Oct 1, 2018Above and Beyond: Inside strength training for Stanford University volleyball
Dedicated athlete monitoring during the season allows Cardinal volleyball to reach higher in the weight room and make strength gains.
The best place to start when designing and implementing an in-season training program is having a clear-cut philosophy. This will guide you as you integrate practice and game schedules, lay out exercise selections, and plan your periodization model.
For Stanford University women’s volleyball, our in-season training philosophy is simple: We believe in continual growth and development during the competitive slate. Our training schedule maximizes each session, and we emphasize load management so players aren’t overworked. By the end of the season, we hope to be one of the strongest teams in the country and, more importantly, have 100% athlete availability.
Though simple, this philosophy has been incredibly effective. In the 2017 season, we made the program’s 21st national semifinal appearance, which was preceded by our seventh NCAA Division I championship in 2016.
Much of the foundation for this success is laid in the preseason training phase. As the first stage of the in-season, it starts in early August when the players report for camp and lasts about three weeks until our first tournament.
During this time, we have a lot of work to do for both strength and conditioning and volleyball. On the strength and conditioning side, we conduct the following movement screens and performance tests to evaluate players’ fitness levels.
→ Physical Competency Assessment (PCA): When done in its entirety, the PCA is a very long, thorough assessment that analyzes mobility, strength, and jumping and landing mechanics. We don’t need the full gamut of testing protocols, so we only use the six physical screens and eight mobility screens that make the most sense for us. (See “Screening Process” below.)
→ Performance Testing: After doing the PCA, we evaluate performance metrics. Unlike many programs, we don’t do any strength testing during the preseason. Since most of our athletes are not on campus for the summer, exposing them to a max stimulus at the same time they are being reintroduced to high-volume volleyball is very risky. Rather, we rely on the strength testing done before players go on break.
The metrics we do test in the preseason include the approach jump, block jump, and 10-yard sprint time. These are safe for everyone to perform and still give us a good indication of where athletes stand from a performance perspective.
Additionally, we look at double- and single-leg landings on a force plate. The key metrics here are time to stabilization (how quickly players can stick the landing) and peak eccentric force (how much force they produce when decelerating to land).
Combined, our preseason testing data paints a picture of what kinds of athletes we are working with. Based on the results, we may modify volume and intensity in the weight room and alter our practice plans on the volleyball court.
Typically, the goals for preseason training are improving in the weight room, maintaining quality of training, and managing soreness levels. That being said, we do push the players-we just push smarter. Our schedule is two double days (two volleyball practices with a lift before the morning practice), followed by a single day (one volleyball practice with a pre-practice lift), and then a rest day with no lifting.
When designing workouts, we have created a template that enables us to maximize training while accounting for the rigors of a tough volleyball practice schedule. Each session has max effort, dynamic effort, repeated effort, and auxiliary categories, and we always include total-body, upper-body, lower-body, and auxiliary movements. (See “Preseason Template” below.)
We also utilize velocity-based training (VBT) quite extensively during the preseason. For both our max-effort and dynamic-effort exercises, we use VBT to make sure athletes are moving loads that their central nervous systems (CNS) are equipped to handle. In particular, we like to prescribe speed ranges with VBT. This is when athletes are given a target bar speed that they are pushed to exceed. The athletes’ ability to do so indicates when we need to adjust.
Once we start playing matches in late August, our training schedule really gets complicated. We almost always have two matches per week, and we sometimes play four matches in a 10- to 12-day span. Despite having to work around these contests, our goals remain the same: having 100% athlete availability and gaining strength.
During the season, I meet once a week with our volleyball coaches to review the upcoming week’s training and practice plans. We talk about the health of the athletes and where they are from a training load standpoint. We also discuss how we want to structure future practices to ensure the players feel fresh on match days.
Using that input, we try for two lifts per week. We have a strength stimulus on Day 1 and do strength/dynamic effort work on Day 2, all while managing CNS fatigue.
Day 1 is considered our heavy lifting session. This takes place as soon after a match as possible-usually following one day off. We prescribe a squat variation, posterior chain work, rows, single-leg exercises, and a loaded press in these workouts.
