Divide and Conquer

May 16, 2015

By grouping players’ in-season training regimens according to their physical development and role on the team, the strength coach for University of Virginia men’s basketball helps each athlete reach his peak.

The following article appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.

By Mike Curtis

Mike Curtis, MEd, CSCS, has been Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Men’s and Women’s Basketball at the University of Virginia since 2009. Previously, he served as Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Michigan and spent six years as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Memphis Grizzlies. He can be reached at: [email protected]

During the competitive season, my goal as the strength coach for University of Virginia men’s basketball is the same as the team’s: win as many games as possible. How can a strength and conditioning program contribute to winning? When players are stronger, faster, and move more efficiently than their opponents, they are more likely to be successful on the court. The challenge is maintaining this high level of fitness throughout the grind of a long season.

At Virginia, we didn’t meet this challenge overnight. Shortly after Head Coach Tony Bennett was hired in 2009—and 11 years after my career as a Cavalier men’s basketball player ended—I became the team’s strength and conditioning coach. In our first season together, Coach Bennett and I began our tenure with a 15-16 campaign and threw ourselves into the tall task of changing the less-than-ideal culture that existed before our arrival.

By collaborating with the team’s support staff, we gradually implemented and refined a high-performance in-
season training system that prepares our players to meet the demands of elite-level college basketball. Our approach is founded on teamwork and individualized training that accounts for each player’s physical development and number of years spent in our program. We bring everything together by utilizing the latest advances in data collection to ensure the work we do in practice and the weightroom doesn’t hamper our athletes’ ability to move and perform on the court.

Since 2009, our in-season system has paid off handsomely. The team has improved its win totals each year and posted back-to-back 30-win seasons in 2013-14 and 2014-15. In addition, the squad has captured two regular season Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) championships and one ACC Tournament title, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, reached the Sweet Sixteen, produced a number of NBA draft picks, and graduated several high-character young men. I can truly say the past six seasons here have been the most rewarding of my career.

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

If I had instituted the current version of our in-season training program right off the bat in 2009, chances are the team wouldn’t have experienced the same levels of success. That’s because an in-season training prescription cannot render the desired physical preparedness and adaptive qualities without a proper psychological and physiological foundation. We had to first build a new culture, then gradually bring the athletes into it.

This started with altering our program’s organizational structure. My role on the team has evolved from strength and conditioning coach to manager of the total athlete. As such, it is important that I communicate and collaborate with Coach Bennett and all of the individuals who serve our athletes, such as the team’s sports nutritionist, sports psychologist, athletic training staff, and assistant coaches. Everyone who surrounds and supports the squad’s efforts now provides consistent messages to the athletes about what is expected and necessary to be successful.

Because nothing is more important for creating a winning culture than having the right frame of mind, a significant component of my new role is facilitating a process-oriented mindset. To do that, I often speak to our players about being “24-hour athletes,” which means eating right, managing their schoolwork, and making good decisions in social settings. We drill home this message in hopes players adopt lifestyle habits that lend themselves to our pursuit of championships.

Once the philosophical foundation was set, we could build the physiological one. Our program takes a movement-based approach to training, and my mantra is, “Move well, move often, and then move well under load.” To address the “move well” component and determine each athlete’s potential limitations, we utilize the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), upper- and lower-quarter screening, performance tests, and observation.

PART OF THE GROUP

Our specialized approach to screening carries over to our in-season training regimen. Each athlete is categorized based on his specific needs. The first classification divides them into one of three groups based on how much time they’ve spent in our program: Advanced, Intermediate, or Novice.

The Advanced classification is reserved for athletes who have been in our system for two years or more. These individuals possess the requisite mobility and attention to detail to utilize Olympic lifts and their derivatives, squats, and presses as the foundational exercises of their training, so they require more complex programming and periodization to continue to experience adaptations.

During the competitive season, the primary training goal for the Advanced group varies greatly depending on the athlete. For instance, athletes who need to get stronger train more frequently at higher intensities. Those who have sufficient levels of strength spend more time on skill-related qualities that may not be as developed.

Intermediate athletes have gone through a year in our training system. They’ve developed the requisite work capacity to be successful in our program, and their primary in-season training goal is to develop strength. The methods we use to accomplish this vary depending on an athlete’s role in our rotation. Generally, players who receive more minutes work with a lower volume in the weightroom to offset the physical stresses of competition.

All first-year athletes and transfers are defined as Novices. Transfers fall into this category because I assume their training history is not adequate for them to be placed immediately into one of our higher levels. We always start at zero. The athletes’ competency will dictate how quickly they move toward 100.

We have two goals for Novice athletes. The first is developing fundamental movement competency and addressing any dysfunction that may hinder us from putting them under load. In addition, we focus on building their work capacity by improving motor patterns, aerobic fitness, strength endurance, and body composition.

