Jan 29, 2015Holding Court
The University of Minnesota’s year-round volleyball strength program incorporates movement prep, jump training, and power building with the goal of optimizing late-season performance.
By Sara Wiley
Sara Wiley is Associate Director of Strength & Conditioning at the University of Minnesota. She can be reached at: [email protected].
You could justly describe the 2009 University of Minnesota volleyball season as a breakout year. Despite not cracking the top ten in preseason rankings and entering the NCAA Division I tournament as the 11th seed, we made it all the way to the national semifinals for the first time since 2004 and finished the season ranked fourth in the country. Even Head Coach Mike Hebert admitted after our final match that he was surprised by just how far this year’s Golden Gophers advanced.
Yet while many people were astonished by our success, I saw it more as the logical culmination of a 12-month commitment on the part of our athletes. We have worked hard to build a training regimen focusing on the specific aspects of volleyball performance that we believe separate the elite players from the rest of the pack.
The cornerstones of our program are mobility and flexibility, movement mastery, and strength and power development. We strive to help every athlete excel in force absorption, power production, and jumping ability. To achieve those goals, we set precise priorities and devise targeted workouts all year long.
MOBILITY & FLEXIBILITY
We want all our players to move around the court in ways that maximize efficiency and minimize injury risk. With that in mind, each strength and conditioning session begins with a dynamic warmup and flexibility/mobility training. We focus primarily on three body areas: the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine.
Ankles. Our ankle mobilization exercises improve range of motion, especially dorsiflexion in the sagittal plane. From a performance standpoint, especially for defensive specialists and liberos, this type of mobility allows proper setup and alignment in low defensive power positions, which is essential for dynamic defensive movements close to the ground. Proper ankle mobility is also useful for keeping the knees optimally aligned, because the ankles serve as the foundation for practically every movement of the lower kinetic chain.
To achieve this mobility, we use exercises such as single-leg tri-planar squats, kneeling ankle mobility (the athlete takes a knee as if in a lunge position, places her hands on the ground, and rolls her body weight forward while attempting to keep the front heel down), and ankle circles with a BAPS (biomechanical ankle platform system) board. We also have the athletes perform squats and lunges in bare feet, which forces them to use the stabilizer muscles of the ankle to maintain balance and perform the movement correctly.
Hips. At the hip, mobility exercises seek to open the flexor muscles while also improving range of motion in all planes of movement. Shortened, overactive hip flexors can disrupt optimal pelvic motion and lead to lower-back pain and changes in spinal alignment. That in turn may affect scapular alignment and ultimately play a role in a variety of shoulder ailments.
Volleyball players spend a lot of time with their hip flexors in a shortened position due to the stances and movements required in the sport. To counteract that, it’s essential to invest time re-establishing a sound length-tension relationship between the flexors and extensors of the hip, mainly by working to lengthen the flexors and promote efficient firing of the gluteus muscles.
In addition, while there is not much research to prove a causal link between injuries to the shoulder and the hip, we have noticed that many athletes with shoulder issues also seem to have a corresponding problem with the opposite hip. For that reason, our hip mobility exercises always include at least one activity that requires coordination between the hip, trunk, and shoulder.
Some of our staple exercises for building hip mobility include spider lunges and backward lunge-and-reaches. For engagement of the hip, trunk, and shoulder together, we use step-ups with rotation and reverse lunges with shoulder proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) diagonal movement (not to be confused with PNF stretches). For corresponding glute activation, we use three-way anterior reaches, the Cook hip lift, and bird dogs (opposite arm-leg raises on hands and knees).
Thoracic spine. Mobility in the thoracic spine is critical for practically every movement pattern volleyball players use on the court. A lack of flexibility in this area is associated with increased injury risk and inefficient movement. Furthermore, poor thoracic extension may lead to compensatory movements in the lower back to achieve adequate range of motion during the arm swing–this frequently leads to volleyball players’ lower-back problems.
To target thoracic spine mobility, we use four-point kneeling with thoracic extension and seated rotations with side bends. We also use thoracic extensions performed over a physioball.
Beyond those three key areas, we use PNF stretching throughout the year to focus on the quadriceps and shoulders. Our quad-hip flexor stretch is performed in a stretch-contract-relax-stretch sequence, while our shoulder PNF stretch uses the same sequence but with a locked overhead position that traps the shoulder blade. This helps the athletes stretch their internal shoulder rotators while performing trunk rotation. It also helps build sport-specific range of motion that’s especially valuable in the volleyball take-away position.
