Jan 29, 2015
Panther Power

Known for its toughness, the University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball team benefits from a strength program built around “training blocks” with specific goals and a plan for how to achieve them.

By Tim Beltz

Tim Beltz, MS, CSCS, SCCC, is the Strength & Conditioning Coordinator for men’s basketball at the University of Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: [email protected].

When I arrived at the University of Pittsburgh in 2000, our men’s basketball program was going through a rough patch. The team had finished with a winning record only once in the previous seven seasons and hadn’t won an NCAA Division I tournament game since 1991.

During my first four years on the job, our team rattled off three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, and we have reached the Big East Conference championship game seven times in the past eight seasons–a record-setting streak. We enter the 2008-09 season as the reigning conference tournament champions, and all indications are that we’re poised for another deep postseason run.

There are several reasons our program has experienced such a successful turnaround, and strength and conditioning is definitely one of them. We’ve put together a program that combines a team-wide training approach and individualized planning, with a focus on consistent progress and ensuring that all weaknesses are quickly identified and addressed. I don’t pretend that we’ve achieved perfection, but I believe we have developed a system that works.


In preparing the strength and conditioning program for our basketball team, my philosophy is based on “block periodization.” This concept was popularized by Vladimir Issurin and Anatoly Bondarchuk, the latter an Olympic gold medal-winning hammer thrower now considered one of the world’s foremost throwing coaches. The philosophy is based on using several different exercises to train a specific function and pursue well-defined goals.

Block training starts with identifying team qualities, or “training traits,” and designing a program that enhances them through cycles of highly concentrated, specialized workloads. The basic blocks involve accumulation (developing basic abilities), transformation (developing specific abilities), and realization (pre-competition training, maximum speed, and recovery).

For example, let’s say I want our players to perform the speed squat to improve explosiveness, but I feel their spinal stability is insufficient or their technique is not sound enough to make speed squatting completely effective, and more importantly, completely safe. In our next block, we might utilize single-leg exercises in combination with explosive med ball throws until we have improved our movement mechanics and stability to the point where speed squatting is possible.

During the season, our training blocks normally last for three to six lifting workouts over a two-, three-, or occasionally four-week span, depending on the focus and our travel schedule. In the off-season, we schedule roughly 10 workouts over the course of a block.

I like to use small training blocks that hone in on one specific concept, skill, or area of strength. By focusing on concrete short-term goals in each block, such as speed strength, relative strength, or explosive strength, the athletes can master a skill or correct a weakness, feel a sense of accomplishment, and then move on to more difficult tasks and more advanced training. If we tried to simultaneously address too many aspects of training, the players could easily lose focus and feel I was putting them through workouts with no particular direction.

Another advantage of our philosophy is that it relies on the concept of linear teaching. Once you’ve developed a particular training trait or addressed a shortcoming, you can shift your focus to the next priority and simply use maintenance cycles to prevent backsliding.

For instance, if we focus on improving aerobic fitness in one training block, we can move on to a sport-specific skill or strength development regimen and incorporate moderate aerobic work into our training sessions. The players see themselves adding new strengths, skills, and exercises to their repertoire and building on old blocks with new ones, so it makes team progress a very tangible and accessible concept.

Block periodization provides the framework around which we build our training year. Here is an outline of our typical calendar:

Summer: Four three-week blocks focusing on general physical preparation work.

Early fall: Two three-week blocks focusing on speed of movement and strength development.

Preseason (mid-October to mid-November): One four-week block focusing on restorative work and core training.

Non-conference season (mid-November to late December): Two three-week blocks with training two days a week, focusing on strength.

Conference season (January to late February/early March): Three blocks of varying length with the focus determined by team performance and observed needs.

Tournament (March): No scheduled blocks. I try to arrange the best possible opportunities for our players to train at hotels and local gyms, but I also understand the demands of the travel, team commitments, and NCAA obligations, so I’m careful not to overwork the team at this time.

After the season: We like to give the players a week of complete down time and rest to begin the off-season. Then we’ll start working with individuals while conducting four weeks of strength training, usually broken into two blocks. We’ll typically have six to seven training days in each block, and focus primarily on corrective exercises and bodybuilding. There’s a more relaxed atmosphere during these sessions, which allows the players to recover mentally after an intense season.


One of the most important aspects of our strength program is the way we evaluate incoming athletes–freshmen and transfers alike–when they first arrive on campus. As they are introduced to college-level training, there are several ways we make sure they are physically ready for the rigors of Pitt basketball.

Our evaluation includes tests of their body weight bench press (for max reps), vertical jump, and vertical jump with drop step. This is followed by movement analysis. Movement screens have become a popular training tool in recent years, and I have devised my own screen that isolates what I feel are the most important movement skills for basketball players and reflects my understanding of the Functional Movement Screen. The results give me the information I need to tailor our strength program for each individual.

My movement screen consists of an overhead squat with a stick, ankle range of motion (ROM) tests, and having the athlete step off an 18-inch box and land in a squat position, holding the landing for eight seconds. As the players complete each movement, I first look for ability to perform the exercise without discomfort. If they tell me something hurts or they show signs of difficulty, I’ll refer them to our athletic training or medical staff for evaluation.

