5 Questions with Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS

Recently I had the opportunity to interview my good friend, and former classmate, Joe Giandonato. It was a huge opportunity. I’ve been picking his brain for years–the dude’s managed to store an encyclopedia’s worth of strength and conditioning info in his cranium. But Joe’s not just a walking knowledge center, he can apply his knowledge. Joe get’s athletes better; I’m ever-impressed by this guy.



Todd: I know you see a lot of different athletes from a laundry list of sports, how do you manage all of them? How do you employ the basics and get each multi-sport athlete what they need?


Joe: One of the challenges that high school strength and conditioning coaches face is how to properly design and implement a training program for a multisport athlete. At smaller high schools and private preparatory institutions, a student-athlete competing in a different sport is quite commonplace. In this scenario, strength coaches may allow sport coaches, recruiters, student-athletes and their parents dictate the program’s design. For instance, the football coach may want his players to perform a certain series of exercises, perhaps believing that they will improve performance on the field, whereas the basketball, baseball, or lacrosse coaches may suggest something contradictory to the football coach’s beliefs on improving athletic performance. Remember, as a strength and conditioning coach, you’re the expert. And while your say may not universally resonate with everyone in the athletic department, it’s your responsibility to ensure that all of the student-athlete’s coaches are on the same page.


Designing an effective strength and conditioning program for a multi-sport athlete shouldn’t be that great of a challenge if you cover the basics. Here are some main points to consider if you’re a strength coach dealing with a multisport athlete.


Develop a foundational work capacity


Work capacity was defined by the late Mel Siff as “the general ability of the body as a machine to produce work of different intensity and duration using the appropriate energy systems of the body”. Essentially, you need to develop a firm infrastructure of interrelated fitness components such as aerobic endurance and muscular strength and endurance before you can cultivate appreciable gains in performance related biomotor abilities, such as power, speed, agility, coordination, and balance. Although many multisport athletes boast stellar conditioning as they are active year round, those embarking on playing multiple sports during their high school years must begin getting as much activity as possible.


Get Strong and Keep Getting Stronger


Establishing strength is of the utmost importance in youth and adolescent athletes. A strength coach’s primary responsibility at the high school level is to introduce resistance training to athletes of any and every sport. Gains in strength can be achieved spite of gender, hormonal, and maturational differences. Bodyweight exercises, performed isometrically, should be introduced first. Exercises such as glute bridges, planks, and squats should be introduced first as they involve bracing. Once bracing is mastered is safe to introduce movement. Progressing should be appropriate, mainly hinging on the student-athlete’s improvements and desire to improve. I would not add external load until the athlete is proficient with bodyweight exercises, performing them through a full range of motion seamlessly. Planar progressions should also be appropriate. If your athlete cannot perform a bodyweight squat (sagittal plane), what makes you think they’ll be able to pull off a movement in the tranverse plane, such as a rotational lunge? Coaches should keep building on the progress they’re making with bodyweight exercises and when they’re ripe enough, expose them to loaded exercises.


Simplify the Movements Used


Teach them how to hinge, squat, push, and pull properly and the rest will fall into place. Do not take the disjointed training approach that some strength and conditioning coaches fall victim to. That approach has athletes training in one manner during one season and in an entirely different manner the next. To ensure continued progress, adherence, and keeping your program from going stale, rotate similar movements, drawing from a bank of hip dominant, quad dominant, bilateral, unilateral, horizontal pulling and pressing variations, vertical pulling and pressing variations. You get the idea. Transition from one movement to another, load it appropriately, transition again, and repeat.


Intensity > Volume


Multisport athletes at your school likely have a schedule that’s busier than yours. Limit training sessions to 30-45 minutes tops, especially if they’re in season. In conjunction with your school’s athletic trainer, if you’re fortunate enough to have one, prescribe them corrective and restorative modalities that they can do on their own, such as stretching and self myofascial release. Provide and demonstrate a quick warm up for them that can performed on their own immediately before meeting with you. After they’re warmed up, turn down the volume and dial in the intensity. Achieving momentary muscular fatigue, or concentric failure, within any rep range should not be the goal here, instead getting them to give a concerted effort on all of their movements is critical here.


