Strength to Spare

January 29, 2015
They may not strike you as athletes who need conditioning, but bowlers can greatly enhance their performance with a progressive training program.
By Tasha Weddle

Tasha Weddle, CSCS, is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Vanderbilt University, where she works with the women's bowling, basketball, soccer, and lacrosse teams. She has also been an assistant strength coach at the University of Tennessee, Kent State University, and Purdue University. She can be reached at: natasha.d.weddle@vanderbilt.edu

Bowlers lifting weights? Even longtime strength and conditioning coaches are surprised when they hear that the Vanderbilt University women's bowling team takes part in a strength and conditioning program.

Despite being an NCAA championship sport since 2004, bowling is often viewed strictly as a recreational activity. And let's face it, lots of bowlers, even professionals, are not in "peak" physical condition. While this stereotype is difficult to overcome, we are proving at Vanderbilt that bowlers are athletes too and can benefit greatly from strength and conditioning.

To the skeptics, there is little correlation between physical conditioning and bowling success. But Head Bowling Coach John Williamson and his athletes believe physical preparation has been an important part of Vanderbilt's development. In addition to the tangible benefits of increased strength and flexibility, the bowlers—most of whom had never worked out before in their lives—leave the weightroom with improved self-confidence, mental toughness, and ability to compete. Combined with their natural talent, this helped lift the team to the 2007 NCAA National Collegiate Women's Bowling Championship, the first team title in Vanderbilt history.

PLANNING & DESIGN
Working with bowlers the last two years has certainly been a learning experience for me. Previously, I had only a passing familiarity with the sport, and I shared many of the stereotypical views about bowlers. But the benefits of strength and conditioning for these athletes become obvious if you look for them.

In any activity, physical fatigue hampers mental focus. Improved fitness delays the onset of fatigue, which is certainly a factor in any sport, including bowling. Each bowler throws a 16-pound ball 200 to 300 times during an average practice, and competitions can last for six hours or more. The better shape the bowlers are in, the more likely they are to perform up to their potential.

From a more sport-specific standpoint, strength directly affects the ability to generate force during the pivot step, release, and follow through. Adding flexibility to this strength allows for a lower position at the point of release, which results in better leverage and more accurate shots.

As I began to design a program for the bowling team, I followed the same principles I use for every sport—I placed primary focus on training movements rather than muscle groups with compound, ground-based exercises making up the majority of the workout. My intention was to build a solid foundation by first developing stability and then working toward strength, power, and speed.

In any sport, a strength program only succeeds if the athletes put forth the effort and the head coach plays a big role in getting them to do so. I am fortunate to have the complete support of Coach Williamson, who is present at every workout, which has helped the athletes buy into the program.

At the start, Coach Williamson spent a lot of time explaining to me the mechanics of the bowling motion and the physical demands faced by his athletes, and together we worked to set goals for the program. Along with developing overall athleticism and strength, we decided that increased leg and core strength would improve performance and help to prevent injury, so we made these focal points of the strength and conditioning program.

Coach Williamson also wanted to improve his athletes' mental toughness and believed weightroom workouts could help. We agreed that it is possible to prepare athletes to handle the stress of competition by creating stressful situations in the weightroom and during conditioning workouts. If we showed the bowlers that they could handle pressure in the weightroom, they'd be more confident the next time they had to convert a tough split in the ninth frame of a close match.

So even though many of the bowlers were novice lifters, once they were physically ready, we would start to challenge them with taxing and fast-paced workouts to help them learn to thrive under stress. Because of the nature of the sport and the coach's observation of mental breakdowns during competition, this was a key factor in taking the team to the next level.

TWO-YEAR PLAN
For the first year, our workouts with the bowling team were very basic and minimal. It was really more of a general fitness program than a full-fledged strength and conditioning regimen, with little more than body weight resistance.

In many cases, we even had to modify basic body weight exercises so the bowlers could complete them successfully. For example, if someone couldn't complete a full set of standard push ups, we would have them do as many as they could and then do double that number from their knees. For an athlete who couldn't complete a set of pull ups, we would use assisted pull up machines or bands until she progressed enough to finish a set properly.

Usually, these modifications didn't last long—once the bowlers doing modified exercises saw their teammates completing standard sets, they became motivated to do the same. But we progressed each athlete individually, stressing the importance of proper technique in every exercise.

Once we established a base level of fitness and knowledge that first season, we made two major changes going into the second season. The first was incorporating accountability in the form of testing. The second was including more core lifts, such as back and front squats, Romanian deadlifts, and bench pressing variations, which elicited a tremendous positive response from the bowlers.

With these two changes, the women started to feel like "real" athletes and embraced the challenge of learning new exercises. Additionally, seeing consistent strength gains increased their self-confidence, which kicked up their enthusiasm in the weightroom to new levels.

THE PROGRAM
To a large degree, the success of the program I designed relies on the principle of progressive overload. Progress is maintained by consistently monitoring each athlete's improvement and making the necessary adjustments to ensure they are constantly being challenged. By watching each athlete perform her last set of each exercise, I am able to make modifications depending on the level of technique and strength demonstrated.