Here is a deeper look at what we evaluate during each movement: Overhead squat with stick. I’m less interested in seeing a perfect squat, and more concerned with two specific abilities. First, I observe whether the athlete can keep the stick’s position consistent while squatting. This shows how effectively the trapezius and latissimus dorsi support the arms when they’re extended over the head, a common position in basketball. It also reveals how the thoracic spine reacts when put into extension.

The second thing I look for is pelvic stability. The movement is a traditional Olympic-style full squat, so I want to see if the athlete can maintain good pelvic position without an anterior shift as they pass 90 degrees of ROM. Pelvic stability during hip flexion is very important during the frequent short sprints required in high-level college basketball. I’ve noticed that most basketball players cannot get into a good deep squat position with their feet flat on the ground, so I’ll often adjust their foot position during the screen by allowing slight plantar flexion.

Ankle ROM. This exercise is performed on a balance board. At first, the athlete is allowed to wear a running shoe, but once they’re comfortable on the board, they go barefoot. As they perform plantar flexion and dorsiflexion movements and inversion and eversion, I look for any lack of mobility.

Ankle ROM on circle board. This helps identify individuals who have experienced ankle problems in the past and may have lost ROM as a result. Once again we progress from wearing a running shoe to using the board while barefoot, and the movements focus on proprioception. Players displaying ROM deficits are referred to our medical staff for further evaluation, and depending on the advice I receive, I may prescribe more balance board work on an individual basis.

Landing off an 18-inch box. The key thing I look for as the athlete steps off the box is the landing position of the feet and knees. I want to see the gluteus firing, and any instability around the femur is easily visible with this movement. It also reveals how well the entire kinetic chain absorbs the impact of a two-footed landing.

Our evaluation process also includes a spinal endurance test based on the McGill Big Three, outlined by Stuart McGill, PhD. The test includes the hyperextension isometric hold, 1/2 sit-up isometric hold, and side hover (plank) on the right and left. I want to see at least a three-minute hold for each position, and will limit spine loading exercises until the athlete can demonstrate adequate spinal endurance. I believe most lower back injuries can be prevented by developing endurance in the spine–specifically the musculature of the lower back and abdomen–so this has become an important prerequisite in our strength program.


I feel our greatest conditioning and skill gains come from the summer program. During this time, we place special focus on getting new players up to speed after their evaluations.

Early on, we are looking to build aerobic endurance, add muscular strength, and reinforce proper technique for all exercises. The specific drills and exercises we use vary from year to year. Table One shows a sample of a typical summer block, designed to teach the Olympic movements, improve body weight squat technique, and promote upper-body hypertrophy.

Each workout in Table One would be preceded by a warmup like the one shown on the next page. This is our movement prep/dynamic warmup and focuses on ROM development while also engaging the anterior and posterior abdominal muscles:

• Myofascial warmup • Ankle ROM movements • Isometric lunge hold, 3 x 8 seconds (glute contraction) • Thomas test hip flexor stretch • Leg swing (abduction, flexion, and extension) • Clock lunge at 2, 4, 8, and 10 o’clock, 2 x 3 • Elevated lateral lunge, 2 x 8 • ISO hyperextension, 3 x 35 seconds • 1/2 ISO Sit-up, 3 x 30 seconds • Side hover, 3 x 25 seconds.

A day’s workout from the cycle shown in Table One is then performed, and we’ll typically stick with that cycle for the full length of a block, with an emphasis on technique and work capacity. The light- and heavy-day reps are based on the well-known Prilepin chart of percentages and repetitions. We limit volume early in the cycle until the players can perform the exercises reliably with proper technique, then we transition toward strength as a main goal. Building muscle is important for some athletes, but our main objective is to improve each individual’s relative strength–not add bulk as a team.

In the second summer block, we’ll typically implement a familiar “top-down” approach to teaching the Olympic lifts–so if we’re teaching the snatch, for example, we’ll start with the overhead squat and work our way toward the ground. We’ll also increase the quantity of posterior-chain exercises. By the third block, we expect to see increases in the McGill Big Three tests, and we put the athletes’ added strength to use with more unilateral lower-body exercises.

Once fall arrives, I add an extra dimension to our block scheme by individualizing athletes’ workout plans to address any weaknesses or movement deficits I observed over the summer. Everyone follows a template broken into lower- and upper-body segments, and I split the athletes into groups based on the exercises they perform. These groups allow athletes to push one another, and allow those with similar weight management goals, such as fat loss, to work out together and support each other.

Table Two shows a sample fall template broken into two parts. The column on the left applies to individuals who do not need to lose weight before the season begins, and the column on the right is for those who do. I often make significant modifications to meet individual needs, but this template provides a sense for how our fall conditioning program is built.


Our strength program’s success is a direct reflection of the support we receive from our sport coaches and athletic administration. Athletic Director Steve Pederson and Head Basketball Coach Jamie Dixon have made an unwavering commitment to developing our strength program, giving my colleagues and I the resources we need to help our athletes reach the next level.

In describing the Pitt basketball team’s training strategies, I’ve sometimes used the word “I,” but in reality, the credit for our team’s success is shared among many people. From the guidance provided by our sports medicine staff, led by Athletic Training Coordinator Tony Salesi, to the nutrition counseling and personalized recommendations provided by our Sports Dietician, Leslie Bonci, there are many professionals working hard so that our players can be successful on the court. I’m proud to say that the strength program is just one important piece of the puzzle.

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