By Carl Valle
Recently the biggest buzz in the weight room is what system one is using to measure training, specifically the barbell speed and metrics that are coming from those calculations. Coaches fueled on the notion that data is the new oil, are flocking to companies looking for the best hardware and available software. As a track coach and technology geek, my email is flooded with questions comparing all options, some popular and some lesser known. Instead of a long reply to the emails I have elected to share what I think represents the top options available with a comparison chart and some guidelines. The new normal is finally here with data in the weight room, since the field and track found traction in heart rate and timing long ago. If you are a coach or athlete and are interested in getting more out of the weight room and training, this article should help you decide which tools are best for you. The dark truth is that all of the technology will only amplify coaches, and if the noise is loud it will only get worse. If the training is great to begin with, velocity based training and the new direction of Power Development Analysis is forcing coaches to make choices in training like never before.
Some Back History
In my first article on Velocity Based Training, I wanted to define the core principles of power measurement, specifically the use of body speed, ball speed, and barbell speed. In this article, I wanted to flesh out the weight room before heading to ballistics (sport balls, medicine balls, and implements) in Part 3. I have used devices to measure power since the late 1990s and remember when my only tool was a notebook and pen, and technology is something that goes beyond a gadget or computer. Velocity Based Training is older than the coaches you are training; it’s only consumer friendly now that everyone has a ubiquitous smart phone. The introduction of new devices are exploding because applications and the computing are now moving towards the phone or tablet directly, or using the cloud indirectly via the Bluetooth connection. Why is this important? Expect the technology to permeate more and more. As any technology grows, so do the growing pains with culture shifts and best practices though. The good news is that I jumped on a grenade for you by outlinjing not only the best way to see the market of products, but set up the consumer with expectations and important questions about the data quality and the added value options being sold by the companies.
Measuring Work in the Weight Room
Terms like workout always remind me that we take a lot of words for granted. Questionable terms like “Power Endurance” get tossed around too casually by coaches, and I even deal with semantics from time to time. Work is a term used to describe the output of an action, and when measurements get involved, then things get interesting. One of the benefits of technology is that devices do a great job repeating a mundane task, provided that the measurement is accurate, precise, valid, and repeatable. Those four words must dance around in a coach’s head, or the entire process is corrupt and tainted. I see this frequently when discussing time, and recently had to ask a combine software vendor about 40 yard dash times and how they were authenticating them. When he responded the talk led to talks about stopwatches and this service was responsible for the recruiting of many athletes in the area, and it was placing a top performance metric in jeopardy. Without being condescending, I decided to share my definition of the key characteristics of performance and training data before getting into products. I could care less if the app has 3-D animation or if some guru is endorsing the product. If the data is bogus it’s like getting a bathroom scale that spits out random numbers from last night’s Power Ball reading. Here are the specific power measurements terms explain with the context of peeking into the window of the weight room and testing.
Accuracy — How close a measured work value is to the actual absolute value? We have all seen the example of the bull’s eye being hit by a dart, and that is accuracy, hitting what you wanted with a measurement.
Precision — How close the measured work values are to each other, usually including an error rate and sometimes bias. A device may be consistent or precise, such as a scale that is constantly off by the same number but isn’t representing the true value.
Repeatability — A key principle of the scientific method is reproducibility of the measurement. A simple example this is when a test is new to an athlete, and they change their technique each time, making the value questionable. We see this with squat depths, athletes getting different directions and using different protocols in the test. By far we see the most problems with this in sport, so details and interpretation are essential here.
Resolution — The smallest change that a sensor can detect in the quantity it is measuring. For example, a camera may be filming at 60 frames per second or 200 frames per second, making slow motion much more sensitive. A GPS may be sampling at 5-10 times per second, making it questionable for speed evaluation of a flying 10 m sprint.
Validity — Does the test measure what it’s supposed to measure. A classic example of this is testing squats for power without getting velocity of the bar to calculate actual output properly. Many misnomers like Powerlifting create testing nightmares for coaches who simply are measuring the wrong variables.
Drift — The most underrated of measurement qualities. The rate of change of the signal from the measuring instrument over time is common with sensors. Coaches are familiar with re-calibration of measuring equipment, and this is always happening with force plates.
One can keep going into more sport testing, and this is perhaps best suited for experts like Jose Fernandez or Mladen Jovanovic. Start with the above basics before getting into familiarization of tests or similar. I have not evaluated any product listed for the above measurement details so do your research.
Geeky Stuff that will Change your Job Forever
To keep things moving, coaches have to look at the cost of the solution they are buying versus the cost of gadgets or subscription needs of SaaS (cloud products). Every budget is finite, but the real cost of information is measured in time and opportunity. So before shopping on price, coaches should move one step beyond value and see the big picture of what the companies are providing. In general, coaches want hardware, directors or high-performance advisors want software, researchers want firmware, and consultants like me want algorithm options. Why is this important? When you write the check ask yourself what is important to you. For me, user experience is number one. If my athletes don’t like it, I don’t want it. My goal for technology is to keep training fun and rewarding, and when it becomes a burden, I am out the door or yelling at the development guys on the phone with social media threats. Jokes aside the truth is the workflow of getting data, time and effort looking at it and managing it is most important.
