My Letter To A Coach Regarding The Off-season Program They Gave To Their Athletes.

Hi Coach,

Here are my notes on the program. I haven’t gone back over to proofread this, so there’s bound to be typos, and it sort of turns to point form near the end. You mentioned going for a beer and chatting about this. Beer is good. We can grab a beer anytime you like to discuss this further if you want.

To begin with, It’s seems to me that this program is based on classical periodization, where you start with building an aerobic base and slowly work your way toward higher intensity work as the off-season comes to an end and the competitive season begins. This can also be called a long-to-short program: High volumes of longer, slower, less intense exercises at the start of the off-season with a move toward less volumes of shorter more intense exercise at the end of the off-season. We did this back in high school for track. We’d do cross country in the fall, and then switch over to sprints etc., in the spring time.

Part of the rationale behind classical periodization was to give the athlete a much needed rest from the high intensity work that they encountered during the competitive season, and to gradually increase the intensity as the off-season progresses so that the athlete had time to adapt thereby avoiding potential injury. And, as it says in this particular program, “it is important to build a strong aerobic base for muscular growth at this stage and to increase anaerobic recovery needed later in the summer”. That’s not necessarily the case though.

One of the drawbacks of a long-to-short program is that the total high intensity volume over the off-season is quite low compared to more contemporary periodization schemes (short-to-long) and as a result there is a higher risk of injury during the season.

Another major drawback is that the type muscle developed during the lower intensity work isn’t the sort of muscle volleyball players need (or players from any other sports where explosiveness and speed are essential like soccer, basketball, and football). When things get ramped up intensity wise, the muscle that is developed with this sort of program essentially becomes dead weight and the body has to then develop and adapt to a different set of muscle fibre types. I’m talking more in black and white terms here, the truth of the matter is that there is a complex interplay between the muscle fibre types that is way above my level of understanding. For purposes outside of the laboratory, the principle is sound though. Slower/low intensity exercise facilitates the growth of of slow-twitch muscles, and more importantly, it negates the growth of fast-twitch muscle fibres. We’ve all seen female athletes with incredibly muscular legs that have little ability to create the power necessary for a high vertical jump. In fact, we see this more often in females than we should, right up to the national team level.

Furthermore, the way the program is set up is such that there are a lot of conflicting elements. There’s no real specificity with speed or strength, and though the endurance exercises seem okay on their own, the effect they will have on the other elements (speed/strength/power), will be negative. There are better ways to improve endurance for volleyball players. The sort of endurance work that is in the program kills speed and explosiveness. Both the aerobic work, and the lactic work that I’ll mention below. With continuous aerobic work, the CNS is being conditioned to be slow and steady, not rip roaring fast. In regards to this type of aerobic training (the continuous jogs mentioned in the program, and conjointly the road cycling or xcountry biking) the NSCA’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning it states, “It is not uncommon for elite aerobic endurance runners who are training with a high mileage to be able to jump vertically only several inches.” Definitely not something we want to move towards in Volleyball at any point of the program. Why create something in the athlete that we later have to undo and that actually hinders the speed and power development that is absolutely essential to elite level volleyball competition?

Conversely, it is true that endurance is essential for repeated explosive movements like the ones found in Volleyball. However, this specific type of endurance is trained in a different way than in the program under discussion. Proper endurance training will not interfere with the development of the explosive abilities of the athlete, but unfortunately this is where most programs fail.

Another area of the program that doesn’t make sense to me (I understand what the exercises do, I just don’t know why they would be put in a program for volleyball players) is the focus on lactic training. In the Agilities/Conditioning section I see 300 yard shuttle runs, tempo runs at 80% intensity, Gassers, and 150 yard shuttle runs. When an athlete works in the lactic zone, their body’s response will be to create more mitochondria in the muscles for energy, and at the same time the body will forgo building the fast-twitch muscle fibres that are essential for a power-speed sport athlete, not to mention the motor patterns that will be developed will result in sub-maximal force generation.

Most of the energy used in Volleyball comes from the Anaerobic Alactic system with a slight, a very slight dip into the Anaerobic Lactic system. It’s a rare occasion when a volleyball player feels the burn during a game.

