Velocity zones part 3: A new system for VBT zone training

If you haven't read part one or part two of this series I suggest you start there. Part two is especially important as it lays the foundation for much of what will be covered in this article.

But that's enough with history and problems, it's time to talk solutions.

In this article, part three of my velocity zone series, I am going to detail an alternative velocity zones model. Unlike the old five zone system, this model is built specifically to cater for flexible application and customisation. These zones work across a range of different exercises, even away from barbell movements and most importantly they try to take into account a wider range of training variables such as loading intensity and power output. Whether you train with velocity, are thinking about it, or never intend on using VBT, these training zones provide a strong programming foundation for developing great training plans.

And spoiler alert, there is only one zone that contains the word "strength".

Exceptions for the new velocity zones

These new zones are a powerful framework and a valuable training tool, but they aren't universal. As best as I tried, they don't answer all the big questions of training, so before we get into the details, it's important that I cover a few little caveats, both specifically about the new zones but also about VBT in general.

Exercise selection comes first

The biggest issue I take with the old velocity zones is the idea of using one exercise (typically a strength exercise like the back squat) to develop all the physical qualities, from maximum strength, through dynamic effort work into starting strength work for sets with a mean velocity above 1.3m/s.

I could not disagree with this more strongly.

Squats are a strength exercise. Maybe you could use a back squat to train for power but they are not suitable for training speed. If your goal is to train for speed you should sprint, jump, or throw. A 1.3m/s back squat just does not come close to an explosive step through or bounding when it comes to developing elastic and ballistic qualities.

An explosive step through with band and velocity based training
An explosive step through with accomodating resistance

Pick the exercise that suits the quality first, load it appropriately, then worry about tracking the velocity of that exercise. And in saying that, not all exercises will be suitable for all the training zones (more on that later).

There is more to VBT than the velocity zones

My proposed new velocity zones aren't even the best way to be applying velocity in your training.

In fact, for me, they barely crack the top ten best ways to use velocity tracking in your training.

The old velocity zones are a singular, highly specific, and rigid use of velocity tracking in the gym. They were originally developed and applied in the collegiate S&C environment as a way to give athletes an objective training target on their dynamic effort lifting days.

That's it.

Giving athletes a training target or velocity zone to train within, when load on the bar was no longer an appropriate goal.

So while I think these new zones are an improvement and a useful training tool, I also don't think they suddenly make velocity zone training the holy grail. They are a good paradigm to keep in mind when programming or coaching, but there are still plenty of better (and easier) ways to be using velocity to enhance your training outcomes.

So let's dive in.

Variables that drive the new velocity zones

The new velocity zones take into account three key training variables, all of which are open to individualisation for any given athlete or exercise.⁠

Zone variable #1: Percentage of 1RM

Whether you train with percentages, test 1RMs or not, the load you train with, relative to your maximum strength will impact the training adaptations that will occur. For intermediate lifters and above, there is a minimum threshold for intensity required to continue making strength gains, a value of 80% is most commonly accepted as the threshold.

So whether you love or hate percentage based training, the relative intensity of your load will impact results. Go too heavy too often and you will burn out, don't go heavy enough and you will fail to make gains.

Zone variable #2: The load velocity profile

The load velocity (LV) profile, is at the very core of velocity based training. It exists for most exercises, it is stable (enough), it is linear(ish) and as a stand-alone concept it has incredible versatility in helping coaches and athletes with their programming, auto-regulation, progress tracking and much more.

A load velocity profile for the bench press

Zone variable #3: The load power profile

Power is an often overlooked metric in velocity based training. But it can be incredibly valuable, for, well, power training!

When we start looking at the power and speed training zones, the power curve becomes a key variable in helping us dial in the specifics for loading decisions in real-time.

Just like with the load velocity profile, we can use the power profile to auto-regulate training and assess readiness. But we can also take advantage of its parabolic shape to select training loads for a more ballistic emphasis (below peak power) or for dynamic effort sets (at or above peak power).

A power profile for the squat using velocity based training

We will explore each of these variables as they are relevant, but for now let's dive into the specifics of each of the training zones, starting at the heavy end of things.

The new velocity zones are broken into three sections: The strength zones, which covers all heavy resistance training, The power zone, which covers from dynamic effort work, most accomodating resistance work and loaded power exercise, and finally the speed zone which ranges from very light implement ballistic movements like throwing through to plyometrics and even sprinting.

