Sticks & Weights

Short, but intense, workouts have helped Wake Forest win the past two NCAA Division I field hockey titles.

By Mike Tolloti

Mike Tolloti, SCCC, is in his fourth year as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Wake Forest University, where he works directly with the field hockey team.

Training & Conditioning, 14.6, September 2004,

They say teams are only as strong as their weakest link, and for the past two years, a weak link in the Wake Forest field hockey team could not be found. This strength has earned the Demon Deacons back-to-back NCAA Division I championships, a high-water mark in the history of the program. I attribute their success to hard work, dedication, and a never-give-up attitude, which they carry from the practice field to the weight room to the field of play.

At Wake Forest, our goal as strength and conditioning coaches is to develop athletic potential. Our purpose is to provide our sport coaches with athletes who are prepared to perform at the peak of their physical capabilities. Our strength and conditioning philosophy encompasses several key points, which we use to design programs that help our athletes gain strength, power, speed, flexibility, agility, and mental toughness. In this article, I detail our in-season development program.

The Big Picture
Our training program focuses primarily on the core of the body. In the past few years, core training has become a hot topic, and for good reason. If an athlete is weak in her core—which we define as the abs, lower back, obliques, glutes, and hamstrings—there is a good chance she will fail to reach her potential and that she will also face an increased risk of injury. Plus, with a strong core, a field hockey player can better transfer power through her lower and upper body.

Effective core training means more than doing 10 minutes of sit-ups at the end of a workout. We try to strengthen the core in a holistic, functional way by impressing on the athletes that they are using their core in every exercise they do. Each time they step out of the rack with a back squat, the core is activated. The ability to press a weight overhead requires a strong core. Even a well-executed push-up requires the athlete to utilize core strength. Each time an athlete performs an exercise, she can gain core strength and stability.

We next focus on the fact that field hockey, like most sports at Wake Forest, is a stand-up power sport. To address this, we train with ground-based lifts such as cleans, squats, pulls, and standing presses. This type of lifting involves the muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments similar to those used in field hockey movements.

With these lifts, the bulk of our repetitions are within 75 to 80 percent of a one-rep maximum. We use multiple sets (usually between five and 12) of low reps (typically no more than three). This helps build the strength and power needed to compete while keeping hypertrophy to a minimum. If female athletes see they’re gaining strength and power without adding 10 or 15 pounds of muscle mass, they will be more likely to buy into the program.

When training our athletes, we look at the body in its entirety, not just at its separate parts. We know they need strong hamstrings, but their hamstrings don’t work alone. Our lifting incorporates the whole body, working both the prime movers and the stabilizers, similar to their use in competition. We also use a combination of calisthenics, and single-limb and two-limb lifts to help each player learn how to use her entire body in a natural, fluid way.

Field hockey players are constantly transferring weight from leg to leg and from arm to arm in a variety of ways. To prepare our athletes for these movements, we employ lifts such as one-arm dumbbell benches, one-arm rows, one-leg squats, step-ups, and lunge variations, all of which can be performed with a variety of equipment. We often incorporate kettlebells, in addition to barbells and dumbbells. The kettlebell has become a great asset in our development of single-limb strength and corresponding core development. With just one kettlebell, athletes can perform one-arm presses, swings, lunges, rows, and a variety of other exercises.

Our in-season workouts range from 15 to 25 minutes, thus they are highly organized and require intense focus and effort from the athletes. To achieve this, one of our favorite methods is combining exercises into supersets. For example, rather than doing all the bench pressing followed by all the pull-ups, we’ll have our athletes do bench presses followed by pull-ups in the same set. Then, they’ll do another set of the same combination.
Some of our favorite combinations are push-press with pull-up, bench-press with bent row, and one-arm dumbbell bench with a one-arm row. We also incorporate this approach into our lower body training. The squat supersetted with a pull is an efficient combination.

These short, intense workouts demand that the athlete attack the weight on every set of every rep, which not only develops great power, but also fosters mental toughness, focus, and discipline. This style of training will help bring leaders to the front as all athletes respond to the intensity and competitiveness of the workout. It also helps build a foundation of teamwork that can be taken to the playing field.

