Jan 29, 2015
Changing Direction

When Bradley University men’s basketball revamped its in-season strength and conditioning program last year, the end result was a trip to the Sweet Sixteen.

By Ronnie Wright

Ronnie Wright, CSCS, is beginning his sixth year as Head Strength & Conditioning Coach at Bradley University. He was previously Assistant Strength Coach at Wichita State University. He can be reached at: [email protected].

This past year, our men’s basketball team at Bradley University experienced its best season in a decade. Posting 22 wins and a top-25 ranking, the squad’s success continued into the NCAA Division I tournament, where we knocked off the University of Kansas and the University of Pittsburgh to reach the Sweet Sixteen. One of our seniors, Marcellus Sommerville, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated during the team’s run, as our program reached new heights in garnering publicity for the university.

But what was most gratifying for me as strength coach was that the team came on strong in the second half of the season. In 2004-05, we had struggled as the season wound down, losing 10 of our last 12 games. So before this most recent season, we changed the philosophy of our in-season strength-training program, and it definitely paid off.

While I don’t contend that the lifting program was the sole reason for our success in the postseason, I do feel the changes made a difference. Our players were bigger, stronger, and faster than they had been in previous years, and, most importantly, they had stamina and were fresh late in the season. And we did it all without the resources that larger NCAA Division I programs have.


Like most programs, we struggle with how much time our athletes should spend in the weightroom. We know they are juggling games and practices with class work and studying. So, in years past, we limited the time our basketball players spent in-season doing strength and conditioning.

Our goal in past years was simply to maintain the strength and body weight they gained during preseason lifting. From November to mid-March, we asked athletes to visit the weightroom two to three times a week. Lifting times were built around individual academic schedules, team practices, and individual skill training. They did not lift as a team, but came in when it best fit their schedules.

The program focused on total-body strength and basketball-specific movements, with all players doing the same workout with some minor deviations for those with injuries and redshirt players. The set and rep scheme was built for strength maintenance. (See “2004-05 Workout” .)

As the season progressed, we noticed our athletes were struggling. Even though we had given them a nutrition plan to follow over the holiday break, the demands of practices, games, travel, class, and academics eventually took a toll. Players lost an average of 12 pounds of lean bodyweight, with some losing more than 30 pounds. Those who had lost the most weight had the greatest difficulty with strength and stamina.

In the weightroom, several athletes were not maintaining the strength gains from their off-season workouts. They were performing the requisite exercises, but because they were often working out individually, there was a loss of intensity and motivation, and they were regressing.

On the court, they exhibited decreased performance and strength. They were also lagging at the end of games. Our post players were getting pushed out of position and our guards were falling behind on fast breaks.


Based on that season’s problems, Head Coach Jim Les and I decided to make changes to the strength program for the 2005-06 year. Coach Les is a strong advocate of strength training and gave me the autonomy to build a program that I felt was necessary—to not only maintain what we had worked to establish in the off-season, but also build upon during the season. The result was a more comprehensive and structured program that included higher demands and produced much better results.

The actual lifting program was similar to the previous year. The focus was on both total-body and basketball-specific gains but we changed the set and rep scheme to increase strength and bodyweight during the in-season period.

First, we restructured the weekly in-season schedule by upping the number of days in the weight room to three to four times per week. Three of the four days, athletes were required to show up at a designated team time. The fourth day of lifting was built around their individual schedules.

We also changed to a circuit style of lifting, with increased sets and reps and super setting. Using a circuit (14 athletes, nine stations, no doubling up) better accommodated the team’s time. Increased sets and reps allowed us to make gains, and supersetting allowed us to increase muscle endurance and maintain mass. (See “2005-06 Workout”)

Another focus was to increase range of motion in specific lifts. We did this by using full, top, and bottom lifts, which isolate specific muscles to ensure each is strengthened. After tinkering for a year with various circuits in all of our sports, basketball in particular, I found that the order of exercises and the rep scheme is crucial to success.

We also made sure to get buy-in from the athletes on these changes. In the previous program, their bodyweight dropped along with their strength and after I showed them this on paper, it was obvious to the players that they needed to embrace this new program in order to meet their goals. As is the case with most athletes, once our team discovered the new training method improved their strength, gave them an edge on their opponents, and assisted them in winning games, they bought into the program completely.

With the team working out together, we could put greater emphasis on a competitive atmosphere. Circuit training works best if you make it competitive, so we grouped athletes who were competing for playing time together. We also asked members of the starting team to push and assist the younger players.

To increase emphasis on nutrition, we gave the team pre-made, NCAA-approved shakes and had a nutritionist work with them individually. The nutritionist educated players on how to eat properly, inexpensively, and when in a hurry, and how to cook and shop for easy-to-prepare, effective meals. In addition, athletes met regularly during the academic year for team breakfasts. This was very important in making sure they were starting the day well.


What were the results? The average lean bodyweight loss at the conclusion of postseason (which was a full three weeks later than the previous year) was fewer than six pounds. Every player maintained or increased prescribed weights in their lifting program. Simply stated, we kept or exceeded the strength and weight we had worked to gain in the off-season.

Adding the three team workout sessions provided a much more competitive and motivating atmosphere. This definitely led to the successful administering of our program and in exceeding our outlined goals and objectives.

We believe this program helped our team tremendously, especially during our NCAA tournament run. Our goal in the spring preceding the 2005-06 season was 20 wins and an NCAA bid. The end result was 22 wins and a NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance.

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