This is a question that I have been pondering about for some time. I was wondering about the elite NBA players of today, which include Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki and their athletic ability. The aforementioned players range from the point guard position to the power forward position. They have all grown as players since their rookie seasons.

As seen from countless drafts, many draftees are described as not having an “NBA ready” body. This is simply a euphuism that they are just too damn skinny or frail. An additional point that many fail to realize is that draftees entering the NBA are already at the height or near the peak of their reactive ability. In order to improve on their overall athleticism, they must lift maximal weights. On the other hand, they must gain muscle mass in order to protect themselves from the rigors of contact play during the NBA season.

They are able to do both through quality compound movements (full squatting, deadlifts, unilateral movements). Hypertrophy can be easily gained through the repeated effort (RE) method along with a proper high protein diet. Through the maximal effort (ME) method, their central nervous system can be prepared to lift maximal weights and improve upon their athleticism (vertical leap and explosiveness). Players don’t have to partake in maximal strength exercises so much during the season—just the type of lifting that would maintain their mass for the rigors of the season. Lifting can’t be too intense during the season because the central nervous system would be too taxed from both game time pounding and lifting sessions.

However, of the aforementioned elite players, the only player who stands out as a certified gym rat is Kobe Bryant. From various pieces of literature and media, it has been noted that he engages in chained full squats, reverse hypers, and board presses among many other exercises. LeBron James performs a variety of body weight exercises, kettlebell movements, and also banded movements. But the real question is, do these elite players necessarily have to do maximal effort type lifts in order to improve their athleticism if it is already at its peak? The answer is most likely no.

Why is this? This is mainly due to the fact that many elite NBA draftees have already reached their near peak level of athleticism. The most elite players already have freakish vertical leaps from their tall frames (35 plus inches) coming into the league. These include vertical leaps comparable to the top 2007 NFL combine results among running backs and wide receivers.

The standing vertical jump is one of the definitive ways to measure athletic ability. Most all elite NBA draftees have attained this ability through God given talent and years of intensive plyometric activity (countless hours of basketball). It is also not a coincidence that younger players rely more on their athleticism because of their lack of experience at the professional level against professional veterans. But with all NBA players, as they gain experience, they know where and when to apply their athleticism.

Expending enormous energy through pure athleticism will easily lead to a burn out of the individual player. That is why most NBA veterans develop other ways to score (jump shooting) and expand their skill set (defense, rebounding, assists) rather than driving the paint and dunking the ball every time. Take for example, Dwyane Wade and his playing style. He has racked up many injuries through his young career through drawing contact in the paint and his aggressive offensive style. He also wears the McDavid protective hexpad gear underneath his jersey and shorts. Unless Wade develops his outside jump shot, his playing career will be truncated. We must remember though that NBA draftees are of a different breed, but they are still humans.

Basketball players shun the weight room because they fail to make the connection between the weights and their athleticism. The problem is that when the players enter on the professional level, their bodies are simply not ready for the men that they are about to face in the league. The strength gains through lifting are actually a secondary benefit to the primary benefit of functional mass players are able to gain during training. This “functional” mass serves to help protect them against many types of contact injury (although it can’t guarantee against acute injury) that can occur from banging around with more physically dominant players. It also helps to inject some mental toughness for the drudgery of the NBA season.

LeBron James, a recent high school elite NBA draftee, is a special case. He is quite frankly one of the most unique physical specimens ever in the history of the NBA. However, don’t be fooled. Lebron underwent a series of strength training routines during high school for him to fill his 6'8" 240-lb frame. Just as a pure frame of reference, this is the equivalent of a 5'0" person weighing 180 lbs (3 lbs per inch of height). It is also not a coincidence that LeBron was also an all-state football receiver during high school, which ultimately helped his strength and level of mental toughness for the NBA.

What most NBA draftees coming into the league need is to churn out reps on compound movements and get their hips/core/lower back as strong as possible while still maintaining a good amount of mobility. Landing from jumps, performing cuts, decelerating, and accelerating will wreak havoc on the joints and muscles. Every individual body part has a synergistic effect on each other. A weak link in the chain will cause the chain to break. The hip, knee, and ankle are simple examples displaying this synergistic effect. Many draftees coming into the league need to approach lifting through a holistic approach because their entire chain is full of weak links. After building a strength base (which would already start to tremendously improve their relative athleticism), they may partake in maximal work as mentioned earlier.

But let’s not forget about GPP training altogether. It still needs to be done to maintain the level of GPP needed for the season. Sled dragging and Prowler pushing are great ways to do this while avoiding heavy loaded walking/running (farmer walks). A few seasons ago, Kwame Brown (then with the defunct Wizards) only hit the weights with no cardio/GPP over the summer. He in turn was in horrible shape for training camp, albeit with additional muscle mass. Balance of weight training/GPP is a key factor for training in any sport.

On an aside, two prominent examples of guards who have packed on mass since they have joined the league are Michael Jordan (now retired) and Kobe Bryant. Jordan, in particular, needed the additional mass because he had changed his game from a predominantly slashing game to a post game. Kobe Bryant seems to be lifting (at the present) for performance enhancement because his game has not primarily evolved into a post game.

Sadly, many NBA players are still partaking in bodybuilding type routines. An example of this can be seen with Tracy McGrady and his omniscient trainer. He directs McGrady to do isolated bicep curls, leg extensions, leg pressing, and loaded/banded jumps with his pre-existing back condition. Hilarious! When has any type of basketball movement involved only a single isolated muscle? Never! So why do NBA players still do isolated movements? The bottom line is these training regimens are simply not conducive to basketball performance.

However, the issue is debatable as to whether lifting is absolutely necessary for today’s NBA elite players. Nash, Duncan, Garnett, and Nowitzki do not have much “discernable” muscle mass or explosive power to separate them from the rest of the NBA players, yet they still perform at the highest MVP caliber level. I am not discounting the fact that they may have great myofibrillar hypertrophy, but let’s be real here. Most elite NBA players do not know what in the blue hell they are doing when it comes to strength training. Elite NBA athletes can partake in maximal effort work in the off-season (it can’t hurt their performance), but the results yielded on their athleticism will not be as great as that of a non-elite athlete never exposed to this type of training.

On a funny note, Dikembe Mutumbo visited my gym back in June of 2006. He was a great guy who answered our questions, but he had no idea what he was doing or trying to accomplish (iso-incline bench machine of some sort along with other random machines). Calbert Chaney also apparently trains at the gym in the mornings. It’s a shame that his trainer forces him to do quarter squats and limited ROM movements.

This article simply states that basketball itself is not only relegated to athletic ability and size but is also composed of basketball IQ, heart, hustle, killer instinct, and skill/technique along with other intangible abilities. This is why only a small percentage of U.S. college basketball athletes ever make it into the NBA. Each player has to have a rare combination of athleticism and the aforementioned intangible abilities. This group of collegiate players also must compete with many great international prospects. But in general, players need to gain some functional mass through the RE method in order to prepare them for the rigors of the season. As mentioned earlier, they also can perform maximal effort work (in the off-season) to improve their static strength in lieu of improving their overall athleticism.

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