It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Wait—time out. If you came looking for Dickens or that type of eloquent writing, you’re in the wrong place. You see, writing is actually outside my comfort zone. I am much more comfortable speaking at a clinic or in a video, where I can ad-lib. But this is my attempt to share with you the success we’ve had in our program teaching our athletes how to strain in the weight room.
Recently, I tweeted (I just can’t bring myself to say “I posted on X”) a thread about how our softball team develops the ability to truly strain in the weight room. Learning to strain is about getting outside your comfort zone, pushing yourself to places you haven’t been before. People commented on the tweet, saying it needed to be expanded into an article. I immediately retorted that I’m a bad writer and actually made a joke about it.
Later the same day, though, I began to have pangs of guilt over my insecurity about writing something for the world to see. As stated above, part of teaching our softball team to strain is convincing them to be willing to push themselves outside their comfort zone. I tell the players they each have a “potential tank,” similar to a water heater tank. Their job is to fill that tank effectively…and ultimately try to expand it into an even bigger tank.Learning to strain is about getting outside your comfort zone, pushing yourself to places you haven’t been before, says @BrandonHerring0. Click To Tweet
I also tell our athletes that using laughter and jokes is a defense mechanism when they’re uncomfortable. I see beginners, especially, nervously laughing and cracking jokes when they take those first steps toward straining. I truly believe straining is a skill that all lifters need to learn, and it takes time and real effort to achieve. Are you seeing where those pangs of guilt I mentioned were coming from? One thing I don’t like is a hypocritical coach, preaching something to young people, then turning around and doing the very thing they’re preaching against. I wasn’t willing to get outside my comfort zone, and I made jokes as a defense mechanism.
So, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. In this article, I explain how I slowly teach our softball players—beginning in seventh grade—to truly strain in our S&C program. We have a culture built around that effort that I share with the world through X (you’re welcome, Elon). Our young ladies have learned to embrace strength as a quality they seek.
It all starts with Taylor Burt, our head coach. I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll say it again for anyone who’s missed it: Taylor may be the finest coach I’ve ever been around. I enjoy sitting in the dugout and watching her coach, and I’ve learned a lot from her. There’s a standard in the program that everyone is expected to meet, both players and coaches.
Coach Burt gives me the autonomy to design our S&C program how I see fit, but I’m always held to the standard. We’ve won three of the last four state championships and played for it the year we didn’t win it. In 2020, spring sports didn’t play due to COVID-19, and that may have been the most talented team she’s had here. What better situation is there to be in?
Nuts and Bolts of the Program
I begin to work with our girls when they enter seventh grade. Our program begins much like most others: we’re learning movements, chasing kinesthetic awareness and coordination, and learning motor patterns and how to control the pelvis and scapula. We use many bodyweight movements and iso exercises in this phase. Once we get this established, they begin their program using some light weights.
This is where one of the tenets of our system begins to show itself. I never want one of these young athletes to leave our gym tired and get really sore. My main objective during this time is for them to gain as much confidence as possible. I absolutely don’t want them to dread coming to the weight room, so I choose to give them ownership of their advancement in the amount of weight they lift. We simply add 5 pounds to the movement when they’re confident, provided they can lift it properly.I choose to give athletes ownership of their advancement in the amount of weight they lift. We simply add 5 pounds to the movement when they’re confident, provided they can lift it properly. Click To Tweet
I constantly remind them that they can add the 5 pounds when the preceding weight is done comfortably on the last set. What I want is all sets and all reps completed every time they lift. I very, very seldom tell any of them to add weight to a movement. I want them to make that decision, and when they do, it gives them a sense of ownership over their training, and that breeds buy-in. I had a mom tell me one time her daughter liked me because I “never made her do something she couldn’t do.”
That was music to my ears.
Another factor that contributes to our success is that those same seventh- and eighth-grade girls lift in the same room, at the same time, as our 9th–12th graders. They get to see the older girls lifting, and I remind them that every one of those older girls started precisely where they are now, adding the 5 pounds when they are ready to do so. Regularly, they get wide eyes when they see an older girl trap bar deadlifting 300+ pounds. Those are the girls these younger ones look up to. They want to be like them. What better way to encourage the strain than by witnessing it from those who have hoisted the state championship trophy several times?What better way to encourage the strain than by witnessing it being done by those who have hoisted the state championship trophy several times?, asks @BrandonHerring0. Click To Tweet
Now, some people may wonder how I manage 50+ athletes at the same time in those varying degrees of programming. I had a college student come shadow me one day, and she said, “This is chaos. How do you keep up with what everyone is doing?” In my opinion, if I’ve done my job properly, our older girls can lift safely without me hovering over them every second. They are technically sound, and I prescribe their intensities. I can afford to spend a little more time with our younger girls to get them on the right track. However, this doesn’t mean I’m not looking across the room to gauge what is happening. This system works for us.
