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Max Intent: How I Used VBT To Maximize The Big Three

I like to experiment with different training methods before I give them to my athletes. So when I was approached at the end of June about doing a Powerlifting meet on Labor Day weekend I thought it was the perfect time to experiment with something I wanted to learn more about: Velocity Based Training.

An iPad displaying the GymAware interactive interface for Velocity Tracking

You hear a lot about Velocity Based Training these days, especially in regards to power development and high performance Strength and Conditioning. It's probably one of the new "hot tools" in sport and fitness. Essentially, it's a method of prescribing loads, sets, and reps based on the speed of a movement (often mean/Average velocity, but Peak Velocity is used for some movements). The speed of the movement determines how much the movement is loaded, or how many reps get performed, as a way of ensuring the right adaptations occur.

I have had access to two main velocity tracking devices over the last three years, yet had never done much deep diving into how it applies to programming. In all, I spent 10 weeks utilizing these velocity trackers (the GymAware Power Tool and the Squats and Science Open Barbell unit) to auto regulate my training and the loads that would be used to develop the adaptations I needed to perform on the platform.

To start, I used a chart made by a fellow coach I work with who correlated the velocities with the adaptations they created (Absolute Strength, Strength-Speed, Power, Speed-Strength, etc). While to be quite frank, the coach and I are not sure where the chart came from, though a perusing search of the Velocity Based Training info available points to origins in Dr. Bryan Mann's work on VBT.

A Velocity/Adaptation/Percentage Chart. Credit: Chase Harris, CSCS

While the chart seems to be based on a broad population of athletes, who are a bit more explosive than the general population or that of elite powerlifters, I found it likely to be suitable for my means as a weightlifter making the temporary transition to powerlifting. Throughout the process, I did find a better solution for more precise tracking of measurements with Chris Duffin's "Velocity Profiling Tool" (which you can download for free on his site). Since I didn't start with creating a profile of my own velocities, I decided to use the above chart and based all loads on the velocity of the first rep. With VBT, you can do the average set velocity as a measurement, the % drop off as a measurement (or a lowest velocity), or choose to go off of first rep velocity. I chose the latter, as it was the most simple approach I knew I could stick to.

With ten weeks to prep, I started the process with a 4 week General Prep Phase. A few things had to be accounted for here:

  1. Switching from a high bar squat to low-bar, since it would be more advantageous to my own biomechanics to move maximum weights. As a weighlifter, I classically had squatted in the high bar position.

  2. Adjust my deadlift style from a clean position to a conventional deadlift setup and pull. This proved quite difficult in the beginning, as I hadn't done a traditional deadlift in almost 6 years.

  3. Learn how to bench press effectively and at higher total tonnages. As a weightlifter, I almost primarily stuck to close grip bench press as an accessory exercise.

It was during this time I realized that if I actually tried to max out the velocity ranges I was using, then I would ultimately push more weight. One of the things that VBT exposes initially is how much effort you put into each rep. Chris Duffin actually calls his Velocity Based Training "Effort Based Training", since you have to put max effort into each rep, intending to move the bar as quickly as possible. With this in mind, it took about 4 weeks for me to realize that I hadn't been moving with max intent in the past. In 4 weeks, I squatted my old 1 Rep Max Squat for a set of 3 reps, which registered on the velocity chart at roughly 87% (tested on Average Velocity on the GymAware).

In the general prep phase I also realized quickly that Average Velocity was not going to be a great metric to use for the bench press. Because Average (or Mean) Velocity tracks the velocity throughout the entire range of motion, a slowly descending bar means that it will register a slower Average Velocity. I personally like my sternum, and since powerlifting requires a brief pause at the bottom of the bench press, I lower the bar more slowly and under a lot of control. This threw off the Average Velocity readings, with 70% of my known 1RM testing at 80%+ during working sets, and leaving me feeling like I had a lot more in the tank. So I tested a week of bench press sets using Peak Velocity, which lead to velocities that correlated with known percentages (based on the above chart).

I did learn that the deadlift was likely to be my nemesis in tracking velocity. In part, because my ape arms caused a huge deficit in range of motion that the GymAware wouldn't register as a rep. (For reference, my wingspan from fingertip to fingertip is 6'2", and my average daily height sits about 5'9", making me not very vitruvian like). Luckily, I had an OpenBarbell (no longer in production) that was more portable and could would register those shorter ranges of motions at slower velocities.

Over time, the cool thing to notice was that the auto-regulation of bar velocity took a lot of guess work out of the equation. While I set myself up on a periodization scheme that was similar to ones I had succeeded on in the past, I found that I was more readily able to handle the psychological effects of fatigue. Classically, I beat myself up for bad days of training, but having the visual of bar velocity allowed me a greater insight into how I was fatigued (this especially rang true for deadlifts).

Especially when doing dynamic days (which I didn't do the normal Westside way), VBT can be a very useful tool

In the end, on competition day I finished with a total that was 140lbs greater than when I had started preparing 10 weeks prior. If you've been in the strength game long enough, you know that making strong people stronger is difficult. And adding that much weight in 10 weeks is something that is noteworthy.

Ultimately, it's been a fun experience, and to summarize this article (there will be more to follow) with some major takeaways, I find the top 3 benefits of Velocity Based Training to be applicable to multiple domains:

  1. You can't run from giving maximum effort when tracking Velocity. You can, but eventually you will get caught going through the motions because you won't progress. The more intent you place behind movements, the better the gains.

  2. You don't get to beat yourself up for bad days. Fatigue is part of training, and by having objective measures such as bar velocity, you don't get to beat yourself up for "feeling weak" that day. You get to see the fatigue in numerical form.

  3. You can approach the programming in a more precise manner. Whether it's by creating a velocity profile or even using a chart like the above to specify the adaptation you want, you have a clearer picture of the outcome you'll have.

There's a lot to unpack when it comes to Velocity Based Training. Admittedly, I'm only getting started in it. But one thing remains clear: there a wide array of uses and many approaches to using bar velocity as a way to improve performance.

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