In our multipart Team Sport Conditioning series, Sarah Walls goes in-depth on the various factors impacting team sports' fitness and conditioning. This week: Common Faults in Conditioning.
Ahhh, the knee cave, my old friend. This, by far, is the most common strength and movement pattern deficit I see in developing athletes. More officially known as a valgus position of the knee, it signifies not only a severe lack of specific and general strength, but also may be an indicator of poor body control overall (due to other common muscular strength deficits that generally come as part of the "package").
Last week's post was all about the technique side of improving the vertical jump. Today will entail multiple videos (for those of you who don't want to read on a Monday morning) of different drills and exercises that help improve strength and power for purpose of gettin' dem ups.
The following are SAPT's go-to exercises for all of our volleyball and basketball players for improving their vertical. We have two goals:
1. Increase force output- that is, the amount of force applied to the ground. The greater the force, the greater the jump height (it's physics).
Why- Squats, both goblet and barbell, increase strength/power in the hamstrings, glutes, and quads- more notably the backside muscles- all of which are the primary jumpers. An article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that deep squatting (below parallel) was beneficial in both strength and power development. I find it interesting that partial squats actually decreased strength and power...
Why- Again, posterior chain development but also, look at the hip angle. The hip hinge of the deadlift is very similar to the hip hinge needed in the vertical jump. Not only that, we can toy around with the reps/sets/weights to either train for strength or for speed (i.e. increasing the rate of force development) both of which contribute to more air time. Above is conventional style deadlift, but sumo works too. Incidentally, I've noticed that most of our volleyball players sit into conventional more comfortably.
Why- Kettlebell swings are a delightful (well, I think they're delightful) and effective way to improve power production. The Olympic lifts are touted as the best power production exercises, but I think the risk-reward ratio is skewed in the "risk's" favor for the O-lifts- mostly because they're extremely technical lifts that take a large investment of time to see the benefit. Kettlebell swings are, by comparison, fairly easy to teach and we can milk the swing for a long time to continue to increase strength and power.
Split Squat/Lunge variations:
Why- While I know that vertical jump is a bilateral movement and if I were training athletes ONLY for vertical jump tests (which are very controlled) then I would certainly prioritize squats/deadlift. However, the vast majority of the time the context these athletes will jump in, games/practice, the vertical jump will have a variety of take-off stances. Therefore, they need to be strong in a split-stance. Unilateral training also evens out imbalances and improves stabilization. Unstable athletes don't jump high.
I really, really like Bulgarian Split squats (second video)because of the extra stretch on the glute muscles of the front leg which ilicits a higher growth response. And they're hard.
Split Stance Vertical Jumps*:
Why- Speaking of split stance, we can specifically train the jump technique with this drill. I only move athletes to this drill when they've mastered the basic vertical jump technique. I like this drill a lot as it mimics what a lot of game-time scenarios will actually be, especially for outside hitters and basketball players going up for a rebound.
Vertical Jump with 180 Degree Turn:
Why- Vestibular training! How often, in a game or practice, does an athlete have to turn and jump? I'd wager the scientific measure of "a lot." While an athlete may not do the 180 in the air, the change in direction does stimulate the vestibular system and teach the athlete to orient him/herself faster.
Seated Vertical Jump:
Why- The seated part takes out most of the benefit of the countermovement (the arm swing and sitting back) which challenges the athlete to generate more force/power from the legs to achieve any semblance of height. It's a way to challenge the lower body without adding weights to the athlete.
Depth Drop to Vertical Jump:
Why- This taps into the reactive component of jumping. It helps increase rate of force development, but also trains the reaction of the athlete. Athletes will often have to jump multiple times in a row without much respite, so training their ability to rebound upon landing is advantageous.
There we have it! This should be enough to jump-start (pun totally intended) improving your/your athletes' vertical jump.
* In case you were wondering what I was listening to, it was Nightmare Before Christmas Revisited. Yes, it is awesome.
Here at SAPT volleyball players abound. Volleyball players (and their coaches) often come to us with one goal: to increase their vertical jump height. Personally, I think there are several other skills that are just at important, i.e. upper body strength/power, ability to shuffle sideways- you'd be surprised how many girls I see who CANNOT do this- core strength and force transfer, and improving overall athleticism. But I digress.
While there are whole books devoted to increasing vertical jump, I'm only going to focus the basic technique that will, honestly, improve the jump considerably. I think it should be obvious that to increase height, one must also increase their strength (ahem, lift heavy things) but that's not today's focus. Next week, we'll look at specific strength training exercises.
Our typical age range for VB players is 13-18 and this is the typical jump technique we see:
Yes, this is RGIII, and yes I'm comparing his jump form to a 15-year old volleyball player's form.
