The history of Velocity Zones in VBT

A Part one of a deep dive into the velocity zones
The velocity zones concept has dominated the velocity based training conversation for the last decade.

They have played a big role in shifting the training emphasis away from a singular pursuit of heavier and heavier weights and towards the inclusion of explosive dynamic effort type exercises for athletic populations. However, despite this positive effect, I believe the application of these speed zones, the terminology they include, and the generalised use of fixed values as a universal truth for VBT is no longer advancing the practice of velocity tracking in the weight room.

If you currently use the velocity zones in your training to great effect, please don't let me stop you! Any way you find for channel some emphasis into intent to move is a good thing but I believe there are better ways to get your athletes lifting faster. There are also much better ways to use velocity based training as a way to calibrate your programming and improve the training outcomes.

It's time to revisit these zones and create a new, more practical set of training zones for use within VBT and training in general. So if you are a sports scientist or coach settle in as we dive deep into the many angles of the velocity zones.

This is part one of what will ultimately be a four part series on the velocity zones. In this article the focus is on the history. How the zones got their names, where the absolute velocities came from and how they were intended to be used.

It's important to understand these origins because here is my (possibly controversial) take:

Coaches and athletes are modifying their strength training to align with these fixed velocity zones in the pursuit of specific strength qualities which are based on a poor interpretation (and possibly a poor literal translation) of broader program design principles and a classification system of the Olympic weightlifting exercises.

In subsequent posts I will go much more in-depth with the specific failings of the zones, and in part 3 & 4 detail my take on a more flexible and real-world solution.

If you have any questions or disagree with any of this you can hit me up on instagram [insta link] or on Twitter [twitter link]. I would love to hear about your experience with the velocity zones.

Refresher on the velocity zones

Before we talk about the problems with velocity zones we need to talk about what they are and how they came about.

The zones most people are familiar with are usually depicted in two graphics. One version is as a table or a continuum:

And the other common illustration shows the zones matched to sections of the force velocity curve:

Both illustrations describe five different types of strength that align to five fixed velocity zones.

⁠⁠There are a few applications of the velocity zones but the general idea is that by modifying your training loads to have your bar speed fall within one of the velocity zones you can target and develop the corresponding quality of strength and enhance that attribute.

This is a form of training specificity whereby coaches can aim to rectify a given weakness in an athletes load velocity profile or place emphasis on a key attribute for a given sporting requirement. For example by squatting at 0.8m/s you will target the development of strength-speed for that athlete.

⁠⁠This is unfortunately an inaccurate interpretation of how training specificity, adaptation and physiology work in the real world.⁠⁠

The origins of the speed zones

To fully understand the velocity zones it helps to look back at their history. In fact, the history of VBT is very much intertwined with the history of strength and conditioning as we know it today. Let's start in the 1950s.

Verkoshansky

Back in the 50s and '60s, coaches from the USSR (Russia) had a problem. Their athletes were too good.

Russian athletes in CGS (centimetres, grams, seconds) sports were at the top of the world. If it involved throwing, jumping, lifting, or running, the Russians were in the thick of the medals.

(Whether those programs were supported by "extra-curriculars" is not the point for today's topic, but either way, their programs were producing the cream of the crop athletically.)

These athletes had become so well developed in fact, that the coaches were working without precedent; athletes hadn't been reached this level of performance before. The USSR coaches were running out of training methods to throw at them. They were well beyond the point of the law of diminishing returns.

They had clocked the gym.

Enter Yuri Verkoshansky.

Verkoshansky was decades ahead of his time. So much of what we take for granted as established science and training methodology today can be credited to his ground-breaking research and practice in athletic development.

Most famously, he worked out that the stress applied to the legs when dropped from a height was greater than what you could achieve in the weight room with standard strength exercises. He termed this new approach to power training the shock method. Today this is largely credited as one of the first scientific explanations for modern plyometric training and the stretch shortening cycle.

Verkoshansky was a prolific writer and researcher, and while many modern S&C coaches are familiar with the shock method, the drop jump, and the plyometric origin story, what is less well known was his work on the concept of special strength training (SST).

SST describes the training and programming required for when an athlete has reached such an elite level of physical condition that they need to further specialise their training on the special qualities of strength that are most relevant to success in their given sport. An idea we now refer to as the SAID (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) principle. He described seven qualities of strength covering maximal strength, high-speed strength, explosive strength, starting strength, reactive ability, local muscular endurance, and maximum anaerobic power.