Reduce the amount of agility, speed, and conditioning work performed


If they’re in season, it wouldn’t be wise to further drive them into the ground with an assortment of redundant speed and agility drills and conditioning work. Instead, along with the input from their sport coach, you can help them work on skills, such as footwork in practice that will carry over to their sport.


Working with multi-sport athletes is a fun and rewarding challenge that will definitely test you as a coach. Establishing and implementing an effective strength and conditioning program for the year round is not the logistical impossibility that many make it out to be.


Todd: In keeping with the same subject line, how do train good motor patterns and employ cues?


Joe: A critical aspect of what we do as strength and conditioning coaches is helping our athletes perfect their motor patterns. As coaches, we must possess a thorough understanding of the interrelated sensory inputs (visual, somatosensory, and vestibular) which impact movement. The cohesive interaction of these aforementioned systems results in what we would deem as proper or efficient movement that exhibits complete body control.


The visual input, includes two types of vision – central and peripheral. Central vision provides the occipital lobe feedback on the environmental condition (which may widely vary) and motion of surrounding objects. An example that would apply most readily to this definition would be a running back or receiver in the open field trying to evade tacklers while not colliding with his blockers and running out of bounds. The feedback provided to the brain is rapid, with signals traveling from the eyes to the occipital lobe within fractions of a millisecond. Peripheral vision detects the motion of the individual in relation to the changing environment around them. To make an exercise more challenging we could have them perform it with their eyes closed. Many advanced trainees and high level athletes would have no problem


The somatosensory input is gathered by mechanoreceptors, such as Golgi tendon organs, which detect tension, Pacinian Corpsucles, which detect pressure, and muscle spindles – bundles of intrafusal fibers that detect length changes in the muscle, and sensory receptors in the skin that detect touch. Collectively these receptors provide the CNS necessary feed-forward information which dispenses kinesthetic feedback, such as proprioception and body awareness.


Lastly, vestibular input is gathered by vestibular organs which are replete with fluid and rimmed with cilia that connect to nerves that provide the CNS afferent information, helping it interpret and adjust to multidirectional movement of the cranium.


Taking into consideration the complex inner workings of sensory inputs, coaches should have their athletes keep a steady head with their eyes fixed on a certain object throughout the duration of a newly executed movement. Neutrality of the craniocervical and lumbar regions needs to be established and maintained throughout compound movements, while simultaneous dissociation of thoracic and hip movements needs to be instructed. Proper cuing is imperative to engender desired voluntary movements. Cues need to be kept as simple as possible for youth and adolescent athletes. Their attention spans are notoriously short, so if you overload them with cues, don’t expect a favorable movement outcome.


If I’m introducing a new movement, I’ll demonstrate it first, breaking down each phase of the movement in a few key points. Since I am usually teaching it in a group setting, I’ll coach an athlete through the movement in front of other athletes to see it. If I’m coaching the push press, I’ll show them how to begin the movement.


“Grip the bar tight, wrap the thumbs, big chest, fix the eyes”.


I’ll instruct them to grip the bar as tight as possible, ensuring that a neutral wrist is established by co contracting the wrist flexors and extensors, which will keep the forearms vertical. By cuing them to get a big chest, they’ll be able to create a shelf to get the bar out of the rack and maintain it in the high rack position. I’ll have them lock eyes with an object in front of them so they don’t lose balance. I may set visually inclined learners in front of the mirror, but I prefer to teach my athletes how to perform a lift without a mirror initially.


“Inhale, brace the core, unrack the bar, steady the hips and set the feet”


The next chunk of cues deals with effectively getting the bar out of the rack safely. Keeping the core musculature tight will help buffer the anterior load of the bar. Getting the hips and feet set will provide the athlete a solid base of support to launch movement.


“Dip the hips back, bend the knees, drive ‘em back up, press, exhale”.


This series of cues helps them get their hips set for the movement. Push presses involve a slight bend in the hips and knees and are initiated with hip movement. They are finished with a press.


I’ll also go over nuances such proper head movement and breathing with them before and throughout the lift. I’ll explain the rationale for doing so after the lift or if one of my athletes has a question.


In summary, in order to teach proper movement you need to have an understanding of the sensory inputs and how to manipulate each through a series of cues to garner a favorable result. Cues should be kept simple and easy to understand. There’s no need to go over the history of the lift and bore your athletes with complex biomechanics of the lift. Provide alternative cues if necessary. Relate the cues to sporting activities or activities of daily living that your athletes either engage in regularly or are familiar with.


