King of the Hill

An uphill training facility can help you improve your athletesí strength and quickness. Hereís how one strength and conditioning coach in Kansas built his own.

By Istvan Javorek, MS

Istvan Javorek is Professor of Fitness and Head Conditioning Coach at Johnson County Community College. A former Strength and Conditioning Coach at Texas A&M University, he was also a weightlifting and conditioning coach in Romania and served as Coach of the Romanian national weightlifting team from 1975-82. He has worked with Olympic athletes in track and field and weightlifting as well as professional athletes in several sports.

Training & Conditioning, 13.4, May/June 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1304/kingofhill.htm

For most strength and conditioning coaches, a new facility means a cherished opportunity to design a new weightroom full of new equipment and workout areas. But what I was most excited about when we built a new gym here at Johnson County Community College was the chance to build a new conditioning hill.

I believe hill conditioning is a highly effective part of a well-rounded strength and conditioning program. As an athlete and coach in Romania, I learned the importance of plyometrics, and I have relied heavily on them ever since. Uphill training is an especially effective form of plyometrics since it reduces the landing forces that jumping athletes experience when they return to the ground. At the same time, uphill training forces athletes to work harder than on a horizontal surface since they receive less help from inertia when going up hill.

In Romania, most of the uphill work was done on stadium stairs and bleachers. More recently, I have been able to create my own uphill training areas. Before building our current facility, I had used a homemade series of sand-filled boxes arranged stair-like up a slope on campus. It worked, but the sand was dirty and would quickly harden to feel like cement, so it had to be thoroughly broken up and raked each day before use. It also limited the types of drills and exercises I could use.

So when I learned my sand-filled run would be displaced by the new gym built on the hillside, I saw not a loss but a chance to build everything I wanted in a hill conditioning facility. The new conditioning hill comprises the three main surfaces used in up-hill conditioning: a ramp, steps, and jump boxes. They are side by side on a slope between the new gym and the track. (See Table One, below.)

They are each 46 feet in length, and the rise from bottom to top is 13.5 feet. The top of each lane has a flat 16-foot concrete run-out area while the bottom has a flat 20-foot concrete run out. Three-foot-high concrete walls separate the three lanes.

The concrete stairs and ramp were made with steel reinforcing bars similar to a typical set of stairs or a sidewalk. The ramp is built on a 3.5:1 slope, which means it rises vertically one foot for every 3.5 feet it covers horizontally. This matches the grade on either side of the training area.

The stairs are not much different than those you can find on any college campus, Its treads are a little wider than normal at 15 inches with six-inch risers between each step. There is an eight-foot-long landing at the mid-point with 14 stairs both above and below the landing.

The jump box slope includes 10 box steps. Pressure-treated wood risers are bolted to galvanized steel angles that are anchored to the steel-reinforced concrete walls on either side. The risers are 16 inches tall and vary in length from five feet at the bottom to three feet at the top. The boxes get shorter to create an increased inclination from the bottom of the run to the top. This increased inclination makes the exercises progressively more difficult as athletes work their way up the jump boxes.

The landing areas need to be soft enough to avoid overstressing the joints during the jumping exercises, but firm enough to hold up under repeated use. So instead of sand, I filled the boxes with eight inches of rubber mulch. Ours is made out of recycled tires and is similar to the material found at many playgrounds.

The rubber mulch is placed over a gravel bed that surrounds a perforated drain pipe wrapped in fabric filter. This drains storm water from the boxes to an area well beyond the training area. As a result we are able to use the jump boxes on all but the worst days of our Kansas winters.

The whole thing cost about $65,000 to build, and construction lasted about two months. We bid the job out to a local firm that used two people to do the job. It could also be completed by a schoolís grounds and maintenance crew or even an especially handy strength coach.

Although we hired out the building tasks, I designed the entire facility. Then the architects designing our new gymnasium made the actual blueprints and drawings that were used by the construction crew.

Maintenance is limited to occasional vacuuming of shredded rubber that spills out of the jump boxes, which we then return to the boxes. Shortly after we completed the facility, we added some fence gates to keep out skateboarders who were attracted by the chance to work on their own programs.

I would be happy to share my design with any strength and conditioning coaches who want to build a similar facility. The University of Kansas is building an indoor version of my facility, and I would be happy to see additional installations across the country.