SST was a broad and overarching concept, the idea being to factor these qualities into the entire program:

The purpose of SST in training is to intensify the work of the muscular system when training in a specific regime that is predominantly inherent in the sports activity.

The terminology might be a little different today, but we still use the same concept in modern training. It is one of the first things you are taught in PE or a personal training course: Strength, power, endurance, speed, etc the qualities that make up the modes or types of fitness all need to be factored in when training.

Verkoshansky continued exploring the SST concept in Supertraining, a seminal piece that contains basically the entirety of an undergraduate and masters degree in strength and conditioning. It's heavy going but I strongly recommend this book for anyone who wants to earn a living training humans!

In Supertraining, Verkoshansky explores the difference between "speed-strength" and "strength-speed" as elements of SST, but not as they are currently interpreted in the velocity based training space. He positions them as differentiators of qualities needed across the entire spectrum of a training program, almost as a way to broadly classify on the needs analysis for a sport and its training plan:

It is tempting to refer simply to speed-strength, but this disguises the fact that certain 'speed-strength' sports require greater emphasis on speed and others on strength.

He even concedes that both terms are effectively subtle variations of the term power:

In the language of physics, the terms speed-strength and strength-speed are synonymous with power.

Later he makes an important note pointing out the importance of contraction type in speed-strength activities:

Since these types of rapid action frequently involve the release of stored elastic energy from non-contractile tissues such as the tendons ... the role of myotatic stretch reflex in facilitating powerful involuntary muscle contractions must also be taken into account.

He also points out that elastic contractions are not factored in to the classical models of the force velocity curve, but we will unpack that another time...

Roman

Not the ancient Romans, but Robert Roman, another Russian coach, this time primarily in the sport of weightlifting.

Roman's 1986 book The Training of the Weightlifter, is largely the modern inspiration for revisiting the idea of using velocity as a metric in modern strength training. It is also directly credited by Bryan Mann as the inspiration for the use of speed-strength in the terminology used for the modern VBT speed zones (see Velocity Based Training for Football).

In his book, Roman goes into painstaking detail explaining every element of the Snatch and Clean & Jerk. He describes — to the millimetre — optimal joint angles, stance and grip positions, velocities through certain lift phases, differences between athletes, bar paths, and training philosophies for developing the Weightlifting athlete.

Through the book we again see the term speed-strength, this time used to describe and differentiate the Olympic lifts from other exercises:

In speed-strength exercises like the snatch and the clean and jerk, strength does not always determine sport results.

Roman's key use of the term speed-strength is as a reference to the Olympic Lifts themselves, like Verkoshansky, I believe Roman was using the term speed-strength as a synonym for power, later he uses a different term to describe the physical quality of being a powerful lifter:

Well then, for a weightlifter, speed is an equally important quality. He should be quick -- possessing so called explosive-strength.

He also describes the structuring of training as needing a blended approach, explaining that weightlifters should train at a variety of loads to develop all physical traits important to successful lifting:

A weightlifters training should be structured such that different physical qualities are perfected — giving preference to strength, speed and technique.

And despite his prolific use of velocities in describing the lifts, he still divides the training zones based on loads utilised and not velocities (I think this is because of the variance in velocities by height and experience level):

Less than 60% weights are referred to as minimal, 60-69.9% small, 70-79.9% medium, 80-89.9 large, 90-97.5% submaximal and 100% maximum.

Finally he talks about breaking up the monotony of weightlifting training and avoiding the fatigue of too much work in the 80-95% range:

Then one can selectively influence the speed-strength qualities — The strength or the speed component

But again, all of these recommendations and categorisations are for building strength and speed concurrently across a single program, not a single exercise. At no point does he say that the weightlifter should be performing squats for speed-strength development, or that they should be squatting within a given velocity zone. I don't even think Roman sees speed-strength as a physical quality, but instead as a differentiator for the olympic lifts themselves.

Mann

Fast forward to the 2010s and Dr. Bryan Mann is largely credited as one of the pioneering coaches and researchers in modern velocity based training, citing Roman's use of velocity data as the inspiration for his curiosity with how to begin using velocity in modern collegiate strength training.

Mann saw very quickly the potential for velocity to be a vital training tool beyond just analysing weightlifting movements, he found that the weight lifted by his athletes on the power clean had a lower correlation with jump performance in his athletes than the speed of their power cleans. So they shifted to a lighter load, high velocity emphasis and achieved better jump improvements for his athletes through a more specific training application.