During their first offseason in our program, we progress slowly with our Novice athletes. They spend a considerable amount of time completing bodyweight peripheral heart action-oriented circuits and dumbbell- and kettlebell-loaded movements. The summer is typically the first time we have an opportunity to work with these newcomers, and I think immediately putting a barbell on their back and saying, “Go,” is negligent. But if they advance at a higher rate, we don’t hold them back.

By the time the in-season period arrives, Novice athletes are ready to use the barbell for complex work and squatting movements. This helps build proficiency for more advanced progressions. The remainder of their in-season training revolves around kettlebell-loaded movements and low- to mid-level progressions in hinging and pressing. We continue to use kettlebells and dumbbells because they provide a lower-system load while helping athletes acquire greater strength.

After classifying each player as Advanced, Intermediate, or Novice, we further categorize their in-season regimens based on their role in the team’s rotation. These three subgroups are: Optimal Readiness, Window of Development, and Developmental. While an athlete’s initial classification determines the types of exercises he does, his subcategory determines his specific workout intensity. This approach ensures each athlete’s training load accounts for the anticipated and accumulated fatigue of his playing time.

The Optimal Readiness group consists mainly of our rotation athletes—the five to eight individuals who play the most. The primary aim in training this group is to ensure the players are ready to execute their skillset and exhibit high levels of endurance and repeated force production at tip-off.

During the season, a term we use often when training our Optimal Readiness athletes is “minimum effective dose.” These players are exposed to the lowest volume and intensity necessary to maintain baseline levels of their physical capacities. As such, a typical strength training session for this group is three to four sets of one to three reps for each of the main lifts.

The Window of Development group is comprised of athletes who play inconsistent minutes. They may go a game or two without seeing action and then be called upon to deliver valuable minutes when there is foul trouble, injury, or match-up issues.

Given the low number of minutes they can expect to play, residual fatigue going into games is acceptable for Window of Development athletes. For instance, they may occasionally strength train the day before a contest or even the morning of a night game. Generally, they are in the weightroom three or four times per week, with two or three strength sessions and one energy system development exposure.

Our third subcategory is the Developmental group, which is made up of our redshirt and non-rotation players. The primary goal of in-season training for these athletes is to address any physical limitations uncovered in our screening process.

Because Developmental athletes don’t play many minutes, they train aggressively during the season, with less attention paid to accumulated and residual fatigue. In general, the Developmental group trains three to five times per week. Three of these training exposures are typically focused on movement skills and building strength, with one or two additional sessions dedicated to energy system development.

WORKOUT BREAKDOWN

All of our in-season workouts follow a template. Athletes in the Optimal Readiness and Window of Development groups have two segments to their training sessions: movement preparation and strength training.

The movement preparation phase is made up of eight components. Each piece prepares the athletes to move well under load during strength training.

Breathing Preparation: The breathing exercises we do, such as crocodile, three-months position, and wall-
engaged with hip flexion, prime the athletes’ autonomic nervous systems for tissue quality work. In addition, breathing preparation helps to create the proximal stability necessary for lifting and can aid in increasing lung volume.

Tissue Preparation: We use foam rolling, massage sticks, and manual release in this phase to address players’ tissue adhesions, neurological tension, and less-than-optimal length-tension relations.

Mobility, Stability, or Pattern Intervention: This segment attacks mobility, stability, or patterning issues that were identified in our FMS, upper- and lower-quarter screens, and observations of general movement.

Trunk and Glute Activation: We use rolling, crawling, and mini-band resistance to prime and innervate the players’ inner and outer cores for loading.

Dynamic Flexibility: Dynamic flexibility is comprised of stretch-and-hold routines that mimic the movement tasks in the training session. These drills target joint mobility and flexibility, both globally and in isolated muscles. Examples of drills we use are knee hugs, elbow to instep, quad pulls, and lateral lunges, and the athletes perform them standing still and while moving.

Proprioception and Reflexive Trunk Stabilization: This is to provide sensory feedback and awaken the athletes’ nervous systems. We use beam walking and carry variations in this stage.

Coordination Patterning: In this segment, our goal is to groove players’ locomotor patterns and develop their overall athleticism using a variety of skips and runs.

Plyo Preparation and Central Nervous System Activation: We prepare the players’ bodies to move quickly and explosively using short response bounds, hops, jumps, and medicine ball throws.

The second portion of any in-season workout is dedicated to strength training. We break our weightroom work up into four areas of emphasis: 1) speed-strength or strength-speed; 2) squat and upper-body pull; 3) hinge and upper-body push; and 4) assistance and rotary trunk. The first three stages also include either a movement impairment intervention or active recovery exercise. (See “Gains Between Games” below for a sample in-season strength training workout.)