The latest proof of concept came this past summer. I program our summer training as in-season because the majority of the players are playing travel ball. One day, I had 4×5 at 75% programmed on the trap bar deadlift. One of our girls asked, “Coach, can I do a money set?” Money set is the term we use for a plus set on the last set. I replied, “Are you playing this weekend?” and she said, “No.” So, I broke out my phone to video her set at 240 pounds. She performed 24 reps (240 pounds is no longer 70%) and immediately laid down on the floor, smiling and out of breath.
Video 1. High school softball athlete performs a “money set” of the trap bar deadlift.
While videoing, I turned and looked at our middle school girls, who were gaping at what they were witnessing. Afterward, I went over and told those girls, “One day, that will be you.” The very next week, one of the middle school athletes asked if they could try 45’s on the deadlift: seven girls hit 135 pounds that day, and I never told them to try it.
The younger girls will stay in the linear periodization programming until I feel like they’re ready to progress. That timetable is nothing concrete; the decision is made by intuition. It also doesn’t have to be a wholesale decision for every single athlete. Some may stay in the linear periodization for longer than others. If they’re still benefiting from it, they stay on course. If they’re ready to take it up a notch, they move on to the next phase.
Progressing to 5-3-1
I credit the next phase to Jim Wendler. I have found his 5-3-1 program to be a goldmine for our athletes. If you’ve never studied the program, I suggest that you do so immediately—it has been hugely beneficial in training our softball players slowly, over time, to truly strain. I have tweaked his program a little to fit our program, but the main aspects are always present.
I assign a training max to each athlete based on my coach’s eye and where they were in the linear periodization model. I always err on the low side of this training max. I absolutely do not want failure at this time. Remember, we’re trying to build confidence, not break it. There is always a money set on the last set, and I believe this is where the girls begin to learn how to strain.
The program calls for a 10% reduction in the training max for each athlete. In other words, the intensities prescribed are taken from 90% of their training max. This always puts the athlete in a position to do more reps than prescribed. The key is for them to truly push themselves—to strain—and perform as many reps as possible.This program calls for a 10% reduction in each athlete’s training max. This always puts them in a position to do more reps than prescribed. The key is for them to truly push themselves—to strain. Click To Tweet
That effort doesn’t happen immediately. It takes time, but they gain more confidence each time they put that effort in. This is also the time when they’re introduced to some lower-rep schemes with higher intensities. They perform 4–5 sets of five reps during the linear periodization. In the second week of the 5-3-1, they move down to three reps, with the last set being a money set. This will likely be more weight than they’ve ever lifted, so it’s important that I set their training max at a weight I’m totally confident they can train at.
I want them to smash the three-rep money set. This will build their confidence for the next week, when the money set is at one plus. This IS NOT a one-rep test. They aren’t prepared to give the kind of effort it takes to truly perform a max effort lift. Again, they should be able to hit several reps in this set.
After the third week, I adjust their training max based on how many reps they performed in the one-plus set. Basically, I’m slowly turning up the dial. These money sets have become a source of pride in our program, similar to what you see with max effort one-rep lifts. Our softball players gather around and encourage one another: “Keep going!” and “You’ve got another in you!” are common shouts heard in the room. They’re learning to truly strain, and it’s infectious.
Additionally, as they move through these 5-3-1 cycles, I often set their training max above what they’d be able to perform for one rep. I’ve found that they can do the prescribed work off of a higher training max than what they could actually perform. I believe a lack of grip strength and the general shock of how heavy that weight is when they try it contribute to this. For proof of whether or not what we were doing was working, I compiled our hitting stats, including:
- Slugging percentage
- Home runs
I set those game stats beside their trap bar deadlift maxes, and the results were telling, to say the least. Our strongest girls were our most productive hitters, and I shared this info with them to further motivate them to work hard in the weight room.Athletes will use other set/rep schemes as they progress through our program, but the 5-3-1 has become our foundation, says @BrandonHerring0. Click To Tweet
They will use other set/rep schemes as they progress through our program, but the 5-3-1 has become our foundation. Also, money sets are always used regardless of the scheme. Sometimes, our older girls want to perform a one-rep max, and I let them because they have learned the effort it takes to do so. And they are supremely confident.
