Sep 5, 2017Serve Its Purpose
By focusing on maximal strength and power, conditioning, and competitions, the offseason training regimen for Creighton University volleyball achieves its goal&emdash;ensuring the team hits its peak in the fall.
This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.
A lot has changed for Creighton University volleyball since my arrival in January of 2012. We moved from the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) to the Big East Conference, doubled the size of our weightroom to 6,000 square feet, and made the program’s first Elite Eight appearance.
The catalyst for this success was the 2012 offseason. We had a talented team, but the players needed to significantly improve their maximal strength and power outputs. In addition, Head Coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth’s number one priority was keeping the squad healthy. Taking these factors into account, we implemented a simple, linear model of periodization where we pushed the athletes to improve their work capacities, power production, and overall strength. As a result, the team went 29-4 that fall, won the MVC, and defeated Marquette University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Those accomplishments set the foundation for my relationship with Coach Booth and her staff. They also formed the basis for our strength and conditioning mindset and standards that continue to this day.
For example, in January of 2016, the team’s seniors and I set a goal of focusing on resilience for the upcoming offseason. We wanted to push the players to their limits&emdash;if not beyond&emdash;and see if they were capable of bouncing back.
It worked. By Thanksgiving, we had completed an undefeated conference slate. And by Dec. 9, we had won NCAA Tournament matches against the University of Northern Iowa, the University of Kansas, and the University of Michigan to claim our first spot in the Elite Eight. So yes, many things have changed for Creighton volleyball since 2012. But we still attack every offseason with the same mindset and standards that were established that first year.
Our offseasons begin with an annual meeting of the volleyball coaching and performance staffs, where we discuss our goals, practice schedules, and training intensities for the months to come. We have agreed to emphasize strength and conditioning from January to February and again in June and July. During March and April, we focus more on volleyball skills. Defining this framework lets me know when I can push the athletes and when I need to respect the work they’re doing on the court. It also helps limit injuries and avoid burnout.
From there, we shape the offseason according to our philosophy, which is simple: assess and address the needs of our current roster. We don’t focus on past programs or previous goals. Instead, we look to improve the hand we’ve been dealt.
Often, this requires incorporating many different strategies from my strength coach’s toolbox. There are countless training tactics out there, and I don’t hesitate to try new ones if I think they will help us reach our goals.
For instance, a simple, linear-style periodization model was successful in improving players’ max strength and power outputs in 2012. But in 2013, we introduced Tendo units and spent a few weeks on speed-strength. In the years since, we’ve experimented with velocity-based training (VBT) and EliteForm in a concurrent program with max strength because that’s what the team needed.
FOUNDATION OF STRENGTH
That leads us to our current offseason strength and conditioning program. Starting in the winter months, we lift four days per week.
In January, we focus on recovering from any lingering injuries that occurred in the fall, enhancing power production, and reintroducing and improving our foundational movements. These consist of Olympic lifts and their variants, including cleans, clean pulls, snatches, snatch pulls, trap bar dead lifts, front squats, and back squats, as well as a variety of push-ups, Turkish get-ups, and pulling variations. We use these exercises because they significantly improve power output, and, more specifically, vertical jump. Meanwhile, the pushing and pulling movements contribute to scapular stabilization, scapulo-thoracic rhythm, and the balancing of posterior upper-body strength.
At this early stage in the offseason, we keep most of the exercises simple and bilateral, emphasizing the eccentric and isometric portions of the lifts to improve body control and joint stability. This creates a foundation of strength that will directly contribute to our later success.
As February arrives, we increase our working intensities and shift our focus to maximal strength. Over the years, we have utilized a variety of methods during this phase. In 2016, we went with Autoregulating Progressive Resistance Exercise (APRE), a time-efficient and proven method to improve maximal strength. To implement APRE, I used the EliteForm system to set a velocity standard that called for submaximal effort in every third set, and I adjusted the velocity standard on every fourth set to provide for near-maximal effort. These velocity standards ensured that we would train maximal strength at a lower working volume.
