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NSCA's Coaching Podcast: Bonus Audio from Episode 40 with Joe Kenn

by Scott Caulfield and Joe Kenn
Coaching Podcast October 2018


Joe Kenn, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Carolina Panthers, talks to the NSCA Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, Scott Caulfield, about… well… a little bit of everything. This is bonus audio from NSCA's Coaching Podcast Episode 40 with Joe Kenn. Enjoy!

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Thanks for listening to this episode of NSCA's Coaching Podcast with our special guest, Joe Kenn of the Carolina Panthers. This special director's cut features a few minutes of us chatting about his tier training system and as well as his tortoise training, which is the way that Joe describes how he trains himself. There's a lot of great information about how, why, and where he developed the tier system and as well as you'll get the ins and outs of tortoise training system and what that means. So I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

You mentioned the tier system. People that know you know that you came up with that. When did you realize that that was something that you were going to be able to put out? I mean, obviously you talk about it throughout your career. You're presenting, this is how we do things. But when did it come out that you were like, man, this is really something that other people could implement in their setting, and I'm going to write a book about it? 

I was extremely fortunate-- I was fortunate enough that when I got to Boise State, Coach Thompson exposed me to a lot of sports. I had several other places I could have went, and I actually chose Boise State because it was going to expose me to more sports to coach. Then I was afforded the opportunity of, here's your sports, and you can develop the plan how you see fit. I'm like, oh, wow, wasn't expecting that, to be honest. I thought-- here's how we write programs, so talk about creative freedom right off the bat. 

Here I am, a GA, two years out of coaching high school ball, and off we go. Let's see if you can be a real coach. And that's my first exposure to coaching women athletes. So it was a lot of things thrown out at me in a positive way. And I guess, though, really-- and I don't want to say-- it was the Olympic sports in general, the types of sports I was coaching. I was like, why are we lifting these kids four days a week? Why are we lifting them four days a week? My strength coach was a high-intensity based, which was primarily a three-day-a-week whole-body training, more specifically on specific body part types of things and movement. 

But you were going to do neck. You were going to do calves. You were going to do traps. You were going to do-- how did it usually go? You'd go 15 leg curls, 20 leg press, 20 leg press, 10 to 12 leg extension, 15 calf raise, a four-way neck, Nautilus neck and shoulder, which was a seated trap machine, rotary neck. Then you'd go dumbbell Nautilus pullover, chest deck, lateral raised shoulder press machine. And you'd go down, bicep, tricep, core. We'd do a back extension or something like that. 

And you may go through once. You may go through twice. Then we'd do some free weight work. We'd bench and squat and then do some of that circuit stuff. But we primarily went three days a week and trained the total body. There was a lot of things I thought had a lot of merit towards training athletes, the total body approach in particular. I was always gravitated to the big lifts. We hardly did any Olympic-- I probably did five hang cleans my whole career, five years in college. And that wasn't because the football coaches didn't want it. It was because there was that clash of the football coaches want this, strength coach wanted this, and we got caught in the middle of whatever. 

So I started to look at it from that standpoint of, OK, what do I like as an athlete? What do most athletes I coach-- predominantly, I coach strength power athletes. Regardless of the sport, I don't think they need to go four days a week. [INAUDIBLE] three days a week. That was in the time, too, where people were talking a lot about, you don't need to train isolation movements, which now I think you do based off of building weaknesses and listening to guys like Matt Wenning and trying to stay healthy and resilient. And the extra workouts that we started to evolve into became more of those isolated ancillary-type movements. But the big picture was, OK, we're going to use big structural movements to train these athletes. 

My first year was 1991. I would say the tier system started to become a reality in 1992. And a lot of it was based off of the premise of the heavy, moderate, light days of the three-day-a-week approach. And even though I still say to this day the tier system-- it is a template-based structured rotation of exercises, it has nothing to do with cycling. That's kind of a falsity, because the heavy, moderate, light principle helped build how the tier system structure became a reality. 

Because my thought was, as training and just reading and figuring things out and listening to athletes, the heavy day was too heavy. And at that time, I didn't know anything about dynamic effort. The light day was too light. But the moderate day seemed to be the best work day. You got all your reps. You got quality of work. You didn't miss reps, like the heavy day. And the light day was just a filler. So the question was-- and this is where, when you talk to people who are high-intensity based philosophy, and you talk about, well, I'm training at moderate intensities, and they go, we train all out. 

But that's the difference between, like I've defined, training intensity and intensity of effort. I expect 100% intensity of effort, regardless-- it's just like the focus point of-- whether it's 135 or 500, your intensity of effort and your focus has to be the same, or you're going to get hurt regardless. It's no different than-- they're going one set to max repetitions, so their training intensity is extremely high, and their intensity of effort's extremely high, where we're manipulating loads, but our intensity of effort is the same. 

All the time. 

I'm asking the same question that they are. Can you give me an all-out effort at this load? Because that's where maximum compensatory acceleration comes into play. I want all concentric actions to be explosive. I want all eccentric contractions to be controlled, not-- depending if I want to tempo it. But I always tell people, the easiest way I explain the way I would think a perfect rep would be is, eccentrically, show me how strong you are. Concentrically, show me how explosive you are-- 

Nice. Very good. 

--that if I want to tell you I want a six-count submax eccentric, that's different. But in the quality of it all-- and that goes back to my strength coach, because Arthur-- what was it? Four-count negative, two-count positive, one-count pause, midpoint. That was the standard tempo that-- 


So going back to that, the tier system-- so the process was, if I felt and I saw that the moderate day was the best from an efficiency standpoint of the quality and the abilities of what was accomplished, how can I do that every day? OK, well, if I train one particular movement or category heavy, one moderate, and one light, I get a moderate effect if you're just looking at generalizations of average. It's funny how the terms have come, but heavy, moderate, light is daily undulation. Now, all of a sudden, everybody's, oh, we're on the-- well, anybody who followed Bill Starr or any of the old heavy, moderate, light days-- we were doing daily-- that's why I was saying, we're all-- that's why it's intermixed periodization. Everything we do is a combination of all these-- 

All different. 

--terms we have. So in our case, like I tell people, we're really session-undulated periodization, because we're doing a heavy, moderate, and light movement category in each session-- 

In each session. 

--which then evolved into a maximal- or submaximal-effort lift, a dynamic-effort lift, and a repetitive-effort lift each session, depending on what the goal of that specific cycle was. So now we're taking Zatsiorsky's three methods of strength and putting them in one session. But then the categories move them all through the week. So on Monday, you may have submax-effort power clean. 


Excuse me. On Wednesday, you may have repetitive-effort shrug pull for sixes. And then you're having dynamic-effort hang clean on tier two on Friday. And then you'd have max-effort back squat or submax-effort back squat on Wednesday, dynamic-effort back squat on Monday, and then rear foot elevated squat for volume on Fridays. So that evolved later on. So that was the approach, was to improve variability of movement, look like heavy, moderate, light, adjust loads, add in extra work by adding tiers and just following the rotations. 

So you got a big, structural movement program that ran through a whole-body approach. So now I looked at it like I got the best of both worlds, training three days a week. They're training the whole body. Tempo was important. And then I'll say, hey, we're not going to take 10 minutes to rest like a power lifter, because we're not getting 10 minutes of rest. Tempo became, how can we effectively and efficiently move through this workout with a flow so that we get the best bang for our buck in the least amount of time? So that was '92, '93-- was predominantly done with all Olympic sports. 

And again, I still had to-- in '94, I started working with the football program. And I implemented it here. But now, again, I was still smart enough, and I wasn't at a point in my career where people were just going to-- OK, whatever you want. So we had what was a session A. I still had to figure out, OK, I've got to have this fourth lift. So session A was auxiliary. So all the ancillary work that we needed to get in was on Tuesdays. Later on, that became the Blitz program. When we were at Utah, the head coach at the time was Ron McBride, and the defensive coordinator was Kyle Whittingham, who's the head coach now. 

When we got to Utah was when, finally, a coach was confident. And he came in and goes-- after test, and we had a really good test, he goes, we only lift three days a week, don't we? And I'm like, oh. And I'm saying to myself, here we go. Here we go. No, Coach, we have the auxiliary day. We really lift three days a week. And I go, yeah, we lift three days a week. He goes, I knew you could do it that way. When he said that, it was like, OK, auxiliary day's out. We'll add in fillers. 

And then I had started the Blitz program at Boise State for more rehab-based stuff. And then the Blitz program became an add-on. That was the real-- where you could talk about, like, I write individualized strength programs. When we started getting the screenings, these blitzes became your specific blitz. Get your flexibility, core-- 

This is a thing you need to work on. 

Yeah, this is shoulder. These are the blitzes you need to get in through the week, hamstring, low back. You know what I'm saying. Oh, you just need to get bigger, so you've got to do the big program. 


So that's how that all evolved. But I would say after the '94 season utilizing it with football. And we continued to go-- it got to the point where, again, back then, like I said, you were still writing articles with no references. It was based on how you were doing things like the Boise State way, the Auburn way, the Minnesota way, the Colorado way. 


That was a lot of the articles that were being written back then. So I was like, all right, I'm going to write an article for the NSCA Journal. So we write it. This was going to be-- it got ripped up obviously. You can't do snatch at tier three, this doesn't make no sense. And at the time, Harvey Newton was the president of the NSCA, I believe, and Rich Gray was my assistant at the time. 

Peer-reviewed. And then you look at-- I still say-- I go, peer-reviewed-- I don't see a coach's name on this peer-review. So it's like, where's the coach? Just like even now, you look at some of these-- where's the coach? You've got all these PhDs. Where's the CSCSs? Where's the RSCCs, more importantly? Where are those guys on this board that's supposedly peer-reviewing my stuff? 

So I got-- 1997, man. I get heated. F this. I'm not-- these people don't get it. Woo, woo, woo, woo. And even to this day, the NCAA, let's face it, they're regimented. They're by-the-book things. I'm outside that grid. I appreciate the fact that Harvey had the wherewithal and the foresight to say, hey, we need to see this. So I wasn't going to go and rewrite it. I just was like-- 


--screw it. And Rich was like, no, no, no. And again, Rich has always-- man, he's had my back from 1996. He calls Harvey and goes, Harvey, he's not going to do it. He's pissed. These guys said this. And they're just-- and he goes, no, tell him we need to get this-- I don't know how it was said. I got it back to me where this article needs to be written. 


We need this to be in there. I was like, OK, so what's the problem? Well, you can't do Olympic lifts. You got to do them first. And I go, why? They go, that's protocol. And I go, and what protocol is that? Well, that's weightlifting protocol. Well, I don't train weightlifters. 

Yeah. Well, I'm doing it this way and it's working. 

Yeah. I don't train weightlifters. 


And I'm also smart enough to not pick a super-ridiculous complex movement. I'm just doing a total body lift, or at that point, it was explosive. I changed it to total body when I learned about the dynamic effort method, because then it was you can train any movement explosively based on time and effort and intensity. And then I like-- and I'm going to get the quote specifically because I want to put it into a presentation I'm doing with my power clean technique deal. 

But Todd Hamer who's sharp-- it's amazing how different platforms can affect people. But Todd Hammer is a sharp strength coach. I know a lot of people follow him. But don't let the name on the jersey deter you from thinking that people aren't sharp. I said the same thing about Mark Watts. When Mark Watts left Denison to Elite Fitness, it's amazing how many people listen to Mark Watts when he was saying the same thing at Denison. 

The name on the jersey helps, but don't get it twisted. There's a really tremendous amount of coaches at schools that people don't talk about. 

Never even heard about, probably. 

And I saw with my own growth. Joe Kenn at Boise State versus Joe Kenn at Arizona State, talking the same tier system bullcrap. But guess what, that Arizona State logo sounded at that time-- now, it's about even. Boise State, Arizona State, and how it's looked at. But back then, it wasn't. 


So I said, look, man, I don't train Olympic lifters, I train weightlifters. No set protocol to train athletes. Excuse me, athletes. I don't train weight-- if there was, we'd all be doing it by now. Husker Power is out and, I think, Strength 2.0 or something at that point in time. But at the end of the day, even right now, there is no one way somebody is doing it that's making somebody win more games than the others. 


Yeah, there's a couple of dominant programs, but in the end, they're just out recruiting people. 


So I would say that that was probably what really obviously, catapulted things into a huge ascending ascension, as far as the tier system would be. 1997, when the article was published in The Strength and Conditioning Journal-- it's funny, because it came out-- the day I got the journal with the article in it, my son Peter was being born. And Rich brought it to the hospital and my wife went-- 


Yeah, that's a funny story. Rich tells it way better than I was. I was like, hey, man, we got to-- that's the end of that. 


But, um-- I don't like to say um. I've said it several times today. So then when I went to Utah, like I said, that's when we got rid of the A and just became more of a pure three-day-a-week with blitzes. And then when we got to Arizona State, about that time, Tom Myslinski's thesis had come out on Elite Fitness system-- the Russian conjugate method. 

And that's when I started leaning towards, well, we might be more of a concurrent sequencing model than a conjugated type of deal. And then as I continued to learn about different types of periodization names, that's when it really hit me several years ago. And I said, nobody can really hang their hat. And there's two different types of periodization. There's periodization of the annual plan. 


And then there's periodization of strength. And I think we have to delineate between that. Because sometimes we think we're talking about one when we're actually talking about the other. But periodization the annual plan is laying out your calendar. 


That's not super hard. 


Periodization of strength is, OK, now you're dealing in the nuts and bolts of, what are we doing during the developmental phase of-- during this block? What are we doing? And that's where I looked at the pure definitions with the help of Brandon Marcello and Matt Ray and came into, OK, what does a tier system periodization look like when I'm writing a program? 

Well, there's a little taste of block, there's a little taste of vertical integration, there's a little taste of concurrent. Maybe even a little bit more concurrent, because I believe in the raise-maintain approach that [INAUDIBLE] takes. You could possibly raise two of the three traits at one time. But it'd be hard to raise everything at once, as we know. But what is the combine athlete asked to do this week to display-- 

Every single-- 

--multiple traits raised at the highest level in a three-day period? And it's interesting how people perceive if it can or can't be done. So I termed the coin intermix periodization, because I think that's what I believe everybody in the strength business is really doing. You may be leaning towards one of these names, but in the end, it's a little bit of everything. 

Because, like I said, everybody was doing nonlinear, undulated type of definition programs when you would be doing cleans for speed and power, squats and presses for strength, and then lateral raises and tricep extensions for volume. You were doing that in the 19-whenever. So you've always had it, just that somebody finally figured out, hey, you're training multiple traits and la, la, la, this is high-low, whoo, whoo, whoo, heavy-moderate. 

Now all of a sudden, all the stuff we were doing is undulated-- 

Yep, it's got a name. 

--daily periodization. OK. Well, it was undulated before we knew it was undulated, I guess. 


So then when I got that, that's when-- when I read Tom's deal, that's when I really started thinking about shifting different traits at different levels, writing a cycle. And that's where I talk about basing as much stuff off your running. If I'm going to do high-volume runs-- and I know people-- you can have a debate and I'm not here to debate it. 300-yard shuttles or long distance types of intervals in the beginning of your summer program, where we're going to train repeated effort volume stuff first-- tier one. 

And we're going to do dynamic effort tier three, because I just want to retain a little speed modality. I always felt like you couldn't train sub-max effort or max effort work tier three, because it helps with either/or the repetitive effort or the dynamic effort trait. That was never going to be a tier three exercise. The dynamic effort and the repetitive effort could be one, two, or three, but max effort, sub-max effort was never going to be a three. You're just not going to be it. It has too much relationship to either/or. 

And I didn't think you could have the repetitive effort and the dynamic effort method one right after the other. 


I thought they had to be separated by something. So when that became the deal, that's when it was Ooey and Shy and we were all at ASU. Like, maybe I should write a book. And that year, I think it was 2001 season or 2002 I might have wrote it. In 2003, it was published by Healthy Choice. And it's still gone, man. It's stood the test of time. 

And that's one of the things I learned from a business colleague of mine is, it's repeatable, it's sustainable, and that's why it's successful. Anyone can utilize it at any level, any knowledge of exercise and movement. Just fit to tier. There's total body movements, there's lower body movements, there's upper body movements. Here it is. Pick the ones that are important. I think early on in a lifter's career, your foundation movement should be stable. 

As they progress through your system, that foundation might be a multiple-- it might be a conjugated rotation of several. Hey, for this block, we're going to do this press. For this block, we're going to do this press. For this block, we're going to do this press. And then we'll cycle it back around. Same thing with your squats, same thing with your pulls. 

So it's very-- I call it very user-friendly, because especially at my level where you get guys with different backgrounds, you get guys at different ages-- and it could be big squat Wednesday, but big squat Wednesday to you might be safety bar squat. Big squat Wednesday for me might be pit shark or a belt squat or it might be a machine-loaded squat. And for some cases, it could be a leg press. For others, it could be rear foot elevated squat. Could be a split squat. 

There's numerous different ways to do it. But at the end, we're doing a squat pattern on big squat Wednesday. 


Photo of Scott P. Caulfield, MA, CSCS,*D, TSAC-F,*D, RSCC*E
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Scott P. Caulfield, MA, CSCS,*D, TSAC-F,*D, RSCC*E

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Photo of Joseph G. Kenn, MA, CSCS,*D, RSCC*E
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Joseph G. Kenn, MA, CSCS,*D, RSCC*E

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Joe Kenn the Vice President of Performance Education for Dynamic Fitness and Strength and the Owner of Big House Power Competitive Athletic Training. ...

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