Can Velocity Based Training be useful for Bodybuilding?

Using VBT and velocity tracking to make gains and improve the quality of your hypertrophy training

Yes! Velocity based training has a huge potential for bodybuilding and training hypertrophy generally.

Sure, I know VBT is traditionally a strength and power thing; it’s for athletes and powerlifters right?

This is true but VBT is so much more versatile than most people realise!

I prefer not to pigeon-hole the tools we have at our disposal as coaches, if we reframe velocity based training and instead call it velocity tracking, it opens up a broader range of possibilities for how velocity and range of motion data can be applied to improve training and help us make greater gains. And that includes helping coaches and athletes when putting on muscle mass is the objective.

For hypertrophy and bodybuilding, we can definitely utilise velocity tracking to optimise sessions, balance fatigue and track progress. Here are some practical approaches.

Drivers of muscle growth

Very, (very, very) simplistically, hypertrophy is a response to two variables:

  • Maintaining a caloric surplus. Eg. eating more than you burn, with adequate protein intake.
  • Applying mechanical and metabolic stress on the body that triggers the mTOR pathway, signalling muscles to grow. Ideally this is done by training with enough volume, load, and frequency, probably in line with the recommendations from Schoenfeld et al (2021).

Velocity tracking can’t help you much with getting the calories in, but it can do plenty to help you optimise training stress in the gym to maximise the hypertrophy effect and logically apply progressive overload in the weight room.

With this in mind how do we take advantage of velocity tracking to maximise our gains?

First we must re-evaluate how we think about velocity when it comes to lifting weights.

Is there a velocity “zone” for hypertrophy?

Logically, and in alignment with other VBT applications, we might ask: is there an optimal velocity we should lift at for hypertrophy?

In short, there isn’t one.

VBT has traditionally been applied to strength and power training, two activities that are very neurally driven. The brain sends a nerve signal to the muscle fibres, activating muscles to produce force in a coordinated and forceful way. The intent of the training is to lift more weight or lift it faster.

Yes, there needs to be enough muscle at the end of those nerve signals to produce the force, but it is possible to get significantly stronger or more powerful (to a point) without actually increasing muscle size.

Strength and power fit pretty nicely onto an X-Y chart with velocity and load being the primary drivers of adaptation. Strength is heavy and slow, whereas power is moderate loads at moderate velocities (resulting in the greatest power outputs). Lift heavy or lift faster, either way you are making progress.

The load-velocity profile and load-power profile. Both great tools and systems for training strength and power.

Hypertrophy doesn’t fit this same framework however.

Growing muscle is complex and multi factorial: nutrition, recovery, mechanical tension, metabolic stress, hormones and so many more variables all contribute to whether our body will put on size.

As a result there are many seemingly polar-opposite training approaches that are all able to deliver the desired result of more mass. Just look at team sport athletes, powerlifters, Weightlifters, and Crossfitters to see that size can come from plenty of different programs.

CrossFitters get pretty jacked too, despite their high volumes and conditioning approach to training

Velocity can play a part in the overall structure of a program aimed at hypertrophy, but there isn’t a perfect or specific velocity that works for all hypertrophy programs. Sometimes lifting faster and with explosive intent is optimal, other times the goal is to slow right down to accumulate more time under tension and more mechanical tension - it really depends.

So if there isn’t a “velocity zone” for hypertrophy, what can we do with velocity tracking if building mass is our goal?

Increase intent on heavy load exercises

A well rounded hypertrophy program will typically include some big compound lifts with heavier loads. For these movements I would take a similar approach to my velocity tracking as to that of powerlifters. Velocity is naturally going to be slow as a result of the load; the closer you are to your 1RM the slower the bar moves.

But you still want to try and lift them as fast as possible.

This is known as intent to move. You should be aiming to lift heavy weight as fast as you can, even if “as fast as you can” ends up being achingly slow.

Putting as much intent into the barbell as possible helps activate larger type II muscle fibres, driving strength gains and delivering big doses of mechanical tension to the muscle. These fibres gan grow significantly, and greatly contribute to someones overall musculature (see references).

For all sets and reps above ~40% of 1RM I try to move as fast as I can, even on warm-up sets. The emphasis is therefore on force production and activating those type II muscle fibres. My aim is always to set a new velocity personal best (PB) on each weight, improving force production across the entire load-velocity profile, while chasing both big weights and faster velocities in my work sets.

By doing this we maximise the mechanical tension and stimulus from our heavy compound work in our pursuit of gains.

Increasing the quality of lighter load exercises

Hypertrophy training and bodybuilding are often associated with single joint movements that have a smaller total range of motion, typically for higher rep ranges, and thus lighter weights.

Treating these movement like heavy compounds and trying to move the weight as fast as possible is counter productive to putting on size.

