Velocity-Based Training: Jump Higher, Run Faster, Get Stronger, But Lift Lighter

Understand the type of athlete you're training to take full advantage of Velocity-Based Training

Keegan was already a stud athlete before we started our experiment. Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 190 pounds, the 18-year-old had a Division I scholarship in hand when we set out to make him even more explosive. He also wasn't a newbie—he'd been training for three years, so we couldn't expect the sort of leaps-and-bounds improvement you often see when someone is just getting started. Or so we thought.

Four months later, Keegan had added more than half a foot to his already impressive standing vertical. And it wasn't through smashing heavy weights or doing a crazy high number of workouts. In fact, he was lifting just twice per week, using weights that varied from light to heavy but never did we lift at his 1 rep max.

What was the technique we used? It's called Velocity-Based Training or VBT. It's an approach in which you track an athlete's performance based on bar speed rather than weight. We'll dive more into that in a bit.

After all, there was a bigger secret to Keegan's success that we should discuss first. What was it? Simple. The secret is that we were able to identify Keegan for what he is: A kangaroo.

There are Two Types of Athletes: Kangaroos and Gorillas

Think about the types of athletes most trainers work with. There is the strong, muscular but not terribly fast athlete. This athlete typically is a grinder, lifts heavy weights and has more rigid tissues (another way of putting it is to say he's "less elastic.") We call that a gorilla. Just like their namesake—the silverback gorilla can weigh 300 pounds, be 20 times stronger than the average human male and run more than 20 mph—gorilla athletes are force production machines.

The other main type of athlete is the elastic, "fast-twitch" player who moves with great speed and explosiveness. They're springy and strong, but probably not setting records in the weight room. That's what we call a kangaroo. Here again the label is inspired by nature. Actual kangaroos can reach speeds up to 40 mph—and the truly amazing part is they become more energy efficient with each hop, because of how well they utilize elastic energy from the stretch shortening cycle. Kangaroo athletes also use this cycle extremely well.

Kangaroos and Gorillas sit on opposite ends of the athletic spectrum we call the Stiffness Scale. Gorillas tend to have greater total force output than kangaroos. Their muscles are bigger, meaning they have greater cross sectional area, which leads to a higher potential for force output. But there's a cost associated with this. Those thicker tissues are less elastic. Large volumes of weightlifting with heavy external loads cause the tissues to adapt, become even thicker and further lose elasticity. The loss of elasticity creates a more rigid or stiff tissue making it harder to stretch much like a really thick rubber band. The tissue becomes good at "push" (strength) activities, but not so much at "snap" (strength + speed) ones.

Meanwhile, kangaroos can reach much higher movement velocities than gorillas. Their muscles contract faster, resulting in faster movement. They have a high rate of force development. Kangaroos do not do well under heavy loads. Their tissues are not as thick as a gorilla's. The smaller muscle cross sectional area limits their muscular force production capabilities making the kangaroo less equipped to stand up against the heavy loads. So you'll typically see a kangaroo "hit a wall" pretty quickly when heavier loads are introduced. However, kangaroos are very elastic and can utilize that elastic energy to produce greater levels of force at a fast rate.

How to Produce More Power

Which type of athlete you are determines a lot about how you should train. To understand why, let's start with the very basic equation for how one produces power. It is

There are only two variables at work: force and velocity. Any number of combinations of force and velocity can produce the same amount of power. If my force is 100 and my velocity is 5, then my total power is 500. If my force is 10 and my velocity is 50, we also get 500.

Each athlete uses their own unique combination to produce their own level of power. The question for training then becomes, "How do I develop each variable in this equation to maximize my power output—and my athletic potential?"

So if you are a gorilla—a force-dominant athlete—your power equation looks something like this:

They may not be able to move so fast (low velocity), but that's offset by the high level of strength they can produce. This type of power may be perfect for offensive linemen in football, wrestlers, or powerlifters. These athletes require high amounts of force production without as huge of a demand for velocity.

Kangaroos on the other hand are velocity dominant athletes. Their power equation would look like this...

Velocity-based power is the primary need of athletes who rely on speed and quickness to succeed in their sport. Point guards, wide receivers and volleyball players are examples of athletes who are best suited being kangaroos. For them, the kangaroo-like high rate of force development complements their need to be explosive.

