Jan 29, 2015
Far & Above

With a strength program that helps players rise above, the University of Michigan has gone far into the NCAA tournament the past two years.

By Jon Sanderson

Jon Sanderson, MS, CSCS, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Olympic Sports at the University of Michigan. He previously served as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for men’s and women’s basketball at Clemson University and was a starter on Ohio State University’s 1999 Final Four men’s basketball team. He can be reached at: [email protected].

LeBron James is widely considered the most explosive basketball player on the planet. His ability to erupt and rise above or blow past opponents is unmatched. And while his highly developed upper body certainly plays a role, it’s his lower-body strength and speed that sets him apart. These two qualities–collectively known as power–allow basketball players to move faster, jump higher, and slide into position more efficiently. To help the University of Michigan men’s basketball team develop this kind of power, we rely on ground-based, multi-joint exercises such as Olympic lifts and squat variations. Our goal is to progressively overload the body in a manner that increases power, which will improve on-court performance. We also focus on injury prevention by correcting movement pattern problems in the players and incorporating various deceleration drills into the workouts. It’s an approach that has yielded great results. In my five years at Michigan, the men’s basketball program has been to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past four seasons, including a trip to the 2013 national championship game–the team’s first in more than 20 years–and the Elite Eight this year. In addition, the squad has captured two Big Ten regular season championships, one in 2012 and one in 2014, with this year’s team winning it outright for the first time since 1986.


Before we design workouts, we screen athletes for movement inefficiencies and asymmetries. Our intent is to identify any problems as early as possible and then develop an individualized corrective strategy. One type of problem commonly picked up on during screening is valgus knee, a risk factor for lower-extremity injuries where the knee turns inward. To help correct this condition, we incorporate exercises into a player’s workout that typically involve strengthening the glutes and mobilizing the adductors in the problem area. Another pattern we can discern from testing is forward shoulders, which is often associated with poor posture and a lack of T-spine mobility, among other things. In this case, we mobilize the anterior shoulder and strengthen the posterior shoulder. Since one of the goals of our basketball program is to prepare players for the NBA, we also test them with the protocol used at the NBA Pre-Draft Combine. The Combine measurables include tests for three-quarter-court sprints, lane agility, vertical jump (no step and max approach), and 185-pound bench press reps. The results give players the chance to see how they measure up against basketball’s elite and allow me to incorporate exercises into their workouts that will help optimize these scores. In addition, we test one-rep maxes for the power clean, back squat, and bench press, as well as max reps on a three-second cadence for chin-ups. We conclude all baseline testing with a “before” photo and take another photo at year’s end so the athletes can see the progress they’ve made.


We base our offseason training calendar on a linear periodization model. During each of the four phases of the model–general preparation, basic strength, max strength, and power–we focus on developing specific areas. The training phases range from three to six weeks in length, with four weeks being the norm. We start in April with the general preparation phase, which is designed to improve work capacity, increase muscle mass, and develop a solid foundation on which to build. The volume of the lifts is kept high–eight to 12 reps per set–and the intensity is kept low to moderate at 55 to 75 percent of each athlete’s one-rep max. The basic strength phase is moderate in both intensity and volume. The lift volume is four to six reps per set, with intensity set at 75 to 90 percent of one-rep max. We typically go through two basic strength phases before moving on to max strength. The goal of the max strength phase, which occurs in late July and early August, is to help the athletes develop as much strength as possible. The intensity moves from 85 percent to 100 percent–with volumes set at one to three reps per set–and the goal is to establish new one-rep maxes on the different lifts. The power phase focuses on speed of movement, and we use post-activation potentiation (PAP) schemes with our strength movements in order to obtain maximal gains and elicit optimal power outlets. PAP is the idea that the explosive capacity of a muscle becomes enhanced following maximal or near-maximal contractions. For example, we include a strength movement like a back squat at 85 to 95 percent for one rep, immediately followed by explosive box jumps. For our Olympic movements, we train at intensities of 70 to 85 percent for one to three reps. During this time, we do weight training on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and focus on speed, agility, and conditioning on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Our lifting exercises vary from phase to phase, but we generally train the full body each of the three days. I usually place a different emphasis on each workout, such as lower body or upper body, but we will still work the full body during each session. Regardless of the training phase, all of our offseason workouts share the same basic structure. A typical lifting day starts with a dynamic warm-up designed to stimulate the central nervous system, increase heart rate, and lubricate the joints. The warm-up generally consists of foam rolling, mobility work on vibration-training equipment, and dynamic stretching. We start the weightlifting portion of the workout on the platforms with Olympic movements such as the power snatch and power clean, while also spending a significant amount of time on snatch pulls and clean pulls. These Olympic movements have been proven to quickly and effectively develop power by maximizing the amount of force applied into the ground and the speed at which it is done. We feel that there is no reason to reinvent the wheel if a time-tested option is available. We individualize these lifts so that on any given day the players are pulling from the floor, a technique box, or a position above the knee, depending on where each athlete is in their Olympic lifting development. Most of our players are taller than six-feet six-inches so technique boxes help to ensure quality of movement by providing the proper setup. The position that they pull from is adjusted from phase to phase based on their proficiency in the lift and our goal is to get all of our athletes pulling from at least a three-and-a-half inch box on the power clean and a five-and-a-half inch box on the power snatch. Our shorter athletes will progress to the floor on these movements.