Even at the NCAA Division I level, there is wide variation in athletes’ movement efficiency during both lateral and vertical moves. Some of the most pronounced deficiencies occur in lateral movement, change of direction, and jumping and landing technique.
By the time an athlete enters our program, it’s obvious she’s found a way to make her movement patterns work on the court. But we still believe we can often take her game up a notch by correcting movement flaws and teaching new patterns.
Beginning early in the off-season (mid to late January), our training sessions include individualized instruction and drills that reinforce proper jumping and landing technique. The athletes receive verbal cues and hands-on positioning–we literally manipulate their bodies into the correct positions prior to a jump or after a landing, so they can feel the difference between that position and the one they’ve used in the past.
Some of our favorite drills to reinforce optimal movement patterns are the simplest ones: in-place jumps with a stick, landing both vertically and horizontally and both single- and double-legged. We instruct the players to land “quietly,” using full-body coordination to absorb force and soften foot impact. We also tell them to pay attention to body position from head to toe–eyes up, chest up, shoulders in line with the knees, knees in line with the toes, and toes dorsiflexed. We address lateral movement by emphasizing push-slant and push-drive mechanics, which volleyball players must use regularly to cover the court.
Although these drills seem rudimentary, they serve as the base from which we refine mechanics through more complex and intense plyometric and agility drills. Once the players display mastery of the simple drills, we add shuffling and sprinting combinations, shuffling and jumping combinations, and short sprints with multiple changes of direction.
We also add cone-based agility drills with various footwork patterns, using verbal or visual cues to signal changes in direction or activity, and sometimes incorporate a reaction component to the drill. For instance, when I flash a blue card, an athlete performing a footwork drill must cut left, and if I flash a red card, she must cut right. Other times, the athletes must react to the color cues by running to a cone of a corresponding color. The reaction challenge forces heads-up running and eliminates the potential for just “going through the motions” during a drill.
STRENGTH & POWER
Our strength program is designed to be as functional and sport-specific as possible, which for volleyball means focusing on ground-based compound movements such as squats, box squats, and front squats, and their single-leg variations. We also emphasize developing strength in the posterior chain using Romanian deadlifts, glute-ham work, back hypers, pull-throughs, and good mornings, again along with their single-leg variations.
During our strength development phase, which begins in March, we implement an isometric training block of two to three weeks followed by an eccentric block of two to three weeks, then finally a traditional concentric block. The isometric emphasis comes first because that’s the best way to teach athletes to develop tension and stay tight during the “weaker” (less strenuous) portions of a lift. Next, when we focus on eccentric movements, they experience high motor unit recruitment and improve neuromuscular efficiency. In the final weeks, targeting concentric work, we put those previous training elements together into the same workout.
At all times during our lifting program, we instruct the athletes to move the weight as quickly as possible to stimulate and recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers. Because volleyball requires frequent lateral and rotational movements, we complement our core lifts with exercises that require the athletes move into a full range of motion in the transverse and frontal planes, such as lateral squats, chopping movements, lateral step-ups, and lunging in multiple directions.
For upper-body power development, we rely mostly on traditional vertical and horizontal pressing and pulling activities. We prefer dumbbells over barbells, because they allow the athletes to take greater control over shoulder positioning and require more engagement of the stabilizer muscles.
During balance pressing work, we pay special attention to the athletes’ technique in scapular retraction, downward scapular rotation, and external rotation. It’s very easy for volleyball players to develop imbalances in the upper back and chest, and those imbalances must be addressed in strength training to reduce injury risk. In addition to body rows and dumbbell rows, we target the lower and middle trapezius, rhomboids, serratus anterior, and external rotators of the shoulder with face pulls, kneeling reach roll-and-lift exercises, push-ups plus, and wall slides.
To make force gains as functional as possible for volleyball, it’s vital to focus on the rate of force development. Volleyball is an explosive sport, and if explosiveness is developed at different rates in different muscle areas, players will suffer from inefficiencies and energy leaks. We combat this by incorporating total-body lifts into our training, including the power clean and power snatch–performed both from the floor and from hanging positions–as well as the clean and jerk, clean pulls, and snatch pulls.
As preseason approaches, total-body lifts account for a larger portion of our training volume, and we begin to combine our strength exercises into complexes with jumping activities. The coupling of a loaded strength exercise with an unloaded explosive exercise further increases motor-unit recruitment and stimulates fast-twitch motor fiber. We boost arm and shoulder muscle power with medicine ball exercises, including overhead throws, overhead triceps tosses, pullover throws off a physioball, slams, and single-arm tossbacks.
