Velocity Based Training Tips for Newbies: VBT Quick Start Guide
Velocity Based Training (VBT) is about more than just speed. It’s about measuring effort with the metric of speed, or velocity.
Using velocity measurements to inform your training decisions can be confusing and challenging if you are unfamiliar with the why’s and the how’s of a VBT program. I’ll discuss that and more in the rest of this article.
Why does Velocity even matter in the weight room?
Basically everything done in the weight room is going to be general physical preparedness (GPP) for team sports. This means, the movements and exercises utilized in a power rack in the gym are only going to supplement the actual sport specific physical preparedness (SPP) of actual on field team practice time.
GPP is used to improve the most general physical qualities required for sport. A good example here would be improving lower body muscular strength by progressively performing and getting stronger at the barbell back squat for an American football player. Improving lower body strength may not have a direct carryover to immediate improved play during a football game. However, the added strength gains will help reduce a player’s risk of injury. Plus, the quality of their SPP drills may also be higher during practice as a result of the strength improvements.
More healthy SPP practice time equals more opportunities to improve at actual sport specific skills. GPP and SPP are two equally important pieces in the Strength and Conditioning puzzle.
It is pretty self-evident why maximizing velocity during SPP exercises is important. The old adage “Speed Kills” instantaneously comes to mind. If the skills you are working on have the highest transfer to improved play on the field, then the speed at which they are practiced must be the same in both practice and games.
So, does this mean that all of our weight room work should be “game speed” or as fast as possible? The answer to this question is an absolute one…
…That answer is a resounding: It depends!
Lucky for us, people way smarter than we will ever be did the studies, put in the hours, and exhausted the literature to come up with charts like this one to explain velocity based training:
Image Source: NCAA.org
Translated into English, this chart is basically saying that the heavier a weight gets, the slower it moves. Well, duh. The interesting part about this specific graph is that the velocity ranges are labeled by both speed of movement and then the quality that “velocity zone” helps develop.
I know some of these terms are new to some people, so here is what they mean:
- Starting Strength (~ >1.3m/s): Moving a minimal load as fast as possible, so as to maximize speed. This is usually from a dead stop.
- Speed Strength (~1.3 – 1.0 m/s): Moving a light load as fast as possible, thus creating an “under loading” effect. This ends up being very fast movement. Compared to strength speed (see below), the priority here is on speed with strength being secondary.
- Strength Speed (~1.0 – 0.75 m/s): Moving a moderate load as fast as possible. This ends up being a moderate speed. Compared to speed strength (see above), the priority here is on strength with speed being secondary–though I will once again emphasize the theme (which applies to all of VBT) that the load, however light or heavy it is, is meant to be lifted as possible. For those familiar with powerlifting, strength speed is where most of the dynamic effort work will fall earlier on in training.
- Accelerative Strength (~0.75 – 0.5 m/s): Moving a relatively heavy load as fast as possible. This ends up being slow, but not quite sluggishly or grindingly slow, if that makes sense. This is the range most hypertrophy work will be.
- Absolute Strength (~ <0.5 m/s): Using very heavy load (i.e. maximum or near-maximum effort) as fast as possibly. This necessarily ends up being a slow movement.
NOTE: It’s important to understand that the above chart refers to how each velocity range might correspond to its respective training quality, for a single exercise. That is, if we assume the chart as shown is true for one exercise (e.g. squats), then it will most likely be inaccurate for another exercise (e.g. bench press). That’s not all. The velocity ranges for each quality won’t just vary from exercise to exercise. They will also vary from person to person.
Hopefully, breaking down each zone shed some light on exactly why VBT is important. Slight variations in the speed of movement can have a significantly different training effect. For example, one recent study looked at the actual effects of velocity loss during training.
Pereja-Blancho and colleagues (2017) looked at the effect of velocity loss on markers of athletic performance, strength and just overall muscle adaptations to see if there would be any noticeable difference between a working up to a 20% loss in velocity versus a 40% loss in velocity.
The study took place over the course of 8 weeks (2 session, twice a week for 16 total sessions) and used only bar velocity to determine the work being done for that session. This particular study used barbell back squats. Subjects were pre and post tested for 1 rep max deep squat, MRI quad cross sectional area, muscle fiber biopsy (to look at differences in muscle fiber type), countermovement vertical jump height and 20m sprint time.
Based on the velocity loading parameters from session to session, over the course of the 16 training days, subjects progressed from about 70% of their 1rm to 85% of their 1rm. Every session, they performed 3 sets with 4 minutes of rest. For each of the 3 sets, they performed as many reps as they could until the rep velocity for that set dropped by either 20% or 40% depending on which group they were in.
Major implications were found. Here is the quick and dirty version:
- Subjects who worked until a 40% velocity loss, on average, had to perform 36% more total work and 40% more repetitions than the 20% velocity loss group.
- Even with that added work, both groups showed similar/significant improvements in muscles size, sprint speed, and squat max increase over the course of the 16 sessions.
- The 20% group had significantly higher Type IIx (fast twitch/explosive fibers) cross sectional areas after the cessation of the study.
- The 20% group had significant improvements in the vertical jump test.
What these results tell us is that:
- Adherence to a VBT program may not only be a viable training plan, but it might also be the most optimal option available. Optimal training is basically doing the least amount of work possible, investing the least amount of energy possible, and still getting a desired result.
- Avoiding training close to failure is better for explosive qualities
The decrease in explosive fiber types is no doubt due to the significant increase in the amount of fatigue accumulated in the 40% group because of the huge increase in the workload it took to drop bar speed by 40%. Because the workload was so high and the bar speed dropped so much, aerobic adaptations started taking place to keep up with the ATP demand/waste removal needs.
