Expert Panel Responds: Strength Training

by | January 26, 2012, 4:00am 0

Last week, Skyd introduced our panel of training professionals and elite level athletes (Melissa Witmer, Tim Morrill and Alan Janzen) for our training topic of the month. If you have follow up questions, please ask them in the comments. We have encouraged our panelists to respond there.

And now for the questions and responses:

Question 1: From off-season to tryout shape

Bill says, “I did Starting Strength over the off season and gained a bunch of strength (ex. 5-rep squat max from 180 to 270, 5-rep DL max from 180 to 305).  How do I go about getting back into sprinting shape for tryouts, which start early April, without losing too much of my strength base? Especially without losing the 10lbs of mass I put on?  Is it possible do so on 3.5 days of working out per week? (i.e. the absolute best I can schedule is 3 full workouts and one short one.)”


The good news is that strength is easier to maintain than it is to gain.  One heavy training session per week should allow you to maintain a lot of your strength gains.  The bad news is yes, you’ll probably lose some strength and maybe some muscle too.  But this is why athletes take the long term view of training.  Not every athletic quality can be increasing all the time.  The important question is not, “am I as strong in April as I was in January?”  The question is “am I stronger this April than I was last April?  Will I be stronger next January as I was this January?”  If the answers to those questions are “yes” then you are working on your long term athletic development and all is as it should be.

TIM MORRILL, Strength & Conditioning Specialist

Your goal in the off season was to get strong. You did it. Awesome! Now your goal is to play explosive Ultimate & injury free Ultimate. This will require you lose a little bit of that muscle mass and perhaps a little bit of strength depending on how vigorous you playing schedule is. Your challenge now is to maintain your strength as best you can. In reality it only requires that you get 2 lifts in per week. Go through the main “bang for your buck” lifts. 2-3 sets at a high intensity. These sessions can last 30-45 minutes. Just get in and get it done. The important thing is to never miss a lift. If you don’t use it you lose it.

ALAN JANZEN, Strength & Conditioning Coach

First off, I’d just like to say congrats on the hard work you’ve put in.  If you haven’t been running much or performing technique work around your training, then now is the time to find out how your gains will translate into on-field performance.

You’re about 8-10 weeks from tryouts, so that gives you ample time to progress through a power phase to develop your strength into speed.  Keep the intensity of your training high, but add in short sprints, plyometrics, or technique work before sessions to prepare your body for the season.  I’d recommend using your short workout to hit the track for anaerobic conditioning.  Focus on the 50-400m range and alternate your sessions between straight line sprinting and shuttles.  Make sure your work to rest ratios are progressing and don’t worry about being conservative at first, you do have 10 weeks.

Here’s the part you don’t want to hear.  You will reach a point where you will have to make a sacrifice.  Unfortunately, once tryouts begin, you will begin losing recovery time to your team’s practice schedule.  Listen to your body.  Your biggest lifts in the gym are the most taxing on your central nervous system and may need to be cut from the session.  Do this on the days where you feel fatigued in the gym, and use that session as a recovery session by sticking to the accessory lifts and decreasing your overall volume.

Good luck at tryouts this year!   It’s great to peak around your tryouts, but be sure to manage your stress levels and recovery through the season so you can reach even higher once the series hits!

Question 2:  Office gym equipment

A guests asks, “My office gym (very cheap) only has a Smith machine instead of a freestanding squat rack. I know the Smith machine is sub-optimal but I’ve also read it can be dangerous as it can force the body into disadvantageous positions. What is your option regarding using the Smith machine for Squats/Deadlifts? Can you recommend alternatives using dumbells/kettlebells/leg press that will be effective for strength?”


Squats in the Smith machine will be better for you than using the leg press.  Everyone is different but I have used Smith machines in the past with no problems.  I was usually working above the 5RM range and not doing a ton of volume in it.  For deadlifts I’ve done straight legged deadlifts with an EZ curl bar.  Again, not ideal but it works.  Deadlifts in a Smith machine are pointless because you can’t really push the hips through the way you should.

