8 Ways to Improve Your Ultimate Team’s Strength and Conditioning Training

Photo by John King for UltiPhotos

With the sport of ultimate frisbee still being relatively young, its levels of training and professionalism may understandably lag behind those of other sports—after all, there isn’t the money in ultimate to make full-time training feasible. But that doesn’t mean that ultimate teams should settle for using generic fitness programs for their strength and conditioning work. It’s still possible to create an ultimate-specific training program to improve your team’s athleticism.

In this post, Anna Kilbourn talks us through how you can your team’s workouts more effective specifically for the sport of ultimate.

1. Make your exercises specific to ultimate

Ultimate is a unique sport with unique movements.  If you are doing a general program, such as StrongLifts 5x5 or CrossFit, or a program designed for a ‘’similar’’ sport, you are not training for ultimate. The same goes for long runs, endurance training, or running a marathon. When in a game do you run for miles in a straight line at a steady pace?

You may be benefiting from general improvements in your fitness level, but you won’t be able to maximize your burst speed, cutting angles, agility, or conditioning with one of these programs. The benefit of a general program decreases with the abilities of the athlete—the more skilled your team is, the more sport specific your training program needs to be.

An unfit team may benefit greatly from this kind of regular fitness programming, but an elite team or any player looking to focus solely on ultimate should be performing sport-specific training. Even actions like looking for a disc while running, something that a standard track workout won’t give you, can be beneficial.

2. Set clear goals

Does your program have specific goals? If you don’t know what you want to accomplish, you’ll never get there. Does your team need to work on conditioning to get through long points and sustain intensity over the whole weekend? Do you need to work on burst speed to improve initiation cuts? Do you have a lot of beginners who need to develop a base level of fitness and strength?  

Working generally towards “fitness” will only get you so far. Work out what your team and its individuals lack and target specific improvement in these areas.

3. Use multi-directional movement

A great athlete is able to move with strength, power, and control in multiple planes. There are 3 standard planes of movement: sagittal, frontal, and transverse. Many standard workout exercises all occur primarily in the same plane of movement, the sagittal plane: squats, front lunges, deadlifts, cleans, snatch, jerk, overhead press. This might make your team great at jumping straight up or running straight forward, but will have limited applications in a game scenario.

There are plenty of simple multi-directional movement exercises you can incorporate into strength and conditioning workouts. Many, like the video below, are obvious replications of in-game movements you might use when guarding a cutter, for example.

4. Include single leg training

Running, changing direction, jumping while on the run—all of these movements occur on one limb. Even throwing primarily depends on one leg over the other. Many common team training programs, especially CrossFit programs, utilize primarily training on two legs—this includes most traditional squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatch, jerk, press... The majority of these movements could be modified to single leg, but often aren’t. Take the time to find single-leg modifications, like in the video below, and add them into your program.

5. Prepare properly

A lot of players jump into a heavy strengthening or power training program without the appropriate preparation or mobility screening. How do you determine if your team is ready for strength training? Power training? How about conditioning? How often does your team have injuries due to your training regime?

One thing that most programs lack is some kind of pre-screening for mobility restrictions or severe movement pattern issues that will cause problems when you load them up in your training program.

6. Periodize

Periodization is a standard part of programs that are based in exercise science. Periodization means, essentially, that the program is divided into appropriate phases. Volume and intensity of training are managed to help your team peak in their fitness abilities at appropriate times throughout the season. In the last few years, triggered by the popularity of at home workouts like P90X and Insanity and reaching a peak with CrossFit, many fitness programs have gone to a ‘muscle confusion’ protocol where they continue to throw new and different exercises at the body.

The UAP consists of several phases that allow athletes to build towards an ultimate goal and peak at the right time. Try it for yourself today!

The body improves fitness through adaptation—breaking down and building up specific muscles and mechanisms, but these new fitness programs give the body limited chances to determine what to adapt to, so you will get a little bit of everything instead of accomplishing your specific goals. This might help with body composition, but it won’t make you an inherently better ultimate player.

7. Individualize

Each player comes to a team with a different background, especially when it comes to lifting and fitness. There are huge benefits to working out as a team and doing the same routine: team bonding, mental toughness, developing social relationships, and being accountable to your team among others!

However, many programs are so intense and time consuming that there is no space for players to work on their individual needs. They also must take into account players at each end of the athletic spectrum - so the work out usually ends up being at the average level of the team. This means your fittest athletes might not be fully challenged, and your less-fit athletes could be at risk for injury. Consider having some dedicated time to ‘pods’ where players could work on what they need the most, be it injury rehabilitation, mobility, base strength, or conditioning. These could still be done in groups and at the level appropriate for different teammates.

8.    Incorporate recovery time

College teams especially will often have a huge training load with workouts scheduled on top of practices and tournaments. Recovery is a key part of a strong program because it is during recovery that you build muscle and your body actually performs the adaptation that you are attempting to stimulate via your training program. Also, over-training can have very serious side effects. Recovery doesn’t have to mean sitting on the couch all day. It might include gentle yoga, stretching, or other mobility exercises, a light interval jog, foam rolling, or walking the dog.

Follow these tips to take your ultimate team’s training to the next level!

Anna Kilbourn is a licensed physical therapist and certified ABPTS Orthopedic Clinical Specialist working in sports medicine, with special expertise in acute injury management, post operative treatment, and working with female athletes. She has been playing ultimate for 15 years, including recently as a member of the Detroit Riveters. Anna strives to combine her intimate knowledge of the sport with up to date medical evidence in order to help ultimate players become better athletes, take care of their bodies, and recover faster from injuries.

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