With this part of our training program we want the opposite approach, for these movements our velocity emphasis shifts away from intent and towards controlled pacing.

This is where tempo tracking comes in.

Tempo

Tempo flips the classic idea of velocity based training on its head and encourages us to lift slower.

With tempo we can look deeper into each rep, providing a breakdown of the eccentric and concentric durations along with an accurate measure of pauses at the top and bottom of the movement.

Tempo analysis in the MetricVBT app. Feature still in development
Tempo analysis in the MetricVBT app. Feature still in development (coming soon)

Instead of trying to lift as fast as possible, tempo tracking focuses on lifting as consistently as possible across the set at a controlled pace. The best physique athletes in the world will maintain beautiful consistent tempo every rep of a set.

A tempo that is too fast creates momentum and swinging, resulting in an elastic movement where more of the work passed to our tendons, gravity, or other muscles. Deliberate, controlled reps with pauses at the top and bottom reduces momentum and puts emphasis back on the target muscles, increasing the hypertrophy stimulus.

In my coaching experience, crappy tempo control is probably the biggest mistake novice lifters make (in the gym, nutrition is still the #1 overall mistake). They simply aren’t doing as much quality work as they think they are. Sure they are moving weights around, but a decent percentage of each rep is being performed with the help of the bounce they get out of their tendons and the assistance of other muscles.

This poor application of tempo isn’t always the fault of the lifter though. Three seconds is a lot longer than most people think, especially when your hamstrings are on fire and you are trying to control the eccentric portion of the 10th rep on your RDLs!

This is why you should measure your tempos with a velocity tracker.

Apps like MetricVBT can precisely measure tempo, providing the lifter with much needed objectivity. Instead of guessing, velocity tracking can immediately show you if your pauses are long enough between reps or if your eccentrics were indeed the full three seconds that the coach prescribed.

This is a game-changer for online coaches, helping them keep clients honest, massively reducing the difference between prescribed tempo and actual tempo output. Velocity tracking doesn’t lie.

*Tempo metrics are in development - coming to MetricVBT very soon. You can stay up to date on these developments by joining the MetricVBT newsletter here →.

Range of motion

Another great metric for increasing the quality of your training is range of motion, or ROM.

A nice accidental benefit of velocity tracking is that you also get ROM data, highlighting the distance travelled for every single rep in a set and across a workout. There is considerable evidence that training muscles at longer ROMs leads to greater muscular growth (see references).

Tracking and measuring this can be an invaluable insight for optimising your training sessions as there are a number of ways lifters will “cheat” on their range of motion without even realising.

  • Shortening range later in a set. As fatigue builds up lifters shorten up their reps to avoid the most challenging portion of the lift - sticking points are most commonly at the longest portion of the rep. This can be spotted with the ROM consistency metric, a number that highlights any deviations in technique across a set.
  • Shortening up on heavier sets. As the loads go up across sets, ROM frequently comes down. Once you know the range of motion you are hitting for your warm-up sets, the aim should be to not compromise this range as you go heavier. Finding the right weight that is challenging but doesn’t lead to a shortened range is the sweet spot. Over time you can increase the ROM and/or the load with improving strength.
ROM consistency across a set of RDLs, notice that the reps shorten later in the set as fatigue sets in. Measured with MetricVBTi
ROM consistency across a set of RDLs, notice that the reps shorten later in the set as fatigue sets in

Velocity tracking to measure proximity to failure

A large part of training for hypertrophy is chasing the burn, taking sets close to their failure point.

Using velocity tracking there are two ways to measure this, with a percentage velocity loss value or with the last rep velocity for a set.

Velocity loss takes the fastest rep of a set (usually first or second, when you are fresh) and calculates the percentage decline across a set up until the last rep of the set. This decline in velocity is a good reference for lifters to gauge how hard they pushed. For many compound lifts, where good intent is applied across the reps, a decline of 40-50% in velocity is reflective of a set taken very close to its point of failure (RPE9.5+) while a set with only 20% velocity loss might be more inline with a moderate exertion set (RPE7 - RPE8).

Taking every set to the point of 40% velocity loss is likely counterproductive and will leave you burnt out, but strategically doing some work at this level of exertion is going to be a valuable part of training for hypertrophy. Just be wary that lots of training at 40% velocity loss can compromise strength gains.

Read more about training to failure and velocity loss here →

Training closer to failure (40%) led to inferior strength results compared with more submaximal (20%) training
Training closer to failure (40%) led to inferior strength results compared with more submaximal (20%) training

There is one limitation to using velocity loss however; it relies on a high level of intent being applied across every rep in a set, something not always desired in bodybuilding style training. One potential solution is to use last rep velocity, the mean velocity for your last repetition in a set.