Fortunately there are plenty of single legged strength exercises you can do with dumbells that will not only be effective for building strength, but will also be more sport specific than squats anyway.  Split squats, rear foot elevates split squats, front foot elevated splits squats are all excellent places to start with single leg work. Single leg straight legged deadlifts are a great hip dominant single leg exercise.  If you really want to load up on a hip dominant exercise and aren’t able to do deadlifts, nothing beats the cable pullthrough if you have a cable column.

Here’s an example of a leg workout I did in November 2010.  It’s fairly simple and is balanced between hip and knee dominant exercises.  Also no Smith machine required.  Here is another old post with ideas for single leg strength that include links to suggested exercises.

TIM MORRILL, Strength & Conditioning Specialist

Stay away from the Smith, it does not allow for freedom of motion. When you press and squat your body does not want the barbell to travel in a straight line. There is always some natural arc. The smith machine will make sure you travel in a straight line and this can cause some sheer forces and that is bad news. Also, stay away from the leg press.

Do single leg squatting to a bench, load the squat with a kettle bell in the “goblet position”. Use DB’s for side loaded exercises like the RLESS and SLDL. You can still get some good work done even if you don’t have any equipment.

ALAN JANZEN, Strength & Conditioning Coach

I can’t recommend the Smith Machine for any form of Squat or Deadlift.  The fixed bar path is definitely not an optimal situation.

Instead of using the leg press, take advantage of the dumbbells and kettlebells.  You will still have a number of demanding strength exercises that are much more functional for an athlete.  Developing that left-to-right side balance and core activation through unilateral lifting will be much more effective.  Here are the exercises I recommend:

Strength Options:

  • Single Leg Deadlift
  • Reverse Lunge (from the floor or with the front foot elevated on a small box)
  • Single Leg Squat, supported (Bulgarian Split Squats) or unsupported (pistols or single leg squat on a bench/box)
  • Kettlebell Swing (if you don’t have enough weight you can hook two kettlebells together with a mini band)
  • Lateral Lunge

Power Options:

  • 1-Arm DB Snatch
  • DB Clean
  • Jump Squats
  • Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat Jumps

You could always petition for a straight bar and/or a trap bar for the gym.  It doesn’t take up much space, isn’t cost prohibitive, and you’d get a ton of use out of it!

Question 3:  Crossfit, Les Mills, etc

Toner asks, “A team mate swears by the “Les Mills” type of exercise classes for ultimate training. I completely disagree. Should exercise classes be used as a substitute for traditional strength and plyometric training?”

Similarly, a guest says, “I’ve just starting doing Crossfit as an alternate to my usual lifting and cardio workouts. I know it will improve my overall strength, but not convinced it will maintain my cardio or improve my quickness/agility on the field. What are your thoughts on Crossfit type workouts and how it benefits/doesn’t benefit an ultimate player?”


Both of these options are better than nothing and both are more relevant to training for ultimate than long distance running. These options will work very well at increasing overall strength and fitness for many people, especially those new to training.

Neither of these options are periodized programs. And no, neither of these are remotely good substitutes for actual strength and conditioning programs.

Both Les Mills and Crossfit rely heavily on circuit training and/or high intensity intervals. These types of workouts are great for conditioning. Doing Crossfit, I’d say you don’t have to worry as much about your cardiovascular system as you think. Les Mills and Crossfit are a step forward for in the way the general population thinks about fitness.

What makes strength and conditioning coaches grumpy concerning Crossfit is that circuit training is an easy thing to “sell” because it’s hard and makes you tired.  You know it’s “working.” But any idiot can make a you tired. So strength and conditioning coaches take offense when that’s all people want-to be tired.  Strength and conditioning coaches have much more to offer than this! The problem is that sometimes training sessions for speed, agility, and jumping do not make you tired.  It does not always feel “Extreme”, “Insane”, or like any other saleable adjective. It DOES require a long term commitment to a plan that leads you from strength to power while helping you excel within the metabolic demands of your sport-hard to sum up on a chalkboard. You are correct in your understanding that Crossfit style workouts are not the way to improve quickness and agility.

