Playing With Power
By Jim Kramer
Jim Kramer, MS, CSCS, is Coordinator of Strength and Conditioning at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he works with several teams, including women’s volleyball. He was previously a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Northern Iowa and Georgia Tech.
Coaching Management, 11.9, December 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles
Yet, accomplished as they are, even these athletes need strength training. The most gifted athletes will benefit from added strength and endurance, and a progressive program will help them avoid injuries.
The overriding rule is to keep it simple. There are no magic exercises, no mystical schemes of sets and reps. The keys to a successful strength training program are having a dedicated and consistent effort from the athletes and a sound physiological basis for what you have them do. In any strength and conditioning program, it is also important to start slowly with simple exercises and gradually work to more complex exercises with more sets and reps. Pushing athletes to do too much, too soon can lead to injury and will do little to help them get stronger or better conditioned. In this article, I explain the approach I have used with the national team and also in my previous work at the collegiate level, including injury prevention, performance enhancement, and conditioning.
Always keep in mind the two basic purposes of strength and conditioning programs: to aid in the prevention of injuries and to help improve athletic performance. Often, the two purposes overlap. For example, we regularly use the squat to develop hip and leg strength for improved jumping and defensive play, but it is also an effective way to help reduce injuries in the lower extremities.
Unfortunately, strength training cannot prevent all injuries from occurring. But it can decrease their frequency, lessen their severity, and shorten recovery time. For a non-contact sport, volleyball puts a tremendous amount of stress on certain areas of a player’s body. Areas especially prone to injury are the shoulders, knees, and abdominals.
Over-use shoulder injuries are common in volleyball, and much can be done through strength training to prevent them. Rotator cuff and smaller shoulder muscle exercises are mainstays of most volleyball strength training programs, including ours. To strengthen the smaller shoulder muscles, we use a series of exercises called the Super 8 that Jay Omer introduced to me when he was the Strength and Conditioning Coach at Georgia Tech. The series consists of standard flexion, standing supraspinatus, scaption with external rotation, external rotation/prone abduction, prone saws, deceleration, seated dumbbell military press-up, and internal and external rotation with tubing.
The athlete performs one set of each exercise in a slow, controlled manner, then immediately moves to the next with no rest. The key to these exercises is proper technique and controlled movement during each exercise, not the amount of weight lifted. Athletes typically start with 2.5 to five pounds, which should be taxing enough if the exercises are performed correctly. Some athletes eventually work up to eight to 10 pounds, but if they go any heavier, technique and control may begin to suffer.
Don’t forget, however, that every movement used to strengthen the front of the shoulder must be balanced with work for the opposite side of the joint. Thus, we also focus on strengthening the upper back and the rear deltoid, which are the muscles responsible for arm deceleration. We accomplish this through rows of any nature, lat pulldowns, and rear-deltoid work like rear flys or raises.
Working with female athletes in volleyball, we must also address the knee, including prevention of ACL injuries. This means strengthening the musculature around the knee and hip joint. We have found that nothing works this area better than the simple squat (which is a cornerstone of other segments of the program as well). Supplementary to squats, we use single-leg movements, including straight lunges, side lunges, and one-leg squats.
The hamstrings are critical for stability of the knee joint and are worked constantly in our program. We do this with a combination of Romanian deadlifts, glute ham raises, single-leg curls on a machine, and physio-ball exercises.
Another frequent region for injury is the abdominal muscles. To help prevent injuries here, we focus on strengthening movements rather than muscles. If we look at the mechanism for abdominal strains in volleyball, we find the injury, whether acute or chronic, usually stems from the hitting action. The attack phase of the volleyball spike consists of two distinct movement patterns often referred to as “cocking-the-hammer” and the actual hit. These movements place distinct and considerable demands on the abdominal musculature.
To address this area, we first develop a base of strength with core training and general abdominal exercises, such as crunches, extended physio-ball crunches, and physio-ball twist crunches. Once this base core strength is established, we focus specifically on building strength for the hitting action by using more speed and sport-specific movements like physio-ball La Ducs and overhead medicine-ball throws, with special attention paid to working the abdominal muscles and not relying on only the arms for force.
Athletes often feel they’re invincible, so they’re typically less concerned about injury prevention than they are about performance improvement. But if there’s a chance an exercise will help them win a point, they’ll give it everything they have.
One obvious area for physical improvement in volleyball is jumping ability. We address this area by having our athletes start with the back squat and front squat, and once they have developed a base level of strength, we begin work on improving explosiveness.
Much research and empirical evidence exists to support the relationship between proficiency in the Olympic-style lifts and jumping ability, making them excellent tools to help improve vertical jump. The two variations of Olympic-style lifts most benefiting volleyball player are the power clean, where the bar is brought from the floor or knee to the shoulders, and power snatches, where the bar is brought from the floor or knee to over the head.
As always, remember you are ultimately training athletic movements, not necessarily muscles. Therefore, it is the pulling movement of the Olympic-style lifts that lend themselves well to volleyball movements. The pulling movements come before the point where the bar is brought on the shoulders or over the head. Instead the athlete performs just the jump and shrug portion of the lift from the thigh or floor. The arms should not be bent and the lifts involve only hip and leg movements.