Program Philosophy
I use this facility in the specific strength and conditioning programs I design for each team here at JCCC. Uphill training is a key part of our preseason strength and conditioning program, but itís not the only part. We do traditional weight work every day in addition to daily work on the uphill jump boxes. We do extensive hill work three days a week, with the heaviest hill work always done on Friday.

The athletes have responded well to the uphill work and seem to enjoy it much more than simply running stairs or lifting weights. The uphill conditioning programs are hard work, though. The initial workouts often leave newcomers overwhelmed. In fact, returning athletes often explain to newcomers that weíre doing this to make them better athletes, not to punish them. But the hard work has paid off. The basketball coaches, for example, say they canít run the team hard enough to affect the players. After going through our hill training program, the players laugh at the demands of running in the gym.

Because the hill training is so demanding, proper preparation is crucial. Regardless of the athletesí conditioning level before the preseason program begins, I work them into my superset programs gradually. First, I have them perform each exercise separately, focusing on technique instead of work load. It is imperative that every athlete fully understands the proper way to complete each exercise before combining them into a program.

It is also important to not try to do too much too soon. For example, if I have a big, overweight basketball player, I prescribe more sprints up the slope or stairs until they are in good enough shape to begin leaping and bounding exercises. The prevention of injury must always be an overriding concern. Also as a general safety rule, I never let injured athletes perform any exercises that could aggravate their injuries. And once athletes are cleared by the athletic trainers, I start them on sprints on the ramp and stairs before moving them on to jumps.

After everyone has fully mastered all the exercises, I begin to put them together into supersets. I start by having the athletes complete four repetitions of each exercise and work my way up to whatever final total I have determined for their specific teams. For some teams, I incorporate non-hill training activities, such as a mile run, into the hill workout.

The general conditioning level of the team and the demands of the sport help determine the ultimate number of reps in the super set. I prefer to have athletes do all the reps of one exercise in a group before moving to the next, but sometimes for varietyís sake, I have them complete one rep of each exercise in a series and then repeat that series a certain number of times.

I use most of the same exercises in each of my programs, but based on years of experience, combine them differently to meet the unique demands of each sport. As a general rule, jumping exercises are better used to develop explosive power, such as for sprinters or track and field throwers. Endurance events are better prepared for using running exercises and easier jumping exercises on the stairs (not the rubber jump boxes!) such as double-leg jumps; zig-zag jumps; and run, jump, and sprints. I like for everyone to use at least some jumping exercises to improve their fitness levels, but each coach should determine what works best for his or her athletes.

As with any strength and conditioning program, it is important to ensure that athletes are not overworked in some areas while being underworked in others. Backward runs up the ramp will work a different group of muscles than forward sprints. The frog jumps are another effective way of spreading the load since they work the frontal lower leg muscles and quadriceps more than other exercises.

Although the hill conditioning programs are the focus of preseason training, I also use them during the season as well. For example, we lead the menís basketball team through a shortened hill conditioning plan the day after each game and go through the full program when the coach feels itís needed.

The sample programs in Tables Two through Four (below) reflect programs I used this past year. The number of reps listed reflect the maximum at the end of the training cycle. This is built up to gradually during the training cycle.

There is always room for improvement, so I am constantly adjusting my programs based on what I see, as well as what I hear from the coaches and athletes. The athletes may tell me they want a little more variety or prefer doing one exercise more than another. Or a coach may say her team needs to work on its quickness this year more than its strength.

Although much of the effort is focused on the team supersets, they are not the only work we do on the hill facility. Motivated athletes who have shown they can easily and safely master the superset activities are offered the opportunity to do additional specialized individual work that is not practical for larger groups. These exercises require great care and concentration to avoid injury, so they must be done in smaller groups.

This is where I introduce outside weight to our hill training sessions. One of the favorites are weighted wheelbarrow runs up the ramp. This exercise is especially useful for pole vaulters, since it closely mimics the unique demands of their event. Another favorite is to have athletes perform exercises while carrying dumbbells, provided they are spaced far enough apart so a dropped dumbbell wonít injure another athlete.

For the most part, I try to keep exercises basic and directly related to movements required for their sport. I do look to introduce as many variations to my exercises as I can, while at the same time keeping their necessity and usefulness in mind. It is easy to create new exercises that look good but donít help in athletic preparation. So I think twice before changing exercises or choosing new ones.


Table One: Exercises
Most of the exercises listed in the sample programs are self-explanatory. Here are descriptions of the more complex ones.

Run, jump, and sprint: Start with a three-step run to first stair followed by double-leg jumps up four stairs. Sprint up next three stairs followed by four more double-leg jumps. Finish with a sprint to top. Return to bottom with jumps down the stairs.

Single-leg sideways jumps (same leg and shoulder; opposite leg and shoulder): The same leg and shoulder jump has the athlete jump using the same leg as his or her leading shoulder, such as jumping to his or her left using the left leg. The opposite leg and shoulder jump has the athlete jump using the leg opposite the leading shoulder, such as jumping to the left using the right leg. Repetitions should typically be balanced so the athletes make the same number of jumps on each leg using each leading shoulder.

Frog jumps: Start bent over with a curved back, slightly bent knees, and ankles touching. Jump with arms swinging overhead, extending the whole body. Upon landing, return to start position and repeat.

Double-leg zig-zag jumps: Keeping feet parallel, jump from right side of step or box to the left side of the same box. Then jump up to the right side of the next step or box and repeat.


Table Two: Tennis Superset
Since tennis involves a lot of lateral movements, I use more sideways jumps than in other programs. As with all my programs, athletes are introduced to the program slowly, mastering each exercise before I put them together into sets. The goal is to have thembe able to complete the superset by the end of the preseason training session.

Surface - Exercise
Stairs - Double-leg jumps x 4
Stairs - Run, jump, and sprint x 4
Stairs - Double-leg jumps x 4
Stairs - Single-leg jumps (alternate left and right) x 4
Stairs - Run, jump, and sprint x 4
Stairs - Single-leg sideways jumps (same leg and shoulder) x 4
Stairs - Run, jump, and sprint x 4
Stairs - Single-leg sideways jumps (opposite leg and shoulder) x 4
Stairs - Run, jump, and sprint x 4
Jump boxes - Double-leg jumps x 4
Jump boxes - Single-leg jumps x 4
Jump boxes - Single-leg sideways jumps (same leg and shoulder) x 2
Jump boxes - Single-leg sideways jumps (opposite leg and shoulder) x 2
Jump boxes - Single-leg jumps (alternate left and right) x 4
Stairs - Sprint x 4
Jump boxes - Sprint x 4
Ramp - Backward run x 4
Ramp - Frog jumps x 2
Ramp - Sprint x 4

Table Three: Basketball Superset
This demanding program is used to prepare players for their preseason practices. The players master each exercise before I combine them into small sets with the goal of being able to complete the full superset by the end of the training season. During the basketball season, players will complete a shortened version of this set whenever the coach feels they need the work.

Surface - Exercise
Jump boxes - Double-leg jumps x 10
Stairs - Run, jump, and sprint x 10
Stairs - Single-leg jumps (right) x 5
Stairs - Single-leg jumps (left) x 5
Track - One-mile run x 1
Stairs - Single-leg jumps (right) x 5
Stairs - Single-leg jumps (left) x 5
Jump boxes - Sprints x 10
Stairs - Double-leg zig-zag jumps x 10
Ramp - Sprints x 10

Table Four: Sprinter Superset
The focus for sprinters is on explosive strength, so jumps are the dominant exercise. Alternating the single-leg jumps and using frog jumps helps to keep training balanced throughout the lower body.

Surface - Exercise
Stairs - Double-leg jumps x 2
Jump boxes - Double-leg jumps x 2
Ramp - Sprint x 2
Jump boxes - Double-leg jumps x 2
Stairs - Single-leg jumps (alternate left and right) x 2
Jump boxes - Sprint x 2
Ramp - Backward run x 2
Jump boxes - Double-leg squat-jumps x 2
Jump boxes - Sprint x 2
Jump boxes - Single-leg jumps (alternate left and right) x 2
Ramp - Frog jumps x 2
Jump boxes - Sprint x 2
Ramp - Backward run x 2
Stairs - Single-leg jumps (alternate left and right) x 2
Stairs - Sprint x 2
Jump boxes - Single-leg jumps (alternate left and right) x 2
Jump boxes - Double-leg squat-jumps x 2
Stairs - Sprint x 2
Jump boxes - Single-leg jumps x 2
Ramp - Sprint x 2
Jump boxes - Sprint x 2
Ramp - Backward run x 2
Jump boxes - Sprint x 2
Ramp - Frog jumps x 2
Ramp - Sprint x 4