February 19, 2016

Fitness Friday: The Need for Speed

Velocity-based training can help you hit the longest drives of your life
Illustration by Viktor Koén

If you've ever wondered how someone like 5-foot-9, 150-pound Rickie Fowler or 5-foot-9, 165-pound Rory McIlroy can consistently drive the ball past golfers who look like NFL linebackers, it's certainly not because they're stronger. And it's not necessarily because they have better technique.

A key ingredient in their distance prowess is the amount of power they can generate. It's one thing to be strong. And it's another to be fast. But when you're strong and fast, you have the ingredients to really bomb it. That's the concept behind a type of training rapidly gaining popularity with athletes in all sports—even golf. It's called velocity-based training, or VBT. Instead of focusing on how much weight is moved, VBT focuses on the rate of speed for each repetition of any mobile exercise.

VBT improves muscle coordination, timing and, most important, swing speed, says Golf Digest fitness advisor Ben Shear, who works with PGA Tour pros Webb Simpson, Luke Donald and Russell Henley. According to Foresight Sports ball-flight-simulation models, increasing the average amateur's swing speed from 90 miles per hour to 100 mph offers the potential of 36 more yards (see chart below) on center-face strikes.

"I've introduced it to many golfers," Shear says, "and I think it will one day become a training norm for most athletes."

“You’ll know immediately if your workout is too hard or too easy.”

Technological developments allow gym-goers and trainers to monitor power output. Innovations include the Push Band ($289, trainwithpush.com) and Beast Sensor ($199, thisisbeast.com). These products are computerized arm bands that sync to a smartphone wirelessly. They have sensors that detect movement and indicate how much force, power and speed are being generated with each repetition of an exercise. The companies also sell accessories such as belts and vests that you wear to track effort for plyometric exercises like box jumps.

Another VBT device is Bar Sensei ($395, assess2perform.com), though it's limited to barbell exercises. The same company also developed a group of medicine balls—known as Ballistic Balls ($395 each)—that have sensors inside that measure effort when throwing them.

The goal, Shear says, is to move weights or perform exercises at a velocity range of one meter to 1½ meters per second. Move faster, and you're not training hard enough, so you need to increase the load. Move slower, and you're overloading—working with too much weight—and probably not improving your power output.

"Some days you can lift heavier weights than others, making it hard to know if you're training in the optimal range," Shear says. "But VBT is self-regulating. You'll know immediately if your workout is too hard or too easy."

Related podcast: Can a golfer overdo it in the gym?

What's your power potential? Here are the results of ball-flight simulations based on a consistent and a highly efficient impact ratio (smash factor) of approximately 1.48.