Preston Greene, Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Florida and PICP Level 5 Coach, provided these ten tips for producing more strength and conditioning results with college athletes at the 2012 Eleiko Strength Summit in East Greenwich, RI.
Tip #1: Train For The Sport
Let the needs of the sport dictate strength and energy system training. To train the energy systems for basketball, use the ATP-CP energy system 85 percent of the time and the lactic acid system 15 percent of the time. Basketball rarely taps into the aerobic system, meaning there’s no need to run a timed mile-and-a-half. Doing so will compromise athletes’ peak power and speed, two skills that are essential for basketball.
A 2008 study reinforces the need for appropriate energy system training. Researchers divided members of a Division 1 college baseball team into two conditioning groups for the duration of the season: One did endurance training at a moderate to high intensity, while the other group did sprint intervals. Over the course of the season, the endurance group decreased peak power output by an average of 39.5 watts while the sprint interval group improved power by an average of 210 watts!
During the off-season you can train these systems with modified strongman medleys. Then during pre-season, perform traditional conditioning with court-length runs, sprints and movement-based conditioning with such drills as defensive slides, offensive cuts, and transition defense series.
Strength Training Applied: Eccentric, Propulsive, Stabilizing, Integrated
Identify the types of strength needed for the sport and program accordingly. For example, basketball uses eccentric, propulsive, stabilizing, and integrated strength.
To train for defense, the players need to be able to decelerate and change directions very quickly. Therefore, we train slow eccentrics to increase their ability to decelerate loads and then accelerate fast. We want the athletes to execute the most efficient movements possible without any wasted steps.
Propulsive and stabilizing strength are necessary for players to be able to repeatedly jump when rebounding and tipping the ball in. We do this with Olympic lifts to train explosive power, and with rack pulls and isometrics to train the players to stabilize against force. Think of a player rebounding in the paint in traffic, while getting jostled from both sides by opposing players. They need to be able to stabilize their body, but also explode vertically to jump and get the ball back up and into the basket.
Rack pulls are also good for strengthening the lower back. Although the lower back is made of mostly slow-twitch muscles, it is slow to recover.
To train elastic strength and vertical jump, use Olympic lifts, such as the power snatch and pulls from the floor (clean and snatch), using 110 percent of maximal load for that lift. Contrast training in which you pair a strength move with a power move can also be used to take advantage of the muscular activation induced by the strength move.
Integrated strength is analyzed by looking at the interconnection between the joints when players are moving in their sport. Dynamic “athletic” strength is much different from static strength—your athletes must be strong for their sport. You can achieve high levels of strength, but if an athlete has a lack of movement from the pelvis or ribcage, it will decrease power output—a horrible thing to occur in an athlete.
For basketball, look at the kinetic chain when they are playing ball and see how the pelvis and ribcage must be free to move dynamically. Strengthen the trunk and lower body to move in an integrated fashion by training heavy deadlifts and chin-ups. This, along with full-range of motion training, eccentric, and the other forms of strength mentioned, will allow athletes to apply maximal force through the ground in all planes of motion through the kinetic chain.
Tip #2: Train for Structural Balance
The most important goal of strength training for college athletes is to reduce injury risk by training for structural balance. For basketball this is done with a lower body structural balance assessment, but obviously for a sport like baseball or lacrosse, upper body structural balance is just as important. Of course, it should go without saying that the goal for all athletes is integrated structural balance throughout the body.
You want to individualize the athletes’ training as much as possible because players come in all shapes, sizes, and forms, with different degrees of athleticism and training age. Freshman are going to train differently from upperclassmen because they will have different structural issues and they vary greatly in terms of technical lifting skill. Depending on scheduling issues, all training should be one-on-one or in small groups, but another option if staffing is limited, is to do one team lift a week with additional individual or small group lifts to target distinct needs.
Tip #3: Prepare with Specificity
Warm-ups are extremely important because they allow the athletes to get mentally prepared for what can be a brutal practice. This may not translate into quantifiably preventing injury, but it definitely doesn’t hurt.
