Compared to training in any other sport, basketball strength and conditioning approaches are like the wild, wild West. As we are watching in the NBA Finals, the game of basketball has a high-octane, unpredictable nature and a long list of physical skills necessary to compete. This makes it an outstanding game to play or watch, but leads to "basketball specific" training strategies that are all over the map. In an effort to cut out the noise surrounding optimal basketball specific training, here's a look at three common training errors that basketball players make:
1. Too much training equality
Error: A basketball specific training program that includes equal emphasis on flexibility, quickness, agility, balance, cardiovascular endurance/power and muscular size, power or endurance looks great on paper. This is the type of all-in-one program that I crafted for myself during my junior high school days in my efforts to make varsity. I was convinced that by doing a little bit of everything each training day that I would see gradual gains in all categories of athleticism - I was wrong.
This approach created training plateaus, frustration and a lack of results because I was being too broad in my approach. My training was overly complicated and lacked focus on the true foundation of all athletic qualities: strength. By trying to skip ahead to improving all other areas of athletic performance before setting a foundation of strength, I set myself up for failure. Any attempts at improving areas of athleticism without building that strength infrastructure will accomplish little more than breaking a sweat and burning calories - it certainly won't help you to reach your training goals.
Correction: Avoid slogging away on training programs that touch on a little bit of everything while helping you gain nothing. Narrow your training focus to developing a foundation of strength - the most important athletic quality for a basketball player. The best way to do this is to safely and responsibly lift heavy weight with first-class form.
First, groove body weight movement patterns such as the squat, lunge, hip hinge or upper body pressing/pulling. As you refine the skill of these movements shift towards heavy resistance training for strength. Once a base of strength is created then basketball-specific athletic performance can and will begin to improve.
2. play first, lift later
Error: When the competitive basketball season is over, basketball players continue some combination of skill development and pickup ball during the off season. This is critical for developing a feel for the game and refining the skills of the game. The only issue is that many players choose to play first and then attempt to tackle weight room work after they get off the court. They want to avoid being tired from lifting when they play and some even feel that lifting before they play will mess with their shooting accuracy.
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Players who spend an intense hour on the court playing and then crawl exhausted into the weight room will struggle to optimize their strength and conditioning efforts. Often after a bout of grueling skill work or pickup the weight room work gets skipped. This becomes a problem over time because eventually, as the lifts flounder, so do the player's ability to gain or maintain strength.
Correction: Get in the habit of lifting prior to playing. If you are new to resistance training this can be challenging to get comfortable with but getting and staying strong/stronger will get easier. Resistance training sessions prior to court work should be reasonable in duration (20-40 minutes) and intensity depending on your planned court time.
Players will get used to shooting after a bout of weight room work and they may even be surprised to see their athletic performance spike. Intense/heavy lifting prior to power and speed activities like basketball can "prime the neuromuscular pump" through a phenomenon called post-activation potentiation (PAP). In other words, lifting heavy and hard prior to athletic performance will prepare the neuromuscular system to be firing on all cylinders.
3. too far outside the box
Error: I am confident that very few people would argue that in order to excel in the sport of basketball you need to be an extremely well-rounded athlete. I am equally as confident in a statement that I made on Twitter:
Just because there is a long list of athletic skills required during a game of basketball does not mean that it is helpful to go way outside the box and start training as if you are an athlete from a different sport. This head scratching but popular move takes players away from true basketball specific training and places them at risk for injury during activities that they are not built or prepared for.
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Correction: Understand that basketball players are a unique population based on their size and sport-specific repetitive motions (lots of shooting, jumping, landing and decelerations). When you take someone who is very tall/long who is used to a certain series of sport specific motions and force new ones on them, bad things can happen.
Basketball is a sport that requires constant motor-skill precision in the midst of power and speed actions. The health of the upper extremity from the shoulder down to the finger tips is critical for the precision aspect of basketball success. In sport disciplines such as MMA, CrossFit and boxing, the upper extremity is placed in extremely vulnerable positions at times. This must be appreciated when considering cross-training options.
Keep in mind that in my Tweet, I am not railing on any one of these sport disciplines, generally speaking. When done correctly, each of them have their place and can be excellent options for the right person/athlete. I simply want to point out that certain aspects of each can cause more harm than good for basketball players.
Training across sport disciplines can be a very valuable tool if done sparingly, responsibly and with respect to the athlete's unique needs/physical characteristics. More appropriate cross-training options for a basketball player would be a set of hill/incline runs, a beach workout, some pool work, a frisbee toss or to go play some volleyball.
The game of basketball has crazy demands and superhuman athletes who compete at the highest levels. That being said, in many cases, the current thinking about the best way(s) to train for ultimate basketball success need to be reigned in and thought through more carefully. Doing so will give more players more chances to excel and participate in this awe-inspiring game.
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Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS is the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and Founder of TD Athletes Edge, where he provides fitness, recovery and nutrition guidance to aspiring and professional athletes. For training advice, visit www.tdathletesedge.com and follow him on Twitter/Instagram through @tdathletesedge.
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