I have found that in most cases, cuing properly will clean up crappy movement in a hurry. Far too many coaches rely on rather time consuming screening protocols for weeding out muscular imbalances. While, I find the value in movement assessments, corrective regressions and performance based progressions, it is nearly impossible to screen hundreds of kids throughout the course of a season if you’re the only coach. You can usually fix this on the fly if you pay close attention to the way they’re performing the lift.  Once you determine the issue, or issues, modify the movement to the athlete’s leverages and strengths.


Todd: What about the Olympic lifts? Do you use them, and if so, for which sports?


Joe: I am a big fan of the Olympic lifts. Although movements such as plyometric exercises and med ball tosses can replicate the level of force development of Olympic lifts to a degree, I feel they fall short in carryover to sport. I should preface that Olympic lifts primarily develop force in the sagittal plane and are not appropriate for rotational athletes, such as baseball players, quarterbacks, those who play racquet sports and golfers. Also they are not appropriate for congenitally lax individuals. The distraction forces of the movements, especially when appreciably loaded can further destroy the integrity of connective tissue structures.  Additionally, if I’m working with a successful collegiate or professional athlete who hasn’t been exposed to the Olympic lifts, I more than likely won’t introduce them at this stage in their athletic careers.


Strength and conditioning coaches should view Olympic lifting as an investment. They require exhaustive coaching and years to master, however, the yield a great impact on improving athletic performance. They summate more force than any other series of movements and require excellent body control. Introduce Olympic lifts to athletes early in their careers and have them pattern the movements and perform the lifts and their progression first in the workout while your athletes are the freshest.


Unfortunately, many coaches ascribe to the traditionalist belief that Olympic lifts are omnipotent and everyone must do them. I’ve talked to some collegiate baseball players and a few tennis players who compete in college who told me that cleans and barbell snatches are cornerstones of their strength training programs. More often than not, the amount of weight used takes precedence over good technique. Peruse YouTube and you’ll see hundreds of videos displaying horrid form. I’m not one of these coaches who preach that kids should keep loading weight on the bar set after set and week after week. I don’t set minimum testing standards. I only care about two things – body control and bar speed.


I have adopted two tests over the years to that help me gauge an athlete’s physical readiness before I begin teaching them the Olympic lifts and their variants.


Full “Hands On” Squat


The first test calls for the athlete to assume a hip width stance before descending to a squat position. They must keep their hips lower than their knees without compensatory movement at the lumbosacral region. They must then extend the arms downward inside their legs and palm the floor sans thoracic flexion. If they can successfully hold this position for five seconds, give them a pass.


Counterbalance Drop Squat


The second test involves a light external load which is held in front of the body. The amount of weight used is determined by the athlete’s strength level. For instance, incoming freshman football players who are pretty strong might only hold a 10 pound plate in front of them. Stronger athletes, such as upperclassmen and varsity football players might use the same weight or hold two ten pound plates outstretched in front of them. The goal here is to rapidly descend into a full squat without compensation patterns. If this can be achieved successfully you can progress them to dumbbell snatches and full squat cleans with the bar.



Todd: I know you’ve done a lot of research on concussions and neck training. What gives? What works and what doesn’t?


A concussion is medically defined as a multifaceted pathophysiological process which affects the brain via traumatic biomechanical forces. A direct blow to the head or a sudden blow to the body which rapidly jostles the cervicocranial region causes the brain to shake. Research has suggested that neck training may reduce the forces that the brain is subjected to during injury, thereby reducing the severity of the concussion, or perhaps eliminating the occurrence of one altogether. Stronger and larger necks and hypertrophied muscles of the shoulder girdle, including the trapezius might help defray some of the forces imposed on the brain. Isometric neck and trapezius strength may also help stave off brachial plexus injuries, commonly known as stingers or burners, which occur when there is a direct blow to the shoulder, or due to traction (head pushed in one direction, while the shoulder is pulled in another, which overstretches the neurovascular structures emanating from the plexus) or compressive forces (when the head and shoulder are forced together, impinging those neurovascular structures).


