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The Tier System: A Complete Review

By: Brett Bueker

INTRODUCTION

The Tier System was developed by Joe Kenn, who has been in the strength and conditioning profession longer than I have been alive. He has coached at Arizona State University, the University of Louisville, and is currently the head strength coach for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. The tier system is a systematic approach to strength and conditioning based off of the fact that football is played with your “total body”, so that’s how it should be trained. Football is a game of “big” movements. Running, jumping, cutting, kicking, blocking, and tackling all involve large movement from the musculature of the body. The Tier System trains the athlete in this manner as well with “big” barbell and dumbbell movement exercises, through a full range of motion, that activate a large amount of muscle and train a very large number of motor units. Various philosophies in the strength and conditioning field call for upper and lower body splits throughout the week where you train only the lower body one day, then solely upper body another day. The Tier System trains the total body in one workout. The Tier System is the philosophy that Coach McKnight implements here at Iowa State University. I have been a part of the Tier System for going on six and a half years now. Four and a half as a player going through workouts, and starting year two as a coach here at Iowa State in January. Coach McKnight has made his own tweaks to the Tier System designed by Joe Kenn, based on the areas he feels is most important for football players to develop so they can become the best football players and athletes possible.

 TOTAL, LOWER, AND UPPER BODY TIERS

The beauty of the Tier System (besides the fact it trains total body in each workout) is that the coach can tweak and adjust the tier to what he or she sees best fit for their athletes at a specific time of

year. The Tier System has particular “tiers” of the workout designed for specific parts of the body. These specific “tiers” are split up into Total, Lower, and Upper movements.

“Total” refers to more Olympic based movements that use the large groups of muscles (total body) to perform the lift. Total body movement are movements that involve ankle, knee, and hip extension (triple extension), and shoulder elevation (shrug). The key component of total body movements is performing “triple extension” in the ankle, knee, and hip. Total body movement include exercises such the deadlift, power clean, hang clean, and snatch variations.

“Lower” refers to movements of the lower body. Lower body movements are classified by knee and hip extension. These movements can be double leg or single leg movements such as the squat, split squat, various forms of lunging, single leg squats, and hip/leg press, or posterior chain movements such as hyperextensions, glute-ham raises, or RDL variations. Lower body lifts will strengthen the musculature of the glutes, quads, hamstrings, groin (adductors), lower back (erector spinae), and calf.

“Upper” refers to movements of the upper body. These upper body movements can be split up into pushing and pulling movements. “Pushing” or “Pressing” movements work more of the anterior side of the upper body, along with the shoulder girdle. These “pushing” movements include the bench press and standing press variations, and dips. The pushing movements will help strengthen the musculature of the chest (pecs), (anterior) deltoids, and triceps. “Pulling” movements work the posterior side of upper body (back), posterior shoulder girdle, and rotator cuff.  These “pulling” movements include pull ups, bent rows, inverted rows, and single arm row variations. The pulling movements will help strengthen the musculature of the back (latissimus dorsi, and other smaller groups), the (posterior) deltoid (and rotator cuff), traps, forearms, and biceps.

After many years of research, Joe Kenn came up with a systematic approach of how to arrange these “tiers” into a specific order yielding the best results for athletes. Now this is another beauty of the Tier System. A coach can decide him/herself how many of these “tiers” to implement into their program based on the needs analysis of the athletes they are working with. The following are examples of various 3-Day tiers:

3x3 TIER

MONDAY                                                             WEDNESDAY                                                      FRIDAY

Total Body                                                           Lower Body                                                        Upper Body

Lower Body                                                         Upper Body                                                        Total Body

Upper Body                                                         Total Body                                                          Lower Body

 

3x5 TIER

MONDAY                                                             WEDNESDAY                                                      FRIDAY

Total Body                                                           Lower Body                                                       Upper Body

Lower Body                                                         Upper Body                                                       Total Body

Upper Body                                                         Total Body                                                         Lower Body

Total Body                                                           Lower Body                                                       Upper Body       

Lower Body                                                         Upper Body                                                       Total Body

 

3x7 TIER

MONDAY                                                             WEDNESDAY                                                      FRIDAY

Total Body                                                           Lower Body                                                        Upper Body