Within the above guidelines, each workout will still have its own unique traits. From the desires of the sport coach to the energy level of the athletes, none of workouts are set in stone. If you become inflexible and unable to alter your workouts, the athletes will be the ones who suffer. Just because they handled a high workload last year, or even last week, does not mean they can handle it today.

Mental Strength
In all our strength and conditioning work, we encourage the champion’s attitude. Physical strength is not always what wins championships—it is often the collective mental strength of the team. That mental strength includes players pushing themselves and their teammates through a workout, overcoming defeats, and maintaining good habits outside the training facility, such as eating well, getting enough sleep, and abstaining from alcohol. This type of attitude encourages athletes to look at their abilities and address their weak points. If athletes know they are inflexible, are they stretching more on their own? If their foot speed is slow, are they spending time on drills to improve that?

To encourage that attitude, we have a Gold Club program that athletes qualify for by achieving predetermined marks in different lifts. If they reach those levels in all 10 categories, they become a Gold Club member and are awarded a T-shirt and personal recognition. These standards are not unreachable numbers—they’re set to be obtainable by 60 to 70 percent of the team. (See "Going for the Gold" below.) We are not looking to single out one person as having the highest power clean or bench press. Rather, we want to emphasize the idea of motivating the whole team to achieve a certain level.

We also have a "Lifter of the Year" award, but the criteria has little to do with how physically strong the athletes are. We use factors such as coachability, attentiveness, attitude, and effort to determine the winner.

Ensuring a great attitude in the weight room requires that the sport coaches believe in the strength program. Therefore, we make sure to continually communicate with our field hockey coaches and listen to their needs. When strength training is important to the sport coach, it will be important to the players. Athletes will attack in the weightroom with the same intensity they show on the field of play because they know it is expected of them.

Over the past two seasons our field hockey team has not missed a single workout. From the first game of the season until two days before the Final Four—in both years—they were in the weightroom. As we have seen here at Wake Forest, this dedication can pay dividends.

Twice a Week
Now that our philosophical groundwork has been laid, we can take a look at how the workout comes together. The field hockey season is about 13 weeks long. We break that into one five-week block and two four-week blocks. We believe this to be the optimal framework because after four weeks the players have begun to adapt physically and psychologically to the exercises, reducing their effectiveness.

The field hockey team lifts twice a week, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while most of their games are on the weekends. The entire team lifts together, doing the same program, although weights vary by individual needs and strength levels.

Since we only conduct two sessions a week, both are full-body workouts. The first is designed to maintain strength and power, while the second is focused on power and explosiveness. Both workouts follow the same general template: warmup, Olympic-style lift or complex, upper-body strength work, lower-body assistance work, upper-body assistance work, and flexibility.

On both days, the athletes perform a warmup that includes squat thrusts, a complex with the bar, and two-arm kettlebell swings. We use two complexes—back squat/good morning/press or front squat/press/Romanian dead lift. Both are performed for one set, five or six repetitions per exercise. We then do two-arm kettlebell swings to warm up the lower back and hamstrings in preparation for the Olympic-style lift. Our goal is to warm up the muscles while giving the athletes time to mentally prepare for the day’s workout.

The first workout of the week is designed to maintain the strength and power gained in the off-season. All of our athletes perform one-rep max tests on a variety of lifts in the spring. These results are used as a baseline for each athlete during the season. Each exercise uses a specified percentage of their one-rep max, allowing for individualized workloads within the team workout.

The main lifts we employ are the power clean or hang clean for power development and the standing press or push press for upper-body work. For the upper-body work, we combine the presses with pull-ups.

Within each training block, the percentages will range from 85 percent to 100 percent. Once we start a new block, the lifts change, and we begin again around 85 percent. This way, our athletes stay within 10 to 15 percent of their one-rep max from the first of September until the end of the season. This program is designed to maintain both physical and mental strength. There is a certain confidence that comes with hitting an old max or even establishing a new max in-season. The confidence they take from the weightroom to the field is incredible.

