Sep 30, 2015
Hitting Their Peak
Cameron Davidson

Offseasons spent building the power necessary to play above the net have lifted Pennsylvania State University women’s volleyball to four national titles in the past six seasons.

The following article appears in the October 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.

When I started working with Pennsylvania State University women’s volleyball in 2009, the team was coming off back-to-back NCAA Division I national championships. My job was to help continue the tradition of one of the most successful volleyball programs in the country. No pressure, right? Fortunately, my philosophy aligned with the team’s high expectations, and the squad extended its streak with titles in 2009 and 2010, before tacking on two more in 2013 and 2014.

So how did I go about making an already elite program even better? I focused on developing what I call “volleyball-tough athletes.” This means improving the skills needed to play at the highest level, such as having an explosive first step, jumping high, taking big swings over the block, and maintaining body control when blocking.

However, my plan would not be successful without the support of legendary Head Coach Russ Rose. He believes in what I do, and we work together to create an annual plan that balances strength training with the needs of the sport to ensure the team peaks at the right time. Coach Rose’s input on what strength movements pay dividends on the court shapes my program immensely, and I am grateful to have his guidance as Penn State women’s volleyball continues to reach for new heights.


Although my focus is on building better volleyball players, like all strength coaches, my top priorities are preventing injury and strengthening without creating dysfunction. Depending on how far the team advances in the postseason, our athletes can play until almost Christmas, and they are usually pretty worn out when they return from winter break a few weeks later. Therefore, before they even touch a weight in the offseason, we kick off our program by “pushing the reset button” with postural corrections and alignments.

For example, an anterior pelvic tilt is a common dysfunction in female athletes, and one of the best ways to attack it is by correcting posture. Since anterior pelvic tilt is often associated with overactive hip flexors and inhibited hamstrings, abdominals, and gluteal muscles, we make it a point to stabilize the hip joint via the gluteals. In a dynamic sport such as volleyball, this is extremely important for athletes’ long-term health and performance.

Resetting our players incorporates two additional strategies: diaphragmatic breathing–called “90-90 breathing”–and consciously training. To complete 90-90 breathing, the athletes lie in a 90-90 supine position with their feet against a wall and a pad under their head to help relax their neck. Then, they put one hand on their pelvic bone and the other on their sternum. At this point, they posteriorly tilt their pelvis while flattening their lower back against the floor. While maintaining this position, they inhale deeply through their nose and into their belly, followed by a forceful exhalation. To make sure players achieve full exhalation, I tell them to imagine filling a balloon with their breath.

Completing diaphragmatic breathing in this manner can help alleviate issues in the pelvis, sacrum, lower spine, neck, and shoulders by activating the hamstrings and gluteals. These muscles assist in taking pressure off the lower spine by pulling the pelvis into a more neutral position. In addition, if done properly, 90-90 breathing can activate the transverse abdominis, which helps pull the ribcage downward. Together, these adjustments help stabilize the hips, making them more powerful.

We routinely use 90-90 breathing after workouts to help with recovery. Adding a few diaphragmatic breathing exercises at the end of a workout can help the body shift from sympathetic (aroused) to parasympathetic (resting).

Another benefit of effective 90-90 breathing is that it teaches our athletes kinesthetic awareness. This leads to our next important strategy, the effectiveness of consciously training. Becoming aware of what happens at the pelvis, core, and spine helps the athletes remain conscious of how they are moving and where their body is in space. Also, since many injuries occur in non-contact scenarios, we can decrease athletes’ overall risk for injury by improving how they move and react. Eventually, this conscious awareness translates into their strength work and volleyball skills.

For instance, teaching our players how to properly initiate a jumping motion without allowing a valgus knee collapse will add height to their jump and prolong their career. Similarly, getting our players to consciously jump, land, and be quick to the ball will allow for an optimal biomechanical display of athleticism. Over time, these practices will become habitual movements that require little thought.


Once our athletes have fully been reset, we dive into our strength training regimen. I like to say our weightroom work is “an inch wide and a mile deep.” By that, I mean we don’t do a ton of different things, but we excel at the few we do.

We take this approach because it allows us to emphasize exercises that reinforce the on-court movements we are trying to improve. It also helps keep the process simple and effective for the athletes. If we threw in every lift under the sun, there would be too much going on for us to see any clear improvements.

Both our breathing and conscious ly training are combined in a dynamic, volleyball-specific warm-up that we utilize throughout the year. The warm-up includes foam rolling, several variations of 90-90 breathing, half-kneeling hip mobilizations, T-spine rotations, and other mobility work.

A big component of the warm-up is creating better movement by mobilizing and stabilizing up and down the kinetic chain. Areas that are important to mobilize for volleyball players include the calves and heel cords, hip flexors, T-spine, anterior shoulders, and posterior cervical spine. Conversely, areas to stabilize include the knees, lumbar spine, pelvis, scapulae, and anterior cervical spine.

Many of these mobilizations and stabilizations assist in postural corrections, but they also relate to volleyball-specific stresses. For example, a stable and fully functioning scapula will allow the humerus to move through a swinging motion without impinging. In addition, by mobilizing the anterior shoulder, we are able to improve shoulder flexion range of motion, which affects a proper swing.

Coach Rose wants his athletes to “play as high as they touch”–that is, hit and block with force and control at the max height they reach during vertical jump testing. To achieve this, I place a big emphasis on developing lower-body explosive power in the weightroom.

