In this paper we report on an activity sequence with a group of 29 pre-service physics teachers based on the reconstruction and analysis of a thought experiment that was crucial for Huygens’ derivation of the formula for the centre of oscillation of a physical pendulum. The sequence starts with student teachers approaching the historical problem and culminates in a guided inquiry activity in a video-based laboratory (VBL) setting using Tracker software. We collected data before, during and after the experimental activity by means of written questions, oral discussions and final reports. These documents provide insights into students’ initial and evolving conceptions, as well as their attitudes towards the activity. The analysis of data allows us to uncover and focus on relevant difficulties for future teachers in mastering the concepts of centre of mass and conservation of energy. Moreover, we find indications that the VBL environment makes a positive contribution by stimulating and improving students’ modelling abilities. In particular, we find a sharp increase in the percentage of students capable of producing coherent explanations and physical analyses for the Huygens’ pendulum system after the Tracker activity.