Oct 1, 2018
Top to Bottom: The Carolina Panthers approach to strength training
Joe Kenn

Carolina Panthers strength coach Joe Kenn created the Tier System of strength training to develop athletes from head to toe. 

During the infancy of our profession, strength coaches often came from one of three backgrounds-weightlifting, powerlifting, or bodybuilding. As a result, they trained athletes according to the discipline they were familiar with.

The problem was each discipline only primarily addressed one strength quality. In simple terms, weightlifting developed explosive traits, powerlifting developed absolute strength, and bodybuilding developed lean body mass/hypertrophy. If a program focuses on only one of these areas, the others won’t be enhanced.

carolina panthers strengthWanting to change this, I created the Tier System, also known as athletic-based training. In this program, the coach utilizes components of all three strength disciplines-including their exercises, training intensities, volumes, and loading parameters-to enhance general physical preparation for athletic performance. The Tier System focuses on training movements relevant to sport rather than specific body parts and organizes exercises into “tiers” based on their importance. By following this athletic-based model, athletes become more durable, resilient, and better prepared for the demands of their chosen sport.

I first instituted the Tier System in 1992 with the women’s volleyball and basketball programs at Boise State University, and every team there was using it for strength training by 1998. I then brought the Tier System with me to the University of Utah (1999 to 2000), Arizona State University (2001 to 2007), and the University of Louisville (2008 to 2009), finding similar success. Now, I use it in my current position with the Carolina Panthers, and it contributed to our 2015 Super Bowl run.

Outside of my personal experience, Tier System strength training templates have become the go-to program for numerous teams in multiple sports at the high school, college, and private settings across the United States and the globe. With its emphasis on whole-body training and overall physical development, it’s a great fit for athletes of all ages and skill levels.

Basic setup

One of the Tier System’s main principles is based on the importance of body action. Since most athletic activity involves a synchronized movement pattern from ankle to head, the body should be trained in a similar manner. Therefore, in a Tier System training session, exercises always develop the whole body.

To do this, the approach primarily focuses on multi-joint movements. Variations are also utilized to train alternative planes of movement, since few athletic actions are entirely linear.

From there, the keys to the Tier System are establishing an exercise pool, creating movement categories, and classifying exercises. To create the exercise pool, strength coaches should make a general list of any exercises they feel confident teaching athletes. The training age of the athletes should determine the mode of exercise, and a needs analysis should be considered when deciding which lifts will be most beneficial. For example, a well-trained athlete with several years of experience may utilize the barbell back squat for lower-body development, while a beginner would start with a bodyweight squat and progress to a kettlebell goblet squat.

Movement categories

After exercises are chosen, they are organized into movement categories and subcategories, which are then ranked into tiers based on order of importance. The programmer bases the order on the role of each movement in the athlete’s development and how it relates to their sport. This is a crucial piece to Tier System program design, as the tiers will form the daily and weekly rotation of exercises later on.

The three major movement categories are: total body (T), lower body (L), and upper body (U). By targeting all three in each strength session, coaches can deliver a whole-body training program every time the athlete steps into the weight room.

Most of the T movements come from the sport of Olympic weightlifting. The variations and accessory actions of the classical snatch and clean and jerk are crucial for developing triple extension. Exercises that are hip-hinge dominant and emphasize hip extension are also categorized as T movements. Examples include dead lifts, Romanian dead lifts, hip thrusts, and kettlebell swings.

The L movements are predominantly knee dominant. They increase strength in the spinal erectors, quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus group, hip extensors, flexors, adductors, and abductors, as well as the muscles of the lower leg. Back squats, front squats, lunges, step ups, and single-leg squats are all classified as L movements.

carolina panthers
Photo: James Willamor

U movements incorporate flexion and extension of the elbow and rotation at the shoulder joint. They develop the upper back and trapezius, chest, shoulder capsule, and arms (triceps, biceps, and forearms). The majority of these movements are variations of horizontal and vertical pulling and pushing exercises. Examples are bench press, barbell row, overhead press, pull-ups, dumbbell incline press, and dumbbell single-arm row.

When incorporating U movements, the Tier System always pairs a pull with a corresponding push. This creates a proper ratio of agonist versus antagonist movements, which makes for better upper-body development and helps prevent injury in athletes who are push-dominant.

After exercises are broken down into T, L, or U categories, they are further classified into subcategories: Foundation, Supplemental, Major Assistance, and Secondary Assistance. This helps with choosing and organizing exercises within the workout template.

• Foundation movements represent the priority exercises for the T, L, or U category and are the lifts that the coach believes will give the best indication of strength for that category. These multi-joint movements are typically tested for a repetition maximum at the end of specific training cycles.

• Supplemental movements are usually variations of the Foundation movements. Although they are also multi-joint exercises, they train different planes than the Foundation movements. For example, if the programmer chose a back squat for the Foundation category, a corresponding Supplemental movement would be the front squat. The Foundation and Supplemental lifts are the prime strength development choices of the Tier System.

   » ALSO SEE: Clemson football’s in-season training program

• Major Assistance movements are key in an athletic-based training program and generally complement the greater compound movements by improving movement quality in different planes. Most can be classified as strength mobility movements, meaning they utilize independent limb actions to increase range of motion in a particular movement pattern. Total- and upper-body dumbbell lifts, as well as bodyweight and kettlebell exercises, are integral Major Assistance variations that benefit athlete development. The abundance of Major Assistance movements allows the strength coach to use a tremendous amount of creativity in programming.

