Jan 29, 2015
Spiking the Off-Season

The strength and conditioning program for the Purdue University volleyball team centers around a team-based training philosophy shared by the entire sports performance department.

By Christina Specos

Christina Specos, ATC, CSCS, is Associate Director of Sports Performance at Purdue University, where she oversees the sports performance programs for the volleyball, women’s basketball, and women’s soccer teams. She can be reached at: [email protected].

The Purdue University volleyball team had its best season in over 25 years in 2011, advancing to the NCAA Division I Tournament round of 16 and finishing second in the Big Ten Conference. It was the Boilermakers’ best Big Ten performance since 1987. The squad beat seven ranked opponents during the season and earned its highest national ranking (8th) since 1983.

To compete at this level, first and foremost, great coaching and recruiting is needed to build a cohesive team with a high talent level. But there is something to be said for the behind-the-scenes support personnel and programming that provide the players with facilities and the right training program to keep them healthy, strong, and on the court for the long haul.

The 2011 season was the first that I worked with the volleyball team, and it was great to see the squad perform so well on the court after putting in great effort in the weightroom. In this article, I explain the philosophy that all the Boilermaker teams train under, as well as how I worked with the volleyball team during its voluntary off-season last summer.


The mission of the Purdue sports performance department is all encompassing. Our collective goal is to serve our athletes’ physical needs by implementing the most comprehensive and cutting-edge training programs possible. We build these programs around sound principles derived from solid research.

However, while we strive for our training programs to develop our athletes physically, we also want to develop character in the players we work with. We hold individual accountability in high regard, but also push each athlete to be accountable to his or her teammates. We utilize a team-based training environment, which we believe provides the athletes with opportunities to support each other and improve team cohesiveness and school pride.

For example, instead of holding open lift times for athletes to trickle in and lift on their own, we conduct team training sessions. The sports performance staff views an entire team training together as a great way for players to bond in the off-season, promote energy within each session, and create an environment of personal accountability from one teammate to another.

Teams often share training space, though every athlete is supervised and continuously coached throughout each team session. It is not uncommon to see the swimming and diving, cross country, and volleyball teams in the weightroom at the same time. Athletes and coaches tell us that they love seeing how other teams train and having the opportunity to support their fellow Boilermakers.

The sports performance staff uses a team-based approach as well. The entire staff subscribes to these words that adorn the performance facility: “No one of us is as strong as all of us.” We believe in support for each other and unity and continuity in our program. One way we promote this is through our staff structure. Each of the strength coaches is the head performance coach for a sport, but also assists with others. We all work together during team training sessions and in the development of each other’s training programs.

At the beginning of the year, we all get together in a staff meeting and review each coach’s plan for the upcoming seasons. The feedback and knowledge we share with each other is crucial because we also believe that no one of us is as smart as all of us. It also provides our staff with a challenging atmosphere. We defend our programming and rationale, but at the same time are open to feedback and collaboration. Our backgrounds are diverse and extensive, and this approach has been very beneficial for our athletes throughout the year.

As the head performance coach for volleyball, I meet a minimum of once per week with the volleyball coaching staff during the off-season. (While in season, we communicate much more frequently.) It’s very important for me to know the team’s practice plans in order to design training sessions that complement the coaches’ goals.

For example, if the team is scheduled for a training session on a day that the coaches have planned a light practice to give the players a break, I tailor our training session to be somewhat of a break as well. A quick circuit made up of simple functional movements like lunges, pushups, core work, and some cardio options, instead of heavy weights satisfies this goal. During preseason training camp two-a-days and when practice is heavy on defensive work or the coaches incorporate intense drills, I eliminate weights completely. Instead, I’ll take the team through a Pilates mat work session.

The sports performance staff also values the relationships we have with other parties involved in the improvement of our athletes. We foster great working relationships with our team physicians, sports psychologist, sports nutritionist, the director of our John Wooden athlete leadership institute, and our athletic trainers.

A collaborative relationship with our athletic trainers helps to shape any changes we decide to make in training sessions. I firmly believe that factoring in recommendations from our medical staff has been instrumental to our success and has helped keep the athletes healthy and able to maintain strength and conditioning levels throughout the season.

With a solid communication system in place, we make sure no athlete falls through the cracks. Every player attends every lifting session and if they are unable to perform certain lifts due to injury, we have a plan in place to maximize what the athlete can do within her limitations.


Here’s a look at how I designed the team’s summer training program last year. To begin, I pulled all players’ injury histories, screening results, and past performance and strength test results. This information shaped the way I approached the squad’s training program, including decisions on training surfaces and exercise selections.

