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Inside Marquette's High-Tech Weight Room

By Paul Steinbach

Todd Smith's belief that "you can't manage what you don't measure" has been forged over 30 years as a collegiate strength coach — nearly half of those spent at Marquette University, where he currently serves as director of sports performance.

His job managing student-athletes in 14 varsity sports is made easier by the sophisticated measurement tools inside MU's Athletic and Human Performance Research Center, which opened last year as one of the nation's premier strength and conditioning facilities, particularly for a non-football-playing school the size of Marquette (enrollment 12,000).

"I like to think we're ahead of the game," says Smith. "There's a lot of thought that went into this building, because a lot of the technology that we wanted to put in had to be thought of before the concrete went in — how things were going to line up, the power. It wasn't an after-the-fact thought process."

Here's a look at a few of the training technologies that MU strength coaches and sports scientists alike deemed indispensable:

Force plates

The AHPRC weight room features 14 force plates, including a dozen that are recessed into the building's concrete. Of those 12, six are situated beneath rubber platforms that are flush with the floor surrounding rows of Olympic racks, and six are hidden underneath a stretch of synthetic training turf. Separate portable computer desks — "standing work stations on wheels," as Smith calls them — control each group of six.

"Force plates have changed the game," Smith says. "A lot of people have them now. We're definitely not the first, but we have been using them for a long time. The reason I got into it is because I know my eyeballs can only see so much."

Each 40-by-60-centimeter plate uses piezoelectric sensor technology to provide coaches with data pertaining to an athlete's applied force, pressure, acceleration and torque. "Those force plates allow us to understand how well the student-athletes produce force, how fast they produce force, how well they absorb force, if they are bilaterally symmetrical — left leg versus right leg and front to back," Smith says. "We can look for imbalances using those force plates that you couldn't see just by doing a normal vertical jump. We can look at deficiencies. Let's say somebody just came back from an ACL or ankle injury, and we see a much greater decrease in strength in their left leg versus their right, we can then really focus on their left leg."

Force plates within the synthetic turf are individually covered by custom-cut sections of turf to form a grid that's roughly 32 by 72 inches, providing enough space to measure athletes' starts, stops, changes of direction and landings. It also helps coaches determine an athlete's readiness and fatigue before and after games.

"Looking at the force plates and how hard you push against those force plates and your rate of force production — how fast you can actually turn on it and move — that's a big factor in athleticism," Smith says. "That's why I started going with them way back in 2006 when I got here."

Sinking plates into the substrate of the new building minimizes data interference caused by dropped weights and other "noise," according to Smith, who retains two portable platforms that can be moved to a track, for instance, or across the street for use inside the Al McGuire Center, which serves as the competition home for MU women's basketball and volleyball, as well as a men's basketball practice facility.

Rack cameras

Each of the 18 squat racks in the AHPRC is outfitted with two cameras, one pointed to activity within the rack and one aimed outward to its corresponding platform.

The cameras aren't there primarily to review form, but rather to measure speed and, by extension, power. This is accomplished using three-dimensional infrared technology that detects an inanimate object — in this case, the barbell — and determines how fast it has been moved. This data is compiled via tablet, with each rack served by its own computer.

It's key to MU's velocity-based training approach. "After every repetition that you do with a barbell, you can see immediately how fast you moved it," says Smith. "When I first started in this business almost 30 years ago, it was all about how much weight you can lift. Everybody, all day, 'How much weight can you lift?' That's only part of the equation. If you look at F=ma, force equals mass times acceleration, we were always worried about the mass, the mass, the mass. Well, now we can look at acceleration. That's the other half of the equation that we never, ever really thought about. We always wanted to move fast, but we never had a way to measure it. When we started measuring speed, we could then also look at power outputs."

By measuring power outputs, and displaying them on numerous wall-mounted video monitors within the AHPRC's weight room, student-athletes are constantly motivated to improve their performance.

"Each athlete is different, so we can now understand in what zone each individual athlete is the most powerful," Smith says. "Does he need a lighter weight? Does he need a heavier weight? Is he a medium weight guy? At what percentage of their max are they most powerful? I don't want to say we want to live there, because we want to go lighter and heavier, but they can set goals and metrics and try to beat their old score.

