Jan 29, 2015Staying On Top
The University of Florida volleyball team’s off-season strength training program is created based on the results of a specially designed athlete test.
By Matt DeLancey
Matt DeLancey, NSCA-CPT, CSCS, USAW, is Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at the University of Florida, where he works with the volleyball, swimming and diving, and track and field teams. He can be reached at: [email protected] or through his Web site at: www.purepowerathlete.com.
The University of Florida volleyball program has posted some pretty impressive results over the years. Head Coach Mary Wise has led the team to more than 700 victories in her 20 years at the helm. During that time, the Gators have never been ranked outside the top 15 of the American Volleyball Coaches Association final poll.
Last season, the team became the first to finish the Southeastern Conference regular season with a perfect league record since double round robin play started in 2006. In the postseason, the Gators won their 19th SEC championship and for the 20th consecutive year, reached the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship round of 16 before being upset by Purdue. To top it all off, the team produced three All-Americans.
While these stats may be the envy of most coaches, there’s another, less publicized one that we are very proud of: Last season, not one player missed a practice or match due to injury. I have no doubt that our training program has a lot to do with both the team’s on-court performance and keeping everyone healthy and ready to contribute.
VOLLEYBALL TESTS ONLY
When working with the volleyball team, I base the squad’s training program on its initial off-season baseline test results. This data reveals where our players are deficient and allows me to design the most effective training program possible.
Because this data is so crucial to the program design, what I test for is the most important part of the equation. My main goal is to help the athletes perform better in their sport, so the tests I choose must be volleyball-specific. And they must be specific to volleyball played at the top rungs of NCAA Division I.
At this elite level, long rallies are not the norm. The average rally lasts only 14 to 20 seconds. An ace lasts one to two seconds depending on if there was a touch on the ball. And a serve, pass, set, and kill sequence averages about four seconds. The ball is usually on each side of the net for only three to five seconds. The point here is that the physical tests employed with volleyball players should mirror the short bursts of energy needed on the court.
In addition to the initial test day at the start of the off-season, the players are also tested midway through, and a final time before two-a-day practices begin in August. Here are the physical tasks our volleyball players perform on test day:
Approach jump: At the NCAA Division I level, most elite players can reach between 10 feet and 10 feet, three inches, so we strive for the top end of this range. This height gives our players a great chance to hit over a block or have high hands on the other side of the net. We use the Vertec apparatus to measure approach jump height.
Box jump: I expect our athletes to jump onto a 44-inch box from a quarter-squat position. Being able to reach this height guarantees a great static jump at the net.
Agility: Volleyball players are forced to change direction every three to five steps, so agility is very important for performance development. To test this, we use an on-court volleyball-specific pro agility test. I set up three cones, each three yards apart. Starting at the middle cone, the player shuffles to the cone on either their right or left. After reaching that cone, they change direction into a crossover sprint to the far cone on the other side. From there, they shuffle back to the middle cone, which finishes the drill. The goal is to complete the test in 2.9 seconds or less.
Overhead press: This is a simple test of shoulder strength. I expect each player to perform at least three reps of 95 pounds. However, this is just a starting point. The ultimate goal for each player is to overhead press 75 percent of their body weight three times. If a player can complete five reps of 95 pounds, then at our mid-season test she will try to lift 10 pounds more weight. As the players’ overhead press weight and reps increase, we’ve documented an increase in hitting speed and decrease in shoulder injuries.
Front squat: I expect our athletes to front squat 135 pounds at least five times. As with the overhead press, this is just a starting point. The goal is for the players to be able to front squat their body weight five times. When a player is able to squat their body weight, we’ve seen great jump performance and a significant drop in reported nagging aches and pains.
Overhead squat: The overhead squat isn’t tested with leg strength in mind, but rather sport-specific mobility, which gives us insight into lower body weaknesses. The seven things I look for in the overhead squat are heels down, feet straight ahead or slightly turned out, proper hip and knee relationship, proper knee and toe relationship, shoulder mobility, flat back (not arched), and proper head alignment.
Plate pinch: I expect that our athletes are able to hold a 25-pound plate in each hand for at least one minute. Grip strength is important for volleyball players for several reasons, the biggest being that stronger grip strength means stronger fingers, which translates to fewer jammed fingers. And when a player does jam a finger, having a strong grip typically lessens the severity.
Shuttles: I have the athletes complete shuttle runs of three different distances: 60, 100, and 300 yards. We test the shuttles at various distance intervals. Using the 60-yard shuttle as an example, sometimes we run it over and back at 10-yard intervals, and other times we run it 15 yards out and back, then 10 yards out and back, and finally five yards out and back. In both scenarios, the goal time is 12.5 seconds. The goal time for the 100-yard shuttle is 21 seconds, and for 300 yards, it’s 55 seconds.
Pavel sit-up: The perfectly executed Pavel sit-up means keeping the heels on the floor and not using momentum. This movement is a great indicator of core strength, and I expect our volleyball players to perform 75 sit-ups in 90 seconds. Core strength is especially important for volleyball players because when an athlete jumps, the only way they can control their body in the air is via their core. Great trunk strength also helps a server or hitter follow all the way through when striking the ball, which translates to a more powerful hit.
Single-leg stadium hop: In volleyball, single-leg landings occur 50 to 70 percent of the time, so working on single-leg strength and landing technique is essential for a safe landing. In this test, I have the players aim for 30 steps in less than 10 seconds, one leg at a time (not alternating).
