Sep 1, 2015Poised for Power
An offseason strength and conditioning program split into eight dedicated training phases helped prepare the University of Michigan softball team for a deep postseason run in 2015.
The following article appears in the September 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.
With five Big Ten Conference titles, two trips to the Women’s College World Series (WCWS), and a runner-up finish in 2015, the University of Michigan softball program has functioned like a well-oiled machine over the past five years. Many gears and cogs work together to achieve this level of success, and each coach and staff member uses their expertise to make the program better than they found it. Since 2011, I have had the opportunity to contribute to the squad’s triumphs as its strength and conditioning coach.
Michigan softball is driven by legendary Head Coach Carol “Hutch” Hutchins and her vision for the program, which places a premium on developing strength, power, speed, and overall fitness. My objective is to help fulfill that vision. Hutch communicates her thoughts and desires for the team and allows me to add my creativity, organization, and knowledge to design a plan and put it into action.
Our philosophy revolves around the use of ground-based, multi-jointed movement patterns in the weightroom, while concurrently addressing softball’s specific metabolic demands through conditioning. I also strive to create lasting impacts by promoting an atmosphere that develops the players’ competitive nature through shared physical adversity. The offseason is the ideal period to implement this plan.
Our offseason typically spans 34 weeks, running from June to the end of January. During the summer, we do strength training and conditioning work three times a week. Once the fall begins, we drop strength training and conditioning to twice a week and add two days of circuit training.
In the weightroom, I believe in strong fundamentals, and I ensure technical proficiency is reached in lifts before progressing the intensity and introducing more complex movements. Our primary offseason lifts are power cleans and clean pulls from various positions, back squats, front squats, Romanian dead lifts, glute-ham raises, presses, chin-ups, and inverted rows. When performed correctly and progressively overloaded, these movements provide the greatest opportunity for systemic strength and power development in our players.
Weightroom work for softball must also help maintain a balance between anterior and posterior strength in order to maximize performance and reduce injury risk. For this reason, I program exercises such as back squats and glute-ham raises or push presses and chin-ups in the same training session.
Our offseason conditioning and circuit training work varies between full-team and split-squad sessions depending on facility availability, weather, and the team’s practice schedule. Conditioning is comprised of many different components, including plyometrics; speed, agility, and quickness work; sprints; tempo runs; and shuttles of various lengths. These drills all help improve aerobic and anaerobic (both phosphagen and fast glycolytic) energy system development, speed, and power in our athletes. Developing an aerobic base is valuable in the early offseason to prepare the players for the higher-intensity anaerobic energy system development we do as the competitive season approaches.
Circuit training has been a staple of Michigan softball’s offseason plan since I started working with the team in 2011. It was part of Hutch’s vision and something she had wanted to include for years prior to my arrival.
I embrace the challenge of being creative with the equipment and space I have to design an effective circuit training session. The circuits allow me to train the team as a large group and incorporate movements that are difficult to include during our limited time in the weightroom, including medicine ball slams, battle rope slams, burpees, kettlebell swings, lunges, and planks. In addition, circuit training helps us target players’ metabolic conditioning, which improves their work capacity and body composition.
Typically, our circuits provide a total body workout. We perform them in a variety of fashions, including timed stations of 20 to 45 seconds of effort with varied work-to-rest ratios, completing an assigned number of reps as quickly as possible, or following Tabata protocol. I typically incorporate new circuits every two to three weeks to vary the sessions, which improves the likelihood of continued development.
Our 34-week offseason is divided into eight training cycles that can be between three and seven weeks in length. Each cycle has one of four emphases: General Physical Preparation (GPP), Basic Strength, Max Strength, or Power.
Last year, we spent 15 total weeks in GPP, 11 in Basic Strength, and four each in Max Strength and Power. A larger portion was spent in GPP and Basic Strength to build a foundation of work capacity and strength to prepare the players for the reduced training volume and intensities of the in-season. This was our cycle-by-cycle breakdown last year:
Weeks 1 to 7: GPP
Weeks 8 to 12: Basic Strength
Weeks 13 to 17: GPP
Weeks 18 to 20: Basic Strength
Weeks 21 to 24: Max Strength
Weeks 25 to 27: GPP
Weeks 28 to 30: Basic Strength
Weeks 31 to 34: Power.
Here’s a closer look at what each area of emphasis entails:
GPP: Typically, our GPP work occurs during periods of the offseason when practice volume is low. This prevents the accumulation of fatigue that may negatively impact skill development. The objective of this phase is to increase players’ muscular endurance and work capacity, with an emphasis on developing anaerobic and aerobic fitness–specifically the fast glycolytic and oxidative energy systems.
