Jan 29, 2015
On the Way Up

The University of Louisville women’s basketball team sees its conditioning program as a pyramid. After developing a strong foundation, they keep working until they reach the top.

By Teena Murray

Teena Murray MS, CSCS, CSCCa, USAW, is Director of Olympic Sports Performance at the University of Louisville. She can be reached at: [email protected].

When do great seasons begin? For the University of Louisville women’s basketball team, the memorable 2008-09 season, which culminated in an NCAA Division I national championship game appearance, started with a devastating loss a year earlier.

Within hours of falling to the University of North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2008 tournament, the players began asking about workout times for the following week. The loss was on a Saturday afternoon, and by Tuesday, led by juniors Angel McCoughtry and Candyce Bingham, our team was back in the weightroom, ready to begin preparing again.

As a strength and conditioning coach, you always want your athletes to finish the season strong. Doing so creates an opportunity for quantum leaps in athletic development during off-season training. Despite a disappointing end to the 2007-08 season, our returning players were healthy and strong–and more importantly, committed to making great gains as athletes during the off-season. Their determination was palpable. The challenge for me was creating a program that harnessed their motivation and capitalized on their physical readiness.


At Louisville, the Sports Performance Program’s motto is “Building Athletes, Preparing Champions.” Since our program is assessment-based, the construction process for all our teams begins with a detailed blueprint for the year based on screening and testing data. This is especially important for our women’s basketball program due to the length of the season, the extensive impact stress associated with the sport, and the vast physical differences between players.

Screening. Our basketball screening protocol is administered three to four times a year, usually in April, June, August, and December. It includes a functional movement screen (FMS), a single-leg force absorption assessment using a vertical hop-and-stop test on a mat, and gait analysis performed by the team’s athletic trainer.

The screening also extends to a detailed assessment of diet and lifestyle factors using a health checklist and personal interviews. The checklist asks about everything from the timing, quantity, and quality of meals to sleep habits and alcohol use (see “Twenty Questions” below for the complete list of questions).

The results shape our team and individual performance nutrition education, which is managed by the sports performance staff. Based on what each athlete tells us about their personal diet and habits, we provide them with tailored eating plans, grocery lists, and recipes. We’ll even take the players on grocery store trips and teach them how to read labels and prepare simple, healthy dishes.

Performance testing. When we perform the screening, we also assess each athlete in several key performance factors. This gives us a sense for what the team’s greatest strengths and weaknesses are during the off-season, preseason, season, and postseason. For this evaluation, we use a combination of several tests that target specific attributes:

Power: vertical jump, standing long jump, four-jump test • Strength: front squat, bench press, pull-ups • Speed: 10- and 20-yard sprints, pro agility test with flying start • Conditioning: 10 x 150-yard shuttle runs, two half-mile runs separated by three minutes’ rest.

After each testing period, we calculate a performance score for each player using our Women’s Basketball Performance Index. This 10-point index lets us compare athleticism in each tested area across the entire team and serves as a great motivational tool–the two athletes with the highest total scores during the preseason receive the highly coveted distinction of Iron Cardinal. It also helps us track short- and long-term progress in each player within a year and throughout her college career.


Once data on the entire team is collected and analyzed, my first priority in program design is what I call closing the gap. Compared to most female athletes arriving at Louisville, our basketball players typically show up with greater performance skills like strength, speed, and lower-body power, but they often lack fundamental movement skills like body awareness, coordination, mobility, and stability.

Our FMS testing in recent years has revealed two common areas of deficiency and asymmetry–ankle mobility and core stability–and our vertical hop-and-stop test often shows deficiencies in force absorption and landing mechanics. The limited ankle mobility is not surprising, since most of our players arrive having lived in taped or braced ankles. And core strength deficiencies are generally the result of never having learned to activate the core stabilizers prior to initiating movement.

Addressing these deficiencies through corrective exercise and closing the gap between basic movement and advanced performance skills is essential for creating a foundation on which to build great basketball players. Our corrective exercise system is based on Gray Cook’s FMS recommendations, and progresses from active isolated stretching and soft tissue mobilization using foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and power plates (which provide vibration) to isolated single-joint movements and muscle education, and finally to integrated multi-plane movements based on individual needs.