I will often start our off-season program by having the athletes perform only the pull portion of the Olympic lifts then progress to performing the full lifts. During the season, if athletes have difficulty finishing full lifts due to injury, I will also limit them to the pulling motions.
When coaching volleyball players on the Olympic-style lifts, I will look more for speed of movement than how much weight is on the bar. I emphasize the power snatch more than other Olympic lifts and use it as a speed and explosive-power exercise, not as an exercise where we will attempt to use maximal weights.
Along with jumping ability, volleyball players need to be able to bend and lunge to a ball efficiently and with split-second quickness. To make great plays in volleyball, the athlete needs to have the ability to drop her hips, bend her knees, and get low to the ground. This requires flexibility as well as agility and quickness.
Many people overlook the role of strength in flexibility. Strength training can increase both explosive power and flexibility. The key is to make sure exercises are performed through a full, safe range of motion. Lunges and side lunges are excellent complementary strength exercises that help improve flexibility when performed through the full range of motion.
Once a good lateral strength base is attained, the slideboard is an excellent tool for developing additional explosiveness and power in the lateral movement since it emphasizes lateral reactive strength. When using the slideboard for power development, we perform only 10- to 15-second bouts, attempting to get as many contacts with the ends of the board in that amount of time. After athletes become proficient at it, they should be able to exceed one contact per second.
Angle boards are another excellent tool for the development of lateral quickness. This plyometric exercise is performed with the athlete standing three to four feet away from an angle board. The athlete begins by pushing off the outside leg (the leg away from the board) and hops over to the angle board. Both feet must be brought to the board with only the inside foot (which started nearer to the board) touching.
Upon landing on the angle board, the athlete immediately explodes off the board back out to the starting position. The athlete then takes her time and repositions for the next rep.
I use several variations of this drill. One is to have athletes see how far they can propel themselves away from the board. However, they should be cautious not to sacrifice quickness for distance. Another favorite variation is to have players, after five repetitions, explode off the board, turn, and run into a sprint.
Whenever you are attempting to increase speed, agility, and quickness remember to allow your athletes full recovery between repetitions. When trying to build speed and agility, you are training not only the muscular system, but the entire neuromuscular system. For increases in speed and agility to occur, most experts believe that the athlete must train at or near 100 percent. A fatigued athlete cannot move at or near these levels. So, start your athletes slowly with low weights and fewer repetitions and allow them to fully recover between reps.
Volleyball is a strength/power sport, so focusing on aerobic or cardiovascular training will do little to help athletes perform better. As a matter of fact, too much aerobic training can have a negative effect on vertical jump. It is not the type of conditioning that wins matches in the fifth game.
The most beneficial way we have found to increase conditioning for volleyball is through metabolic conditioning, in which we integrate agility and jumping movements with short sprints. Unlike speed and agility training, we want to decrease our rest periods between repetitions and not allow full recovery. However, we must remember to be mindful of over-use injuries, especially with the jumping movements.
Below is one example of a metabolic conditioning workout we do once our athletes have a good base. Athletes are divided into three groups of four, and we use a three-station circuit with athletes going directly from one station to the next. The times and distances are designed to mimic the demands of volleyball. The stations include:
Hurdle Hops to Lateral Sprint: We place three sets of three six-inch hurdles five yards apart. Athletes sprint out to the first set of hurdles and begin hopping back and forth, mostly sideways, but occasionally front to back, across the hurdle for four to six seconds. On command, the athletes then turn and sprint to the next hurdle and the next three athletes sprint to the first set of hurdles. We do three reps total.
Wave Drill: Three athletes sprint about 15 feet to a line on the court in front of the coach. The coach then gives these three athletes directional commands by pointing. During the first two reps, the athletes shuffle to the right or left as the coach directs. During the third and fourth reps, the athletes turn and run a varied distance to the right or left, but no more than a few steps. The coach can also give directional commands for a forward sprint, a backpedal, and a vertical jump. Each repetition should last no longer than six to eight seconds.
60-Yard Shuffle: The athletes form three lines. On command, the first three athletes sprint five yards to the first line and back, then 10 yards to the next line and back, and finally 15 yards to the next line and back to the finish. The command is then given to start the next group.
This example provides a 3:1 rest-to-work ratio, but the exact number of repetitions per drill, rest periods (or group size), and number of sets can vary based on how the athletes are handling the session and how they adapt over several training sessions. The ratio can also be tweaked to provide more work for athletes who are able to handle it or less for those who need more recovery time.
One final word regarding strength training for volleyball. A basic program for developing general strength should not be neglected for the sake of sport-specific exercises. During the season, it is important to emphasize general strength over power or speed and agility training, since players typically train these aspects during their sport practice. If you maintain strength, you will increase performance, since strength is a function of power, endurance, speed, and agility.
A version of this article recently appeared in our sister publication, Training & Conditioning.