VBT Velocity Zones Part 2: The problems with the five zones system

Part two of a series exploring the velocity zones system popularised in VBT. In this article I explain why the existing five zone system is misused, inaccurate and potentially slowing down your training progress, not enhancing it.

I strongly believe the well known "velocity training zones" are wrong. They do not contribute to good training, and in fact confuse and distract coaches from leveraging the amazing power of VBT.

There are five key reasons I think the velocity training zones are wrong:

  1. You cannot generalise the velocity zones
  2. The five strength qualities are not real physical traits
  3. Absolute bar speed is not a programming lever
  4. The force velocity curve and load velocity profile are not the same thing
  5. A fast squat is not a fast movement

This is part two in my series on the velocity zones, and picks up where I left off in The history of Velocity Zones in VBT. It may be worth going back and reading that article before diving into this one.

Introduction

Many velocity based training devotees swear that lifting within arbitrary velocity zones provide magical physiological benefits that could not otherwise be achieved without that precise velocity prescription. Yet athletes have been building muscle and improving their athleticism with great strength and conditioning programs long before it became possible to track velocity in the gym.

Why is it that coaches suddenly worry about precisely lifting within the speed-strength zone when they start recording velocity?

I would argue it is simply because 1) they can, and 2) they need a framework to implement VBT, and they find one in the velocity training zones.

The velocity zones are ubiquitous in blogs or videos about velocity based training. They are even integrated into the software of many VBT devices, or come shipped in the box as a "getting started" leaflet. This positions the velocity zones as a universal standard for coaches getting started with VBT.

Now, I love dynamic effort training. Westside barbell, accomodating resistance, speed squats,cluster sets, these are brilliant training tools for improving power, rate of force development and building explosive athletes or lifters. I also love giving athletes objective training targets beyond just how much weight is on the bar, especially when this increases their intent to move or creates a competitive and motivated gym culture. I find using VBT methods to provide velocity and power metrics works better than any other tool I have used.

But there is nothing special about lifting at 1.05m/s compared to 0.95m/s that changes the fundamental effect of a training session.

You cannot generalise the velocity zones

Typical explanations of the velocity zones makes it appear as if they are universally applicable. Unfortunately, this is an enormous misinterpretation of the fixed zones originally described by Dr. Bryan Mann. The origins of velocity zones are actually incredibly narrow and specific.

We covered this in detail back in part one, but to summarise, Dr. Mann created the velocity zones from several years of college strength training data. The data was for two exercises: the conventional deadlift, and a powerlifting low bar back squat.

He specifically comments that excluding the bench press from the data set had to be done to make the zones possible. Velocities on the bench differed so much from the squat and deadlift that the fixed velocity values did not apply.

This wide and general application of the zones wasn't the original intention for Dr Mann. His intention was to create a specific tool for two exercises which gave his college level athletes objective training goals in their dynamic effort training.

It is critical to understand that all exercises have a unique load velocity profile.

As an example, below are the load velocity profiles for four different strength exercises, completed by the same individual.

A load velocity profile for four different exercises using velocity based training (VBT)

While the shape of each load velocity profile and slope of the lines are similar, the absolute velocities achieved at each load are hugely variable. And this data is just for one individual.

The NSCA highlights that for intermediate and advanced lifters to stimulate strength adaptations they must lift above 80-85% of their 1RM. Yet if you prescribe with a speed zone training model, an 80% load would span three separate velocity zones, ranging from "strength-speed" to "absolute-strength" for the four different movements .

A load velocity profile, focusing on the 80% of 1RM section with velocity based training (VBT)

This isn't a new idea, research has been highlighting the differences in minimum velocity thresholds for different exercises for years (Weakley, 2020). There is even research highlighting that the squat and deadlift have quite different minimum velocity thresholds, potentially challenging the ability to use the velocity zone value for even the two exercises the zones were originally based on.

If you were to use the same fixed velocity values for these four movements, it would be physically impossible for this athlete to perform rows within the absolute strength zone as this individual's minimum velocity threshold for rows was 0.58m/s. They wouldn't reach the required 0.5m/s threshold until beyond 105% of their 1RM!