The new VBT velocity training zones for strength, power and speed training
The new VBT velocity zones
The new VBT velocity training zones with example exercises
The new velocity based training zones with example activities as they align to the zones

The strength zone: Lifting heavy

The strength zone is the most straight forward of the three. You are training in the strength zones for any set where the load is at or above 80% of your 1RM.

You don't have to know your 1RM exactly to be able to tell if you are in the strength training zone. Experienced lifters and coaches can ballpark this just by feel or by using a daily estimated max from RPE data or an estimated 1RM from the load velocity profile. Other ways you might estimate 80% of your 1RM:

  • 6 or 7RM weight
  • 3RM x 1.08 * 0.8
  • Weight at 5 reps for an 8RPE
  • Weight at 3 reps for a 7RPE

No fixed velocities for strength training

You will notice that the strength zone is not tied to a single fixed velocity or range of velocities, this is a trend that continues for all three of the new velocity zones. This is because the exact velocity that corresponds with an 80% load or the point of maximum power will vary by exercise selection, range of motion, limb length, training experience and much more. An individuals velocity at 80% will almost certainly change over time as they get stronger or refine their technique.

One of the beautiful things about training with velocity is you can collect your training data in real time without any extra sets or special tests, so over time as you notice changes in an athlete's load velocity profile you can make adjustments as needed.

"I think that's what I love more about it than pretty much anything else. The idea that you not having to interrupt your training. ... and it's constantly updating. It's fresh data that didn't cost you anything." - Durham McInnis

Using velocity to calibrate your strength training

If strength is the goal, whether it be for a single exercise, a training block, or you compete in a strength sport, velocity works best to provide objective feedback about readiness and performance in real time. The load we lift should always be the driver of our strength training and programming. Velocity helps navigate, providing gently course corrections in real-time helping us avoid roadblocks or traffic.

In strength training velocity isn't the driver, it's the navigator

Here are some specific examples of how velocity can help calibrate your strength training.

  • Use a traffic light system for progression. If the best rep mean velocity of your warm up sets is below 90% of your 30 day average, make today a deload, cut a few reps, take a couple of KGs off the bar, or do one less working set. If you are between 90% and 100% follow the plan, hitting the programmed numbers. For days when the weights are flying up and all your warm up velocities are above 100% consider adding a little spice to the session, maybe adding another set or going up a few extra KGs than was planned. Make hay while the sun shines!
  • Use velocity loss during a set to dictate how many reps you do. Say the program calls for three sets of five at 120kg; using this method you can stick with the 120kg no matter what your warm up velocities are, but instead adjust the work set reps based on your performance. With the method the set ends when you reach 5 reps OR if the velocity drops by 20% from the fastest rep, whichever comes first. This keeps training volume in an appropriate bandwidth for your level of readiness.
  • Lastly, try setting a velocity target that must be reached before an athlete can increase bar load. An athlete might be stuck at 100kg on their bench press but because they are competitive and want to chase numbers they are desperate to do 105 no matter how ugly it will be. Instead, give this athlete a new target, tell them they can go for 105kg once they can do 100kg for three sets of three with all nine reps above 0.25m/s. Be sure to choose a number that is appropriate and realistic for a given individual and remember to factor in the other training variables as well.

Strength velocity zone by the numbers

  • Load: Above 80% of estimated 1RM
  • Reps: Six and under per set. 1-5 work sets
  • Velocities: Lift all sets with maximum intent, but velocities will be slow due to load. Absolute speeds vary by exercise and individual but commonly between 0.1m/s and 0.5m/s for classic strength exercise.
  • Metrics: Mean velocity. Use the velocity of your best rep for each set when comparing over time and use velocity loss (% fatigue) across a set for volume manipulation.
  • RPE: 7-8.5 which correlates with a 20-25% fatigue cut off is recommended. Focus on high intent to move across all sets, including submaximal and warm up sets. RPE of 9+ used strategically for strength sport athletes to achieve even higher strength levels, usually only for 1-3 reps and on an occasional basis.

Power zone: Dynamic effort training

The power training zone covers a wide range of exercises and applications. It ranges from the classic strength movements done explosively with loads below 80% of 1RM (maybe with accomodating resistance) through to high power output exercises like power cleans, loaded jumps and throws.

This zone is sometimes know as dynamic effort training, the classic example is a power clean, or moderate load trapbar deadlift done with bands.⁠ There is a decent amount of weight being lifted, but the lift still has some pop to it.

The power zone is effectively merging the strength-speed and speed-strength zones of the old zone system.

