By Eric Cash
In our current era of year-round sports, strength coaches are often asked about sport-specific training, and young athletes are inundated with the concept of sport specificity at an early age. Therefore, here is the question that we ask sport coaches who are curious about sport specificity: If the athletes play that sport year-round, why would we train those exact same repeated movement patterns? Inevitably, athletes will break down from continued overuse. Sport-specific training contributes to that overuse—so why do it?
Upon returning to the high school weight room almost seven years ago, I was somewhat uneducated about the state of year-round play. I knew year-round play existed, and I was aware of the nature of injuries associated with sport—particularly ACL injuries and shoulder injuries that plagued incoming freshmen at the collegiate level. I was also aware of athletes’ various training backgrounds, which range from no training to overtraining and everything in between.
When I was hired at Dorman High School, I had an idea of how I wanted to train my athletes—I wanted to follow the Keep It Simple and Safe (KISS) principle. I am a firm believer that the more we can develop our athletes with less complex methods, the greater the opportunity for adaptation and development down the road (with less likelihood of injury). We continually strive to develop a foundation of strength and power following the KISS method. There are multiple proven ways to train athletes, and I personally do not believe one way works better than others. For every program that does it one way and has success, there are other programs that do it completely the opposite way and have comparable success.The more we can develop our athletes with less complex methods, the greater the opportunity for adaptation and development down the road (with less likelihood of injury). Click To Tweet
With that said, we do not implement velocity-based training (VBT), accommodating resistance, or Olympic lifts outside of the power clean/hang clean and its variations. We also do not progress our athletes past what we term “Block 2.” In figure 1 below, you can see a guideline for how we progress through our quadrennial plan for our athletes. The table illustrates that football players are on a faster timeline compared to other athletes—this is only due to the commitment to training at an earlier age. Our goal is to have a commitment from all sports and athletes at an earlier age, and we believe we will accomplish that goal in time.
I want to be clear that just because programs utilize certain training modalities or progress their athletes differently, it does not mean they are wrong. Training programs that work are programs that the strength coach believes in and can create buy-in for from their athletes. How can a coach create buy-in if they have nothing vested in their own training philosophy?
Joe Kenn’s Tier System: Key Components and Functions
My programming philosophy is rooted in Joe Kenn’s Tier System—Athletic-Based Strength Training. Oftentimes, discussions about sport specificity lead to our philosophy here at Dorman—we program “athlete” specific. This simply means that we program to train athletes, not the sport. We train our athletes in a uniform manner through the Tier System.
Coach Kenn defines five key components of athletic-based strength training within the Tier System:1
- Training movements rather than body parts
- Whole-body training sessions versus split training sessions
- Explosive versus nonexplosive movements
While all five components are essential in the process of designing a tier program, when considering uniformed training for athletes, coaches must remember to train movements and implement whole-body training sessions.
The majority of sports are ground-based, meaning sport is played with feet on the ground. The Tier System is designed with ground-based sport in mind. The majority of exercises programmed should be ground-based, where athletes stand on their feet1. Ground-based exercises are typically multi-joint movements, as are most athletic movements. Sport in general is considered to utilize the entire body. The Tier System structure is centered on whole-body training sessions while emphasizing multi-joint movements. Movements are divided into three separate categories: total body movements, lower body movements, and upper body movements.
Without going into great detail, the Tier System has four main functions:1
- Rotate the order of exercise based on movement.
- Implement a variety of movements to train in numerous planes within a microcycle.
- Prioritize movements based on big movements and functional movements.
- Control volume by exercise order and emphasis on specific strength developed.
Below, you can see the general layout of a 3×5 tier system—3×5 meaning three days per week with five tiers. The table shows that each training session is a whole-body training session. The Tier System, at its core, represents uniformity in training. Every group or athlete that trains in the weight room follows a Tier System program—typically the same Tier System program. However, the uniqueness of the Tier System allows for exercise variations in each tier while continuing to train multiple athletes in a uniform manner.
Variations could be needed due to regressions, injuries, or sport seasons. Take, for example, if we are on Session T, Tier 1 (typically a power clean), and an athlete has a breakdown in technique on the first pull. Within the same group of athletes, we can regress the individual athlete to a total body variation (trap bar, shrug pull, etc.) without altering the Tier 1 rotation. Most importantly, we still train a total body movement.
Creating an exercise pool is an important aspect of the Tier System that allows the strength coach to substitute or vary exercises in each tier. An exercise pool places exercises into each category of total, lower, or upper exercise and allows for variety in programming.
Where to Begin?
