Jan 29, 2015
From Low to High

The University of Kentucky’s strength and conditioning program for volleyball has helped athletes go from dig to spike–and from losing to winning–in record time.

By Stephanie Tracey-Simmons

Stephanie Tracey-Simmons, SCCC, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Olympic Sports at the University of Kentucky. She previously worked as a strength coach at UCLA and was an outside hitter for Ohio University. She can be reached at: [email protected].

In some ways, volleyball is like many other sports. Players have to perform explosive movements, and their success depends on a combination of agility, strength, speed, and coordination.

But volleyball also has several unique demands. Because a player can be on the floor for a dig to the setter and release to the outside for an attack within seconds, athletes must learn to very quickly transition from an extremely low stance to a jumping posture. They must also have the stamina for three-hour matches while being prepared for short, intense bursts. And there’s no other sport where maximum vertical jump is more important.

At the University of Kentucky, we start with a very simple goal in our strength and conditioning program: to provide athletes with a solid foundation so they can reach their full athletic potential while remaining injury free. We achieve this through various exercises and periodization cycles, always keeping in mind the unique demands of the sport.

For our volleyball team, that means developing athleticism, a unique type of explosive movement, and both short- and long-term conditioning. Because NCAA Division I volleyball has a short spring season, along with the traditional fall season, our training plan has two periodization cycles.


The majority of our strength and conditioning gains are made during the two off-seasons of collegiate volleyball. The first off-season lasts from January through mid-March. The second runs from May through the first week of August. Summer training is more intense than winter work, and we look for our biggest gains then. (See On the Year for a sample yearly training schedule.)

During the first off-season, athletes are involved in an eight-week program we call “speed school.” Meeting twice a week, this is when the team works on dynamic flexibility, stabilization, plyometrics, sport-specific agility, and conditioning. Speed school is held at an indoor facility that contains a track, football field, and gymnastics room with a spring floor and mats.

A typical day of speed school follows this format:

• Dynamic warmup with tumbling • Jump rope routine • Navy Seals • Hurdle walks • Plyometric work • Strength/power work • Sport-specific agility • Conditioning • Strap stretching.

Much of our dynamic flexibility work is done during warmups. Along with many standard drills, we also include tumbling exercises such as forward rolls and cartwheels, which provide great flexibility training for the wrists, ankles, and upper spine. They also test an athlete’s spatial awareness–when a volleyball player makes a dig and must quickly roll and get back up, she is performing a very similar movement. (See “Warmup Time” below.)

We also use a jump rope routine to warm up. This provides athletes with some low-level plyometrics, develops foot coordination, and trains quick jumps off the ground.

The first series is done on low-impact turf using the yard lines as guides. We usually go about 15-20 yards for each exercise:

• Bunny hops • Bunny hops back & forth • Single-leg hops: straight down the line, switch feet on the way back • Single-leg hops back and forth • Scissor jumps.

The second series is done facing sideways:

• Scissor jumps • Shuffles: back foot leads.

Navy Seals involve holding a high jump bar about two feet off the ground and asking athletes to bear crawl under it, which works on their shoulder stability as well as flexibility. For hurdle walks, we use the lowest setting on track hurdles (about 36 inches) and encourage the athletes to get up on their toes and strive for smooth hip mobility.

The majority of our vertical jump training is done during speed school’s plyometric work. We start with the fundamentals of jumping technique, spending the first two to three weeks teaching take-off and landing positions with very low-level plyometric exercises. We then increase the difficulty with more sport-specific jumps, such as one-foot take offs and approach jumps onto boxes. By the end of the eight weeks, we are performing high-level, multiple-response jumps, such as an approach jump onto a box directly followed by an explosive depth jump onto a soft gymnastics mat.

