Jan 29, 2015A Strong Season
Designing an in-season strength program for basketball is fraught with scheduling challenges. At Wisconsin, the men’s team uses a focused but flexible plan to keep its players strong all season long.
By Scott Hettenbach
Scott Hettenbach, MS, CSCS, is in his 12th year as the Strength and Conditioning Coach for men’s basketball at the University of Wisconsin. He has worked with 15 different sports while at Wisconsin, and can be reached at: [email protected].
For most NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams, in-season strength training is anything but routine. Because each week’s schedule of competitions and travel is unique, not to mention each player’s academic responsibilities, scheduling a performance training program during the season is like trying to hit a moving target.
Here at the University of Wisconsin, our 2006-07 non-conference schedule had the team playing on any given day of the week in November and December. During one stretch, we played seven games in 16 days. After our conference games started, we varied between playing on Tuesday or Wednesday nights and Saturday or Sunday afternoons.
This type of schedule makes it difficult to construct a consistent in-season performance-training program for our student-athletes. Communication with coaches and support staff, along with some creative program design, are the keys to keeping the changing schedule “routine.”
Before I start designing any strength program, I take time to examine the sport coach’s goals and strategies for the season. For any performance training program to succeed, the strength and conditioning coach, the athletic trainer, and the team’s head coach must work closely together to develop a cohesive plan. They may not always agree entirely, but their level of communication often determines how well a team performs on the court.
The first things Head Men’s Coach Bo Ryan and I talk about is the overall philosophy of the men’s basketball program and what his priorities are. From there, I develop a strategy specific to strength and conditioning, focused on making players successful on and off the court. This year, my plan was based on four goals:
1. Reduce the incidence of basketball-related injuries. 2. Improve performance in the weightroom that transfers to the court. 3. Build self-esteem and confidence in our student-athletes. 4. Ensure that academics are a priority when scheduling workouts.
Part of the team’s philosophy is to hold student-athletes to a high standard both in the classroom and on the court, and I make sure the same holds true in the weightroom. We expect them to be on time for scheduled workouts, and they are only permitted to wear team-issued practice gear. They are also required to have their shirts tucked in at all times and no jewelry, cell phones, or iPods are allowed. We also demand that they bring a great attitude and a desire to improve, just as they do for a practice or game. These are simple concepts, but it’s amazing what happens when everyone is on the same page and buys into the routine.
Coach Ryan and I both believe that intensity and consistency are the keys to great training, and that’s at the foundation of everything we do on the court and in the weightroom. He follows a specific routine each day at practice. The drills he uses change, but the flow of the practice remains very consistent. Our players know what to expect, but each practice may present a new approach on how to accomplish it. I try to mimic that philosophy in the weightroom.
At the same time, I let my personality come through in our workouts. I really enjoy my job, and I try to pass my enthusiasm on to others, especially in-season when practices, travel, and academic workloads can wear players down mentally. I think it is extremely important to be early, be organized, and be upbeat. If a workout is scheduled for 6 a.m., I want our athletes to walk into a weightroom that’s full of energy, not a dark building with no one around. Even the best-designed strength programs will fall short if athletes don’t bring a certain level of intensity to their workouts.
A team’s style of play is also part of the big picture and must factor into the performance training program design. We run the swing offense, which requires everyone on the court to be involved in the movement of the ball, whether they are perimeter or post players. This is a patient style of play, meaning that we often use 25 to 30 seconds of each possession before finding the highest percentage shot. Because this style involves continuous movement by our players, it is important for them to have a high level of work capacity.
On the defensive end, we are predominantly a half court man-to-man team, which means very little down time while the players are on the floor. They need to be able to maintain an athletic defensive posture for long stretches, and generate explosive strength even while in a fatigued state. Much like in a hockey game, we substitute frequently, and routinely use 10 or 11 players per half.
Therefore, conditioning our players is a priority in our planning. Coach Ryan and I work together closely on developing work capacity and increasing endurance.
Every design starts with a yearly plan, and we break ours into four distinct time periods: developmental, pre-competitive, in-season, and regeneration.
The goals of our in-season performance program are to:
1. Have zero starts missed due to injury for the entire season. 2. Maintain body weight, with specific goals for each athlete. 3. Increase lean muscle mass (we use BodPod testing). 4. Increase functional range of motion and flexibility. 5. Maintain approximately 88-94 percent of 1RM strength in our preseason tested lifts (hang clean, front squat, bench). Redshirt athletes are tested in December and March for strength gain goals. 6. Consistently train two to three days each week. 7. Keep the intensity high while reducing the volume accordingly as the season progresses. 8. Enjoy the process, while also making it challenging for our student-athletes.