Just like the strength zone, there are no fixed velocities for power training. Loads can be manipulated based on the power curve, selecting the correct weight in real-time or in advance based on the training objective of wanting to lift above, below, or at the point of maximum power output for a given movement.

When to use velocity and when to use power metrics

They can be somewhat interchangeable, but I prefer to use propulsive velocity as much as possible on strength exercises (even when using these strength movements for dynamic effort training). Propulsive velocity works as a good indicator of both intent and readiness and it is helpful to lave a single metric that is useful for both strength and power training on standard barbell movements.

An athlete training with velocity based training on a wall ball exercise
Power metrics work best when applied to exercise that have a release phase - like wall ball throws

The time to use power — and especially propulsive power — is on exercises that are specialised power and speed activities; explosive exercises that have an acceleration, float or release phase. Throws, jumps and Olympic lifts some to mind. For these I will use propulsive power. This highlights the output during the entire portion of the lift where effort was applied to the bar. Peak power is possibly better at capturing the moment of greatest effort, but it can be an overly sensitive metric. Propulsive velocity is more reliable and eliminates any floating or release component to the activity.

I believe that mean propulsive velocity could be a universal metric, providing a singular all-encompassing way of analysing both velocity and power for all strength, power and speed training in gym based training, but more research is needed to confirm this theory.

Using velocity to calibrate your power training

Training at peak power has always been a theoretical dream for coaches and athletes. Picking the right weight to elicit the most watts possible and then working at that weight each and every session. With the help of velocity tracking we can now do just that, finding the optimal training load for maximum power development in real time with the power load curve.

Using power metrics adds another dimension, giving objective numbers for an athlete to chase when training. This improves motivation to lift with intent and allows coaches to easily detect increases or decreases in output over time.

Here are some example uses.

  • When training with accomodating resistance it can be hard to find the correct load. By profiling power across warm up sets coaches can establish the daily point of maximum power, adjust the load slightly below this, add the accomodating resistance and get to work. This method will help auto-regulate the load used on the bar relative to that days maximum power output and ensure a consistent dynamic effort stimulus.
  • Train your power cleans for watts not kilos. When programming power cleans, instead of prescribing loads, have the athlete continue adding load until they find their maximum power output. Track this value over time and encourage athletes to increase load only when it helps them increase wattage. This has dual benefits of auto-regulating the training (bar weight will be lower when fatigue is high) and giving the athlete a more appropriate training goal with their Olympic lift work.
  • Use a tight fatigue cut off for cluster set training. Because power is highly sensitive to fatigue, you can use velocity loss across a series of cluster sets to optimise both workout density but also power output. If the plan calls for 10 doubles on a jump squat, this can be planned as a 10x2 session with only 30 seconds rest between, but if power or velocity drops below a given point (say 10% below the best rep) this will trigger a longer 3 minute rest for full recovery. So the 10x2 might become 5x2 - 2mins - 3x2 - 2mins - 2x2. This maximises time efficiency without compromising the quality of the work done. you can also add a cluster kill switch, where if a set falls below 20% velocity loss then the sets end.

Power zone by the numbers:

  • Load: Below 80% of estimated 1RM down to the point of maximum power output. Typically around ~30-60% of 1Rm but varies by exercise and individual.
  • Reps: Six and under per set. 1-5 work sets
  • Velocities: Lift all sets with maximum intent, velocities will be moderate to fast depending on load used and range of motion. Mean velocity above 1.0m/s on dynamic effort sets are quite common and peak power outputs above 1500W (10W/kg) will be easily achieved for strong individuals.
  • Metrics: Peak velocity, peak power, mean velocity. Training goals can focus on mean velocity for dynamic effort strength exercises or peak power for power specific movements like olympic lifts. Mean propulsive velocity may be a universal metric but more research is needed. Use the velocity of your best rep for each set when comparing over time and use velocity loss (% fatigue) across a set for volume manipulation. Keep fatigue within 10-15% loss across a set/session.
  • RPE: Always lift maximal intent to move but avoid training power into high fatigue, grinding reps are counterproductive for power development and should be avoided. Fatigue limits of 10-15% to maintain power output and quality of sets.

Speed zone: Ballistic and elastic training

The speed zone is the widest training zone of the three. Starting near or just below the point of peak power and continuing on to the ends of the maximum velocity potential for human movement.

This covers everything from light load olympic lifts, longer range of motion linking exercises (step throughs, push steps) through to sprinting. Speed training includes throws, pitching, striking and almost all plyometrics.

