In his first post at Gardiner General Army Hospital in Chicago in 1944, Dr Thomas Lanier Delorme was placed in the Orthopedic Section of the hospital. At the time, this part of the hastily created military hospital was overflowing with wounded servicemen from the second world war, many of whom would spend 6-9 months in postoperative therapy before being discharged. Naturally, this prevented their beds from being available to other soldiers who had also been injured in the war7.
Faced with this situation, DeLorme determined there was an urgent need to find faster methods of rehabilitation. Having used strength training to recover from a childhood illness himself, DeLorme reasoned that such heavy training may prove beneficial for the injured servicemen. As such, DeLorme was responsible for developing a new recovery protocol that consisted of multiple sets of resistance exercises in which patients performed their 10-repetition maximum.
The program later became known as “Progressive Resistance Exercise” with a book carrying the same name published in 1951. The protocol proved significantly more successful than older protocols at rehabilitating wounded servicemen and is considered the pivotal step in laying the foundation for the science of resistance exercise.
Is Training To Failure The Be-All and End-All?
But why all this detail and history for an article meant to be concerned with velocity-based resistance training (VBRT). Well, since the time of Delorme, training to muscular failure has become frequent practice in gyms and fitness centres all across the world on the assumption that it maximises gains in strength and muscle mass. The notion of ending a resistance exercise set several reps short of failure seems at odds with the common perception of the superiority of training to failure8.
But when performing VBRT – that’s exactly what one does: stop an exercise prior to reaching a pre-determined movement velocity, rather than muscular failure. VBRT posits on the notion that speed of movement is the most crucial variable, rather than volume or load.
Defining Velocity-Based Strength Training
Strength training programs have traditionally been designed around variables such as repetition number, load, rest intervals and exercise selection. Load is obviously one of the major variables and is traditionally prescribed based on the percentage weight an individual can maximally lift for one repetition (i.e. %1RM).
But with recent advances in technology, the relatively unexplored variable of velocity (i.e. speed) has emerged1. It centres on the notion that the speed or velocity at which an exercise is performed can have a large influence on the power of the movement and resultant neurological and morphological adaptations1.
How Does Lifting Velocity Affect Performance?
The movement velocity of any given exercise depends on both the magnitude of the load and the intent of the subject to move that load2, 3. So just because someone may lift a light to medium load (i.e. <60%1RM), they will not necessarily lift it fast unless there is a specific conscious effort to do so. Rather than being concerned specifically with muscle mass gains, velocity-based training has been studied mostly in the context of improved sport performance4. Common functional strength measures such as counter movement jump (CMJ) height, jump squat and 10m sprint running speed are variables that have consistently shown to improve following maximal velocity resistance training programs.
Speed Alone Changes Everything
As evidence of the powerful effect of movement velocity as a standalone variable, a landmark study published in 2014 by researchers from Pablo de Olavide University showed that simply changing the speed at which a single exercise (i.e. barbell squat) was performed resulted in dramatic improvements in counter movement jump (CMJ) height, 10m sprint time and 1RM squat strength1. Weight lifted was the same, and so was total sets and repetition number. Only the speed of the barbell squat differed. Subjects in the maximal velocity group were instructed to lift with ‘maximal intended velocity’ while the other subjects lifted at approximately half this velocity.
Measuring Velocity in Strength Training
Several commercial wearable devices are now available that can be used during weight training to measure velocity. When weight is entered for each exercise these devices also allow users the ability to track power production for each rep and set. Some examples include PUSH band and GymAware.
How Does Velocity Change During Resistance Exercises?
When it comes to measuring velocity in resistance training, it is generally measured in meters per second (m/s) and different speeds are used to classify different types of strength training. For example, most 1RM lifts are performed at a velocity of ~0.2m/s, while strength/hypertrophy training is typically defined as lifts performed in the range of 0.6 – 0.7m/s.
So what is the typical loss of velocity that occurs in a common exercise like bench press for example? The graph below show results from a representative subject in a study that examined this precise question in a large cohort of individuals.
An interesting point to note is that velocity loss is less pronounced for common lower body exercises like the squat. So it’s not possible to generalise that all resistance exercises will show the same average velocity loss when performed to failure. But velocity loss for any given exercise is still an important variable that is closely related to neuromuscular fatigue.
How Can Velocity Be Used to Configure Strength Training Programs?