Our GPP strength training sessions are usually high volume, with three to five sets of eight to 12 reps per exercise. We also utilize low to moderate intensity, training at 55 to 75 percent of 1RM. (See “Part of the Plan” below for a sample GPP weightroom workout.)
For conditioning during GPP, we introduce basic plyometric movements, change of direction, and acceleration/deceleration mechanics. Additionally, reps in our energy system development period last from approximately one to three minutes per effort (approximately 300 to 800 yards) with work-to-rest ratios ranging from 1:1 to 1:3.
Basic Strength: The objective of these phases is to increase players’ muscular strength and improve their ability to handle increasingly heavier loads and higher force movements. We also address their anaerobic fitness, specifically the development of their phosphagen and fast glycolytic energy systems.
In the weightroom, our Basic Strength phases generally consist of moderate volume (three to six sets of three to eight reps) and moderate to moderate-high intensity (75 to 90 percent of 1RM). The conditioning focus during Basic Strength entails increased intensity and reduced volume, with reps lasting approximately 10 to 60 seconds per effort (approximately 75 to 300 yards) and work-to-rest ratios of 1:2 to 1:5. Additionally, we’ll progress into more advanced plyometrics and increase the frequency of change of direction and acceleration/deceleration work to address the specific physical demands of softball.
Max Strength: The goal of this phase is to build players’ absolute maximal strength while continuing to address anaerobic fitness. It generally consists of low volume (three to six sets of one to three reps) and high to very high intensity (90 to 100 percent or more of 1RM).
The intensity of our conditioning also increases during Max Strength, while the volume decreases. Reps last approximately three to 25 seconds per effort (approximately 20 to 125 yards) with work-to-rest ratios ranging from 1:2 to 1:6.
Power: The Power phase coincides with the start of the team’s preseason practices. The objective at this time is to increase players’ rate of force development, speed, and power, while maintaining their strength and anaerobic fitness levels developed during the Basic Strength and Max Strength training phases. This focus prepares players for the occasions in softball when a split second can make a significant impact–such as reacting quickly to a hard-hit ball, running the bases when a half-step can mean the difference between being safe or out, or generating force quickly from the hips to catch up to 70 mph pitches.
This phase consists of low volume in the weightroom (three to five sets of one to five reps) and varied intensities for Olympic lifts, their derivatives, and primary strength movements (70 to 85 percent of 1RM for power clean, 40 to 60 percent for back squat, front squat, and bench press). Our conditioning intensity during the Power phase remains the same as it does in Max Strength, with a slight reduction in volume. Plyometric and change of direction work increase in both intensity and frequency to prepare players for the upcoming season.
Offseason training can begin to feel monotonous over the course of 34 weeks. Rather than accepting this fact as “just the way it is,” I provide opportunities for the team to develop a competitive edge through shared physical adversity. This creates a bond among the players and helps them learn how to adapt to obstacles, which they can use to handle struggles during the season.
One of the most effective means of competition I employ is setting up our energy system development work as relay races. The players are split into groups of three to six, and depending on the desired outcome, I pick teams in one of three ways.
The first method is to assign them at random. I let several races play out and track the order of finish to determine if the competition is even. If one team is winning more than the others, I stagger start times and have the losing teams go first. This scenario reminds players that they sometimes have to deal with circumstances that don’t seem fair during games, accept them, and find a way to overcome them.
Another option is to design intentionally mismatched squads. For instance, Team A would be composed of the top three performers from the most recent fitness tests, while Team B would consist of the next three performers, and so on. I always stagger start times when I use this method because it evens the playing field and forces the athletes to perform in a role they are not accustomed to (i.e., the top three performers competing from behind or your bottom three performers competing with a large lead).
My third strategy is to make relatively even teams based on recent fitness test results. For example, a trio would include players from the top third, middle third, and bottom third. Typically, this method ensures varied finishes and high-quality competition.
UP FOR THE CHALLENGE
Last year’s offseason consisted of many opportunities for the team to compete and share physical adversity, but no single workout embodied this approach more than our inaugural “Oklahoma City Challenge.” Named after the location of the WCWS–where we strive to end each season–the Oklahoma City Challenge was a great way to wrap up our fall semester training. Over the course of two days, four teams of five players each competed in a number of grueling activities.