Saying that however I need to clarify something…it’s a rare occasion when a volleyball player feels the burn during a game provided that they have the explosive power required to play the game at the collegiate level or higher. A catch 22 for the sort of training prescribed in the program is that it doesn’t produce quite the level of explosive power needed for collegiate level players so the point where they can rely on their power-reserve. Instead their lack of explosiveness (a result of doing this sort of program…the catch 22 part) now forces them in-season to rely on maximum power (which is actually submaximal as far as the sport requires), resulting in them relying on glycolosis/lactic energy to finish a game. So yes, athletes that are not explosive will end up relying on their anaerobic lactic energy system, but that’s not how we want it to be.

Developing half-explosive athletes is what a good program should avoid. We want explosive, powerful, fast athletes that can coast through a game relying on submaximal effort (jumping 30 inches to hit the ball even though they’re capable of jumping 35 inches). If their max vert is only 30 inches and 30 inches is required for them to hit the ball, they’re going to be exhausted at the end of a set. Of course to them it would seem like volleyball is a sport where you’re always feeling the burn, but this is only because they are not in “volleyball shape.” It’s not a sport that requires a lot of lactic conditioning and if we want to develop teams in this country that are competitive on the world level (top 5 consistently), we need to start developing athletes to be explosive.

One of the major drawbacks of the lactic type training in the program is that even if every other aspect of the program were perfect, this alone would negate most of the positive speed/power adaptations that the athlete would have otherwise. It essentially shuts the door on explosiveness. In track and field a 100m sprinter will actually train right up to their lactic threshold, but in extreme moderation, and with massive amounts of rest between efforts (30 minutes or more of rest between 2 high intensity runs around 35 seconds duration). If 100m sprinters are only doing minimal amounts of this sort of training when their event/sport requires it, why are volleyball players doing high volumes of it when their sport doesn’t require it? Also, sprinters only train this way during the specific preparation period, nearing toward their competitive season, and never in the fall during their general preparation period. The days of running cross country in the fall/winter and then introducing speed work in the spring are over (mostly, there are a few track programs out there like Denis Mitchel’s and his guy Justin Gaitlin that use a tiny bit of the long-to-short program still, but even they have switched to the short to long for the most part).

Continued below…

Also, this sort of training lacks specificity. It takes away from the speed/explosive development of an athlete. For example, the 300yd shuttle is broken down into 25yd segments. One 25yd segment would be quality speed work. 300yds in a straight line would be quality Special Endurance/Lactic Power work. Breaking it up however takes away from both the potential speed work, and the special endurance that would come from it (special endurance that a 100m sprinter would need, but never a volleyball player). This single drill alone would take an explosive athlete and within a few sessions make them slower and less explosive. Maybe a super elite athlete could run the drill in the times prescribe without much of a negative effect, but this would be because of their high level of speed reserve. In other words they’d only be jogging it relative to their top speed. In fact, this is what we want with our athletes, for them to be so fast and explosive that they can make it through a game at submaximal levels. We can’t produce these sorts of athletes though with a 300yd shuttle, or a 150 yd shittle, or with gassers, or with tempo runs done at 80%.

The top sprinters do their tempo work at 60-75% of their maximal intensity/speed, and we wouldn’t want it to be any faster for a volleyball player either. 80% is too close to maximal effort, and rehearsing at this speed will only bring the athlete’s top end speed down. Also, it has too much of an impact on the athlete for them to recover for the next day’s high intensity work and after a few weeks would lead to overtraining. Further still it pushes the athlete from the anaerobic alactic zone into the anaerobic lactic zone. Of course when you throw all of the gassers and 80% tempo and the other drills/exercises that are in the program, the athlete is never actually performing at their maximal intensity and the negative effect of all this might go unnoticed. Take an elite athlete like Michael Jordan and you’ll notice the negative effects almost immediately. For long term development we want to produce multiple Michael Jordans.

