Tierphasic Training (Part I of III)

By: Matt Van Dyke

As stated by the title above, this is the first piece in a series of three blogs about my off-season training philosophy. I feel this is the best training method I have at my disposal at this time, although I am always making slight changes to it as I continue my education. This first post will cover the basics of the “tier system” as well as how I have arrived at these methods of training to optimize the performance of my athletes.

How my experiences shaped my philosophy

As I stated in an earlier blog, my previous experiences have given me the opportunity to work under exceptional coaches in the field of strength and conditioning. All of these successful coaches have had slight differences in the way they train their athletes. However, they all did have one thing in common, and that was a set program to base their training off of. Both Coach McKnight and Coach Dietz used a specific training system to ensure their athletes gained the exact adaptations each coach wanted. Their planning and implementation of their respected programs showed me the importance of always having a plan in place and sticking to it. Having the opportunity to view these different methods of training has served greatly to my benefit as a young coach. Coach McKnight utilized a modified tier system, with the original tier system being created by Joe Kenn. Coach Dietz created his own method of training with triphasic training. Both the tier and triphasic training systems produce exceptional results in their own respective fashion, so it became my goal to create a method that utilizes both of these systems to produce increased results in my athletes.

I have found the best way apply the tier and triphasic systems is not to combine them, but rather to use the tier system to increase my athlete’s strength levels, and then implement the triphasic system as my final block as a form of peaking. The triphasic training method I use generally requires six weeks to complete, and can be used anywhere from a three to five day per week system. This method can also be extended to different lengths depending on the time a coach has as well as the specific goals of your training. Having the knowledge that at least six weeks are needed to peak my athletes using the triphasic method allows me to work backwards to determine how many weeks I can spend applying the modified tier system.

The Tier Training System

During my five years at Iowa State I was introduced to the modified tier system being put in place by Yancy McKnight. This template is based off of the tier system created by Joe Kenn, but has its slight changes.  The tier system is typically utilized in four week blocks with the loads or volume gradually increasing in order to increase intensity for the first three weeks. A “deload” week follows these three weeks in order to give athletes a chance to actively recover. Intensity and volume during this week are decreased drastically with intensity dropping to below week one and volume cut almost in half. This deload week is then followed by week one of the next cycle which will be higher than the week one in the previous cycle, this is how progressive overload is achieved. Movements in this system are placed into total, lower, and upper exercises, with total body exercises being Olympic style movements emphasizing triple extension of the hip, knee, and ankle, lower body exercises as hip and/or knee dominant, and finally upper body exercises. These movements can be further broken down whether they are pushing or pulling actions as well as vertical or horizontal. These categorizations are especially important to training to ensure no body part or action is trained excessively, which will lead overuse and imbalances which increase injury likelihood. Once the exercise you have chosen has been broken down according to the above criteria, you must decide the importance of it in your training program. When programming using the tier system, exercises are broken up into max effort, or sub-max effort, dynamic effort, and repeat effort movements. The order as well as the number of these tiers used can change depending on the time of year and the goals of your specific program, which can range from strength and power gains, to increasing an athlete’s rate of force development, to volume and work capacity training.

Max effort exercises train major muscle groups that are used in the sport being trained and are completed first when the goals of training are increased power and strength outputs. These lifts are the foundation of your training program and are intended to activate as many motor units as possible through high stress, or heavy weight, placed on the body. In max effort lifts the percentage generally exceeds 80% with a rep range typically from one to five, but this can be changed to match the needs of your athletes and which part of their macrocycle your sport is in. In the past I have taken the max effort based on the needs of my athletes, using methods such as 5/3/1 or prilipen’s chart for the max effort tier exercises.  These will be the lifts that a coach will take to a max come testing day, if he/she chooses test. Examples of max effort lifts I use in my programming include back squat, deadlift, power clean, bench press, and pull-ups. Once again it is important to note that pushing and pulling exercises must be trained in the same manner equally to avoid muscle imbalances. Sub-max tiers are used with slightly lower percentages with increased volume. This is a great method for athletes with a young training age that need to improve their exercise technique. Plyometrics can also be combined with the max-effort exercises to create contrast training. If you choose not to pair the max-effort lifts with a similar plyo that is fine, but realize explosive training must be completed while the athlete’s nervous system is fresh so they have the ability to achieve maximum adaptations. During the tier phase of training all plyometric training for my teams are completed as a part of our running workouts. Plyometric training during conditioning workouts serves as a final central nervous system primer before running, as well as teaching explosiveness and the use of the stretch shortening cycle.

Dynamic effort exercises are used to stimulate the nervous system and increase the rate of force development using low intensity, high velocity training. The percentage used in this tier ranges from 40%-60% with the focus being on the speed of the bar. With the goal of maximal velocity the repetitions are kept low, typically between one and three, to ensure fatigue does not play a factor in bar speed. Volume can then be accumulated by the total number of sets completed. This low rep per set method allows the athlete to focus on the quality of each rep rather than the overall quantity. During the dynamic effort tier I also have the ability to train my athletes utilizing different tempos such as eccentric as well as isometric methods. When these different tempos are used I am allowed to begin preparation for triphasic training. Even though the percentage is not high enough to be a true eccentric or isometric training method, it is good teaching of movement patterns that we will rely on heavily during the triphasic system. The addition of eccentric also allows training of the stretch shortening cycle while isometric tempos allow starting strength to be trained. As these components are trained the stretch shortening cycle improves, which leads to an increase in power outputs.

Repeat Effort training occurs after the maximal effort and dynamic effort tiers have been completed. The percentage range is 60%-80% for repeat effort tiers. The main goals of the repeat effort tiers are to build upon the foundational exercises of your program as well as increase work capacity. Depending on the exercise and intensity used multiple exercises can be done at the same time in a “super-set” fashion. The exercises used here will typically have an increase in the amount of repetitions completed per set with a decrease in rest time. It is important that percentages stay within the determined ranges for their proper reps, which will ensure the quality of the repetitions. This tier will drive the adaptation of work capacity and lead to the athlete being able to train, with high quality, for longer. While increasing their work capacity you also have the ability to incorporate specific exercises in order to continually improve performance. These include single-leg and post chain training for the lower body as well as core and neck, trap, and jaw training. Single-leg training is vital for athletes because there is virtually no time in athletics when both legs are used simultaneously. Sprinting and jumping in athletics are prime examples of this and a key reason single leg exercises are completed. Single leg exercises will become the main focus at points in triphasic training as well, so this style of training serves as a good pre-cursor as well. Post-chain work is also necessary for athletes and is viewed as a “lower pull” exercise method. It is important to train the posterior side of the body, such as the lumbar spine, glutes, and hamstrings, to avoid imbalances. The hamstrings are also an essential muscle in the aspect of top-end speed, which is just another reason to ensure they are properly trained throughout your program. Core training can be broken into four categories. These include stabilization, anti-rotational, rotational, and flexion/extension. The core is absolutely imperative to train because without proper control of the core, other movements within athletics cannot be optimally executed. These movements include, but are not limited to, holding an acceleration angle, pushing and pulling against opponents, as well as every lift that is done in the weight room. Strengthening the core continues to allow optimal movement patterns in these athletic movements. Finally a neck, trap, and jaw tier should be added for contact sports to prevent concussions. We complete at least one exercise designed for protection per day. The exact methods used for this training will be covered at a different time. All of these tiers are at your disposal as a coach to supplement your max-effort lifts as well as increase an athlete’s work capacity.

Below is an example of an early off-season tier system that I have used with great success in strength gains with the baseball team here at St. Cloud.


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