The volume on Day 1 is manipulated based on where we are in the season. We generally keep it relatively high (three or four working sets of two or three reps) at our top percentage for the day, which varies each week. At this point, we are far enough out from our next match that there won’t be any lingering fatigue or soreness to negatively affect our play.
Further along in the season, we use a relatively linear periodization for Day 1 lifts. We work it down so we are hitting one or two heavy singles at more than 90% of one-repetition maximum (1RM) late in the year. Heavier weight is continuously emphasized so we maintain-and, in most cases, gain-strength. From a mental perspective, the athletes feel strong when they lift heavy, but since the volume is low, they don’t get worn down. (See “Heavy Lifting” below for a sample Day 1 lift.)
The Day 2 lift, in my opinion, is the tricky one. It usually occurs two days before a competition. We don’t try to blow the athletes up on Day 2, but we aim to stress their CNS enough to generate a response that will have them flying around on match day. And of course, we want to continue to develop strength and power. The exercises we use for this include the trap bar dead lift, hang clean/clean, and back squat.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, Day 2 early in the season always starts with a trap bar dead lift. Percentages are lower (65% to 80% 1RM) than a typical max-effort session, since this lift is more of a CNS primer.
As the season advances, the trap bar dead lift switches to an Olympic variation, typically hang clean and/or clean. Again, lower percentages are utilized. This means we should expect some fast bar velocities, although we don’t ask athletes to meet any set speeds.
The second movement on Day 2 is when we incorporate VBT, often with back squat to box. At first, we set a lower limit for speed to ensure the weight being moved is an appropriate stress on the CNS.
Over time, we increase the speed for Day 2 lifts. We move to around 60% 1RM by the end of the year for some really fast doubles and singles. This keeps the CNS fresh and requires a lot of muscle activation, which helps maintain strength gains.
Due to the scheduling complications that can arise during the season, we are sometimes limited to one lift per week or have to cancel lifts altogether. Once lifts start getting canceled, it’s an uphill battle to maintain strength-let alone make gains. Being able to have at least one lift a week can really make a difference.
The question then becomes, “How can we make the most of one lift when our next match may be only two or three days away?” This is a pretty tight window for max-effort squatting, but if we don’t include it, we’re faced with almost two full weeks between max-effort lower-body days.
To compromise, we have had success doing a blend of max-effort and dynamic-effort movements. We use a typical Day 2 format but with slower speeds for the second exercise. The slower speed means the athletes move a heavier load. We also prescribe some type of hinge or single-leg work during one-lift weeks.
The last aspect of in-season training occurs on match day. At the serve-pass practice before the match, we use eight-pound medicine balls to do countermove vertical underhand throws, vertical overhand throws, and broad jump throws. These exercises are great when we are on the road and need to shake off time spent lying around the hotel or on a long bus/plane ride. We prescribe such a low volume that there are no fatiguing effects.
A lot of buzz surrounds athlete monitoring, technology, and load management in strength and conditioning circles, and we’ve embraced these methods with Stanford volleyball. We do quite a bit of monitoring during the season, as it helps with our goal of athlete availability.
Our most utilized monitoring tool is wellness surveys. We do three every day in-season: Morning Wellness, Pre-Practice, and Post-Practice. Our Morning Wellness survey is sent to players at 7:30 a.m. via Teamworks text messaging. It is designed to give us a snapshot of how the athletes are feeling as the day begins. We ask questions about their stress levels, sleep duration and quality, and how difficult their upcoming day is. This survey is a conversation starter for us, especially if we see high stress and low sleep.
Players take the Pre-Practice survey as they enter the locker room. We ask questions related to mental fatigue, whether they got a nap that day, and if they are properly fueled.
In the Post-Practice survey, we have players provide their rates of perceived exertion (RPE) for the session. Then, they score their performance and how mentally and physically sharp they felt on the court.
When interpreting the surveys, we look at our Morning Wellness and Post-Practice reports the most for strength and conditioning. The Pre-Practice information is used more by the head coach to learn the state of the team before practice.
To accompany our surveys, we monitor internal and external load. We calculate internal load from a practice by multiplying each player’s RPE by the session’s duration. We look at daily, seven-day rolling, and 28-day rolling averages.
For external load, we use GPS tracking technology to measure players’ workloads during practices. Just like with internal load, we look at daily, seven-day rolling, and 28-day rolling averages.
