When the rubber meets the road, does autoregulating training using velocity targets and velocity stops ultimately lead to larger strength gains than percentage-based training? This study says “yes.”
This article is a review and breakdown of a recent study. The study reviewed is Comparison of Velocity-Based and Traditional Percentage-Based Loading Methods on Maximal Strength and Power Adaptations. Dorrell et al. (2019)
- Over six weeks, velocity-based training led to significantly larger gains in bench press strength and jump height than traditional percentage-based training in trained lifters.
- Across four lifts – squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift – strength gains were almost 50% larger with velocity-based training, in spite of the fact that training volume was slightly lower.
Some days, you hit the gym feeling great, and your prescribed workout barely challenges you. Other times, you’re tired and fatigued, and your performance in the gym is well below your usual level. Autoregulation strategies, which we’ve talked about in MASS many times before (one, two, three, four, five, six), help you take advantage of the good days and pull back on the bad days in a logical, controlled manner.
One method of autoregulation is via the use of velocity. As loads increase, mean concentric velocity decreases in an almost perfectly linear fashion. Because of this, you can use velocity as a stand-in for traditional percentages of 1RM for prescribing intensity. However, percentages of 1RM don’t change until the next time you max, whereas velocity is responsive to day-to-day fluctuations in strength, making velocity a prime candidate for autoregulation strategies.
However, until now, we didn’t have firm evidence that autoregulating training using velocity actually led to larger strength gains than training with a traditional percentage-based approach. A recent study (1) found that, in trained subjects, velocity-based training led to significantly larger increases in jump height and bench press strength than traditional percentage-based training over six weeks. This finding puts autoregulatory strategies using velocity on a much firmer footing.
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Purpose and Research Questions
The purpose of this study was to compare the effects of velocity-based training and percentage-based training on strength and power adaptations after a six-week block of training.
- Would velocity-based or percentage-based training lead to larger strength gains in the squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift after a six-week block of training?
- Would velocity-based or percentage-based training lead to larger increases in counter-movement jump height after a six-week block of training?
No hypotheses were directly stated, but the wording of the introduction implies that the authors expected that velocity-based training would lead to larger gains in strength and counter-movement jump height.
Subjects and Methods
Of the 30 men that initially volunteered for this study, 3 got injured and 11 failed to meet all inclusion criteria, leaving a final sample of 16 subjects. Subjects were required to have at least two years of resistance training experience. They turned out to be a pretty well-trained sample by the standards of most research in the area; the average 1RM squat was a little over 1.5x bodyweight, and the average deadlift was nearly double bodyweight.
This study took place over approximately seven weeks, with a day of testing pre- and post-training, and six weeks of training. The pre-testing day took place at least 96 hours before the first training session, and the post-testing day took place at least 96 hours after the last training session. Testing consisted of counter-movement jump height and 1RMs for back squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift.
Training took place twice per week. Both days included back squat, bench press, and squat jump. Day 1 also included overhead press, seated rows, and walking lunges, while day 2 also included deadlifts, plyo push-ups, and barbell hip thrusts. The program itself included two three-week waves, with the first wave increasing in intensity from 70% 1RM to 85-88%, and the second wave increasing from 80-82% to 95%. More details about the training program can be seen in Table 2.
One group used a percentage-based program, and one group used a velocity-based program. The percentage-based program is the one in Table 2. In order to equate the two programs, the velocity-based group used velocity zones and velocity stops, rather than percentages and prescribed numbers of reps. Loads were dictated by the subject’s performance on each training day with the velocity-based program, so that when their velocities were higher or lower than normal, they could train with heavier or lighter loads to stay in the correct velocity range.
It’s not entirely clear how the velocity zones were defined in this study; the authors note that “group zones for each movement were created using a combination of previously published data and data collected within the pretesting 1RM assessments,” but no additional information is provided about how those two data sources were integrated or how they determined the size of each range. The velocity stops are a bit ambiguous as well. The authors state “velocity stops were integrated into each set at 20% below the target velocity of each specific zone.” They cite this paper (which was previously reviewed in MASS) as a reference (2), and in that study, they terminated each set when velocity dropped by more than 20% from the first rep in the set. I think that’s what they did in this study. However, that statement could also be interpreted to mean that each set was terminated when velocity fell 20% below the bottom end of the target velocity range.