Hardware — Most coaches love hard toys and get giddy when FedEx arrives with equipment. Every week use to be Christmas to me, and now my mailbox is an inbox of work. When evaluating hardware coaches must look for specific features to ensure functionality, but good design is beyond just technical specifications. With 3-D printing allowing for iterations of development, you would think the products are better now but some are surprisingly crappy. Some products satisfy my love for design and some companies listen to critical customers like me. When shopping for hardware look for something to be intuitive, rugged, and have an attention for detail that removes headaches. Bad hardware focuses attention on shiny and ornamental qualities to mesmerize goons; great design usually makes the hardware so natural it’s unnoticed.
Software — Eventually data will come to a hub to store, display, and calculate the numbers from the sensors. Now we are in the age of smartphones a many products are pushing data through Bluetooth or a wireless protocol. Mobile apps are inappropriate and should only act as a relay to the end game, having the data to an AMS service or cloud storage option. The key to a good app is function at high speed, and that means elegant minimalism. I hate phones in the weight room personally, and consumer products being one to one and not enterprise, rely on smartphone apps to do it all. Pro Teams, clubs and colleges may have thousands of teams, but the real market for investors is the mass market. Teams are usually the bait for the average Joe and personal trainer wanting to provide a professional service or experience an elite one; team products are often an afterthought. I hate investors. Most of them want products for their bottom line and not products for their users, so I only work with companies that use their product. You would be amazed how many companies sell products that middle management have never seen or used! Software should do the monotonous and key parts of managing the data and nothing else. It’s better to have software that is incomplete but very polished then a vast wasteland of label dressing. Avoid companies that sell a product by adding a lot of weak features to look like it’s going to launch nuclear warheads.
Firmware — A lesser-known area and infrequently talked about component is firmware, the control programs for devices. The key word here is program or light software coding to manage the electronics and sensors of measurement devices. To me, I see way too much slack here and get annoyed when devices are not doing what they have the potential to do. Firmware can range from just minimal or essential to heavy dependence based on the vision of the company. Why is this important you ask? Simple. Many of the things we take for granted depend on good firmware such as traffic lights and other parts of modern life. Many talents for some reason don’t like firmware because we don’t see it like software or feel it like hardware. Firmware is the translator to the two parts to technology, and most products are constantly updating because companies don’t have the time to maximize the components fully inside. I spend a lot of time doing teardowns because the CTO is usually out of touch with their product and is sales driven, forgetting what it is like to depend on their product. Coaches need to know the pipeline and roadmap of the firmware as companies that are not committed to the development are usually focused on 2.0, meaning another hardware product or the subscription of what they really want. Most companies consider the hardware the Trojan horse to get eyeballs for subscriptions so watch out.
Algorithms — I wrote about algorithms for years and in the beginning I was a lone voice in a room. An algorithm is a buzzword now like metrics or data driven, but algorithms are useful for solving repeated monkey work or very complicated estimations. Algorithms are calculations or instructions used by companies to help with solving for hardware limitations. Also, algorithms are growing to help coaches do some of the repeated analysis of raw data the hardware and firmware are spitting out to the software. Forecasted last year in my article on HRV and blood analysis, algorithms will be a new market.1 I stated the following paragraph earlier and is a black market with elite consultants, and will be more consumer friendly in a few years.
“Software with effective algorithms using validated research can accelerate the interventions and see relationships that are more preventive than reactive. The new frontier will be algorithm development to help support athletes to find the most effective approaches to performance and player health.”
Currently, the algorithms are just light summaries of combination metrics like wellness questionnaires and movement screens, but some of the metrics I have seen are extremely powerful and focus on prediction. Experienced coaches, sports medicine staff, and sport scientists have gut feelings when seeing patterns of data. Algorithms ride gut feelings and sort out strong predictions by using creativity and good statistical practices. One example of this is a coach seeing a lot of grinding in the squats with what I call “neurological stalls” and realizing that the load was good enough to complete but may have spilled over to unnecessary fatigue. Bar speed sensitivity can optimize the load and subjective feedback from athletes is playing roulette and anyone claiming this is a fraud. The goal of strength training is to create an adaptation and anything that doesn’t provide that and creates additional fatigue is an error. Volume and density can assist capacity for future work and tapering, but too much will just delay improvement. If hardware and algorithms are not accurate, coaches may be visually alerted to something not looking right because of a great eye, but only after things not working down the road does the mystery get solved with the autopsy data and poor results manifest. So, good algorithms are very similar to scars from the past that reincarnate as watchdogs from not making the mistake again.
