For years the promise was too good to be true: You only needed to show up and train the way you felt that day and everything would work out in the end. Simply by listening to your body, you could adjust training according to how you felt and achieve positive results by some sort of mind-body connection. Auto-regulation, or cybernetic periodization, is making another round of interest because of velocity based training (VBT) and immediate feedback. Cybernetic periodization sounds cool, is cool, and if done right it works.
Origins of Cybernetics and Current Breakthroughs
Norbert Wiener was probably the first real pioneer in taking the abstract idea of systems control theory and making it work in the real world. His pioneering 1948 book: Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, was a major work pushing concepts that would show up in elite performance half a century later. Many principles he outlined in the book are hot trends in some high performance circles because they work now and will only improve in time. Cybernetics isn’t going to grow slowly — expect an explosion in the next few years.
Wiener paved the way for engineering better athletes through feedback loops and other useful concepts for training, something that improves performance in both weight training programming and sports. Recently, Dr. Chris Morris, the applied sport scientist for all athletic teams at the University of Texas, quietly made an unappreciated advance in cybernetics by using physiological monitoring. He published a major theoretical model for fluid periodization that can be used for VBT and the weight room.
Enter the Biopunk Generation with Velocity Based Training
For a century sport science led the charge to help athletes with technology. Now the same technology is available at the consumer level. Bryan Mann took information from the sport science gods and like Prometheus, shared his findings with the rest of us in his book on velocity based training. While not limited to what speed zones can do for an athlete’s strength and power, the target velocities gave value to how a lift could improve training, including the auto-regulation suggested by Mann. Adjusting a weight to hit a speed zone is easy; it’s harder to create a series of workouts that lead to an end result months away. Auto-regulation is simply adjusting the workout when needed, and a flexible plan to adapt to the person is far better than trying to constantly adjust over and over again.
The full paradigm shift came into play with Mladen Jovanovic and Eamonn Flanagan’s game-changing collaboration. When they published their landmark paper on estimating maximum abilities with the use of bar speed in 2014, the iron game made a rapid evolution forward. At this point I could get solid information of what an athlete could do at any specific point of time, not just from periodic testing maximally.
While jump training is valuable and I suggest it as part of the training process with my Raptor Test series, nothing is more direct than measuring what one is doing presently. Extrapolating what one could do with a different set of exercises has value but comes with limits, and early work sets provide a direct window of what is going on with the nervous system.
Using Velocity Based Training for Auto-Regulation in the Trenches
Good plans are not “concrete calendars” but are written in “wet cement” and are more adaptable. Jovanovic and Flanagan suggest auto-regulation with velocity bands:
Using velocity bands to prescribe training load is a novel approach that is sensitive to day-to-day readiness fluctuations and changes in 1RM over longer training blocks. Together with velocity stops, utilizing velocity bands is a novel approach to strength training prescription that allows for auto-regulating and individualizing training volume and load.
While speed zones won’t create monsters in the weight room, the sensitivity of peak velocity is perhaps the most pragmatic way to spot fatigue or errors in loading. So far, we have used speed zones as a way of giving more confidence when an athlete is fatiguing or is good to move up in load.
Mastering the Basics with Auto-Regulation
Weight training should be regarded as overcoming load with the right technique and effort. Mladen broke down the interaction of load, effort, and exertion and it is an excellent primer. When VBT tools come into play, things can become more complicated if one is not careful. To get started, master the basics of trying to execute the rep as best as possible, and adjust as needed.
Here is a simple example anyone can follow with nearly every primary training exercise. I took a soccer player with a 365-pound personal-best squat (below parallel) and over a year watched his rise and fall from fatigue and different seasonal training needs. Prescribing percentages months in advance in a beautiful periodization plan with every session mapped out isn’t going to happen when a sprained ankle or cancelled plane flight may change reality. Simple variables like the athlete lifting fresh because of a cancelled practice or trying to get something in after two games in one week makes a theoretical rep percentage difficult to predict.
The solution is usually making things simple and flexible, by using very straightforward loading and exertion plans and letting the bar velocity drive a rough summary of effort. Just for the record, this approach is far from perfect and is the result of only one year of experimentation, but so far I have never seen better fitness and speed in soccer because every workout was the right one. The evolution of completing workouts to hit each training session nearly perfectly made me a believer in VBT for optimizing the training load.
This screenshot from the PUSH Portal isn’t hard to interpret, even if you have never used the PUSH band. The flat pyramids show the load or weight, and the vertical bars are the peak velocities of the lift. Just a glimpse shows the load moving from 225 to 260 and how each rep varied in velocity. The key takeaway is that even a relatively strong athlete will perform slightly erratically from fatigue. Countless other variables interact with the outputs, such as the motivation by coaches and other athletes and live feedback of the PUSH data itself.
