Jan 29, 2015
Playing in the Sand

It may look similar to the indoor game, but sand volleyball requires a very different strength and conditioning strategy. Pepperdine University has been perfecting its program.

By Matt Young

Matt Young, MEd, CSCS, RSCC, USAW, is the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Pepperdine University, where he oversees the strength and conditioning for 17 sports and works directly with sand volleyball, women’s golf, and men’s basketball. He can be reached at: [email protected].

The sport of sand volleyball reached a huge milestone earlier this year. A 40th college fielded a team, which is the magic number allowing it to become an NCAA-sanctioned championship sport. Pending budget approval, NCAA Divisions I and II could crown a national champion in sand volleyball as early as spring 2016. Division III will vote on whether to start offering it at the NCAA Convention in January.

Since sand volleyball debuted as an emerging NCAA sport in 2012, the Pepperdine University squad has put together an impressive resume. The team boasts a 52-2 record, has had 12 American Volleyball Coaches’ Association (AVCA) All-Americans, and won AVCA National Team Championships in 2012 and 2014, with a runner-up finish in 2013.

I’ve worked as the strength and conditioning coach for Pepperdine sand volleyball since its inception, and I’ve designed my program to meet the specific needs of sand players. However, this isn’t always the case. I know of several sand volleyball strength and conditioning regimens that are cloned from the indoor game.

Although copying from indoor is a tempting route to take, I advise against it. I believe the true test of an effective strength and conditioning coach is coming up with a plan catered exclusively to the nuances of a specific sport. Here at Pepperdine, we have found that when you give sand volleyball training the attention it deserves, you can pass the test and set a program that helps your team hit its goals.

PASS THE TEST How can you build an effective sand volleyball strength and conditioning regimen? Start by understanding the game’s physical demands. In both sand and indoor, the athletes complete the same set of skills. However, there are major differences between the two sports, from the movement of players on the court to the playing surface.

While indoor is a six-on-six game, in sand volleyball, two athletes must cover the entire area. In addition, many indoor athletes specialize in one or two volleyball skills, yet sand players must master all of them to be successful, each one requiring a specific movement pattern.

With few strength coaches having much knowledge of sand volleyball and little reference material available for optimal training strategies, it can be beneficial to lean on your sport coach to help build an effective strength and conditioning program. Most coaching staffs are a valuable resource right at your fingertips. They can provide essential insight into whether your regimen is working, so swallow any pride and take all the advice you can get from them.

I am extremely lucky to work with Head Sand Volleyball Coach Nina Matthies and Assistant Sand Volleyball Coach Marcio Sicoli. Nina captured 43 titles and 93 podium finishes in her beach volleyball playing career, while Marcio coached beach volleyball legends Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor to the gold medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics and is currently training Walsh Jennings and April Ross for the 2016 Games. Both Nina and Marcio offer incredible feedback on the team’s strength and conditioning sessions, which allows me to design more productive and effective training.

Because of the sport’s unique demands, perhaps the most crucial aspect of passing the test with sand volleyball is being heavily involved with every aspect of strength and conditioning. Speaking from experience, being engaged often means you have to leave the weightroom for practices in the sand, which can be a time and resource obligation. For example, we ran close to 30 sessions at the beach last year from January through May, each of which required me to be away from campus for a minimum of two hours.

The return on this time investment, however, is incredible. Being present for practices allows me to accurately design conditioning and movement drills that complement the concepts that Nina and Marcio are working on each week. When everything in your program meshes together, you are better able to monitor the team’s development process and adapt when necessary.


Once you’ve passed the test, you can begin to construct your program. My yearlong sand volleyball strength and conditioning regimen consists of three eight-week offseason cycles and one in-season training period. The first offseason cycle (Cycle A) starts in mid-September, and the second (Cycle B) takes us through Thanksgiving and the holiday break. Our third (Cycle C) brings us to the start of our competitive season in March. Once the team is in-season, we have a final eight-week period (Cycle D) focused on making sure the players peak for the postseason.

