Jan 29, 2015
Holding Their Own

At Syracuse University, the men’s basketball team regularly completes bodyweight training workouts, which allow for less load on their joints and individualized training.

By Ryan Cabiles

Ryan Cabiles, PES, CSCS, is Director of Strength and Conditioning for the men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball teams at Syracuse University, where he has worked since 2007. Previously, he was Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Portland, and has experience working with NBA and WNBA athletes. He can be reached at: [email protected].

From the very start of my career, I have had a great appreciation for bodyweight exercises. It was when I interned with the Portland Trail Blazers 13 years ago that I first learned a variety of ways to train a diverse collection of athletes using only their bodies.

Due to a work stoppage, the 1998-99 NBA season featured a compacted schedule of 50 regular season games played over four months and an altered playoff format. Because of the unique shortened season, the Blazers’ strength and conditioning staff implemented an increased number of bodyweight exercises into the team’s workouts in an effort to reduce stress on the joints of a veteran-laden squad.

Though they were all very athletic, no two players had the same body type. They ranged from 5-foot-10 to 7-foot-3 and weighed between 175 and 280 pounds. Using their bodyweight for a good portion of their training allowed each player to have an individualized program that wouldn’t overload their bodies, setting them up for injury. The results spoke for themselves as the team remained healthy throughout the shortened season, won the Pacific Division, and earned a trip to the Western Conference finals.

Not only do bodyweight exercises allow for less stress on the joints and individualization within a strength and conditioning program, they are also incredibly effective for enhancing functional strength. I use them year-round when training the men’s basketball team here at Syracuse University in the following capacities:

– For our incoming freshmen, as an introduction to our strength and conditioning program, and as a tool to evaluate their fitness

– For individualizing and/or supplementing a player’s training program

– On road trips, when we don’t have access to a weightroom.


Most of our incoming freshman basketball players arrive on campus in early July. They are here to start summer classes and get ahead on their academics, but this is also an opportune time to introduce them to the team’s strength and conditioning program.

Time spent in the weightroom over the summer is strictly voluntary, and our veteran team leaders help set the tone. All of the players I’ve seen come through the program since I started working with the team five years ago have been willing to give tremendous effort during this time and attendance has been great.

For the six weeks that they are here during the summer, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are strength training days, and Tuesdays and Thursdays are conditioning days with open gym in the evenings. Incorporating bodyweight exercises into our strength training sessions three times a week this early has a couple of advantages for the players who are new to the team.

First, it prepares their bodies for the weight training work that lies ahead during preseason. Most of the incoming freshmen have some experience in the weightroom, but nothing that matches what our veteran athletes have been doing for the past two to four years. Bodyweight exercises allow them to build some functional strength and smoothly transition into our more advanced weight training program.

Second, it provides me with the ability to evaluate new players’ functional strength and flexibility, as well as spot any movement efficiency issues or imbalances. For example, we use the overhead squat to evaluate an athlete’s ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders. Using video analysis, we check out three views: anterior, lateral, and posterior. If an athlete’s heel(s) raise up, they may have a mobility issue or lack of flexibility in the lower leg. If there is a collapse of one or both knees, that is indicative of weakness in the glute muscles.

For the upper body, we do the same thing using pushup variations to identify level of core strength, shoulder stability, and chest strength. Once an area has been identified as weak or inflexible, we prescribe corrective exercises, a flexibility routine, or foam roller techniques for the individual.

Over the first four weeks, we begin with simple movements, then progress to complex movements. (See “First Up” below for sample exercises.) Free weight exercises are introduced in weeks five and six, then the players are re-evaluated and begin a preseason weight training program if they are ready. For the athletes who are not quite ready, they still begin weight training, but their workout is supplemented with corrective exercises and broken down to aid in the technical aspect of the program.


Like the Trail Blazers, the men’s basketball team here at Syracuse is made up of players of a wide variety of sizes and shapes. And though the team isn’t squeezing in nearly as many games as an NBA team, the Orange regularly play more than 30 games a year. Continuing to use bodyweight exercises throughout the season is a great way to allow for less stress on the players’ joints and individualize their workouts between contests.

The players work out two to four days a week during the season, and it is not uncommon to include a bodyweight training day in place of a lifting day when the players need additional recovery but we don’t want to remove resistance training completely. This is dictated by the number of minutes played and the amount of time before the next game. (For examples of what bodyweight training days might look like during the season, see “Bodyweight Break” below.)