Following the Olympic lifts, we move to squat variations, posterior chain strengthening, core development, and upper body pushing and pulling movements. Typically, we superset posterior chain work with core work and the pushing exercises with pulling movements to get the most out of the short amount of time we have in the weightroom and keep our athletes moving. All of these components help ensure players have well-balanced attributes, without weak links. We conclude sessions with auxiliary exercises specific to the needs of each player. For example, if we find that one of our players has hip mobility issues, we add exercises to address this, such as a four-way hip mobility circuit. We may also determine that a player needs to reduce fat mass, in which case we would incorporate more conditioning work into his program. Basketball is a game that has built-in conditioning, meaning that when our basketball players participate in pick-up games or have individual workouts in the summer, they are indirectly working on their energy system development. Since the athletes are already staying in shape by playing during the spring and summer months, I complement what they’re doing on the court by investing more time developing athletic qualities such as strength, power, speed, and agility during the offseason. Because footwork is vitally important in basketball, I also place a great deal of emphasis on movement quality. Another focus is to have athletes concentrate on keeping their hips low to the ground and establishing a low center of gravity during movement training, which allows for more dynamic movement patterns. Here’s a sample agility workout, which is preceded by a warm-up of vibration training, foam rolls, and dynamic movements:

– Hurdle jumps: 4×4 – Lane agility drill: x4 (60 sec rest) – X-pattern agility drill: x4 (60 sec rest) – Curl-pattern agilities: x4 (60 sec rest) – Full court slides with recovery sprints: x4 (60 sec rest) – Seventeens (17 touches sideline to sideline in 60 sec, 90 sec rest).


Once classes begin, we shift into our preseason program, which runs through the start of official practices in late September. In this developmental period, we enter a power phase in the weightlifting portion of the workouts and focus on increasing speed of movement and drawing on the strength gained by the players to develop velocity. Formal conditioning work is also a priority because the start of the season is only weeks away. The focus of our in-season training program is maintaining the strength and power gains developed during the offseason and preseason. In-season, we like to train two days a week. However, training frequency is dependent on the number of games played per week and the travel schedule. Our in-season sessions are typically 45 minutes spread across pre- and post-practice segments. The pre-practice segment begins with a dynamic warm-up of foam rolling, vibration training, and dynamic stretching. The warm-up also includes hip abduction work and abdominal training. Just as in our off-season workouts, the in-season warm-ups are followed by Olympic movements on the platforms. We will typically do a power snatch, power clean, or a derivative to start. We then move to a lower-body strength exercise, such as a back or front squat. Keeping in mind that high volumes of sets and reps cause fatigue, we utilize lower volumes while in-season and keep our intensities at a moderately high level. For example, I often set up a power clean or power snatch at five sets of two reps each, with the goal of getting into the 75 to 85 percent range in the final set. It’s important to understand that these percentages are fluid. They vary week to week based on how our players feel, the amount they’re traveling, and most importantly, when they play next. To save time during the in-season period, I often superset a squat with an ankle-mobility or shoulder-mobility exercise. The athletes tend to squat with greater range of motion after they do mobility work, which is non-fatiguing and will not negatively impact their lift. This pre-practice routine takes 30 minutes, and our basketball players have found they like doing their Olympic lifts and squatting before practice. Due to the post-activation potentiation, they often report having their best practices following these lifts. After practice ends, we do an upper-body push, upper-body pull, and a posterior chain exercise in a time-saving circuit. For the upper body, I often program four sets of four to six reps each. For the posterior chain, I use hypers, reverse hypers, and isometric holds on the glute/ham bench. I will occasionally include some light RDLs, pausing at different positions to focus on isometric strength. I typically finish with ankle proprioception drills and manual dorsi-flexion, ankle inversion, and ankle eversion, which I call three-way manual ankle.


The development of lower-body strength plays a critical role in improving the durability of the athletes. Since the majority of on-court injuries occur during deceleration movements, stronger athletes who can produce and handle more force are less likely to suffer injuries. It is also imperative that a player becomes efficient at landing to avoid ankle and knee injuries, so teaching proper landing mechanics is something that we do on a weekly basis during the offseason and pre-season. In addition, athletes who have excellent kinesthetic awareness or proprioception tend to get injured less frequently. We utilize various single-leg balance and landing drills to improve proprioception in the lower extremities. Basketball players don’t have to be musclemen to perform well. By prioritizing power development through a focus on building strength and speed, we’re able to help our players perform optimally. And while there’s only one LeBron James, players can still work towards gaining some of the explosiveness that’s put him on track to being one of the best of all time.


Here’s an example of a workout session we use in the basic strength phase of the offseason:

Warm-up Vibration training: 2 min Foam rolls: 4 min Dynamic warm-up: 4 min Med ball wall series (10 lb ball): 3×10 each way Band walks (hip abduction): 1×10 yds Superset: YTL’s: 1×10 each way Stick shoulder mobility: 1×30 sec Workout Power snatch: warm-up 3×3 (varying weights), 5×2@85% Superset: RDL: warm-up 1×4 (varying weights), 3×4@85% Keiser chops: 4×10 each way Superset: Bench press: warm-up 3×5 (varying weights), 3×5@85% DB rows: 6×5 Chin-ups: 2×10 Balance/proprioception drills: 5 min

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