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Velocity zones part 4: Applications of velocity based training

It’s no secret that I dislike the traditional fixed velocity zones which have become synonymous with VBT. This method outlines five specific velocity ranges and quantities of strength to be targeted. I find their imprecise naming and rigid application to be more harmful than helpful in most situations.

It shrouds velocity based training in unnecessary complexity and abstraction. Often this concept flies directly in the face of other sound principles of training.

The traditional velocity zones model
The traditional velocity zones system - a confusing and unhelpful way to program with VBT

Why the velocity based training chart is broken

I wrote a three part deep-dive into why I find the traditional velocity zones unhelpful Which you can read here [new tab]. But ultimately, these five fixed velocity zones introduce confusion rather than clarity when it comes to velocity based training and I get the following questions a lot:

What’s a good velocity to do deadlifts if you want to jump higher?

I heard sprinters should do all their squatting above 0.8m/s?”

So 1.0m/s is the goal if I want to do squats for speed right?”

These questions show that for the most part, athletes and coaches are missing the point when it comes to velocity based training in their programs, trying to transform their workouts around velocity metrics instead of incorporating velocity into their existing training systems.

With that said, I am not completely against the broader concept of using velocity zones in training. There are clever ways to apply a zone, a target or a threshold for structuring training and programming with velocity or power data. When done well this can be a great way to program for progressive overload while simultaneously autoregulating intensity and exertion.

In this article I have identified three powerful methods of using zones when tracking velocity that can be easily integrated into your training.

Before you dive in please remember that velocity zone training is a completely optional part of velocity based training. If none of these ideas resonate with you that is totally fine, there are many other ways to get great return on your velocity tracking that are not contained in this article.

An alternative velocity based training chart

I will be using my velocity zone model as the framework for this article, so here is a quick refresher on what that looks like.

My system defines three zones: Speed, Power and Strength. This simplifies the language, and lets us connect different training methods more directly with the qualities an athlete is aiming to take with them onto the court or field.

Velocity zones for programming with VBT
A new simpler system for velocity zone training. Speed, power and strength

This system takes into account velocity of a movement, power output, and the load intensity as a percentage of one rep max (1RM) to establish individualised training zones. Unlike the traditional five zone system, my version has no absolute velocity values attached to each quality, allowing for flexibility and customisation for the athlete and exercise.

The only pre-determined number on the framework is 80% of 1RM, this being the point where a load is challenging enough to be a strength stimulus for intermediate to advanced lifters. (Smilios, 2013)

This lack of fixed and absolute velocity values does introduce some uncertainty about programming with this model - especially when it comes to starting in week one of a block. I will cover this further down the article.

An artefact of the traditional zones system is the common belief that all individuals can use the same fixed velocities and that they apply irrespective of the exercise. I want to be absolutely clear on this when it comes to my new three zone model:

  • Not all exercises are appropriate for each of the three zones.
  • Not all individuals will hit the same velocities at a given load.

I’ll expand on each of those points next.

Pick the appropriate exercise

Strength movements have upper biomechanical limits to how fast they can move due to their short range of motion and non-elastic nature. For a deadlift to be within the speed zone, the load used would be so light as to not really be anything other than a warm-up. Deadlifts could maybe be a power exercise (say with a trapbar deadlift and with some accomodating resistance to increase acceleration) but to try doing “speed deadlifts” is as illogical as trying to do “strength plyometrics”.

To overcome this biomechanical limit to an exercise the obvious solution is to simply change exercises! As a general rule, the more speed you are chasing the more freedom you should allow the movement to have.

woman box jumping for power evelopment
Jumping is fundamentally different to squatting and deadlifting. This goes beyond just the velocity of the movements.

Deadlift → Power Clean → Running Jump → Sprinting

I go into more detail on this topic in the original 3-part series on the zones →

Velocities are individualised

Different exercises, modifications, athlete limb length, training history and experience all have a significant impact on the absolute velocities a given athlete will achieve at any relative or absolute load.

Load velocity profiles vary by exercise; examples for trapbar deadlift, back squat, barbell row and bench press
Different exercises and individuals will have slightly different load-velocity profiles - this can drastically change the application of a fixed velocity zones system (but not a flexible system)

Trying to have all athletes lift at a fixed velocity is akin to having an entire squad do their squats with the same absolute load. Velocity, just like load, is not an end point to reach, but a thing to be progressed. We don’t stop chasing more weight once 100kg is on the bar, just like we shouldn’t stop trying to move that 100kg faster once it can be lifted at 1.0m/s for example.