"It allows us to be really, really individual with the kids, and those kids are so much more motivated, because they have a number up in front of them that they're trying to beat each time. If your rep was 1.5 meters per second, you're going to do everything you can to try to beat that 1.5. The athletes will look up on the leaderboard and say, 'Oh, man. I'm number five,' so they try to get to the top. If you're at the top, you try to stay at the top. If you're not on the board, you try to get on the board. It turns into a big competition. Anytime you're more motivated to do something, you're always going to do better. A lot of it is motivation, and the other part of it is just learning what each individual kid is capable of in terms of how powerful they are."

When asked if the quest for speed can lead to injury, Smith is quick to point out that safety is always the top priority. "When I say 'go for speed,' it's not 'go for speed for 10 reps and see how fast you can do it for a whole set.' It's how fast you can move the weight one time. Just once. It could be a light weight. It could be a medium weight. Just one time — how fast can you move it? If you come in the following week and move that same weight faster, then you've gotten stronger and more powerful. I actually think the wireless power trackers that we have help us stay safe, because we don't have to handle the big, heavy weights all the time."

Other technologies

Data-gathering at the AHPRC isn't limited to the weight room. A second-level balcony overlooking the racks and turf is home to a special treadmill that analyzes the user's gait and how much force each leg is applying during a sprint. Meanwhile, the facility's research suite houses state-of-the-art body motion analysis, as well as scanning equipment that assesses muscle mass and body-fat composition.

Moreover, tracking technology exits the building in the form of wearable devices. On the practice fields and courts, and even in games, MU student-athletes are outfitted with accelerometers that communicate how many times they started, stopped, jumped, cut left or right at a one-o'clock angle up to a complete six-o'clock turnaround. "All of those metrics get counted up, and that is the measure we call player load," Smith says. "We look at how many yards they ran, how many yards they walked, how many yards they sprinted. We can really understand more about the sport, how the head coach coaches that sport and how each individual athlete moves."

Athletes are also provided a watch-like wristband that tracks recovery in the form of sleep quantity and quality, as well as heart-rate variability between workouts. A color-coded app indicates green for fully recovered, red for not recovered at all, and yellow as somewhere in the middle. "If you're always green, it means we're not working hard enough to cause enough stress to your body to get you to adapt," Smith explains. "I don't want you red, either. I want you yellow. That means we're working and there's some kind of stress there that you're recovering from. That's a good thing."

"When we first got this, I would say, 'Coach, I don't want this to dictate how you coach. I want this to help kids to understand what they need to do to keep up with you.'

The data is meant to drive student-athletes more so than coaches, something Smith makes clear to the latter group. "When we first got this, I would say, 'Coach, I don't want this to dictate how you coach. I want this to help kids to understand what they need to do to keep up with you.' Obviously, if we're crushing them, that's something that we all need to talk about. It's more like, 'The train's moving. They need to figure out a way to stay on it.' "

Smith brings up a term seldom mentioned in the weight-training process: Intent. "You can train really hard and be very effective in getting your nervous system and your fast-twitch fibers fired up just by having that intent," he says. "Intent is a super word that we haven't used enough. You have to have the correct amount of intent to get the most out of your body. If you go into it in cruise control, you're not going to have the right intent to make yourself better."

Improvement has come to the strength industry at large, thanks in no small measure to very intentional advancements in technology. It's a profession only faintly recognizable from Smith's first days on the job. "Before we were timing with stopwatches and worried about how much weight we were trying to put on the bar and move, and now there are numbers for everything," he says. "It's changed a ton. It's changed for the better, but it can be hard to keep up."

Facilities like the AHPRC ease the pursuit. "I love our facility," says Smith, whose career path has included stints at the University of the Pacific, San Jose State and North Dakota before settling comfortably in Milwaukee. "It's great. It's been a long time coming, and it was so much fun to think about and collaborate with the sports scientists. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun. And we get to play with it every day."

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Strength training gets big technological lift" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry.

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