We used APRE for trap bar dead lift or back squat, depending on each athlete’s femur length. Players with longer femurs performed APRE with the trap bar dead lift. These athletes tend to have a greater forward lean when completing the back squat, which can increase stress on the spine, but they usually don’t encounter this problem when doing dead lifts. Shorter-femur athletes used the back squat.
Following spring break, we switch to three days of lifting per week. This is also when we have a short spring mini-season, so we use a hybrid offseason/in-season program to accommodate the increase in on-court time.
In 2016, we used this phase to experiment with testing athletes’ power outputs on hang clean, hang clean pull, front squat, and/or trap bar dead lift via EliteForm, with loads ranging from 50 to 90 percent. We then looked at the data to determine where each player was peaking in each lift. Based on these results, we used different wave periodization protocols over the next five weeks (mid-March through April) to assign loads for lifts.
Most of our players spend the month of May at home training on their own. During these four weeks, they focus on the bilateral exercises from our January training, incorporating high volumes and low intensities. These simple movements are assigned at this stage because the players typically train without supervision at home, and it’s important that they can perform the exercises correctly. Core stability work is scheduled, as well, to give athletes a break from the rotation and flexion/extension work that occurs during the spring mini-season.
After Memorial Day, most players return to campus, and we increase to four days of lifting per week. Our defensive specialists/liberos also began performing APRE with bench press at this stage. These players spend a lot of time diving for the ball, and the additional muscle mass developed by bench pressing creates a shield for their body every time they hit the floor.
Middles, hitters, and right sides spend plenty of time during practice producing anterior movements with their upper body, so we avoid bench press with these players during June. Instead, they do variations of landmine presses. They do not use APRE with this exercise so we can more closely regulate their overhead pressing volume.
July, our final month of offseason training, focuses on maximizing power output with our primary strength movements and utilizing VBT with our Olympic lifts. The goal at this time is to progress from strength-speed to speed-strength parameters to more closely mimic the velocity of volleyball.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
Our offseason training is about more than just lifting, however. Beyond our weightroom work, we have a detailed agility, conditioning, and plyometrics program.
From January through early March, we spend two days per week on agility and plyometrics and two other days on conditioning. Following spring break, we eliminate plyometrics to avoid overuse injuries and drop to one day each of agility and conditioning. But in the summer, we return to two days of plyometrics and agility and two days of conditioning.
When training agility, we take a motor-control approach. This means that athletes begin by practicing their first step with a variety of movements&emdash;back drop, side step, sprint step, and so on. We encourage them to be conscious in their approach and finish in a position where they can easily transition into another movement. Then, we add steps and transitions to these progressions.
After footwork exercises, we integrate agility drills that encompass a variety of our practiced movements. One of my favorites is the funnel drill, which requires three pairs of cones. The first pair is placed approximately six to eight yards apart, the next pair is four to six yards apart, and the final pair is two to four yards apart. There is about five yards between each pair of cones.
To complete the drill, the players sprint between the first pair of cones, focusing on quick acceleration and immediate deceleration. They then move to the second and third pairs, incorporating different movement patterns at each one, such as a back drop between the first and second pair.
The funnel drill replicates the positioning and footwork that takes place on the court. When performing it, I encourage front-line players to imagine running at the net and then retreating. For back-line players, I have them think about the different reads they may see on each ball and how their movements would have to change accordingly.
By the summer, our agility work progresses to three-line drills focusing on acceleration/deceleration transitions and side-step transitions. We also use the zigzag drill and funnel drill to work on the integration of movement patterns and transition steps.
In July, we integrate auditory and visual cues in agility work to train reaction. The goal is to make our agility drills mimic what players will encounter on the court.