Application Programming Interface (API) — An important factor when selecting devices is the vision of getting a way to share data effectively. Collecting and displaying data are the first steps, the real end game is what one does with it and that requires passive and rapid sharing through what is called an API. API stands for application program interface and coaches want them because they are usually using an online software package that is seeing multiple data sets. Any vendor that supplies a hardware tool thinks they are the only system coaches are managing, and a web API can create great sharing options. An API does more than web sharing, but the needs of this article is to remember that data is usually presented in isolation with software from the hardware companies. Most coaches now realize that the interaction of all the data matters, and vendors are inbreeding their products so bad they no longer provide the same benefits those coaches grown to love in the first place. Most products can export to a CSV file that can be imported into Excel for analysis. Companies that can provide an API for sharing passively makes life easier for coaching. Saving time and reducing monkey work matters people (this means you VBT companies) so the API is a great solution to make power users happy. An API is not to be confused with an SDK or software developer kit mentioned later as that area is important to open source hardware mentioned in the comparison section.
Athlete Management Systems (AMS) — The explosion of cloud products that manage the athlete are growing and will eventually stabilize in the next 3-5 years. In the past Apollo AIS and Edge10 were the leaders because in the US was available besides garbage EMR products from the 1980s. Unfortunately most AMS products from soccer reflect the culture, and that means most of the UK products have feeble weight room or strength training options. Smartabase from Fusion Sports took an Apple approach and provides both hardware and software, but the product is still cartoony but being Australian, much more coaching friendly. The good news is that CoachMePlus in the US is penetrating the market because of the understanding of what coaches want; an aggregation of data feeds to manage teams. Coaches are frustrated by lazy software engineers on fat salaries with no skin in the game. They want stuff they can use and have grown up with computers and expect the same quality of innovation they enjoy on the weekend with Facebook debates and YouTube montages. Lame software doesn’t cut it. Just displaying data on the screen isn’t enough; coaches need software to work for them instead of being slaves to the data they are creating in training.
Training Design Software — Excel has been the tool to design training for years, but it’s main purpose is to organize data and perform simple calculations for coaches. I love Excel from Microsoft as it’s stable and flexible, but it’s not a design solution ideal for coaches. So far no product satisfies me, but Teambuildr is a great product for those wanting something that potentially can be both a workout planner and light AMS solution. Gympro is also similar that it’s good for very rudimentary programs. Remember, the need to create well-planned workouts is cornerstone, and the imbalance of this can be felt by the limited options with products that design training. Companies wanting to appear turnkey, usually deliver a diluted series of features that look great on a feature list on their website, but leave coaches disappointed. I have said for years that coaches are four art experts in one. Coaches are composers, conductors, choreographers, and critics. Coaches must conduct practices, teach movement, critique the results, and of course compose workouts. Software companies don’t understand this and when I sit in conference rooms and the kid from Silicon Valley shows me something that is limited and stuck in bodybuilding magazine level, I unleash fury. If John Mayer can create an album with Garage Band why are brilliant coaches like Boo Schexnayder given Microsoft Office to limit them?
Obviously the technology outlined above was a lot to digest, but it’s important because buying anything means education first. When people buy without doing their homework because they “have a brother that works in technology” I cringe, and wait for the private meeting with the AD or GM when dust collects on the stuff they buy. No matter what your situation is, be it a self-coached athlete or big D1 University, do your research and choose wisely.
The Big Comparison Chart
Now comes the part everyone wants, the comparison among systems available for measuring power in the weight room. Most of the devices are hooking up a sensor to the bar or the body, but some products are connecting to pressure mats and force plates. I decided not to include anything that is measuring foot contacts because those are jump testing products and are overkill and not appropriate to strength training. Some companies are very professional and work with researchers, and some are preying on coaches and marketing hype. I will not speak on the behind the scenes but will focus on the most pertinent information such as primary areas like sensor type and if the software allows for pushing workouts or not. Some details such as Leaderboard options and pricing I purposely left off because the information is very dynamic and doesn’t represent the true cost. Some products are strength equipment and supply measurements as an add-on or as a feature, so it’s hard to separate costs. Finally, open products like the LPT from Chronojump have human power costs that require time and development, so the true expense is beyond the hardware. Last but not least, some out of the box products like video must be taken into consideration as well, because hardware is only one option.
Note: I currently use a Turbocharged (Hacked) Gymaware from Kinetic Performance when doing weight training, and the metrics of choice are likely to be available in the near future and will be covered later. I am using CoachMePlus as test kitchen so far as an AMS solution for performance data to see the fusion of metrics and I am underwater with progress until I can finish a few projects. I have a few clients using other devices and anticipate a busy innovation period for 2015. All of the companies have great people, and I expect this market to double next year.
The Weight Room of the Future
Nobody knows what the future holds, but it’s likely to have to manage the reality of decades earlier. One example of this is the obvious need for technology companies to realize that touch screens don’t jive with sweat and gym chalk. The nerds coding at the local start-up incubator need to leave the workspace and visit a hardcore gym or university for a dose of reality. Any time you see a video remember that like a movie, this is not live; its usually scripted or simulated to promise a false utopia. The use of technology is going to increase, and it’s up to the coaches in the trenches to pull back to what one needs and remove the hype and nonsense from gurus. One metric or even all technology is just a tool, so think how technology is working for you. When technology becomes too big of a job for coaches, it hurts developments of the athlete.
1: The book The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary by Eric S. Raymond is fitting for the algorithm “market” that will be like the app or song market now and is a good roadmap for companies trying to get better with software development.
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