I identified two returning athletes who had a tendency to develop quadriceps/patellar tendonitis when doing lots of heavy lifting and running. Knowing that the team had a long season in front of them and not wanting the tendonitis to become a team-wide issue, it was important for me to incorporate a progressive strength training program that included mandatory stretching and recovery before and after each session. I also had the team perform its long distance runs on indoor turf, which is softer than pavement or the gym floor.

Next, I spoke with the coaching staff to find out what they most wanted the players to improve. In other words, how could my work with the team translate into success on the court? There were three points they emphasized: Getting better at closing the block, being quicker off the ground, and increasing vertical jump.

One of the ways I satisfied the need to close the block was through using Keiser wall units. I had the front row players perform various lateral crossover steps to jump and lateral shuffle-to-jump combinations with a Keiser belt around their waist that pulled from the side. I had backcourt players and defensive specialists shuffle out quickly, break their momentum, and laterally walk back without the jump.

The Keiser equipment also gave me the opportunity to teach the team about core control, especially when landing. The players were able to feel how much upper body control and postural alignment matters during landing with the belt attached to their waists.

In order to train quickness off the ground and increase jump height, I focused more on where the jump starts: hip drive and extension. The players always did hip-driven exercises during our workouts, including kettlebell swings, band squats, and Romanian deadlifts. I also emphasized the importance of rep speed, often using two or three counts in the downward phase of a squat or Romanian deadlift. Finally, I incorporated exercises like dumbbell step-ups, crossover step-ups, curtsy lunges, and single-leg lateral squats using suspension straps to build single-leg and hip strength and control.

Beyond these adjustments, I took into account some sport specific concerns that I had. One of my worries was risk of low back and postural issues associated with the continuous bending forward in the traditional “ready” stance on the volleyball court. Another concern was the demand that repetitive setting and serving places on the spine. To combat this issue, I included the lumbar-friendly front squat. Using the front squat emphasizes how important it is to reduce the risk of lumbar lordosis under load. It can also help improve posture.

Other exercises that I incorporated centered on core stability. My Pilates background enabled me to introduce exercises that focused on keeping the spine stable while moving the extremities. In my mind, Pilates exercises are great because of the support they provide the spine.

Finally, a simple pushup test showed me that the team was deficient in core strength. The players’ cores would sag long before they could do enough reps to fatigue the upper body. As a result, core stability became a central focus of the program.


I was fortunate to have almost the entire team present on campus for our voluntary summer program, which we started in June, but the athletes were on their own for the month of May. In order to help them prepare for their return to campus in June, I sent each player home with a DVD of the program I wanted them to complete on their own.

I worked with one of the athletic department video coordinators to produce the DVD. In it, I showed players everything from how to read the workout card to my expectations on tracking their progress, and most importantly, why I chose the exercises I did. I want the players to understand the goal of each training session. The DVD was my way of connecting with them since I couldn’t do it in person.

On the DVD, I took the athletes through their entire workout, one exercise at a time. I didn’t want to send the athletes home confused or without proper education on the names of exercises or how to execute them properly. I was a new staff member and didn’t want them to abandon the take-home program because they had no idea what I was talking about or hadn’t adjusted to my style of coaching yet.

When June rolled around, the players started to work on building a strong conditioning base. We began with 110-yard tempo runs early in the summer, then built up to 300-yard shuttle work drills. I also eventually added in 10- and 20-yard sprints to train acceleration.

Also included in the team’s conditioning work were agility and cone drills such as star and partner mirror drills where players were required to change direction at cones placed five to 10 yards apart. After observing film of a volleyball match and timing rallies and the breaks between them, I figured there was roughly a one-to-three work-to-rest ratio during matches, so I kept that same ratio in our agility drills.

All tempo conditioning activities were completed following lifting sessions two days per week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the team did shorter lateral speed and the agility and cone drills. Depending on how the players were feeling, I’d scale back or add more to each workout so that we found a good balance.

Players came in to hit the weights four days per week. Before lifting, we always began with self myofascial release, various mobilization and activation exercises, and a movement prep session that included dynamic stretches and some movement and neural activation drills.

I built a split-body routine with a different primary emphasis each day. Every lifting session began with a power movement–an Olympic lift or plyometric jumps, for example. Then, each workout was structured with three main “blocks” of a mini complex. The mini complex consisted of a main lift (like a squat), a mobilization exercise (like a figure four hip or lunge stretch), and a core/posture/corrective exercise (like plank work or various exercises determined necessary by the Functional Movement Screen). (See “Typical Week” below for more details on each day’s focus.)