Even when a set is performed without maximal intent, velocity will still likely decline across the set as fatigue accumulates, by measuring the speed of the last rep in a set, a lifter can gauge how far they were from their minimum velocity threshold (MVT), the speed associated with their point of failure for that exercise. From here, a lifter or coach can apply thresholds, setting a limit for how close a set should aim to get to this failure velocity, potentially periodising training exertion around this value.

The MVT varies by individual and exercise, but usually having a buffer as close as +0.1m/s above an individuals MVT would be considered very challenging training, while a buffer of 0.3m/s is more comfortable and further from the point of failure.

MVT values. Standard velocity values for 1RM bar speed in velocity based training
Standard velocity values for 1RM bar speed in velocity based training

Standard velocity values for 1RM bar speed in velocity based training

Velocity tracking to measure total stimulus

The above strategies largely focus on improving the quality of individual sets and reps within your training sessions. But what about tracking progress over time, or reviewing a session for its hypertrophy effects as a whole?

Once you dial in your training and find a program that is delivering steady gains, the next step is to apply progressive overload, gradually increasing the training stress week on week to keep the gains flowing.

Currently, one of the the most common ways fitness apps measure the work done in training is with a calculation known as tonnage.

The problem with tonnage/volume-load

Volume load, sometimes also called tonnage, is calculated as Sets * Reps * Load.

This has become an almost universal shorthand for how much work a training session contains. While it can be generally useful, tonnage is ultimately a simplification and an outdated measure of hypertrophy training. There are three fundamental flaws that I think make volume load ineffective:

  • It unfairly equates sets that are clearly different stressors for the muscle. Eg. it gives equal value to a 1x 100% lift with a 2x 50% lift. While these are the same volume load, they are very different in terms of strain on the muscles.
  • It does not take into account the impact of proximity to failure and the related metabolic stress (a key factor in hypertrophy). Eg. 1x12 is not the same as 3x4 at the same load in terms of metabolic stress for example.
  • It fails to factor in range of motion, tempo, or duration of a rep, all key variables that impact stress and load applied to the muscles. Eg. 3x12 back squats are very different to 3x12 calf raises, largely due to the shorter range of motion in the calf raises.

Instead of tonnage or volume load, I prefer a novel calculation of training stress called exertion load. This is a measure only made possible with the use of velocity tracking technology.

Exertion load is superior to volume load

Exertion load is an improved way to calculate the hypertrophy stimulus of a training session by creating a single score which factors in tonnage, number of hard sets, tempo, range of motion, and proximity to failure.

This measure aims to correct for the limitations of volume load so we can more accurately understand the hypertrophic effect of our training and programming over time.

Illustrated in the table below are two lower body workouts with identical volume load equations but significant variations in their exertion load scores.

Exertion load is about applying progressive overload

Like there is no perfect velocity to target for hypertrophy, there is no perfect exertion load to be achieving each session.

A single sessions exertion load is an arbitrary number and carries very little meaning, but when exertion load is calculated over weeks and months, it becomes possible to track how much work an athlete is doing and if they are progressively training harder. The objective is to increase the exertion load of each training session week on week, applying more stress and challenging the muscles to grow.

There is a balancing act to this, you need to be increasing your exertion load each week, but only if you are able to recover from and adapt to the stress (enter nutrition, sleep, rest days, active and passive recovery, etc). For a intermediate or advanced lifter, a steady increase of 2-5% each session should be challenging but still allow full recovery between workouts. To achieve this a lifter could apply overload to any number of variables within their program:

  • Add more load
  • Increase number of reps
  • Perform an extra set (or drop set)
  • Slow down the tempo of the lift
  • Increase range of motion
  • Change exercises

MetricVBT is the perfect tool for hypertrophy

By applying velocity tracking we can dial in hypertrophy stimulus, keeping a lifter honest with objective data about the quality of their training.

There is no single best-practice when it comes to implementing these metrics and approaches, each component can be modified to suit your specific environment. Combine any number of these metrics from your velocity tracking technology with any other measure of training that you use to find a system that works for you. My recommendation is always to start with simple, only adding complexity when you are sure it can provide value.

In my opinion the best and simplest place to start is simply getting objective feedback on the intent applied to your big lifts (Squats, bench) and measure the tempo or ROM of your isolation training (RDLs, curls, etc). You can record your barbell lifts and get velocity and ROM analysis for free with MetricVBT get it for iOS here → (Tempo analysis and exertion load profiling coming soon). You might be surprised just how much more progress you make by dialling in the ROM consistency or by increasing the intent applied on your big lifts! challenging those 3-second eccentrics are when you can see the numbers on your screen after each set!

Using MetricVBT to measure eccentric velocity in hypertrophy training
No more hiding your eccentric tempo counts with objective velocity tracking data!

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