With so much information about strength development available for athletes and coaches, it is important to know what really matters when designing a strength program for juniors players. These pointers will help athletes build the strength necessary to excel in college without putting them at risk for injury.
Remember, strength training is a skill.
Too often, coaches and athletes see setting, serving, blocking, and hitting as skills to be developed and strength training as something you just kind of do. This ideology could not be further from the truth. Athletic strength training is complex. It is a combination of joint mobility, joint stability, balance, body awareness, focus, muscular coordination, and exertion.
Treating strength workouts as practices turns the weight room into a learning environment where athletes develop concepts, see the in-game applications of increased strength, ask questions, deal with small failures, and make progress. A practice-level focus on excellence of execution allows athletes to develop the physical competency that creates proper joint movement, muscular force line production, and body awareness. These are crucial attributes that enhance performance in the weight room and on the court while reducing the risk of injury.
Everything starts with the basics.
Eager athletes and well-meaning coaches often make the mistake of getting too complicated, doing too much, and progressing too fast in the weight room. Even if your athletes would love to play volleyball for the University of Nebraska someday, trying to mimic its strength program with 15 and 16 year olds will not get you there.
Instead, high school athletes should focus on developing the five basic strength patterns that build the foundation for current successes and will be the cornerstone for integration into collegiate athletics. The five basic strength patterns are the full squat, split squat, hinge, upper body push, and upper body pull.
Full squats activate more muscles and develop coordination better than any other exercise. When done for a full range of motion, squats strengthen the entire lower body, improve hip mobility, and increase knee-tendon strength, which helps reduce injuries.
Remember to keep your knees over your ankles and ankles over the center of your foot at all times. An external load can be added to the squat with a barbell on the back of the shoulders (back squat), a barbell on the front of shoulders (front squat), or a kettlebell or dumbbell in the hands at chest height (goblet squat).
1. Stand with your feet hip-width distance apart and toes relatively straight. Tighten your core by pulling your bellybutton in and relaxing your shoulders down and back. Keeping your weight on your heels, squat down as low as your range of motion will allow.
2. Pause at the bottom to control forces on the knee, and then push into the ground with your feet to rise back up to a full standing position. Repeat.
Due to repetitive movements, most athletes have one leg that is stronger than the other. Split squats fix that strength imbalance and strengthen the hip muscles, stabilizing the pelvis against rotational forces. This combo aids performance and protects the knees. Split squats are also the basic pattern that must be mastered before doing the Olympic split jerk, a high-level lift used by some collegiate strength coaches. Add external load with a barbell on the front or back of the shoulders or with a plate held above the head.
1. Stand with your feet hip-width distance apart, toes straight. With your core tight, take a big step forward with your right foot. Keeping shoulders and hips squared straight ahead, drop down to a deep lunge position and pause. Both knees should be at 90 degree angles.
2. Keeping your knees in alignment with your ankles, feet straight, and weight through your front heel, push into the ground to straighten both legs. Shoulder and hips should remain square and feet should not have moved. Repeat to the end of the rep count and then perform with the opposite foot forward.
The hinge is more commonly called the deadlift. This exercise increases ground-force production in a way that simulates jumping. It also develops the posterior chain (backside muscles) and corrects any front-to-back strength imbalances caused by seasonal play. Deadlifts even correct posture and balance hamstring-to-quadriceps strength, which is a key part of any ACL-protection strategy. The hinge develops the strength foundation athletes need to explosively perform Olympic lifts, such as the power clean or snatch, once they enter college.
1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Bend down and grasp the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width. Position the bar close to your shins. Fully extend your elbows, stick your chest out, and look straight ahead.
2. Simultaneously extend your hips and straighten your legs to stand up. Keep your back straight and the bar close to your body. Squeeze your glutes to complete the movement. Reverse the movement, pulling your hips back to return the bar to the ground.
Upper Body Push
The upper body push can be horizontal, like a push-up, or vertical. For developing volleyball athletes, I prefer vertical pushing. The standing shoulder press develops a strong shoulder structure when the arms are extended overhead, which strengthens the blocking muscles and injury-proofs the shoulders.
This movement also sets the groundwork for learning the jerk part of the clean and jerk, which is a mainstay in a lot of collegiate strength programs.
To avoid shoulder pain, shrug your shoulders at the top of the movement. Pressing the bar over your head, locking your elbows, and shrugging your shoulders towards the ceiling prevent shoulder impingement.
1. Proper overhead press form starts by standing with the bar on the front of your shoulders. Hands should be slightly wider than collarbones, and elbows should be raised.
2. Press the bar over your head until your elbows are locked and even with your ears. Dont use your legskeep them straight. Lower the bar to your shoulders and repeat.
Upper Body Pull
Just like the upper body push, upper body pulls can be performed in a horizontal or vertical plane. For volleyball players, we prefer the vertical pull, in this case, pull-ups. Pull-ups are great for developing upper body strength and shoulder extension. Most young female athletes will need to use an assistance band to perform pull-ups, but the goal should be to use thinner and thinner bands until the athlete is able to perform bodyweight pull-ups unassisted.
1. Grasp a pull-up bar with a shoulder-width grip, palms facing away. Hang to a full extension of the elbow joint.
2. In a controlled manner, with your elbows making a straight line from your wrist to shoulders, pull your body up until your chin is over the bar. Lower back to a full extension and repeat.
Training Program Details
Before using external loads, master the mechanics of each movement with no added weight.
Once the movement has been mastered with bodyweight, perform 3 sets of 10-12 reps with a moderate external load in a controlled manner. Take one second to raise the weight and two to three to lower. Rest approximately one minute between sets.
To build offseason strength, perform 3-5 sets of each exercise for 5-8 reps with two minutes rest between. When eight reps becomes easy for all sets, gently increase load.
To build preseason power, perform 5 sets of 3-5 reps, raising the weight in a safe but explosive manner and lowering for a two count. Rest is approximately two minutes between sets.
The total body can be trained in this manner in 45 minutes or less, making this program effective and time-efficient.
Training should be done on 2-3 nonconsecutive days a week.
This program can be used by athletes as young as 9, focusing on bodyweight proficiency to establish a base of fitness and muscular coordination.