The same is true if I’m looking to help a player correct a movement deficiency or imbalance. I have a great working relationship with the team athletic trainer and we regularly talk about how to ensure that we are providing the players with a workout program that gives them the best chance to enhance their skills on the court, including incorporating prehab exercises for certain players.

I like to use a cone touch drill for ankle, quadriceps, and hip strengthening. I also have the ability to increase the difficulty of the exercise by having the player stand on an Airex or balance pad. Hip mobility exercises are also great. Often done prior to a workout, these are good to use with basketball players specifically since the hips tend to be weak among long-limbed athletes.

Finally, incorporating bodyweight exercises into athletes’ workouts allows me to keep their time in the weightroom fresh. Variety helps keep the players from getting bored of a routine and I can adjust the exercises without breaking away from what we are trying to accomplish in maintaining fitness.


Most strength coaches know that when a team is traveling, there’s no telling what type(s) of strength training equipment and space you’ll have access to–if any. That’s why having a repertoire of bodyweight exercises can come in very handy on road trips. It can also be a fun challenge for me to see how creative I can be with the players’ workouts despite logistical limitations.

Lots of teams hold a short practice or shootaround on game days, but Syracuse is different. It has been tradition for a long time for the team not to have practice, and instead do an optional short workout instead. We call it our game day circuit, and when our players take advantage of the time available, it makes for a great pregame atmosphere. It’s especially helpful for those who don’t play a lot of minutes on a regular basis to maintain their fitness and be ready if called upon to perform. (To see what a workout might look like, check out “Game Day Circuit” below.)

Sometimes we have access to a fitness center and sometimes we don’t. If the team arrives at our destination the day before an away game, I may get a chance to see the hotel fitness facility the night before, but I often don’t know what’s available to us until the day of the game.

Whenever we travel, I pack a weightroom bag, the contents of which are designed to help us accomplish a workout at our hotel if need be. It contains: An Airex pad, suspension straps, three to four cones, stopwatches, mini-bands, Thera-bands, a folding slant board, foam rollers (carried separately), and an assortment of nutrition bars.

The concepts I first learned during my time working in the NBA and throughout the rest of my journey have helped me to build a varied tool kit that allows me to adapt my athletes’ workouts to any given location and situation.

Using bodyweight exercises on a regular basis has provided the Syracuse program with variety, individualization, and challenging workouts. In turn, it’s helped continue a history of success on the court.

Sidebar: FIRST UP

The following are examples of bodyweight exercises our freshman basketball players perform during the summer before preseason training. We start with simple movements before progressing to more complex movements.

Weeks One & Two Step-up x20 Pull-up x5+ Lying hip raise x10 Pushup x12 Side lunge x10 each way Suspension strap row x12 Overhead squat w/ stick x10 Decline pushup x10 Walking lunge x20 total steps Front isolation (plank) x30 seconds

Weeks Three & Four Squat and extend x10 Inverted row x15 Swiss ball leg curl x15 Pushup with twist x7 each way Three-way lunge (forward, side, rotation) x5 each way Suspension strap inverted fly x10 Suspension strap single-leg squat x10 each leg Side isolation (plank) x1 minute


Below are examples of in-season bodyweight training days–one for an upper body training day and one for a lower body training day. The intensity of each athlete’s program can be tailored by changing the speed or tempo of the movements and the number of sets and reps performed in a timed circuit.

Upper Body Bosu pushup Suspension strap inverted fly Swiss ball rollout Jump pull-up In-out hand walk Suspension strap triceps press

Lower Body Swiss ball wall squat Swiss ball leg curl Three-way lunge Toe raise Step-down Speed skaters


The following is a list of exercises used on a typical game day on the road with limited equipment. Since it is a general program, the routine consists of three upper body exercises, three lower body exercises, and core exercises interspersed between. It is constantly changing since we may use some weightroom equipment if available.

Upper Body Incline Pushup Pushup Suspension strap row Pull-up Band front raise Band lateral raise Band bent raise Band triceps extension

Lower Body Step-up Suspension strap squat Side lunge on slant board Lying hip raise Lunge Calf raise Swiss ball leg curl Lateral band walk

Core Front isolation Side isolation Swiss ball reverse hyper Reverse crunch


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