Similar to the above picture, when we evaluate a volleyball player 99% of the time we see valgus collapse (knees coming together- helloooo ACL tear!), knee-flexion dominance, loosey-goosey core, and usually, minimal arm swing involvement.
All these work against the poor girl and her goal of leaping high aloft to spike the ball into her opponent's face. I'm going to briefly break down the mechanical flaws previously mentioned and then present a few drills we use to re-pattern the jump to create leaping, jumping, ball-spiking machines.
1. Valgus collapse- When one's knee caps touch, it results in a decrease in power since the quads, hamstrings, and glutes are at a mechanical disadvantage. Try it, you won't get up very high. What's worse, is it dramatically increases the risk of an ACL, or two, tear. As you read this, stand up, bend your knees, then put them into valgus collapse. Do you feel a little bit of torque on your knees? Now imagine launching into the air and landing again (which landing is roughly 2-4x bodyweight force) in that position. Yikes. Is it any wonder that many volleyball players have knee pain? The knees should be neutral, aligned directly over the 2nd or 3rd toe.
2. Knee/Quad Dominance- Most girls are quad dominant. It's not their fault, that's just how they grew up. At SAPT we aim to change that. As any long-time reader of our blog knows, it's all about dem glutes!
The posterior chain, that is, the glutes and hamstrings, are where it's at when it comes to lower body power production. The glutes and hamstrings are way, way, WAY better at extending the hip than the quads (mostly because, the quads can't do it at all). Quads are important in the vertical jump- as is knee extension- however, the power comes from the back. Athletes who don't tap into their posterior chain will remain on the lower end of the VerTec.
3. Loosey-Goosey Core- That is a technical coaching term by the way. A lot of our VB players don't know how to stay tight during the take-off. All the power they applied to the floor disseminates and leaks out at all the loose points so they wind up going nowhere. Imagine a cooked spaghetti noodle trying to jump and that's what it looks like.
4. Little to no arm swing- How people learn to jump without using their arms is a mystery to me. The arms help increase velocity at take off by storing potential energy in the arms and then releasing it upon take off. They also help "pull" the body upwards. Don't believe me? Some one did a research study and you can read the abstract here.
So, how do we fix all this?
First we teach hip hinging without knee valgus collapse. The easiest way we've found is employing a dowel rod.
Coaching points: 1. The athlete should maintain contact with the dowel rod at three points: head, mid-back, and tail bone. 2. Knees should be behind the toes. I will put my hand in front of their knees to ensure they sit back in the hips and not bend forward from the knee. We also coach neutral knee alignment here.
Next, we put the hip hinge in context of a take-off/landing, but no jump. By eliminating the jump, the athlete can focus on his/her form.
Coaching points: 1. Arm swing, arm swing, ARM SWING! I tell the athlete to pretend she's pushing through water. The arm swing should be forceful. 2. The hip hinge should be there, the knees should be neutral and behind the toes, just like the dowel rod hip hinge drill. I use the analogy of booty-bumping their friend. Girls get this, guys don't. I guess fellas don't booty bump. 3. This is a perfect time to teach tightness. The athlete's core should be taut and the spine should remain neutral. This is where the limp noodles happen, so be vigilant!
After the athlete masters the arm swing + hips, we move to a paused vertical jump. Again, the pause is there for the athlete to focus on the form before taking off. If they're not in the right position, they can fix it- or rather, you the coach can fix it.
Coaching points: 1. Stress to the athlete that it's NOT about the height of the jump, but the technique. I've seen girls with great technique fall to pieces as soon as the jump is part of the equation. 2. The landing should look like the take-off 3. Hammer all the above mentioned technique points.
Practice makes permanent, not perfect.
These three drills are SAPT's basic jump technique teachers. We've seen great results and many girls add inches to their vertical just by becoming more efficient at the jump itself. I'd also like to point out that none of these use fancy equipment. So often it's the simplest way that is the most effective!
Next week we'll take a look at both strength exercises to increase vertical and some more specific drills for power production.
Given that we train a lot of high school volleyball players at SAPT, I'm inevitably faced - on a weekly basis - with two questions that continually pop up from the players, or, more commonly, the parents of the girls: 1) Why aren't you testing my/my daughter's vertical jump on Day 1 as a baseline measurement?
2) Why aren't you doing a lot of plyometric drills with me/my daughter?
While the answers to these questions could easily be an entire article series on their own, I'll do my best to summarize my points here.
1) The vertical jump simply isn't an appropriate test for most (but not all) high school athletes. Not only are there other methods of assessing one's athletic potential, but continually making an athlete jump up and down with maximal effort can be dangerous. Let me briefly explain.
