Velocity Based Training

Key points

  • VBT is using velocity feedback to influence workouts.
  • Most explosive training is naturally velocity based.
  • Current trend is applying VBT concept to strength training.
  • VBT in strength training is valid. It's a good concept. But...
  • Everything done with VBT is already done without it.
  • Strength-speed, speed-strength, etc. are just phrases people made up.
  • Train strength. Train speed. Don't worry about everything in between.

Velocity based training is a method that is exploding in popularity in the sport science field. I recently saw someone say that we are in "the age of velocity based training." Let's examine that claim. First of all, what is it? Simply put, VBT is measuring velocity of a load during an exercise and using that information to influence training. There are a few popular uses:

  • Regulation of set/reps/load. For example, put a velocity requirement on an exercise/load and only count reps which meet the requirement. This ensures a level of quality, not just quantity of the repetitions. Another example. Put a velocity requirement on an exercise and continue increasing load until that requirement is not met. This is an alternative to percentage based loading that accounts for daily fluctuations in performance.
  • Testing. In addition to or instead of doing a max strength test, pick a weight and measure the velocity that you can move it. Or pick a velocity and see how much weight you can move at that velocity.
  • Evoking maximal effort. Pure strength exercises do not have a velocity requirement, which can mean the lifter does not always move with maximal effort level. Measuring bar speed provides velocity feedback and encourages a high effort level for the entire lift.
  • Force-velocity profiling. This is putting together a picture of an athlete's force production capabilities based on their performance in different explosive and strength movements. In the case of VBT, this generally means testing velocity at various loads, establishing a best fit line, and then trying to shift that line through training. The picture below shows examples of load vs velocity data.

First I want to point out that most explosive training naturally provides velocity feedback, which is used the same way as bar speed data, even if velocity is not the thing being measured. For example, if you time a sprint or an agility drill, you are indirectly measuring velocity. That measurement can be used to regulate volume in a workout. Obviously it is used to test speed. And if you're a speed athlete, I certainly hope that your speed performance is factored into your force-velocity profile. The same is true of any jump or throw. If you get feedback on the height or distance, you are indirectly getting feedback on velocity. Again that feedback can be used for all three purposes of VBT. This has been common practice for a long time. I might tell an athlete he has to touch 11 feet on an approach jump 20 times in a workout. That is placing a velocity requirement on the jump. Or at the facility where I train we have angled steel beams in the ceiling, and I'll have an athlete see how far up the beam they can throw a medicine ball. That is indirectly measuring velocity. Another option there is to film the throw and time how long the ball takes to come down. And of course with a jumping athlete, measuring jump height is an important part of force-velocity profiling. So the concept of VBT is not new. In explosive training, VBT has been common place for a long time.

The current trend is taking the concept of VBT and using it for strength and power training by measuring bar speed. In this realm we still have training that naturally provides velocity feedback, namely the weightlifting movements. The clean, jerk, and snatch are all explosive throws of the barbell. These lifts have a minimum velocity requirement, because you must throw the bar a certain height in order to catch it. And you actually get pretty precise feedback on the velocity of the bar from the height of the catch. So let's say I'm doing a hang power snatch. That lift has a built in velocity requirement on it. If I test how much weight I can hang power snatch, that is the same thing as putting a velocity requirement on a lift and seeing how heavy I can go and still hit that velocity. Or let's say I'm doing cleans with a straight leg catch. Again that lift has a velocity requirement. I could do sets where I keep doing reps until I have to start bending my knees to get under the bar. That is regulating reps using feedback on velocity. And with all the available variations of clean, jerk, and snatch, you can get a lot of information for a force-velocity profile if you want to do that. So the weightlifting movements are inherently velocity based training, even if bar speed is never actually measured. Again VBT is not new. It should be noted however that clean, jerk, and snatch do require a fair amount of skill. Measuring bar speed provides precise feedback without having to learn the skill of catching the bar.