Load velocity profiles are highly individual

Just like load velocity profiles will differ by movement pattern, no two athletes will have the same load velocity profile.

Range of motion, limb length, coaching emphasis, training history, and genetics all impact the shape of an athlete's profile at any given time. There is even the potential for a load velocity profile to change over time as an athlete becomes stronger, bigger or more powerful. This is neuro-mechanical efficiency at work.

The spread in load profiles for different people using velocity based training (VBT)
There can be a 100% spread in velocity at 1RM for different individuals on the same exercise

Anyone who attempts to program for teams with fixed zones will find enough variability between individuals that the loading intensities across a team will be quite wide at any given target velocity.

And while generalised velocity based training has been shown to be a more effective programming strategy than % based training (Dorrell, 2020), the use of individualised velocity data is even more effective. Dorrell showed this in another of his 2020 studies when he compared autoregulated training using a group VBT approach vs individualised profiling and load adjustments.

Comparing invidualised VBT training with a group based protocol
Group based velocity based training is effective, but individualisation use of velocity leads to even greatest results.

Individualisation of the zones by exercise and by athlete is essential for this style of programming to work. It should also be calibrated semi-regularly to account for training adaptations. This is not hard to do, I am working on an explainer article on this topic (make sure to join the mailing list).

The five strength qualities are not real physical traits

The velocity zone model links five fixed velocity zones with five unique qualities of strength. Unfortunately, these five qualities of strength are not actually reflective of the recognised physical qualities that you would find in textbooks, or indeed athletic qualities that are needed for success on the field or court. Whether you use velocity tracking or not, training is grounded in developing the same physical qualities: strength, power, speed, endurance, mobility, elasticity, aerobic fitness etc.

One thing that I find particularly aggravating about the velocity zones is the arbitrary distinction of "speed-strength" and "strength-speed".⁠

As I wrote in part one, speed-strength and strength-speed were never definitions of physical qualities or specific velocity zones. Roman used these terms as a way to seperate the Olympic lifts from other exercises, and Verkoshansky used them as a general term to indicate a training program's subtle bias toward either strength or speed.

For example a sprinters program might be described as having a speed-strength emphasis, and a shot putters program as strength-speed. Both athletes need to be developing strength and speed for their events, but in differing amounts.

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

Sure, separating unloaded power from loaded power is an important distinction, but speed-strength and strength-speed as defined by differing bar speeds is not how to go about it. These terms don't take into account other crucial variables that drive training adaptation. Elastic and plyometric contractions, cyclical activities like sprinting, movement vectors, training volume, supramaximal eccentric loading, time under tension, work-rest ratios and so much more all play a much bigger role in our training adaptations than the speed at which we perform our bilateral compound exercises.

The inability to precisely and simply define "speed-strength" and "strength-speed" is also an indicator of serious conceptual weakness. I believe this conceptual weakness is tied back to the original misinterpretation of the original work by Roman and Verkoshanksy.

I have not seen the terms defined any better than: "Something, something power, but a bit faster..."⁠, and, "Something, something power, but a bit slower."⁠

I would argue this confusing terminology is something the strength and conditioning industry has grabbed hold of in an attempt to impress sports coaches and athletes.⁠ Strength training can play a big role in athletic development, but it's not the only thing.

Absolute bar speed is not a programming lever

The whole point of designing structured programs is to manipulate an athlete's exposure to stressors in pursuit of specific training outcomes and adaptations. Put simply, progressive overload and the SAID principle are how we drive adaptations.

Manipulation of training variables are the levers we pull to influence the adaptations an athlete will experience. Do more reps to increase volume and hopefully influence hypertrophy, add plyometrics to build elasticity and reactivity, lift heavy to build strength, and on and on we go, pulling levers in pursuit of progressive overload and more specific adaptation to improve performance.

These examples listed are high impact levers; the changes you can make to a training session that will give big returns for the investment. The 80/20 rule. The big rocks. Lead dominos. You will notice that I did not give an example for changing bar speed as a way to influence training outcomes.

When I think of all the possible programming levers at a coaches disposal, chasing a specific fixed bar speed should be way, way down on the list, if it even gets on the list at all.

