In Part One, I explained velocity-based training (VBT) and why we’ve decided to implement it with our athletes.
Today, in Part 2 I will explore how to program VBT individual athletes to best improve their performance.
(This article was written by Jack Scheideman, High Performance Trainer at Driveline Baseball)
When to Start a VBT Program
At Driveline, we are attempting to maximize strength, hypertrophy, and power production to create athletes that can throw gas and drop tanks.
We strive to provide individualized programs based on assessments (which deserves its own blog post) to maximize athletes’ results with the focus on power production. For a VBT program to be successful, individualization needs to occur to allow the athletes to work on their specific needs.
A young athlete needs to squat, deadlift, and bench press while the MLB All-Star needs to focus on more fine-tuning related to his sport-specific training.
Athletes need to be sufficiently strong before they start a VBT program. This, admittedly, will depend on each athlete and his playing level. But it should be pretty clear that any high school or college athlete that is struggling to squat 225 needs to lift more and focus on strength. To be able to maximize strength and hypertrophy, you need to use big exercises where you can move significant weight. This is why we choose to bench, squat, deadlift, and lift heavy rows. You need to pick big exercises, the big lifts, that stimulate the most muscle fibers possible in order to grow..
If you don’t think size matters in baseball that’s fine, but let’s take a look at the top six average exit velocities in baseball last year.
Aaron Judge is 6’7” and weighs 282 lbs, Nelson Cruz is listed at 6’2 and weighs 240 lbs. Wait—someone on this list has to be small, right? The answer is no, all of these guys are listed at at least 240 lbs.
If you’re trying to increase strength and your strength coach brings out a speed ladder, run away as fast as you can.
When Are You “Strong Enough”?
If you are a coach starting a VBT program, the trainee will either be an intermediate or elite athlete, based on Mark Rippetoe’s classification rubric. The rough rule of thumb is that a novice will be able to recover from “heavy loads” between 24 to 72 hours.
An intermediate athlete might take 72 or more hours to recover from a “heavy” load, while advanced/elite lifters can take weeks to recover from heavy loads.
It takes longer for elite athletes to recover because these athletes are much closer to their genetic max, which makes each session significantly more taxing on the Central Nervous system (CNS). This is why autoregulation, an objective measure of overtraining, is so important for intermediate/advanced/elite level athletes. (I went into depth on this in Part 1)
These classifications are important because it would be pointless to throw novice athletes on a VBT program. If you can’t squat 225, stop reading this article, and go hire a coach to learn how to squat and deadlift!
There is no magic program that will help you at this point; you just need to spend hours with a barbell in your hand and progressively add weight to the bar. There are two main reasons for this;
- These athletes are primed to use a “linear periodization” model, in which workouts stay the same, but the athletes are able to add weight to the bar each successive time they lift. Their recovery ability is so fast because they are far away from their genetic max. They can easily add hundreds of pounds to their squat, bench, and deadlift. They will also put on muscle mass at an amazing rate, and as we know this is crucial! You should never take these “easy gains” away from athletes because this will be the only time in their lives where they can do this style of training. A great example is the workouts in Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, where the athlete lifts Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, alternating between workouts A and B. These workouts might seem like too little volume or not enough exercise variation, which is exactly the point. Novice athletes need to master the basic lifts, and by having minimal volume, the athlete will be able to add weight to the bar every session, possibly for months at a time.
- Novice athletes most likely have never been in a weight room. For them, mastery of the lifts and absolute strength come first. An athlete who does not have the technique will not be able to move the bar quickly because mastery of the movement is not there yet. Since his absolute strength is so far behind at this point, the weight needed to move at the desired speed will be too light to create any significant power production.
A good rule of thumb is to start an athlete on a VBT program when his deadlift is 2x BW, back squat 1.5x BW, and their bench press is 1x BW. If an athlete reaches this point and is still progressing using a “linear periodization model”, don’t stop. Gains do not come easily.
