Considerations for Training High School Volleyball Athletes
January 26, 2022
Volleyball athletes make up a significant portion of our roster here at Iron Performance Center. Whether it’s an athlete preparing for Team Canada, a varsity D1 stud, or an upcoming high school phenom, our staff have worked with a wide range of experience levels. While each athlete's training experience is highly unique, we like to look for trends or patterns that span across the performance preparation spectrum to see if we can draw some commonalities across the board. This understanding allows us to better plan our training approach for our teams and athletes.
In this article, I break down some of the focus points we consider when training our high school volleyball athletes and our approach for doing so (pun intended). Now, don’t go thinking that this is the end all be all; I can assure you it’s nowhere close. It’s just our way of doing things based on feedback from our athletes and findings in our weight room. In fact, many of these points are transferable for other jumping athletes as well. At the end of the day, there isn’t a right way of training; everything works until it doesn’t and then you move on. In our practice, we simply strive to be slightly less wrong each and every day. Take what you find useful and leave the rest.
Know Your Role
I always want to start by saying it is important to understand the role we play in building these high school athletes. Our role is one catered around stress mitigation. First, a quick glimpse of practice. Most volleyball athletes are practicing anywhere from 3-6 days per week, sometimes twice daily. In each practice, they could get anywhere from 100-125 jump contacts, each with an accompanying high velocity arm swing. Most jump contacts are bilateral and plyometric in nature. They spend most of practice in a forward bent position; they are very dominant in the anterior chain. The chaotic nature and unpredictability of the sport should also be considered when determining how to positively stress the athlete in training.
Knowing the above factors, we aim to fill the gaps not being filled through sport practice while complimenting what’s needed for optimal sport performance. We need to consider what buckets to fill and how to best do so without imposing unnecessary stress on the athlete. Minimal effective dose is key. Look to do addition by subtraction; less is more when it comes to programming. You don’t need a shotgun to kill a mosquito after all.
I say this next bit with the utmost respect for our industry. In the grand scheme of things, we’re irrelevant. Genetics account for probably 90% of the potential athleticism within our volleyball athletes. Their ability to jump, react and be agile are likely already predetermined, they simply need to sharpen the tools they already have and stay healthy in order to use them. That’s where we can play our part.
Our job is to implement appropriate stress in our sessions across the span of a season with the intent to make (and maintain) more robust and refined athletes. That being said, stay humble and know the role you play is a small (but very meaningful) piece in a large puzzle. Now, onto the good stuff.
The Key Performance Indicators
For our volleyball athletes, there are a couple KPIs that you can take into consideration. The first is their ability to approach the net as quickly as possible while generating as much height to clear the net in order to make contact with the ball. This offense is typically conducted within a 10-foot distance.
The next KPI is their ability to jump as high as possible from a loaded stationary position (or a brief shuffle) in order to block an incoming attack. This defensive block is typically conducted within 1-3 feet from a loaded stationary position.
Another KPI to consider is the amount of power volleyball athletes can generate when performing an attack or a serve. Athletes with a faster arm velocity will naturally have a more powerful swing.
Finally, you need to consider the overall height of the athlete. At the end of the day, having athletes that require less force production to clear the net only raises the ceiling potential for them to do so. Taller athletes tend to do better at volleyball, thus are also higher on the list for consideration to more elite programs and teams. At the end of the day, you can’t teach tall.
To measure the offensive attack potential for volleyball players, an approach jump to a vertec is the go-to choice. While not always the best indicator, we can still get a measure for absolute height. The higher the approach jump, the higher the potential for success in completing a successful attack.
Now, the height standards will vary based on position, age division and gender of the athlete as well as the unique requirements for each school or club. Obviously the more competitive the selection pool, the higher the standard. On average, female athletes should strive to surpass a 9.5 foot approach jump while males should look to surpass 11 feet. Again, these are simply average benchmarks. Take them as you will.
For block height, we can use a vertec apparatus as we did with the approach jump or we can use a jump mat/force plate. Due to the more linear motion of a block jump, athletes can start and land on the mat or plate to get the measurement. Either device will do the trick. Similarly to the approach jump, the higher the block jump the higher the potential for successful defense.