As for our conditioning work, we start broad and gradually get more specific to volleyball. Beginning in January, we perform High Intensity Continuous Training (HICT) and sprints of 60 yards or more. These methods allow us to improve athletes’ aerobic systems without compromising their fast-twitch muscle fibers. When completing HICT, we use resistance bands to do forward marches, back drops, and shuffles. We perform each movement for a specific amount of time and use active rest periods to maintain a heart rate between 150 to 160 beats per minute. With the sprints, we use a 1:5 or 1:6 work-to-rest ratio.
For February and March, we use a variety of methods to stress the athletes’ lactic systems. The greater their lactic threshold, the longer they can compete without feeling a significant amount of peripheral fatigue. This allows them to perform at higher levels for a greater period of time.
One example of this strategy in action is our Lactic Power Intervals (LPI), a series of short shuttles that contain specific movements (i.e., sprint, backpedal, and shuffle). The goal is for our athletes to perform as much work as possible in a set amount of time. The work period starts at 20 seconds and progresses to 40 seconds, with one to three minutes of rest between reps.
As we approach our spring season in late March and April, we include one day of alactic conditioning per week by focusing on Alactic Power Intervals (API). These help to increase power output for fast-twitch muscle fibers, which improves a variety of volleyball-specific skills. Each API requires athletes to perform five repetitions of resisted sprints for approximately 30 yards each. I use the term “approximately” because the goal is to perform each sprint in seven to 10 seconds, and we vary the distance based on the goal time assigned for that week.
During May, the players perform tempo runs and non-impact conditioning on their own. When they return to campus in June, we resume LPIs and add circuits for aerobic explosive repeats that include squat jumps, med ball slams, and push-up sprints. We begin by performing at a work-to-rest ratio of 1:5 and progress to 1:3.
In July, we shift our conditioning focus to lactic explosive repeats using a similar circuit style as our aerobic explosive repeats. However, our work-to-rest ratio changes to 1:1 and, eventually, 3:1. We also focus on alactic intervals using 60-yard shuttles that incorporate cutting.
Like our conditioning, offseason plyometric work progresses from general to sport specific. In January, we begin with simple movements such as counter jump holds, single-leg linear/lateral hurdle hops with squat touches, pogo hops, and the like. We increase volume over the month to prepare for higher intensities in February. Then in March and April, we skip plyos due to the increased jumping volume players experience on the court.
When the athletes go home in May, we reintroduce the plyo exercises that we started with in January. Once on campus again in June, the athletes perform linear and lateral variations of pogo hops and hurdle hops, focusing on minimal ground contact time and dorsiflexion of the ankle. In addition, we perform standing long jumps, two hurdle reaction jumps, lateral bounds with squat touches, VertiMax counter jumps, and box drop counter holds.
Finally, in July, we increase the reactive portion of our plyometrics. This entails VertiMax response jumps, depth jumps, and standing long jumps with vertical jumps.
Beyond standard lifting and conditioning work, I like to incorporate some fun, competitive elements into our offseason. This started in the spring of 2014, when the coaching staff and I decided to include daily contests to increase the players’ competitiveness and ability to push through challenges.
Every January, I meet with our seniors, and we divide the roster into two squads that battle for the title of “Offseason Champions.” We have a competition each day, and the winner is awarded points. At the end of the offseason, players on the winning team receive T-shirts.
The events on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays involve lifting, plyos, agility work, or conditioning drills. On Fridays, the activity is always something outside of the box. For example, we’ve played dodgeball, knockout, foam roller bowling, and Quidditch, and we’ve also incorporated reading and drawing competitions.
In tandem with our Offseason Champions initiative, we hold a “Queen of the Week” contest. We bestow this honor on the player who demonstrates effort, leadership, and intensity during workouts that week. She is awarded a tiara, which she is required to wear during warm-ups, and 10 points for her team.
After previously selecting the Queen of the Week myself, we now have the athletes vote anonymously for the winner. Allowing them this task has shown me how much they recognize the hard work put forth by their teammates. For instance, we had 12 players on our roster in 2016, and the Queen typically received eight to 10 votes each week. It was clear that the team knew who was working at the highest level.
