Velocity Based Training for Powerlifting | An Introduction

TL;DR

Bar velocity has opened a world of information and approaches to helping athletes get stronger and prepare for their sport.

While historically this has been utilised in the strength and conditioning world of elite field and court sport athletic development departments, the improvement in app technology means accurate and easy-to-use barbell velocity tracking apps like Metric VBT have brought velocity based training to the masses. There is no population of athlete’s who will benefit from this more than powerlifting.

Powerlifters thrive when they track bar speed and use the data to help inform their training. When you step on the platform every kilo matters, so finding ways to optimise your training, calibrate your program and push your limits is crucial for success on the platform, avoiding plateaus and increasing career longevity.

In this beginners guide to velocity based training for powerlifters, we'll explore the fundamentals of VBT, the benefits it has for strength athletes and how it can be applied in your powerlifting program.

The science behind VBT and building a big total

VBT is a method that involves measuring the velocity of your lifts to determine the optimal training load, volume, and intensity. By tracking bar speed (usually done with a computer vision app like Metric), you can gain valuable insights into your force production, fatigue levels, and overall performance progression over time. VBT provides a window into an athlete's capabilities, allowing coaches and athletes to make data-driven decisions in their training.

Bar speed is a measure of force production

Producing force is about more than just lifting heavier and heavier weights. Force production is a product of mass and acceleration. Acceleration can be noisy and is difficult to directly measure so we are able to instead infer acceleration from the mean velocity of our reps.

Lift the same weight faster and you have produced more force, likely indicating a strength gain, while lift a weight slower and it might suggest a technique shift or a drop in performance due to fatigue or low effort.

By measuring bar speed, we can estimate the force being produced and determine the optimal loading for specific training adaptations.

Velocity as an objective measure of progress & readiness

Readiness, or the fluctuations in strength levels that occur on a daily basis, is a crucial concept for powerlifters to understand. Various factors, such as recovery, training loads, life stressors, time of day, and even the weather, can influence an athlete's readiness. Accurately measuring readiness allows lifters and coaches to make the necessary adjustments to a training session to deliver the optimal stress for adaptation.

Traditional methods of assessing readiness, such as the load lifted or the number of reps performed, are often lagging indicators and may not provide a complete picture of an athlete's performance capacity. Another option is to use self-reported Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), which, when properly learned, can be a powerful training tool. However, RPE is a subjective measure and can be influenced by various human factors, leading to potential biases in the data.

In contrast, barbell velocity emerges as a superior indicator of readiness and progress. Velocity is highly sensitive to changes in performance and can provide an early indication of an athlete's recovery and adaptation status. By measuring barbell velocity, powerlifters can obtain an objective and precise measure of their readiness, enabling them to make data-driven decisions about their training.

Screenshots of the Metric VBT app showing barbell velocity change over time.
Trending velocity over time can indicate progression in strength levels or accumulating fatigue and overreaching

The objectivity of velocity measurement is a significant advantage over (or compliment too) subjective methods like RPE. Velocity data is not influenced by the lifter's perception or external factors, providing a reliable and consistent measure of performance and readiness. This objectivity allows for more accurate comparisons across training sessions and over time, enabling lifters and coaches to track progress and identify trends in adaptation.

The precision of velocity measurement allows for fine-tuning of training loads and volume through a process called autoregulation. By monitoring small changes in velocity, powerlifters can make incremental adjustments to their daily prescribed training sessions, ensuring that they are consistently working at the optimal intensity for their current readiness level.

While each program adjustment might be small (a rep or two here, ±5 pounds there), autoregulation enables lifters to precisely calibrate their workouts in response to their unique rate of recovery and adaptation. This means holding back when on the verge of overreaching and pushing harder when recovering well. Autoregulation, guided by velocity data, allows powerlifters to optimise their training and make consistent progress towards their goals.

Strong Correlation Between Bar Speed and 1RM

The relationship between bar speed and force production is a key concept in VBT. As the load on the bar increases, the velocity at which you can move it decreases. This inverse relationship is known as the load velocity profile and it allows lifters to use the velocity of their training sets to accurately predict their daily strength levels and make small training adjustments if needed.

Bar speed and load relationship as seen in the load-velocity profile

Research has shown a strong correlation between bar speed across loads and your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for that day, in fact for every 0.05m/s you increase your bar speed on a given weight this represents a 5% increase in estimated 1RM. This relationship allows you to accurately measure and keep tabs on your maximum strength levels without having to interrupt your training block for testing.

How VBT can help powerlifters

Velocity Based Training offers numerous benefits for powerlifters looking to optimise their training and maximise their performance. By incorporating VBT into your training regimen, you can gain valuable insights into your strength, power, and fatigue levels, allowing you to make data-driven decisions and adapt your workouts accordingly. Let's explore some of the key ways VBT can help you take your powerlifting to the next level.