Again, the height standards will vary with position, age division and gender of the athletes. On average, female athletes should strive to surpass a 9 foot block jump while males should look to surpass 9.5 feet.
When measuring the overall height of your volleyball athletes, a simple standing reach will suffice. You can use a vertec or a tape measure and marker, both will work fine. A good standing reach height for female athletes ranges from 7.5-8 feet with males being around 8-8.5 feet. If you want to keep the measurements relative for your team, simply subtract the height of the athlete from their standing reach. As always, the position and age of the athletes need to be considered when examining these metrics.
In order to better identify overall explosive strength, a standing vertical jump with arm swing is also measured and used as a recruiting tool for scouts and coaching staff. As with the block jump, a vertec or jump mat/force plate can be used. The higher the vertical jump in relation to their height, the more explosive strength the athlete appears to demonstrate. Females should strive to surpass 18-21 inches relative to their standing reach while males should look to surpass 20-23 inches. As usual, position and age division need to be considered.
I want to be clear that although we strive for certain jump metrics, they should be kept in context. Jumping in a game and on a vertec are two different skills that, when practiced, become more economical over time. You might have a shorter player that can’t hit the relative standards, yet can crush an opponent's defense in a game. Likewise, you might have a taller player that reaches the minimum requirements and has less than stellar skills on the court. Heck, sometimes just the fact that it’s a testing day can throw off even the best players. Tactics, skill and playing ability will always trump any assessment. It just helps to get some eyes on you if you can ace them.
For explosive attack ability and arm speed, a radar gun can be used when the athletes serve and attack the ball. Should you choose to do this, you can choose to bring a radar gun to sport practice (although this may be impractical).
When working with volleyball athletes, it’s not uncommon to come across injuries surrounding the ankles, knees and shoulders. Ankle sprains are extremely common; the chaotic nature of landing from different angles and reactionary demands makes volleyball athletes highly susceptible to this type of injury.
ACL sprains and tears are also common, moreso in the female volleyball athlete. While simply a hunch, we suspect this increased likelihood to be associated with two factors: 1) female volleyball players tend to be more quad dominant and therefore have weaker hamstrings. 2) A greater Q-angle leads to a more at risk position of the knee upon landing. Again, these are simply our observations with our volleyball athletes.
Common issues include rotator cuff strains due to repetitive high velocity arm swings and low back pain from constantly being in a forward bent position. As mentioned above, these are anteriorly dominant athletes; we should look to fill the gaps by supplementing with posterior chain work.
Being in the private sector, we tend to have it easier when looking to take a more individualized approach; something that is harder to implement in a collegiate setting. Every athlete is assessed with a brief movement screen in order to help us learn how their body moves at the present time. This screen better guides our programming as it hints at potential constraints needed when selecting appropriate exercises.
For volleyball athletes, we’ll test hip, ankle and shoulder mobility (both active and passive ranges of motion) as well as their initial jumping ability (same tests done daily as outlined below). On average, we’ve found that most of the athletes have limited ankle mobility as well as hip internal rotation. Most have good shoulder mobility with some having overuse issues. In terms of knee flexion, many are able to demonstrate great range of motion when done passively. However, we see many of our volleyball athletes struggle with active deep knee flexion.
Now, in the name of keeping this practical, it’s best to just assume that you’ll likely run into similar issues with your own volleyball athletes. In fact, you’ll probably see similar trends with your basketball athletes or taller jumping athletes as well. Later in the article’ I’ll give examples of some of our exercise choices to best work around common issues while still progressing towards our desired adaptations.
Before each lift, our athletes will perform 3 different jumps; a static jump (hands on hips), a countermovement jump (hands on hips) and a standing vertical jump full out. While the numbers themselves aren’t that important (there are always discrepancies with accuracy), the trends and contrasts between jumps can give us a better indicator of future programming direction.
Our static jump gives us a good indicator of starting strength while our countermovement jump reflects more explosive strength. For volleyball athletes, we would look to widen the gap between static and countermovement jumps. If the jumps are relatively similar (within a couple inches), we would look to incorporate more explosive work and build more elastic qualities. Should the jumps be fairly different (5 or more inches), we would look to prioritize strength work. Essentially, if the ceiling matches the floor, we gotta raise the ceiling. If the ceiling is high, we gotta bring the floor with us.