Rather than prescribe a fixed number of repetitions to perform with a given load, a velocity-based approach to resistance exercise configures training based on two variables:
- First repetition or average set velocity6
- The allowed velocity loss (expressed as a percent loss in mean velocity from the fastest repetition of each exercise.
Using a velocity-based approach, once the prescribed percent velocity loss limit is exceeded, the set is terminated, regardless of how many reps have been completed. The underlying notion in velocity-based strength training is that the actual velocity at which loads are lifted has a differential effect on the resulting neuromuscular adaptations.
The diagram below shows the typical velocity ranges for the different types of strength training exercises.
Using the above graph, VBT programs are configured based on the desired focus for that specific training cycle or session. Because of the multiple factors that can affect strength on any given day, VBT allows users to better adjust their training specificity based on their strength/fatigue on that given day.
Benefits of Velocity-Based Training
Measure Readiness To Train
One of the key advantages of VBT is that if offers an exciting, yet objective way to gauge progress. Because the speed at which a weight is moved has a strong correlation with strength, athletes using VBT can simply measure their speed in a given warm up exercise at a weight equal to ~60% 1RM as a means of assessing their daily strength/power levels. Such measures serve as an indicator of the individuals readiness to train and/or fatigue level.
Another benefit is the variety it offers. With VBT, the speed of movement becomes an additional variable that can be used to configure a given session in addition to the usual variables of weight/load, reps and exercise selection. For example, rather than change the weight for multiple sets of the same exercise, one can set specific velocity goals for each set, while keeping the weight constant.
When training power or speed, there is typically a strong focus on speed of movement. This invariably limits the number of repetitions that can be performed, when compared to a program that is focused on strength/hypertrophy development. Studies have shown that reducing the number of repetitions performed in a session can dramatically improve recovery9. This is a particularly important issue for competitive athletes engaged in team or individual sports who have to undertake multiple training sessions a day or who may be taking part in a match or race the following day.
Measure Strength Improvement Without Performing 1RM’s
There are now sufficient studies to show how changes in speed at different weights can be used to accurately predict 1RM. For example, the table below comes from work by Spanish researchers and shows the average decrease in velocity as weight was increased for the bench press exercise10.
Data like this has been configured into apps and software associated with commercial VBT wearables such that once an exercise is performed, the device automatically provides a 1RM estimate. Performing a proper 1RM test can be both taxing and dangerous and requires the assistance of at least one spotter. So the ability to accurately predict 1RM strength with the use of wearable VBT devices comes as a big bonus.
Velocity-Based Strength Training Summary
There are several other benefits from taking a velocity-based approach to strength training that are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that VBT allows for highly specific program prescription and monitoring. With the fast changing pace of technology, we are likely to see more wearable devices released in coming years.
From the studies conducted thus far using VBT, it is clear that it shows most promise for application to competitive athletes striving to maximise their power and strength for a given sport. Therefore Olympic and team sports athletes alike are the ones that stand to gain the most from applying the principles of VBT to their strength training program.
- Pareja-Blanco F, et al. Effect of movement velocity during resistance training on neuromuscular performance. Int J Sports Med 2014; 35: 916–924.
- Ingebrigtsen J, Holtermann A, Roeleveld K. Effects of load and contraction velocity during three-week biceps curls training on isometric and isokinetic performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23:1670–1676.
- Ratamess NA, et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41:687 – 708.
- Crewther B, Cronin J, Keogh J. Possible stimuli for strength and power adaptation: acute mechanical responses. Sports Med. 2005;35:967–989.
- Pereira MI, Gomes PS. Movement velocity in resistance training. Sports Med. 2003;33:427–438.
- Gonz_alez-Badillo JJ, S_anchez-MedinaL. Movement velocity as a measure of loading intensity in resistance training. Int J Sports Med 2010: 31:347–352.
- Todd JS, et al. Thomas L. DeLorme and the science of progressive resistance exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012;26(11):2913-2923.
- Pareja-Blanco F, et al. Effects of velocity loss during resistance training on athletic performance, strength gains and muscle adaptations. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2016 Mar 31. doi: 10.1111/sms.12678. [Epub ahead of print]
- González-Badillo JJ, et al. Short-term recovery following resistance exercise leading or not to failure. Int J Sports Med. 2016;37:295–304.
- Sánchez-Medina L, et al. Velocity- and power-load relationships of the bench pull vs. bench press exercises. Int J Sports Med. 2014;35(3):209-16.