If you have ever worked with or been an intermediate or above lifter, you know how frustrating stalled progress can be. If athletes haven’t reached these goals by the end of their novice cycle, which is highly likely, then another absolute strength module should be started. Pick a programming-format model where exercise variation is occurring, coupled with either a percentage-based system or a linear periodization in which the athlete progresses from week to week. When the athlete does not add weight to the bar every workout, this is because he can no longer recover from the stimulus.
As you can see with this template, as the athlete leaves the novice phase, more complexity needs to be programmed in to provide a new stimulus. Complexity refers to new exercises being introduced to the athlete. Without this new stimulus, an athlete will reach a plateau much faster if there is not an introduction of new exercises or velocity range.
This is the stage where we choose to add in a VBT program to give the athlete a new stimulus, with the hope of adding significantly more power production by training the CNS through a VBT protocol. By this point, an athlete would qualify as an intermediate athlete; this is a result of his recovery ability decreasing. He is at a higher level of his genetic max and because of that, the work he does is significantly more taxing. It is not an indication of how strong the athlete is, as we know everyone has different genetic ceilings.
Once we learn where the athlete’s absolute strength levels are, we can now program VBT based on his needs. Remember, I’m going to say this again: don’t be the guy that starts a VBT program squatting 185 and deadlifting 225.
On-Boarding an Athlete
Every new athlete that comes to Driveline goes through the same assessment so that we can give him a lifting program that works on his specific needs. Novice athletes don’t need to prance on a bosu ball, do endless core work, or go through every corrective exercise under the sun. Squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows are going to provide stability and core training.
Yeah I’m sure Marius built this core doing side planks and reverse crunches. Or maybe it was because he picked up heavy objects all day, for decades.
Our assessment includes a mobility portion (a topic worth another blog post), rotational power using the Keiser, and a test of power production where we use the tendo unit. We use the tendo for two main testing protocols:
- The first test is a vertical jump, where we connect a tendo string to a belt that the athlete is wearing. We also plug in the weight of the athlete to asses his power production, and the test is done monthly. This is so that if the athlete can assess his power production from month to month. This is especially important if the athlete gains weight, so we can asses if that weight improved or decreased his power production. This means we can then say whether that weight gain was beneficial or not.
- We then have the athlete go through 3 sets of 2 reps of the bench press, deadlift, and back squat. We have the athlete add weight until he reaches the 0.8-0.9 m/sec or the strength-speed velocity range, choosing this speed quality because it gives us a good distinction of absolute strength without having the athlete max out, which obviously would result in some disasters.
Based on the weight used on the three compound lifts, we are now ready to write a program that caters to each athlete’s unique needs.
Where Do We Start?
Once we have established that the athlete is strong enough to start a VBT program, the first quality we start training is strength-speed. This is the first progression from the quality of absolute strength, and the athlete also produces the most power in this velocity range. We use the main three lifts: back squat, bench press, and deadlift, as they allow the athlete to move the most weight, which produces the highest power production. We do not use accessory lifts for VBT, such as a certain type of row. Accessory lifts are programed to work on weaknesses and help the athlete progress on the main movements. There are a few rules to follow when starting the first phase of a VBT program:
I will have the athletes do doubles for 8-12 sets until they drop below 90% on two consecutive lifts of their best rep that day. In order to calculate this, for example, I’ll look at if the athlete’s best rep that day was at 0.88 m/sec and on set 7 they have two consecutive reps below 0.79 m/sec, then I’ll know the athlete’s workout is done for that day. This ensures that they are not overtraining and will be able to recover before the next workout.
We use a “linear progression” model from workout to workout so that progression is continuously occurring for the athlete. If you keep the weight the same every week and the velocity is not improving, that athlete will not be giving his body a new stimulus to adapt to. He’ll be spinning his wheels and not improving at all.
This might sound like a lot of technology in the weight room, but it allows us to better track progress. The athletes will have to quickly learn how to train with intensity and what it means to put force into the barbell. If they don’t, the tendo will tell us. This isn’t most gym cultures.
Mediocre intensity is frowned upon; yelling and loud music is celebrated. If you learn to truly train with intensity, you will be rewarded; if you don’t know what that means, go watch Westside Barbell lifters lift on YouTube, or better yet, come to Driveline. It is imperative that weight is added from workout to workout to allow athletes to continue to progress their rate of force development. In a month, if your are doing the same amount of sets and the velocity has stayed the same but you have added 30 pounds to the bar, your power production has gone up significantly.