On occasion, we’ll bust out the vertec to challenge approach jumps in preparation for tryouts or showcases. It gives the athletes extra practice. I’ve found that having the athletes practice on a vertec typically results in a higher score. Since they’re not tested very frequently, the simple act of vertec practice allows them to become more relaxed for showcases while building a more economical jump. To say they actually jumped higher instead of being more efficient at vertec touching would be hard to prove.
Are jump assessments perfect? Of course not; there may be many inaccuracies at times as athletes learn the technique or get better at cheating. What they can provide is a very quick measurement for comparison across days and weeks to see a common discrepancy between an individual athlete’s strength ability and daily readiness. Over time, you can use the numbers to guide your program focus. As with most things, take it with a grain of salt. If nothing else, the athletes love competing with each other for the highest number so the atmosphere becomes very energetic.
For the most part, the programs for our high school volleyball athletes revolve around full-range challenge targeting explosive strength, maximal strength, stability and mobility. We’ve found it helpful to use different joint angles and tools to accommodate constraints typically associated with volleyball athletes. I would also like to make a point that you should aim to keep your programs fun and engaging, especially with the younger age group. Remember, attitude dictates effort and effort dictates outcomes. If your athletes approach your sessions with excitement, they’ll give you their best effort thus resulting in better outcomes.
As with most programs, we look to get the most out of the time we have. For us, we look to include exercises that are plane-relevant to build tissue tolerance for repetitive jumping, swinging and lunging. Exercise selections should not conflict with the intended adaptation. What does this mean? It means that while we aim to be as sport-relevant as possible, it cannot be at the sacrifice of the adaptation itself (do NOT do a banded spike).
In terms of planning, our program is layered differently depending on:
The time of year.
Training age of the athlete.
How much access we have.
3-4 Days Per Week
1-2 Days Per Week
If we have athletes in the weight room 3-4 days per week, we’ll usually look to implement a modified high-low model or modified tier-system. These lifts are typically reserved for off-season work or when athletes are on break. Examples of each are below.
If we have athletes in the weight room 1-2 days per week, we’ll typically do high CNS intensive days only. Obviously these are normally reserved for when our volleyball players are in-season. An example is below.
If you’ve read my previous article on managing team lifts, many of those planning strategies I wrote about can be used with your high school volleyball athletes when looking to hit adaptation goals while accommodating common athlete constraints. As with most strategies in strength and conditioning, it is extremely unique to your own environment.
Our warm ups usually go ground-up with a gradual ramp in intensity. Aside from general dynamic movements, we’ll incorporate ankle mobility, shoulder mobility and deep knee flexion exercises to increase longevity while preparing for the work ahead.
Some examples include banded ankle rockers, single leg calf raises, single leg toes raises, and band work focusing on shoulder flexion, extension and rotation. For deep knee flexion, we’ll typically perform long duration isometrics either loaded or unloaded. We’ve found this to be especially useful for those suffering from patellar tendonitis.
In terms of CNS prep, we’ll usually do low intensity hops of various heights. We’ll start with pogo hops to focus on the ankle before progressing to quarter hops with a slight knee bend. To progress, we’ll add direction and transition to a single leg. We even incorporate approach jumps and shuffle to block jumps to keep things relevant and fun for the volleyball athletes.
When focusing on explosive strength, we incorporate both unilateral and bilateral exercises. While most jumps in volleyball tend to be bilateral in nature, training unilaterally can help improve coordination for bilateral takeoff. Examples of unilateral explosive exercises could be loaded split squat jumps or single leg drop-catches with a pause. While most of our unilateral explosive work is done as a dumbbell loaded jump, advanced athletes of higher training ages are introduced to O-lifts with a split stance catch.
For bilateral explosive strength, we tend to focus on O-lift variations or loaded jumps. We like to do cleans and snatches from blocks so as to accomodate for their height. Trap bar jumps are also an effective choice and are great for beginners. Should you wish to be more knee-dominant with your selection, push jerks or split jerks are great options as well.
