Team handball is an Olympic sport which is played worldwide and is highly developed in many European countries (14). In the past decade, the Danish men's handball team has been ranked as one of the world's leading national handball teams after winning (a) the European Championship in 2008 and 2012, (b) the silver medal in the World Championship in 2011, and (c) the Olympic gold medal in Rio 2016. The physical demands imposed on national teams during international tournaments (e.g., the Olympics) with several matches in a compressed period, and the number of substitutes reduced from 16 to 14 players, means that fewer players have to cover the physical load during matches, and the high match frequency means less time for recovery between matches. Thus, the physical challenge in an Olympic tournament requires a significant physical preparation to improve recovery capacity, reduce incidence of injuries, and compete successfully (17).
However, there is a large diversity of programs and models for training and preparations, and it is difficult to pin point the optimal set-up. In this context, this case report may function as a plausible approach because we report what was actually done by the Danish men's handball team—a team ranked as one of the world's leading national handball teams—before the Olympics in Beijing 2008.
The purpose of this case report is therefore to describe and analyze the effect of the strength and conditioning training performed by the Danish national handball team in an 8-week preparation period leading up to the Beijing Olympics 2008 and to evaluate this as a possible preparation model for upcoming tournaments.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
The strength and conditioning programs and testing were performed by Team Denmark, the Danish Elite Sport Institution in cooperation with the Danish Handball Federation. A range of tests performed before the preparation period (pretest) evaluated the strength and conditioning level of each player. A field-testing set-up was chosen to be able to operate in an elite setting with change of training sites and minimum time for testing. Tests included measurements of body composition, aerobic and anaerobic power and capacity, explosive muscle strength, maximal dynamic strength, and agility performance. Based on descriptive data obtained over several years of testing the Danish national handball team and results obtained from the above-mentioned pretest reference values were created. When the individual pretest results were compared to these reference values, physical performance profiles for each player were calculated. Thus, on behalf of each player pretest results, strength and weaknesses were identified, and training goals were set for each player. In addition, a mean value for each test was calculated, and each player was advised to score at least mean level in each test, when tested after the training period. The main purpose of this approach was to increase the performance level of the poorest conditioned players—bring them closer to or above the team mean. Individual and specific performance characteristics above the mean, in the different performance tests, were seen as positive features for the specific handball player. During this process, if a player tested lower than the mean value in more than 1 performance area (i.e., muscle mass, maximal and explosive muscle strength, speed and agility on one hand, and on the other aerobic and anaerobic power and capacity), then he was given first priority to improve aerobic and anaerobic power and capacity and second priority to speed, strength etc. The pretesting was followed by interviews with all players to assess each player's own ambitions and expectations to their individual physical performance level and then finally to combine and align these inputs with the wishes from the head coach to be able to fulfill his overall playing strategy for the Olympics (i.e., playing style, tactics etc.). These subjective inputs were taken into consideration to further individualize the strength and conditioning programs.
Nineteen players (age: 29.5 ± 4.0 years, range: 20.9 – 36.2 years, body mass: 94.0 ± 6.6 kg, height: 1.89 ± 5 m) from the male Danish national handball team chosen to compete in the Beijing Olympic Games were included in this case report. The players completed their competition season just 2 months before starting the national team preparations for the Olympics. Until then, they have been following recovery and training programs in their respective clubs. The training level can be quantified by the pretest data shown in Table 3. A large variation is seen and therefore showing that some players were relatively well conditioned when entering, others may have been heavily taxed by a long season and therefore showing relatively poor condition at the pretesting.
This case report was, by the local ethical committee, categorized as an ethical nonnotifiable project because it deals with methods and tests, which are already included in the daily work with the national team and therefore normal practice for the included players. In addition, the National Danish Handball Federation has given informed consent to this respective case report.