There are a number of ongoing structural challenges in designing workouts for our bowlers. Not only are exercise choices limited by a lack of training knowledge and experience, the bowlers are only able to work out in the weightroom twice a week, since they spend a total of one hour each day getting to and from the lanes for practice. To make sure we cover everything, each workout is divided into five main components: movement preparation, injury prevention, resistance training, metabolic conditioning, and flexibility training. (See Sample Workout below for a look at a day of inseason training.)

Movement preparation consists of a general warmup of jogging for five minutes. The athletes then perform five minutes of dynamic stretches, typically consisting of a selection of walk-outs, walking Spidermans, lateral slides, reverse lunges with rotation, supine and prone leg swings, and hamstring roll-overs.

Injury prevention is a major objective of any strength and conditioning program, even for bowling. Considering the repetitive nature of the sport, chronic injuries are a concern. Some of the common injury sites for bowlers are the wrists, shoulders, knees, and hips. The injury prevention exercises I use in the bowlers' workouts include shoulder circuits, glute bridges, and single-leg partial squats.

Resistance training work targets the whole body and is made up of one squat variation, one exercise to work the posterior chain, one single-leg exercise, and one upper-body pulling and pushing exercise. In addition, we start the resistance section of each workout with a core circuit consisting of a stability exercise, a rotation exercise, and some variation of abdominal, hip, or lateral flexion. I also regularly incorporate explosive medicine ball throws into the core circuit to develop power and speed.

Once a foundation is established, I use an undulating form of periodization, incorporating one heavy-intensity, low-volume day and one lighter-intensity, high-volume day into each week. Because of the relatively minimal metabolic requirements of bowling, I am able to keep the intensity high during the in-season workouts without risking overtraining. The only major modification I make in-season is to take out bilateral squats and use unilateral squatting exercises to avoid overloading the spine.

Metabolic conditioning serves a dual purpose. First, it improves overall fitness, and second, it teaches the athletes to handle the anxiety that conditioning workouts produce. I am not as concerned with targeting any specific energy system as I am with making the workouts physically (and therefore mentally) challenging, so I typically use combinations of stadium runs, tempo runs, 100-yard repeats, track workouts, fartlek runs, interval cardio machine workouts, and plate circuits, with limited rest.

To make up for the lack of weightroom time, we also ask bowlers to complete two cardio sessions on their own each week, usually consisting of either interval machine work or fartlek runs. We also have them perform a medicine ball cooldown routine at the bowling lanes immediately after practice once or twice a week.

Flexibility receives a lot of attention in our program. In addition to the dynamic stretches included in the movement preparation portion of the workout, we finish each day's sessions with a static stretching routine as a cooldown. But the greatest improvement to flexibility comes during the team's early morning yoga sessions, which were arranged by the coach. After showing very little flexibility at the beginning of the season and struggling to finish even a basic stretching routine, our bowlers were extremely limber by season's end and doing stretches that few other athletes could complete. Not only can they now bend more deeply and develop more power on their shots, they also have greater body awareness and control.

The impact of physical preparation on performance isn't always easy to ascertain, but with this team it was very apparent. We could easily see that our bowlers were stronger, more flexible, and generally more athletic at the end of the season than at the beginning. But beyond the obvious physical benefits, we also noticed improved self-confidence, mental toughness, and ability to compete. Although we may never know exactly how many pins fell because of the bowlers' strength and conditioning work, we believe the national championship our team won—with two strikes in the final frame of a seven-game match—speaks for itself.

Table: Sample Workout
A sample in-season workout for the Vanderbilt University women's bowling team is listed below.

Movement Preparation
Jog x 5 min.
Walk-outs x 5
Walking Spiderman x 5 each side
Lateral slides x 5 each side
Reverse lunges with rotation x 5 each side
Supine leg swings x 8 each leg
Prone leg swings x 8 each leg
Hamstring roll-overs x 5 each leg
Single-leg hip bridges x 8 each leg
Supermans x 12

Injury Prevention
Scarecrows x 10
Front-V empty cans x 10
Bent-over lateral raises x 10
Lateral raise and rotation x 10
Banded knee lockouts 2 x 15 each leg

Resistance Training
Core Circuit x 2: Prone stabilization w/reach x 20 sec. each side, off-bench obliques x 10 each side, med-ball diagonal chops x 10 each side
Set A x 3: Front squats x 6, med ball cleans x 6
Set B x 3: Step-ups x 6 each leg, incline bench press x 6
Set C x 3: Stability ball leg curls x 10, body rows x 8

Conditioning
Tempo Run
Run 100 yards/walk 30 yards
Run 200 yards/walk 50 yards
Run 300 yards/walk 100 yards
Repeat 2-3 times

Cardio Machine (interval workout)
5 min. warm-up
30 sec. as hard as possible
60 sec. easy
Repeat 9 times
5 minute cool down

Med-Ball Tempo
Squat-to-overhead press x 12
Run 50 yards & back
Diagonal chops x 12 each side
Run 50 yards & back
Reverse lunge w/rotation x 8 each side
Run 50 yards & back
Overhead pressing sit-ups x 15
Run 50 yards & back
Push-ups x 8
Run 50 yards & back

Flexibility
Standing V (middle-right-left)
Seated V (middle-right-left)
Half-hurdler
Quad stretch
Seated groin
Prone back extension
Kneeling hip flexor
Cross-over quadruped
Standing calf
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