Luckily, not much time or equipment is needed to effectively train the musculature of the neck and trapezius. I’d first work on range of motion and loosening up the levator scapulae, which when tightened, emits a strong upward pull on the shoulder, adversely affecting scapulohumeral rhythm and possibly triggering neck pain. Next, I’d recommend performing some isometric holds for ten to fifteen seconds, in cervical retraction to stimulate the deep cervical flexors which provide the cervical spine segmental stability. I’ll then progress to iso lateral flexion, where I’ll focus on having the athlete resist lateral flexion. I’ll incorporate iso leans, where I’ll position my hand on the crown of the athlete’s head and gently resist them as they drive their head back. For extension exercises you should only go 25 degrees to adequately stimulate the neck extensors. Then I’ll move onto isometric neck flexion, where I’ll position my hand across their forehead as they nod their head downward about 10 degrees tucking the chin down in the direction of the chest.


These exercises can be performed from a quadruped, or bulldog position, progressed to half kneeling position to a tall kneeling position. At this point, you can regress them back on the ground and have them perform low grade dynamic work, mildly applying manual resistance. In these instances, the neck should be taken through a full range of motion – full lateral flexion (ear to shoulder), full rearward extension (25 degree tilt), full forward flexion (10 degree tilt). The concentric should be accentuated – spend 2 – 3 seconds on each repetition, but don’t overload your athlete with resistance. Communicate with your athlete the entire time and let them know what to expect before you attempt manual neck exercises on them. You may begin incorporating lateral rotation and protrusion as well, however, given the delicate structure of the cervical spine, it’s probably best not to load these movements for a while.


Shrugs can be performed isometrically as well. I really love the one armed underhanded dumbbell shrug iso or barbell shrug isos pulling against bands. If you’re working with a team, be sure they knock out all of the neck and trap work either before their workout or during their prehab.


Todd: So here comes the big question. I know you’ve used Supreme Strength with some of your athletes. As a strength coach, how did it go for you? How did your athletes respond? Did you like what you saw?

Joe: Ordinarily, I don’t endorse training systems to athletes and other coaches as they the information and programming they contain seem redundant. However, I was blown away! The product that you and Gags created is a marvelous resource for athletes, sport coaches, and relevantly strength and conditioning coaches. Supreme Strength is a compendium of useful information, exercises, and coaching cues. I liken Supreme Strength as a crash course in strength and conditioning, covering the basics such as tissue care, stability, strength, and power development. I was also thrilled that you and Gags mapped out a number of programming options, which I immediately implemented with several of my athletes and one of my personal training clients.


In all, four of my athletes participated, each hailing from a different sport, which included swimming, football, track, and lacrosse. My personal training client is a former collegiate football player who plays basketball on a regular basis.


My swimmer increased their pull ups by 6 repetitions by in a five week period. My football player, who will be playing college football this year, boosted his bench press from 240 pounds to 270 pounds in six weeks and sliced time off his 40 yard dash while increasing his broad jump and vertical by a combined 5 inches. My track athlete who runs 1500 meter events was finally able to quell the IT band issues and lateral knee pain they were riddled with throughout the beginning of the school year within four weeks. My lacrosse player jumped from doing sets of squats with 135 to 185 within the same time frame. Lastly, my client added three inches to his vertical jump and 40 pounds to his bench press in six weeks.


I am a firm believer in the system that you and Gags created and I look forward to many more contributions from your great coaching minds. I would suggest that athletes and sport coaches give Supreme Strength a serious look. Furthermore, busy  strength coaches who are boggled down with training all day and meeting with coaches and administrators could start outsourcing some of the programming to the programs you and Gags put together.

Todd: Wow, Joe! Those are incredible results and it’s flattering that you chose to use Supreme Strength with your athletes. There’s no bigger compliment than a great coach trusting your programming with their athletes. It means a lot, my friend.

Joe, I want to thank you for your time man. This has been a great interview–incredibly informative. You’re the man, let’s catch up soon and hoist some iron.

Joe: Sounds great, Todd! Thanks again for the opportunity!


Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS, is the head strength and conditioning coach at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Pa and an adjunct instructor of exercise science and physical education at area community colleges. He has authored numerous articles on a wide variety of topics, including injury prevention, nutrition and improving athletic performance. (2618)

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Todd Bumgardner
M.S./ CSCS/ Owner of Beyond Strength Performance/ Ginger
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