Jan 29, 2015
Raising Their Game

A simple, yet adaptable, off-season training program helps University of Southern California volleyball players get ready to attack the competition.

By Brent Metz

Brent Metz, MEd, CSCS, SCCC, USAW, is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Southern California, where he works with the women’s and men’s volleyball teams. He has also been a strength coach at the University of Texas and Fresno State University and can be reached at: [email protected].

For 21 straight years, the University of Southern California women’s volleyball team has finished its season in the NCAA Division I playoffs. And in seven of the last 12 seasons, the Trojans have reached the final four. But the successes of November and December are actually the culmination of year-round effort by the players and coaches. One piece of the puzzle is the team’s off-season strength and conditioning program, which I develop along with several members of the volleyball staff, including Head Coach Mick Haley. The primary goal is to help the players improve how well they apply force to the ground, which enables them to jump higher. However, a lofty vertical jump is not the only factor in volleyball success, so we also work on their lateral movement. And, since volleyball requires athletes to compete in repeated short bursts, there is also a conditioning component. We have to ensure they can recover quickly between points while maintaining the stamina to sustain their power and explosiveness through a long five-set match.

We use an Olympic-lift program built on a philosophy of doing explosive ground-based moves with heavy loads. We embrace the KISS principle (Keep it simple, stupid) and strive to perform a small set of exercises well rather than constantly changing lifts. The athletes are not here to become weightlifters, so the less time they have to spend learning exercises, the more time they can devote to becoming stronger and bettering their skills on the court.

To show you how we accomplish this at USC, I will take you through a typical off-season workout (see “Sample Workout” below). Along the way, I’ll explain why we’ve chosen the exercises and lifts we use, and I’ll detail the variations we make to our workouts from day to day to maximize performance gains.


Like most workouts, ours begin with a thorough warmup period. In the past, we used different warmup exercises each day so the athletes wouldn’t get bored. However, this deviated from the KISS principle, and we were changing exercises so often that athletes didn’t have a chance to improve in any of them. Now we use one warmup routine with a few variations, and the results have been fantastic. We’ve found that athletes don’t get bored when they see themselves improving. We use an active warmup that progresses from slower to faster movements. In addition to getting the athletes ready for strength and agility work, the warm-up also focuses on improving their thoracic range of motion in order to enhance thoracolumbar control. We achieve this through the use of Bodyblades, shoulder bands, and core exercises.

We start with the blades, which work on the sequencing of shoulder muscles through reciprocal inhibition. We perform three standard exercises with the blades. For the first, the arm is held straight out to the side with the blade vertical and vibrating front to back. The second features the arm overhead with the blade horizontal and vibrating left to right. For the third, the arm is held straight out front with the blade horizontal and vibrating up and down. The exercises are done with each arm for up to 20 seconds. Sometimes our athletes have difficulty pulsing the blade with their arm locked. When this occurs, we have them use an elbow bend to create movement. If they continue having difficulty performing the exercises properly using one arm, we allow them to use two arms until they master the blade. Next, we move to band and tubing work. We have the athletes perform static holds against the tubing in three positions–a block, a “W,” and an external rotation. We usually have them do four sets of five-second holds. From there, the athletes stretch the tubing into a snatch grip to perform overhead squats followed by Sotts presses. We finish the warmup with core exercises. We typically use a farmer’s walk because this exercise enables athletes to brace their core in a stable position while still moving.

The athletes will carry a 30 to 50 kilogram barbell, depending on their strength level, for 20 meters. We also do overhead carries with dumbbells in the 50 to 70 pound range as a variation.

The core portion of the warmup concludes with the standing ab roller, where the athlete uses a barbell starting from a pushup position on the toes. This exercise is useful because it’s similar to performing a block on the court. Our athletes can typically only move the barbell out two to six inches from the starting position before they lose control, so teaching them how to manage rotation in the body while halting pelvic tilt is extremely important. We show them how by teaching them to make the bar roll away by moving their arms at the shoulder instead of dropping the hips down or forward. Once athletes feel their hips sliding forward, they shorten the distance of the rollout on the next rep.


After the warmup, we progress into the agility and conditioning portion of our workout. Throughout the off-season, we do agility drills twice a week, and slideboard and interval sprints once a week each.

Any activity that requires multiple quick changes of direction can be used as an agility drill. We rely on traditional cone drills, such as the wheel drill, T-drill, L-drill, and the NBA agility drill, as well as custom movements set to mimic various volleyball movements, such as a blocking sequence or a defensive move. We also do a drill with six different colored cones set up in a diamond pattern six meters long and four meters wide. The athletes have to sprint the color pattern I call out, and we typically go six to eight colors per rep.