Lower Body                                                        Upper Body                                                        Total Body

Upper Body                                                        Total Body                                                          Lower Body

Total Body                                                           Lower Body                                                       Upper Body       

Lower Body                                                        Upper Body                                                        Total Body

Upper Body                                                        Total Body                                                          Lower Body

Total Body                                                          Lower Body                                                        Upper Body

 

No matter how many tiers you are performing in a particular workout, the order of the tiers stays the same. The specific order of the tiers (as stated by Joe Kenn) is total, lower, upper in that order. If one was using a 3x3 Tier that would be it, one movement from each category for the day. The 3x3 Tier is a beneficial approach for an in-season training camp for football players. As a strength coach, there are limitations on how much time we have with the athletes, and during training camp, this isn’t much time at all. The predominant focus of training camp is for the athletes to focus on practice and their football skills. The number one job of a strength coach is to keep the athletes healthy. You should not be doing anything that will increase the athlete’s risk of injury. Now this is an inevitable part of the profession. Risk of injury always is present. But by proper teaching of movements, proper programming of individual and weekly workouts (microcycle), and well thought out plans of cycles (3-4 week workout mesocycle), and well thought out and properly programmed annual plans (macrocycle), this injury component can be reduced to slim to none. During training camp, we have about 45 minutes 2-3 times a week with the players in the weight room. This 3x3 Tier allows us to train them in a quick and efficient manner.

The 3x5 Tier follows the same basic principles of the 3x3 Tier. After the order of total, lower, and upper is completed, the order repeats itself for two more tiers: total, lower, upper, total, lower. The exact same principles follow for the 3x7 tier: total, lower, upper, total, lower, upper, total.

FOUNDATION, SUPPLEMENTAL, AND ASSISTANCE MOVEMENTS

When looking at the specific movements in each tier, Joe Kenn classifies movements into three different movement categories: foundation movements, supplemental movements, and assistance movements. The strength coach must take into consideration which movements they want to test their athletes in when it comes time to test if they choose so. These movements they choose to test in are termed foundation movements. These foundation movements are multi-joint barbell movements that the strength coach feels is most applicable to his or her athletes to best improve their overall performance on the field. These foundation movements will be the emphasis of the annual strength macrocycle. The strength coach will build their lifting microcycles and mesocycles based on the foundation movements. Examples of foundation movements include but are not limited to: back squat, front squat, power clean, hang clean, dead lift, bench press, incline press, overhead press, and pull ups. These foundation movements are in the first tier of the workout so it emphasizes the importance of these movements to the athletes.

The next type of exercise Joe Kenn classifies is supplemental movements. Supplemental movements are movements that complement the foundation movements of choice. These supplemental movements target the same muscle group and muscle action as the foundation movements, but in a slightly different manner such that the load is moved in a somewhat similar angle or range of motion. The job of the supplemental movements is to help the athletes continue to increase strength without developing staleness by activating slightly different motor units than the foundation movements. This slight variation will help the athletes avoid plateauing in the weight room. As with the foundation movements, these supplemental movements are multi-joint barbell exercises. However, the strength coach can also use other means with these movements, such as dumbbells, for some variation. These supplemental movements can be used in both tier one and tier two, depending on the type and arrangement of the mirco- and mesocycle being used.

The third type of movement category is assistance movements. Assistance movements can be used within a template a few different ways. The first way assistance exercises can be used is to target and strengthen the same muscle groups as the foundation and supplemental movements, but yet again activating slightly different motor unit pathways. The more motor units an athlete can learn to activate and use, the stronger and more powerful they will become. Assistance exercises can also be used to help balance out the muscle groups that are being primarily used in the foundation and supplemental movements. This is called the antagonist muscle. For example, if an athlete’s foundation movement for the day is bench press, an assistance movement can be a pull of some sort such as a barbell bent row to balance out the chest and back. By doing this, it’s actually doing your athletes a favor so they do not develop muscle imbalances that can lead to injury. This is prime example of why the designing of a microcycle, mesocycle, and macrocycle is so important. Strength coaches should strive for balance between antagonistic muscle groups. Along with assistance movements being used as antagonistic movements, they can also be used to help with stability with the foundation and supplemental movements. This may be a single-joint movement that targets an isolated group of muscles and motor units, but that is perfectly ok when it comes to assistance exercises. Your thought process is still to perform exercises that help improve the foundation movements. You, as a strength coach must make the call on what is best for your individual athletes and what will benefit them the most.