When calculating external load, we aim to be in the 0.8 to 1.2 range for weekly acute-to-chronic workload ratio. Research supports this zone as the “sweet spot” where we can maximize training but minimize risk of injury. Figure 1 (below) shows what we’d ideally like our ratios to be for each week of the season.
There is just one problem-the season rarely allows for such a nice, slow taper in workload. Knowing this, we set workload ratio goals based on the game and practice schedule each week. A table of more realistic goal ratios can be seen in Figure 2 (below). After an initial drop, it shows small waves of increases and decreases. This is because we can’t build up a high acute workload some weeks due to practices and games.
The focus for our ratios is not letting low workload weeks pile on top of each other. We prevent this by looking a week ahead in our schedule, planning out where we can lift, and pushing hard during practice without overdoing it.
Our workflow for examining all of our monitoring data looks like this: Morning Wellness, Post-Practice, Morning Wellness. This means that we review each day’s Morning Wellness report and use that information to adjust our sport practice, if needed. Then, we examine the internal and external loads from practice and look at players’ self-evaluations in the Post-Practice survey. When we review the following day’s Morning Wellness surveys, we can see the effect of the previous day’s practice. The cycle then repeats. Essentially, it’s a constant stream of cause and effect. If we see something unusual on any report, we just look upstream.
For instance, say Player X’s Morning Wellness survey shows poor sleep quality and duration. Her heart rate variability (HRV) is also down but not below average. Looking at the Post-Practice report from the night before, we see that practice load was lower than average. So why is her HRV down? Probably from a lack of quality sleep. We reach out to the athlete and find she was up late studying for a midterm.
Knowing this as a staff, we can then decide how to map out the day’s practice. Do we adjust our entire practice plan? Do we just change the one athlete’s workout? Our Pre-Practice survey will give us more insight into what direction we should pursue. Either way, the data enables us to have an informed conversation and work to create solutions that will keep our athletes healthy and performing at a high level.
As you can tell, we do a lot of monitoring during the season. It can be a daunting task to evaluate it all. To simplify things, we keep in mind these two points:
- Every athlete is an N=1. Comparing athlete to athlete will give skewed results.
- The data on any given day is just one small piece of the puzzle. We need to be diligent and avoid making knee-jerk reactions based on short-term trends.
After all, the in-season is a hectic and unpredictable time. Success can always be found in having a clear and concise training plan that is adaptable as the need arises. Although it can be difficult to manage everything, the work we put in and the results we get back make it all worth it.
During the preseason, we utilize the Physical Competency Assessment (PCA) as our primary movement screen. Below are the tests included in the PCA:
- Overhead squat, x5
- Single-leg squat, x3 each
- Push-ups, Cut off at 15 or failure to maintain strict form
- Tuck jumps, x10
- Double-leg landings, x3
- Single-leg landings, x3 each
- Thomas 1
- Thomas 2
- Ankle flexion
- Shoulder external rotation
- Thoracic extension
The following is a sample Day 1 lifting session for the Stanford University women’s volleyball team’s in-season training program:
- Foot speed ladders
- Banded air squats, x10
- Front-to-back leg swings, x8 each
- Rotator cuff raises, x8
- Standing X-outs, x10 each
- Dead lifts, 60% of one-repetition maximum (1RM) x 3
- 70% of 1RM x 3
- 75% of 1RM x 3
- 80% of 1RM x 2
- 85% of 1RM x 2
Pair first three sets with:
- Heels-elevated toe touches, 3×5
- Quadruped hip extensions, 3×5 each
- Prone bridges, 3×45 seconds
- Back squats, 4×3 at Tendo 1.05+
Pair first three sets with:
- Child’s pose, 3×20 seconds
- Two-leg hip extensions (feet on ground), 3×8
- Contralateral dead bugs, 3×6 each
- Dumbbell split squats, 3×5 each
Pair all three sets with:
- Side-lying shoulder internal/external rotations, 3×8 each
- Single-kettlebell suitcase carries, 3×10 each
- Hands-elevated push-ups, 3×8
- Pair first two sets with:
- Rack “U” stretches, 2×15 seconds each
- Bent over T-Y-I raises, 2×4 each