Rest periods for your dynamic effort days are imperative and one of the most undervalued variability in training. It is imperative that the rest periods are kept under 60 seconds, which is different than on a max-effort day, when rest periods should last 5 minutes. Why such a short rest period?
- The first reason is to improve the athlete’s specific work capacity. Baseball plays happen every 30 seconds, so it is imperative that we train for that. By doing speed work every 60 seconds, we are improving the athlete’s anaerobic work capacity. This means that the athlete is able to do more work in a given time period. This means that his recovery improves and that he is able to complete more specific power work in a given time period.
- It improves work capacity by producing lactic acid in the muscles, which occurs when oxygen can’t replenish fast enough. Lactic acid is then produced to allow the athlete to continue to produce ATP energy. Lactic acid production is also correlated with growth-hormone production, which can help add muscle and lose fat.
- Short rest periods with submaximal weight and low reps should not fatigue athletes to where the quality of the reps is decreasing, unless they are grossly out of shape and should probably not be doing a VBT program. A program addressing this issue should occur first (prowler, sprints, short rest period – volume work).
- By using short-rest periods, athlete will go into a state of fatigue because they are not able to replenish their ATP fast enough. This then allows the athlete to use higher threshold motor units, which allows for hypertrophy and neuromuscular adaptations. These motor units are prime movers in athletic performance.
If you don’t agree with these reasons, that’s fine, continue to text and look at Facebook on your iPhone while trying every program under the sun, blaming your college coach every day, and not understanding why you throw 75 mph and haven’t improved in two years. There is a reason so many guys make it to elite levels of athletics using so many different program besides genetics.
How to Progress
At some point, each athlete will plateau when using a linear progression on dynamic effort days.
Once an athlete has plateaued, the key is to create variability in the training. A plateau occurs when the athlete is either not adding weight to the bar and keeping the same velocity or not improving velocity with the same weight. Don’t overreact to not improving for a few weeks; a true plateau is months of stalled progress. If this happens, a change in some aspect of training needs to occur to allow for the athlete to adapt to a new stimulus. If the athlete has truly understood what training with intensity means, then it is time to progress. There are many different options that you can pick from:
- The athlete might have to do another absolute strength cycle to allow for further progress on dynamic effort days. This is because if his absolute strength hasn’t improved while doing VBT, then at some point, progression on speed will stop. This is because no athlete will be able to move 90% of their max at 0.8 m/sec. A short, absolute strength cycle can by cyled in and allow the athlete then to continue to progress on his speed lifts when his maxes have increased. Power is work/time, so to calculate this you take the weight and distance moved and divide that by the time it took to move the load. If the athlete trains VBT, he is training the time it takes to complete the movement. To improve power , train the load of the movement. This is where absolute strength fits into the equation. Move the most weight possible as fast as you can.
- The athlete might be very strong and powerful relative to his weight, but an increase in weight can help. Cycling in a hypertrophy program with proper nutrition guidance can allow the athlete to put on muscle mass. A bigger muscle always has a better ability to produce more strength and power. So you could do a hypertrophy cycle, a strength cycle, and then back into a VBT program.
- Instead of cycling strength and hypertrophy, you can simply change the exercises or bars used. Let’s look at a few examples: try a front squat/safety bar/split squat instead of a back squat. Using a football bar/swiss bar instead of a regular barbell bench press. Instead of doing a conventional deadlift, change the stance, such as a sumo pull or even using a trap bar. Such changes in exercise give the athlete a new stimulus to allow for a new adaption to occur and helps them progress further.
- If the athlete already is near his genetic max in terms of muscle mass and is already very strong at 550 deadlift, 450 back squat, and a 275 bench press (which is very rare for any baseball player that I have seen), then the athlete is stuck; he can do option #3 or change training cycles.