ENERGY SYSTEMS OF THE TIER SYSTEM     

The various tiers of the Tier system also hold specific training principles working different energy systems in one workout. The game of football involves all three energy systems to be successful. The ATP-Creatine Phosphate System (a.k.a. the Phosphagen System and the Alactic System), the Glycolytic (a.k.a. the Anaerobic System and the Lactic System), and the Aerobic System.  When looking at the duration of a football game, a successful football player must be able to perform 4-8 seconds of repeated max effort work, with about 30-45 seconds of rest, for series lasting about 5 plays, for 60+ minutes of game time. The duration of the game taps into each energy system, so it only makes sense to train the entire body that way each and every workout. This will best prepare the athletes to succeed in practice and competition, which is one of the main goals of a strength coach, in addition to keeping the athlete healthy.

The ATP-CP system is the system that fuels short bursts of maximum effort from approximately 0-20 seconds. Creatine phosphate is stored in the muscle cells, and when this CP is broken down during muscular contraction, a very significant amount of energy is released, hence powerful maximum effort movements. The ATP and CP stores are very limited in the muscle cells, so this type of energy system is used up fairly quickly. This whole process does not require any oxygen to take place. The first few plays of a drive would be fueled by the ATP-CP System.

The Glycolytic System is the system that fuels intermediate bouts of energy, typically between approximately 20-90 seconds. When the body’s ATP-CP stores are depleted, the Glycolytic System takes over. This energy system relies on the energy that is converted from carbohydrates (glucose) into ATP (energy). An athlete will know when they are tapping into the Glycolytic System. They will begin to feel an intense burning sensation in the muscle. Lots of people believe that this burning is the result of buildup of lactic acid in the muscle. This is false. The burning sensation is due to the accumulation of H+ ions, which is the byproduct of Glycolysis (breakdown of carbs into ATP). The Glycolytic System would fuel an extended drive of repeated maximum effort plays.

The Aerobic System is the system that uses Oxygen for proper functioning. This system is what allows athletes to sustain activity for multiple hours (length of a typical football game). The Aerobic System also is used for repeated high intensity bouts (multiple plays, series after series after series throughout the entire game). The Aerobic system does not stop there. It actually helps you recover after a high intensity effort, whether that would be in-between plays, or in-between series throughout the game. With the help of oxygen, the Aerobic System works to replenish the depleted ATP-CP stores in the muscle and it helps clear out the byproducts of the Glycogen System. The Aerobic System works to restore your other two energy systems. And it doesn’t stop there. Even when the clock hits 00:00, the Oxidative System continues to work, up to even 48 hours later. This is known as Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption, which continually helps the body’s recovery process.

These energy systems are not independent of each other. They work in harmony to allow athletes to perform various bouts of intense movement, over and over again, for an extended period of time. All of these systems are in use at any particular time throughout the duration of a football game, with some being more predominant than the others based on intensities, work to rest ratios, and duration. It only makes sense to program your micro-, meso-, and macrocycles in this manner as well. It should be a goal of a strength coach to train the athletes with the same intensity, rest intervals, and tempos as a practice and game setting. This will set the athletes up for the best results on the field.

MAX EFFORT, DYNAMIC EFFORT, AND REPEAT EFFORT

To help train these different energy systems, variations of efforts, intensities, and repetitions should be cycled through the weekly microcycle, the 3-4 week mesocycles, and the annual macrocycle. If done properly, this will help keep your athletes fresh without the negative effects of over-training, staleness, or plateauing.