This has a huge impact for sports requiring short duration sprints and for anyone performing primarily explosive, high force movements for their sport. For the most part, doing too much work and allowing bar speed to drop too much can be detrimental for the demands of an individual’s sport. Yes, training to failure may actually be failing to be optimal.
How Do I Incorporate VBT into My Training?
First off, in order to be accurate, you’re going to need to invest in some kind of technology that measures bar speed. Luckily, we live in a time where some of these products are relatively inexpensive and easy to get access to.
Here are some of the most popular consumer-level VBT devices available:
- Beast Sensor (I use this one. See my detailed review of the Beast Sensor for my thoughts on it)
- PUSH Band
- Atlas Wristband
- OpenBarbell V3 (Uses a retractable string attached to the bar to calculate velocity, instead of accelerometers like the wireless VBT devices listed above)
The tricky part is implementing VBT protocols into your training if you’re new to methods like this. Here is a stepwise list for some practically applicable suggestions to ease your way into a VBT program (assuming you have access to a bar speed measuring device):
1. You need to establish your own “Velocity Load Profile”
Training using purely velocity readings does have some individualized limitations. For example, speed of movement observed by equipment will be skewed in the squat exercise in athletes with different length femurs and muscle tendon attachments. Also, individual joint dynamics will play a role in individual velocity.
So, before you even begin utilizing VBT, you need to become adept at using a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale. This is a modified Borg Scale (goes from 6RPE to 20RPE and is used to estimate heart rate values in clinical exercise testing) that allows you to self-diagnose the intensity of the exercise that you are performing based on a scale from 1 to 10. 1 would be equivalent to laying on the couch eating bon bons. 10 would be more akin to the hardest physical exertion you are capable of without dying.
This does seem a little arbitrary at first, but if you consider the RPE you assign by how many Repetition in Reserve (RIR) you have left, it helps to standardize the scale. For example, a set of 3 at an 8RPE would mean that you stopped the set 2 reps shy of failure. That same set of 3 reps at a 9RPE would be stopped 1 rep shy of failure. A set of 3 at a 10RPE is your true 3 rep max on that exercise. Make a little more sense now?
Becoming familiar with this scale and practicing it will help you more accurately equate your RPEs to the actual percentage of your 1rm that you are working with. This will help control the variances in your velocities based on how your body is actually shaped.
2. Get into the habit of pushing every rep with maximal voluntary concentric (MVC) action.
This just means pushing every single velocity measured rep as hard and as fast as you are physically capable. This will help make sure readings are as accurate as possible. Slowing down concentric muscle action will greatly skew the readings of the velocity measuring technology.
Keep in mind that you are measuring velocity to make sure you’re moving optimal weight at an optimal speed. Slowing down on purpose will end your workout too soon.
3. Once you have mastered the previous steps and get your hands on a velocity sensor, it’s now time to put VBT to work for you.
To start out, I would work into this very conservatively. Following the protocols set by the study I referenced earlier, Begin using VBT on two exercises twice a week. A great set of exercises to begin with are the barbell bench press and the barbell back squat. Here is a sample month long progression for integrating VBT with these two lifts.
Sample VBT Program
Weeks 1-5 of the sample program below use the exact loading protocols from the Pereja-Blancho study (discussed previously), broken down into a block periodization style.
Also, this program involves using the VBT for squat and bench press only. You don’t need to complicate it by using VBT tracking on any more lifts, particularly if you’re new to this type of training.
That said, you will likely want to be doing more exercises so as to have a more complete routine with sufficient volume for the rest of you body/other lifts. You can add on more lifts to each day, but keep the squat and bench as the first lift on the indicated day. You could easily expand this basic template into a 4 day upper/lower split.
- Day 1: Bench Press: Speed Strength. Find a weight that stays between 1m/s to .75m/s. Complete 3 sets. For each set, perform as many repetitions as it takes for the bar speed to slow by 20%. Rest 4 minutes between sets.
- Day 2: Squat: Same protocol as day 1.
- Day 3: Bench Press: Accelerative Strength. Find a weight that stays between .75m/s to .5m/s. Complete 3 sets with 4 minutes of rest between sets. For each set, perform as many repetitions as it takes for the bar speed to slow by 20%. Rest 4 minutes between sets.
- Day 4: Squat: Same protocol as day 3.
Week 2 & 3
Stick with the same protocol, adding 5-10lbs to each exercise, each session, for each week.
- Day 1: Bench Press: Accelerative Strength. Find a weight that stays between .75m/s and .5m/s. Complete 3 sets with 4 minutes of rest between sets. For each set, perform as many repetitions as it takes for the bar speed to slow by 20%. Rest 4 minutes between sets.
- Day 2: Squat: Same protocol as day 1.
- Day 3: Bench Press: Absolute Strength. Find a weight that stays between .1m/s to .5m/s. Complete 3 sets with 4 minutes of rest between sets. For each set, perform as many repetitions as it takes for the bar speed to slow by 20%. Rest 4 minutes between sets.
- Day 4: Squat: Same protocol as day 3.
Stick with the same protocol. Add 5lbs to each exercise, each session.
Retest maxes or start cycle over.
- Mann, J. B. (2015). Velocity Based Training. Retrieved from http://www.ncaa.org/health-and-safety/sport-science-institute/velocity-based-training
- Pereja-Blancho, F. Et al. (2016). Effects of velocity loss during resistance training on athletic performance, strength gains and muscle adaptations. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.
- Helms, E. Et al. (2017) RPE and Velocity Relationships for the Back Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift in Powerlifters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.