Training for Sport

Vert Jump

Last week I wrote about sport specific training and what I believe that should entail. Spoiler alert, most sports have more similarities than differences when it comes to lifting and moving weights.  As it happens I picked up a magazine last week that had little piece on training for basketball.  While I do agree with some of what the author suggested, the fact is that he is a basketball coach.  As I mentioned last week, I’ve played many sports but am not qualified to coach.  Much in the same way that I believe this author and basketball coach, no matter how much his heart is in the right place, isn’t exactly qualified to tell people how to move, get physically stronger and condition off the court.  That’s a job for guys like me.  My goal here is not to hurt anyone’s feeling or call them out,  but merely to generate some thoughts and offer solutions as to how one should train.

In the first part the author advocates sprinting over distance running so as to develop explosiveness, speed, power and “quick twitch muscles”.  For the record I am 100% on board with this thought process.  More on that topic HERE.  Later he also recommends practicing at game speed.  This is also important in my book.  So far so good.  Speed rules, and that makes a great segue into the bulk of the article.

The author suggests that basketball players are somehow different than other team sport athletes and that the emphasis should be on less weight and more reps so as not to train like a football player whom may be increasing strength rapidly while also building incredible size.  Now, I have a few problems with this concept.  The first is, we should all be so lucky to increase strength and size at such a rapid pace the way he implies.  I’m 33 and I’ve only been working on that for about 20 years.  The next issue is that in my professional opinion, the best way to improve the aforementioned explosiveness, speed, power and quick twitch muscles is by either moving moderately heavy weight as fast as possible for very few reps at a time or by lifting relatively heavy things for just a few reps (This means single digits).  If we are talking young athletes then I will suggest as “high” as 10 reps on a few specific exercises only.  The vast majority of the time, light weights for high reps serves no purpose.  The same concept applies to the ever popular plyometrics that can help build the explosiveness and power that basketball players need.  The goal is not to do a lot of fatiguing reps but just a few at a time (per set) to build the skill of producing force and the coordination to do so.

chain push up

Don’t believe me?  One of the first full-time strength coaches in the NBA, Al Vermeil, who just so happened to be part of the Chicago Bulls winning 6 titles, has said in an interview that the main thing he worked on with those players was maximal strength.  He said they needed to be stronger and more powerful.  Keep in mind these are grown men he is talking about!  Let me say that first part again.  He didn’t believe his team was strong enough.  He went so far as to say “Doing 10 reps ain’t going to get you strong. You gotta lift heavy weights”, and went on to explain that everything starts with the athletes’ ability to put force into the ground.  That ability in any sport, not just basketball, is the most critical thing from a strength and conditioning perspective.  The emphasis for his players was on squatting, pushing, pulling, power snatches and power cleans. In my opinion all preferred options for any athletes.

There’s a good chance that anyone who suggests to you that basketball players should not lift heavy so as not to be bulky and slow will tell you that football is a contact sport so more muscle and size is required than in basketball.  To that I suggest you ask any serious basketball player if their body takes any physical abuse around the basket, or when playing against a larger opponent, or throughout a long season.  The answer will undoubtedly be yes, to which I recommend adding some muscle mass and strength.  It will not make you slower if the rest of your conditioning on and off the court is conducted properly as previously mentioned.  Again, strength equals speed and you WILL NOT become bulky and slower if you practice speed work, meaning the sprinting and agility mentioned earlier.  So how does one add strength and possibly some muscle?  We know legendary coach Al Vermeil’s suggestions.  I say lift heavy things with great form/technique. How heavy you ask?  Relatively heavy in relation to your current strength levels, and most of the time for only a few reps.  Rest and repeat.

Getting back to the original article, the author mentions yoga, pilates and dancing as possible supplements to athletic training and improving athleticism.  I’m not saying that these things won’t help.  Practicing and mastering human movement is very important. But let’s not forget, for all athletes and trainees there is a finite amount of time to prepare.  Those movements, exercises, etc that bring you to your goal, or Point B, the fastest are the best ways to make use of your time.  If we are talking about a healthy high school athlete, he/she needs to get in the gym and get stronger as well as work on speed.  The previously mentioned squatting, pushing, pulling power snatch and clean aren’t considered high payoff exercises for nothing.  They’re effective because they deliver the goods in more ways than one.  Don’t waste time on something that may or may not give you a minimal amount of benefit for a large time investment.  A solid program (not always easy to find) in the weight room and on the court will make you more flexible, activate the core properly (author’s words, not mine) as well as build rhythm, coordination and movement skills that other modalities offer.  At Ambition Athletics the goal is in fact Movement, Strength and Education.  I’m certainly not trying to neglect the movement part and focus only on strength.  A quality training program plus a sport coach should be able to serve the needs and develop the qualities most needed in a basketball player or athlete of any sport.

Finally, I can understand the concern of a coach or parent of young athletes “lifting heavy weights”.  I’ve seen the potential disaster myself.  However, that’s not an excuse to do shitty “exercise” routines and not teach/coach athletes how to train properly.  As I mentioned before, certainly not everyone is qualified to do so.  The fact is there are appropriate and inappropriate exercise choices based on each athletes skill level.  Not every athlete is going to be able to put a bar on their back right away and look pretty but there are still plenty of ways to get stronger which is the key.

– Mike Baltren