The Tier System can be set up with various intensities throughout the week. These various intensities are: Max Effort (ME), Dynamic Effort (DE), and Repeat or Sub-Max Effort (RE or SME). Max Effort is using heavy weights (>80% of the 1 Rep Max) for a low amount of reps (1-5) using maximum effort to complete each repetition.  Dynamic Effort is using relatively light weight (40-60% of the 1 Rep Max) for a low amount of reps (1-3) moving the weight with as much force and speed possible on each repetition. Repeat Effort (Sub-Max Effort) is using moderate intensity (60-80% of the 1 Rep Max) for a various amount of reps (1-10) working proper technique each repetition. Here is another beauty of the tier system. You as a strength coach get to choose which type of effort you want your focus to be. You then set up your tiers of total body, lower body, and upper body movements based on a systematic order of efforts. There are a number of ways this type of effort order can be set up based on what your athletes need to improve upon:

EMPHASIS ON SPEED, POWER, AND EXPLOSIVENESS

 

MONDAY                                             WEDNESDAY                                      FRIDAY

DE- Total Body                                   DE- Lower Body                             DE- Upper Body

ME- Lower Body                                ME- Upper Body                             ME- Total Body

RE- Upper Body                                 RE- Total Body                               RE- Lower Body

 

EMPHASIS ON STRENGTH

 

MONDAY                                             WEDNESDAY                                      FRIDAY

ME- Total Body                                 ME- Lower Body                               ME- Upper Body

DE- Lower Body                                DE- Upper Body                                DE- Total Body

RE- Upper Body                                 RE- Total Body                                 RE- Lower Body

 

EMPHASIS ON HYPERTROPHY, VOLUME, AND SIZE

MONDAY                                             WEDNESDAY                                      FRIDAY

SME- Total Body                               SME- Lower Body                            SME- Upper Body

DE (TEMPO)- Lower Body             DE (TEMPO)- Upper Body            DE (TEMPO)- Total Body

RE- Upper Body                                 RE- Total Body                                 RE- Lower Body

 

After assessing a needs analysis of what aspects your athletes need to get better in and what they need to improve upon, you as a strength coach can set the effort scheme to achieve this. Based on the above examples, if your athletes need to work on speed, power or explosiveness, it may be wise to put the Dynamic Effort tier first because you want the athletes to be most fresh for this effort to get the most out of it. The DE is a very Central Nervous System (CNS) taxing movement, because it requires maximum power and speed of the bar. Ample rest time is needed between sets. If the athletes are already in a fatigued state when they perform Dynamic Effort movements, it will be a waste of time. They will not benefit from it. You want as much force, speed, and explosiveness with the bar as possible. You must train those motor units to perform in that manner.

If max strength is your main goal, it may be wise to put your Max Effort Tier as the first tier because you want your athletes to be as fresh as possible to exert as much maximum effort into the bar to move the max effort loads.  Proper work-to-rest ratios are crucial here, as proper rest between sets is needed to recover from maximum effort bouts. This is a very CNS taxing movement, which requires lots of physical, mental, and emotional preparation for each repetition.

If hypertrophy, volume, and size are your main goals for your athletes at a particular time, an idea is to replace your Max Effort tier with a Sub Max Effort Tier and put this as the first tier. This will allow for a higher number of repetitions (more volume accumulation) and a slightly lower intensity, which is conducive for hypertrophy and size gains. This lower intensity range for your SME movements is not as CNS taxing as Dynamic Effort and Max Effort movements are, so more volume can be handled throughout the duration of the workout. This would be an ideal program a strength coach would want to create for an incoming freshman who is new to the program. Lots of athletes have had little or no strength training background before we get them when they get to us in the summer, so getting these athletes used to handling moderate loads and putting some meat on them will be a solid base for them to build upon. Also, these moderate loads and intensities will allow for proper technique to be performed over and over each rep, throughout a full range of motion, which is crucial to an athlete’s ability to stay healthy/mobile/flexible, and gain strength and size.

TIER VARIATIONS

As previously mentioned, there is lots of room for the strength and conditioning coach to tweak the Tier System to what they see as best fit and most beneficial for their athletes. Coach McKnight has modified the Tier System to a way he and Coach Oyster have seen best results for their players. Coach McKnight’s modified Tier System is as follows:

COACH MCKNIGHT’S 3X5 TIER

MONDAY                                                             WEDNESDAY                                                      FRIDAY

Total Body                                                           Lower Body                                                        Upper Body

Lower Body                                                        Upper Body                                                        Total Body

Upper Body                                                        Total Body                                                           Lower Body