Objective performance tracking

One of the key benefits of VBT for powerlifters is that it provides an objective measure of performance with a significantly greater number of data points and information.

By tracking bar speed on all your work sets, back offs, and warmup sets, you can gain valuable insights into your strength, power, and fatigue levels in real-time. Over time, this information allows you to make data-driven decisions about your training, rather than relying solely on subjective measures like RPE or "feel".

Monitoring neuromuscular function and adapting workouts

VBT also enables powerlifters to monitor their neuromuscular function (readiness) on a daily basis.

By tracking bar speed on all your sets, you quickly accumulate enough data to see rolling average velocities for your most commonly used weights, helping you quickly and easily identify significant changes in performance from normal or baseline performance levels.

In the Metric app this feature is called Trends, and it provides a simple % score comparing your velocity today with your 6-week average. Faster velocities (>102% above average) may indicate improvements in neuromuscular capacity and a well-recovered athlete, while slower velocities (<98%) could signify a technique slip, low effort levels, fatigue, or overreaching. This information allows you to make informed autoregulation decisions about your training load and recovery in response to your individual rate of progression and recovery.

Replacing percentage-based training

Traditional powerlifting programs often prescribe training loads based on percentages of your 1RM determined in a testing event some weeks or months ago. This approach doesn't account for daily fluctuations in your actual 1RM strength levels in real-time, leaving you with a load prescription that no longer reflects your performance levels today.

With VBT you can either enhance an existing percentage based program structure with real-time 1RM estimates from velocity, or use velocity targets to replace percentages entirely when prescribing your days work loads.

  • Real-time percentage based prescriptions. Apps like Metric provide a 1RM score in real-time giving you a way to prescribe %s that account for today’s actual readiness levels. Simply track velocity across 3-4 warm up sets, get your 1RM estimate in the app and then interact with the load-velocity profile to find the load & velocity that corresponds with the percentage you want to do your work sets at.
  • Velocity ranges, or velocity targets. instead of planning your lifting weights based on percentages, velocity targets (sometimes called velocity zones) allow you to prescribe loads in real-time based on bar speed directly for your current readiness. For example today’s work sets need to be at a mean velocity of 0.55m/s, on days when you are in high readiness this should be heavier than last session at the same speed. When readiness is lower, the load lifted at 0.55m/s will be the same or maybe slightly lower, allowing you to find the perfect weight for your real-time readiness.

Integrating RPE and VBT in powerlifting

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a subjective measure of training intensity commonly used in powerlifting. While RPE can be a useful tool in powerlifting, it has its limitations. The subjective nature of RPE makes it susceptible to human error and bias, which can lead to inconsistencies in training intensity and progress. Additionally, RPE tends to become less accurate the further a set is from failure or a rep max effort. For example, a set of 5 reps with a planned RPE of 7 can can be challenging to accurately and consistently gauge.

By combining RPE with objective measures and data from velocity based training such as velocity targets, last rep velocity, real-time estimated 1RM and velocity loss percentage, powerlifters can create a more comprehensive and reliable picture of their in-session performance, helping fine-tune training and avoid an over-reliance on any single data point.

Read more about combining VBT and RPE in this article →

Or check out my freeRPE - VBT conversion calculator here→

Tracking and monitoring improvements

Another significant benefit of VBT is that it provides an objective way to track your progress over time. By comparing your velocity at a given load across training cycles, you can assess whether you're getting stronger and faster. This information can be incredibly motivating, as you can see tangible evidence of your hard work paying off. It can also help you set realistic goals, adjust your programming, and celebrate your achievements along the way.

How to start with VBT in a powerlifting program

To get started with tracking barbell velocity in your workouts, you'll need a reliable way to measure bar speed.

Historically a linear position transducers (LPT) has been the most popular choice among powerlifters. However, advancements in camera and computer vision technology have brought about more convenient and accessible options in the form of bar speed tracking apps.

Velocity based training apps for powerlifters

There are a number of apps available, many of which use generic computer vision frameworks, standing apart from these is Metric, the app and company I cofounded with my brother Davey.

Screenshots of the Metric VBT app
Metric VBT. Available to download for free on iOS

Davey is a computer vision expert and built our tracking algorithm from the ground up specifically for tracking barbell lifts like the squat, bench and deadlift.

Obviously my recommendation is biased due to my affiliation with the app, but our app is built by lifters for lifters, with a focus on practical usability and focused training insights to help lifters make the best training decisions.