Day One of the Challenge consisted of four eight-minute stations, each involving four players participating and one player leading. The teams had the freedom to pick who would lead each exercise, but no individual could lead more than once. The stations were:
• 100-pound partner sled push for max distance
• Partner sit-ups for max reps
• Medicine ball squats for max reps
• Team 90-pound fat bar carry for max distance.
The group that had the longest distance or most reps at each station received four points, second place received three points, third place got two points, and fourth was awarded one point. A bonus point was given to the team with the top individual/partner performance in the first, second, and third stations.
Day Two was designed as obstacle course relay races, using the same scoring system from Day One. The obstacles were:
• Obstacle 1: 15-yard sprint to sandpit, 25-yard crawl across sandpit
• Obstacle 2: 165-pound sled drag backward and forward (approximately 33 yards each way)
• Obstacle 3: 30 reps of box jumps
• Obstacle 4: 25-pound plate pinch carry (approximately 33 yards each way)
• Obstacle 5: 110-yard sprint.
After completing the obstacle course relay, we headed to our final event: a team 300-yard shuttle. Each team member needed to complete a single 300-yard shuttle, and the same point system was used to reward first through fourth place.
Following the shuttle, final scores were calculated and revealed to the entire squad. The winning team put on an impressive performance, claiming victory in five out of six total challenges and earning 35 percent of the available points. These players received a prize and the inner satisfaction of overcoming the Challenge.
From a physiological standpoint, it would be difficult to argue that the Oklahoma City Challenge’s significant spike in total workload improved the players’ performance. However, that wasn’t the goal of the event. Instead, we were aiming to create a competitive atmosphere in which each individual could experience and overcome adversity.
That being said, we did plan ahead to prevent any negative physiological reactions and account for delayed onset muscle soreness. The Challenge was intentionally scheduled heading into a five-day holiday break, and the following week of strength and conditioning was prescribed with reduced volume because we were introducing a new training phase.
The success of the 2015 Michigan softball team can be attributed to the relentless effort of our coaches, student-athletes, and support staff. In order for us to continue being successful and building champions, everyone involved needs to continue embracing their roles in the process.
As for my role, I have no doubt that our strength and conditioning program has helped to improve our student-athletes’ physical abilities. I am constantly reminded how fortunate I am to be a part of this program and the Michigan athletic department. As I continue to evolve as a coach and a person, I will undoubtedly fall back on the many lessons learned and memories created during the 2015 season.
PART OF THE PLAN
Below are sample General Physical Preparation strength and circuit training workouts from the offseason program for University of Michigan softball.
Clean pull from the knee
• 2×5 warm-up at 50 to 65% of 1RM
• 3×5 at 75%
• 2×5 warm-up at 50 to 65%
• 4×6 at 70%
• 2×5 warm-up at 50 to 60%
• 3×10 at 65%
Supinated grip lat pulldown
• 4×8 at 70% (with 1RM estimated through a combination of chin-up test and bodyweight)
• 3×1 minute
Three rounds, 40 seconds per station, 20 seconds to rotate, and one minute rest between rounds. Complete as many reps as possible.
Station 1: Kettlebell swings
Station 2: Medicine ball slams
Station 3: Suitcase sit-ups
Station 4: Band pull-aparts
Station 5: Dumbbell reverse lunges.
KEYS TO COLLABORATION
A big part of my job as strength coach for the University of Michigan softball team is keeping open lines of communication with Head Coach Carol “Hutch” Hutchins and her staff. I also collaborate on a regular basis with the team’s Athletic Trainer, Brian Boyls-White, MS, ATC, and our Director of Performance Nutrition, Caroline Mandel, MS, RD, CSSD.
Brian and I have worked together for one season. In that time, we’ve gained a strong understanding for each other’s roles and learned how to most effectively communicate pertinent information. Whether it’s in person, over the phone, or via text message or email, we touch base frequently to ensure we’re both aware of any new player developments.
Additionally, Brian and I work together to implement performance and rehabilitative programs for our players. Just as I know what Brian is looking to accomplish in specific rehabs, he knows what I’m aiming to achieve in a specific training phase. Understanding what the other person is doing with the players helps prevent any of them from slipping through the cracks and ensures that we are doing everything we can to prepare them to compete.
Caroline and I have worked closely together for several years. She is a valuable educational resource for our players, and we rely on her for periodic body composition assessments and consultations.
When we have players who want to improve their body composition, Caroline helps them design a nutritional program that complements their individual training program. If a player is trying to add lean mass, for example, I know what Caroline is communicating to her in order to strategize nutrient timing and an increased caloric intake, just as Caroline knows the player’s training will involve high-volume strength work to illicit hypertrophy.