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Modified Tier System Structure for Overall Athletic Development

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Modified Tier System Structure for Overall Athletic Development

Mike Zangl

Training structure, or order of exercise/mode of exercise layout, takes many forms in the sports performance realm when it comes to developing the overall athlete. The central nervous system (CNS), made up of the brain and spinal cord, is the determinant when order of exercises and modes of exercise are implemented into the annual training structure. Optimal central nervous system (CNS) activity is dependent on fatigue during a specifically designed annual training structure.

Since overall athletic development needs to address many different areas of human movement, daily use of the same exercise/mode of exercise order may not be beneficial to overall development.  The Tier System utilizes a rotational exercise order of total body, lower body, and upper body multi-joint exercises so the central nervous system can prioritize each developmental area on separate training days.

The original Tier System prioritized movement selection based on the big three lifts: Power Clean, Back Squat, and Bench Press. Based on the rotation of exercises, variations to each of these exercises coupled with posterior chain movements make up the daily training structure. Below is a sample Tier System training structure (3×5 layout: 3 training days with 5 exercises each day) (Kenn, 2002).

modified tier system

Looking at the example above, it seems to be an unbalanced program of pulling/pushing in the upper/lower body categories. The original Tier System allows for extra posterior chain and pre-hab movements to be executed in the post-work section of the training day to balance out the prescription of pulling/pushing. Volume fluctuations are also taken into consideration when balancing out pulling/pushing movements (i.e. higher volumes for body weight/lighter implement pulling and posterior chain movements due to ability to load).

The Tier System can be executed with 6 or 7 exercises and be rotated the exact same way, or a 4th day can be added with exercise selection adjusted accordingly.

Core and mobility exercises are used during the warm-up phase within the original Tier System structure to enhance the overall effectiveness of the program and modify the risk of injury.

Other modes of training such as speed developmentjump training, and energy system development are critical to optimize the original structure of the Tier System. These modalities can be incorporated on the same day as lifts or on days between lifting sessions to ensure proper rest and progression for each athlete or group of athletes. An example would be to lift on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday while conducting speed/agility/quickness training on Tuesday and Thursday. Integrating other modalities for a 4-day training split will require coaching common sense when it comes to volume and intensity of the lift, and when the modalities are executed (i.e. before or after the lifting session).

Modified Tier System

The Modified Tier System will utilize the rotational style of exercises but will incorporate core exercises as a pairing to the first main exercise. Based on the rotation, the second and third pairing of exercises will be designed. With the added core exercise into the main lift, upper/lower push/pull pairings will be used, along with contrast/complex pairings to take advantage of the post-activation potentiation effect of overall athletic power development. Below is a sample 3-day training split of the Modified Tier System.

The Modified Tier System uses movement patterns to assign each category. Day 1 in the example above is a traditional style workout regarding pairing and exercise order. Once the rotation occurs in day 2 and day 3, the order and pairings will look different and utilize the PAP effect in the second pairing of exercises. The example above uses three pairings (each color represents a pairing), and each day begins with either the main lift of clean, squat, bench press or a close variation to those main lifts. After the first pair is established, the next pairs are designed based on individual need.

Another option for executing the Modified Tier System is to perform each movement in a circuit style fashion. Exercise order and rotation would not change, but instead of alternating exercises within each pair before moving on, each exercise would be done for one set consecutively for a certain number of rounds. Rounds can be designed for a traditional circuit, timed intervals, and density style where load/volume play a vital role based on prescribed reps for each movement. Below is day 2 structure extracted from the above example using a timed interval/timed set structure.

modified tier system timed

In the above example, the athlete would perform exercise #1 for 15 seconds of all out work with high loading on the bar or implement. Once the work bout is over, the athlete will rest for 45 seconds before moving on to the next exercise and interval prescribed. Intervals and loading are inverse when using the circuit styles for the Modified Tier System (i.e. 30 work: 30 rest would require less loading due to the bout and rest given).

In the end, whether using the original Tier System or the Modified Tier System explained in this article, the central nervous system is the most important component when considering the exercise order and selection. The Modified Tier System allows the strength and conditioning or sports performance coach to balance out movement patterns without having to prescribe or design extra work outside the main lifting or speed development sessions. Again, the central nervous system will be able to work in a more efficient and sport specific environment because of the structure and omission of unnecessary exercises during the post work sections. Using the Modified Tier System for overall athletic development is just another tool for coaches to integrate into their long-term programs and a great way to add variation if already using the original Tier System structure.


Kenn, J. (2002). Athletic based strength training: The tier system strength training playbook for coaches.

Dos Remedios, R. (n.d.). Certified Program Design Specialist. National Sports Performance Association.

About the Author

Coach  Zangl is a Lead Performance Movement Specialist at FMS Health and Safety, LLC in Irvine, California. Coach Zangl holds the following certifications: MA, CSCS, FMS, NSPA (CSAC, CWPC, CPDS, CSNC, MSPC).  Coach Zangl was an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Sidelines or Headlines in North Scottsdale, Arizona, the head strength and conditioning coach at Bobby Crosby Baseball Academy working with baseball players and athletes of all ages, held a professional apprenticeship role at the University of Arizona, assisting in the overall development for the Wildcats Football, Baseball, M/W Tennis, Women’s Golf, Women’s Basketball and Track and Field teams. He was also an offensive line coach and strength and conditioning coordinator at Tesoro High School for 5 seasons and head football strength and conditioning coach at Athletes Choice in Rancho Santa Margarita.

Coach Zangl played football and baseball at Tesoro High School and went on to play football at Saddleback College. He was also a National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Scholar Athlete in 2010 and United States Marine Corp Male Distinguished Athlete Award Recipient. Coach Zangl graduated from Saddleback College as a scholar athlete with an Associate Degree in Liberal Studies, a Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology with a focus in Sports Studies from California State University, Fullerton and a Master’s degree from Concordia University, Irvine in Coaching and Athletic Administration.

program design

complete jumps training
Complete Jumps Training

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