Jan 29, 2015
Irish Intensity

At the University of Notre Dame, a finely tuned training program helped the volleyball team finish 30-4 last season, its best record in over a decade.

By Michael Joseph

Michael Joseph, MS, CSCS, SCCC, is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Preparing female athletes for high-level volleyball competition is an exciting challenge. Here at the University of Notre Dame, we strive to build a sound foundation that allows each player to reach her maximum potential.

The overall goal of our program is to develop a total athlete by improving her strength, flexibility, power, and athleticism, which she can then use on the court of competition. We use a proper progression that reduces the risk of injury while developing the traits needed for the sport of volleyball.

Our program also emphasizes motivation. We tell our athletes there are many factors that play a role in their physical development, but there are only two factors they can control: intensity and effort. If they give their all in these two areas, we promise to motivate and push them to new levels both physically and mentally.

For our part, we try to give them as much variety as possible in their workouts and provide competition in many different forms. We also teach them how what they do in the weightroom relates to making them better volleyball players—once an athlete truly comprehends how training can enhance her play, motivating her becomes much easier.


When designing a strength and conditioning program for volleyball, I keep eight key areas in mind: strength, core, flexibility, power development, agility, injury prevention, conditioning, and recovery. No area is more important than the next, and each is intertwined in the development of the others.

We start with strength development because it is the foundation for all the other areas. Our goal is to develop a complete athlete who is balanced and has no deficient areas that may cause injury or prevent her from reaching full potential.

Most freshman volleyball players who enter our program have a very good athletic base and sport specific development, but are deficient in certain areas of total body strength. The most common problems we see are a lack of posterior shoulder, back, gluteal, and hamstring to quadriceps strength ratio. We work hard to correct these during strength development so they do not lead to imbalance issues down the road.

For posterior shoulder development, I incorporate isolated shoulder exercises such as DB rear shoulder raises, band saber (diagonal) raises, manual resistance, static holds (blackburns), band and plate shoulder complexes, and scapular isolations and pulls. I use a push/pull method on my upper body workouts but usually add one to two extra sets of back exercises in correlation to the presses. For lower back isolation, I include chin-ups, seated rows, cable rows, DB rows, pulldown variations, inverted pull-ups, weighted hyperextensions, and others. In addition, during our Olympic lifts, the trapezius, rhomboids, and deltoids are being activated.

The last area of the posterior chain is the gluteals and hamstrings. I try to develop the hamstrings by incorporating several exercises such as RDLs, leg curls, good mornings, glute/ham raise (progression), manual resisted curls, reverse hypers, and single leg RDLs. The gluteals will be activated during jumping, squatting, lunging, step-ups, dead lifts, and Olympic movements.

Our program is based on multi-joint Olympic-style movements (squats, cleans, snatches) with supplemental exercises that are progressed and cycled. The intensity of our resistance-training workouts remain consistent all year, but the volume and workload change depending on the season. The workouts are developed to maximize volume of workload in the least amount of time without sacrificing strength gains.

Core strength is the second area for developing a total volleyball player as deficiencies in this area can limit other components from achieving full potential. In addition, abdominal and low back development is a central ingredient in rotational speed, power transfer, body control, and injury prevention, all of which are very much needed in the game. For example, a player going up for a spike needs to have great power from her core while maintaining precise body positioning.

We incorporate core work into the warmup, weighted exercises in the workout, and end-of-workout team drills. Types of exercises include basic bodyweight floor abs, dynamic movements such as med-ball throws, and those that incorporate abdominal activation such as a walking lunge with a twist. We stress full range of motion and contraction rather than volume of repetitions.

The most overlooked area for development is flexibility, which can be the single most limiting factor for an athlete’s physical progression. Without it, a volleyball player may not extend her shoulder complex to its full capacity, which will limit her spiking and serving ability. Problems in flexibility can also hamper her ability to lunge for a difficult dig.

Since coaches have a limited amount of time to spend with their athletes, flexibility often loses out to other areas of training. To make our flexibility drills time efficient, we incorporate them into our dynamic warmups through kicks, lunges, and hurdles, and place them between major exercises that require recovery time. At the end of each workout, the team goes through several static stretches led by a captain or senior. Also, any athlete that has severe flexibility issues will do extra work to help increase range of motion.

The area that our volleyball coaches are most concerned with is power development, especially as it relates to vertical jumping. They know the higher their front row players can jump, the more successful their team will be. But we also pay a lot of attention to lateral and forward horizontal power in order to build explosive agile athletes. Volleyball players need power to move very quickly in all directions to get to the ball and to produce strong shoulder movement for serves, spikes, and sets.

Our program incorporates many training stimuli to maximize each athlete’s power. The weight training contains several exercises designed to maximize speed of movement such as cleans, snatches, resisted boards, and band squats with lighter weight loads. We also use several unloaded triple-extension movements in order to increase power output and speed of contraction of the muscles. These may include box jumps, plyometrics, and slide boards.