Another new twist is that the Queen now gets to decide the weightroom attire on Fridays. This has resulted in many interesting themed dress-up days, including “American Friday,” “Ninja Friday,” “Disney Friday,” “Flannel Friday,” and many others.
Going hand in hand with our Offseason Champions and Queen of the Week initiatives is another activity that we introduced in 2014 when Coach Booth felt we needed to improve the team’s aggressiveness and mental toughness. As a result, we decided to institute one day per offseason where the players’ primary goal was to “survive and thrive.” From this, our “Death Day” was born.
Death Day consists of a number of physically demanding exercises or conditioning drills that push the athletes to their limits. We work it into the Offseason Champions competition and award points to the best team, individual, and leader.
The exercises for Death Day are usually formatted in a circuit, including battle ropes, weighted shuttle runs, push-up holds, and farmer’s walks. The circuits have three to six rounds. Following each round, we perform some type of “finisher.” Through the years, these have included towel pushes, army crawls, court suicides, and burpee waterfalls, but one of my favorites is the weighted wall sit competition. For this activity, each team selects a player to perform a 90-degree wall sit for maximal time. We add a 45-pound plate to the players’ laps every minute, up to a five-plate max. At that point, it comes down to who quits first.
I’m always amazed by the comments from the athletes following Death Day. They usually go like this: “That was awful, but I can’t believe how incredible I felt after,” or “I did way more than I thought I was capable of, and I never knew I had that in me.” I didn’t foresee these results back in 2014, but the team begs for Death Day every year now. It’s taken on its own identity, and many of our players see it as an offseason rite of passage.
The key to getting results when implementing these types of competitive activities is maintaining the line between having fun and losing control. Our players take pride in knowing when it’s time to work, and I ensure that they understand when it’s okay to have fun (i.e., playing dodgeball) and when they must be focused (i.e., APRE back squat).
Overall, the daily competitions are a big hit with the team and break up the monotony of lifting multiple times a week for months. In addition, they improve team culture. As we progress through the contests, players take ownership of their performances. This translates to the court and creates an understanding that they will only be as successful as they are willing to push themselves.
Our competitive efforts have also improved athletes’ focus and intensity in the weightroom. When they show up for training, all they want to talk about is the competition for the day and who is going to beat who. Their attitudes have changed from “Get in and get out!” to “How can I be my best today?”
During the offseason, we continually strive to learn and push our student-athletes forward. An offseason program will never guarantee a conference championship or an Elite Eight appearance. However, it’s a vital part of the road that can get us there.
Here’s an example of a June offseason workout for a Creighton University volleyball libero/defensive specialist.
AGILITY (Two rounds)
Base position x2 with shift
Base position and shuffle step x2 per side with shift
Base position and back step x2 per side with shift
Base position and sprint step x2 per side with shift
Base position and crossover x2 per side with shift
Integration with partner x2 (1 react, 1 lead)
PLYOS (Two rounds)
Pogo hops: Linear/lateral x 10 (linear) + 5 (lateral)
Standing long jump with stick: x3
Two-leg hurdles: Forward/backward and right/left x10 contacts each
Lateral bounds with squat touch: x4 per leg
1A. Clean (from floor): Warm-up set of 5 at 55% of 1RM
2×8 (4 clusters of 2 reps) at 65% of 1RM (15-second rest between clusters)
1B. Pec minor release with lacrosse ball: 3×20 seconds per side
2A. Barbell Bulgarian squat: 4×6 per leg at 60/70/80/80% of 1RM
2B. Dumbbell dead-stop row: 4×5 per arm, self-selected load
3A. Dumbbell farmer’s walk: 3×15 yards and back, self-selected load
3B. Single-leg squat: 3×5 per leg with bodyweight, weighted vest, or dumbbells