With most things, a coach has to decide where to start. My introduction to the Tier System began in the fall of 2007, when I visited Coach Kenn at Arizona State. Initially, I planned to absorb as much as possible about the Tier System (which I did), but I was also introduced to Block Zero. The concepts of Block Zero made sense to me and I have been using it since 2007.The high school setting presents a perfect opportunity to impact the development of young athletes. We believe that development starts with Block Zero, says @DormanStrength. Click To Tweet
The high school setting presents a perfect opportunity to impact the development of young athletes. It’s our belief that development starts with Block Zero. Therefore, we expose all of our athletes who train under the supervision of the strength staff at Dorman to Block Zero. What is Block Zero? It is an introductory strength training program designed to lay the foundation for an athlete’s future training. Block Zero assumes that the athlete has a training age of ZERO in YOUR program.
As presented by Coach Kenn, the Block Zero daily setup follows a four-part design targeting athletic position, jumping mechanics, stabilization, and relative strength:2
- Athletic position – the foundation for a large portion of future movements: jumping, landing, squatting, any type of hip hinge.
- Jumping mechanics – emphasized early to promote mastery of the power position and landing position prior to plyometric training. We have found that the mastery of jumping and landing mechanics has resoundingly positive effects on the early stages of teaching the power clean.
- Stabilization – built through the programming of isometric holds.
- Relative strength – developed through the use of bodyweight exercises and isometric holds.
Athletic position serves as the foundation of Block Zero. Through athletic position, athletes master hip hinge, learn to apply and absorb force, and more, says @DormanStrength. Click To Tweet
Some key points of emphasis are athletic position and the development of relative strength. As previously stated, athletic position serves as the foundation of Block Zero. It is our belief that, through athletic position, athletes will master hip hinge, learn to apply and absorb force, connect the dots between body position and injury prevention, and draw awareness to the posterior chain. When it comes to young athletes, it is our contention that an athlete who cannot master the athletic position cannot safely land a jump. Through the implementation of Block Zero with previously untrained female athletes, we found great success in the improvement of relative strength and dynamic knee valgus3.
We typically begin each Block Zero introduction to our athletes discussing injuries and gymnastics. Our goal is to have our athletes understand the importance of relative strength through comparison to some of the pound-for-pound strongest athletes in the world! The use of isometric holds to develop strength is supported by the use of the isometric flex arm hang and chin-up as measures of relative upper body strength by the FitnessGram and the United States Military.4 Isometric core holds have been used as a measure of core strength and isometric contractions have been used to measure hip adduction and abduction strength.5
Where Does Uniformity Come In with Block Zero?
The design of Block Zero displays uniformity—what young athlete does not need relative strength, jumping mechanics, stabilization, and development of the posterior chain? So, we implement Block Zero with ALL newcomers to our program.
At Dorman, we have found that in middle school, athletes still often play multiple sports; they haven’t chosen one specific sport yet. We start our eighth-grade football players in the spring semester before their ninth-grade year, but this covers a large number of our male athlete population. Our eighth-grade volleyball girls start in May before their ninth-grade year. During the summer, our numbers continue to increase with a female-only Block Zero group that consists of volleyball, basketball, and softball.
After two months of Block Zero with our eighth-grade boys’ groups, we progress them through the summer into our Block Zero intensification phase. Our girls’ groups continue to push through Block Zero for the summer, largely due to the amount of playing that our volleyball girls and basketball girls do during the summer months. We also introduce our boys’ baseball athletes to Block Zero during the summer months. As we progress into the school year, a large number of our freshman athletes are enrolled into our Freshman PE-S (PE Sport) classes, which they either take in the fall or spring semesters.
Freshman PE-S Classes (But Not Freshman Football)
We offer three Freshman PE-S classes that shuttle to our main campus weight room every day. Each semester, the new crop of freshman athletes begins with six weeks of Block Zero training. I am a staunch believer in the “slow cooker” approach when it comes to training young athletes. Some of our ninth-gradestudents in the fall semesters go through Block Zero during the summer months; however, following the slow cooker approach, they remediate for six weeks with the remainder of the class for six weeks.
As the numbers in our Freshman PE-S classes have continued to grow over the last six-plus years, more and more athletes are exposed to Block Zero. Various sports are represented in our Freshman PE-S classes—wrestling, boys and girls golf, boys and girls soccer, cheerleading, baseball, softball, volleyball, boys and girls lacrosse, boys and girls cross country, boys and girls swim, boys and girls basketball. The number of athletes in our classes is one reason we train in a uniform manner.
We also progress our athletes out of Block Zero together. After our initial Block Zero cycle, we progress into our Block Zero Intensification phase, where we begin to implement external loads on the athletes. We also continue to implement Block Zero concepts for reinforcement as we progress to more advanced movements.
