To protect and progress: Glenbrook South student-athletes lifting faster, smarter, thanks to new weight room tech

Along with "awesome," one of the most overused expressions out there is "bigger, faster, stronger."

Improved physicality certainly is awesome for a high school athlete. Not epic is getting drained, strained and injured.

This school year Glenbrook South implemented a new piece of equipment in its weight room designed to monitor and improve training results without beating people up.

The MIT-developed Perch system consists of a 3D camera that straps to a weight rack - it's on all 14 racks in Glenbrook South's weight room - and a computer application.

A mobile app is downloaded to a tablet also attached to the weight rack so the user can see real-time results. A web-based app stores the information so coaches and athletes can tailor future workouts and compare results over time.

The athlete logs in on the tablet and starts exercising. The camera tracks movements and displays information such as sets, repetitions, velocity and power output on the tablet.

"I always say it converts a strength rack to a smart strength rack," said Ryan Bretag.

A former Arena League football player and now a competitive master's-level CrossFit athlete, Bretag is District 225's director of Instructional Innovation. He deals with "anything that has the potential to impact students and teachers," he said.

A key to the Perch system is that it's centered on velocity-based training rather than the traditional model of lifting to maximum effort.

Bretag likes velocity-based training (VBT) for several reasons. Apparently others do as well, since Perch is being used by sports franchises spanning professional football, basketball, baseball and soccer leagues, and some college football programs.

"They're trying to protect their million-dollar assets. We've got something more important. We're trying to protect a kid, and progress our student-athletes," Bretag said. It'll also be used at Glenbrook North after it's fully evaluated at Glenbrook South, he said.

One thing Perch does really well is measure effort and fatigue not just in the moment but also compared to past workouts. Bretag said things such as sleep and various daily stressors can alter one's athletic abilities by as much as 30%. Coaches and athletes can monitor that.

Bretag favors the strength- and stamina-building ability inherent in VBT over what can be almost a static approach to lifting. The emphasis on repetitive force at a faster pace builds greater stamina and reduces "plateaus." The measurement of the bar's speed can produce what he called "a minimum effective dose" of weight training.

Before going with Perch, Bretag and Glenbrook South athletic director Tom Mietus had discussed athletes' well-being in training. Less emphasis on lifting as heavy as possible relieves stress on the athlete's body and can reduce training injuries.

"It's creating a way to protect and progress them equally well. If I make you bigger and stronger and faster but you can't get on the field because you're all beat up, that's not a good sign," Bretag said.

" ... It's trying to maximize what you're capable of doing for a day versus digging ourselves into a deeper hole just to hit an arbitrary number."

Glenbrook South senior Jack DiSano likes several things about the system.

He likes the immediate and long-term feedback Perch provides. He can tell, based on the numbers and percentages, how his sleep and nutrition intake, or lack of it, impact his training.

A tight end on the Titans football team, he said over the season a player can lose strength "due to attrition." The VBT approach is able to retain muscle mass, he said.

Also a baseball player, he planned to see how he was able to recover from the fall while maintaining his strength before heading into baseball.

"It kind of just keeps you in check," DiSano said. "Obviously working out is something that's important to high school athletes and college athletes, so it's nice to have this information rather than just going and lifting weights. There's actually some kind of meaning to it."

It was important to Bretag and Mietus that this system was available to more than Titans athletes.

Glenbrook South students in physical education classes have access to the weight racks with the Perch system installed. Bretag estimated that up to 1,800 Glenbrook South students use it either through athletic training or the Weights I and Weights II classes.

"I think it does bring my entire class together," said Teighan Harris, in preseason lifting for Titans girls lacrosse and also in Weights II.

"We all come from different sports, so when we can compare with others' velocity and speed we can encourage each other because we can see how far we've come," she said.

Harris is trying to strengthen her legs to improve her performance on the field. She's seen strength gains by pushing less weight more often and at a faster pace.

"It just doesn't benefit me if I have too much weight," she said.

"On a competitive level it's beneficial, and from a social standpoint it's fun to meet new people that I would not have met before."

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