Each athlete is progressed from basic plyometrics, proper landing technique, and Olympic movements to higher impact movements and more complex lifts. We also take into consideration the amount of foot contacts per workout and week to eliminate overtraining or injury.

At Notre Dame, our coaches want the most athletic and best defensive team in the nation, so we put a lot of emphasis on agility and footwork development. Due to sport specialization, many volleyball players lack basic agility and footwork skills and don’t possess the all-around athleticism that multi-sport athletes have.

The ability to quickly react, accelerate, and decelerate in any direction leads to more blocks and digs. Therefore, we use agility and footwork drills as often as we can—as a warmup, during workouts, as a conditioning tool, or sometimes as a team competition.

We start with basic drills such as foot ladders, jump rope, line hops, and dots to develop fast feet. For agility, we use basic cone drills to teach body control, foot placement, low center of gravity, and proper positioning on the balls of the feet.

Once our athletes master the basics, we incorporate reactive and competitive drills that are as volleyball specific as possible. For example, when doing a simple pro shuttle (5-10-5), each athlete must touch the line with both hands in a dig-style motion to develop hips being low and body control. Although we do some position-specific drills, I feel that all the players should be able to get to every ball on the court whether they are a libero or a middle blocker, so all of our front line players have the same agility goals as our liberos.

Two specific drills that I use are a two-point wave and a four-point mirror cone drill. The two point drill allows the athletes to move on my visual commands in a blocking, shuffle, run, defensive slide, dig, or roll direction, and it lasts for 5-10 seconds. The mirror cone drill is set up like a basic cone drill with two separate squares and two athletes facing each other. One athlete is the leader and the other must react in an opposite movement. If the leader comes forward the other athlete must come forward and block, and if the leader goes back, the follower must slide back and dig. The movements can go in any direction and last 8-12 seconds.

Injury prevention is another focal point of our training regimen. The shoulder, knee, and ankle are the areas most prone to injury in volleyball. Our goal is to reduce the overall number of injuries and the recovery time needed when injuries do occur.

The shoulder can receive considerable stress from overuse or improper mechanics. Freshmen are most at risk due to the increased amount of practice and competition they see at the collegiate level. We incorporate several shoulder complexes (see Table One ANCHOR LINK) in the warmup or workout with tubing or plates (2.5 or 5 pounds) to isolate the small musculature of the shoulder girdle and rotator cuff. Exercises such as medicine ball push-ups and box walk-ups are implemented for shoulder stabilization.

The devastating ACL injury is prevalent in women’s volleyball, so we teach proper jumping and landing techniques, which are critical for female athletes to develop balance and reduce the stress placed on knee ligaments. We make sure the athlete lands on the balls of her feet with her knees in alignment with the middle toe and not coming in together, and then sits immediately back on her heels. We incorporate several activities that improve proprioception in the knee and surrounding stabilizing musculature, such as landing on uneven surfaces and squatting on balance boards. We use resistance training to strengthen the quadriceps and hamstrings for symmetry.

Ankle injuries are also common, and we try to limit their severity by adding strength and stability to the joint. Many of the exercises we use for knee stability will activate the ankle and lower-leg proprioceptors and stabilizers. We also develop flexibility through strength by using bands with exercises, such as the four-way ankle.

Volleyball is a very anaerobic power sport (the average volley lasts between five and 10 seconds), so we focus our conditioning protocols on shorter shuttles, sprints, and runs that are 60 seconds or less. We use 300-yard shuttles, widths, 400’s, 200’s, sprints, and game-situation conditioning to prepare for the season. The off-season contains the longer duration runs with a longer rest-to-work ratio. As we get closer to the start of camp, the runs are shortened with less rest. Our goal is to play at a higher level of intensity in the fifth game than we do in the first game of the match.

All the above efforts will be hindered without proper recovery, which includes rest and good nutritional intake. Because Notre Dame students typically have a heavy course load, we continually remind our athletes they need more rest than non-athletes and can’t skimp on sleep. We do our part by making their training as efficient as possible.

We also talk a lot about nutrition, since many female athletes struggle with wanting to look like very thin models and will eat for fashion instead of athletic gains. We are very fortunate to have a sports nutritionist on staff to help educate the athletes on proper nutrition and recovery from workouts. But most of our athletes still need constant reinforcement to get enough calories from the right sources, in the right proportions of carbs, protein, and fat.


Once the season is over in December, the team understands that time is counting down towards the next season. They know that how they train in the off-season and preseason will determine the end result the following year.

Our program is broken up into three training periods with smaller cycles in each period. The off-season cycle runs from January to May, the preseason from June to August, and in-season is September to December. We design a program to constantly stimulate the body and make the neuromuscular system continually adapt to different stimuli during weight training, jump training, and conditioning workouts.