During the Block Zero Intensification phase, we introduce the Tier System to our freshman athletes in a uniform manner—all athletes do the same exercises. Progressing from Block Zero, we want to build on the concepts of applying/absorbing force and developing the posterior chain. Therefore, our programming should reflect these concepts. As you can see below, we follow a true Tier System setup for our Block Zero Intensification phase with our Freshman PE-S classes: Day 1 is Session T, Day 2 is Session L, and Day 3 is Session U.
We follow a four-week cycle before we introduce the barbell to our athletes. The goal each semester is to complete a 5RM of a front squat, trap bar deadlift, and overhead press during the last week of the semester. Throughout each cycle, we continue to implement Block Zero concepts—stabilization, jumping mechanics, and relative strength.The beauty of the Tier System is it allows us to use regressions with athletes who may need more work with certain movements, says @DormanStrength. Click To Tweet
The beauty of the Tier System is it allows us to use regressions with athletes who may need more work with certain movements. For example, in a group of three: Athlete #1 will do a goblet squat, Athlete #2 will do a front plank, and Athlete #3 will do band abduction. If Athlete #3 rotates to goblet squat but has a drop in technique, we can simply do a banded bodyweight squat to a box and still fall into the Tier System rotation.
High School PE-S Classes
Our high school PE-S classes are set up a couple of different ways. First, any coach who is a PE teacher has the opportunity to have their sport in the PE-S class. For sports that do not have a coach as a PE teacher, the athletes are placed into PE-S classes with various athletes. In our non-football/basketball PE-S classes, we have 60+ athletes with baseball, softball, swimming, cheerleading, lacrosse, soccer, golf, wrestling, volleyball, and cross country represented. The football/basketball PE-S class is set up separately, due to the volume of athletes, with 100+ total. We also have a freshman and junior varsity football PE-S class—as previously stated, I will discuss how we set up our non-football/basketball PE-S classes with the Tier System.
We have a few multisport athletes, but at Dorman, the multisport athlete is almost nonexistent. For this reason, we use a uniform modified Tier System design in our PE-S classes. We lift four days a week—Monday (Session T), Tuesday (auxiliary day), Wednesday (Session L), and Thursday (Session U). We also incorporate two days of speed development and two days of conditioning. We develop speed on Session T and Session L days prior to training. We do conditioning on auxiliary and Session U days. Fridays are a free play day for our athletes.
This design is a classic example of doing what works. The Tier System is designed for a three-day setup, but a three-day setup will not work in our current class structure. With 90-minute classes (about 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes of training time), 90 days a semester, and no sport coach, training can become long and monotonous. We also modify from a 3×5 tier system setup to a 3×4 system where we treat the fourth tier as a giant set with extra posterior chain work.
After School/Before School Training
For teams/athletes that are not in our PE-S classes, we offer training two days per week before or after school. Our before/after school training follows a 3×2 tier system design. We incorporate speed development for off-season teams prior to training. Due to the nature of sport being ground-based, we eliminate Session U and utilize Session T and Session L for our 3×2 setup.
Continuous Training for Success
We firmly believe that we should not rush the development of a high school athlete. That does not mean that we hold athletes back at the high school level with uniform training, less complex methods, or non-sport-specific training. Rather, the opposite is true—athletes continue to train through pushing, pulling, squatting, jumping, pressing, sprinting, and agility, which sets them up for success on the field or court.We firmly believe that we shouldn’t rush the development of a high school athlete. That doesn’t mean that we hold athletes back with uniform training, says @DormanStrength. Click To Tweet
Reinforcing Block Zero concepts throughout an athlete’s high school training career helps them continue to develop relative strength, stabilization, and posterior chain strength. If we hold true to this type of programming, ALL of our athletes will be prepared for the physical demands of ANY sport.
1. Kenn, J. (2003). The Coach’s Strength Training Playbook. Monterey, CA: Coaches Choice.
2. Kenn, J. (2016). “Block Zero Concept: How to Develop Young Athletes.” Elite Athletic Development Seminar. United States: Robertson Training Systems.
3. Cash, E. (2018). The Effect of an Introductory Strength Training Program on ACL Injury Risk Factors. University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Greensboro, NC.
4. Clemons, J.M., Duncan, C.A., Blanchard, O.E., Gatch, W.H., Hollander, D.B., and Doucet, J.L. (2004). “Relationships between the flexed-arm hang and select measures of muscular fitness.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 18(3), 630–6.
5. Earle, J. and Hoch, A. (2011). “A proximal strengthening program improves pain, function, and biomechanics in women with patellofemoral pain syndrome.” The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(1), 154–163.