Warm-ups should always be functional and include dynamic flexibility and locomotion to prepare the energy system without impairing strength. For example, use lots of backward movements to open the anterior flexors, such as posterior lunges and backward skips. There should be no static stretching during warm-up.
Tip #4: Make The Most of the Off-Season
In the off-season, you need to increase strength and power, while putting on muscle. This is also a time to focus on technique in the Olympic lifts.
Typically you’ll want to break the off-season into three phases. In the post-season phase, you will use a high volume to put on muscle mass and correct any strength imbalances. The first summer session will be hypertrophy but broken into two 3-week cycles to focus on accumulation and intensification. You can still train for strength, while putting on muscle mass, especially when all the athletes are doing is training and not having to practice. The second summer session will be a variation on Summer 1, with the primary focus on preparing the athletes to be ready for the pre-season.
Tip #5: Use Competition to Motivate Athletes
Athletics is about competition, and it takes an enormous amount of energy to win championships. If an athlete doesn’t respond to competition, they need to go to a lower level of athletics or choose a different profession.
Most athletes will excel in a competitive environment, meaning you must tap into this when conditioning them. Modified strongman training is excellent for motivation and it will build mental toughness and a common bond that will carry over to the season. It also allows you to push the athletes really hard and they won’t get sore because most strongman training only has a concentric phase and no eccentric.
Tip #6: Program to Peak the Players In-Season
The goal will always be to peak players in-season by having them maintain strength and structural balance all the way through the post-season. Along with not losing strength as the season progresses, you don’t want them to lose muscle mass either. The more muscle mass you maintain during season, the healthier the athletes will stay, and there will be less risk of injury.
As the end of the season nears, you want to train a low volume with heavy weights, always with the intent to move fast. Focus on full-range of motion movements. Additionally, you want to let the reps dictate the load, not use a set 1RM percentage that they have to hit.
The four limiting body parts for basketball players are the lower back, VMO, the hamstring as knee flexor, and the shoulder retractor. Focus on keeping these parts strong and balanced. For example, a goal is to not lose more than 10 percent of hamstring strength during the season. Do this by training leg curl variations in every workout, and train it first when the hamstring is freshest.
Tip #7: Optimize Recovery
Use a mandatory/optional recovery program in which athletes must do some form of recovery daily, but they get to choose which they do: Stretching, massage, or ART, for example.
Avoid a drop in performance due to the cumulative effect of the season and altered sleep patterns by decreasing training volume and using de-loading sessions (30 to 50 percent drop in volume). Never sacrifice intensity.
Tip #8: Control Nutrition as Much as Possible
Control the athletes’ nutrition as much as possible because one of the most common problems is that they don’t eat consistently. By planning their meals and making post-workout shakes, you can ensure that they get some good quality nutrition. You can’t count on athletes spending their money on supplements or food.
Pre-game meals should always be steak or the highest quality protein possible with slow-digesting low-glycemic carbs. Teach about proper nutrition and supplements so that when they have the resources and choice, they will use BCAAs, fish oil, low-glycemic carbs, and adequate protein.
Control what you can control, but don’t worry about the variables you can’t control. For example, in a collegiate setting, maintaining circadian rhythms or getting the athletes to get up extra early to eat breakfast before practice is probably not going to happen. Do focus on giving them a high-quality protein diet, maintaining hydration, and supporting recovery to minimize the cumulative effect of a long season.
Tip #9: Train Fundamental Childhood Movements
Train the functional “childhood” movements like squatting, hopping, jumping, balancing, pivoting, and lunging. Simply getting the athletes to recover these actions and move naturally in all planes and in all directions will help them move better on the court and prevent injury.
For basketball, we train many pivot or lunging movements with medicine ball throws: Lateral and transverse lunges with med ball throws to mimic passing, or a jump stop with med ball throw—train them to land with both feet together rather than the common one-two or “stutter step” jump stop.
Tip #10: Coach, Coach, Coach: Consistency is Paramount
You are their coach, not their friend, and you must always be consistent.
Focus on correcting one thing per set—more than that and they won’t be able to apply it.
Always demonstrate lifts or movements.
Focus on competition.
Train to win and compete.
Always be positive.
Don’t say “try”, say “do”.