That’s a non-negligible distinction, because their velocity targets seem to be fairly wide. For example, the velocity target for the squat to correspond to 70% 1RM was 0.74-0.88 m/s. If the velocity stop kicked in when rep speed dropped by 20% within a set, then someone whose first rep was 0.88m/s would terminate a set when their velocity dropped to 0.70m/s, and someone whose first rep was 0.74m/s would terminate a set when their velocity dropped to 0.59m/s. If the velocity stop kicked in when rep speed dropped to 20% below the bottom of the target range, then each squat set in this intensity range would terminate at a velocity of 0.59m/s, regardless of where the first rep fell in the 0.74-0.88m/s range.
I’ll admit that I may just be being a bit too pedantic, since I’m sure I could do a bang-up job of approximating their target velocity ranges for each intensity, and since both potential interpretations of their velocity stop method would probably be fine in practice. However, for a study that’s this novel in the literature, I’d really like to know exactly how the velocity-based program was executed, but the methods section doesn’t provide me with enough information to know exactly how they prescribed loads and how they decided when to terminate each set.
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Both groups got significantly stronger in the squat, bench press, and overhead press. Only the velocity-based group got significantly stronger in the deadlift. Additionally, only the velocity-based group had a significant increase in counter-movement jump height. There were only significant between-group differences for the bench press and counter-movement jump. Overall, the velocity-based group added an average of 37.3kg to their four main lifts, while the percentage-based group added 25.1kg.
Interestingly, volume load (sets x reps x weight) was slightly – though significantly – lower in the velocity-based group for the squat, bench press, and overhead press. The overall difference in volume load was small (5.9%), but the velocity-based group was a little stronger at baseline (~8.4% stronger), so relative volume load (sets x reps x %1RM) was closer to 19% lower in the velocity-based group.
This was a really cool study that was much-needed. In the past decade, there’s been a lot of work digging into load-velocity profiles. We’ve reviewed several load-velocity papers for MASS already (one, two, three, four, five, six). However, with any new form of monitoring, or new way to assign training loads, the most important question is, “does this actually matter?” If it doesn’t ultimately help people reach their goals more effectively and efficiently, it’s ultimately just mental masturbation and overcomplication for the sake of feeling more in control. Now that we can see that using velocity to assign training loads actually leads to faster strength gains than using percentages, that lets us know that all of that work fleshing out the load-velocity literature wasn’t in vain (assuming these results replicate).
With that being said, I do have a few reservations about these results. First, this study was just six weeks long. Yes, that’s a cheap critique, and I don’t hold that against the authors (that’s still a TON of work), but it’s at least worth considering the possibility that results would have been different if the study ran longer. More substantially, I think there was an important confounding variable in this study: The subjects in the velocity-based group were told their velocity for each rep. Some research suggests that intentionally moving the bar as fast as possible leads to larger strength gains, and velocity feedback improves acute performance (3, 4). An assumption with velocity-based training is that you move each rep as fast as you can. If you don’t, your velocity data is essentially worthless, since all of the ways you can prescribe training using velocity is predicated on the linear relationship between load and velocity, and between proximity to failure and velocity when maximum effort is exerted. Thus, the velocity-based group a) knew (or at least should have known) that they really needed to put forth their full effort on each rep to make the velocity-based load and volume prescriptions work in the first place, and b) the velocity feedback on each rep essentially functions as external cuing (reminding you to move the bar fast). As MASS readers should know by now, external cueing improves performance (5). Thus, the superior strength gains in the velocity-based group may have been due to the velocity-based training, but they may have been at least partially due to the constant velocity feedback. However, that may be a distinction without a difference, as velocity-based training does force you to stay intimately aware of your velocity on each rep and does force you to move each rep as fast as possible, neither of which are typical (and certainly not required) for percentage-based programs.
With that being said, I’m less skeptical of these results than I would be if velocity-based training didn’t have strong theoretical underpinnings. The idea just makes sense: On days you’re strong, a velocity-based approach will allow you to train with heavier loads or do more volume, and on days you’re weak and under-recovered, a velocity-based approach will have you pull back on your training loads and/or volume to allow you to recuperate. Over time, those small marginal advantages in each session, resulting from improved matching of training stress and readiness, should lead to better results. I do think the ~50% faster average strength gains with velocity-based training in this study is pretty unrealistic (I think the effect they found is correct, but the relative magnitude of the effect is larger than the “true” magnitude), especially since the study ran just six weeks. I do think the theory is sound, though, and I feel even better about it now that it’s been directly tested.
