With leaping skills needed for hitting, serving and blocking, it seems logical to include jump training in the development of volleyball athletes. However, when considering jump training (or any focused skill or strength training platform), it is also logical to ask several key questions.
Why start jump training?
Is the goal to jump higher, jump with less fatigue (especially late in a 5-set match or multi-day tournament), or be more able to perform better with the slide or jump-serving?
Are you trying to build strength, power, or both?
Is another goal to reduce injury from jumping?
(My sports medicine heart beats with great pride on that particular goal)
Which athletes should be doing jump training?
If you’re trying to reduce injury by using a more favorable technique, then jump training ideally starts with the young players. While there is ample debate over the “best” volleyball jump technique, I will reference an article from USA Volleyball on protecting knees. Any jump training should involve landing with slightly bent hips, knees and ankles that are lined up without allowing inward collapse of the knees. This also means paying attention and correcting limitations in ankle, hip and knee range of motion. In particular, limited ankle dorsiflexion (ability to bring foot towards shin) can place abnormal stresses on other joints.
If a volleyball player doesn’t have the proper foundation for proper jump technique, then he or she is not ready for any type of more formal jump training. If repetitive practice looks to ingrain movement patterns, then we are doing athletes a grave disservice by reinforcing ineffective, if not dangerous, jump patterns. Thus, one of the basic principles of any jump training program should be ensuring that athletes first learn proper jump and landing techniques.
How can we best incorporate jump training into practice and competition schedules?
Keep in mind another basic principle of any training program – any injury that comes from overload or poor planning cannot and should not be tolerated.
To maximize outcomes and reduce injury, any formal jump training (like any strength or focused skill acquisition program) needs to have a dedicated time period to coordinate with other volleyball/athletic demands. It is best to introduce the program, optimize regular participation for 6-8 weeks, and then measure the results.
This time period starts with a group of athletes who have already been taught and have demonstrated ability to use more proper jump techniques. Ideally, jump training sessions are introduced in an off-season or non-competitive part of the season where few, if not any, other new skills or training programs are started. This will allow muscles, joints and nerves to focus on jump training with less risk of overload from other new skill inputs.
Trying to combine jump training during periods of heavy practice and match demands not only reduces the potential benefits, but also greatly increases the possibility of overload injuries.
So when adding jump training to a busy athletic schedule, use the hours per week recommendation to help reduce the risk of overload injury. If the total number of hours of organized sport activity per week exceed the number of years of age of a young athlete, then there is a higher risk of suffering a serious overuse injury. Thus, adding jump training during a less busy time, or taking away sessions (practice, other weight training, fewer matches) may be sensible.
For athletes participating in year-round volleyball (club and school commitments), it may be almost impossible to find a 6-8 week period with limited training or competition demands.
In cases such as this, honest coordination and communication between coaching staffs and athletes/families is essential to establish realistic expectations to reduce injury and sub-optimal outcomes.
For athletes who participate in other sports, those demands must be considered when deciding on when or if to start a jump training program. A setter who also swims might be a better candidate for jump training in the volleyball off-season than an outside who also plays basketball.
What are parts of a solid and sensible volleyball jump training program?
I’m going to utilize the expertise and experience of Tim Pelot (Senior Strength and Conditioning Physiologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Men’s Volleyball) and Jimmy Stitz (Sports Physiologist and Strength and Conditioning Coach for USA Women’s Volleyball).
First of all, realize that training programs of each athlete need to be slightly different compared to teammates and to programs the athlete has completed in the past. It is important to perform routine assessments to serve as checks and balances, ensuring every movement has a positive impact on performance on the court.
Next, there should be a solid warm-up. A well performed individual or team warm-up ensures the athletes’ muscles are warm, mobile, and activated for intense physical activity to reduce injury risk.
Once the warm-up is completed, here are some key principles of a well-constructed jump training program:
Acceleration as seen during sprints, dives, jumps, and quick steps. Volleyball players need to be able to produce a lot of force in a short amount of time. Jump training can increase the ability to produce the same amount of force in a shorter amount of time. Explosive training generally involves plyometrics as well as Olympic exercises such as clean pulls, hang cleans, hang snatch, split jerks, and squat variations.
Progressions are also important during these Olympic movements. An athlete who has never done an Olympic movement cannot be expected to perform a technically sound hang clean. A coach must bring all new athletes through clean and snatch progressions and start them with lighter weights to ensure technical proficiency. Heavy weight isn’t necessary; even just the bar can help reinforce proper movement patterns necessary to prevent injuries as weight increases. While accelerating and jumping, it is important for athletes to be able to stabilize their spine and maintain good posture.
During squat movements, the weight on the bar is not always the focus. Incorporating speed into a squat movement can produce great force development adaptations. Another option is to attach bands to the bar to make the squat movement more dynamic.
Eccentric work that uses the lengthening contraction of muscles to make joints more stable is often an afterthought, and is undervalued and underutilized. Eccentric work that is not emphasized or performed well can lead to joint pains and a higher risk of injury.
Look at common injuries in volleyball including knee anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears, rolled ankles, and whiplash in the spine. These tend to occur during eccentric movement phases when the athlete is exposed to large forces in a small window of time. The athlete cannot recruit strength fast enough to stabilize the joint, so it continues to roll or buckle.
When elite volleyball players are jumping in practice, they land with forces which can exceed 15 times the athlete’s body weight. The most likely culprit for the large number of injuries in volleyball is the repeated jumping and landing with multiple times the athlete’s body weight.
To prevent catastrophic injuries, athletes need to be able to apply enough force to stabilize joints within 50 to 90 milliseconds. This is where eccentric rate of force development training adds sizable value.
Depth drops, drop squats, and single-leg dropping exercises are all great options to build eccentric rate of force development. These exercises can be easily modified to change forces. However, one must gradually increase load, as adding speed or weight too quickly can increase the risk for injury. Training end range of motion is important, as it is a position an athlete will need to get into in game scenarios, such as during a dig.
Conditioning can be programmed into many training sessions. And if an athlete has a weight loss goal, properly designed conditioning sessions can help with this goal. These conditioning sessions are not designed for metabolic efficiency since many athletes are plenty fit from all of the volleyball they play. It is recommended to avoid jumping in these sessions to manage the number of overall impacts. Low impact movements, such as biking or swimming will lead to similar adaptation with less chance for injury. Running is always a good alternative if the repeated impacts on the joints can be tolerated.
Stronger athletes can become more resilient. Practices get better, especially near the end of the week since bodies can handle more stress. Acceleration training helps generate more force at a faster rate, improving jump height, quickness, and arm swing power. Deceleration training allows more efficient handling of the barrage of forces bodies must absorb as a result of improved acceleration. Conditioning improves the power to weight ratio, creating healthier, more fuel-efficient athletes.
In summary, don’t just jump haphazardly into jump training. Proper selection of athletes, timing in a training/competition cycle, and a well-designed program with regular re-evaluation can play the best role of keeping athletes thriving and growing in the game of volleyball.
Dr. Chris Koutures is a dual board-certified pediatric and sports medicine specialist who practices at ActiveKidMD in Anaheim Hills, CA. He is a team physician for USA Volleyball (including participating in the 2008 Beijing Olympics), the U.S. Figure Skating Sports Medicine Network, Cal State Fullerton Intercollegiate Athletics, Chapman University Dance Department, and Orange Lutheran High School. He offers a comprehensive blend of general pediatric and sport medicine care with an individualized approach to each patient and family. Please visit activekidmd.com or follow him on twitter (@dockoutures).