Here's how this winds up looking in real life:

This data is from two athletes who are members of our gym, Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training (IFAST). We've collected data on them for about a year using a GymAware device. This device is one of many recent inventions that accurately measures bar speed. (The PUSH band is another popular one.) GymAware also helps you figure out key performance variables like force, power, rate of force development and more. These measurements allow us to see the abilities of the athlete, what type of athlete they are and how they are changing in response to the training. What we've found might just change your viewpoint on power.

The gorilla produces more total peak force (the single best peak force produced regardless of load) and greater peak force in the jump ("CMJ" stands for "Counter Movement Jump"). So how is it that the kangaroo has so much more power?

Introducing: time constraints. Time constraints refer to a fixed amount of time available to complete a task. If there's a loose ball in basketball, the time constraint is getting to the ball before an opponent does. For jumping, the time constraint is how long it takes to jump. Since kangaroos produce their force much quicker than gorillas, a kangaroo is able to use a greater percentage of its total peak force (86.2% compared to 74.6%) and do it at a high velocity. This is why the kangaroo's power equation resulted in more peak power than the gorilla.

How Should One Train a Gorilla vs. a Kangaroo?

Giving the athlete what they don't have can result in some awesome outcomes.

Kangaroos lack force, so we need to give them force—but the trick is to do it without sacrificing their speed. The same is true for gorillas. With them, we want to increase their velocity without losing their ability to produce force.

Velocity-Based Training makes that process much more effective because we can track velocity in exercises, as well as the connection between those velocities and the adaptation that occurs in the athlete. Lifting at lower velocities means you have a heavier load on the bar which will result in more force production for your athlete. Faster velocities means you have less load on the bar and being more explosive in the exercise which will result in increased velocity capabilities. Which velocities do I use?

ABSOLUTE STRENGTH
Anything below 0.5 m/s
Increases force production
This is where your 1 rep max typically lands
Improves motor unit recruitment
Improves inter and intra muscular coordination
Gorillas typically perform better here with heavier loads for peak force production
ACCELERATIVE STRENGTH
0.5-0.75 m/s
Increases force production
Kangaroos typically perform better here with heavier loads for peak force production
Improves motor unit recruitment
Improves inter and intra muscular coordination
STRENGTH SPEED
0.75-1.0 m/s
This is the FORCE side of power
Will increase your power capability
SPEED STRENGTH
1.0-1.3 m/s
This is the VELOCITY side of power
Can increase RFD (rate of force development)
STARTING STRENGTH
Anything over 1.3 m/s
This is your max speed
Gorillas tend to not be able to reach this zone

For increased force production:

Squat

Bench Press

Gorilla

0.3 - 0.5 m/s

0.15 – 0.35 m/s

Kangaroo

0.4 – 0.6 m/s

0.25 – 0.45 m/s

These velocities account for the gorillas' ability to be successful at lower velocities with heavier loads and the kangaroos' inability to do so. Kangaroos will fail in a rep at higher velocities than gorillas so their optimal velocity range for improving force production will be higher.

For increased power production:

Squat

Bench Press

Gorilla

0.7 – 0.9 m/s

0.55 – 0.75 m/s

Kangaroo

0.8 – 1.0 m/s

0.65 – 0.85 m/s

Gorillas don't reach the same velocities kangaroos do so the velocity range for improving power will be lower than for kangaroos.

Tweaking the velocities for training these two qualities gives the athlete the training stimulus they need. The more specific your programming is to your athlete's needs, the better the adaptation.

Keep in mind when choosing a weight to use with VBT, if an athlete is moving faster than the velocity you prescribe then add load to the bar. The athlete is either progressing nicely or they feel really good that day so take advantage of the increased ability. If an athlete falls short of the prescribed velocity, I like to make them aware of it and give them a "redemption set" to get back to prescribed velocity. This creates competition for the athlete and they usually respond by taking up their intensity a notch.

This type of challenge is another benefit of VBT. If the athlete still can not reach the desired velocity, it is time to reduce the load to the point where they can hit it. Know that this may not be a negative thing. The athlete may simply just be tired from poor sleep, previous day's work and so on.

To show how this works, we bring you back to the story we discussed at the beginning of this article: Keegan, the D-I basketball player who added more than 6 inches to his vert over a 4-month period.