Players performed 2 similar batteries of tests before and after the 8-week training period. Some players were not tested because of injury or anxiety of getting injured specifically by the 1 repetition maximum (1RM) testing before the Olympics. The pretesting was conducted 10 weeks before the Olympics and the posttesting after a minimum of 48 hours of rest after completion of the final strength and conditioning session. Players were asked to consume a typical meal at least 2–3 hours before scheduled testing time. Moreover, all testing sessions within the preprogram and postprogram were conducted under same conditions and at the same time of the day. Most of the players were already familiar with the tests because they were a part of the national team set-up. Those who were not familiar with the tests were familiarized before testing. Furthermore, before each test, the players performed a general warm-up, and players were allowed to add to this if needed. The warm-up was then standardized between pretesting and posttesting. Testing was performed on 2 consecutive days with rest in between tests and in the chronological sequence listed below.
- Body composition measurement of height, body mass, and skinfolds.
- Explosive muscle strength of the lower limbs using countermovement jump (CMJ) with hands on hips and jump-and-reach (JR) test with 3-step run up.
- Agility performance using the T-test, including forward-backward and sideways running (1).
- Maximum dynamic strength using 1 repetition maximum bench press (1RMBP) and 1 repetition maximum back squat (1RMBS).
- Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test, level 2 (YYIR2); 2 times 20 m including a quick turn, 10 seconds of recovery with increasing speed, and repeated until exhaustion (10).
Body Composition Measurement
The body composition variables of height (m), body mass (kg), body fat (%), and fat-free mass (FFM) (kg) were measured in each player. Body mass was measured to the nearest 0.1 kg using an electronic scale (Soehnle—professional; Soehnle, Bachnang, Germany), and height was measured to the nearest 0.001 m using a stadiometer (Seca Corp., Chino, CA, USA). Skinfold thickness at 4 sites (biceps, triceps, subscapular, and suprailiaca) was measured using a Harpend caliper (Harpenden, UK), and percentage body fat was calculated from these measurements using the equation of Durnin and Womersley (6).
Countermovement Jump Test
CMJs were performed on a contact mat (Newtest Oy, Oulu, Finland). Players were instructed to place their hands on the hips and to land on the contact mat in a position similar to that of take-off. The depth of the CMJ was self-selected and should represent each player's optimal depth for maximal jump height. The players were allowed for 30 seconds of rest between each attempt, 3 in total and the highest jump measured being used for further analysis.
The JR test was determined by a Vertec device (SwiftPerformance, Wacol, Australia), with a 3-step run up. Before starting the JR test, players standing reach height was measured (the point marked by the fingertips, with the arm fully extended upward and heels on the ground). Then, the players performed a 3-step run up toward the Vertec, followed by a single-legged jump with arm swing. To calculate vertical jump height, the difference between standing height reached by the fingertips on the Vertec and the highest jump and reach was measured. Players had 3 attempts, with 1-minute rest in between, and the test score was the highest jump of the 3 attempts (1).
Agility performance—as defined by Sheppard et al. (20) as a rapid whole-body movement with change of speed or direction— was evaluated by a T-test, 9 × 9 m. Players had 2 “warm-up trials” before actual testing. The players were instructed to start the T-test on the “Go” command, and simultaneously the timer started the watch. On the Go command, the players sprint forward, sideways, and backwards in a “T” pattern. The players should always face front and not cross their feet when moving sideways. The timer stopped the watch when the player terminated the test by touching the finishing pole. The players were allowed 2 minutes of rest between trials. The test score was the best time of 2 trials, to the nearest 0.1 second. For details, see Ref. 1.
Maximum Dynamic Strength Test
Maximal dynamic strength of the upper and lower extremity was assessed using 1RMBP and 1RMBS, respectively. The tests were performed with free weights, and the 1RM testing protocol closely adhered to the recommendations of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (1). The 1RM was determined within 3 attempts for all players. The highest load lifted was used as the test score.
Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test: Level 2
The YYIR2 test is previously described by Bangsbo et al. (2). In short, the protocol involved repeated 2 × 20-m runs back and forth between the starting, turning, and finishing line at a progressively increasing speed controlled by audio beeps with 10 seconds of recovery between each run. The test was considered failed if the players became unable to reach the finishing line on time twice or felt unable to finish another shuttle at the dictated speed. The total distance covered during the test was used for further analysis.
Strength and Conditioning Program
Strength training was periodized, so the first 5 weeks emphasized muscle hypertrophy, whereas the last 3 weeks emphasized the development of maximum muscle strength and explosive muscle strength. Strength training was planned on a base of traditional exercises (i.e., deadlift, bench press, back squat, lunges, jump squats, power cleans, and snatches [Olympic lifts]) (see Table 1 for details). Note that in some cases, more than 1 exercise is listed for each body part, which meant that the first-listed exercise was first priority and so forth, but the players should only choose one of the listed exercises. The rationale behind this approach was training variation and to come around different individual minor injuries which could influence the choice of exercises. The training was performed with a load of 8RM (in the Olympic lifts, the load was 75% of maximum) for 5 weeks. During the following 3-week period, the load was increased to 4–6RM (in the Olympic lifts, the load was 90% of maximum) (see Table 1 for details). Throughout the 8-week period, agility drills including change of direction, short sprints, reaction time exercises, and various plyometric/stretch shortening cycle (SSC) exercises such as jump and throw exercises were performed. These sessions were performed 3 times a week in combination with handball training or strength training.
From a pure physiological perspective, it is difficult to distinguish between conditioning training purely stimulating either the aerobic or anaerobic energy systems. The conditioning performed in this case report is more correctly characterized by emphasizing one system more than the other, but to ensure a clear training terminology, we decided to use the terms aerobic power and capacity as one training area and anaerobic power and capacity as another training area. However, the aerobic and anaerobic training was periodized in such a way that the first 5 weeks of training emphasized aerobic power and capacity, and the last 3 weeks had focus on anaerobic power and capacity (see Table 2 for details). All aerobic and anaerobic training was performed as interval running, with warm-up before and cooling down after and recovery jogging performed during the breaks. During the long active recovery breaks (i.e., 8- and 12-minute active rest), players were told to do various core exercises in between recovery jogging. Some players were allowed to execute parts of the aerobic and anaerobic training on stationary bikes because of their minor injuries or injury history in general.
Throughout the 8-week training period, planning strived to secure that aerobic and anaerobic training was executed separately from strength and agility training. This was done either by training on separate days or when trained on the same day, separated by 4–6 hours. However, in a third of the training sessions, aerobic and anaerobic training was combined with strength and agility training or with handball training in the same training session.
From an overall perspective, the strength and conditioning program was periodized, as described, in blocks of 5 and 3 weeks. Thus, training load changed from higher volume to lower volume and from lower to higher intensity between the two blocks. On average, both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning and strength training was performed 3 times a week throughout the 8-week period. But depending on the players' strong and weak points, determined by the pretesting, some players had focus on aerobic and anaerobic training, with 4 sessions a week and only 2 strength training sessions and vice versa. After the 8-week training period, the national team had approximately 10 days (for packing, traveling, and settling in the Olympic village) between the final strength and conditioning session and the first match at the Olympics. This specific period was used for tapering; therefore, players were given instructions on when and how to rest and how to perform 2 strength and conditioning training sessions with low volume and high intensity after arrival in Beijing.
The same strength and conditioning coach supervised approximately a third of all the strength and conditioning sessions. The remaining training sessions in most cases were executed in unison with teammates.
All statistical analyses were performed using Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (version 2.0; SPSS, Inc., Chicago, IL). Distribution normality was proved with the Shapiro-Wilk test. All variables were normally distributed, and for that reason, parametric statistics were applied. All values were expressed as mean ± SD. Student's paired t-test was used to examine the differences between the physical parameters describing the players before and after the strength and conditioning period. In all cases, the level of statistical significance was set at p < 0.05.