Cycle A begins shortly after the players return from summer break and runs until fall practice ends in November. It’s broken into one three-week and one five-week segment. During the first three weeks, the athletes participate in team lifts and individual skill practice with the coaches. Most of them spend their summers playing sand volleyball and aren’t in the weightroom as consistently as they are during the school year, so my goal at this time is to reintroduce the team to lifting. I reteach most of the major movements that we use in the last five weeks of Cycle A, such as the hang clean, front squat, trap bar dead lift, single-leg squat, and kettlebell swing. I keep the players’ rep ranges high and rest intervals low, with an emphasis on proper technique and pace.

I also prepare them for the increased swing counts they experience when fall practice starts by using a two-to-one pulling-to-pressing ratio on upper-body movements. The pull exercises include pull-ups, low rows, rack high rows, and 45-degree rows. A majority of the presses are done at an incline between 30 to 45 degrees, as this mimics the arm angle the athletes use when blocking. We use dumbbells instead of barbells in all pressing movements because of the shoulder stabilization dumbbells require.

For the final five weeks in Cycle A, the athletes lift three times a week and have conditioning and movement sessions twice a week. The lifting program at this time consists of two movements grouped together. I like to incorporate multi-joint explosive exercises in a rep scheme and loading pattern that elicits power and strength endurance, which are both needed for sand volleyball. Each set requires the athlete to complete a predetermined number of reps of each movement followed by a specific rest period before starting the next set.

For example, one pair of exercises combines the hang clean with the front squat. The players must complete three sets of 20 reps total, but each set is split into six reps of the hang clean and 14 of the front squat. The hang clean and front squat are loaded differently, so the clean is done on the platform and the squat is done in the rack. There is a one-minute recovery between each set. Other common pairings for us include pull-ups with dumbbell presses, dumbbell curl to press with glute-ham raises, and dumbbell one-arm rows with two-way shoulder raises.

I place no restriction on how long players have to complete a set because I find that movement quality diminishes when time limits are enforced. The athletes need to have proper form and technique for the exercises to be effective. In addition, I like to allow time for coaching the athletes as they lift.

Nina, Marcio, and I schedule Cycle A to conclude at the same time as fall practice, so the team undergoes simultaneous volume de-loads. Having two or three more weeks in the weightroom after the end of fall practice has produced some unfavorable results for me in the past. Instead, I utilize the de-load period to teach the new movements for our next stretch in the weightroom.

As the offseason cycles progress, I lower both the rep totals and rest intervals in the weightroom due to the athletes using increasingly heavier loads. I prefer this style of lifting because it mimics the pace of play during a match and the strength endurance needed to move effectively in the sand.

Cycle B has a similar setup to Cycle A, but instead of three- and five-week segments, it’s split into two four-week sections. During this cycle, I like to add a third movement to our grouped exercises. Because the last four weeks of Cycle B include the holiday break, when most of the athletes are at home, I make sure the lifting program includes movements that can be completed at any commercial gym.

Cycle C starts when the team returns in January. Like Cycle B, it is broken into two four-week segments. This eight-week block marks the addition of indoor athletes who also play sand volleyball. Although all the athletes lift in the same time slot, the indoor players aren’t fully integrated into the sand volleyball strength training program until they complete a “sand immersion program.” (See “Making the Switch” below for more insight into how we acclimate indoor volleyball players to the sand game.)

After a long offseason, the team heads into its competitive slate feeling fresh, fit, strong, and ready to compete. Cycle D encompasses the eight weeks the squad is in-season. Again, it is split into two four-week sections. We continue with grouping our lifts in the first four weeks, but I drop from three exercises back to two. In the last four weeks, the team lifts only twice a week. I decrease the volume considerably in the weightroom but keep the intensity relatively high.

Training sand volleyball players in the weightroom is important but equally crucial is working with them in the sand. At Pepperdine, we don’t begin conditioning in the sand until the team is four weeks into Cycle A so the players can get up to speed on lifting. However, once we start, we stick with the same conditioning regimen all year long.