This is where training becomes much more complicated, and analysis of an athlete’s strength and weaknesses needs to be conducted. By this point, the athlete is sufficiently strong and should be producing sufficient power. The goal now is to be able to be more precise in what we are doing on the training side to be able to produce the best results on the field. The first step is to identify where the athlete would have the most carry-over in training by identifying the weakness of the athlete. This could be that starting strength-speed needs work. This is where a speed-strength program could be utilized, by using accommodating resistance, plyometrics, and different throwing exercises to improve performance. An injury or overtraining could be the root of the issue, and then programming and lifestyle need to be addressed.
One of the most common issues is that the work being done in the weight room will have very little transfer once the athlete becomes elite. A young athlete has a huge pool of exercises that transfer to performance, but the opposite is true for the elite thrower (a later blog post will go into this programming). This makes assessing the elite athlete’s strengths and weaknesses hugely important to optimize training to transfer into sport-specific performance.
Special Considerations: The Older Athlete
One of the hardest parts about being an older athlete (30+ years) is maintaining the same power production that made one good in the first place. Many older athletes will see their pitching velocities drop and bat speed start to diminish. This can be from a multitude of reasons, such as a large workload of innings pitched or injuries accumulated over time. One way you can change this is to continue training for power production in order to maintain and continue to build type-2 muscle fibers. This can be accomplished by training maximal strength, plyometrics, and VBT as these training methods stimulate high-threshold motor units. As the athlete gets older, type-2 muscle fibers atrophy, and it is imperative that the athlete continues to stimulate these muscle fibers to ensure that type-2 muscle fibers do not fade away over time. If these muscle atrophy, then performance will decline.
A few examples of older athletes who are throwing just as hard or harder than ever as they push into their 30s are Joe Beimel and Casey Weathers. If you go to Beimel’s Instagram @joebeimel97, you will see videos of him throwing 95 mph on a flat ground or Casey pulling down 107 and sitting mid-90s with a 5 oz baseball from an indoor mound. Both of these athletes have continued to progress with regards to velocity as they age and both have a few things in common.
Talking with both of them, it is clear they have each taken recovery and weight-room activities seriously throughout their careers. This is definitely a huge reason for their continued performance, but there could be another reason for their success as they have gotten older: both have started a VBT program this offseason, instead of the all-too-common, misunderstood, and misused corrective-based programs for older athletes.
This offseason, they both implemented a VBT-style program, with great results. If you look at Beimel’s posts, you will see him smashing 400-pound squats, a 500-pound deadlifts, and benching 300 pounds all through full ranges of motion. Casey has thrown harder off the indoor mound this winter then he has at any point in his career. This could definitely be a result of older athletes lifting heavy and using a VBT program to stimulate type-2 muscle fibers. Both of these are crucial as athletes age and move into the latter part of their career. Older athletes need to continue to train for power or their performance will suffer.
This phenomenon is best shown through Olympic-level shot-putter Werner Gunthor, who had biopsies taken of his muscles late into his career. This is a test in which part of the muscle is taken out of the body and analyzed. Werner had a low number of fast-twitch muscle fibers for an elite-level shot-putter: the area of muscle fibers was much larger than any athlete tested. This meant that through training, he was able to hypertrophy his fast-twitch, or type-2 muscle fibers. He lifted heavy, used eccentrics, plyometrics, and speed-based lifts to hypertrophy these areas, and because of this, he became an elite-level shot-putter.
Here you can see Gunthor’s biopsy results and above is a link to his training style—look familiar?
As you can see, he continued to progress until 1988, which is near a world-record mark. After that, however, he continued to perform at a high level: his last year of competing, he was 34 years old. Consider that a 22-meter throw wins almost any Olympics and a 21.50 gets you a medal. For almost a decade, he was able compete at a world-class level, which is considered very rare in track and field, or any sport.
VBT allows athletes to produce significantly more power by using a data-driven approach to the weight room. The objective feedback of the number on the screen does not lie; you can’t cheat it. Athletes will have to learn what it means to train with intensity, and at some point, they will just have to grip it and rip it.
Get strong, get fast, and see what it can do for your performance.
Want to learn more about strength training as it relates to being a better pitcher? Read all of our articles relating to strength here.