Body weight increased and body fat decreased after training (p < 0.05). Accordingly, FFM—calculated as the difference between body mass and body fat—increased (p < 0.05). No changes in jump height in CMJ or JR were seen (p > 0.05). The YYIR2 test and the T-test improved (p < 0.05). One repetition maximum bench press increased significantly (p < 0.05), whereas the 1RMBS showed a tendency to increase (p = 0.069) (Table 3).
Our findings indicate that the 8 weeks of strength and conditioning training led to significant improvements in body composition and performance (Table 3). In short, body mass increased significantly from pretraining to posttraining, and concurrently, the players reduced their body fat, indicating a development in FFM. The T-test, 1RMBP, and the YYIR2 test were improved, whereas 1RMBS showed a tendency to increase. The strength and conditioning training described in this case report may therefore be a prudent preparation model for upcoming tournaments.
The increase in body weight and FFM is consistent with previous research, which reported seasonal increases in body mass in relation to training in top-level male European handball players (3,8,13).
Jumping performance is considered important determinants in a large number of sports and also handball. It was surprising to observe that no change in jumping performance occurred during the 8 weeks of training, including plyometric jump/SSC exercises. Hence, despite the emphasis on both strength and jump training, it could be expected that the players were already well trained and have reached a certain level, and therefore only capable of achieving minor and nonsignificant changes. However, a fundamental relationship exists between strength and power (i.e. explosive muscle strength), which dictates that an individual cannot possess a high level of power without first being relatively strong (4,5). Thus, on the contrary, it may be argued that the present handball players do not possess a satisfying level of maximal muscle strength to adapt to the explosive training exercises in the training program and therefore showing no improvements in CMJ and JR. In support of this, Cormie et al. (4,5) showed that stronger subjects (1RMBS ∼2 times the body weight) adapted more positive to the same ballistic power training (e.g., jump squat) than weaker subjects (1RMBS ∼1.3 times the body weight) (4,5). In comparison, most of the players in this respective case report had a 1RMBS equal to 1.5 times the body weight at the pretest, and it could be speculated that the potential for adapting to the loaded jumps and SSC exercises etc. could have been greater if the players were stronger to begin with.
The increase in 1RMBP and nonsignificant increase 1RMBS from pre to post the 8-week training is in line with previously reported data (4,5,16). When compared with European top-level handball players, the performance level of the Danish players in the 1RMBP was considered good, whereas the level in the 1RMBS was comparable with European top-level players (13). Only 10 and 4 of the initial 19 players performed, respectively, the 1RMBP and 1RMBS after the training period, which may have influenced the statistical power mainly in the 1RMBS test. The main reason for the low participation was anxiety of being injured by the 1RMBS testing before the Olympics.
The YYIR2 performance in this case report was increased by 25% from pretraining to posttraining. The level and performance change are in accordance with other top-level handball players (15,18). The additional focus on strength and agility training throughout the 8-week training period, which improved agility capacity (T-test), is also likely to influence the players' ability to perform in the YYIR2 test. Consequently, suggesting that the improved agility capacity might influence the players' ability to perform the YYIR2 test because of improved techniques regarding faster change of direction, accelerations and decelerations.
Our overall practical philosophy, behind the testing and strength and conditioning program, was to secure a physical base for playing handball and to underpin the individual player's technical and tactical characteristics, rather than seeking a position-specific prototype (i.e., wing, back, pivot, and goalkeeper), in terms of physical performance (9). In addition, we had to take the relatively short training period of 8 weeks into consideration, and the fact that these position-specific physical performance features, can for some players, be difficult to achieve because of various limiting factors (i.e., technical/tactical training priorities versus physical priorities, injury history, genetic set-up etc.).