The hurdle and vertimax work is not practical. Where will the athletes find this equipment? Oh hey, I know, at a gym that has it, and all for special athlete’s discount price. The hurdle work is actually great and would be recommended during the off-season. The vertimax though is a different story. Research has shown that simple drop jumps are far more effective. Not a little more, but far more. Also, when an athlete uses the vertimax it moves the force velocity curve in the wrong direction. Athletes should rehearse similar patters to what they perform. The vertimax slows the athlete down as they extend their body to jump. If anything the athlete should be assisted in their jumping to make the speed at which they jump faster and to facilitate greater rate of force development. I have no idea who sells vertimax machines, but they’re good at their job. I just saw pictures of our women’s national soccer team using a vertimax machine for both vert training and sprint training. They would have been better off buying some medicine balls to throw around a field somewhere. There is a medicine ball push and sprint in the program. They’re great.

-Doing weighted vertical jumps and weighted stairs = high injury/overuse risk. Also, this increases ground contact time. The goal is to make the ground contact time shorter, not longer (which the vertimax also does). Athletes primarily train their nervous systems, their motor patterns, not their muscles. Adding weight to something that should be done quickly doesn’t make sense. Too many programs try to mix training variables which confuses the body and usually results in poor adaptations.

-Next, there is too much change of direction work in this program. In most sports when an athlete makes a change of direction the forces involved are usually closer to linear speed work than to actual lateral movements. Too much change of direction work will cause problems with joint laxity. Change of direction work should be performed at a high intensity and at very low volumes. I know some coaches who almost completely remove it from their programs.

-Use of ladders (another piece of equipment that marketing geniuses got their hands on), force the athlete into an unnatural pattern. A 5’2” libero is going to have completely different foot spacing than a 6’2” middle blocker. Why on earth would they use the same ladder? Furthermore, when an athlete has to consciously think about a movement (“where is the space in the ladder so I can put my foot there?”) it moves the motor pattern from the hind-brain where things are automatic and fast, to the fore-brain where they are thoughtful and slow.

A case could be made that ladder training and obstacle course running would lead to a greater skill in variability in an athlete. However, I think there is more than enough variability training in a typical volleyball practice already and so this cup is already filled up to the top. No more of it is necessary.

-Spin work = lactic = doesn’t produce desired effects.

There are issues with the weights as well. Stability Ball Dumbell Snatches is one of them. Training on an unstable surface has shown to produce inferior results to classic strength training methods, i.e., lifting heavy loads on a stable surface. The rep scheme is fine to begin with so that the athlete can learn the technique of each exercise better due to higher reps, but it is important to move quickly to lower reps to focus on strength and power and move away from hypertrophy training which will just add useless bulk to the athlete. Training on unstable surfaces (stability balls and wobble boards) is a fad that has passed. It is great for injury rehabilitation, but by the time an athlete is ready for their re-entry training they’re no longer useful.

-Adding 10 block jumps after lifting weights puts the athlete at risk for overtraining. Performing explosive movements in a fatigued state not only trains the motor pattern to be submaximal, it also brings with it risk of injury.

I think that’s enough for now. Time to relax for the evening.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.


Stability ball dumb bell snatches! That is ridiculous. I hope your letter to him helped.

It won’t. The coach will read it and think “Who is this bozo who thinks he can tell me my job?” And that will be the end of it. A lot of wasted breath for nothing though.


Herb, this Bud’s for you:

Gorgeous! Yes, I’ve read the research he’s talking about. Sounds way better coming from him though than from me. :slight_smile:

Well said,Lyle.


It never hurts to plant a seed in someone’s mind for further thought, even if they only pick up on it years later. Whether they listen or not at the time, it’s not likely to do any damage.

Breath is life. Wasted breath is wasted life. It does hurt.

Agreed. That is always the first reaction people have to any sort of feedback, but I don’t think the door is completely closed in this instance for a few reasons. Firstly, he asked me for my feedback. Secondly, the program was made by someone else, and all he did was email it to his team. He’s a volleyball coach, not a S&C coach. And thirdly, one of the other coaches recommended he listen to my advice. Still, we shall see what happens. It’s a holiday today here in BC Canada, but I’m going to phone him tomorrow to follow up.