We also train for jumping ability by adding weight or resistance. This is usually done during the summer months because there is more time for recovery. Some ways we do this are:

• Repeat and maximum-effort jumps in the sand (which provides resistance but low impact) • Band jumps • Medicine ball squat throws • Maximum medicine ball overhead throws • Stadium hops/sprints • Series of jumps on an unstable surface, such as a pole vault pit.

During both off-season periods, we do a variety of agility work. Some drills start off very basic and become more sport-specific as the preseason nears. For instance, in our 8×8 yard box drill, the athletes start at cone 1, sprint to cone 2, shuffle to cone 3, backpedal to cone 4, and shuffle to get back to cone 1. As we progress, I’ll use the same setup but have the athletes do an approach with a jump and swing to cone 2, use blocking footwork and perform a block jump at cone 3, use defensive footwork with a shoulder roll to cone 4, and finish by using blocking footwork and a block jump to get back to cone 1. This mimics the dig-to-hit explosiveness athletes need on the court.

Even though our drills are mostly sport-specific, speed school also develops general athleticism. Female volleyball players have often spent many years with their sport, but not as much time on overall athletic movements. We feel working with our players on these types of movements leads to greater agility on the court, therefore helping to prevent injuries. It also taps into the nervous system and helps to keep the athletes’ heart rates at a level similar to what they would be in a game.

The summer version of speed school differs from the winter in that it’s a more competitive environment. The volleyball team is joined by athletes in different sports and perform workouts that are based on how fast one can complete the workout, how many total reps the athlete can accomplish in an allotted time, or by maxing out on specific lifts. We call these “workouts of the day” and typically do one to three a week depending on where we are in our periodization plan.


We do the majority of our conditioning work during the same times of the year that we focus on our jumps. This obviously poses some challenges, because the type and volume of conditioning exercises can affect maximum vertical jump height. To remedy that problem, we begin with longer runs while plyometrics are light, then go to shorter runs when the plyos become more intense.

We begin conditioning in January with 800-meter runs on Tuesdays and 200-yard shuttle runs on Thursdays for the first two to three weeks. I try to do one day of straight-ahead running and one day in a shuttle format. This system works well with the plyometric schedule because these weeks are primarily spent teaching. In later weeks, as the plyometric schedule gets more demanding, I reduce the distance to 400-meter runs and 100-yard shuttles, and then finally to 300-yard shuttles and 60-, 40-, and 20-yard runs.

One of the team’s preseason fitness tests is a 100-yard run set up as a 10×10-yard shuttle. The test involves five sets of two repetitions each, with a 1:1 rest between the reps and 1:30 rest between the sets. Athletes must complete each rep in under 25 seconds. This test is a great indicator of game fitness. Because the volleyball court is about 10 yards wide, it forces quick recovery, the intensity level is high, and it requires efficient change of direction due to the number of turns.


During the winter months, our weightroom work follows a typical linear periodization model with the primary focus on overall strength gains. In the summer, we progress from strength gains to explosive power. At that time, I tend to use more of an undulating periodization plan, which incorporates some of the “workouts of the day.” We then move to doing more doubles and singles at a higher intensity with our major lifts.

Power is obviously a key to success in volleyball athletes. We build it through Olympic-style lifts such as power and hang cleans, power and hang snatches, jerks, and also weighted jumping movements. These lifts require athletes to go from a low position to a high one very quickly, which simulates the act of executing a powerful spike.

For the same reason, we do a lot of squats at 90 degrees and below. When we do single-leg squats, the athletes stand on a box, go down all the way on one leg, then come all the way up. I like to include these types of single-leg movements because they simulate slide attacks.

We also use several different kettlebell exercises, such as one- and two-handed swings, one-arm snatches and cleans, and thrusters, to help supplement our power work. This provides variety and helps train athletes to be strong in all their explosive on-court movements. When they perform overhead movements with kettlebells, we tell them to shrug their shoulders, which translates into a clean, hard block.