Velocity on all loads should be increasing more weeks than not - this is a sign you are lifting the same weights easier, getting stronger and more powerful.

This idea is called contextual velocity, comparing today’s bar speed with your own past bar speeds. I think this is one of the most valuable ways to apply velocity in training, it indicates progress and highlights readiness in real-time.

Zone based programming

There are many ways to use zones in your training, many more than could be put into a single article. Below I cover in detail three different approaches, they can be applied directly as described, adapted or even integrated together into your existing programming system.

Strategy #1: Targets for dynamic effort

The foundational idea behind the original 5-zone system was to give college football athletes a training target on their dynamic effort days, specifically having them squat and deadlift with loads that moved between 1.0-0.75m/s aligning with speed-strength. (Mann, 2015)

This served two purposes as both a target and a limit, pushing them to lift with intent (so they could keep adding load), but also holding them back from going too heavy and undermining the purpose of a dynamic effort training day in the first place.

This is gold. If you stripped it back and just used VBT to apply this feedback and targeting strategy on your dynamic effort training you would see incredible results.

Velocity based training in rugby teams - increases speed and power
Simply chasing velocity in your training as a sources of competition and feedback increases training transfer

The issue is that using a fixed target of 0.75m/s for every athlete in your weight room (and on every exercise) is likely sub-optimal. One athlete’s 0.75m/s will be a perfect dynamic effort stimulus, while for another this will lead to a load that is too light. This fixed velocity value of 0.75m/s was designed and calibrated specifically for squats and deadlifts performed by male college footballers, it might not translate to different contexts.

There is a better way to find the correct load for a dynamic effort session that enables individualisation without any extra effort, and that is to use power targets.

Power targets

Really, dynamic effort training is power training with a more scientific name. The purpose of this type of training is to develop and work specifically with loads at or near to the point of maximum power generation for that exercise. This training aims to improve rate of force development, impulse, and rate coding thus improving the amount of force an athletes can generate in a small amount of time (aka power).

So if power is the goal, why not just measure and train for exactly this?

Calculating power

Power is often misunderstood in the world of velocity based training, but I actually think it has value when used correctly. Power as measured as watts is calculated a few different ways, but in essence it is the multiplication of the load lifted and velocity at which that load is moved at.

Maximum power output by load on a graph
The maximum power point and load at which this occurs

Power has a curved relationship with load; maximum power usually occurs somewhere between 30-70% of 1RM, depending on the lift and the individual. It is possible to find the load that corresponds with maximum power output in real-time, finding the predicted max power load after 3-4 warm-up sets.

Once we have calculated power, we can put this value to use by calibrating our work sets for power exercises.

Training at max power

Training at the load corresponding exactly with maximum power each session is one simple way you could use this a power profile to determine training.

The athlete comes in, continues performing progressively heavier warm-up sets until their power output starts to dip. They then calculate the day’s load that matches with max power and complete their work sets using this max power load trying to set a new power output personal best.

Ideally, as you get stronger and more powerful the maximum power value will go up, as would load utilised to achieve maximum power.

Power-load profile for an athlete as it changes over time
Increases in power generated over time. Notice also that the load corresponding with max power has gone up. This is a positive result of strength and power focused training.

Power is also beneficial because it tends to be sensitive to fatigue, so it has a nice built in autoregulation mechanism, with the load at max power being lower when fatigue is high, enabling an automated decrease in the load lifted when readiness is low.

There is a difference between expressing power and developing power though, so while this basic “train-at-max-power” plan might be effective for a few training cycles - especially in a novice/ intermediate group - it will lose potency if used exclusively for extended periods or in more elite lifters.

To take this dynamic effort/power training zone to another level I like to layer in more sophistication to the program by varying below, exactly at, and above power stimulus to create a more well-rounded approach to power development.

Below, exactly at, and above power cycles

Still using the max power load as a guide, we can start putting together training blocks that deliberately have the athlete lifting above, below or exactly at maximum power layering in varying power training stressors.

For example, below are five progressive 4-week hang power clean training cycles strung together. This would best suit an intermediate to advanced lifter (this same idea can be applied to other explosive lifts):

Block 1: Train with exactly max power loads 4x3

Block 2: Train with loads 10% above max power  5x2

Block 3: Train 5% below below max power loads 6x2.2 (clusters, for higher volume)

Block 4: Train exactly at max power 6x2 (chasing a new power PR)

Block 5: Chase a new 1RM for the hang power clean 3x1 (Block ends early if new PR is hit. This 1RM block might not work for all explosive movements or contexts)

This structure could follow any number of block sequencing (varying above, below and exactly at phases) and be continued infinitely, rotating through percentage deviations from max power or  changing exercises. The training load is calculated every day after the warm-up sets are completed using the daily maximum power curve to optimise the load lifted, autoregulate stress, and track progress.

