In the last year, we hit the tipping point of sensor technology in the weight room, and finally those in the strength game have something for them. For decades, the endurance crowd enjoyed their toys, specifically GPS watches and heart rate monitors, but the average gym rat that takes his or her lifting seriously was always an afterthought. It made sense since more people will show up and “participate” in a 5K road race, but only a small amount will do a powerlifting or weightlifting meet. Right now, three players are going to be the leaders in force output measurement tools, and I expect to see a lot of evolution of these products in order to capture and keep customers.
In this article, I will step backward and give a perspective of the value of getting bar tracking data and paint a picture of what is essential and what is just marketing hype. I have used all three devices: Kinetic Performance’s Gymaware, the Push Band (Push), and the Bar Sensei (Assess2Perform). Each company has strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to the user to decide what is best for his or her situation. Also included in this article are some practical considerations in adding what Bryan Mann has coined “Velocity Base Training,” or looking at bar speeds to help manage workouts more precisely. As a track coach, I am biased and only care if the weight room transfers to the track. My take is going to be less aggressive in maximal numbers but more demanding on the value of the data.
What is the Purpose of Bar Tracking?
I covered technology points in my article “Top Power Measurement Tools in Strength and Conditioning” that was posted to the Freelap USA blog, so I will focus on the general science and practicality of using equipment in the weight room. Nobody loves electronic gadgets more than I do, but I always think of what coaches accomplished before technology entered the weight room. What is vital to understand is the need to see the advantage of having and not having the equipment in the first place to see the value of the methods and technology. If world records are being set raw – meaning without assistance of technology – is bar speed worth it?
The main purpose of collecting bar tracking data is to estimate output of the lifter beyond subjective feel and the old coaching eye. I trust my eye, but don’t fall in love with it, as I am not bionic or a superhero. Subjective sensations are important, but solid data of what the bar is doing requires an objective measurement. In essence, the goal of bar tracking is getting objective bar time/motion data to the lifter and/or coach for more precise evaluation. In theory, a more precise measurement will reduce mistakes in training programs by widening the margin of error. With the difference between a champion and loser being so small, any advantage is valuable.
The Training Theory of Bar Tracking
My perspective is very limited compared to Bryan Mann and other coaches; I mainly use sprinting, throwing, and jumping in my program. I use more velocity lifts and only use squatting to balance out the needs of maximal strength to support power. In all honesty, sprint programs are poor models for strength athletes to follow because maximal strength and maximal performance in power are more focused on external load, while speed sports are internal weight-dominant. Regardless of the philosophy and demands of the sport, if you are in the weight room and are trying to get better, save the esoteric goals and get stronger or more explosive. Too many times, coaches bark about how poorly certain lifts transfer, yet why be in the weight room unless you want improvement in contractile function of the neuromuscular system? I have been vocal about the limitations of even plyometrics, but if you are in the weight room for secondary adaptations only, like coordination or balance, remember muscle power still needs a platform of foundational strength.
Managing fatigue and developing power is not a terminology preference, but more of an attitude toward training. Most sports use weight training to watch for fatigue and add rest; in reality, a lot of the problem is the simple fact that athletes were never strong in the first place. Developing power at high levels is a dark art; we know the science, but without actual experimentation, the information is only applicable to the study population and design. Thus, the true experiment is with you or your athletes, and the outcomes are so specific that even the next calendar may not be replicated.
What we do know currently is that we can see fatigue and adaptation with sensors used commercially. Weight room success is a little cloudy at advanced levels, but the best approach is to execute what is planned first. Second is the need to see the rate of improvement and the resources used to get there. Many team performance coaches who remove conditioning and improve rapidly end up seeing their gains stagnate or reverse when the comprehensive demands of fitness are integrated poorly. Factoring in the optimization of the entire athlete must be considered when evaluating the improvements in the weight room. If an athlete is not injury-resilient, and not fitter and faster, the time will likely be all in vain.
The Science and Methodology of Bar Tracking
Calculating what the barbell or another weight implement is doing requires at least two data points. The main two variables are time and displacement. Keep in mind, bar tracking is not synonymous with force plates, an approach that estimates the energy placed in multiple planes into the ground. All bar sensors can do is see time and change in displacement rates or acceleration. Forces are impossible to calculate because no current system is validating the load of the bar, so all of the data is calculated by user participation. In a simple summary, bar velocity is used to help estimate power and force, and only represents a fraction of what is happening. Those that are looking at simple speeds are likely to want a practical gauge if the lift is getting little return, or too much effort and too little adaptation. An athlete always grinding on the squats and bench is more prone to hitting a plateau. A lifter who has poor speed qualities on the lifts may be focused on the load more than the long-term development of power. In essence, bar speeds are crude indicators of power, but chasing those numbers exclusively is a fool’s errand.