Drawing a hard and fast line between the power zone and the speed zone isn't something to get too caught up on. I use the point just below maximum power, but it varies by exercise and individual. I try not to stress the small stuff like this.

An example to illustrate the distinction might be a wall ball push pass. A stationary no-step pass might be a power based movement. While a step-behind push pass with wind up probably ends up being a speed zone exercise.

Semantic and pedantic really, just throw the damn ball as fast as you can!

Not all exercises can be trained in the speed zone

You can't do ballistic deadlifts.

I mean you could try, but you probably shouldn't, and even if you could deadlift fast enough to call them ballistic, the load is going to be so submaximal and the range of motion so short that any value in that set will be negligible.

This comes back to the disconnect between the force velocity curve and the load velocity profile.

The difference between a load velocity profile and the force velocity curve

The deadlift is a strength exercise, so use it to build strength.

If you are looking to build speed training into your gym work focus on picking the right exercises. Movements with continuous contractions like sprinting and plyometrics are fantastic for developing elasticity and enhancing your stretch shortening cycle while activities with a wind up that allow for the load to be released are brilliant for full body rate of force development. Things like throws, linking exercises or assisted jumping.

Using velocity to calibrate your speed training

Speed training falls into two categories, ballistic movements and elastic movements, but the same rules apply for both of these. Here are some example ways to use velocity based training to improve your high speed training:

  • Time all of your high intensity sprints and change of direction. This for me is a huge opportunity for coaches and athletes alike. Regular exposure to maximal sprinting, acceleration and deceleration stresses are crucial in building tolerance to this come game-time, but also in helping increase our capacity to run at increasingly faster peak velocities. Just like measuring lifting velocity gives us objective feedback on our progress and readiness status, measuring our sprint times frequently gives athletes a motivation boost for their track work but can also flag overreaching, burnout and high fatigue levels. And a final incentive for your athletes? If they run a new PB time, they can finish their sprints early. Mission accomplished, they are the fastest they have ever been, good job.
  • Use velocity as the goal to prevent athletes going too heavy on ballistic movements. Med ball exercises is the classic example, it's a constant battle for us in the gym to stop athletes sneaking up from the 8 pound ball to the 12 pounder, when really we just want them to throw the 8lbs faster. Giving them a velocity target for these throws is a great way to reset the focus. If you can't measure exact velocity, setting a distance goal or wanting more noise on the slam are great alternatives.

Speed zone by the numbers:

  • Load: The loading goal on ballistic movements is the opposite to strength, pick a weight that is just enough weight to enable the movement (and minimise whiplash) but not so much that it requires grunt. Less is almost always better
  • Reps: Highly variable. For continuous contractions these can be measured in duration and not reps. 10 seconds per set maximum. As with power training cut sets early if fatigue impacts velocity of movements.
  • Velocities: Highly variable. As much as the movement allows. Reduce loads, remove limitations, find more space so you can run, lift, throw or jump faster. The speed zone covers activities all the way from a sub-maximal Olympic lift at 1./5 - 2m.s to jumps at around 4m/s through to top speed sprinting which can reach 11m/s.
  • Metrics: Peak velocity, peak power, split times. Again highly variable, but we are usually looking for peak expressions of velocity for jumping or Olympic lifts and then looking for time to cover a distance for things like sprints or sleds. Throwing and jumping can even measure distance or height covered as a goal.
  • RPE: Always lift maximal intent to move but avoid training speed into high fatigue, grinding reps should be avoided. Fatigue limits of 10-15% to maintain speed output and quality of sets.

Applying the new velocity zones

It's much less important to be hitting some exact velocity value than it is to be focusing on the real qualities that you want to be developing (strength, power and speed), and then monitoring the changes in your velocity or power output to track readiness, fatigue, and progress.

I like to think of these zones as a general north star with my training and programming - helping me answer important questions about the purpose for certain exercises or sessions within a training program:

  • Am I including exercises and load intensities that will stimulate progressive strength adaptions?⁠
  • Am I selecting the correct exercises and intensities to chase power that is specific to an athletes needs?⁠
  • Do I need, and have I included elastic actions in this program?⁠
  • What methods will I use to auto-regulate the loading and volume decisions in real time?

The beauty of the three zone system is it is really easy to ballpark which zone an exercise falls into based purely on watching and feeling it. This means these zones transcend velocity based training and can be used even if you don't train with a velocity tracker (although training with accurate velocity data is still optimal).

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References and resources

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