Two of the most beneficial movements to build lower-body power are the power clean and power snatch. In my experience, these are best taught to women’s volleyball athletes using the three-position German snatch and three-position German clean. These drills require the athletes to pause at certain positions during the lift for two or more seconds, moving only on my cadence. The three positions are: above or below the knee, at power position (upright torso with legs slightly bent), and at the catch position.

The three-position snatch and three-position clean are the best exercises to use with beginner weightlifters (which many women’s volleyball players are) because they allow the athletes to feel the different positions. Pausing at each step helps reinforce the full movement, which leads to better leg drive and increased jumping power.

Our success with these lifts stems from my insistence on executing them properly. The most common mistake I see in the clean and snatch among volleyball players is exploding while the bar is still at their knee, using their lower back as the driving force. This causes the bar to swing away from their body, making it difficult to get an effective leg drive and potentially leading to injuries.

I teach my athletes to be patient and open their torso to the upright position before “pulling the trigger.” In addition, I instruct them to use their legs as the driving force with cues such as “open up and drive,” “push the floor with your feet,” and “push your feet and jump down.” Since our athletes obtain better positions, the bar stays closer to their body and allows for a better rack position. Not only will a more efficient and technically sound clean or snatch lead to athletes jumping higher, but it can also aid in decreasing overuse and acute injuries.

Besides hitting and blocking with force above the net, two other important skills I strive to improve on the court are taking big swings and having an explosive first step toward the ball. Taking big swings involves producing force through a full range of motion while creating rotational torque at the trunk and shoulder. Proper strengthening through breathing techniques and improved body awareness leads to more efficient stabilization at the core and shoulder, which allows for the desired force and torque production.

Some exercises I utilize to help develop players’ arm swings are bench T-spine mobilizations, one-arm landmine presses, prone Y-raises, ring Y-raises, back-to-wall shoulder flexions, external rotations to wall, snatch grip overhead shrugs, kettlebell waiter carries, and medicine ball throws. Exercises used in our program to improve torque at the trunk are medicine ball throws, band or cable Pallof presses, wide stance anti-rotational chops, half-kneeling diagonal chops, ring fallouts, plank position physioball rotations, Turkish get-ups, standing cable presses with overhead reach, and breathing planks.

An explosive first step to the ball is improved by forcefully pushing against the ground with the foot. This is made possible by having strong glutes. To build these muscles in our athletes, we incorporate forward, backward, and lateral band walks; barbell glute bridges and hip thrusts; band glute bridges and hip thrusts; pistol squats; lunges; band pull-throughs; and back extensions. We also target an explosive first step by adding plyometric drills such as broad jumps, lateral jumps, box jumps, and hurdle jumps to our workout.


One of the most crucial elements of catering my strength and conditioning program to volleyball is designing an annual training plan with Coach Rose that works around the team’s practice and game schedule. We go through a number of different training cycles, and the emphasis of each changes based on the stresses of volleyball at that particular time.

Our goals for spring offseason training are to develop the players’ strength and power. We lift three days a week, using one to six reps for each exercise. Although they start lifting at 60 percent of their one-rep max in the spring, the athletes quickly progress to 80 percent and eventually to 100 throughout the summer.

Once our preseason training block starts in July, we drop the intensity down to the 75 to 90 percent range and switch to contrast training. Using this method, athletes superset a heavy exercise with a light, explosive one. When compared to maximal effort and/or dynamic training, contrast training has been shown to foster better results in rate of force production and jumping performance. The ability to generate force quicker gives our athletes the opportunity to get to balls faster, hit harder, and jump higher. (See “Preseason Push” below for a sample contrast training workout.)

Our athletes’ willingness to stay on campus for our July preseason block is one of the biggest keys to our overall success. It allows us to take steps forward as a team. The July block also prepares the squad for Coach Rose’s notoriously intense preseason practice program that starts in early August and involves two weeks of two- and three-a-days. I scale back the team’s strength work during this time and work with the squad’s athletic trainer to emphasize recovery.

We are able to maintain 75 to 90 percent intensity in our lifts once the season begins. We keep the volume relatively low and only hit the weightroom once or twice a week, depending on the team’s game schedule. By training at high intensities throughout the offseason, our in-season percentages feel less intense.

When we head into the postseason, we drop the weightroom intensity below 75 percent and decrease the volume further. Using lighter weights during this time helps the players feel well rested and more powerful in preparation for the NCAA Tournament.

No matter the activity, everything we do comes back to improving volleyball performance. Belly breathing and body awareness leads to better technique. Better technique leads to proper strengthening. Greater gains in applicable strength help prevent injury, which leads to healthier, stronger athletes. And that, of course, increases our chances of winning. Despite the elevated expectations that can come with training one of the best women’s volleyball programs in the country, as long as I continue to put our athletes in the best position to succeed, I know I’ve done my job.


Below is a sample contrast training workout from the Pennsylvania State University women’s volleyball team’s preseason plan.

Heavy: Anterior loaded split-squat – 5×3 each leg

Explosive: Split-stance broad jumps – 5×2 each leg

Strength: Feet-elevated push-ups – 4×5

Auxiliary: Ring Y-raise – 4×8

Auxiliary: Single-leg band hip thrust – 4×8 each leg

Strength: Split-stance single-arm dumbbell row – 3×10 each arm

Auxiliary: Wide stance anti-rotational chop – 3×10 each way

Auxiliary: Goblet squat – 3×8

Auxiliary: Hanging breathing alt-leg raise – 3×4 each

Cameron Davidson, MS, CSCS, SCCC, USAW, is Performance Enhancement Coach for Pennsylvania State University women's volleyball, men's ice hockey, and track and field. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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