elitefts™ Sunday Edition

Joe Kenn is undoubtedly one of the most experienced and knowledgeable strength coaches in the industry.  As the head strength & conditioning coach of the Carolina Panthers and founder of the Tier System, coach Kenn is one of the most sought after presenters in the country.

Over the last 20 plus years, “House” has coached athletes at The University of Louisville, Arizona State University, The University of Utah, Boise State University, and his Alma Mater, Wake Forrest University.  The number of athletes and assistant coaches who have benefited from his guidance reaches throughout the profession.

After coaching and participating in competitive athletics including Division I college football and powerlifting: this past Spring brought a new chapter in coach Kenn’s competitive athletic career.  With the help of Joe and Adrianne Wilson, he competed in his first and second ever, Highland Games competitions.  The first was the Greenville (NC) Scottish Games in which he was ranked 158 out of 334 in the Master’s Division.  This  contest was followed by The Laurel Hill games in Ararat, VA.  Coach Kenn was kind enough re-cap his experiences from the last few weeks.

Mark Watts: House, first of all, I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.  This is typically your very busy “speaker circuit” time of the year before gearing up for another NFL season.  The first question I have is how did you decide to compete in Highland Games?

Joe Kenn: No problem Mark. Congratulations to you on your new position as director of education at elitefts™. I am excited to see what you accomplish under the elite banner.  You are extremely respected in the coaching circles and I believe you can help elitefts™ continue to strive and advance the professional development of high school, college, and professional coaches around the nation.

Why did I decide to compete in the Highland Games? There are several key reasons that I will touch on.

First, it was time to reinvent myself as a competitive athlete. 

With the exception of a possible deadlift meet here and there, my time as a competitive powerlifter is coming to a close. Truth be told, I don’t want to train max effort everyday anymore! That’s honest. I train hard! My density of work is extremely high and I love waking up every day to train. My issue is my motivation level to ramp up heavy squats every week is low.  So, time to move on. (On a side note, I would like to congratulate Julia Ladewski for reinventing herself and stepping out of her comfort zone to participate in a new venture.  Her transformation was phenomenal).

Second, I was intrigued by the multiple disciplines of the Games. I was never a “thrower” in high school although I coached numerous throwers in college; I was not truly familiar with this discipline.  My youngest son is a thrower and so my interest was growing in this small world of athletics.

My son Peter is, and I am now fortunate to have Adriane Wilson on our side.  Adriane was a dominant thrower while she was in college, and I met her while at Arizona State when she was training with World Champion thrower, John Godina and his throwing crew in the Sun Devil weight room. She is now a 4-time World Champion in the Highland Games. Adriane had since gotten married and moved to Irmo, SC. We got hooked up with Adriane when I was looking for private coaching for my son.  I called Bert Sorin about coaching my son, and he recommended Adriane.  Since then, we have road tripped down to Irmo to get some quality coaching time.  I also count Adriane’s husband Joe as one of my coaches since he is always generous with his time when we are all training together. Joe has helped me tremendously with the sheaf toss and caber.  Peter is helping me work on my stone throws. I am piss poor at those two events.

It also helped the my assistant Brett Nenaber who played for me at Arizona State and now is an accomplished Olympic lifter decided he would compete also for the first time.  Brett entered the Amateur B division, 19 athletes, one champion, BRETT!!!!!

Third, I wanted to compete in a multi-discipline sport that challenged my lack of athleticism and got me out of my wheel house.  In July of 2009, I competed in my only strongman contest, hosted by Chad Coy in Kokomo, IN.  I thoroughly enjoyed this experience, but again at this point in my athletic career, max-effort training is now sub-max effort.  I did enjoy being outside competing rather than in a gym for 10 hours for a powerlifting meet.  The highland games have a set weight for most events so I could train specifically with loads that had little variability of change.  The only difference in my personal situation is whether or not I go into the masters or amateur class.  There are several loading differences between groups.  More importantly, they are held outside and they are usually tied to a tremendous festival.

MW: What were the specific events and what were the most challenging for you from a technique standpoint?

 JK: There are nine total events in highland games and usually seven are scored.  I believe the traditional order is, Braemar Stone (approximately 22#) which is similar to a standing in place shot put, the Open Stone (approximately 16#) which is similar to a rotary or glide technique shot put,

the heavy weight for distance (56# for open, amateur, 42# for Masters - Men’s Load), and the light weight for distance (28#) are next.  These implements have a solid load attached to a small chain with a ring. The weights for distance were the two most challenging events for me because I had to move my feet and body in a rotary movement pattern.  My foot work was getting better each week and Coach Adriane tuned me up four days before the first competition.

These events have specific areas and distances you can utilize to move in and the front of this area is blocked by a trig.  The trig looks similar to a railroad tie.

The next two are the heavy (22#) and light (16#) hammer.  These implements have a solid load attached to a 50” pole usually made of PVC, bamboo, or a dowel rod.  Your feet remain in place until you release the implement and you are facing away from the throwing area.  This also is a work in progress for me as I am upper body dominant on my rotations. I need to get more involvement from my hips.  I have decided that a good training exercise for me for this movement is a hula hoop.  Coach Joe says the rotation should look like a shitty (sissy) squat.

All six of these events are thrown for max distance, three attempts.

