End to End

January 29, 2015
To dominate play through a long basketball season, this author suggests correcting asymmetries and training with "monster" lifts during the preseason.
By Timothy DiFrancesco

Timothy DiFrancesco, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. He has also worked in the NBA Developmental League as a Head Athletic Trainer and co-founded TD Athletes Edge, a performance training facility in Massachusetts. He can be reached at: tdifranc@tdathletesedge.com or on Twitter at: @tdathletesedge.


Some basketball coaches approach the preseason like a student preparing for a big exam. They cram and try to get ready for the season in a very condensed time period. However, this is a recipe for disaster for strength and conditioning coaches. Players are more apt to suffer an injury when they're overworked, and performance gains made during the off-season can suffer. In other words, the team may fail that exam.

Let's look at a simple but critical plan to get the most out of the preseason and avoid getting an "F." First and foremost, the preseason should start with screening players for asymmetries and deficiencies. It should also involve strength, plyometric, and conditioning work. While the specifics of the programming need to be tailored to the individual players, this framework can be applied to any team, at any level, during the preseason.

RETHINKING THE PRESEASON
I think it is important to periodically re-evaluate preseason training's role in the competitive season. This is not a time to cram in as much work as possible, but rather a piece of the puzzle to a successful season.

First, it is important to remember the big picture: The team needs to be peaking physically during the playoffs, not the first games of what can be a very long season. There may be many team and individual goals that need to be met prior to the playoffs, but every player should be at their physical best in the postseason.

Because you can back off as the season progresses, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that more is better in the preseason. Players may come into training camp out of shape, and as a strength and conditioning coach, it is normal to feel the immediate urge to help them cram for the exam. However, you can always increase training volume as the season goes on, but you can never undo damage done by overworking your players in the preseason.

Athletes can tolerate only a certain volume of training, practicing, and competing before they respond negatively with signs of overtraining, injury, or both. As the strength and conditioning coach, you have little if any control over the amount of practicing and competing, but you certainly control the training load.

Ultimately, the greatest gift you can give players and coaches is to help the team become less susceptible to unnecessary non-contact injuries. All of the performance gains in the world are useless if injury keeps a player off the court. The preseason is a period that should be used to identify and avoid sources of non-contact injury while you prepare them to play and showcase performance gains that were made in the off-season.

MOVEMENT SCREENING
Strong players will always be assets to any team, as will players who move well. But strong players who also move well are the dream athletes. Not only does this combination result in an elite player, a strong player with above average movement patterns is less likely to suffer a non-contact injury.

The concept sounds simple, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Achieving an ideal combination of strength and movement ability begins with a movement screen or assessment. This is the starting point and most important part of the journey to peaking during the playoffs.

There are numerous types of screenings and assessments. A lot of strength coaches have a favorite or have put together their own version. Whether you like the Functional Movement Screen, prefer to assess athletes as they go through a dynamic warmup, or use another approach, it is critical that you screen your athletes to identify any movement asymmetries.

While returning athletes you have previously screened may only need a quick look to determine if any major changes have developed over the off-season, it is crucial to pay close attention when evaluating athletes who are new to the team. It takes time to identify and correct movement asymmetries, but if not addressed, unnecessary non-contact injuries could result.

Although individual screenings are ideal, you can evaluate athletes in a group setting, since your assessments don't have to be complicated. You can easily gain insight into players' quality of motion just by analyzing their form as they perform bodyweight squats, lunges, and single-leg squats. Grading the quality and symmetry of these fundamental movement patterns can help you decide which direction to take the players' preseason training programs.

I see several common movement and strength asymmetries or limitations in basketball players. To varying degrees, they include:

- Poor ankle mobility
- Poor hip mobility/strength
- Valgus collapse during the single-leg squat
- Poor overhead squat pattern with hip hinge or forward trunk lean
- Poor thoracic spine mobility
- Poor single-leg deadlift pattern.

You should immediately correct asymmetries or limitations you find because there is great potential for injury when coaches proceed with strength and conditioning programming for athletes who do not have quality fundamental movement patterns. When athletes who cannot do a quality body weight deep squat load two to three times their body weight on a bar, they are magnifying the dysfunction, which in turn puts them at a greater risk for injury.

To address an asymmetry or limitation, start with primitive pattern training. Based on the principles of dynamic neuromuscular stabilization, the first step is to activate the core to work in appropriate neuromuscular reflexive patterns. The core needs to be able to provide stability for the spine and trunk while the hips and shoulders do dynamic work from many different stances and positions. Over time, core activation patterns can atrophy and a quick system reboot may be all that is necessary to recreate a solid foundation for strength and power training.

The following core activation positions can be used for this preliminary reboot:

- Breathing in supine
- Supine/prone/rolling patterns
- Bridge patterns, including the "get-up"
- Tall-kneeling
- Half-kneeling
- Quadruped
- Split stance
- Squat stance.

Implementing appropriate primitive pattern training is a great launching pad to addressing general mobility/stability limitations. But be prepared to narrow your focus for specific asymmetries found in the movement screen. Asymmetry correction becomes much more effective when you are able to pair the primitive pattern training with corrective exercises that target identified issues. Here are a few common asymmetries/limitations and their corresponding corrective exercises:

Poor ankle mobility: Suspension strap-assisted dorsiflexion
Valgus collapse during single-leg squat: Side-lying clam shells, eccentric single-leg squats, and bowler squats
Poor thoracic spine mobility: Thoracic spine prayer.