Armed with this information from the team’s test day, the first thing I do is analyze how the players did overall. The biggest deficit areas usually emerge in the single-leg hop test and overhead press test. Then, I take a simple general training template and fill in the blanks depending on which areas need the most work. Here’s what I start with:
• Monday: Quickness and speed work, agility, and jump school • Tuesday: Strength and prehab work, and volleyball-specific conditioning • Wednesday: Weak links • Thursday: Quickness and speed work, agility, and jump school (single-leg focus) • Friday: Strength and prehab work, and volleyball-specific conditioning.
Quickness and speed work: We utilize the agility ladder, jump ropes, and dot drills for developing quickness. Each activity is relatively low intensity, making them excellent warmup drills. They also prepare the athletes to progress into the more intense portion of the upcoming workout. When crunched for time, being able to warm up the athletes and train quickness at the same time is very helpful.
The team’s speed work consists of track sprint drills during the warmup phase that include skipping and bounding, plyometric drills like box jumps, Olympic lifts that include clean and snatch variations, and both resisted and non-resisted sprints. Sprint performance has been positively correlated to jump performance, so this is an especially important area for the team.
Agility: Because volleyball requires so many quick direction changes, I put a big emphasis on agility in the off-season, even for players who tested well in the agility category. As mentioned earlier, volleyball players have to change direction every three to five steps, and our agility drills reflect this demand.
Jump school: Every volleyball player I’ve worked with has wanted to be able to jump higher. Approach jump height is a measuring stick among the players, and they take pride in their personal best, so we spend a good chunk of time working on jump height. But more importantly, because volleyball players land on one leg so many times during competition and practice, I make it a point to work on single-leg landings once a week.
Teaching and reinforcing landing technique as the players perform agility ladder work has proven to be a big help in this area. Making the athletes aware of what their bodies are doing when they return to the floor has helped them avoid many injuries. I keep coaching cues simple: foot flat, knee soft and in line with the middle toe, butt back, and chest forward. (See “Single-Leg Focus” for the team’s progression of jump work throughout the off-season.)
Strength and prehab work: In the weightroom, the team performs Olympic lifts, power lifts, and lifts for general strength. We also employ prehab exercises that concentrate on the core, rotator cuff, ankle, knee, and hip since these are generally the weakest and most injury-prone areas for volleyball players.
I use the scale of perceived exertion to determine the amount of weight players lift during our training cycles, and athletes are stopped on an exercise if they reach technical failure. Most of our weightroom training would be classified between light-moderate and moderate-heavy. For our Olympic lifts and power movements, I have them perform between one and five reps. For general strength movements, we strive for two to six reps. For prehab, depending on the type of exercise, players perform between 10 and 20 reps per session.
The following list doesn’t include everything we do in the weightroom. These are just some of our favorites:
• Olympic and power lifts: Cleans off blocks, hang snatches, power jerks, linear jammers, rotational jammers, box jump variations, med ball throw variations, and weighted jumps.
• General strength: Back squats, front squats, single-leg squat variations, step-up variations, Romanian deadlifts (both single- and double-leg), Good mornings (both single- and double-leg), overhead presses, and pull-ups.
• Prehab: External rotations, balance board work, scapular retractions, clam shells, reverse clam shells, bridging variations, Pavel sit-ups, and reverse hypers.
Volleyball-specific conditioning: We use a 2.5-3:1 rest-to-work ratio for all non-lifting exercises, such as the shuttle runs when used for conditioning and the agility drills mentioned earlier. This means that for every five seconds a player works, they get 12 to 15 seconds of rest.
When testing, the athletes only run each shuttle once for time. But during conditioning sessions, they run 10 to 15 sets with rest times of 2.5 to three times the goal time between sets. I have the players do this so they are conditioning metabolically in a way that mimics their sport.
Weak links: This part of the team’s training program is completely dependent upon the athletes and is different for each of them. We identify every player’s most significant weaknesses and then put in some extra time working with them on improvement. For example, if a player is poorly conditioned, we consider that a weak link and have them do extra conditioning drills. If we can take a weakness and turn it into a strength, we’ve made a better athlete.
The team’s Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday workouts take about 75 minutes to complete, and Wednesday sessions last less than an hour. Because of NCAA Division I time restrictions, I need to keep a close eye on how long the team is training with the staff in the weightroom. I keep our weekly off-season training under six hours because the athletes are also expected to do two hours of individual volleyball work per week, and can’t exceed eight hours total during the off-season.
The key to developing this program for our volleyball players is tailoring it to the demands of the sport. For example, figuring out that a direction change occurs every three to five steps during a game showed me that agility and quickness needed to be big parts of our program. A similar assessment can be made based on seeing how much jumping the athletes are required to do.
There’s far more to volleyball than hitting a ball. These athletes need to be incredibly athletic, and that’s what our training plan strives for.
Sidebar: SINGLE-LEG FOCUS Here is a table showing how the University of Florida volleyball team progresses through single-leg work between January and August. An athlete advances to the next skill in the progression only after mastering the previous movement. And if I see poor technique, then we lower the box height. Most of our players progress through the entire table by the time August rolls around. Some progress faster than others, but all of them get there eventually. Note that the box heights used vary by athlete, depending on their athleticism.
Single-leg skills in order of progression………………………….Surface
Linear hops…………………………………………….Flat ground Lateral/medial hops………………………………….Flat ground Linear box jumps…………………………………….4- to 30-inch box Lateral box jumps……………………………………4- to 30-inch box Medial box jumps…………………………………….4- to 30-inch box 90-degree box jumps……………………………….4- to 30-inch box Stadium linear jumps……………………………….8- to 14-inch box Lateral medial hops…………………………………8- to 14-inch box