value against relative load (%1RM).
4: Apply a linear regression to the data
5: Create a table of velocity values against the desired range of %1RM from the regression data
Load-velocity profiling might be considered a more complex Velocity Based Training tool by some, while for others it could be a start point. If the idea seems complicated, consider it a concept to come back to when you are more familiar with your VBT device, the implementation in the weights room and more accessible velocity based training options.
Velocity Based Training uses velocity to quantify intensity in strength training. It is compatible with traditional percentage based methods and can enhance or replace other prescription practices. Velocity is very revealing of biological characteristics due in part to some neat relationships with load and fatigue. In broad terms, because velocity decreases as load or fatigue increases, it can be used to account for daily fluctuations in maximal strength, control internal responses as well as account for individual biological variances.
So long as your VBT device is accurate, velocity is an objective and precise performance metric. However, VBT devices are not all created equal and some are considered by the scientific literature to be unsuitable for prescription.
Wherever Velocity Based Training is used, athletes must be coached to lift with maximal intent at any weight. In short, they need to ‘move the bar fast’. This is especially true at lighter loads which seem to be more prone to variability in speed, as well as coasting or pacing by an athlete.
Coaches do not measure or track every single exercise with velocity and do not always base programs entirely on the metric. For example, Velocity Based Training might not not add much value if used to measure supplementary or isometric exercises. Sometimes VBT devices are only used during certain phases of a training cycle, or, in the case of some high schools, only used with senior students.
In contrast, there are many Coaches implementing Velocity Based Training comprehensively. VBT devices are used at every strength session across a number of key exercises. We are aware of powerlifting athletes using VBT devices all the way up to their competition warm ups, using the numbers to guide their final preparation prior to their competitive lifts.
You do not have to overhaul your training practices to take advantage of velocity. Velocity Based Training can be introduced piecemeal, building on your current approach, filling gaps or swapping out for more efficient practices. There is a place for using velocity wherever a coach or athlete, whether a professional or amatuer, can benefit from objective data and live feedback during strength training.
References and further reading:
Bondarchuk A P, Olympian Manual for Strength & Size. USA: Ultimate Athlete Concepts, 2014.
Chery C, A guide to velocity based training for resistance training, Sciences du Sport (2018) https://www.sci-sport.com/en/reviews/a-guide-to-velocity-based-
DeMayo, J, Central Virginia Sport Performance – The Manual Vol. 1 (Ch. 7, velocity Based Training), https://cvasps.com/cvasps-manual-vol-1/
Mann B, Developing Explosive Athletes: Use Velocity Based Training in Training Athletes (2016)
Mann B, Velocity Zones Explained, https://gymaware.com/velocity_zones/
Mash T, Bar Speed: The Revolution of Velocity-Based Training (2017) https://www.mashelite.com/barspeed/
Weakley J, Mann B, Banyard H, McLaren S, Scott T, Garcia-Ramos A, Velocity Based Training: From Theory to Application (2020) Strength Cond. J pp1-19
Weakley J, Morrison M, García-Ramos A, Johnston R, James L, Cole M H, The Validity and Reliability of Commercially Available Resistance Training Monitoring Devices: A Systematic Review (2021) Sports Medicine 51, pp 443–502