Upper Pull                                                           Upper Pull                                                           Upper Pull          

Lower Pull                                                           Lower Pull                                                           Lower Pull

 

The Tier System that Coach McKnight has developed is a 3x3 Tier that follows Joe Kenn’s  normal sequence and order of total body, lower body, and upper body movements throughout the week. As a football player on the field, athletes are always blocking using the anterior musculature of their body. There is repetitive “pushing” or “pressing” movements going on. To try and balance this, Coach McKnight’s fourth tier is almost always an upper pull of some fashion, whether it is a vertical or horizontal pull. Also, the stronger your pull is, the stronger your push and press is. There is a very high correlation between the two. It is also very beneficial while blocking to be able to engage a block, and be strong enough to sustain this block while the defender is trying to rip away and shed the block. Having a strong back/shoulder (along with a strong lower half), will help the athlete stabilize and sustain a block. The fifth tier in Coach McKnight’s modified Tier System is a lower pull. This is a posterior chain (post-chain) movement. Many football-related movements involve hip extension, which is the primary focus of the lower pull tier. Coach McKnight’s athletes will be performing some type of hip extension variation in this tier. The game of football is constantly using the post-chain for various movements. Exploding out of a stance, sprinting, blocking, tackling, change of direction (cutting), deceleration, and jumping all involve the posterior chain musculature (low back, glutes, hamstrings, adductors, and calfs) to perform a successful movement. It only makes sense to train this group of muscles and motor units in various fashions each day. Over the years, Coach McKnight has studied and developed a method of training the upper pull and lower pull tiers. Following the same principles of the 3x3 Tier in regards to the effort being used, Coach McKnight uses Max Effort, Sub-Max Effort, and Repeat Effort movements in a systematic order throughout the week. These various efforts need to be looked at in accordance to the ME, DE, and RE movements done with the foundation, supplemental, and assistance movements of the day.

Another variation of the Tier System was developed by Coach Zac Brouillette. Coach Brouillette has years and years of experience working with the Tier System. He completed an internship at the University of Louisville under Joe Kenn himself, as well as working under Coach McKnight as a Graduate Assistant for two years at Iowa State University. Coach Brouillette is currently the top assistant strength and conditioning coach at Ohio University. His years working with and studying the Tier System has allowed him to see what version of the Tier works best for him and the current athletes he trains at Ohio University. Coach Brouillette’s modification of the Tier System is coined “The Brick Training Method”:

COACH BROUILLETTE’S “BRICK METHOD”

 MONDAY                                             WEDNESDAY                                                      FRIDAY

ME or SME-Lower Body                                ME or SME-Upper Body                                                ME or SME-Total Body

DE-Upper Body                                 DE-Total Body                                                    DE-Lower Body                

RE-Total Body                                    RE-Lower Body                                                 RE-Upper Body

RE-Single Leg (Linear)                     RE-Single Leg (Lateral)                                   RE-Single Leg (Vertical)

RE-Vertical Pull                                  RE-Horizontal Pull                                            RE-Combo Pull

RE-Post-Chain (Hamstring)          RE-Post-Chain (Glute)                                    RE-Post-Chain (Erector)

 

Coach Brouillette’s Brick Method is a 3x3 Tier that follows the same sequence of total body, lower body, and upper body movements derived from Joe Kenn. The Brick Method utilizes the Maximum Effort (or Sub-Max Effort, depending on the needs analysis of his athletes) in the first “brick”, Dynamic Effort in the second “brick”, and Repeat Effort in the third “brick”. From here is where Coach Brouillette puts his own twist on the Tier System. The fourth “brick” is a variation of a single-leg movement on each day. Sport movements constantly require single leg movements to provide proper and successful movement. The stronger and more coordinated an athlete is with a single leg movement, the more efficient, and in turn, more explosive and powerful they will be. The fifth “brick” is an upper pull variation. Having a strong and stable posterior upper body allows athletes to be stronger and more efficient with their pushing and pressing movements. In many sport movements, this is crucial. The sixth and final “brick” is a posterior-chain movement variation. The reasoning of why to train different motor units of the post-chain applies to the Brick Method as well. A strong post-chain correlates to more efficient movement patterns and the ability to produce more power, force, and strength in sport-specific movements. Each day of the Brick Method targets a different area of the post-chain, all of which are important for coordinated and efficient sport-specific movement.