Les Mills and Crossfit are great at providing workouts for fitness enthusiasts. They do not provide training for athletes.

TIM MORRILL, Strength & Conditioning Specialist

No one gets strong doing randomized training. Playing explosive Ultimate requires putting strength and power on top of distinct patterns. “Les Mills” may be good for a novice athlete for a GPP phase, but not for anyone looking to play up their potential.

About Crossfit:
First, this is inexcusable. This video alone has given me a completely different feeling about Crossfit because people are being brainwashed and its sad, dangerous and performance limiting. I could post 7 other ridiculous videos just like it but I think that one is enough to get the point across.

Second, Crossfit is based on Bilateral (two leg lifts). Ultimate is played on one leg. You never developed single leg stability when you only train on 2 legs. Crossfitters wonder why the rip their ACL when they return to Ultimate. Well, how do you expect to have stability in a chaotic environment when landing, cutting in jumping if you have never done it in the controlled environment that is training?

Third, no one gets really strong with hip rep, randomized exercise. Will you build a work capacity? Yes. But what good is work capacity if it is completely random. We are better off structuring our workouts to build toward a real goal. If your real goal is the Crossfit games or a beach body, then Woohoo xfit! But if your goal is explosive ultimate, then train for explosive ultimate.

Fourth, Olympic lifts should never be the focus of an Ultimate player’s work out. Cleans from the floor are too technical for most of us. Spending hours working on our “first pull” technique is not time well spent when we could be doing more important things to help our game. All we need is explosive hip extension, and that can be gained from less technical exercises such as the KB swing, DB snatch or the hang power clean. Using this variation of the clean will save you a ton of time and you will still get the explosive hip extension that is sprinting, jumping and cutting.

We are not Olympic Weightlifters, we are not training for the Crossfit games. We are training for a field sport in which most movements involve single leg deceleration and acceleration. Our workouts should mimic just that. Think for yourself, don’t be a conformist and do something just because everyone else is doing it.

ALAN JANZEN, Strength & Conditioning Coach

I don’t like BodyPump or CrossFit workouts for athletes.  BodyPump is essentially circuit training and not geared towards developing strength or athleticism, and CrossFit is well-known for its lack of specificity and randomly generated “programming.”

I understand there are many people who will not like that answer.  It is my belief that an athlete should train to combat their weaknesses and progress their strength/power.  As a coach, your first job is to not injure your athlete, and improving their strength and power is secondary.  Random programming and the use of high-repetition Olympic lifting are two things CrossFit does that go against these ideals.  Olympic lifts are highly technical lifts that can easily cause injury in an untrained individual.  It is irresponsible to put a bar into a person’s hands or leave it in their hands if you haven’t instructed them on proper form.  I know there are CrossFit gyms that do teach proper form, but that issue is moot if your are asking someone to perform them in a fatigued state.

I would recommend using another program, but, if you don’t, at the very least please ask a qualified coach to assess your lifting technique.  One great thing that did evolve from CrossFit is  If you have injury issues or need an innovative way to hit your trigger points check it out.

Question 4:  Everything but the kitchen sink

Spencer says, “I have a few questions (I think about this a lot) so bear with me.

Why are most programs posted as specific towards ultimate generally for muscle building and not strength? By this I mean, most programs say to do a bunch of exercises, both compound and isolation, with sets of 8-12. Isn’t that rep count mostly for hypertrophy, building muscle, and bodybuilding rather than strength and explosiveness?

Why do these programs have isolation exercises? Shouldn’t athletes just Squat, Deadlift, Press, and Bench when they are in the gym and do other things for core and explosiveness during other workouts on other days?

In parallel with my strength training I would love to gain flexibility both in the objective sense (i.e. touching toes) and the sense of being able to do functional movements better and smoother. Do any of you have a systematic way to do this?”