Coaches want sessions over time that yield better performances in the activity directly (strength athletes) or activities that benefit from higher abilities to express strength and power. Strength and power are not just about how fast the barbell moves, but about how the power was created and in what context. An athlete with great pull speed with the wrong movement pattern will only render better pulling speed, not necessarily leg power. If you are looking to see faster athletes, test sprints during the process or take a gamble and see if the weight room is the primary mechanism for improvement. If you are looking for jumping improvements, test the jumps. If you are looking for athletic development, do all the field tests you think are pertinent and watch game film.
Lifters who care about how much they can lift always know how much they are lifting, but never know the precise amount of force they are producing. What lifters want to do is see direct indications of effort, load, and execution of training to get stronger and more powerful. That sounds simple and straightforward, but getting better is always going to be subject to debate. What bar tracking does for those focused entirely on barbell performance is give the objective output in higher precision and wider detail. For example, we all know when the weight becomes heavier, athletes sometimes decrease the range of motion in the squat, thus making the lift a different animal. Bar displacement distance is essential to ensure that the lift is the same amount of work, save the rate of speed and load. Completing a lift is obvious to a naked eye, but very sensitive measures like RFD are milliseconds, beyond the guru’s eye and the perception of the lifter. Since very few drug-free programs train to failure every day, many lifters want to use percentages of load as a way to estimate the percentage of effort. Unfortunately, even if one monitors the neuromuscular system, and has a real ability to measure central fatigue, percentages of load are estimates only. Solving the unknown by looking at the output adds more information, but the entire picture is still trial and error.
Choosing Equipment to Measure Bar Speed
All products are convenient ways to estimate what is happening with the bar, and accuracy and precision of such devices should be investigated carefully. One study confirming validation or pointing out the error is not enough. Getting peak velocity or peak power is not enough to summarize something like power snatch from blocks, and it’s important to ask what metrics one is relying on. Impulse and RFD are superior ways to see changes in training, but they are so sensitive, they are subject to interpretation and require very consistent technique. Simple actions like squat jumps and countermovement jumps are sometimes done differently, and coaches are left trying to analyze a moving target. I have distilled the purchasing of bar speed products into three leading options.
The Bar Sensei
I classify the Bar Sensei as a “prosumer product,” and it has a price point under $400. As of March 5, it’s not on the market yet because the founders are strongly committed to accuracy of the device. The product uses accelerometers to track bar speed and connects to an iPad via Bluetooth. It’s important to know that Assess2Perform believes low-energy Bluetooth is key to battery life, and they want the bar to be tracked only. The focus is on the primary athletic lifts and also provides another tool, the ballistic ball. Many users like that the device is wireless like the push band, but it’s not a wearable, so it can be used with groups sharing a platform. The data is very extensive and includes an exhaustive list of metrics that power users will love, such as loading profiles and something called POP-100, a metric that really brings RFD into play in practical way.
Gymaware by Kinetic Performance
Bryan Mann says the Gymaware LPT is a Rolls Royce, and with a price tag to match, it’s a good nickname. You get what you pay for. I have used the product for years and had thousands of reps and never lost a single lift. Currently, they have upgraded their software as they were the first to be available on the smartphone and are the most veteran of companies. They currently provide a leaderboard, which gets the troops fired up during training sessions. Another strong benefit of the company is the enterprise software and the fact that they have years of elite data. I am no expert in Rugby, but love that big names contributed data over seasons. The Gymaware LPT does use a cable attached to the bar, but I find it strange that many coaches who use bands and chains repeatedly get disappointed about a thin wire. Tendo is well-known in the U.S., but they have no correction formula to handle the horizontal motion in a squat or Olympic lift.
The Push Band
A year ago, Push made a statement by providing the average Joe with an economical option for getting bar speed by creating a wearable that could get key lifts and the right tracking information. At a price point under $200, it’s the best-priced product for a single user and provides a team portal. It’s a thing of beauty, and everything about the company is well-designed and very aesthetic, including the black shipping box. I like the product, but the core question is the concept of a wearable device with large groups. Some athletes love devices and think they are Iron Man or Batman, but others like to be gladiators and run around nearly naked and just wear Spandex pants. I know that Push is working on validation studies, but I have not seen anything yet, so I can’t state that the product is accurate. If it is, though, this product is disruptive technology. The team portal is slick and is evolving. Many Web products are hard to integrate, and Train with Push is expanding to other sensor tools, seemingly penetrating CrossFit and some pro markets.
Best Practices and Choosing the Right Solution
All three companies have great people, so the good news is you will not be dealing with jerks. My suggestion is asking the tough question about the needs versus wants. To me, a leaderboard is unnecessary as I only work with small groups. Most of the time, my college athletes were needing instruction versus raw output. I do a lot of correspondence work with developing post-college sprinters, and none of them are making a lot of money, so the Push Band may be a good option because they can use their smartphone. I like the vision of Assess2Perform as the Bar Sensei is highly portable and has powerful features.