When we first present a new agility drill to athletes, we give them only basic directions. For example, for the wheel drill, they will be told only that their left foot goes to the outside cone and their right foot goes to the center cone. We do not explain the best way to perform the activity because we want them to try to find the quickest one on their own. Once they are comfortable with the drill and have chosen their favorite path, we show them the optimum footwork. After athletes have the preferred patterns down, we add different starting cues. For example, someone stands in front of the athlete with a ball in each hand. Whichever hand drops the ball determines the direction in which the athlete runs. The next step is using balls that are color coded to the cones, and the color of the ball that drops determines the cone the athlete runs to. We start our agility drills this way to teach the athletes to react and make decisions quickly, like they do during games.

Our sprint work is designed more for conditioning than agility. Both slideboard and interval sprints follow a decreasing-rest protocol. The goal is to develop quick-burst acceleration and the ability to maintain repeatable speed. In volleyball, athletes have a short time to rest between points. No activity lasts longer than 30 seconds, and points typically are much shorter.

On the slideboard, we do no more than seven sets of sprints that last 20 seconds, with an initial rest period of 30 seconds. The rest will decrease to 10 seconds as the athletes progress. Throughout the reps, we focus on keeping the foot dorsiflexed before contact with the footplate so we get a quicker response in the opposite direction and using a wide stance so the legs have to move separately from the torso. This enables greater force creation because the feet are in a better acceleration position.

We perform our sprint intervals on a basketball court, starting with four and three-quarter lengths of the court. This is basically a 150-meter shuttle, and athletes have 27 seconds to make it across the finish line. The training begins with three sprints at a 3:1 rest interval, and we add one sprint a week until the athletes reach five. We then drop back to three sprints, but this time at a 2:1 rest interval, and again add one sprint a week until they reach five. The final level is three sprints at a 1:1 rest interval that builds to five.

Athletes then advance to covering two and three-quarter court lengths (approximately 80 meters) in less than 15 seconds. We then follow the same progression through 3:1, 2:1, and 1:1 rest intervals. The results of our agility program have been fantastic. We’ve noticed significant speed gains when we test 10- and 20-meter sprints, and the volleyball coaches have noted the players’ faster recovery times, which make practices faster and more intense.


The heart of our off-season workout is strength building in the weightroom. The goal is to help our players build the strength to better develop the skills they will learn from their coaches. We focus on training the legs because they form the basis for most athletic movements in volleyball. Our players lift five days a week in the spring and four in the summer. Each day, we perform an explosive move, a squat, a push, a pull, and a rotation. One thing we do a little differently than most programs is that our athletes always wear weightlifting shoes for lifting sessions. We started this practice in 2008, and it has provided a noticeable difference in stability, range, and the amount of weight our athletes can lift.

Explosive: Our explosive exercises are typically cleans, snatches, or split jerks. Most of the time, we do eight to 10 sets of one or two reps, but we never exceed three reps per set because our testing has shown that bar speed starts to decrease once athletes reach the third rep. Since the focus is on power production, we stick to three reps or less at loads of at least 80 percent.

Because of this emphasis on power, rest intervals are not timed for the Olympic lifts. Athletes are free to take as long as they need to recover between sets because we want their best effort each and every time they lift. Squats: Our second lifting move of the day is always a squat move. In addition to single- and double-leg squats, these include dead lifts; step-ups; single-leg, rear-elevated squats in either a front rack, back, or overhead position; overhead squats; single-leg seated squats; split squats; single-leg dead lifts; and lateral step-ups.

We choose each player’s squat movement based on her specific performance needs. If an athlete is a big-time jumper, she doesn’t need a lot of improvement on her rate of force development, but she may need more stability and strength. In a case like this, we assign her a dead lift variation. Athletes who are strong but do not have a great vertical jump do front squats or front-loaded, single-leg, rear-elevated squats because they force a forward shin angle, which helps increase the rate of force development.

We follow the squat movement with some form of post-activation potentiation. Players with a good vertical leap are usually assigned a lateral jump, which forces them to maintain tightness in the torso and control the movement of their upper and lower body. Our lateral jumps typically call for an instant change of direction on contact. We like to use lateral two-footed hops where an athlete jumps for distance off two feet back and forth, double-hop comebacks for distance and quickness, and lateral jumps over different height hurdles.