My work with players in the sand focuses on two separate areas: conditioning and volleyball-specific movements. For sand conditioning, I use a format similar to Man-U sprints with a strict work-to-rest ratio that we call “Wave Runs.” I keep the distance at 60 yards–30 yards across the width of the sand volleyball court, 30 yards back. The Wave Runs consist of singles (down and back), doubles (down and back twice), and triples (down and back three times). The total quantity depends on where the team is in its training and the intensity I am looking to achieve.

At a typical conditioning session, we run sets of 10 Wave Runs. The order goes: triple, double, single, and then I repeat this progression two more times before ending with one final triple. Each sprint has to be completed in a certain time based on where it lands within the set.

In early fall, I usually use Wave Runs to end our conditioning sessions. As we progress through fall practice, I start to use Wave Runs intermittently before and after volleyball-specific movement drills.

The volleyball-specific movements are all done in the sand because I believe this increases transfer to the game. I usually meet weekly with Nina and Marcio to discuss the skills they are trying to improve in practice, and I try to match my drills to complement their concepts. Our overall goal is to develop athletes who can move efficiently while fatigued and still be able to perform crisp and clean sand skills.

One of the volleyball-specific drills I run most frequently is the V-drill. During this activity, a player begins on the back line in a defensive position and sprints to a short ball area on either side of the court. She must touch a flag at each short ball area while in correct digging position before backpedaling and repeating the movement in the opposite direction. As the drill advances, the athlete shades into her defensive position before sprinting to the short ball area and uses pulling footwork off the flag instead of backpedaling. I like using the V-drill because it can’t be completed correctly without good conditioning.

I often add a little competition in the V-drill to motivate the athletes. In some cases, I’ll have a player get a set amount of flag touches in 25 seconds of work. Other times, I require a total amount of team touches, with each player striving to get as many as she can in 25 seconds.


The system I run for sand volleyball has taken three years to build and is still a work in progress. But what I have so far has helped produce some phenomenal results. I wouldn’t have been able to get these results without accommodating the sport’s unique demands and accounting for its differences from indoor volleyball.

Tweaks and changes to the program are less frequent now since success on the court has proven that we’re moving in the right direction. The Pepperdine sand volleyball training regimen is producing national championship-caliber players, and it shouldn’t need a lot of changing going forward.

As we enter this exciting time in collegiate sand volleyball, it is crucial for strength and conditioning coaches to develop systems for the sport. When you understand what sand volleyball is, accept feedback from your coaches, and are willing to be different, your program will hit any goals you set.


When transitioning indoor players over to sand, we have found it best to go slow. While these athletes participate in full practices with the sand team, they have modified strength and conditioning sessions for three to four weeks as part of our “sand immersion program.”

The switch to sand can bring about some issues for our indoor players because they’ve spent the previous six months on a hard floor in a gym while wearing ankle braces and shoes. Their feet, calves, and Achilles need to acclimate to the new surface before participating in all the drills and conditioning, otherwise injuries can arise quickly. Hamstring and hip flexor issues can also be a problem because the sand is much more taxing to move through.

To ease indoor players into our conditioning, I have them complete just a few movement drills in the sand and put them through short conditioning workouts during their first week. As the weeks go by and the transitioning players become more acclimatized to the new surface, I add them into the rest of the sand team’s movement drills. Once the indoor players are functioning well in the sand, I fully include them in our team conditioning.

It is also important to monitor for shoulder injuries during the transition from indoor to sand because all sand players are required to hit regularly. Because of this, some indoor players will see a sudden increase in their swing counts as practice starts. We prevent problems by implementing shoulder prehab, scapular stabilization, and rotary core movements at the beginning of the spring semester. I pay special attention to indoor players who already had high swing counts in the fall because further swings during the spring can lead to overuse issues.

A third piece of the sand immersion program is meshing my sand volleyball strength training regimen with the weightlifting program Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Bri Holder, MS, CSCS, USAW-1, puts together for the indoor team. Bri helps me assign loads and address any issues with the transitioning players since she works with them all fall. She also helps bridge the gap with our different rep schemes and work-to-rest ratios.


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