Athletes who have basic movement pattern limitations or significant weaknesses should address the identified issues before progressing to more advanced training techniques like plyometrics or circuit training. You may have to remind these players of the long-term goal of peak postseason performance during this beginning phase.

STRENGTH WORK
Although correction of movement asymmetries and limitations should be the primary focus during the preseason, it does not have to be the only one. It is appropriate and necessary to begin movement correction while simultaneously addressing strength limitations. In fact, sometimes movement dysfunction is a result of strength limitation.

A quote from Pavel Tsatsouline and Dan John in their book, Easy Strength, sums it up nicely: "Everything else being equal, the stronger fighter shall prevail every time." In other words, you simply can't make up for a lack of strength during competition of any sport.

Especially in the preseason, you need to find ways to build upon strength gains made in the off-season while avoiding significant soreness. I have found that the best way to do this is to lift very heavy for low reps and higher sets. A lot of coaches who train basketball players think that because it is such an explosive/plyometric sport that lifting heavy is not a priority. Tsatsouline and John write in their book, "They forget that if you want a monster vertical, you will need a monster squat first."

I tend to stick in the range of four to six sets while using a rep range of two to six reps for many of our "monster" exercises. I use the term "monster" to describe exercises that target power muscles such as the glute and hip musculature. This type of exercise gives us more bang for our buck.

One example of a monster exercise in my toolbox is the goblet squat. It is an extremely simple exercise, but has a ton of reward combined with very little risk. Other lower body exercises that fall into this category include the hex bar deadlift or squat and the rear foot-elevated dumbbell goblet lunge. Upper body monster exercises in my toolbox include pushup variations, single-arm bent over dumbbell rows, and suspension strap inverted rows.

PLYOMETRIC WORK
The preseason is a good time to pair strength-based exercises with plyometric work. Combining the right types of exercises trains both strength and power, which are necessary for all aspects of the game of basketball. It is important to remember that only players who first perform well in a movement screen test should progress to plyometric work.

However, it is very easy to reach a point of diminishing returns when using plyometrics when working with basketball players because the frequency of practices and number of high impact movements players face. For example, due to the long levers and heavy body weights of many basketball players, I have found that the reward does not outweigh the risk to justify having them do depth jump variations.

When you pair a plyometric movement with a strength-based exercise, think about the muscle group you are working and select a plyometric exercise that will challenge that same group. The following pairs are examples of what I use:

- Goblet squat and box jump
- Hex bar deadlift and broad jump
- Half-kneeling dumbbell alternating vertical press and med ball squat to vertical throw
- Rear foot-elevated dumbbell goblet squat and single leg-elevated jump.

To avoid overtraining, I follow a basic set of rules when pairing plyometric and strength exercises:

- Avoid more than two pairs per workout.
- When your strength exercise has 10 or more reps per set, use half of that number of reps for the plyometric exercise.
- When your strength exercise has less than 10 reps per set, use that number of reps for the plyometric exercise.
- When in doubt ... less is better!

WORK CAPACITY ENHANCEMENT
The final piece of our preseason plan is conditioning, which does not include the traditional running of sprints after practice. Most coaches do more than enough mental toughening punishment-based sprint work during a practice, and I am a firm believer in not beating a dead horse. Instead, this is where our work capacity enhancement (WCE) circuits, or interval circuit training, come in (see "WCE Circuit" below).

WCE circuits are a simple way to address explosiveness, power, agility, and anaerobic capacity, all while avoiding repetitive movements in the same plane, which can lead to overuse injury. The key to designing a WCE circuit is to keep it short and simple while putting a premium on quality of movement. The authors of Supertraining, Yuri Verkhoshansky and Mel Siff, remind us that the larger the circuit, the more its ability to develop sport specific, strength-related qualities is compromised.

When I am developing a WCE circuit for the team, I keep the following in mind:

- Only the players who pass the movement screen are ready for WCE circuits.

- Keep the number of exercises between four and six. This will avoid compromising the quality of form and work.

- The order of the exercises can make or break the circuit's effectiveness. Complex and total-body exercises can exhaust an athlete, so these types of exercises should not be placed too close together in the circuit order.

- Keep the amount of upper-body and lower-body work comparable. If too many upper-body or lower-body exercises are sequenced together, quality will diminish.

- Grip dominance should be considered when choosing or organizing exercises for the circuit. Too many grip-dominant exercises will compromise quality of movement.

- Duration of the circuit varies and should be examined each day. It's best to base it on workload in the days leading up to the circuit, workload on the day of the circuit, and planned workload in the days after the circuit. A linear increase in duration is not necessarily an effective approach. I prefer to take these variables into account and alternate the length of each workout from short (30 to 90 seconds), to medium (90 seconds to three minutes), to long (three to five minutes).

Your training program should and will change, even on a daily basis. It's important to take into account the players' response to the workouts. If you are debating on intensity, load, or length of a workout, I suggest erring on the side of caution. Remember, it's a long season before the test of the playoffs, and too much too early can result in a failing grade.


Sidebar: WCE Circuit
Here is an example of a work capacity enhancement (WCE) circuit we commonly use during the preseason. Athletes would take a one-minute break after their first time through, then repeat the circuit a second time.

Station 1: Med ball footwork throws x12 each arm
Station 2: Elevated alternating single-leg jumps x30
Station 3: Half-kneeling med ball slams x12 each side
Station 4: Various ladder footwork drills x4 laps
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