• Secondary Assistance movements are single-joint, isolation movements that apply direct resistance to a specific muscle group. They are crucial in improving imbalances of the targeted group and enhancing weak points associated with Foundation and Supplemental movements. Examples are triceps extensions, biceps curls, lateral shoulder raises, shrugs, leg curls, and leg extensions. Though these exercises rarely find their way into the main Tier System workouts, they are important add-ons in our “Readiness/wRap Up” work that will be explained later.

Put the pieces together

After the exercise pool is created and movements are classified into categories, programming for the Tier System can begin. It is recommended to use three major strength training sessions during the week in either a Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday format. This setup differs from the common four-day training split involving two days of upper-body work and two days of lower-body work per week.

Under the whole-body approach of the Tier System, each day has a T, L, or U focus, which rotates throughout the week to create three distinct training sessions. The individual exercises in each day’s workout follow the same T-L-U sequence and are placed in order based on the rotation of the specific training session. Each exercise represents a tier.

There are two distinct Tier System training programs-a 3×3 model and a 3×5 model. The first number represents the days of the week that the athletes strength train, and the second number represents how many exercises are completed during each lifting session. The 3×3 program is primarily used during the competitive stage, while the 3×5 is better suited for the developmental stage.

The exercise order within both models is unique. As Figure 1 shows, every session has an emphasis-either T, L, or U-to ensure that each movement category is targeted each week. From there, every day has different priority, major, and minor tiers. This allows for three distinct training sessions over the course of the week and variability in exercise choice. But regardless of the order of exercises, each workout still has a whole-body approach.

In Figure 1 (below), Tier 1 shows the priority emphasis being a Foundation movement for each major movement category. This denotes the top-ranked exercise for that movement category. This tier will usually have the highest sets, reps, and training intensity for the session.

In Tier 2, the major emphasis is a Supplemental movement for a second major movement category. This is the second-ranked exercise of the category and will involve slightly less overall work than Tier 1 movements.

The Tier 3 minor emphasis of the session is either a Supplemental or Major Assistance movement for a third major movement category. As the third-ranked exercise of the session, the overall volume and intensity is further decreased from Tiers 1 and 2.

For the 3×5 model (below), Tiers 4 and 5 repeat the same major movement categories as the top two tiers of the session but use Major Assistance exercises, as shown in Figure 2. The goal for these tiers is to help improve strength.

Figure 2 also includes sample exercises that would be used for a novice athlete-an individual with a low training age or who is beginning organized resistance training. The exercises provide an idea of how the movement categories rotate within a session and the week, as well as the variation in movements.

For volume, the Tier System follows very general rules. The training cycles were developed based on the traditional three-day principle of one heavy session, one moderate, and one light. However, instead of dedicating a whole session to each of these, the Tier System uses all three volume levels within the same workout. This means Tier 1 is heavy, Tier 2 is moderate, and Tier 3 is light. Since Tiers 4 and 5 are based off Tiers 1 and 2, the volume used corresponds to the movement categories for the session.

Each tier also has a predetermined number of sets based on its order and the template being implemented. It’s recommended for a beginner to use six sets for Tier 1, five sets for Tier 2, four sets for Tier 3, three sets for Tier 4, and three sets for Tier 5. A more advanced athlete could use eight to 10 sets for the first three tiers, even as many as 15. The number of reps depends on the training cycle.

Protect the athlete

Besides building strength, keeping athletes healthy is a key component of the Tier System. Therefore, we incorporate Readiness or wRap Up work to strengthen and protect the body.

Readiness work is completed before the main lifting session of the day if the athletes have not already done a field session. But if they are coming into the weight room from the field, include wRap Up at the end of the session instead. This is because athletes’ body temperatures are typically elevated from the field work, and Readiness activities would only tax them further.

In both Readiness and wRap Up, athletes perform a minimum of one exercise for neck, core, posterior chain, and posterior shoulder for two or three sets. This section incorporates our Secondary Assistance movements from the exercise pool, usually in a medley/circuit style.

Making modifications

There are obvious exceptions to any programming rules, and the Tier System is no different. As long as the structured order of T-L-U exercises is followed for each specific training session, the integrity of the program will remain intact.

That being said, there are several ways a strength coach can manipulate the training to be more compatible with their athletes’ needs. Some examples are:

• Add conditioning. The standard three-day work week rotates through Session T, Session L, and concludes with Session U. To implement a running program, consider adding linear speed work before Session T and lateral speed work before Session U. Then, incorporate conditioning on days when athletes are not in the weight room.

• Double up on a specific session. Depending on the sport, one particular movement category may not need to be emphasized during the week. For example, certain track and field events might not require extensive upper-body training. In that case, the coach may choose to utilize a T-L-T rotation through the week instead of T-L-U.

• Fit into a condensed week. Since some state high school rules mandate a four-day work week, the Tier System can be easily manipulated to perform two sessions in successive days. The recommendation in this case is to utilize either Session T or L on Monday, Session U on Wednesday, and either T or L on Thursday, depending on Monday’s choice.

The Tier System is complex simplicity at its finest. The information in this article gives coaches a taste of what goes into designing a successful Tier System strength training program. When constructing the program, make sure to have the critical principles in place so the athletes reap the overall rewards of a protected and productive training regimen.

Joe Kenn, MA, CSCS, RSCC*E, is in his eighth year as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach with the Carolina Panthers. Before the NFL, he trained athletes at the college, high school, and youth levels. He was named the 2002 NSCA Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year, 2013 NSCA Professional Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year, and 2015 Professional Football Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association's NFL Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year. Kenn is the author of the Coach's Strength Training Playbook, which features the Tier System. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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