Our daily readiness to train changes from day to day. Factors such as hydration, sleep, training and nutrition all affect how well we can perform on a given day. Think of it this way. Imagine nailing your training, nutrition, optimal sleep and constant hydration for a week. Most likely, you’ll feel great in the next gym session. On the other hand, imagine a stressful week, lack of sleep and poor nutrition. The next gym session you may feel weaker, lethargic and slow. Our strength fluctuates from day to day, which can result in sub-optimal training.
The traditional approach to strength training is using previous repetition maximums (RM’s) through testing, to prescribe weight on the bar for lifting. This has been the most common practise in strength environments over many years- but is it optimal? If your strength has the ability to fluctuate so easily through external and internal factors, this may result in you loading weight on the bar based off of previous test results, theoretically which you can lift for x amount of repetitions- but your daily readiness says otherwise. This presents the basis for sub-optimal training, generally identified through failed repetitions. How often have you lifted a certain weight for x amount of repetitions one week, then the next week you try again and fall short. This shows us clearly that adaptation isn’t a constant upward line, and the oscillating nature of strength impacts our training.
Below is an image taken from a study by Jovanovic and Flanagan in 2014 (1). The image clearly shows how an athlete’s strength has fluctuated from day to day over the course of a month.
Your maximal strength fluctuates from day to day due to these internal and external factors. When we train, we are always striving to do it optimally to elicit the greatest adaptations while minimizing our soreness and fatigue levels.
Autoregulation essentially means changing your training intensity based on how you are feeling during a session; It is done to minimise excess fatigue, promote safe training and drive optimal adaptation. For example, a lot of research has been put into training zones for runners to train the most efficient way possible. The way they do this is based off the recorded heart rate during a run. The zones set out are based off of heart rate levels, for example an aerobic building run may have a heart rate zone of 70-80% of Max. Runners, like all athletes, will perform differently everyday. However they may be physically feeling, their ability to monitor heart rate and slow down/speed up in line with their target is how autoregulation works.
The same goes for strength training. The two subjective methods used in strength training for autoregulation are;
- Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
- Repetitions in Reserve (RIR)
Rate of perceived exertion has been widely used in the strength and conditioning setting for many years. It subjectively measures how hard something felt out of 10. For example, if it was a maximal effort of an exercise, with nothing left in the tank- that’s a 10/10 RPE. Repetitions in Reserve is another method of autoregulation, and it monitors how many repetitions the athlete felt they had left after a set. Repetitions in Reserve works well as from a physiological standpoint, we should never be going to failure when training for strength. It should always feel like we had 1-2 repetitions left in the tank, even after a tough set. There is a big difference between training and testing in a gym setting. Only in strength testing should there be a 10/10 RPE or 0 RIR.
The downfall to both of these methods is that they are subjective monitoring. There is no concrete data or measurement to base the intensity off of. Differences will be present between individuals of how they perceive an effort of an exercise and how many repetitions they believe they had left in the tank. This results in margins of error for monitoring.
From a coaches perspective, implementing these methods is still the best course of action, accompanied by using your coaching eye without velocity equipment. With experience, a coach can observe how fast an exercise is moving and best gauge how many repetitions said athlete has left in reserve. Again, this is a subjective method and not optimal.