Metric is an accurate and user-friendly app that allows you to track bar speed without the need for additional hardware. The app is free to try, making it accessible to lifters of all levels. In addition to tracking velocity, Metric packs a stack of powerful features.

  • log RPE or RIR for every set
  • Automatic estimated 1RM in session
  • Velocity trend analysis
  • Personal record alerts for load, power, velocity and reps
  • Search training video library
  • Auto-trim videos for export and sharing
  • Track your entire workout with its built-in workout builder
  • Create and share programming templates directly on your phone

The convenience and accessibility of Metric make it an excellent choice for powerlifters of all levels, from beginners to elite competitors.

At the time of writing (June 2024) Metric is only available on iOS (Android hopefully coming soon!)

Download and try Metric on iOS for free →

Collecting baseline data

Now that you have selected your preferred barbell velocity tracking app/device it’s time to actually collect some data from your training.

Velocity based training as a training method becomes more powerful the more data you collect, providing deeper insights allowing lifters and coaches to make decisions with a stronger foundation in meaningful baseline data.

One of the best ways to do this is to simply start recording velocity data in your workout, record velocity on your primary lifts (and any key barbell-based accessories) and don’t do much more than that.

If you are using Metric, you will find that the app becomes more and more useful automatically with each passing session, with performance stats, trend alerts, record cards being highlighted as you train. Other systems might require you to log this data somewhere in a spreadsheet or with pen and paper so spend some time getting familiar with your VBT system of choice during these baseline data collecting sessions.

Creating a load-velocity profile

Another way to get started with velocity based training is to collect data from a dedicated testing session where you create a load velocity profile and find your estimated 1RM.

This load-velocity profile illustrates the relationship between the load on the bar and the velocity at which you can move it. You can use this profile to determine the optimal velocity ranges for different training objectives, such as strength, power, or speed.

I have written in detail about how the load velocity profile works here, and there is also a free load-velocity profile generator on this website that you might like to check out too.

Watch your trends

As you incorporate VBT into your training, pay attention to your velocity trends, the readiness indicator I mentioned earlier in the article.

Are you consistently getting “stable” or “trending faster” messages or do you have sessions filled with “trending slower” alerts?

As you get stronger, the velocity for all your weights (above 50% of 1RM) should consistently be going up, especially for sets between 50% and 90% of 1RM.

Use this as a motivation to drive intent and effort in your work sets and back off sets and even chasing new velocity records on your warmup sets can be a valuable way to get more intent into your training.

Trends can also be a early indicator of residual fatigue and low readiness, a session with multiple “trending slower” alerts during the warmup sets might be an opportunity to adjust your days training plan and accelerate your medium and long-term progress.

VBT and powerlifting competitions

While VBT devices are not allowed on the platform during powerlifting competitions.

Personally, I think this is a great idea for athletes* — competition is all about the three white lights and successful attempts — worrying about bar speed at this stage is just a distraction.

I also consider the use of velocity on warmup sets or to inform attempt selection on the day of a meet to be an incredibly advanced method. Something I would only suggest a lifter and coach attempt with considerable planning and with many months (or years) of velocity based training under their belts.

In the weeks leading up to a competition, monitoring your velocities at your planned opener and second attempt weights (virtually via the load-velocity profile and interactive chart in Metric). If you're sessions show velocity at these target weights holding consistent, or even getting faster over time as your taper program and pre-meet deload take effect, you can be confident in your ability to make those lifts on the platform. Starting this process 4-6 weeks out from the comp can give lifters and coaches confidence in their prep and ample opportunities to adjust should they need it.

*Metric VBT adds 0kg to the bar and can be setup to record velocity from quite a distance away, so Including velocity tracking to improve the spectacle of powerlifting meets seems like a great idea to me!

Level up your powerlifting with VBT

Velocity based training is a potential game-changer for powerlifters looking to optimise their training and get an edge on their competition.

By monitoring bar speed, you can gain valuable insights into your strength, fatigue, and progress helping you calibrate your workouts in real-time. Implementing VBT in your training can help you train smarter and harder, leading to better results on the platform in the short and long term.

If you found this interesting, or want to learn more about VBT specific to your training, come say hi on Instagram or the Metric Discord. And of course you can download Metric VBT at this link, let me know what you think of the app, I love hearing feedback from lifters.

I might also need to write up a part 2, dive deeper into advanced VBT concepts for developing strength athletes, let me know if this might be of value.

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References and resources

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Elevate Your Training with Metric VBT

Maximise your workout effectiveness by monitoring key metrics like velocity, power, range of motion and tempo with just your smartphone.

Metric VBT automatically calculates your 1RM from bar speed data, along with bar path tracking, RPE logging and a full workout builder.

Metric is the perfect lifting app to refine your technique and enhance your strength.

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