elitefts™ Sunday Edition

Throughout my relatively short strength and conditioning career, I've been honored to work alongside some great coaches and have been blessed with the opportunity to work with a number of highly driven collegiate and high school athletes. My number one priority as a strength and conditioning coach is to help my athletes succeed by keeping them strong and getting them to stay injury free. Additionally, I provide my athletes with the knowledge of how to take care of their bodies and help them bolster the physical skill set requisite to the rigors of playing at the next level.

Basketball is a sport that presents the strength and conditioning coach with some daunting challenges. The foremost challenge is time, which for players is scarce given the year-round competitive demands of basketball. For instance, it isn’t uncommon for a promising prep basketball player to participate in various camps, regularly compete in tournaments, and play on a number of teams (club, intramural, AAU) concurrently while he's still a member of his school’s basketball team. The scant amount of time that’s left over is typically spent on travel, studies, trying to capture a semblance of a social life outside of basketball, and, last but not least, casual games of pick up. After blasting through a packed schedule of games, practices, and camps, not to mention classes and extensive travel, what high school athlete wants to spend the little remaining time he has laboring in a weight room a few times a week?

With basketball, strength coaches must recognize that they’re pretty much always in-season. As you ascend to higher levels of competition, more time is usually invested in preparation, but it typically pales in comparison to the time spent playing.

Before coaches arrive at their drawing board of a blank Microsoft Excel sheet and begin typing in exercises, sets, and reps, the demands of the game from physiological, biomechanical, and psychological scopes must be thoroughly analyzed.

Physiological demands

Basketball is a blend of an intermittent sprint sport that requires a number of maximal or near maximal efforts with full time for recovery and a transition game sport that requires repeated efforts of varying intensities, which occur in random patterns with little to no recovery (1). As such, a game of basketball relies on the interplay of a number of energy systems.

Anaerobic contributions: Basketball is predominantly anaerobic in nature. Many movements in basketball require an immediate expenditure of energy, such as lay-ups, jump shots, contesting or blocking a shot, and diving to rescue a loose ball flying out of bounds. Movements or a series of movements occurring up to six seconds, such as scoring on a fast break or attempting to defend one, depend on the phosphagen pathway for energy production. Less intense but slightly longer outputs ranging from six to thirty seconds, such as a prolonged possession involving numerous shot attempts and rebounds or a rapid exchange of possessions (e.g. in a highly charged game until a timeout or foul is called), lean more heavily on glycolyctic pathways, primarily fast glycolysis with contributions from the phosphagen energy system. Thirty seconds up to two minutes of continuous movement becomes purely glycolyctic.

Aerobic contributions: Beyond two minutes, the body grows more reliant on oxidative contributions. Given the time parameters at each level of play—32 minutes divided into 8-minute quarters in high school, 40 minutes divided into 20-minute halves in college and some professional leagues, and 48 minutes divided into four 12-minute quarters in the NBA with each interpolated by a brief halftime—having a robust aerobic energy system is vital to the recovery between outputs that are anaerobically influenced.

The demands of a professional basketball game played in an Australian league, with time of play mirroring an NBA game, was analyzed by a team of researchers. A summary of the study can be found in Gambetta’s book, which breaks down the duration of a number of activities. Interestingly, only four minutes of play involved little to no activity, presumably walking the ball up the court and shooting free throws, while a majority of the game was spent performing a wide range of activities spanning from less intense ones, such as jogging and running, to sprinting, shuffling quickly, and jumping. The study noted, which Gambetta outlined, that 28 percent of the game was spent in strenuous exertion. It’s safe to assume that a majority of players logging considerable minutes are eclipsing one mile or more of running per game.

Biomechanical demands

A game of basketball involves an entire spectrum of movements, which range from the less intense activities such as jogging while dribbling to moderately intense movements such as shuffling while defending the perimeter to jumping and landing. Of all movements, jumping and the subsequent landing are accompanied by a high degree of absorptive forces or ground reaction forces, which some studies have shown exceed eight times body weight. Debate exists as to which landing technique is safer—bilateral or unilateral. However, when jumps are performed repeatedly (a study (1) revealed that elite basketball players registered upward of seventy jumps per game), the joints of the feet, ankles, and knees are at greater risk of sustaining injury.

Higher peak forces are associated with higher jumps. A 2010 study conducted by Israeli researchers revealed that vertical jump heights range from 22 to 48 centimeters in elite female basketball players and 40 to 75 centimeters in elite male basketball players (3). It has been reported that NBA players, including past slam dunk contest winners such as Vince Carter and Jason Richardson, have registered vertical jumps close to four feet. Michael Jordan reportedly had a vertical of 48 inches, and LeBron James was measured as having a 43-inch vertical jump before his rookie season. A higher volume of jumps and impactful landings can definitely degrade the integrity of the bones and joints of the lower limbs as well as tax tendons and ligaments, which generate and buttress forces when muscles aren’t strong enough to sustain repeated jumps and landings. Strength coaches must be cognizant that athletes playing at a higher level are capable of jumping higher and have far more mileage on their bodies than lesser experienced and younger athletes.

Psychological demands

Last, we must be cognizant of the game’s psychological demands. Basketball season is a grind. Travel is extensive, and outside of the NBA, overnight lodging is typically the furthest thing from a five-star accommodation. Student-athletes still have to juggle coursework and some may have to devote extra time to getting injuries treated. Focus may wane throughout the season as rest and recovery are compromised. Nagging injuries give rise to frustration. Strength coaches must account for all these things and anticipate them when they design pre-season and in-season strength and conditioning programs.