In addition, we employ timed lifts–requiring an athlete to perform as many reps as possible in four or six seconds–to build explosiveness. Once an individual reaches a rate of more than one rep per second, we add more resistance and they work to reach the same number of reps. Progressively increasing load and achieving the same number of reps with heavier weight translates into more work per unit of time: the very definition of power.
Jump training is one of the most important forms of development for volleyball players. From low-intensity ballistic jumping exercises to the technique refinement on take-offs and landings described earlier, practically all great volleyball players are highly proficient jumpers.
During the strength development phase of our program, which typically lasts from March through May, the athletes perform jump training twice a week, and the activities mirror the focus of our strength training blocks. For example, during the isometric block, our jumping activities may involve an isometric push against a partner followed by jumping upon release.
As we progress through the summer, we have two unique periods of programming that focus heavily on shock-level plyometrics–plyo work that involves high nervous system activation, such as altitude landings and depth landings. (See “Jump Phases” below to learn how these periods fit into our broader jump training schedule.) Each phase lasts roughly three weeks and begins with two days of drop landings, which allow us to focus on the eccentric portion of the jumps and thereby improve the players’ ability to absorb and use accumulated kinetic energy from downward momentum. Absorbing force effectively results in shorter coupling times between the eccentric and concentric components of a jump, leading to greater jump height over time.
During drop landings, we begin at a height equivalent to the athlete’s vertical jump in inches, which is tested in January right after winter break, in early May before the spring semester ends, and in August when the athletes return for preseason camp. The height then progresses slightly each week, provided the athlete can maintain landings with good form in terms of knee bend, not sinking the upper body below the knees, and avoiding heel touch.
Because shock-level plyometric work is extremely stressful, we use it only during those two distinct phases of the training cycle. The last phase of shock work ends in mid-July, roughly three weeks before the start of preseason camp, giving the athletes adequate recovery time prior to testing and the start of team training.
It’s important to note that the training described above applies to all our players, but we do account for some position-specific needs. For the libero and defensive specialists, jump training includes a greater emphasis on lateral movements, with activities such as skater hops and lateral bounding. We also stress sustaining eccentric forces in defensive postures, using Jump Stretch bands to create a speed overload into a lateral drop step. In addition, defensive players focus on push lunges–a partner applies force in the form of a controlled shove, the player lunges with the shove, and she “sticks the landing” in an athletic position.
When preseason training camp begins, on-court activity is paramount. As the players increase their workload through team practices, we scale down weightroom and jump training work significantly. Strength training occurs in the form of medicine ball drills for the upper body and trunk, and the athletes hit the weightroom roughly twice a week for short sessions at 80 to 85 percent intensity. At this time, the goal is to maintain strength and conditioning gains made in the off-season.
Once the competitive season begins, the players continue to strength train twice a week with low training volumes. Early in the week, we use lower intensities (65 to 75 percent of max effort and resistance) and emphasize speed of movement. The last session of the week before a weekend of matches includes higher intensities (up to 85 percent) to help the athletes maintain their strength levels. Our exercise selection aims to not overstress the body before competition–we use basic pulling and compound movements, such as box squats and front squats, and jumping is limited to 20 to 30 reps per session.
Using this strategy, our athletes are primed for optimum performance every time they step on the court. They hold onto the strength gains they made during the off-season, their risk of injury from overuse or poor mechanics is reduced as much as possible, and we hope to see them reach new heights every year.
Sidebar: JUMP PHASES
During the off-season, we break our jump training into three phases, each with its own unique emphasis.
Here is a breakdown of the phases, including sample exercises:
Duration: Four weeks, beginning in January
Goals: Prepare for more intense work to come, master technique for in-place jumping and landing, build strength in landing positions, reinforce proper movement patterns
Jump rope Line hops Squat jumps with stick Single-leg jumps with stick Forward, backward, and lateral jumps with stick Tuck jumps Pike jumps Barrier jumps with stick
Duration: 10 to 12 weeks, beginning in March
Goals: Introduce more complex and higher-intensity jumping, include ballistic jumping to incorporate strength speed/power activities, add shock-level plyos to maximize nervous system challenge
Box jumps: isometric hold to jump Hurdle jumps Broad jumps Lateral bounds Block jumps Approach jumps Shock-level plyos: depth landings (in the final three weeks)
POWER DEVELOPMENT Duration: Eight to 10 weeks, beginning in June
Goals: Improve rate of force production, improve force absorption (landings), maximize sport-specific gains
Approach jumps Shuffle blocks Push drive/slant block jumps Lateral bounds to jumps Lateral barrier jumps to vertical jumps Shock-level plyos: depth landings or depth jumps (in the final three weeks)