Building Better Athletes With Joe Kenn (2016 NFL Strength Coach of the Year)

If you’re in the strength and conditioning world, then there’s a pretty big chance you’ve heard the name Joe Kenn before. For anyone who hasn’t, then maybe you’ve heard of something called the Tier System Strength Training system. This method was created by Kenn years ago in order to train sport oriented athletes in a more effective manner. Not to mention, this method was contributed to the Carolina Panthers’ success that led them to the Superbowl in 2015.

Kenn, known as “House” to his athletes, has had a long career in the gym strength training athletes. Over his career, he’s worked with youth, high school, college, and professional athletes, so Kenn has seen it all when it comes to skill and weight room potential.

In college, Kenn played starting guard for Wake Forest between 1987-88, and would go on to eventually earn his M.A. in Education with a specialization in curriculum and instruction while coaching at Boise State in 1993. From his final days playing to his strength career now, Kenn has coached at Wake Forest, Boise State, Utah, Arizona State, Louisville, and now functions as the Carolina Panthers head strength coach, to list a few.

One of Kenn’s biggest contributions to the strength and conditioning community is what’s known as the Tier System Strength Training system. He created this system while at Boise State and utilized multiple strength sport training templates in combination to create well-rounded strong athletes with the most carry over to on field performance, while avoiding burnout and injury.

For a full description of the Tier System and what inspired it, check out the video and interview questions below. The segment about the system in the video is about 5-minutes long, and is worth the listen if you’re unaware of why and how Kenn’s method works.

Kenn’s method continues to stand the test of time, and has now been used to help a professional football team reach the Superbowl. Check out the interview below that covers the Tier System, along with other topics.

Could you give a quick background on who are & what you do for the readers who may not know you?

Kenn: Joe Kenn, Professional Strength and Conditioning Coach, and 29 year coaching veteran. Within those 29 years, I spent two years coaching High School, 19 years College/University, one year Private Sector, and seven years professional. Additionally, I’ve authored three books and numerous articles. I received my undergraduate degree in Health and Sport Science at Wake Forest, and my Master’s degree in Education at Boise State.

You developed the Tier System years ago in your career, what spurred the inspiration to create this training methodology?

Kenn: The true goal was to utilize all the information available to me at the time, and create a plan that was more conducive to training athletes outside of the strength disciplines without using traditional “Lifting” templates. 

All the strength disciplines including: powerlifting, weightlifting, bodybuilding, etc, have components in their programming or movements that have efficient carryover to the development of the non-lifting athlete. It was about developing the best possible plan to allow the athlete to enhance their physical attributes and athletic measurables outside of their specific sport.

As a strength coach, did you receive any criticism from other coaches about the tier systems training methodology after its creation? For example, new training ideals/methods often receive a ton of criticism, did you experience a similar effect?

Kenn: YES! As I said before, I was looking at all of the strength disciplines and there are specific protocols of training that each discipline demands. I challenged several of those in this athletic based strength training model. The biggest was moving Olympic Lifts and their variations to different time periods, or “tiers”,  during the program’s rotation of movements. 

It was always train fast movements first. That is standard protocol of Olympic Lifting and most weightlifting programming.  My argument was, I’m not training lifters, I’m training athletes that need to display an explosive component in the latter portions of competition. The standard scenario I would give was, “I will never have a football coach tell me he wants the most explosive 1st quarter team in the country. He wants a team that can be explosive in the 4th quarter.”  

If we’re training explosive qualities in the latter portions of our programs, how can we gauge if the athlete has the capacity to retain the explosive element that we are asking them to perform on the field?

With so many new concepts and methodologies coming out today, how do you decide which to integrate into your training and which to ignore? For context: You’ve mentioned in previous videos that it’s pretty much impossible to absorb everything in this industry, so do you have a method for sifting through the useful info, and the irrelevant (to your training)?

Kenn:  Simple, Common Sense. 

I always believe that regardless of what new and innovating ideals come to the forefront, the answer to it’s applicability is somewhere in the middle ground. As we know, some will be all for it, and some will be all against it. In the end, the truth lies somewhere in-between. 

With that being said, I know what a program needs to look like. If there’s something that can enhance it, then we will give it a true trial and error progression. You can get carried away with all the information that these products can give you. I don’t believe there are too many training staffs that have enough people to evaluate all the potential data, and be able to make formidable recommendations within a day-to-day practice structure.  Take the meat and potatoes info, and make sure it fits your evaluation parameters.

It’s difficult for a lot of coaches to develop their own voice and not fall directly inline behind someone else. Do you have any tips on how you did that, or did you sort of form your own way of thinking about training on your own?

Kenn: You have to be willing to take a leap of faith.

Belief in yourself is paramount. 

And it takes time to build up your self confidence to present new material to the powers that be. Be ready to have solid justification on the how’s and why’s you want to pursue this specific path.

Currently, we’re seeing a lot of athletes post 1-RM videos, some with iffy form (examples: LSU/Penn State RBs’ recent videos), do you think that form of lifting is counter-intuitive for athletes at this athletic level?

Kenn: Are 1-RM’s counter intuitive? In my programming for college age athletes, NO.  I believe in 1-RM testing as a true indicator of maximal effort strength.

As far as technique, without delving to deep, hear are my thoughts. I do not want corrosive lifting technique in my facility (and I have had this in the past). What I do want, is competent lifters who are competitive athletes, not competitive lifters who are competent athletes.  I train athletes who participate in sports, their technique is not going to be on par to professional lifters, but I do want their technique to be efficient, so we may bring a transferable athletic trait to their specific preparation.

On top of the 1-RM videos, the media continues to bash strength coaches for players getting injured (NY Mets’ strength coach recently got criticized for injuries), and while it’s a different sport than football, do you think it’s correct to point fingers at the strength coach? Why do you think a strength coach is always the first to take the blame?

Kenn: They’re going to have to point the finger at someone. It comes with the territory, I guess. I don’t get too concerned with all of that. I’m only concerned with working with the athlete and getting the problem resolved.

Why do you think some programs still use 1-RM tests without considering the risk:benefit ratio for elite athletes when it comes to form?

Kenn: There is a risk in any evaluation. And truth be told, a true testing situation with a 1-RM may be safer than a three or 5-RM.  If you look at overall load, attempts, total volume, and time under tension, then do the math and tell me what has a higher risk.

You’ve worked with every aged athlete, do you have a favorite age group to train?

Kenn: My favorite group are professional athletes, but I learned the most working with 10 year old athletes.

You earned the title of the NFL’s 2016 Strength Coach of the Year. What was that like? Did you have any idea that you’d be awarded this?

Kenn: Pretty exciting, but I would much rather have that super bowl ring. No idea, it’s peer voted on by the other coaches in the NFL. This award shows the respect others have for you in the profession, and the fact that our team was awesome helped a ton.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from coaching professional athletes? What’s been the biggest struggle?

Kenn: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to be a great listener. In terms of struggle, I’ve been fortunate to work with a great locker room, so there’s been no real struggles.
Feature image from @bighousepower Instagram page.