At the end of the day the product must deliver. I have probably been the worst nightmare to all three companies. I am no Steve Jobs, but I do have a good understanding of where technology breaks down in the real world. For example, I prefer a stylus because tablets get dirty from sweat and chalk, so installing industrial mounts is wise. If you are not having a problem with chalk and sweat, tell the entire team to go home and watch the movie 300 while drinking a half gallon of whole milk. Simulated YouTube videos get me fuming because nothing audits a system better than real-world testing.
Technology fails. Batteries die, wireless goes down, and data is lost forever. Redundancy is paramount and doesn’t live off of anything besides a water bottle and weights. Randomness happens all the time, so expect an app to crash, iPad or tablet to freeze, and something new to go wrong from time to time. Also, workflows are getting faster and more streamlined when coaches speak up and are honest. When people are not using products because of the problems, the companies don’t get feedback and perceive no news as good news.
The Best Tips on Applying Bar Tracking Technology
Grinding Reps Identification I have mentioned before that poorly prescribed reps being too heavy delivers too little, but takes a big toll on the body. The razor sharp precision necessary for sweet spot training can be seen with very experienced lifters, but the majority of trainees will not be able to know until after the workout when the results fail to show progress. Hyper-precise reps require not only the right load, but the right timing of when one is ready to attack that training set and modality.
Takeaway- Near maximal strength work needs to be enough to stimulate without creating residual fatigue that is unnecessary for continual improvement.
Peak Power and Average Velocity Composite Metrics– Most users of bar-tracking technology want bar speed. Clearly, we all can distinguish between a slow deadlift, a crisp bench press, and a warm-up snatch. Real insight comes from knowing if the same load is moving the same way, usually the same rate of motion over time. Unfortunately, the problem is that average speeds are only valuable for distance athletes on a bike or plane travel. Athletic lifting is about the load being expressed in ways that transfer to better accomplishments with the same task or create adaptations that enhance athletic tasks. Power has an obvious speed component, but peak power doesn’t mean peak applied power in sport, since a snatch or clean done with the bar popping up and swinging out from the low back contributes to the motion. Average and peak scores are nice guides to bar tracking, but they are not an end game.
Takeaway- Use average and peak scores in velocity and power to help guide the training session, but not the training plan.
Jump and Squat Depths and Repeatable Scores- Accuracy in scores is about ensuring the same movement was done, and many athletes will change their squat depth to increase output. Some athletes with heavy squats will go more shallow, and some jump squatting athletes need to gather forces by increasing the length of the force application. Jump testing is very sensitive, and many false positives and false negatives occur because athletes are changing technique (sometimes for the better), and the numbers are not valid for comparison. Other lifts may change range of motion, but the most commonly affected exercise is squatting patterns. Some athletes will dip before squat or jump squat, so tiny changes in technique can mean all the differences.
Takeaway- The simple need to see distance in a movement is essential for proper comparison, so accuracy in the bar displacement must be within 2-3 centimeters.
RFD and Impulse Demands with Explosive Power- Rate of Force Production (RFD) is a simple but valuable metric that should be tracked. Mentioned in an article on athletic performance for team sport, performance coaches find most of the locomotion tests to be the most valuable, then jump tests – be it with a wearable sensor or force plate – are a distant second. Acceleration development in team sport and the ability to improve RFD in weightlifting are common requests, but even elite powerlifters want to know if maximal strength is truly maxed out. One warning though, RFD and Impulse are not bar speed subcategories, and to get Impulse (the integral of force over time), one needs a system that can sample at a rate that delivers.
Takeaway- RFD is most likely a better metric than bar speed in average or peak form, and impulse may be the most valuable of all metrics.
Tempo Adherence and TUT at Joint Angles- A underrated evaluative metric is Time Under Tension (TUT) and precise movement rates at various zones of the repetition. Joint angles have specific muscle contraction recruitment profiles unique to each lifter, so knowing how they are loaded can move the awareness from kinetic data (forces) to kinematic involvement (motion of the body). Many coaches prescribe tempos for specific reasons, but without knowing if the athlete followed the workout parameters in detail, writing the workouts without accountability is not valuable. Basics such as following directions on workouts is a key starting point; before one moves to deeper analysis, make sure athletes are disciplined.
Takeaway- Instilling the ability to follow directions and have honest execution of basic lifts is underrated, because simple things like depth and control of the movement prevent injuries when athletes may get into sloppy habits.
The Future of Sensors in the Weight Room
It’s hard to predict the future, but I think what we will see is a rise of wearable devices that capture more and more data. One trend I can almost guarantee is the move from one-dimensional force to bar path and how the body created the motions. With all of the data coming out of sensors now and more expected in the future, one can drown in data; my suggestion is to watch and wait with numbers, and be patient. No matter how advanced a system is, the sensor is only as smart as the interpretation and only as effective as the training program. Stubborn coaches will always rationalize bad data, and sometimes tired athletes will test poorly. It’s all about looking at all of the data points during a season or training year. Eventually, good training theory, trial and error, and objective feedback will help improve training and reap better outcomes in the barbell game.
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