Another way to help close the gap is through what we call base training. This concept centers around a pyramid that we’ve created to illustrate athlete development, with mobility, stability, and work capacity as the foundation, strength and speed in the middle, and power at the top. We believe starting at the foundation–the base of the pyramid–is the best way to develop the type of athleticism that will elevate performance and reduce injury risk.

Our base training phase is a cornerstone of our off-season conditioning program, and it typically lasts four to 12 weeks depending on team and individual needs. To simultaneously develop the three base factors of mobility, stability, and work capacity, all the workouts at this time consist of high volumes of complex multi-joint, multi-plane, total-body movements using body weight and light loads, with minimal rest between sets and exercises. Movement and plyometric work concentrates on landing and deceleration mechanics, along with isometric loading in various sport-specific positions.

Base training allows lifting and movement techniques to be refined in an unloaded state, setting the stage for the strength and speed building (the middle layer of the pyramid) that will follow. It also prepares connective tissue for heavier loads, and helps the athletes increase their muscle endurance and aerobic capacity.

In addition, these workouts provide a way for us to incorporate creativity, variety, and competition into the activities. For example, last year we conducted a “strongwoman” competition that included tire flips, keg throws, and tug-of-wars. We’ve also used obstacle courses, conditioning scavenger hunts, modified triathlons, adventure races in nearby parks, and Cardinal Challenges that test a combination of athleticism, tactics, and toughness–with the winning team exempt from bear crawls in our sandpit. By taking our players out of their comfort zone mentally and physically during these base training workouts, we develop the physical attributes we want while also teaching work ethic, leadership, unity, and toughness–intangible qualities that are not innate in many athletes, but can make a huge difference in the locker room and on the court.


Once the season begins, sustaining performance comes down to effective planning, daily communication, and consistent tracking. Navigating the delicate balance between fitness and fatigue is one of our main challenges. We want to overload each player enough to induce a positive training effect while managing total training volume to avoid overstress.

With the high demands of the practice and competition schedule, doing this successfully requires a team approach with the athletic trainers and sport coaches. I’m fortunate to work with an exceptional group, led by Head Coach Jeff Walz and a talented team of health and wellness professionals, all committed to the same vision of keeping our athletes at the top of their game.

It’s practically impossible to know exactly how each player’s body is responding, adapting, and recovering to training and competition. So to minimize injury risk and keep performance on track, we pay close attention to a few priority areas throughout the season.

First, every player weighs in before practice and weighs out after practice each day, which allows us to monitor hydration status and short-term changes in body mass. In addition, body composition is measured using a seven-site skinfold test every four to six weeks. Since we place a major emphasis on adding lean mass during the off-season and maintaining it in-season, we take any negative changes in this area very seriously. When necessary, we’ll make immediate adjustments to training, supplementation, and diet. Usually, an athlete needs only a minor tweak–for instance, if someone is having trouble maintaining her weight, two to three cups of trail mix a day can become her best friend.

Second, every week we conduct lower-body power testing after the players’ day off. For simplicity and efficiency, we use a vertical jump test on a mat and compare the findings with baseline scores collected in the preseason. When power output drops below 90 percent of the athlete’s baseline, we’ll talk to her individually and take a closer look at all relevant factors–body mass, rating of perceived exertion, sleep habits, diet, and on-court performance–to determine what’s wrong. If fatigue appears to be the issue, we’ll reduce that athlete’s practice time and prescribe extra regeneration work. Non-impact conditioning in the pool or on a bike may be substituted for more strenuous work, and extra rest is encouraged.

Finally, we use FMS testing to track changes in movement quality at the mid-point of the season in December. This helps us ensure that the first half of the season has not created any new mobility or stability deficiencies or asymmetries. If it has, we’ll work with players on an individual basis to correct them.

From a training standpoint, we continue to push physical development on and off the court during the first half of the season. We lift three to four times a week, with the schedule varying to accommodate games, and we incorporate corrective and prehab work into pre-practice warmups. In addition, we manage each player’s list of individual priorities based on body composition, minutes played, FMS results, and special conditioning and strength needs.