The trick is to make all of this happen while working around the practice, academic, travel, and competition schedule of our team. We plan two to three months ahead, and as each week approaches I communicate with the basketball coaching staff to see if any schedule changes or conflicts have arisen. I have found it pays to write everything in pencil and stay flexible, because almost every week during the season we end up having some type of change or scheduling conflict. Communication is the key to overcoming these speed bumps, along with understanding my role within the program.
I am fortunate that Coach Ryan and his staff fully support my efforts and those of our athletic training staff. Coach Ryan gives me complete control in designing the team’s weightroom sessions and we combine ideas on the conditioning portion of the workouts. This way, I have better control over the design, timing, and sequencing of exercises in the weightroom, and I’m not worried about a high level of athlete fatigue that might occur if we combined them with practice or conditioning sessions.
In turn, I fully support Coach Ryan’s conditioning plan for the team. During the season, the team practices at a high level every day with a lot of full-court possessions and situational drills. Post-practice sprint sessions are rarely part of our routine as most in-season conditioning work is integrated into practice.
Some coaches I have worked with in the past had me arrive at the end of their practices two or three times each week to “run” athletes who had spent most of the last three hours standing around. This often made me the bad guy, because the only conditioning they received was courtesy of me and my whistle. I believe there is no better agility and conditioning format for basketball athletes than having them compete in high-intensity, high-demand situations and react to the unscripted movements that occur during the flow of the sport. This is difficult to duplicate by setting up some cones or running a series of agility drills at the end of a practice session.
I prefer to separate our strength training workouts from our practices whenever possible during the competitive portion of the year. Our routine is to train early on Monday mornings when our schedule allows–unless we play that day or the next. Ideally, I prefer to have a 36- to 48-hour break between a strength workout and a competition, and 72 hours between strength sessions. This schedule works well when we have two or fewer competitions in a week and if they are spaced three or four days apart.
For example, if we play on Wednesday and Saturday, our lifting days would be Monday morning and Thursday morning of that week. This is the routine we try to maintain, but we are at the mercy of our game schedule. If we are competing Tuesday and Saturday, we lift on Sunday and Wednesday. If we play three games in a given week, it may not be beneficial to do any strength training during that span, especially with those athletes logging the majority of the minutes on the court.
Depending on academic schedules, we will either bring the team in together or in small groups of four to six athletes. There are benefits to both–the team dynamic of having everyone together works well with our Monday early morning workout, while the smaller groups allow the athletes more scheduling flexibility and individualized time with me.
One exception to this setup involves student-athletes who are taking a redshirt year. For them, we treat a home game day as a strength and conditioning day, usually taking them through a weightroom workout immediately following our morning or early afternoon shootaround. Our redshirt athletes continue to train two to three times each week during the entire competitive season, and each one has his own unique goals. For some it may be integration back into strength training along with continued rehabilitation while recovering from an injury, while for others it may be increasing strength and adding lean muscle mass to prepare for next year’s season.
Because most of the team trains only two days per week, we conduct full-body workouts for both training days and follow a conjugate periodization plan utilizing max effort, dynamic effort, and repetitive effort in varying combinations. We organize the workout around four to six exercises each day, varying them every two to three weeks (depending on our schedule) and then follow with an “unload” week.
We repeat this cycle for most of the competitive season, lifting some of our heaviest weight near the end of the season but with very low volume by that point. The quality and intensity of effort is what we focus on during these workouts, not the quantity of work done. Most sessions last between 50 and 60 minutes during the first three quarters of the competitive season, then reduce to approximately 30 minutes once we start the second half of our conference schedule in February.
I like to pair up exercises during this phase, in which we train the upper body immediately after the lower body and vice versa, with little rest in between. With this strategy, we accomplish more in a shorter period of time, at a point in the year when efficiency is a top priority.
AN INDIVIDUAL APPROACH
Each of our student-athletes has an individualized card for his week’s workout. They all have nicknames on their cards, along with a weekly quote. This helps players stay focused on the goal for the week while having some fun along the way. We try to educate them on the benefits of becoming internally motivated when practicing, playing, or training, and that we are in this together to succeed as a team.
During our in-season training, approximately 30 percent of the program is individualized with each student-athlete’s plan based on his position, minutes played, and individual needs (injury rehab, muscle imbalances, redshirt, etc). Our style of play dictates that our athletes all perform many different movements while executing our offensive or defensive schemes during practice or competition. But within these movements, each position has greater tendencies while on the court. I observe all of our athletes at every game and practice, and also watch game film each week to break down movement patterns and look for areas where each athlete can improve his performance.
For example, our perimeter players tend to make more rotational chest passes, whereas our post players perform more overhead movements while rebounding or passing. We take this into consideration while designing their individual programs. For example, this might mean that medicine ball work with perimeter players would focus on using rotational throws, while post players focus on overhead throws.