In fact, I would go as far as to say absolute bar speed is not a programming lever.

If your training goal is in any way tied to strength or power output, then athletes should be lifting with a near maximal intent to move on all their sets. This increases neural drive, motor unit recruitment, rate of force development, and type II muscle fibre development. So if we assume this near-maximal intent on most sets of strength and power exercises the way we interpret velocity flips 180º:

Bar speed is a consequence of our programming, not a lever to pull for chasing specific adaptations.

Contextual bar speed is what really matters

Say we are training an intermediate lifter who is a high level team sports athlete (footballer, tennis player etc). They need to be developing maximum strength, chasing a goal of 1.75x BW on their lower body lifts. Training science would recommend programming 2-3 sessions per weeks with 2-5 sets of 3-6 repetitions using loads greater than 80% of their 1RM, maybe suggesting to work with a 2RIR. There is plenty of room for adjusting the specifics, but as long as you choose a specific enough exercise and apply progressively heavier weights this athlete should gradually get stronger over the training block.

Notice that nowhere in the plan is velocity part of the prescription.

The goal for this athlete is to get stronger, so we want to keep lifting heavier. Velocity is a product of our training decisions, a fantastic piece of objective data to help autoregulate training and highlight an athletes readiness in real time to find the optimal training stimulus on a daily basis and monitor progress over time.

As this athletes works through their training block, what truly matters is not staying within certain zones but comparing their velocities today with their recent performance. Strength levels fluctuate on a daily basis due to fatigue, soreness, sleep, stress, motivation levels and plenty more. Because of this, the ideal weight to lift for a given rep range will also fluctuate (The reverse is also true; the ideal rep range will change for a given load, VBT can work either way).

Movement velocity is one of the best indicators of this readiness to train. Even if you don't use velocity tracking, lifters are always judging performance by how fast a lift felt. By accurately measuring velocity this feedback (along with RPE) athlete's can make small adjustments to the weight or reps they choose to do on that day for their working sets, adding or subtracting a little to match their readiness state.

An athlete reviewing their velocity based training data on a phone

This is contextual velocity, I think it is the most crucial and valuable use of VBT, but no one is talking about it or doing it well.

Here are some examples of this in action:

  • For all of your deadlift sets in today's workout, try to beat your best rep mean velocity from last session. This will encourage you to lift with more intent and compete with your former self. On sets above 70% of 1RM any increase in velocity can be correlated to an increase in 1RM, so you can start chasing velocity PRs for a given weight.
  • Use a 30 day average for your best rep velocities to help auto-regulate your training. Through your warm up sets see how you stack up against your last month on those weights. Below 90% for your best rep mean velocity on all three warm up sets? Maybe today isn't the day to be chasing that new PR.
  • Measure velocity loss during a set to control the number of reps completed and avoid working into failure by stopping at a 20-25% drop in velocity. This keeps training consistent around an 8RPE, avoiding any nasty increases in systemic fatigue that can result from working to failure on a regular basis. 20% fatigue will still be a tough set, but assures us that we are leaving 2-3 reps in the tank.
  • Use improvements in velocity as an indicator for increases in strength. An improvement of 0.04m/s for your best rep on any given load above 70% of 1RM is equivalent to about a 5% increase in your 1RM. This gives athletes and coaches a valuable new way to score their training progress beyond just how much weight is on the bar. It can also serve as a faster and easier substitute for dedicated testing days.

The force velocity curve is not the load velocity profile

The five velocity zones are commonly illustrated as being evenly distributed along the force velocity curve. The idea being that by changing the speed at which we perform a single exercise, we can specifically target that portion of the force velocity curve.

The velocity based training (VBT) speed zones on the force velocity curve - this is inaccurate
The inaccurate illustration of the velocity zones on the force velocity curve

As clean and simple as this sounds, it is simply not true! The velocity zones do not surf the curve. This is another fundamentally flawed idea that I encourage you to rethink.