A lot of training provides feedback on velocity and lends itself to VBT without actually measuring velocity. Pure strength exercises are the only important exception. This is where measuring bar speed does provide something that we don't already have. But it's not as if people have previously been flying blind with no feedback. Strength exercises are slow, so it's fairly easy for a coach to see bar speed, and it's fairly easy for an athlete to feel how difficult a lift is. For a long time people have been using that information to regulate sets, reps, and load and to track progress. VBT offers a more systematic, more formulaic method, but it's not a superior method. Truth is the training process needs to be a science AND an art. VBT only offers science.

Probably the best use of VBT for strength training is encouraging maximum effort to move the bar as fast as possible, because pure strength exercises do not require that. Of course we don't NEED velocity feedback in order to use maximum effort, but it is useful. One particular shortcoming of VBT is that it does not address the quality of the movement. Mechanics are extremely important in strength training and must be taken into account in testing and workout regulation. With that in mind, if you are still in the process of mastering your lifts (most people are) do not use VBT for your heavy strength training. Put a priority on perfecting the mechanics of your lift rather than bar speed.

So let's review the purposes of VBT...

  • Workout regulation. A lot of training naturally provides feedback on velocity without actually measuring it and allows for regulation based on that feedback. Pure strength training does not provide objective velocity feedback, but for a long time coaches have been regulating these exercises based on visual bar speed, the feel of the athlete, and the quality of the movement. This is arguably superior to regulating based on velocity alone.
  • Testing. Any time we get feedback on the speed of a sprint or the height or distance of a jump or throw, that is velocity based testing. There are all kinds of options across the strength-speed spectrum, from top speed timing to max strength testing. Measuring velocity on a barbell is perfectly fine but not a necessity.
  • Evoking maximal effort. This is a completely legitimate reason to measure bar speed on strength exercises, but it should only be done with experienced lifters.
  • Force-velocity profiling. Again this is something that all decent coaches have been doing for a long time. It should involve examining an athlete's strength, power, athletic performance, flexibility, body type, explosive gifts, and mechanics, not just bar speed. And to be honest, the velocity at which you can bench or squat 20% of your max is not particularly valuable information; it's not a good measure of explosiveness or strength. You have to consider actual athletic movements and go beyond simply finding the slope of a load-velocity best fit line. Measuring bar speed offers a purely scientific, more formulaic method, but by itself it is inferior.

With all this in mind, measuring bar speed is a fine idea; there's nothing wrong with it; but it is definitely not a necessity in athletic development. The things you can do with it have all been done without it for a long time. We are not in "the age of VBT." Rather training has been largely velocity based for centuries. What's new is just some of the technology becoming widespread. Bar speed is another piece of feedback that can be used in training, but there are already plenty of other ways to measure performance. If you want to measure bar speed, that's totally cool. But it's not going to revolutionize athletic development.

"Strength Qualities"

Now let's talk about some accompanying information that people are putting out to guide VBT. Check out the chart above. There are a variety of these charts, but the idea is always the same. The chart takes velocity ranges and associates them with a percent range of 1-rep max and/or a "strength quality." The velocity range and the percent 1RM make sense. That is useful information for selecting loads in velocity based strength training. What I want to talk about is the strength qualities. If you look at different charts, you find that people use different sets of qualities, and the numbers don't always line up the same. This is because these strength qualities are just phrases that people make up; they don't actually exist. What we actually have are two abilities, strength (maximum muscle tension) and explosiveness (how fast muscle tension is produced). Or in the VBT content people use the terms strength and speed. At different loads, different amounts of strength and speed are utilized, but there are no separate abilities being trained. Rather than five or six different categories of training, there should really only be two. What is considered speed work depends on the athlete. Speed work is the movements in your sport plus anything that features a shorter time frame for force production. For agility, speed, and jumping athletes, those activities are the only speed work. No weight training should be considered speed, even if it's light or explosive. Hang power snatches or squatting 20% 1RM do not develop speed for sprinting and jumping. Looking at these charts, rather than different abilities being trained with different loads, what you actually have is weaker strength stimuli and stronger strength stimuli. It's all maximum strength training. The exception would be weightlifting where the competition movements are performed with roughly 60-80% of the athlete's max squat. In this case light lifting can be considered speed work. There are still only two categories, but the speed category now slides further toward the slow end of the spectrum. (If we were going to break strength down into categories, they would be neurological strength and structural strength. Those are entirely independent of velocity.)