Concerning planning of the strength and conditioning training modalities, all aerobic and anaerobic training was performed as interval training, which is coincident with the important features for the success in handball. Both high-volume and high-intensity intervals seem to be important for the athlete performing in high-intensity sports (12). This training method is also known as the polarized approach (11,12). In addition, there seems to be a sound support for the benefits of using high-intensity interval training in already-trained athletes (11,12). With this understanding in mind, the aerobic and anaerobic training was performed with the focus on aerobic capacity and power during the first 5 weeks by emphasizing volume and intensity at the same time, by executing the training as intervals with long rest periods in between running intervals. During the last 3 weeks, focus was put on anaerobic capacity and power by emphasizing higher intensity and therefore reducing volume.
The strength and agility training was planned on inspiration from the “mixed approach” described by Newton & Kraemer (19). Ultimately, the main goal of strength and agility training for handball is to increase muscle mass, strength, power, and agility performance. In short, the mixed approach comprises different training modalities, which are all known to improve explosive muscle performance. The modalities are defined as slow-velocity strength training (i.e., 3RM squat etc.), high-velocity strength training (i.e., jump squat performed with 30% of 1RM), rate of force development training (i.e., power clean, heavy strength training performed with maximal effort), SSC training, and intramuscular coordination training (i.e., jumps, sprints, throws, agility etc.).
Thus, the program included exercises such as deadlift, bench press, and back squat and explosive types of strength training exercises such as the power snatch, power clean, loaded jumps, and SSC exercises. The reason for performing these exercises is that they involve multiple joints (especially hip and knee joints) and activate large muscle volumes, and they are performed from a standing position (19). Most of these exercises teach the players to apply force and power with selected muscle groups in the proper sequence and therefore enable these to explode in a ballistic type of movement, and additional important benefits from these exercises consist of teaching the player to move fast from eccentric contractions to concentric contractions (i.e., reactive strength).
Team handball players must train for muscle mass, strength, power and agility performance, and aerobic and anaerobic power and capacity, and at the same time, thus, concurrent training is essential for high-level performance. However, concurrent training is known to influence the magnitude of strength gains, also known as the “interference phenomenon” (7). The interference phenomenon dictates that it is important to get the balance right between these different aspects of training (7). To minimize the interference training of aerobic and anaerobic power and capacity, this modality was separated as much as possible from strength, speed, and agility training, and if combined in the same session, players were alternating the sequence. It may be speculated that some interference have occurred, as indicated by the lack of improvements in jumping performance, because it is acknowledged that aerobic training may hamper the players' ability to adapt to the strength and plyometric/SSC training (8). However, concurrent training within the same day is a necessary compromise when all training modalities, including technical and tactical training, have to fit in a week plan.
In conclusion, these findings demonstrate that an 8-week strength and conditioning period before an Olympic tournament was sufficient to induce positive changes in body composition and physical performance of elite handball players. Thus, the training applied during the preparation period changed body composition toward more muscle mass and less body fat. Running performance increased both in relation to short intense movements in the T-test and in longer anaerobic and aerobic running in the YYIR2 test, whereas the team in general was not able to increase their jumping abilities or strength of the lower body. Overall, we demonstrated that we are able to optimize the physical performance level of already well-trained national team handball players in 8 weeks, for the more demanding competition schedule at the Olympics. Accordingly, we expect the players to tolerate more physical load during matches and to recover faster, during an intense Olympic tournament but also for the World championships and European championships. It seems prudent to conclude that the described procedure could function as a preparation model for upcoming tournaments.
This case report can be used as a handy script for handball teams preparing for competition. Detailed and periodized strength and conditioning training programs for 8 weeks are provided and can be used by teams ranging from moderately to highly trained. By focusing on partly supervised and periodized strength and conditioning training, as described with gradually more intensity in both endurance and strength training, an increase in performance can be expected. In addition, relevant tests and related reference values are provided for individual adjustments to be done according to the needs and capacity analysis.
The authors want to thank the Team Danmark employees Susanne Jørgensen and Hanne Overgaard for their support and cooperation during the testing of the Danish national handball team.
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