This second PUSH Portal screenshot has the same information athletes or coaches see live, so it’s part of the auto-regulation process. Like a speedometer and fuel gauge, a quick glance keeps athletes from grinding and perhaps unnecessarily fatiguing their body’s reserves. We use mean velocity, a simple estimation of concentric propulsion that gives a rough guideline of when enough is enough. Going slow and heavy isn’t the bane of sports performance training but it comes with a cost to the body. Residual fatigue is part of the cost of doing business with the power lifts, so coaches and athletes have to decide when to hammer and when to back off.
Our current approach to training is deciding if the original daily plan makes sense based on monitoring (subjective and objective) and the session feedback of what people actually can do or are trying to do. Training data from earlier sessions and monitoring help decide what to do, and VBT gives athletes a direction in how to do it better. Basically athletes and coaches know when to throttle up or down the load based on effort and exertion.
Breaking Down the Session with Advanced Analysis
Exporting workouts allows coaches to mine the data for small clues in how the athlete is performing in training, and can help anyone wanting to drill down to more detail about each rep. I care about finding subtle hints of how the mind and body are either cooperating or competing. The body and mind are like two dogs. The one fed more will end up being victorious, so it’s important to share physical and mental resources. Examples of clues to athlete management are rest periods going longer than prescribed, a change in rep duration on the eccentric side, or atypical patterns of output for the athlete.
Like most data, a time comes when exporting into Excel matters. I only do this when the core data isn’t trending right and I need more information . Here are several reasons why exporting can help.
- Data not visible in the PUSH app or PUSH Portal can be made accessible by downloading the raw data. This is important too for the estimated concentric and eccentric time periods within a repetition.
- Individuals can export their user comments to summarize the biofeedback of reps by using a word cloud or best practices like sport psychology trend analysis.
- Custom analysis outside conventional practices can be performed by using statistical packages or simple use of Excel or online spreadsheet options.
- Combination metrics or scores can be made with one’s body weight, limb lengths, or lean body mass to show the connection between athlete size and barbell performance.
- Data from bar velocity tracked sessions helps see relationships to less direct windows of auto-regulation techniques such as heart rate variability and neurological readiness testing.
Advanced analysis with the data is about solving real problems, versus panning for gold that might not be there. When in doubt, keep an eye on simple metrics and longitudinal data that tend to reveal more than the tiny differences one typically finds when exporting the data.
Improving Your Results Is a Matter of Choices
Objective and subjective feedback and data can boost any program, so choose when you have all the necessary information to get better numbers that matter. Investing into a program that includes a full array of feedback options including VBT tools, physiological monitoring options, and subjective feedback will improve both the magnitude and consistency of results. You can obviously do more than just use bar tracking technology to improve the accuracy and precision of training, such as combining subjective data as well as other physiological monitoring options. The easiest and direct way is to evaluate what one is supposed to do with objective feedback of the training itself, and great progress can be made with any program using this approach.
Suggested Reading and Resources
I strongly suggest Biofeedback and Sport Science by J.H. Sandweiss and S.L. Wolf. The text was way ahead of the game and while first printed in 1985 remains a wonderful framework for modern technology. Many key timeless concepts can be gleaned from this work.
These half-dozen studies are good science resources on barbell performance.
- Cormie P, McCaulley GO, Triplett NT, and McBride JM. “Optimal loading for maximal power output during lower-body resistance exercises.”Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise39: 340, 2007.
- Crewther BT, Cronin J, and Keogh JWL. “The contribution of volume, technique, and load to single-repetition and total-repetition kinematics and kinetics in response to three loading schemes.”J Strength Cond Res22: 1908-1915, 2008.
- Girman JC, Jones MT, Matthews TD, and Wood RJ. “Acute effects of a cluster-set protocol on hormonal, metabolic and performance measures in resistance-trained males.”Eur J Sport Sci: 1-9, 2013.
- Haff GG, Whitley A, McCoy LB, O'Bryant HS, Kilgore JL, Haff EE, Pierce K, and Stone MH. “Effects of different set configurations on barbell velocity and displacement during a clean pull.”J Strength Cond Res17: 95-103, 2003.
- Hardee JP, Lawrence MM, Utter AC, Triplett NT, Zwetsloot KA, and McBride JM. “Effect of inter- repetition rest on ratings of perceived exertion during multiple sets of power clean.”Eur J ApplPhysiol112: 3141-3147, 2012.
- Sanchez-Medina L and González-Badillo JJ. “Velocity loss as an indicator of neuromuscular fatigue during resistance training.”Med Sci Sports Exerc43: 1725-1734, 2011.
About the Author:
Coach Valle has coached Track and Field at every level, from high school to the Olympic level in the sprints and hurdles. He has had the privilege of working with great athletes that have been All-American and school record holders. A technology professional, Coach Valle has expertise in performance data as well as an understanding for practical application of equipment and software. Carl is currently the director of innovation for InsideTracker, and focuses his time on testing elite athletes and using technology to help everyone on any level of human performance reach their goals. His website is www.spikesonly.com and provides an annual report on the latest sport science innovations via his newsletter.