Also, we conduct preseason functional movement screening. Through this process, we may uncover mobility or flexibility issues that require additional attention. These deficiencies are addressed within the workout, with the help of our athletic training staff. For example, we may alter or limit overhead Olympic lifts with a particular athlete if he has mobility restrictions or a history of shoulder injuries. Instead, we may substitute loaded box jumps or squat jumps, along with specific prehab shoulder exercises during that portion of the program. We still achieve the goal of training the athlete explosively with a ground-based triple-extension movement, while reducing the risk of injury.
We begin each workout with a period of foam rolling to aid in our overall warmup. Then we move into dynamic movement exercises that mimic the movements our athletes do later. The focus is on increasing core body temperature and blood flow to the major muscles.
From there we perform several prehab exercises specific to each individual athlete’s needs. These could be an extension of protocols the athletic training staff has prescribed to address a specific imbalance or weakness, or it may be based on observations during past weightroom sessions.
We also emphasize ankle strengthening and stabilization exercises, as this accounts for the highest percentage of our injuries. Examples include single-leg MB touches, the use of Airex pads or air disc pillows, and single-leg, eyes-closed drills.
Next, we move into the core exercises, focusing on the rotational and transverse plane movements–from completing a pass to grabbing a rebound to turning to change direction defensively, basketball athletes are continuously making rotational movements. We use the concept of the vertical core, meaning that 90 percent of our core exercises are performed on our feet rather than lying down. We include a wide variety of medicine ball rotational movements and throws, along with functional trainer/Vertimax rotational pull-presses.
The Olympic movements we incorporate include the snatch, clean, rack clean, and push/split jerk. During the second session of the week, we always use a dumbbell variation of these to change the stimulus and reduce the overall load on our athletes following a game.
The body of the program then includes four exercises paired together with a different emphasis every two to three weeks. We usually do a max effort lower-body movement on Day 1 and a max effort upper-body movement on Day 2. The combination changes depending on each player’s minutes played, position, training objectives, and level of fatigue. Then, following each lift and practice, we spend time static stretching, hydrating, and taking a nutrient recovery supplement.
Our program is always a work in progress. I have borrowed many ideas from others in the field–from Vern Gambetta to Todd Wright to Mike Boyle–and figured out how to make them work in my particular program, and I will continue to do so. Each year the program design evolves in some form or fashion. This is a never-ending process for me, and I am thankful to all the strength and conditioning professionals who have been willing to share their ideas and knowledge with me.
Table: Sample Week
The following is an example of our two-day in-season weightroom workout:
Foam Roll: focus on glute medius, TFL, IT band, and adductors
Movement Prep: dynamic movement warmup
Prehab: exercise prescription based on athlete imbalances or weaknesses
Core: med ball rotational wall throws or functional trainer rotational movement combinations along with static hold exercises
Bar Complex: using 45-pound bar, may include muscle snatch, muscle clean, squat press, straight-leg deadlift (SLD), etc.
Dynamic Effort: Olympic movement or Vertimax, such as snatch, hang clean, rack clean, or push jerk • 2-4 sets of 2-3 reps @ 55-70% with 1.5-2 minutes of rest between sets
Max Effort: lower-body press, such as squat, front squat, or deadlift • 2-4 sets of 2-3 reps @ 80-95%
Paired with Repetitive Effort: upper-body pull, such as chin up, one-arm DB row, or bar row • 2-4 sets of 6-10 reps @ 60-75%
Rest 1-2 minutes between paired exercises
Repetitive Effort: DB upper-body press, such as DB standing military, DB incline, or DB bench • 2-4 sets of 6-10 reps @ 60-75%
Paired with Lower-Body Pull: SLD, one-leg SLD, or glute ham • 2-4 sets of 6-10 reps @ 60-75%
Rest 1-2 minutes between paired exercises
Stretch: may include foam roller, static, PNF, active stretching
Nutrition: hydration and nutrient replenishment within 45 minutes post workout
Repeat foam roll, movement prep, prehab, core, and bar complex work from Day One.
Dynamic Effort: Olympic DB movement, such as one-arm DB snatch, DB hang clean, or one-arm DB push jerk • 2-4 sets of 2-3 reps @ 55-70%, with 1.5-2 minutes of rest between sets
Max Effort: upper-body press, bench, or incline • 2-4 sets of 2-3 reps @ 85-95%
Paired with Repetitive Effort: lower-body pull, such as one-leg SLD, SLD, or glute ham • 2-4 sets of 6-10 reps @ 65-80%
Rest 1-2 minutes between paired exercises
Repetitive Effort: lower-body press, such as one-leg box squat or backward overhead lunge • 2-4 sets of 6-10 reps @ 65-80%
Paired with Upper Body Pull: such as one-arm DB row, inverted row, or standing row • 2-4 sets of 6-10 reps @ 65-80%
Rest 1-2 minutes between paired exercises
Stretch and Nutrition: same as Day One