Velocity Based Strength Training for Rowing: Part 1
About VBT and the beginning of my use in strength training
This is Part 1 of an ongoing series on velocity based strength training (VBT) for rowing. These posts will be slightly longer and updated about monthly with my process of research, implementation, and improvements using VBT with the Craftsbury GRP teams.
Velocity Based Training for Rowing Research and Resources
VBT well-known and commonly used in strength training for field and power sports. It’s growing in endurance sport use as well. There is limited information about VBT for rowing specifically, so beyond these few resources we can draw on some available research for other endurance or power-endurance sports, and find plenty for general sport training that we can work to adapt for our specific endurance sport contexts.
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One of the first things I read and heard about VBT for rowers specifically was from this GymAware (a VBT system) 2020 blog by Theo Pickles, strength coach for the Dutch National Rowing Team. If you prefer audio, my friend and fellow rowing strength coach Joe DeLeo had Theo on his podcast later that year to discuss his coaching practices more. I was familiar with VBT from other sport and strength training already, and this got me intrigued to use it with rowers.
In 2021, researchers published a study on German National Team rowers using VBT that found great results. They split 21 rowers into two groups for 8 weeks of training, one group for VBT and one control group doing their normal strength training to near-failure (RPE8-10). The VBT group improved their max strength significantly more than the non-VBT group and equivalently improved their VO2 max and power at VO2 max measured on ergs. The big win was that they made this progress while doing fewer total repetitions and experiencing faster recovery and lower training stress versus the control group. Less training (total reps) and lower training stress (faster recovery) for better strength outcomes and equal erg outcomes in just 8 weeks. This put VBT high on my training to-do list, but it took until 2023 to actually get the budget and opportunity to do so with the GRP teams.
How Velocity Based Training Works
VBT is not a “training program.” It might not even be accurately called a “training method,” though this certainly gets into semantics about the definition of “method.” Most accurately, it is a monitoring tool to measure barbell velocity. We use velocity data to better understand and achieve the training stimulus, infer the physiological effect from training, and guide training prescription with regard to number of sets, reps, and/or amount of load used.
VBT also can, though doesn’t necessarily, give feedback to the athlete. We could design a VBT environment in which only the coach receives the data and adjusts the load for an athlete blind to how much weight they are actually using. We can choose from here how much more data we want to show the athlete and when we want to show them that data.
At its core, what VBT offers is just a different way to quantify training load. We use bar speed as a primary outcome and adjust the amount of sets, reps, and/or weight of the exercise to achieve the goal bar speed. We’ll discuss specifics of programming with VBT in greater detail later in this series.
Downsides of VBT (and Workarounds)
The clearest downside to VBT is cost. There are cheap or free apps that work off of wearable tech, but accelerometer and positional VBT systems tend to be so unreliable that I don’t think it’s even worth the low cost, free app, or effort of trying to use it. The linear position transducer (LPT) technology is the gold-standard of VBT technology at present, which collects data directly through a hard connection to the bar or other lifting implement.
LPT hardware runs around $400 and up. For a few examples, RepOne is $399, Vitruve is $447, and then there are industrial products with TENDO at $1329, GymAware at nearly $2000, and Perch at unlisted prices. These (at least the former) are not totally unreasonable costs in an expensive sport like rowing or against the costs of stocking an average weightroom, but they are barriers nonetheless.
Many VBT systems have additional subscription costs for data management apps. I chose to go with Vitruve, and my total was nearly $1000 to manage up to 50 athletes on the iOS (iPad) platform, with another $550 each year for continued app access. At this time, RepOne only offers one subscription tier, and it’s $99 per month or $999 for a year. This was the main factor in my decision to go with Vitruve.
You don’t actually need the app though for the VBT system to function, at least on Vitruve. The hardware box itself stores rep-by-rep velocity and ROM (cm) data as long as you don’t turn it off or clear the data. I didn’t have app access for the first month or so of using VBT with a reduced number of athletes. The athletes would finish their set, rack the bar, click back through each rep on the box, and then either write down their own notes or just use the data to adjust for their next set. You can skip the app if you don’t care about long-term data collection and immediate visual feedback while actively lifting.
Vitruve also has a free app for individuals. Many other VBT systems do as well, and I’ve heard from other budget-conscious strength coaches that they’ll just buy the hardware, use the free app set up to “Athlete A,” for example, and have individual athletes manually record data after each set. It’s a step up from having to click through each rep on the box, while still being totally functional and not doubling (or more) the cost of the hardware with app subscription. The app is really only helpful or necessary if you have several athletes who you want to automatically collect long-term data on within the platform. Most individuals training on their own, and many coaches as well, would not need to spend the extra money beyond the price of the VBT hardware.
A slight downside besides the hardware and software management is that VBT adds complexity to training. The GRP senior team athletes all have 4+ years of strength training experience from high-level college training and beyond. I’m usually in a pretty ideal 1:10 coach:athlete ratio, and I’m not coaching technique as intensively as when I coach most college, junior, or masters rowers. I’m certainly not coaching “behavior” like athletes screwing around or doing unsafe things in the gym. I have more time and attention to be able to manage VBT implementation, so in my coaching context, the added complexity is worth the advantages of enhanced training guidance.
I did not use VBT to start with the U23 rowers in our summer program. The added complexity would be too much to manage with 10+ new athletes and a training environment more focused on technical development and racing. We used rate of perceived exertion (RPE) strength training for the first month of the program while getting to know each other, learning how to read and do the training program, focusing on key technique features of all the different exercises, and doing their first races of the U23 program (U23 trials begin tomorrow!).
There is no specific level of performance required to benefit from VBT, as long as it’s already available or cost is not a problem, and the athlete is motivated to use it and able to focus in the training environment. I don’t think VBT is generally necessary for good strength training, but I do think it’s generally helpful if it’s available and implemented thoughtfully.
Finally, coaches should consider that VBT is fundamentally a form of surveillance technology, and that this comes with some downsides and potentially problematic unintended consequences. I’ll write more about this in Part 2 using some descriptive athlete examples to show what I mean.