A Look into Our Annual Plan
Off-season training begins for softball when school starts in August. At this time, the girls are coming off the summer travel ball season, so the main objective is to build work capacity in the weight room. We train volume as well as some complexes for 4–6 weeks to achieve this. Following those 4–6 weeks, we begin a series of four-week training cycles.
The linear periodization and 5-3-1 programs are started here. As I stated earlier, I’ve taken the liberty of fitting the 5-3-1 model to work best for us. There are times in the off-season when I will add a set or two to the model. We may begin with a lighter set at around 50% to attack some speed work before the strength work. This is a great way to hit the entire force-velocity curve. Another adjustment may be to add a second working set at the same intensity that the last set—the money set—will be performed.
I should note that we have some pretty advanced girls, and I will program for them specifically if I think they would benefit from different programming, such as speed strength work. The off-season will run through Christmas and into the middle to later third of January.
Following the off-season program, we shift to in-season. The linear periodization and 5-3-1 schemes remain, but I add “caps” to the money sets. For instance, I will cap the total reps on a 5+ set at eight reps, 3+ at six reps, and 1+ at three reps. At this time, I may manipulate the weight being lifted with an intensity regulator in my programming sheets to account for the capping of the money sets. The reason I cap the sets is to keep the total volume down because they are in-season—the last thing I want is to send them to practice tired and/or sore.
Generally, we lift twice a week during the in-season, but there are times when the girls will ask for a game-day lift. This is just a primer lift, with medball throws, speed squats, and some sprints as examples of what we may do. As we head into championship season (May), I really back off the volume and mainly focus on speed and explosive work.
The summer training season, June–July, is a time when we want the girls to try to lift twice a week. The vast majority of our girls play travel ball, so I program it just as I would in-season. We set the sessions up for Monday and Wednesday so the girls can travel and play Thursday–Sunday. These are not mandatory lifts by any means. We just tell them that if they’re in town, come lift. We also want them to be kids, so vacations aren’t only okay but encouraged.
Main Lifts Used in Our Training
This is an area that can lead down a rabbit hole that is outside the scope of this article. There’s always discussion about “sport-specific” lifting and whether that is a real concept. I do believe certain things need to be focused on depending on the sport. However, the vast majority of high school-age athletes simply need strength.
Softball specific training.
— Brandon Herring (@BrandonHerring0) September 29, 2023
Video 2. Softball strength: “Do hard things.”
If you ask our softball team, I’d venture to guess they’d say the trap bar deadlift is the bell cow of our program. It is a weekly lift in our program, and we have some athletes who can move some weight. The TBDL is the lift we use to compare to hitting statistics, as stated earlier. There is a significant grip strength demand, and I believe that translates well to hitting. Also, the TBDL is a lift that, once taught correctly, I trust our older girls to load heavily and perform well while I spend time with our younger girls.
We use the TBDL in varying intensities, and when 75% or lower is programmed, we’ll actually shrug-pull the bar, focusing on bar speed. The barbell RDL is a close second to the TBDL, and I’m constantly amazed at the amount of weight our players can execute in it. Rounding out our bilateral work is the clean pull. In our softball program, we don’t teach the clean. But I always offer the opportunity to learn, and we currently have four girls turning the bar over in the clean and having fun doing so.We don’t teach the clean in our program, but I always offer the opportunity to learn. We currently have four girls turning the bar over in the clean and having fun doing so, says @BrandonHerring0. Click To Tweet
As far as squatting goes, we are a major gait stance and single-leg program. Our beginners will goblet squat and front squat, but once they advance, we focus mostly on the unilateral domain. The safety squat bar reverse lunge and RFESS are mainstays in our program. The single-leg squat from a box and lateral lunge also find their way into our program quite often.
Our upper-body work is divided between horizontal and vertical movements. We bench press (we haven’t had a single girl experience a spontaneous explosion of the shoulder) along with various single-arm dumbbell exercises in the horizontal push category. We vary quite a few exercises in the horizontal pull domain, but the single-arm dumbbell row is a mainstay.
For vertical pushes, the landmine setup is a constant. We perform presses from kneeling and standing positions and also do some rotational presses. The chin-up would probably be considered the bell cow in our upper-body work—we make a big deal about it when one of our players hits their first chin-up.
Do Hard Things
This article is a look into our program and by no means a blueprint for anyone else. We have had some success, so hopefully, there’s something here you can use in your program.
The last thing I’ll leave you with is our team motto in our S&C program for softball. We simply say, “Do hard things.” This encompasses many things in our program, but none more than having the guts to come out of the loser’s bracket to win the state championship this past year. So, be well, and #DoHardThings!
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