Most of our athletes follow the same template for strength training, regardless of their classification. The only difference is the Novice group does not complete as many movement impairment interventions or active recovery exercises because they focus on building movement competency through remedial exercises.

Strength work during the season falls into one of three exposures depending on what outcome we are trying to achieve. Athletes spend time in each one, and we vary the exposures based on how long they need to recover.

The first strength training exposure is called developmental. It’s meant to illicit a positive physical response through general adaptation syndrome principles. During a developmental exposure, the target intensity for the primary lifts is 80 to 95 percent.

We use developmental exposures with our Optimal Readiness athletes when we have three to four days between games and our athlete monitoring system shows minimal fatigue. The Developmental and Window of Development groups might use this exposure two to three days before a competition because residual fatigue is less of a factor for them.

Retention is our second strength-training exposure, and it helps athletes maintain their baseline physical qualities. The target intensity for retention is 75 to 85 percent, with low to moderate volume. We typically utilize retention exposures two to three days before a game, and this is the predominant type of in-season exposure for our Optimal Readiness group.

Lastly, restoration exposures are low to moderate volume workouts with target intensities in the 65 to 80 percent range. Because these sessions use lighter loads, they can be imposed on athletes as little as 18 hours prior to a competition.

We frequently use restoration exposures on scheduled off days or for post-game strength training sessions, which typically occur once a week when we get into conference play. The Optimal Readiness and Window of Development groups engage in restoration exposures most frequently, and our Developmental group uses them during unloading weeks.

In addition to movement preparation and strength work, the Developmental group undergoes a third section during in-season training, in which movement training is also addressed. Since these athletes do not play in games and have limited roles in practice, we can train movement skills without worrying about overuse. Also, movement deficiencies are frequently part of the reason these athletes are classified as Developmental in the first place.

During movement training, athletes are taught the mechanics of linear, lateral, and multi-directional movement. Then, we challenge them to train these qualities at high speeds and velocities to ensure a training adaptation occurs.

DATA DRIVEN

Our philosophical foundation and classification system are major catalysts in helping Virginia men’s basketball players perform at their best. The final piece in the puzzle is data collection. We have embraced a variety of athlete-monitoring strategies to get a more complete picture of their stress and adaptation levels during in-season training.

To measure internal load, we utilize a heart rate monitoring system that provides real-time heart rates and measures respiration via percentage of VO2 max, excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, calories burned, physiological workload, and session-training effect. This tool helps us quantify athletes’ cardiovascular responses to practice.

We use the Catapult GPS during the season to assess external load. Information gathered with this device includes distance covered, quantity and magnitude of jumps, decelerations and accelerations, change of direction, and an overall measure of biomechanical load.

In addition, we utilize Omegawave software that non-invasively measures the players’ heart rate variability, central nervous system readiness, and energy supply system status. With this information, we have insight into the window of trainability for a particular physical quality, and it helps us employ the proper recovery methods before and after a training session.

Aside from our technological tools for athlete monitoring, we also get direct feedback from the players using subjective questionnaires via Google Docs. We gather information daily on athletes’ quantity and quality of sleep, mood, pain, soreness, and rate of perceived exertion during skill exposures, training sessions, and competitions. The survey data helps us compare athletes’ views on hard or easy training sessions with what the metrics tell us.

So how does all this data come together to impact in-season training? It allows me to objectively relay the players’ levels of readiness and weigh the potential biological costs of an impending training exposure. Coach Bennett and I use this information to prescribe and apply appropriate training stimuli in practices and strength and conditioning work.

Building an in-season training program for each of our athletes is complex, yet simple. The classifications, subcategories, and technology allow our staff to move away from guesswork and intuition-based decision-making to prescribe the correct stressors at the appropriate times, which ensures optimal readiness on game day.

Our system has produced encouraging results both in the weightroom and on the court. The individualized approach to training helps eliminate the physical barriers that can reduce a player’s ability to perform or lead to overuse injuries. And as the athletes mature, the system strives to ensure they are able to reach their potential in every way.

 

SIDEBAR: GAINS BETWEEN GAMES

Here’s a sample workout from our in-season strength training segment.

1. Speed-strength or strength-speed: Kettlebell two-arm swing, power snatch hang to mid thigh, loaded squat jump variations

Movement impairment intervention or active recovery

 

2. Squat: Front squat, hex bar dead lift, front split squat

Horizontal or vertical pull: Pull-up variation, row variation

Movement impairment intervention or active recovery

 

3. Hinge: Single- or double-leg Romanian dead lift, barbell Romanian dead lift, kettlebell one-arm, loaded or unloaded glute bridge variation

Horizontal push: Bench press variation

Movement impairment intervention or active recovery

 

4. Assistance: Lower extremity

Rotary trunk: Chop, lift, anti-rotation press

Assistance: Kettlebell overhead pressing progression

Trunk or assistance: Turkish get-up progression

 

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