The force velocity (FV) curve is a theoretical concept, showing the relationship between force and velocity. The more load you try to move, the slower you will move, and the faster you want to move the less load you will be able to move. ⁠⁠

This relationship is credited to Archibald Hill. In 1938 he used in-vitro frog leg muscles to measure contraction speed, force, and temperature when electrocuted. The sloping shape of the graph is based on an individual muscle being stimulated outside its original frog body.

The original Force velocity curve as described by A. Hill 1938

The load velocity profile on the other hand is a literal chart of your physical capacity on a given exercise, something we can use to track and score progress in the gym.⁠⁠ This shows the specific change in velocity for this athlete in a movement across a range of loads.⁠

A bench press load velocity profile using velocity based training (VBT)

If we merge the two charts it is immediately clear that there are discrepancies. Frankly, this is because they are not measuring the same thing.

Chart illustrating the misalignment between the force velocity curve and the load velocity profile
The load velocity profile does not match with the theoretical force velocity curve.

We should be considering the force-velocity curve as merely a conceptual framework that says the greater the load, the slower we will move. Whereas in the more practical realm of human movement and performance, we are dealing with complex multi-joint movement patterns, and wildly different individual limb lengths. Keep it in the back of your mind as perhaps more of a loose guide for your programming decisions.

A fast squat is not a fast movement

The velocity zones would have us believe that there is value in an exercise at any load. That a squatting light enough to stay above 1.3m/s will develop an athlete's starting strength.

I just don't think that is accurate.

The issue with performing strength exercises at incredibly light loads really fast is that there simply isn't enough range of motion to generate meaningful speed before we have to decelerate again in order to not let the bar go flying. These super light starting strength and speed-strength zone sets aren't providing any true training value. No one is improving their striking ability or pitching speed with sets of 20kg/45lbs bench presses.

Sets of a strength exercise done this light have no real value beyond helping us warming up.

In ⁠the grand scheme of all human movement, strength exercises — like the squat and bench press — just aren't very fast.

This graph is a simplistic example, but it highlights this reality.

Different upper body exercises as they correspond to the force velocity curve

Strength movements like the bench press, or rows, squats, deadlifts, really only have two effective uses:

  • Go heavy and improve maximum strength (above 80% of 1RM)
  • Or go dynamic, and improve loaded power expression (dynamic effort work, often done with bands and chains and loads between 40-70%)

Yes, we should also be using the gym to work on developing power but there are better levers for power training than just manipulating bar speed on strength movements. Throws, jumps, Oly lifts, plyometrics are simply more appropriate exercises to achieve this than taking strength exercises and doing them faster.

Don't lose sight of the training objective

If we start pouring time and attention into training at a specific velocity in the pursuit of specialised physical qualities we have missed the point of the weight-room. If you are weak as a kitten it doesn't matter how bad your speed-strength is according to a load velocity profile, you just need to be focused on getting stronger. Strength is the rising tide that lifts all boats (generally speaking).

The opposite is also true. No amount of squatting — at any velocity zone — can alone get me to run a sub 11 second 100 metres. Whether I reach that goal or not is going to depend on the work I do at the track, not the exact velocities I do my squats at.

Sprinting, pitching, jumping, change of direction, these are highly specific and highly skilful actions that require very specific development accompanied by a generalised strength and conditioning foundation.

What then of the velocity zones?

The inability to accurately define the strength qualities is I think the ultimate proof of their irrelevance in training.

Any added complexity in terminology or practice should also bring with it additional value and enhance the training process. Coaches need to be able to explain concepts to their athletes simply and convincingly, helping develop buy-in and enabling athletes to take ownership of the training process.

When Dr Mann talks about the success he had with his initial application of the zones, what he was really talking about was giving his athletes an objective target to hit on their dynamic effort lifts along with some subtle auto-regulation of load. The velocity zones provided athletes with a goal to focus on when additional weight on the bar was no longer desirable.

Giving athletes an objective target tied to lifting intent is a great use of velocity tracking, but there isn't anything magical about the velocities used, or the names these zones are given.

I think it is time we created a new set of velocity zones that are simple to understand, and actually align with the realities of training. As you can imagine I have been thinking about the alternatives a lot. The next part of this series will propose a new more flexible velocity zones model.

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A screenshot of a laptop and phone showing velocity based training information