This brings us to the discussion on the specificity of strength. The current trend in research is in support of specificity, meaning that training at a particular velocity makes you specifically stronger at that velocity more than at other velocities. What I have seen is people make two conclusions:

  • Strength is velocity specific.
  • We have to train at all different velocities in order to "optimally develop force production abilities" or something like that.

Let's assume conclusion 1 is true. If that is the case, it is the exact reason why conclusion 2 is not true. If strength is entirely specific, there is no reason to train at a velocity other than that of your sport, because training at another velocity will not transfer over to your sport. If strength is completely specific, heavy lifting would never help anyone get more athletic, because the velocities are too far apart. Instead we see huge athletic benefits from heavy lifting. Why? Because conclusion 1 is only partially true. In reality strength is largely not specific. Strength is largely general, particularly when you use fundamental movements. Squat and hinge strength carry over very well to a lot of other movements, even movements that are not that similar. Does lifting heavy weight guarantee an athlete will be forceful in a sprint or jump? No, absolutely not. Strength training must be used correctly for it to transfer over to athleticism. Does strength have some specificity to it? Yes, absolutely. But it is more general than specific, and that is the reason strength training is useful in athletic development.

So where are we getting all the data supporting specificity? If you have two research groups, and one only does light, fast lifting, and the other only does heavy lifting, the two groups show different adaptations. Light lifting yields faster increase in force but a lower maximum force. Heavier lifting yields force production that is slower but reaches a higher maximum. Simple. Makes sense. That demonstrates specificity right there. But what if all the research subjects are also doing sprint and jump training? Now the faster force production in the light lifting is rendered useless, because everyone is getting much better speed work from sprinting and jumping anyway. In this case, the purpose of any lifting is maximum strength. It is not speed-strength or accelerative strength or starting strength or whatever. It's just plain old strength.

So conclusion 1 is only partially true. And regardless, conclusion 2 is false. If strength is specific, there is no need to train at lots of velocities, because they do not transfer. If strength is general, then there is no need to use all the velocities, because they all train the same thing. This philosophy with VBT that you need to train at all different velocities has no validity to it. What you actually need is to be explosive and to be strong, and that will make you good at any velocity. Explosiveness for sports is trained by sprinting, jumping, and playing your sport. It is not trained by light lifting. Strength is developed to some degree by all movement, because all movement uses muscle tension. If you get out of bed and walk around every day you have some level of strength. If you play sports, a higher level. If you lift weights, a higher level. To strength train for athleticism, you want to develop more strength than you have naturally from playing your sport, and you want to do that in the easiest possible way. So if you are an untrained athlete, and you can get stronger by doing plyometrics, great. That is how some young athletes get major athleticism improvement in a short period of time. Or if you find that you get stronger by doing hang snatches and jump squats, excellent. You don't have to worry about those things slowing you down like heavy lifting does. But the unfortunate truth is that the adaptation to plyometrics or explosive lifting runs out pretty quickly for most people. Most of us need maximum strength training to keep progressing over time. In that process of developing strength, will you use a variety of loads? Yeah, probably. But do you need to be concerned with how fast you squat 10%, 20%, and 30% of 1RM? No. Do you need to do high pulls with six different loads and measure bar speed on each one? No. Maybe pick one load and use it to track progress. Are you training a different ability when you lift 60% 1RM than when you lift 80% 1RM? No.

People have made up these "strength qualities" and convinced themselves that each one has to be trained individually, and that is just not the case. Train speed the best way possible and train strength the best way possible. All the stuff in between will take care of itself.