A good program is multi-factorial so be sure to keep tabs on whether this type of program is having the desired effect for your athletes! If predicted maximum power output is not going up in more weeks than not you might need to make adjustments to the training structure, total volume, rest periods, technique, etc.

Strategy #2. Progressive zones for strength development

The power zone isn’t the only way to apply this framework in your training! In fact, when implemented with sound programming logic they are a great way to structure progressive overload while still allowing for autoregulation of strength training.

Best rep velocity targets

This first method utilises the best rep velocity for each set to determine how much load should be on the bar for each working sets. It works by having the athlete add load to the bar until their best rep velocity hits or falls just below the days target velocity. The load lifted when velocity passes the target value is is now the load for the days work sets.

An example below shows four blocks of four weeks on the back squat followed by a 1-2 week testing or max-out block.

The velocities chosen here aren’t special, they are used for illustration only.

Block 1: 3x6 at 0.65m/s

Block 2: 3x5 at 0.55

Block 3: 4x3 at 0.45

Block 4: 4x2 at 0.4

Block 5: 3x1 at X → chasing a new PR

Going in to each workout the load used for working sets starts as undetermined. The goal is to lift a weight that puts the best rep velocity at or just below the target (I like to be within 0.05m/s of the target).

As the athlete adapts and progresses, most weeks will see load on the bar increase while still hitting the target velocity. This is because stronger athletes are able to move more weight at a given target velocity.

Improvements in velocity output at all loads leads to an improved load velocity profile. This means that on repeated cycles of this training method the loads at each velocity target will increase - applying progressive overload.

Each block has a slower velocity target and lower rep count as the training gets more intense as we approach the testing block. I have suggested 4-week training blocks, but if you’re athletes are able to continue making progress for 6 or even 8-weeks then the same zone can be maintained for longer.

This method challenges athletes to lift with good intent on each of their warm-up sets as they build towards the target velocity, rewarding their effort with more load during the work sets while still hitting the target velocity. It also autoregulates the intensity of the session in response to low readiness (and slower bar speeds) helping avoid too many sets taken to failure.

Finally, this 5-block programming structure can be recycled. Simply repeat these phases using the same velocity targets or drop the velocity targets for each block by 0.05m/s to push up the intensity and exertion.

Sidebar: Picking a starting velocity/load

Before we go any further diving into practical examples, it’s important that I address the biggest challenge with this protocol - choosing the correct starting weight.

This applies across all the progressive strength zone approaches, but I will use the best rep zones from above as an example to highlight how this is done.

There are two approaches; one for small groups or individuals and another for when working with large groups.

Programming for an individual or small groups

The easiest way answer is to try and answer this question:

If you weren’t tracking velocity, what load would you suggest your athletes lift in week one of this program considering the sets, reps and time of season?

We will reverse engineer our velocity for the rest of block one from the first training session.

For week-1 simply have the athletes work up to a comfortable load at the planned rep count for their work sets, if you use RPE, then we are chasing RPE6-6.5, pretty easy. Measure velocity for all the work sets, then take the best rep velocities from these sets as a baseline.

Here is some example data:

  1. 95kg x6, best rep: 0.75m/s
  2. 95kg x6, best rep: 0.73m/s
  3. 95kg x6, best rep: 0.73m/s

Technique was great for all sets and the athlete cruised through the session.

This session was probably a touch too easy, so we definitely need more load for next session. So let’s set the block 1 target at 0.7m/s. This should mean the example athlete will almost certainly hit 105 -110kg and still maintain a best rep velocity of ~0.7m/s.

Programming for bigger groups

If it is logistically impossible to set everyones’ velocities one by one, the most scalable options is to find a rough starting velocity, then divide athletes into sub-groupings based on performance.

In week one, everyone starts by working up to a load that matches our target (say 0.7m/s). As you are coaching assess how athletes are handling this and classify who is or isn’t working appropriately for the training objective intended for this block.

The goal here is to distribute your athletes to one of three groups:

  • Too easy group. The load at 0.65m/s is too light, the 3x6 was a breeze and velocity loss is minimal. For this group they need a slower best rep velocity so subtract speed to increase the intensity used for next week (0.65m/s → 0.6m/s)
  • Just right group (keep at 0.65m/s)
  • Too hard group, this group is far too close to failure with their 6 reps and technique is possibly breaking down. For this group increase the best rep velocity to reduce the load (0.65m/s → 0.7m/s).