Athletes who are not as strong with their vertical leap are assigned a linear jump, such as an approach jump, multiple broad jumps, or progressively higher box jumps. Because we’re trying to increase the athletes’ rate of force production, the exercise requires full effort from them to be successful. We typically use a 42- to 52-inch box for approach jumps. We also like to add a broad jump before the approach jump by placing a 24-inch tall foam box in front of the landing box. Presses: Most of our pressing movements are overhead, such as a standing press, push press, and split jerk. These were chosen due to their large recruitment of musculature and the coordination required to perform them successfully. Also, many volleyball movements (including serving, hitting, blocking, passing with hands, and setting) require the athlete to remain in control while their arms are overhead.

Younger athletes are assigned standing presses because they need to develop base strength and are still learning to control their core. For older players, we rely on push presses and split jerks. When athletes are learning the movements, both legs are worked, but once they have the movements down and we start to push big loads, the same leg always goes forward. Our horizontal presses include push-ups, dumbbell floor presses, or dumbbell one-arm inclines. We very rarely–maybe three or four times a year and only in the summer–do bench presses, and then only so the athletes can see their strength gains.

All presses (except split jerks) are supersetted with dumbbell rows of some type, including standing, Chinese, landmine, low cable, and cable balance. We typically do four to six sets, starting at five repetitions and working up to eight before increasing the weight and dropping back down to five. Almost all of our rows require a hold in the full contraction for one to three seconds, with a focus on keeping the shoulder back so as not to shrug. Pulls: Since we do a lot of rows with our presses, our primary pull exercises are pull-up variations. Typically, we perform chin-ups or negative chin-ups with and without weight twice a week, and traditional pull-ups and TRX inverted pull-ups once a week. In the spring, we add neutral grip pull-ups. We focus on a full hang to full pull movement with the chest touching the bar. Back strength is extremely important in volleyball not just as a postural issue but because it also protects the arm in deceleration. As back strength improves, hitting speed increases and the athlete’s strength in pressing exercises improves. Rotational: The last exercise is a rotational lift that varies from landmine twists in various forms of cable exercises. Regardless of the movement or the speed of rotation, the focus area is the feet. Since all rotational speed begins with foot contact, proper placement is imperative. We want to make sure feet are properly set in order to create the correct angle to apply force to the ground. During the spring, we emphasize proper rotational technique by having the athletes perform slow movements, allowing for corrections in foot, hip, elbow, and head positions. As spring progresses into summer, all cable rotations are done for speed without sacrificing form.


Once the weightlifting is done, we finish the workout with 15 to 20 minutes of soft-tissue work. Initially, the players roll out using PVC pipe that hits deep into the muscle. After each individual has rolled the areas focused on in that day’s exercises, we progress to partner soft-tissue work. Players use their forearm and elbow on each other to work the same areas as before, spending one minute on each section. Then, we go back to the weightroom and perform soft-tissue work on the feet using golf balls and ropes to iron out the arch area, which tends to become knotted. During our workouts, the athletes perform a lot of overhead and Olympic lifts, which can produce tight traps that limit overhead arm action. At the end of a session, we will load up a barbell with 40 to 50 kilograms of weight and place one end of the bar on the athlete’s trap. She will then stand up so the weight is on her trap. Next, we have them perform front-arm raises. The athletes finish by using rubber bands to perform different traction-style stretches for their hips, ankles, shoulders, elbows, and knees.

This typical off-season workout is just one piece of a performance-training puzzle that also includes proper periodization, attention to nutrition, and effective testing and assessment. And these all fit into a larger plan that includes skill development, mental training, and of course, talent. Only when all the pieces fit together can a team enjoy the kind of success USC volleyball has experienced.


Here is a typical off-season workout session for the University of Southern California’s women’s volleyball team.

Warmup Bodyblade exercises (20 seconds each): – Arm to side – Arm overhead – Arm out front Tubing/bands Static holds (4 sets of 5 seconds each): – Block – “W” – External rotation

Overhead squats into snatch grip followed by Sotts presses

Core Farmer’s walk (40 kg for 20 meters) Standing ab roller

Agility & conditioning Wheel drill x4 Dog drill x 4 L-drill x 4 Sprint backpedal x 4

Strength Explosive: Cleans (8 sets of two reps at 80%) Squat move: Back squats (5-6 sets of 2-3 reps at 85% of 1RM) followed by lateral jumps Push: Push presses (5 sets of 3-4 reps at 70-75% of clean max) Pull: Chin-ups (4 sets of as many reps as possible) Rotation: Cable rap

Soft-tissue work Roll out using PVC pipe Partner work using forearm and elbow Golf balls Battle ropes Bars

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