Off-season: The off-season is a critical time for us to establish a great base and work on any deficiencies the athlete may have in strength, jumping, or movement. The first cycle of off-season conditioning lasts eight weeks. Players train with resistance three days a week—upper body, lower body and total body are spilt among the days. Each workout contains a non-weight-bearing triple extension movement and an Olympic movement such as a clean, snatch, or jerk. Warmups include footwork drills, hip mobility, shoulder stabilization, and core development. We conduct agility workouts two days a week, focusing on proper foot placement, hip level, and body control for changing direction. Conditioning is done at the end, with longer durations and rest intervals than at other times of the year.

The second off-season cycle usually starts in March with the six to seven weeks of spring practice. We follow a similar schedule to the first cycle but cut back on volume due to practice time and the number of hours each NCAA participant can spend on athletics. We train three days per week, focusing on our major lifts, hip work, and flexibility. A high intensity is maintained, but at a lower volume. We keep increasing vertical and horizontal power. Agility and conditioning sessions are still implemented twice a week at the beginning or end of practice for 15 to 30 minutes.

Preseason: The nine to 10 week preseason period usually begins in late May or early June. It is broken into two cycles, with a recovery week in the first week of July. The goal of this period is preparing the athletes for the demanding season ahead, so conditioning and sport-specific drills become more important. The schedule typically includes three days of lifting and conditioning and two days of agility training. Lifts are more complex and more dynamic than in previous stages. Percentages are used to cycle the focal lifts and the amount of volume is reduced.

The agility workouts incorporate more volleyball movements and reactions. The conditioning runs are shorter with reduced rest intervals and are done on court as game-situation drills. The competition component is important at all times of the year but during this time period we keep a running score during competitive drills.

In-season: My philosophy is that we need to get stronger and more explosive during the season and not just maintain our preseason levels. Our mentality is to train hard with intelligence, which means we keep the intensity high but have a low volume of training. During the in-season we lift two times per week with agility and conditioning one to two times per week. Bands and alternative means of training are used to limit the stress on the athlete’s body. We do three to four exercises and a few supplemental or injury-prevention exercises. We try to maintain good hip mobility and shoulder strength. Our goal is to peak in December and not fall off in November.

Testing is important and done at the beginning of off-season, the end of off-season, and end of preseason. After testing, we always reassess the program. My goal is to push each player to a new level of mental toughness and physical performance. If our testing does not show good improvement, we’ll revisit what we do in each area.

Irish volleyball has made a commitment to be great both on the court and in the weightroom. We follow very simple guidelines: We expect nothing less than great effort and a relentless desire to be the best team in the country every year.

Sidebar: Strong Shoulders

The following is a sample shoulder complex. Two sets of 10 reps of each exercise are done with either a dumbbell, plate, or band. Proper technique and isolation of musculature around the shoulder capsule is the goal of the complex.

  • Front raise
  • Side raise
  • Empty can
  • Prone lateral
  • Internal/external rotation at 90 degrees (standing)
  • Supra raise

Sidebar: Dynamic Warmup

This sample dynamic warmup should take about 15 minutes. Most movements are completed for 10-15 yards.

  • Walk-outs (crawling to hamstring stretch)
  • Walking knees to chest
  • Knees to chest w/skip
  • Straight-leg kicks (walking)
  • Straight-leg kicks (skipping)
  • Forward walking lunges with twist
  • Backward walking lunges with twist
  • High-knee runs
  • Backward runs
  • Side lunges
  • Groin skips
  • Spidermans
  • Lying hip rotations
  • Scorpions
  • Hurdles or wall drills (hip mobility)

Sidebar: Sample Week

The following week-long weight-training workout is progressed through a periodized style of percentages. For the power movements we start at 4×4 sets/reps and work to 3×1. For strength exercises, we work from 4×10-12 down to 3×2. For supplemental exercises we work from 3×12 down to 2-3×6. Power and strength exercises stay constant for the entire cycle but we vary the supplemental exercises for variety.


What should you do about athletes who will simply have no access to a weightroom during the summer? Sarah Testo, CSCS, Strength and Conditioning Coach at Keene State College, hands them these bodyweight workouts:

Monday: Total Body Wednesday: Upper Body Thursday/Friday:
Lower Body
Warmup and core work

Jump training

Power clean

Back squat


Squat lunge

Reverse hyperextension

DB incline press

Flat-Footed Crunches: 2×15


Medball push-ups

DB row

DB 30’s (front/side/rear shoulder raise)

Weighted sit-ups

Four-way ankle

Warmup and footwork drills


Medball throws

Box jumps or box fast-feet step-ups


Bench press

Machine row

Alt. DB shoulder press

Inverted pull-ups

Plate raise

Band retraction

Static shoulder holds (6 prone positions)

Medball abs

Warmup/core/hip mobility

Jump training: side-step and block

Hang clean

Front squat or band squat (speed)

Glute/ham raise

Barbell step-up

Good morning

Manual resistance (hip/ankle flexion)

Plate rotations (abs)

Shoulder complex

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