So how do we accurately, objectively measure intensity during strength training? Velocity-based training measures the speed of an exercise, generally the speed of the barbell in a bench press, squat or deadlift exercise. There is an inverse relationship between the velocity of an exercise and the load on the bar- As weight increases, the velocity of movement decreases. This allows for accurate, objective measurement and monitoring of training intensity for strength movements. Velocity measuring units, called linear position transducers, measure the displacement of the barbell over time, relaying the feedback in metres/second to a secondary bluetooth device. This instantaneous feedback provides coaches/players with a way to;
- Identify how they are performing
- See if they need to increase/decrease the load on the bar
- Train optimally
As mentioned, the fact that an athlete’s strength can fluctuate results in sub-optimal training unless efficient autoregulation methods are utilised. Velocity training can be used effectively in warm up sets to gauge the athletes daily readiness by how fast they are performing the repetitions- If the warm up sets are clearly moving slower than normal, it may be indicative that the athlete is fatigued at present, and a tapered session may be more effective. Once they transition into the working sets, set cessation techniques are generally used. A set cessation occurs when the velocity of the repetition drops below a predetermined threshold. This is done to mitigate unwarranted neuromuscular fatigue and to ensure the athlete doesn’t perform repetitions near failure. For example, an athlete may be given a threshold of keeping each repetition above 0.4 m/s. If a repetition speed drops below that number, the set is stopped. Research (2, 3) has shown in several studies that this both mitigates neuromuscular fatigue and enhances performance for athletes- the cornerstones for effective athletic development.
Benefits of Velocity-Based Training:
Having the ability to quantitatively measure intensity in strength exercises provides several benefits to athletes and coaches. The benefits include;
- Allow coaches to manipulate the athletes load in line with objective feedback and targets
- Mitigate excess neuromuscular fatigue/stress by utilising set cessations and velocity thresholds
- Estimates an athlete’s 1 repetition maximum (1RM) at submaximal loads.
- Ensures athlete’s drive maximum intent for each repetition- Providing optimal stimulus for strength adaptation.
- Drives competition in a group training setting.
Driving maximum intent for each repetition is crucial in velocity-based training as it provides the most accurate information regarding the velocity. Driving maximum intent is also pivotal in strength training- Attempting to ‘move the bar as fast as possible’ will recruit the maximum number of motor units for the muscle to contract, allowing for optimal performance and adaptation (5, 6).
In a group setting, I have observed first hand how velocity-based training can help drive this maximum intent through competitive training. When there are several athletes around the same bar or rack, they are generally going to try and lift each repetition faster than their peers. This not only increases sessional enjoyment- but drives that maximal intent of each repetition as discussed. Who doesn’t love healthy competition in the gym!
Velocity-based training definitely has its merits for the future of training. There are a couple of downfalls with the mode of training though. The cost of equipment is expensive. Some units can be upwards of $500! Upskilling with the tech is also needed, but once the proficiency is there, effective and enjoyable training can be present.
‘What can we do best with regards to strength training in terms of autoregulation without velocity monitoring?’
Combining the RPE scale and RIR methods are your best course of action. Below is an infographic I created which illustrates an easy way of subjectively regulating strength training. Common aspects to remember include;
- During training, we are never going to failure
- During training, constantly be working on form and technique
- Utilise warmups and warm up sets to the best of your ability to gauge how you feel
- Jovanovic M, Flanagan EP. 2014. Researched Applications of Velocity Based Strength Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Volume 22, Issue 2, Pp 58-69.
- Orange S, Liefeith A, Metcalfe J, Robinson A. 2019. Effects of In-Season Velocity- Versus Percentage-Based Training in Academy Rugby League Players. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.
- Dorrell HF, Smith MF, Gee TI. 2020. Comparison of Velocity-Based and Traditional Percentage-Based Loading Methods on Maximal Strength and Power Adaptations. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Volume 34, Issue 1, Pp 46-53.
- Pareja-Blanco F, Rodriguez-Rosell D, Sanchez-Medina L, Gorostiaga EM, Gonzalez-Badillo JJ. 2014. Effect of movement velocity during resistance training on neuromuscular performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine. Volume 35, Issue 1, Pp, 916-924.
- Gonzalez-Badillo JJ, Rodrgieuz-Rosell D, Sanchez-Medina L, Gorostiaga EM, Pareja-Blanco F. 2014. Maximal intended velocity training induces greater gains in bench press performance than deliberately slower half-velocity training. European Journal of Sports Science. Volume 14, Pp 772-781.