A real-world example of Velocity Based Training at work

Like we said earlier on, Keegan is a kangaroo. We determined Keegan was a kangaroo through our assessment process which has him lift at loads from body weight to his 1 rep max. We take the mean velocities of each of those lifts and use our Athletic Performance Index (API) equation to determine the type of athlete animal Keegan is. The API takes into account your highest movement velocity and the product of all the velocities in the assessment.

Knowing Keegan was a kangaroo, our goal with his programming was to increase his force output without losing any of his peak velocity. With this concept in mind, we had to be careful about what velocities to use with his heavy lifting.

We started with a higher velocity because this is where Keegan was the most successful in terms of peak force production. When we loaded him at velocities below 0.65-0.7 m/s, his peak force production dropped. Since force production and power are the ultimate measuring sticks in movement and performance, a decrease in force production was deemed not optimal. So we used velocities that were optimal and allowed Keegan to always be training at his peak force production.

Because the nervous system adapts fast, we could gradually lower the training velocities over the 8 week period. Keegan's body adjusted well, allowing him to produce more force over time.

The Programming: 8 weeks.  VBT work was done twice a week, at the beginning and end of the week. A third workout was done in the middle of week to focus on some of the finer aspects of training like movement quality, stability and so on.

  • Weeks 1-3: Safety Squat Bar (SSB) Squats
    • Mean velocity range: 0.65-0.7 m/s
    • Sets/Reps: 4x3
  • Weeks 4-5: SSB Squats
    • Mean velocity range: 0.6-0.65 m/s
    • Sets/Reps: 5x2
  • Weeks 6-7: SSB Squats
    • Mean velocity range: 0.55-0.6 m/s
    • Sets/Reps: 5x2
  • Week 8: SSB Squats
    • Mean velocity range: 0.5-0.55 m/s
    • Sets/Reps: 5x2
  • Accessory work done in this 8 weeks
    • Upper-body medicine ball work to maintain his high movement velocity abilities throughout the force production training block
    • Deadlift patterning (loads well under 50%) to improve his technique while training in a lift he was already competent in.
    • Six 15-yard sprints once a week to give a low dose of max speed work so Keegan kept his velocity capabilities
    • Low volumes of lower intensity plyometrics for velocity maintenance and keep his elasticity, like hurdle hops and jump rope.

The Data

Goal: Raise peak power

Coming off a force production training phase, we wanted to ramp back up to the velocity end of the spectrum. Looking at the power equation, the force production training phase addressed the force part of the equation so now we are addressing the velocity part of it, resulting in more power output. We started at the slow end of power, strength speed, with his velocities, 0.75-0.8 m/s, and gradually transitioned into speed strength to train with his improved force production across the power strength zones.

The Programming

Keegan followed the same template as the force production block. VBT Squats were performed twice a week, at the beginning and end of the week with a movement quality/stability/recovery workout occurring in the middle of the week.

More reps per set were used in this training block because of the training loads were lighter than the force block which creates less systemic stress on the body, allowing us to do more reps.

Accessory work was the same as the force production blocks but with a slight increase in volume and intensity. For example, low level plyometrics were upgraded to Depth Jumps at an appropriate height. Medicine ball work progressed to more intense variations (e.g., Half-Kneeling 1-Arm Med Ball Push to a Side Med Ball Throw.) Sprints were kept the same.

Weeks 1-2

  • 0.75-0.8 m/s
  • 5 sets of 4 reps

Weeks 3-4

  • 0.85-0.9 m/s
  • 5 sets of 4 reps

Weeks 5-6

  • 0.9-0.95 m/s
  • 5 sets of 4 reps

Weeks 7-8

  • 1.0-1.05 m/s
  • 5 sets of 4 reps

The Data

As you can see from the before and after measurements, giving this kangaroo what it did not have, force production, in the beginning then training to use that increased force production for power paid huge dividends for Keegan. His jump in power production was unexpected and off-the-charts good. Typically, we see a 15-25% increase in power in an 8 week training phase. His improvements are a testimony to the power of identifying what type of athlete you have and giving them the exact training stimulus they need to reach their athletic potential.

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Topics: SQUAT | PLYOMETRICS | POWER | VELOCITY | VELOCITY BASED TRAINING