We complement these exercises with many other forms of lifting to train the total body. These include back squats, front squats, lunges, single-leg squats, step ups, RDLs, hyperextensions, a variety of pressing and pulling movements, and core work. To train the shoulder complex, we balance our pushing exercises with pulls. We occasionally superset jumping activities with squats or lunges to help simulate game conditions.

Unless an athlete is injured, we train in a ground-based fashion. Balance, core strength, and spatial awareness all contribute to the success of a volleyball athlete, so it is important that she trains in an environment that supports the development of these qualities. All these factors are addressed by combining the use of free weights, triple extension movements, and core stability exercises.

We also spend time in every lifting session doing a full dynamic warmup. This includes exercises such as leg swings, arm circles, resistive band work, footwork drills, core stabilization, and a series of lightweight exercises designed to strengthen the entire shoulder girdle.

When our athletes first report as freshmen, we put them through a four-week orientation phase. They learn the basic techniques for the majority of lifts they’ll be performing throughout their training regimens. We use very light weight and full range of motion on our lifts during this phase. We’ve found that by prepping the athletes so thoroughly, we help them make greater strength and flexibility gains later in their careers.


When we train, we’re always together as a team. We feel it is vital that athletes learn to compete against their teammates while simultaneously motivating and encouraging them. It creates the right environment for leadership and personal accountability. When everyone on the team is training at the same time, it’s difficult for an individual to not work to her full potential. Volleyball is a team sport, and we believe that extends to the strength and conditioning portions of the workout.

Communication is another key part of our success. Head Coach Craig Skinner and I work together on the training program, and he has introduced me to a number of functional flexibility exercises as well as the jump rope routine mentioned earlier. We respect each other’s opinions as professionals and try to be as creative as possible with our methodology in order to optimize the team’s training environment. We communicate on issues such as injuries, how hard practices were, and what adjustments need to be made as the team progresses.

We also have strong communication with our athletic trainer. I get a weekly injury report that informs me of any restrictions or limitations on individual athletes. By covering all avenues of communication, we guarantee that every athlete will be held accountable for their work ethic and performance.

Education is another important factor in having athletes reach our shared goals. If they do not understand the basic concepts of nutrition, recovery, and hydration, they will not see maximum results. We educate our athletes on these points and let them know that they are solely in control of their eating habits, hydration, and recovery. When they are away from the coaching staff, it is up to them to take ownership for themselves and do what’s necessary to be successful.

With the help of this comprehensive strength and conditioning approach, the volleyball team at Kentucky has seen results. We’ve had limited injuries while enjoying back-to-back NCAA Division I tournament appearances. When athletes are provided with a well-designed, thorough program, a national caliber coaching staff, and a strong sense of communication and support, the wins start happening.


To view a week-by-week sequence of the plyometric exercises we use, go to: www.training-conditioning.com/UKplyos.pdf. The document includes 15 weeks of training, which I modify based on how many weeks the off-season will consist of.


When our athletes warm up, they are also working on their flexibility and athleticism. Here is an example of one of the “speed school” warmup routines:

•Walking toe touches x 20 yds backpedal x 20 yds

•Dynamic quad x 20 yds backpedal x 20 yds

•Knee pulls into forward lunge x 20 yds right carioca x 20 yds

•Dynamic hamstring x 20 yds left carioca x 20 yds

•Standing leg cradles x 8 each leg

•VB side lunges x 8 each leg

•Calf raises x 8 each leg

•Instep lunge x 20 yds twisting reverse lunge x 20 yds

•High knees x 20 yds backpedal x 20 yds

•Butt kicks x 20 yds backpedal x 20 yds

•Forward rolls into jog x 20 yds x 3

•Forward dive rolls into jog x 20 yds x 3

•Forward roll into a bear crawl x 20 yds

•VB shoulder roll into a crab crawl x 20 yds

•Cartwheel into 1 forward roll into 1 cartwheel

•Roundoff into 1 VB shoulder roll into 1 roundoff

•Inchworms x 20 yds

Rollups x 10

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