Volleyball Specific Training Thoughts

As volleyball club seasons come to a close and the athletes start to frequent the gym more often, I thought that I might outline my ideas about specific training modifications that we implement with these athletes. As a disclaimer, I’m not a believer in “sport specific training” in the form that it is typically used in many programs. Most of our athletes come in and receive individual training that is specific to their own needs and based on the physical demands of their sport. We see great differences within a given sport population and don’t assign training without considering these differences. With that said, many of our volleyball athletes have similar profiles in terms of strengths, weaknesses, anthropometry (build), mobility, motor patterns, etc. This will be a brief examination of these similarities and how they impact training.

1. Squatting – Most of the volleyball athletes we work with are not “natural” squatters. They have long femurs, long torsos, and inadequate control over their mechanics. They tend to drop forward into a very quad dominant pattern as soon as they attempt to squat. In order to control for this and eventually correct it, I’ve found a few things can be very helpful.

  • Safety Squat Bar/Yoke Bar – For a detailed guide on how to use this, check here. The short version is that the bar has mechanics that allow the athlete to achieve greater depth while prompting them to keep their spines in a neutral alignment. I know that all squatting should be like this but for the taller, longer limbed athletes, I think this bar does an exceptional job. Here are some videos of our athletes using it: Video 1, Video 2
  • Box Squatting – This eliminates the issue of questionable depth as well as making the movement a more hip dominant exercise. Also, since they never really take time off from the sport (during the summer they are playing sand and taking individual skill lessons), I’ve found that this is an easier variation for them to recover from.
  • Front Squatting – Once they get past the initial complaints of wrist pain, this is a great squatting variation that typically allows taller athletes to get more depth without rounding their backs. Although it’s more of a knee dominant variation than other options, I think it still has its place since knee extension torque is one of the primary variables for increasing vertical jump height (often their #1 goal).

2. Plyometrics – Almost all of our athletes jump in some form or another during training. Since volleyball places a premium on jumping ability more than any other sport we work with, we spend a fair amount of time and energy figuring out exactly how to include it in their program. The entire process could be an article all on its own but I will mention that we typically include a significantly higher proportion of vertical jumping (mainly over hurdles) than with other athletes. We shift some of the focus away from horizontal jumping and try to really teach them to create high forces fast in the vertical plane. From a “force vector specificity” standpoint, I think this is a really important modification to the training.

3. Injury Prevention – Many athletes express an interest in injury prevention and volleyball players are no different. We include a few elements in their training to help reduce the risk of certain injuries which are common in the sport.

  • ACL Injuries – I spent almost a decade researching this and could write a bunch here but I’ll spare you. We basically go off a four factor model which includes fixing the following things: quad dominance (lack of posterior chain strength/function), side-to-side dominance, dynamic valgus knee alignment (knock kneed position), and lack of trunk control (core strength/function). While this approach is not unique to volleyball, we do incorporate specific motor patterns that are used in hitting and blocking when we have them perform the feedback intensive jumping and landing drills.
  • Labrum/Rotator Cuff Injuries – Also a common ailment for volleyball players, we incorporate a greater amount of scapular stability drills as well as doubling the volume of upper body pulling exercises compared to upper body pushing exercises.
  • Spondylolysis/Spinal Stress Fracture/Sore Back – This is something that we unfortunately see in a lot of volleyball players. They tend to have long, thin trunks and place demands on their spine that are the perfect recipe for a Spondy (fractured vertebrae). Max vertical jumping while forcing your spine into rotation and hyperextension and then counter-rotating it through into flexion and finishing with a high impact single leg landing with high compressive forces is one of the most demanding things you can do to it. This is exactly what happens when they are hitting and, to a lesser extent, serving. A little improvement in hitting technique goes a long way in helping limit risk but since we’re not volleyball coaches or even pretending to be, we just try to set the athlete up to meet the physical demands of this activity. This includes heavy core training by loading them up in various patterns during compressive situations like squatting and deadlifting, strengthening their spinal erectors with exercises that only include an internal compressive force like reverse hyperextensions, back extensions, and GHRs, and performing unilateral weighted carries to address the multiplanar nature of the injury mechanism.

There are obviously a lot more factors we consider when putting together a plan for our volleyball athletes but these are the highlights from what I’ve experienced over about 10 years of working with this population. They are an exceptional group of athletes who can express themselves athletically in a myriad of ways. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on what they see as commonalities when training volleyball players. Feel free to leave comments in the comments section. Thanks.