Next is the caber toss.  This is a tremendous event.  You literally have to pick a log (caber) off the ground; the caber is in an upright position, and flip it end over end.  This is the only event not scored for distance. It is scored on your ability to “turn” the caber and have it land in a 12:00 position in relation to your body. If you cannot turn it, you are scored on degrees.  I am still trying to figure the degree measurement out as I have yet to turn a caber. The caber’s length and weight vary from meet to meet.  In Greenville the caber I competed with was 15’5” 105#, the one in Ararat was freshly cut the morning of the games.  For our first attempt the caber was 19’8”.  No one was able to turn it so the trimmed it down to 18’.

The eighth event is the sheaf toss.  I am terrible at this. You use a 3-tine pitch fork (most athletes have filed down the tines) and launch either a 16# of 20# bale of twine over a standard similar to a pole vault apparatus.  You are scored and max height over the bar.

The last event is the weight for height (56# or 42#) similar to the sheaf toss you are launching a load over a bar for maximum height. This may be my best event so far.  This event is similar to a kettlebell swing with a release.

MW: What did your training spilt look like and how did you incorporate the event training within your system?

JK: Since these events are truly athletic in nature, I used my tier system model to train. I was already in the middle of an 8-week training cycle when I committed to the first event so I stayed with that. I used a 3-day a week strength training microcycle with a 4-session rotation.  So each training session was done every 10 days.  If you are familiar with my training template I was utilizing a U-T-U-T rotation. I worked my mobility sessions twice a week and throwing was done 2-3 times per week.

MW: Coach, what would be some of the differences in training for Highland Games as opposed to track & field or even other strength sports like powerlifting, strongman, olympic lifting, etc.?

JK: As you Mark, I do not believe you can train for a sport with another sport, but you need influences from the strength disciplines to design an athletic-based program.  I would compare training for the highland games extremely similar if not the exact the way I would train a thrower.

For me personally, I like the 10-day rotation for my training sessions, so I am now training on a 3-day a week strength training microcycle utilizing a traditional tier system template (Session T-L-U) and adding an extensive total body session as my fourth day of strength training.

The fourth day is still a work in progress.  I start with snatch-grip deadlifts, followed by snatch-grip power pulls from the deck, followed by full snatches with an athletic position catch. I then move to clean grip shrug pulls from the deck, cleans from the deck with athletic position catch.  I may add a push press at times to the completion of the last clean of the set. I end the session with safety bar front squats and traditional RDL’s.  This is a long session! Oh yeah, I have not committed myself yet, but one of my staff members is trying to get me to post some numbers in an oly meet.  I am also adding numerous upper body blitz programs back into my training again.  I have found that I need a tremendous amount of work with isolation movements for the shoulder region as well as flexion and extension of the elbow.

MW: There was a quick turn-around from between your first and second competitions, what did that week look like in terms of training and recovery?

JK:  Well, I was actually in a transitional week when I got confirmation that I was able to compete the next weekend.  So I did not throw once, and strength trained twice.  I will think twice about throwing back to back weeks in the future.  I did it this time because my ability to compete is limited due to my work schedule and I had already previously committed to speak at some clinics.  Also, the second meet I had the opportunity to throw the 56# weights and wanted to compete and acquire marks with those implements. In two weeks I will be meeting with my coaches to set up my competitions for next year.

MW:  I know your younger son is a high school thrower and you both had the same coach, did he have any advice for his old man?

JK: Peter is helping me with me stone throws in particular.  He is really coming along as a thrower and his advice is definitely valuable.  These are the two events I am losing too much ground with right now compared to my competition.

MW: What advice would you give anyone wanted to try their hand at Highland Games?

JK: If you have previous throwing experience you are made for these events.  If you want to experience a new challenge you will definitely get that with this sport.  I am fortunate and blessed to have two great coaches who love the sport.  Find someone who is willing to take the time to help you prepare.  I would have been lost without my coaches.

MW: House, I can’t thank you enough for your time and looking forward to seeing you in Las Vegas at the NSCA National Conference.

JK: It was my pleasure Mark.  Elitefts™ has always been a true supporter of me since 1999.  Dave and Jim have gone out of their way to help me personally and our program.  I am extremely excited that you are a part of the elitefts™ team.  Please give my best to Dave.  I Love Vegas, it will only be me and you at the early bird work outs!


The Joe Kenn File:




2011 – Present Carolina Panthers Head Strength & Conditioning Coach
2009 - 2011 Big House Power Competitive Athletic Training Owner/ President
2008-2009 University of Louisville Director of Athlete Development
2003-2007 Arizona State University Head Coach of Sports Performance
2001-2002 Arizona State University Head Strength & Conditioning Coach
1999- 2000 The University of Utah Director of Strength & Conditioning
1994-1998 Boise State University Head Strength & Conditioning Coach
1991-1994 Boise State University Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach
1991 Wake Forrest University Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach
1989-1990 Pine Crest Preparatory School Assistant Football, Head Wrestling, & Head Strength Coach


CSCCa Master Strength & Conditioning Coach - 2009

NSCA College Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year award - 2002

NSCA Mountain West Conference Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year - 2000

NSCA Big West Conference Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year - 1998

NSCA All-American Strength & Conditioning Athlete - 1988

Wake Forrest University Bill George Award - 1987