All our athletes are now following the same general block structure, progressing through the phases with the correct sets and reps, AND with a velocity target that is modified to suit their needs.

Play around with the groupings, you might find you only need two, or you might need bigger velocity spreads to suit your population. Also, be sure to write everyones grouping on the whiteboard. I guarantee you will have to repeat the zones and grouping if you don’t. (And maybe still if you do!)

Strategy #3. Last rep velocity cut-off for volume control

Instead of focusing on best rep velocity as a way to determine the day’s working load, you could instead pay attention to last rep velocity as a way to determine the number of reps completed in your work sets.

The basic idea is that each work set in a session will end when velocity falls below a pre-determined velocity target. This threshold is progressively lowered with each training block slowly moving closer to 1RM loads as the rep count decreases.

Determining the load used for your work sets might be done through the best rep velocity framework from earlier (combining two VBT solutions), with percentage based equations, a linear programming model, or something completely different!

Here is an example with a goal to increase the intensity over the blocks:

Block 1: 3x6 last rep velocity @0.4m/s

Block 2: 3x5 @0.35m/s

Block 3: 4x3 @0.3m/s

Block 4: 4x2 @0.25m/s.

*Sets end at the determined rep count or if the last rep velocity is passed, whichever comes first.

To find the last rep velocity cut-off that suits you best follow the same principles outlined under “Picking a starting velocity/load”.

Progressing the velocity zones

Within the examples above I have used 0.1 or 0.05m/s jumps in velocity targets between programming blocks. While 0.05 - 0.1m/s jumps with each training cycle is my go-to and pretty typical, this is not a hard rule. Feel free to experiment with your velocity steps across training blocks finding increments that maintain progression without the surprise of a massive load jump!

There is no reason they have to be linear increments either. A reasonably fast first block could be followed by a big jump, then three progressively smaller increments to follow.

0.7m/s → 0.6m/s → 0.55m/s→ 0.52m/s for example.

These velocities and zones are really flexible, so be ready to read and react, making bigger or slow jumps based on how you are finding the session and how quickly you are moving towards your goal. It might take a little trial and error to get right, but once established with your athletes the pay off can be really valuable. Progressive strength overload, autoregulation and proximity to failure all controlled with a single best rep or last rep velocity target.

Summing up and more options

These three strategies work brilliantly in isolation and can be applied to an entire training program or just used for a select few lifts. The examples I went through are just that, examples, you can iterate or modify these as needed and even combine elements from each to take your velocity programming and training outcomes to another level. Here are just a few more examples

Try a velocity top and bottom range

Combining best rep velocity (to determine the load), and then prescribe a last rep velocity threshold (to determine rep count). This approach creates a true “velocity zone” keeping all reps within a certain band, autoregulating load and volume simultaneously.

Try max power clusters with accumulated fatigue end point

I’m a big fan of cluster training for dynamic effort work. They are a great way to accumulate high quality reps efficiently, which is incredibly helpful when time is a constraint. To do this, the athlete will work up to a load at max power then perform cluster sets (say two reps every 30 seconds) until they reach the full 10 sets planned, or their power output drops by 15% from that days best rep. They then take a longer 2-3 minute rest, and repeat the protocol for two total clusters.

Different cluster set protocols and their time cost
Different cluster set training protocols and their time cost (drawn to scale). I'm a big fan of the 10x2 method due to it's shortest time cost.

This results in efficient power training that rewards intent and keeps athletes well clear of grinding out low quality reps into fatigue (a suboptimal method when power training is the focus).

Get creative

I strongly encourage you to experiment with these and any other ideas you come up with to find velocity zone and target approaches that work for your context and population. The real key here is to shake any notion that zones should be fixed and permanent, rigidly forcing you to lift at a single arbitrary value. Instead you should see that zones can be used to simultaneously apply progressive overload and autoregulate training stress.

Remember also that programming with velocity is a high-end application and far from compulsory, there are heaps of other ways to use velocity tracking technology in your training to drive engagement and gains! Many of them far simpler and lower friction to start doing.

Return to the blog home

References and resources

  • J Weakley, et al, 2021, Velocity-Based Training: From Theory to Application, Strength and Conditioning Journal
  • Bryan Mann, 2021, Velocity-Based Training In Season, Strength and Conditioning for Sports Performance
  • B Mann et al, 2015, Velocity-Based Training in Football, Strength and Conditioning Journal
  • Smilios et al, 2013, Maximum Power Training Load Determination and Its Effects on Load-Power Relationship, Maximum Strength, and Vertical Jump Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research

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