Prehab, or corrective exercise, is very important to the entire sports performance staff at Purdue. Once implemented on a regular basis, the athletes saw positive changes in their posture, movement, and readiness to train the next day. They began to understand the importance of why we hold it in such high regard. Some of my favorite prehab exercises are:

– Half-kneeling lunges and heel-toe walk-throughs for ankle mobility – Clam shells, lateral band walks, internal and external rotations, and X-band lateral walks for hip/gluteus medius strength – Kneeling thoracic open-ups and side-lying thoracic openers/twists for thoracic spine mobilization – Face pulls and tubing pull-aparts for scapula retraction.

Toward the end of our lifting workouts and before conditioning work, the players did what I called a team circuit. The circuit is a blend of core and movement exercises to be done within a specific time limit and with minimal rest. The idea is to draw a conditioning response by mimicking high intensity intervals similar to match play work-to-rest ratios.

One of my favorite circuits includes medicine ball throws, battling rope slams, kettlebell swings, jump rope, and standing partner manual resistance with a med ball. All are done for time, usually 30 seconds, then rotating to the next exercise while taking a 10- to 15-second break. I like it to be interactive and competitive–high energy and high intensity.

One of the most fulfilling parts about being strength and conditioning coach is hearing from the players and coaches that they’ve noticed a difference. In the volleyball team’s case, players said they felt great going into practice. They described feeling “light” and not having a “heavy leg” feeling after lifting sessions. They also enjoyed the focus on functional movement and recovery.

Sidebar: NEW DIGS

The Purdue University volleyball team has had the luxury to begin training in the newly renovated and recently rededicated Mackey Arena. It was a five-year, $100 million project that, in addition to renovations of the current area, added 14,000 square feet of extra training space.

The layout of the facility reflects the flow and structure of our team training sessions. The first thing you see upon walking in is a 30-yard turf space where team workouts begin with active warmups. We also use the turf for corrective work and core strengthening exercises, and occasionally when we want the team to circuit train. The fact that this much open space was allocated to this part of our workout shows just how much we value movement training as the basis of each sport. Movement must be trained well, and in some form, in each and every session.

The equipment housed in Mackey Arena is state-of-the-art. We can truly provide our athletes with the best possible opportunity to improve with the equipment we have at our disposal. The facility contains everything that’s a staple in modern training programs, including a designated suspension strap station, medicine ball wall, platforms and racks, a cardio machine area, Keiser equipment, and other tools like bungee cords and self-massage implements.

The icing on the cake is the video and computer system that analyzes movement and exercise technique. We have five cameras mounted in various locations around the room, each of which are hooked up to a computer. We turn the cameras on during team training and individual training sessions in order to give real-time feedback to our athletes about their movements and how they can improve form and technique.

Some of the cameras are fixed and others rotate 360 degrees, so we have them positioned in a way that every part of the room can be recorded. We also have a portable camera that we can take on the turf to record an athlete performing a certain exercise. We just download the video to the computer to analyze it.


Here is a sample week of the Purdue volleyball team’s off-season lifting routine. The players paired off into partners and while the first player performed her main lifts, the second player would complete stretches and mobility work. Each day ended with a core circuit that included varying stability work and suspension strap, medicine ball, and ropes exercises.

Monday (lower body)

Superset 1 Focus: Total body/power: light hang clean to front squat warmup, hang cleans, trap bar deadlift Superset 2 Focus: Lower body pushing: double leg and single leg Superset 3 Focus: Lower body pulling: knee flexion and posterior chain straight leg hip extension

Tuesday (upper body)

Superset 1 Focus: Total body/power: jerks Superset 2 Focus: Upper body push: bench press, stretches, face pulls Superset 3 Focus: Push/pull supersets: med ball pushups and underhand lat pulls

Wednesday (lower body push)

Superset 1 Focus: Total body/power: light hang clean to front squat warmup, power shrug clusters, rear foot elevated lunges Superset 2 Focus: Lower body push and lower body pull: knee flexion Superset 3 Focus: Lower body push: single-leg, straight leg posterior chain hip extensions

Thursday (upper body and auxiliary)

Superset 1 Focus: Total body/power: dumbbell snatch and speed bench cluster Superset 2 Focus: Upper back/scapular and shoulder work: tubing pull aparts and rear delts Superset 3 Focus: Upper back/scapular and accessory: face pulls, shrugs, curls to press, scap pushups

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