Strength training with Hawaii volleyball

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The Rainbow Wahine dominated the nation when some doubted the team would make it off the island.

By: Josh Staph

Even perennial powerhouses can't escape an occasional rebuilding year. Experienced athletes graduate and freshmen occupy the roster. New players must learn each other's tendencies before they can mesh as a team—before dominating the game.

The 2004 season was predicted to be a rebuilding year for the University of Hawaii volleyball team. Without a single senior on the squad, freshmen and sophomores outnumbered juniors 11 to four. The season promised a severe test for many young, unheralded players.

Weak predictions and lack of veterans did not stop Hawaii's young stars from shining though. They posted an undefeated regular season, won the Western Athletic Conference championship and finished the season with only one loss (30-1). At one point, the Rainbow Wahine held the top ranking nationwide. The team finished in the eight spot, surprising everyone but themselves and their strength coach, Thomas Heffernan.

Heffernan credits the team's gutsy performance to solid weight work and great coaching. "An underlying key is instilling confidence in the athletes," he says. "In the weight room, they see themselves getting stronger and faster and watching their numbers jump. It is unreal how much time and work these girls put into their training."

By giving Heffernan free rein over the weight program and inspiring the girls to train as a team beginning July 1 each year—well before they are required to get back to school—Hawaii's head coach Dave Shoji also contributes in a huge way to the team's success.

The staples of Heffernan's program are the power clean and squat. These are complemented with exercises working the lower back, hamstrings, glutes and abs.

"The program simulates movements used on the volleyball court while simultaneously maximizing the muscles being used," says Heffernan. Increased mobility and flexibility—and prediction-smashing explosive power—resulted for the Rainbow Wahine.

Olympic Lifts

Heffernan strongly promotes Olympic lifts for volleyball players. "They are the most explosive lifts you can do inside a weight room," he says, "and the lifts correlate to what the girls are doing on the court, which is jumping and exploding. Everything is geared towards moving in a vertical position."

According to Heffernan, moving weight improves strength, balance and overall athletic ability. The women explode with weight while maintaining control on the landing.

The players perform Olympic lifts from three different positions—the floor, hang position and off boxes, which varies the angle of explosion. Heffernan allows ample rest between sets to ensure quality and explosive capability.

Power Clean

  • Start with your shins touching the bar
  • Grip the bar just outside an athletic stance
  • Get down into a deadlift position with your back locked, shoulders up and abs and chest flexed
  • Begin the initial pull by extending your hips and knees
  • Move into the second pull when the bar is just above your knees
  • Explode by forcefully shrugging and fully extending hips, knees and ankles
  • Pull the bar up keeping it close to your chest
  • Drop under the bar and catch it along the front of your shoulders in an athletic stance with knees bent

Coaching Point: Coordinate the two movements to produce a single explosive pull.

Hang Clean

Hang Cleans differ from Power Cleans only in the starting position. Begin in an upright position with the bar just above your knees and your shoulders over the bar, instead of with the bar on the floor at your shins.

Power Pull

Power Pulls are the same as Power Cleans through the shrug and second pull. After that movement, drop the bar back into starting position.

High Pull (off a box)

The Box High Pull differs from the Power Pull only in the starting position. Begin with the bar resting on two boxes rather than the floor.

Coaching Point: Use boxes that hold the bar between mid-shin and just below the knees.

Squat Variations

Heffernan likes squats and squat variations because the movement involves a variety of muscles. "You are not isolating one muscle group. You are using your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, lower back and abdominal muscles all at the same time," he says..

For all variations, Heffernan recommends below-parallel squats. He emphasizes maintaining balance and posture and making sure the knees never extend over the toes.


  • Begin in an athletic stance with your toes pointing out slightly
  • Pick a focus point high on the wall in front of you
  • Squat down with control and good posture until your thighs are just below parallel. Keep your weight back on your heels
  • Drive upward out of the squat into starting position. Keep your eyes up and chest out.

Single-leg Dumbbell Squat

  • Holding dumbbells at your side, place your back leg on a bench behind you and put your front leg in lunge position
  • Squat down with control until your front thigh is just below parallel
  • Keep your knee behind your toes
  • Drive upward back into starting position

Glute, Hamstring and Lower Back Work

Lower back, abs and glute strength correlate to hamstring strength, flexibility and explosive power, according to Heffernan. To work these areas, he uses complex movements that don't isolate one muscle group. "We like to get away from using the leg curl," he says.. "Instead of lying down on a machine that works just hamstrings, we use Glute/Ham Raises and Romanian Deadlifts to work the glutes, hamstrings and lower back in one movement."

Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

  • Hold the bar in an upright position with slight dflex in your knees
  • Bend forward at the hips and slide the bar down the front of your legs
  • Keep a flat back
  • Drive your hips backward and lower the bar as far as possible without changing the flex in your knees or your spine position
  • Move upward in the same fashion until you are standing

Glute/Ham Raise

  • Position yourself on a glute//ham machine with legs locked in place
  • Move your torso upward until your chest is parallel to the floor
  • Drive your knees into the foam pad so they are at a 90-degree angle and your body is upright
  • Lower your back down with control

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock