Interview with Joe Kenn

Coach Kenn was one of my first influences on strength training planning and programming and still continues to be of huge influence. Coach Kenn’s book on Tier System (The Coach’s Strength Training Playbook) is always with me and I have been using its tables extensively in the last couple of months. In my opinion, and in opinion of many other fellow coaches, this book is a must have in your library. I re-read it every couple of years and I always learn something new. Hell, I might re-read it after this interview and hopefully will motivate you to read (or re-read) it as well. Ok, enough of my ranting – let’s pick coach Kenn’s brain a little bit.

Mladen: Coach Kenn I am really glad you find time to do this interview. I have been planning contacting you and thanking you for the great influence you and your book had on my strength training philosophy, so I will you this opportunity to thank you for writing it. As with all interviews I do, I would love you share some fact about who you are, what you do and what are your plans for the future.

Joe: Mladen, 1st I want to thank you for being such a strong supporter of our System of training. I never thought that this project would have generated such a positive response in our field.2nd, please don’t cut yourself short.I have read everything I have seen on the internet that you have written and appreciate you “absorbing”, “modifying”, and “applying” the things you have learned and developing your own path.

I have lived a blessed life having never truly “worked” a single day.It is the ultimate feeling.I wake up and get to do what my passion and love is everyday with some of the finest athletes in the world.I am currently the strength and conditioning coach for a NFL team.This to me is the ultimate opportunity and the pinnacle of my career.

My future plans are simple.1 – To work hard at being the best husband I can be to my wife and a better father to my sons.2 – To provide a system that “Protects and Produces” for the athletes.My goal is to develop programs and relationships with my athletes that protects their “body armor” and reduces the chance of injury as well as produces positive physiological and psychological improvements in their athletic abilities.And yes, I have I outlines, notebooks, and presentations just waiting to be put into a new book.

Mladen: What motivated you to create The Tier System and write a book about it? When did everything start and where is the system evolving at the moment? What did you change over time and what do you use now? Do you plan writing updated version?

Joe: The motivation was simple, to develop a plan based on training athletes.Everything I was exposed to at the onset of my career were programs that were swayed by the strength disciplines of weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding.I wasn’t training those athletes.I was training American football players, basketball players, tennis players etc.I felt there was a need to evaluate what the strength disciplines brought to athletic based strength training and to devise a program that would possibly better serve the athletes I trained.I did not believe in training a sport with another sports protocol.

The program was developed in 1992 while I was a graduate assistant at Boise State University.There are many things that have changed based on the practical research done in my labs [4 universities, 1 private performance center and 1 NFL team].The integrity of the program is the structured rotation of the individual training sessions.This is what I refer to as the “Template”.The training session order of movements will not be sacrificed.With that said we are experimenting right now with a slightly different rotation of the Tier structure that can help in overall duration of the training session and stay within the means and order of movements.

The biggest changes are coming in the lower tiers, tiers 4 and 5 as well as the addition of a neck tier, and the posterior chain and posterior shoulder tiers.These are all done in what I call a medley fashion. The definition of a medley is a mixture of various types of elements.I liked this term instead of calling it a circuit.We are experimenting right now with great success the medley starting the session as Pre Activity Preparation if the athlete is beginning the training session without a running component preceding it.

We also do multiple movements within Tiers 1-3.Upper Body Tiers primarily will always be Pull/Push supersets, Lower Body Tiers could include a prehab/mobility movement and now include a Stabilization movement for the Power Zone (core), and the Total Body Tiers could include a jump and now include a Rotational movement for the Power Zone.

Our biggest emphasis is on density.The amount of work we can get done efficiently in the least amount of time.We have recorded our athletes completing over 60 sets of work in less than 60 minutes.Just this week on a Session L workout our athletes completed 47 sets of work between 43-52 minutes.

I have planned for some time now to right an updated addition to the Coach’s Strength Training Playbook and I am always glad I didn’t because I always like the new stuff we were doing. I feel now may be the time to start getting this material in order.

Mladen: Since Tier System is percent based training system, how do you assess maximum strengths (1RM) and how often? What do you do after each cycle with 1RM scores – do you re-test them or increase them ala Wendler in his 5/3/1? How do you plan maximums for assistance lifts like lunges or DB Bench Presses?

Joe: We determine training maximums every cycle in which we have 3 or 4 weeks of work.The movements that are trained for a “maximum” are usually Tier 1 movements and possibly some supplemental Tier 2 movements.We rotate several movements and utilize the data for each cycle that pertains to the specific movement.I am not familiar with the 5/3/1 progressions so I cannot answer if what we do is similar.

Generally, for strength mobility movements similar to the ones you mentioned we will set ranges for workloads and utilize my new Volume Accumulation Training cycles for our progressive overload.

Mladen: There is a big debate about percent based vs. auto-regulatory training and their effectiveness in both biological and behavioral way. What are your thoughts about it? How do you implement flexibility (day-to-day fluctuation in readiness of the athletes) and how do you adjust the percentages and programs overall to suit different level of the lifters (i.e. beginners, intermediate and advanced)?

Joe: Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I always reserve the right to be wrong.I like using percentages because it gives us a guide, but I am not afraid to go “OTS” [off the script].I watch my athletes very carefully and more importantly I speak to them and ask pertinent questions that can help me determine what type of day it may be.If we have to shut it down, then we shut it down.

Using Prilipen’s Chart is the simplest way for me to adjust for level of lifters.I have formulated my own rules based on this chart that allows me to manipulate training volumes as athletes progress through our quadrennial plan while I was working in the college setting.

Mladen: When it comes to in-season lifting, how do you modify the programs? What happens with percentages, volume and frequencies of the lifts? How do you avoid soreness and heavy legs with the athletes?

Joe: The main modifications come in overall training volume.The weight room is secondary to the sport they play so; I always have that in the back of my mind.Football is first, and I need them to have a pretty full gas tank for competitions.Percentages are swayed based on the athletes playing time.We train primarily for dynamic effort for the lower and total body during the season, so soreness from weight workouts in almost nonexistent.Our athletes do a tremendous job with the various restoration means we have available to them.


In-season strength training is tricky, but very important

Mladen: I see most coaches fall in love with complex approach (or contrast) where one combines strength work with explosive and unloaded movements to utilize PAP (post-activation potentiation) phenomena. In your opinion, is this approach better than “traditional” one, where one address speed/power away from strength training in short and long term?

Joe: Better, who knows, but I love doing Total Body movements complexing with Jumping in our program as well as substituting traditional total body movements, variations of the Olympic lifts with jumping movements.

Mladen: When it comes to Olympic lifting what are your thought on them for the athletes? Does the time to learn/teach them justify their training potential effect? Could this time be better used for something else?

Joe: I believe you must ask yourself if the movement is applicable to your situation.If it is, then implement it, if it’s not, don’t.It’s that simple.You are a coach, which means you are a teacher, so teach them how to perform the movement correctly.I am sorry but it takes time to learn how to squat and bench press properly too!Or run, or jump, or land, or throw etc., etc., etc.


Mladen: Over the years, how much did the athletes improve in strength performances and how much does this correlate with speed/power performance and injury occurrence? What lift did you find most correlates (transfers) with these aspects?

Joe: Overall Maximum Strength will lead to explosive strength and lean body mass gains.The leaner an athlete is the more efficient in movement he is.The more explosive an athlete is the better chance they have to be able to improve starting and reactive strength abilities.You must get them stronger first.That is my opinion, and that all starts with relative strength, the ability to handle you own load before adding external loading.

We have had tremendous success where ever we have been implementing our program and seeing tremendous athletic measurable improvements in our athletes’ overall athleticism.It is not my role to prepare them for the specifics of their sport.That is where the problem lies.We may do are jobs but if the athlete does not improve his specific skills with his sport coach, we may never see the overall transfer to the field of play.

I do not believe there is a specific lift.You want to be a great squatter, squat.You want to get better shooting free throws, shoot free throws.It is a synergistic relationship between GPP and SPP coaches that will allow for individual athlete success.

I believe transfer starts with intent.What is your intent?Our intent is to train every movement with maximum concentric acceleration regardless. On movements that have an eccentric component, we want athletes to show us how strong they are by controlling the load.This will help improve eccentric strength that is imperative to developing the stabilizers of the movement as well and helping in the deceleration of movement that is pertinent to their sport actions.

Mladen: Thank you very much for the insights coach Kenn. I am looking forward to more info from you and I wish you all the best.

Joe: Thank you and the very best to all.WORDS WIN!

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