Spencer, your third question is the answer to your second question.  The reason we are adamant about the need for single leg strength exercises is that doing ONLY squats, deadlifts, and bench presses will make you into a crappy athlete.  You will be strong, sure.  But for a multi-sprint sport like ultimate you need to be able to express that strength from one leg moving in a variety of directions.  Single leg exercises are strengthen functional movement patterns.  If you have only been doing squats and deadlifts, you may be unpleasantly surprised at your ability with single leg exercises.  Stick with it through the frustration and you will emerge as a much better athlete.  Start with a simple split squat and single leg straight legged deadlift.  Depending on your mobility, you might do these with only your body weight until you have good movement.  Then start loading these exercises.

Your first question is a very good one.  There are two things that define a bodybuilding workout.  First is the exercise selection.  Second is the volume and rep scheme.  From what I’ve seen from the three of us on this particular panel, we’ve been showcasing almost all compound exercises NOT isolation exercises.  That is what makes our workout suggestions different from a bobybuilding workout which chooses more isolation exercises that target one muscle at a time.

Secondly, yes the rep scheme of 8-10 RM is what is used for hypertrophy.  It is also commonly used in the first phase of a periodized strength and conditioning program.  At the risk of speaking for everyone on this panel, I’d say we see a lot of ultimate players who are not in the weight room at all.  In trying to get people started, it makes most sense to suggest a phase one program that is easy to follow.  I think that we could/should/are trying to do a better job in educating the ultimate community about the benefits of periodized strength and conditioning programming.  So perhaps it’s time to start talking more about what happens after phase one.  Duly noted.

For now, players who are interested in what happens after phase one can find more information from the blogs and webpages of all three of us.  For example, I think Tim especially has done a great job in educating the ultimate community about the benefits of cleans and other power focused lists on his YouTube channel.  I am ushering players through a periodized program at The Ultimate Athlete Project.  And Alan has a great blog for his facility, Explosive Sports Performance that covers many training principles.

TIM MORRILL, Strength & Conditioning Specialist

The programs you described are specific to body building. I have never seen a program of that type recommended to an Ultimate player.

No athletes should just squat, deadlift and bench unless we are Powerlifters. But, we play Ultimate.  We should Single leg squat, RLESS, SLDL and Clean. Doing cleans this way is much easier, we still get explosive hip extension and it saves us a ton of time.

Your workouts should entail a ton of flexibility and mobility work. For example, add the 5 piece squat between sets of cleans. This is why the tri-set idea is so awesome. Adding 2 loaded exercises then a stretch makes for a great tri-set. For example,

Tri-set 1= SLDL, DB Press, Hamstring Stretch
Tri-set 2= RLESS, DB Row, Quad Stretch

ALAN JANZEN, Strength & Conditioning Coach

Most programs you will find online are general programs that have to be written for a whole population rather than a specific trainee.  Unfortunately, not everyone is at the same level when it comes to the gym.  Most research shows that the 8-12 rep range is optimal for a novice trainee in terms of strength and power gains.  As you progress in the gym, increasing sets and decreasing reps to raise the intensity is important to break through plateaus to improve strength in intermediate to advanced lifters.

What you’re calling isolation exercises may actually be accessory lifts.  The Squat, Deadlift, Press, and Bench are great strength exercises, but they are not the only lifts that have carryover to athletics.  To be honest, the bench press really has limited carryover, especially in a sport that requires little upper body strength.  The squat is great for strength-building as well, but you need to incorporate single leg work to establish right-to-left balance and transfer that strength to the field.  It is necessary to utilize these accessory lifts to establish a connection with the core while lifting.  The more “functional” an exercise is, the more carryover it will have to your on-field performance.

To improve your flexibility you would do well to include a number of mobilizations before your workout and even on recovery days if needed.  As an added bonus, the work you do in the gym, unilateral and bilateral, will also lead to greater flexibility.  Depending on how much flexibility you are looking for, you may need to attack it every day.  Dan John, a phenomenal speaker and strength coach, always hammers this thought, “if it’s important, do it every day.”

Thanks to our wonderful panelists for their insights and to all of our commentors for submitting questions.

Comments Policy: At Skyd, we value all legitimate contributions to the discussion of ultimate. However, please ensure your input is respectful. Hateful, slanderous, or disrespectful comments will be deleted. For grammatical, factual, and typographic errors, instead of leaving a comment, please e-mail our editors directly at editors [at]