Once the two main lifts are finished, the athletes complete their assistance work, which might typically include push-ups and glute-ham raises. The workout is completed with static core work, hurdle flexibility drills, and a team stretch. We can complete each workout in 15 minutes by assigning sets that typically take 40 to 60 seconds to complete.

The Thursday workout focuses on bar speed and power. We want the athletes to leave the weight room feeling strong and fast. As a result, the weights assigned on this day stay in the 70- to 80-percent range.

The first lift is a complex consisting of a clean, front squat, and jerk. Each of these will be done for two repetitions per set. This will be followed by either a Romanian dead lift or good morning exercise combined with abdominal work. The remainder of the workout consists of bench presses combined with bent-over rows.

The beauty of the system is its simplicity. We utilize a total of only 12 exercises the entire season. Variety is provided by constantly changing reps, sets, and percentages. The athletes are willing to come in and give 100 percent because they know the workout only lasts 15 minutes and that it has proven successful. The athletes and coaches have seen the results and believe in what we do. And as we all know, when it comes to winning, seeing is believing.

Going For the Gold
Field hockey players who reach these levels in all exercises become members of the Wake Forest Gold Club.

Hang Clean & Split Jerk 120
Bench Press 100
Back Squat 137
Power Clean 132
Push Press 98
Front Squat 132
One-arm Bench (x5) 40
Standing Press 80
Hang Clean 120
Power Clean and Jerk 120

Block By Block
The in-season field hockey strength and conditioning program at Wake Forest University is divided into one five-week block and two four-week blocks. The basic structure of the workout remains the same, but the exercises and workloads change from block to block to avoid physical and psychological adaptation. Below are examples of how the workouts change from Block One to Block Two.

Both day’s programs are preceded by a warmup. Tuesday’s sessions conclude with static core work and hamstring/lower back stretches. Thursday’s workouts finish with hurdle mobility drills and stretching.

Block One
1. Hang Cleans: 2x50% of max, 2x60%, 2x70%, 1x80%, 1x85%, 1x90%, 1x95%
2. Press and Pull Superset
Standing Press 2x50%/Pull-Ups x 2
Standing Press 2x60%/Pull-Ups x 2
Standing Press 2x70%/Pull-Ups x 2
Standing Press 1x80%/Pull-Ups x 2
Standing Press 1x85%/Pull-Ups x 2
Standing Press 1x90%/Pull-Ups x 2
3. Push-Ups x 10
4. Glute-Hamstring Raises x 15

1. Power Clean/Front Squat/Jerk Complex: 2x50%, 2x60%, 1x70%, 1x70%, 1x70%
2. Romanian Dead Lift and Abdominals Superset
RDL 5x50%/Abs x 30
RDL 5x60%/Abs x 30
RDL 5x70%/Abs x 30
3. Bench and Row Superset
Bench Press 2x50%/Bent Row x 2
Bench Press 2x60%/Bent Row x 2
Bench Press 2x70%/Bent Row x 2
Bench Press 2x80%/Bent Row x 2

Block Two
1. Power Cleans: 2x50%, 2x60%, 2x70%, 1x80%, 1x85%, 1x85%
2. Press and Pull Superset
Push Press 2x50%/Pull-ups x 2
Push Press 2x60%/Pull-ups x 2
Push Press 2x70%/Pull-ups x 2
Push Press 2x75%/Pull-ups x 2
Push Press 2x80%/Pull-ups x 2
3. Push-ups x 10
4. Glute-hamstring Raises 2x10

1. Hang Clean/Front Squat/Jerk Complex: 2x50%, 2x60%, 1x70%, 1x70%, 1x70%
2. Romanian Dead Lift and Abdominals Superset
RDL 6x50%/Abs x 25
RDL 6x60%/Abs x 25
RDL 6x70%/Abs x 25
3. Bench And Row Superset
Bench Press 2x50%/Bent Row x 2
Bench Press 2x60%/Bent Row x 2
Bench Press 2x70%/Bent Row x 2
Bench Press 2x75%/Bent Row x 2
Bench Press 2x80%/Bent Row x 2