During final exams and the holidays in December we have limited games, no classes, and an opportunity for performance testing and concentrated loading. We use this three-week period to intensify work in the weightroom and re-establish or enhance strength, power, and conditioning levels for the second half of the season.

When Big East competition begins in early January, travel intensifies and game frequency increases. The top priority becomes maintaining lower-body power and lean mass while minimizing impact stress. We shorten lifting sessions to 15 to 25 minutes and reduce the frequency to twice per week, typically two days before each game. Exercises are also modified to limit eccentric loading–we’ll do quarter and half squats rather than full squats, pulls but no catches on Olympic lifts, and minimal plyometrics. We use more unilateral lower-body exercises for strength development, and rely on cluster sets to keep quality high and volume low.

While speed-strength lifts predominate during preseason and early in-season phases, max strength workouts become the priority during the late in-season phase. The game of basketball itself provides players with adequate high-velocity stress from repeated jumping and sprinting during practices and games. Thus, we focus on maintaining power output through loading at 80 to 90 percent of personal max during strength-based movements.

Another priority during in-season work is regeneration. We teach a five-step regeneration protocol to all of our athletes, and implement it immediately after workouts, practices, and games. It consists of:

• Active isolated stretching • Self-massage, augmented with vibration when possible • Recovery nutrition (post-exercise recovery shakes) • Cold water immersion • Nutrient timing (post-exercise meal)

Our nutrition plan also includes the athletes consuming cherry juice before practices and games. This antioxidant-rich “precovery” tool helps to minimize exercise stress and inflammation and accelerate recovery between sessions. During and after workouts and games, we also use a variety of supplements to sustain energy levels and boost recovery, and post-workout meals are carefully planned to provide the right mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fat within the post-activity window when refueling is most critical.


In the end, the success of any team depends on execution. The players’ ability to follow a game plan on the court at critical moments depends in part on how well they’ve followed our game plan off the court throughout the entire training year.

From the conditioning plan to the corrective exercise plan to the eating and regeneration plans, each athlete’s consistency and level of commitment either positions her to succeed or keeps her from reaching her highest potential. For the 2008-09 Cardinals, commitment to the long list of game plans paid big dividends. Our team made it to the national championship game, and though we came up short of a title, the players soared to impressive heights and earned much respect. And with the returning players renewing their commitment for the coming year, we continue to expect great things.


Several times a year, we evaluate players’ off-court nutrition and lifestyle habits to help us determine whether they are setting themselves up to optimize performance. Part of that evaluation involves asking each individual these 20 questions. Each “yes” earns the athlete one point–16-20 points is optimal, 11-15 is fair but needs improvement, and 10 or fewer requires a major overhaul.

1. Do you eat breakfast seven days a week? 2. Do you eat foods from three different food groups at breakfast (e.g. fruit, whole grain, and protein)? 3. Do you eat two to three balanced meals at approximately the same time each day? 4. Do you eat a nutritious mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack that includes at least one serving of protein? 5. Do you eat at least two pieces of fresh fruit each day? 6. Do you eat at least three servings of fresh vegetables each day? 7. Do you choose only high-fiber breads and cereals? 8. Do you eat lean or low-fat protein sources at each meal? 9. Do you limit your intake of saturated fat from meats, cheeses, dairy products, butter, and egg yolks? 10. Do you eat at least two servings of “good fat” each day, such as nuts, seeds, extra-virgin olive oil, olives, avocados, and fish? 11. Do you limit your intake of processed and refined foods, foods made from white flour, foods high in sugar and sodium, and packaged foods? 12. Do you eat and drink adequately to maintain your body weight? (This should be your goal unless you are on a fat loss or weight gain program.) 13. Do you eat a post-workout/post-practice snack within 15 minutes after activity? 14. Do you eat a post-workout/post-practice meal within 2 hours? 15. Do you drink half your body weight (in pounds) in fluid ounces of water each day (not including fluid intake during exercise)? 16. Do you sleep at least seven to eight hours per night? 17. Do you go to bed at approximately the same time each night and get up at approximately the same time each morning (within 30 minutes)? 18. Do you take a multivitamin rich in antioxidants each day? 19. Do you take 1,000 milligrams of fish oil (omega 3 fatty acids) each day? 20. Do you limit or avoid alcohol consumption?

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