The Baller and the Barbell

TAGS: vertical jump, plyometric, kang, jump, explosive, basketball, speed, barbell

Many people grow up playing basketball. Courts are usually accessible all around the neighborhood in driveways and in parks. The only thing you have to purchase is a basketball. When these young basketball players get older, they start searching for something to give them an advantage over their opponent. Most, if not all, think they must practice their skills more (shooting, dribbling, passing, rebounding) in order to gain an additional edge. This is obviously very true to a certain respect. However, once these skills have been developed to a high level through repetition and technique mechanics, what’s next?

These athletes should turn to weights first and later to explosive plyometric movements but only if they’ve reached a certain acceptable level of strength. Basketball itself is an extended plyometric session. This is why most players today more often than not need maximal strength work so that they can apply this strength to their performance. Keep in mind though that the application of plyometric movements depends on the natural reactive ability of the athlete (the concentration of fast-twitch motor units versus the concentration of slow-twitch motor units) along with the recruitment, synchronization, and rate coding of their motor units (Zatsiorsky). For instance, a highly reactive athlete such as Allen Iverson wouldn’t need as much plyometric training compared to the amount of weight training he would need to utilize his natural reactive ability. On the other hand, an athlete such as Paul Pierce (not blazingly fast or quick) might take away more from additional plyometric training.

How do we determine if an athlete is on the static side or the reactive side of the spectrum? To determine this, (there are many things that can be tested, but we won’t get into that now), we can use a standing vertical test (jumping straight up and down from a still position) and a depth jump test (jumping down off a box from various heights and bouncing as high off the ground as possible). If a Just Jump pad or Vertec is not readily available in your training facility, you can use the old-fashioned method of slapping the wall for the standing vertical jump test (albeit less accurate).

If your depth jump is higher than your standing vertical jump, you’re a more reactive athlete and perhaps need more maximal strength work. If your depth jump is lower than your standing vertical jump, you’re a more static athlete and need to apply more plyometric training to improve your sports performance. If your depth jump is equivalent to your standing vertical jump, you’re in the middle of the static/reactive spectrum. You need a specialized program involving both plyometric and maximal strength work. On the other hand, if you have a very weak standing vertical leap with an equally weak depth jump (slow and weak athlete), you have the most amount of work to do. These athletes need to start with a regimented volume routine to build a solid foundation (to be described later). Once the foundation is built, they can effectively begin both plyometric routines (applying the foundation they have created) and new DE/ME strength training methods. What’s funny is that these slower, weaker athletes believe that doing “wind sprints” is the only key to getting faster. They need to get stronger in order to apply some strength to their speed!

One problem is that many reactive/static athletes fail to make the connection, specifically those closer to the reactive end of the spectrum. They fear that adding bulk will essentially “slow” down their game and their flexibility. Having that much musculature is really an extreme (to affect flexibility). Basketball players have no use for carrying that much muscle mass. Carrying around too much sarcoplasmic (puffy bodybuilder) muscle mass is also detrimental to actual game time because basketball is a highly aerobic/endurance type activity. What we want is myofibrillar (neurologically efficient and dense) hypertrophy and excellent relative strength, which can be obtained by lifting heavier weights for lower reps. A good muscle to strength ratio is a 10 percent gain in body weight resulting in a 30 percent increase in weight lifted. The “adding muscle will only make me slower (although stronger) and add unwanted weight” mindset must be changed to this more intelligent methodology.

Another misconception is that adding muscle will interfere with shooting mechanics. Again, this claim is ridiculous. Many people have the preconceived notion that having muscle leads to decreased coordination and general awkwardness while moving. Have you seen the latest Rocky movie? Stallone is “punching” while grasping a pair of dumbbells. While this is a special case where an exercise will undoubtedly alter motor patterns, basketball players would never encounter this type of training in the first place. (Remember, they don’t like to train with resistance.) If the muscles and CNS are trained correctly, they shouldn’t interfere with shooting mechanics at all. But again, practicing correct motor patterns during skills training (perfect practice makes perfect) is another story.