One thing to note is that the load prescription in this study could have been even more individualized. The authors used group velocity targets for each lift and intensity, whereas individualized targets would be easy to figure out, and would do an even better job of personalizing load prescriptions. I understand the decision completely: it would be a HUGE pain in the ass to come up with individualized velocity targets for each lift, each intensity, and each subject (4 exercises x 9 different intensity targets x 16 subjects = 576 velocity targets you need to calculate and keep track of, without making mistakes during data collection), but it’s entirely realistic for two individuals to move the bar at speeds that differ by 0.1-0.2m, even when performing the same exercise at the same intensity. Basically, if you put all training programs on a continuum from maximally rigid to maximally autoregulated, the method of assigning loads to the velocity-based group in this study would certainly be much closer to the maximal autoregulation pole than the maximal rigidity pole, but it could get even more personalized and autoregulation-y.
If you saw this study in a vacuum, it may surprise you. After all, the traditional group trained with higher absolute volume loads (and even higher relative volume loads) but still managed to gain less strength. However, results like this should be familiar to MASS readers. Mike covered a study a while back showing that terminating each set after a 20% velocity loss led to larger gains in jump height and possibly larger strength gains than terminating each set after a 40% velocity loss, even though volume load was way lower in the 20% velocity loss group (2). For that study, I suggested that perhaps the 40% velocity loss group was just more fatigued at post-testing. However, that explanation doesn’t fly in this study. The second workout of week 6 is intentionally easy (2 sets of 3 with 70% 1RM), and post-testing didn’t take place until at least 96 hours after the last training session, so both groups rolled into post-testing after about a week of deloading. So, how can you equate for intensity, have a lower volume load, and still make larger strength gains? Intensity is the primary driver of strength gains (6), and I think that staying further from failure during training helps ensure that subsequent workouts are also high quality.
If you’re interested in making your own load-velocity profile and having your own personalized velocity targets, you can make a copy or download this spreadsheet (do not request editing access) which will do most of the heavy lifting for you, as long as you have a device you can use to measure velocity in the first place.
As I mentioned, I think the velocity feedback in one group and not the other could have biased the results of this study a bit. To remedy that, future studies should either a) provide velocity feedback to both groups or b) simply have the researchers encourage both groups to move every rep as fast as possible, without providing velocity feedback to either group (i.e. the researchers would be watching the velocities to know when an appropriate load has been reached, and would tell their velocity-based subjects when to cut a set and rack the bar based on velocity loss criteria).
Application and Takeaways
If you have a device for measuring bar velocity, you may be able to use velocity targets and velocity stops to create a training program that is more responsive to you and that will ultimately lead to faster strength gains. If you don’t, RPE stops and RPE load targets may work just as well, given the emerging work on RPE programs, which Mike reviewed this month.
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- Dorrell HF, Smith MF, Gee TI. Comparison of Velocity-Based and Traditional Percentage-Based Loading Methods on Maximal Strength and Power Adaptations. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Feb 18.
- Pareja-Blanco F, Rodríguez-Rosell D, Sánchez-Medina L, Sanchis-Moysi J, Dorado C, Mora-Custodio R, Yáñez-García JM, Morales-Alamo D, Pérez-Suárez I, Calbet JAL, González-Badillo JJ. Effects of velocity loss during resistance training on athletic performance, strength gains and muscle adaptations. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2017 Jul;27(7):724-735.
- González-Badillo JJ, Rodríguez-Rosell D, Sánchez-Medina L, Gorostiaga EM, Pareja-Blanco F. Maximal intended velocity training induces greater gains in bench press performance than deliberately slower half-velocity training. Eur J Sport Sci. 2014;14(8):772-81.
- Nagata A, Doma K, Yamashita D, Hasegawa H, Mori S. The Effect of Augmented Feedback Type and Frequency on Velocity-Based Training-Induced Adaptation and Retention. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Feb 14.
- Wulf G. Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology 2013 6:1, 77-104
- Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Dec;31(12):3508-3523.