PRILIPEN’S INTENSITY CHARTS

All of this thought that has gone into planning each specific daily and weekly microcycle, each 3-4 week mesocycle, and annual macrocycle means absolutely nothing if you can’t find the proper intensity and volumes for each particular tier. Prilipen developed a chart that is based off of your 1 Repetition Max (RM). His charts give different 1 RM percent ranges along with a range of sets and reps. Based on these percentages, there will be a low, optimal, and high volume set and rep range. This is very crucial to take into consideration when developing your micro-, meso-, and macrocycles. If you are looking for more volume for your athletes, you can shoot more towards the higher end of the set and rep range. If the high end is what you choose based upon your athletes’ needs, be sure to set up the rest of your template accordingly to avoid overtraining. If you are looking for optimal sets and reps based on the intensity, choose the optimal amount of reps listed for that specific percentage on Prilipen’s chart. If you need to back off on the volume and intensity for a reload/recovery week, or due to being in-season, it may be smart to work the lower end of the set and rep range listed. This will allow for proper maintenance of strength levels, without dapping into the phenomenon of overtraining, due to the volume from the previous base and load weeks of the mesocycle, or the volume of running and practice on the football field.

BASE/LOAD/RELOAD/PERFORMANCE WEEKS    

Once you have your sets, reps, and intensities picked from Prilipen’s charts, you must cycle them into structured micro- and mesocycles so the athlete’s do not develop symptoms of overtraining, or undertraining. As a strength coach, you want to get the most out of your athletes, so this must be properly programmed to attain these results.

Mesocycles are usually 3-4 weeks in duration, with each week having a specific purpose. The first week is coined a “base” week. This should be of moderate intensity. The athletes are getting used to handling the weight this week. Week 2 is termed a “load week”. The exercises are more than likely the same, but the intensity increases (according to Prilipen’s charts) in the ME, DE, and RE movement tiers. After the standard 3x3 Tier of ME, DE, and RE movements, tiers can increase or decrease in reps, sets, or intensities depending on the focus of the mesocycle. The most likely situations will be intensities increase while reps stay the same or decrease slightly, or intensities stay the same and the number of reps will increase. This all depends on the overall goal of the mesocycle.

Week 3 can go one of two ways. Week 3 can either be a “reload” week, or a “load +” week. This is up to the strength coach and what they see best fit for their particular athletes. A “reload” week is a week that is necessary to help avoid overtraining and allow the athlete to be fresh going into the “load +” week (week 4 in this case). The intensities will be anywhere from 3-5% lower than the “base” week (this is up to the coach). Sets and reps in all tiers can be reduced to decrease the volume. The athlete should be careful in performing any extra lifting sessions because the whole goal of this “reload” week is to recharge the body and the CNS. If week 3 is a “load +” week, the intensities should continue to increase from week 2 (still according to Prilipen’s charts).

Depending on the route you take in week 3, week 4 will either be a “load +” week, or a “reload” week. If week 4 is a “load +” week following a “reload” week during week 3, week 4 should have the highest intensities of the mesocycle (based on sets/reps/intensities chosen from Prilipen’s charts), or the highest volume. This all depends on the goal of the mesocycle. If week 3 was a “load +” week, week 4 should then be a “reload” week. The same principles as previously stated are true for this “reload” week.

CONCLUSION

Athletic performance has no one right way to program for an athlete. It all depends on the skill level, maturity level, strength levels of your athletes, and what you as the strength coach see is most beneficial after conducting a needs analysis. The Tier System is just one way of training athletes for success on the football field. Many variables need to be taken into consideration when setting up an annual plan for the athletes. From equipment available, to size of the training groups, to what is included in each specific workout, organization and thought is pivotal. If you do this, you will be on your way to developing a successful athletic performance program. And always remember, it’s not just how strong or big your athletes are. It’s about taking the necessary steps to make them a better football player out on the field.

REFERENCES

Kenn, Joe. Athletic Based Strength Training-The Tier System-Strength Training Playbook for Coaches. N.p.: Joe Kenn, December 2002. Print.

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