Using VBT in Professional Football to Guide Planning and Return to Play
By Andy Johnson
March 13, 2019
Before getting into the ‘meat’ of this blog I just wanted to start by saying everything presented in this article is a result of many people’s work, from scheduling each weeks training programmes to the individual interventions that take place within it. It’s been awesome to work with everyone who has had an input into this and has seen us as a group reap the benefits of having good results in terms of both performance metrics and availability.
Having worked with elite soccer players for nearly ten years now, it is easy to forget how far the monitoring side of things has come in that time period. When I first started out as an intern at Blackburn Rovers FC, we were just about to embark on embracing GPS systems as a necessity for players to wear during training sessions. Athlete readiness was either a sheet of paper or an extremely sensitive and expensive piece of equipment. Gym monitoring was largely sets x reps x load, in a hastily put together excel spreadsheet with conditional formatting. But how has gym monitoring progressed since then? How can we use the equipment available to us to periodise the gym work completed in a working week and in turn gain feedback about which area of the force-velocity continuum we are working within. And how can this information be used to guide us when it comes to returning our athletes from periods of significant injury lay off?
In the clubs that I have worked at with my colleague Dave Carolan, we have tried to implement a weekly schedule that gives the athletes an exposure to a strength stimulus, a power or PAP type pre-training stimulus, upper body conditioning and pre-training movement prep/activation work. Two variations can be seen below:
These weekly structures could shift in-season based on input from various stakeholders into how they felt they were affecting the players/results, but as you can see from their set-up, this wouldn’t cause us to lose any of our interventions. Going back to our desire as a department to expose the players to a strength and a power stimulus in a week, we would perform exercises that we felt fit best for the athletes we had, stage of season they’re currently in and training age of the group. These were then adapted for individuals if they progressed or came into the building with a lower base level than the group. Our main ‘performance’ exercises focused on triple extension; squats, deadlifts and olympic lift derivatives, with other supplementary work around them. During the lower body strength sessions we have tended to work on a continuum between 2-4 sets of 4-6 reps depending on where we were in the season.One of the main considerations was how many weeks it had been since an exposure due to losing time to congested fixture schedule in the Championship season. Utilising 2 sets of 6 reps at a slightly reduced weight in season to attempt to give the player a ‘minimal dose’ reintroduction to these sessions would be a reasonably regular occurrence. For these sessions we tended not to use velocity based training (VBT) apart from with the goalkeepers (GK). The GK’s have a lower match load and usually lift heavier, so therefore we’d use VBT to keep them lifting the bar with maximal intent, making sure the concentric phase of the lift was as explosive as possible. We’d look for them to elicit a velocity score of around 0.5 m/s or ‘absolute strength’ (as shown below).
Although as I am sure that many practitioners working in football reading this have found, realistically, the kind of 1RM% the players will operate at in these sessions would probably be more around ‘strength-speed’ or ‘accelerative strength’. Either way, in training terms the priority in this intervention is increasing the peak force of the players, while still asking them to deliver as high velocities as possible for the load selected. Our second intervention of the week, and the one that we wouldn’t ever complete without having our velocity monitoring in place was the PAP/Power session completed pre-training. We have used hang cleans for this session in the past, but most recently we had the players completing squats with bands and some low resistance. This decision was made due to the players not having had a consistent exposure to this training methodology in the past – so we decided to ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Players would report to the gym, warm up on bikes and complete some glute band activation before completing their squats with the goal of hitting 1.3m.s-1, and then supplementing this with some box/broad jump variations and elastic work. The reason we chose this m.s value was because in this session our goal was no longer peak force but peak velocity while executing the exercise with quality. On a delivery note to practitioners – we would always try and make these sessions ‘lively’ with high tempo, loud music and lots of encouragement from the coaching staff (see Dan Bakers blog on velocity scores and ‘psyche up’). Below in figure 2, you can see a players development through the early months in the season in these sessions, starting with a very light load to get familiarised with this intervention, and then adjusting the load to find the right level for them to achieve the desired velocity.
As this exercise is more ballistic it is argued that peak concentric force would be a more suitable metric to track. However, there seems to be more data available that reports mean concentric velocity and the force-velocity continuum, so we had been looking at the above. Below in figure 3, is the peak data for the same athlete.
Our final use of VBT comes in the form of return to training/play for athletes that have been out for an extended period of time. We recently used this with an individual who was being monitored during his return to training phase using isokinetic testing (ISK), due to us having access to historical data on this athlete from two clubs. We had base data for this player from the start of his injury and continued to use the same testing protocol throughout the rehab. The data we were getting back suggested that the individual was within the norms for slow speed “strength” values at 60 degrees.sec-1, but was still behind where he needed to be for both measures at higher velocities - 180 degrees.sec-1 and 300 degrees.sec-1 for knee extensors. As a result of this data we selected different exercises from his original program and began to monitor his lifts with our VBT devices. Over the following period we saw a maintenance in his work at the strength end of the strength-velocity continuum, while the new programming and monitoring saw his velocity work improve dramatically. This, while used alongside other interventions such as a higher exposure to high speed running and pitch based maximum velocities, got the desired effect we were looking for in terms of improving his ISK scores on both 180 degrees.sec-1 and 300 degrees.sec-1. The use of this monitoring alongside the testing completed by the physio team allowed us to have a more in-depth idea of how the player was performing the rehab sessions set in between testing days. This meant we didn’t have to wait for a two week block of work to pass before knowing if we were hitting the right stimulus or not.
In summary, VBT helped us in the following key areas::
1. Gave us knowledge of which part of the force-velocity continuum we were working on – answered the question “were our interventions hitting the stimulus we were looking for?”
2. Gave our athletes immediate feedback, motivation and accountability for their work
3. Gave us as coaches immediate feedback to adjust sessions while at the coal face, rather than reflecting on it later and having to wait a week to adjust it in the next exposure when the athletes fatigue status or strength may have changed
4. Gave us more in-depth knowledge of rehab sessions and guided us to help a player achieve test results required as a RTP protocol before going back into training
Andy Johnson is an experienced performance coach with an MSc in Sports Science from the University of Chester. Andy has worked in professional football for the last 10 years and boasts Blackburn Rovers, Norwich City, Birmingham City and Stoke City as his former employers. Andy can be found on Twitter @AndyJ0hns0n