When targeting explosive strength in the upper body for volleyball athletes, push jerks or push press variations are our go-to choices. For those with lesser shoulder mobility, we’ll use a landmine variation with a viking attachment to get the most bang for our buck. Single arm landmine split jerks are also effective. Med ball work in a vertical plane can also be done with novices or those with a lower training age.
In terms of volume, it will depend on the time of year as well as quality of the reps being performed. On average, we hit 2-5 reps per set and typically don’t push past 30 total reps per series.
When focusing on maximal strength, it’s important to keep in mind that it doesn't have to be a one rep maximal focus. As with explosive strength, volume is dependent on the time of year. On average, our strength work ranges from 2-5 reps per set and doesn’t push past 20 reps per series. In terms of load, build autonomy in your athletes and help them learn what a heavier set feels like. That way, they know how to autoregulate themselves. We encourage them to leave 1-2 good reps (technically sound) in the tank when doing strength sets. For beginners, select a load, provide feedback for each set and get insight as to how challenging it felt. Over time, they’ll learn how to adjust their training loads based on your desired rep range and prescription intent.
For maximal strength work, we love to squat our volleyball athletes. We tend to go for front squat variations to accommodate their height and the challenge of hitting full range. We will also add a wedge to assist. Should the lower back still be a limiting factor, we’ll use a safety squat bar and have the athletes squat with hand assistance using pegs.
We also include heavy split squat and lunge exercises as well. These will typically be done with a safety squat bar to accommodate shoulder mobility issues. We’ve found few issues with full range challenge when doing split squats, however, we’ve seen a couple athletes struggle. We’ve found elevating the front leg on blocks to help accommodate a tighter hip while using a wedge under the front foot to accommodate a stiffer ankle; both of which are not uncommon in volleyball athletes.
When single leg squatting with dumbbells, we typically rotate between ipsilateral and contralateral loading. This helps us include anti-lateral flexion and anti-rotation trunk work at the same time (for the rotational demands of swinging). When not in-season, we’ll hammer these with long duration eccentrics.
Our accessory choices are where we have more freedom to cater to specific weak points in our athletes. For volleyball players, we usually include frontal plane, transverse plane and posterior chain exercises. These may include everything from side lunges to unilateral carries. For rotational exercises, we do both powerful throws and controlled catches with a focused amortization.
A big focus is improving ankle and shoulder mobility/stability. Whether we include exercises in our warm ups (banded ankle work for example) or accessories near the end, we want to continue to build tolerance and endurance.
For ankle work, we like to use isometrics holds at different ranges of plantar flexion and even dorsiflexion. As athletes become more tolerant, we’ll load these up using a safety bar with hands assisted on the pegs. Heel and toe raises are also staples in our accessories.
Implementing single leg hops (loaded and unloaded) with the heel raised in multiple directions is also effective in improving resiliency. Feel free to add them in the dynamic prep work or later on in the lift.
For those with patellar tendonitis or other knee issues, we’ll implement deep knee flexion isometrics for long duration (both loaded and unloaded). As mentioned above, we’ll put these in the warm up before the lift, however we can also include them in our accessory work. We’ve found these to be helpful in relieving pain while building further degrees of knee bend over time. Other good options for knee health include Spanish squats and/or TKEs.
For shoulders, we will press, pull, curl and extend through varying degrees of shoulder flexion and extension. Believe it or not, focused arm work is crucial for good shoulder health; hitting these angles helps build tolerance of the tendons in both the shortened and lengthened positions.
The same philosophy applies to any external rotation choices. To be more thorough, be sure to include exercises that include both a flexed shoulder and also an abducted shoulder. If possible, use a cable machine to ensure constant force is applied in the right vector plane.
As mentioned, the above points can be transferred across a wide discipline of sport athletes. While much of the points discussed could easily be thought of as general, it’s important to focus on the justification. From our experience, we’ve found reasons to select the choices above; every program variable can easily be tied back to a justification for why we do them with our volleyball athletes.
At the end of the day, adjust your choices to fit the constraints of your athletes and support their sporting demands. Be a stress mitigator and aim to give the minimal effective dose needed. You really can’t go wrong with that line of reasoning.