To put it simply: Many high school athletes lack the strength and neural control to execute a solid vertical jump. Just watch nearly any volleyball player do a standing vertical jump attempt on the vertec. However, instead of focusing on their torso, arms, and where their hand smacks the vanes, watch their knees during the countermovement phase of the jump (as they transition from moving down to moving up). What you'll see often resembles my replication in the video below:
May not have noticed that the first time you watched your kid jump, huh? Essentially the athlete is limiting how high they can jump by allowing "force leaks," to take place, in which they end up in sub-par biomechanical position for force production. Not only that, but it is dangerous for their knee health (along with other passive restraints in the lower extremity) to continue practicing like this.
While there are multiple root causes for this phenomenon, a good strength coach can often add a few inches to the athlete's vertical jump by merely teaching the athlete to keep themselves in powerful alignment during the countermovement phase. This involves much more than simply shouting at them to keep their knees out, BTW!
2. Plyometric drills are not a "one size fits all" approach. When you're administering individualized program design for each and every person in the room, as we do at SAPT for all our athletes, it's not a matter of just throwing a bunch of adolescent girls into the same cattle call drills.
Very precise decision making must be made in order to administer and match the exercise to the individual. In fact, any perceptive strength coach who's been in the industry has recognized by now that the more "advanced" and technical exercises (be it jump training, sprint training, medicine ball drills, olympic lifts etc.) will do NOTHING for the athlete unless he/she already possesses the necessary physical and technical preconditions for performing these drills!
As a quick example, we run the strength and conditioning for the majority of the Woodson high school volleyball team (shown in the picture below), who recently won the the district title - and continued to the regional finals and state tournament - for the first time in school history. However, we still give each and every girl on that team an individualized training plan, and this includes their jumping and plyo drills (not the same thing, by the way).
Although all of them together make up a great team, some possess a greater degree of spatial awareness, neural coordination, and strength than others. It would do every individual a disservice to throw them all in the same drills together rather than match the appropriate drill to the person.
Bottom line: Some athletes will be ready for true plyo drills, others will be not-so-ready. A good coach will be able to evaluate the individual and determine where they need to begin along the plyo continuum (if at all).
So, What To Do?
While it is beyond the scope of this post to delve head-first into the myriad progressions/drills that are ideal and appropriate to use, I can at least say that 90% of the athletes I've worked with need to begin by with some variation of drill force reduction. Developing eccentric force absorption and muscle contraction will lay the framework for enhanced concentric strength potential.
What do I mean by this? You can't optimally PRODUCE force until you can adequately ABSORB force. In a vertical jump, the first move that takes place is the force reduction component (lowering yourself to jump) before the actual force production phase (extending body to accelerate upward) during which you leave the ground. The athlete will only be able to accelerate quickly if they are able to efficiently decelerate FIRST.
An example of a Level 1 force absorption drill would be an altitude drop with a stick landing, as shown in the video below. These will drill landing mechanics, develop yielding strength, and create a strong excitation of the CNS.
It looks simple and easy, yes, but you'd actually be surprised at how many top-notch athletes cannot land properly upon initial testing! It is not uncommon to see athletes having difficulty landing properly from a mere 5" box height.
From there, you'll want to progress to elasticity jumps with variable landings in order to the teach the athlete to use his/her active support structures (muscles and tendons) to minimize stress on the passive support structures (bones, ligaments, labrums, etc.).
This will help prepare them the more "real life " scenario come game day.
Basketball season is upon me once again. As I walked into the Patriot Center last Sunday at 5pm (read that again… SUNDAY at 5PM) for our first team practice, I sighed to myself as I noted this is where I will be spending enormous chunks of my days for the next seven months. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy working with this team and staff… but, it does mean I will often end up working 7 days per week for weeks and weeks at a time. Right about now, it may have dawned on you that I’m not a basketball coach, so what do I do at these practices that result in 7 day workweeks, you may be wondering. My role during practice is to conduct the team warm-up (which I previously wrote about here), monitor practice volume and intensity (this is a topic I will post on next week as it is critically important for strength coaches to write effective and complimentary programs), watch practice to see where our team has room for improvement (speed, strength in certain planes of movement, conditioning, etc.), and simply to show support for the team which results in a tight bond between myself and the players and coaching staff.
That last part is the one I want to focus on for this post: one’s physical presence demonstrates support for both the team and coaching staff that will eventually manifest itself into an excellent working relationship between all parties. Clearly this can be applied well beyond college athletics and is the backbone to why you show up for your child’s recitals and various events. Taking it a step further this is a great example of how you can show support for a spouse of coworker. Simply by being present.
Over the last three seasons I have been able to keep a constant pulse on the team and the long-term result is that this year I have put the strongest, fastest, and most well conditioned team on the court (up to this season, at least). This has come from small, but critical, insights to the game I’ve garnered ONLY from hanging around.
What can you learn today by “zipping your lip” and simply listening and watching?