Throughout his time as a collegiate S&C coach, Dr Mann saw patterns and trends in the velocities achieved by his lifters. He drew from this enormous data set and noticed that two of their more frequently used exercises; the conventional straight bar deadlift and the powerlifting regulation squat followed similar load velocity profile for most athletes. From this analysis of the squat and deadlift in collegiate athletes, the five velocity zones, the fixed velocity values, and the corresponding strength qualities were born.

In his 2015 paper; Velocity Based Training for Football Mann explored the specific use of different velocity zones in the weight room to match the sporting actions and qualities of strength seen in American footballers.

The advantage of having strength-speed to the football player is exemplified in positions played at the line of scrimmage.

and:

...football players typically explode out of their stance at a mean velocity of 1.09 m/s, which is in the speed-strength zone.

This made sense, linemen need to be strong but they also need to exert that force at high speeds as per their positional needs, But then in the same paper, Mann speaks about another physical quality of strength:

Speed-strength can be described as moving a lighter load at high velocity and is a means to improve explosive strength

So is speed-strength a quality or is explosive strength the quality, and speed-strength is just a velocity zone used to develop a different quality?

I think Dr Mann's work is incredible, the early applications of velocity zones in American football and at the collegiate level are incredibly clever. If I get to meet Dr Mann I would absolutely have a fan-boy moment, he has done a lot of great work in the world of VBT.

But to me there seems to be a lack of clarity and practical purpose in the velocity zones. These zones are not synonymous with the more commonly used modes of fitness used outside of VBT and the SAID principle relies on many factors beyond just manipulating the bar speed on a single exercise. Verkoshanksy himself points this out in his work.

This problem is not with Dr Mann's original velocity zone concept, it is in the misinterpretation and exaggerated generalisation of this concept has grown a life of its own, transforming from a specific application in training American footballers to be touted as a universal standard and foundational concept for use in all velocity based training.

The velocity zones are not foundational, and they definitely are not a universal standard.

My point is this:

Words matters.

If the language we share as coaches around a concept is murky and confusing it makes it very hard to advance that idea. For a new idea to grow and flourish and has to build on existing ideas and principles in the shared zeitgeist. If the goal is to see the wide spread adoption of velocity based training (that's my goal) as a better way to train for athletes and civilians alike (which I think it can be). To do that we need a simple and concise set of basic principles, ideally somewhat connected to the existing common language of training and performance.

We can't go dusting off a couple of old Soviet terms for power and telling people to build their entire program around special strength qualities that must be developed, even though they have never heard of or thought about the deficiency of starting strength in their athletes.

Bringing it all together

So that is a lot about the where the velocity zones came from and why it needs improving. To finish, lets recap and rapidly bring it all together:

  • In the 1960s Russian athletes were wicked strong, so Yuri Verkoshansky comes up with the special strength training (SST) qualities to help them become better specialists. These are better known today as modes of fitness. This was the SAID principle before we called it the SAID principle.
  • He later describes the importance of considering speed-strength and strength-speed as two sides of the power training coin, to be emphasised according to the sport's and/or athlete's needs.
  • Speed-strength is never described as a physical quality, but more a way of focusing the programming emphasis between say a sprinters plan (speed-strength) and a shot putters plan (strength-speed). They both need strength, they both need speed, but in differing amounts.
  • Verkoshansky also points out the need to consider elastic contraction types as an important element of speed-strength actions, more on that another time.
  • In the 1980s Roman uses speed-strength as a term to describe the Olympic lifts such as the snatch and clean, basically as a way of classifying them separately from standard strength exercises like the squat.
  • He describes his training intensity zones as a product of % of 1RM for those movements - despite also being a liberal user of velocities to track .
  • In the 2010s Dr. Mann creates a series of fixed velocity zones for the squat and deadlift based on his dataset of collegiate level athletes. These are then specifically applied to the sporting needs of American football positions.
  • Mann applies the terms of speed-strength and strength-speed from Roman and Verkoshansky within a velocity specific iteration of the strength continuum. Offering that we can target certain physical qualities by lifting the loads that correlate with these velocities.

Sports science has come along way since Verkoshansky started having athletes jump out of the bleachers in the pursuit of gains. But we can still be a traditional industry, relying on the word of a translated textbook written more than half a century ago to drive our latest innovations.

Today's athletes are different, and while the science of training absolutely owes a debt of gratitude to Verkoshansky, Roman and their peers, we also know that best practice is a constantly evolving idea. The evolution from Verkoshansky's shock method to Wilmot's plyometric plyometric continuum is just one great example.

I think it is time to continue the evolution of velocity based training, read on in part two as I dive into the specific of where the speed zones fall apart, discussing why they don't work as a general guideline or as a practical tool.

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