Play less and prepare more

Athletes must establish a volley of requisite biomotor abilities—muscular strength, muscular endurance, associated joint stability and mobility, cardiorespiratory fitness, and flexibility. The aforementioned serve as the foundation for the development and resultant successful display of power, speed, and agility and coordinative, proprioceptive, and reactive abilities.

Once the athlete has developed strength and stability and is able to harness the ability to produce force quickly, he will be able to fully reap the benefits of directed skill work and practice, which precede competition. Yet the majority of young athletes and many basketball players, irrespective of their skill level, jump over steps one through three and play without preparing their bodies.

Calling for a wholesale exchange of play for preparation would be unwise. However, basketball players should be urged by their coaches that playing is different than preparing and that time would be better spent strengthening their bodies than enrolling in another league during their off-season.

Account for differences among players

Oftentimes, coaches overlook the many differences, including physiological and emotional differences, among their players when creating a strength and conditioning program. At every level, the tallest player on the team may be more than one foot taller than the shortest player on the team. Each player encompasses unique anthropometry that can't be ignored.

Taller players need more stability due to their higher center of gravity. They’ll also need to work on mobility to get in lower and more athletic positions such as defending on the perimeter and getting low enough to secure and protect a ball following a rebound in traffic. Shorter players may need more bulk, strength, or jumping ability to compensate, especially if the opposition is taller and larger than they are.

Their training experience, injury history, and psyche all must be taken into account as well. Actual or anticipated playing time can also impact the design and implementation of the program. Skilled players may need more developmental work whereas precociously developed athletes, who already boast good strength and athletic ability, may be better served focusing on skill work. It's bothersome when coaches assemble a one-size-fits-all program for their players, especially when they may only have ten or fifteen athletes they’re working with.

Specific programming considerations

Taller athletes such as your centers and forwards and longer limbed athletes will have to work twice as hard to move weight from point A to point B. This is especially true with squats. Disproportionately long femurs and mile-long spines don’t work well with squatting off the bat. These athletes would benefit from single-leg work and stability work, starting with low grade activation drills that progress to isometric work before moving on to dynamic unilateral exercises and eventually squats.

Longer limbed athletes benefit from performing more isolation work provided they're still performing compound movements. A basic, single joint exercise such as a biceps curl requires more work in a longer armed athlete than it does in a shorter armed athlete. The athlete performing isolation exercises will still get strong and will actually add size, addressing the two things that many high school and college basketball players lack—strength and bulk.

To improve local bone mineral density of the lower arm, hand, and fingers, which commonly sustain fractures in basketball, isolation may and should include biceps curls and wrist curls and extensions as well as grip work to enhance static, crushing, and pinch grips. Additionally, the muscles of the neck and trapezius need to be trained in isolation to reduce the severity of head injuries. The muscles of the posterior chain need to be activated and developed to handle loading the hips during jumping and landing activities. This will reduce the stress imposed on the joints and bones of the lower limbs.

While this may rouse some readers, Olympic lifts, especially full Olympic lifts, performed from the floor aren’t necessary off the bat, at least not until appropriate joint mobility and stability can be addressed along the kinetic chain. Until then, less technically demanding alternatives such as plyometrics, medicine ball work, and dynamic work can be included to train extension.

Until Olympic lifts can be done from the floor or hang position, they can be broken down in variants, which can be taught using a top down approach. Examples include overhead squats with a snatch grip, overhead presses, jerks, and front squats. One of the most directly applicable movements as it relates to basketball is the overhead squat with a snatch grip, as it mimics the athletic position required during defensive play.

The multiplanar and multiple vector movement demands of basketball can't be ignored. Triple extension occurs vertically, linearly, and laterally and should be trained as such once the athlete is able to demonstrate control in each plane statically and dynamically.

The inclusion of a year-round running based conditioning program and plyometrics aren’t necessary for success. In fact, they’ll likely trigger tendonitis and potentially a host of more serious orthopedic issues when you consider all the running and jumping a basketball player engages in during the course of games and practices throughout the year. Additional conditioning work can be performed via metabolic circuit training during the back end of the workout, on an Airdyne, or through the performance of Strongman-based activities. Plyometrics should be performed sparingly throughout the year and as a substitute for those who haven’t yet mastered Olympic lifting or immediately preceding or during a pre-competitive block.

Lastly, and most importantly, the strength coach should communicate with the players, their coaches, and the team’s coaching staff on a regular basis. The strength coach should adapt the philosophies of the coach to the strength and conditioning program. The strength coach should also cultivate an atmosphere of accountability and reiterate the importance of players preparing their bodies for the rigors of the season. Remember, a longer season is a more successful one. A longer career is typically a more successful career, which is why a well-rounded approach is imperative to keeping athletes healthy and making them successful.


  • Gambetta V (2007) Athletic Development: The Art and Science of Functional Sports Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • McInnes SE, Carlson JS, Jones CJ, et al (1995) The physiological load imposed on basketball players during competition. J Sports Science.
  • Ziv G, Lidor R (2010) Vertical jump in female and male basketball players: a review of observational and experimental studies. J Sci Med Sport.