Most basketball players are concerned with their level of skill, quickness, and vertical leap but don’t understand the scientific approach regarding how to improve these traits. This general ignorance is because many don’t bother to do their own research to get better. Because of this, basketball players are afraid to lift heavy, take the time to recover, and eat sufficient quality calories. The irony is that football players aren’t overly concerned with the above qualities yet exceed the basketball players in all those aspects. In the 2006 NBA combine, only one player achieved a 37-inch standing vertical leap. However, year after year in the NFL combine, players are able to regularly exceed 35 inches for their standing vertical leap tests along with the freakish 40 plus inches for the standing vertical leaps that come yearly.

Another major question that basketball players ask is, “If I don’t run every day, how can I stay conditioned and ready for the game?” The answer is that endurance training can be obtained by virtually every able-bodied person on the planet. However, strength training is a much more involved process that has to be carefully nurtured over the course of (at minimum) several years to improve sport performance. It’s a fact that basketball-specific endurance can be regained in a matter of weeks before the start of the season (with a few weeks of “playing” their way into shape) while strength training takes years to develop. Players should stick to high intensity interval training, sled dragging, and various Strongman exercises (without loaded running) while undergoing their strength training. Why condition yourself to death if it leads to nowhere but overtraining and joint problems? Adding lean and neurologically efficient muscle in a constructive way through a regimented diet (of high quality protein, quality fatty acids, low GI carbohydrates, and high GI carbohydrates after intense exercise) combined with an effective routine will get the job done.

Naturally reactive athletes are generally weaker ectomorphs (which is prototypical of many beginning basketball players), and a solid foundation must be built through high-volume training simply to provide a base of muscular mass to work on. This is analogous to a sculpture. How can a sculpture be made without a wire frame? Instead of the typical three sets of 10 reps, these athletes should focus on lifting heavy weights with lower reps while maintaining the same level of volume. At all times, the athlete should focus on lifting the weights as quickly as possible, regardless of the weight. Acceptable levels of strength include a 150 percent body weight squat, 10 repetition sets of pull-ups, and a 200 percent body weight deadlift in order to take advantage of high intensity plyometric exercises. This muscular foundation should consist of a very strong posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and lower back), strong abdominals, some upper body work, and an emphasis on lower body unilateral exercises. Some key exercises are the box squat, full squat, deadlift, the glute ham raise, and other compound movements.

Once a solid foundation/base is built, the DE/ME methods can be incorporated to improve actual sports performance (in reference to their speed, explosiveness, and vertical elevation). Watch the beginners because they tend to dive into the advanced methods before their foundation is built. This isn’t conducive to their optimal performance. Along with the DE/ME methods, players who need to address explosiveness should turn to the true plyometric exercises—the depth jump and the drop jump. Outside of sports enhancement, having muscle will also serve to protect players from contact injury from other players.

These days, the players play far too much basketball because they believe this is the only way to become better. However, this leads to severe overtraining and will only cause setbacks for the athlete who is on the quest to become a better player. Players must realize that they have to lay off the basketball and the full court games in order to improve their performance and health. Again, most players can’t accept this and continue on their way to constant overtraining.

Many basketball players engage in static stretching before practices and games. This only serves to make them both weaker and slower, and may contribute to injury. Even on the professional level, NBA players are engaged in static laying hamstring stretches led by trainers before they start the game! Knowledge of strength training and mobility in the basketball arena is severely lacking. They need to reach out to their football brothers (the educated ones) for a helping hand. While there are many other topics to be discussed, first and foremost, athletes can’t be afraid of the unknown and need to escape the preconceived notions that shelter their minds.

For the information contained in this article, thanks goes to Frank Yang (one of Eric Cressey’s clients who recently obtained a 40-inch vertical and performance specialists Eric Cressey and Kelly Baggett.

Elite Fitness Systems strives to be a recognized leader in the strength training industry by providing the highest quality strength training products and services while providing the highest level of customer service in the industry. For the best training equipment, information, and accessories, visit us at

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