Jan 29, 2015
Strong as Bulldogs

Make no mistake–Butler didn’t get lucky as the Cinderella team of the 2010 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. The Bulldogs’ conditioning program was a key element of their run to the championship.

By Jim Peal

Jim Peal, MS, CSCS, is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Butler University. He can be reached at: [email protected].

An athletic department-wide philosophy that demands commitment, the “Butler Way” denies selfishness, accepts reality, and seeks improvement every day while putting the team above all else. It is practiced by every Bulldog athlete and coach–including the strength and conditioning department.

As the men’s basketball strength coach, I believe I play a vital role in the team’s fate and am blessed to have sport coaches who promote a year-round commitment to strength and conditioning. They trust me to design and implement a program with the goal of keeping our team strong all year long. Our players are never “out of shape.”

The program we use allows our players to compete at high levels throughout the season and maintain their fitness into the NCAA tournament, including last year’s historic run to the championship game. What follows is an inside look at the year-round strength and conditioning program that helped launch Bulldog basketball into national prominence.


Our summer program is completely voluntary, but we have great attendance from athletes who spend those months in and around Indianapolis (those who don’t receive simplified, written training instructions before they leave). I tell the players that how much they improve over the summer is up to them–all I ask is that they give their best and make an effort to do the work. However, effort usually isn’t an issue–most players strive to get better because they are driven by the Butler Way.

From June to August, our athletes perform a four-day upper-body/lower-body split routine. The big-picture goal is for players to meet individually assigned benchmarks for strength and fitness.

On Sunday evenings, the players train their legs after a 90-minute open gym session. We consider this our moderate leg day, with each player spending a total of about 30 minutes in the weightroom.

During these workouts, the key lifts involve the leg press machine and hamstring strengthening. The leg presses begin with four sets of 10 at 60 to 70 percent of personal max in the first three weeks, then proceed to clusters of 10 to 15 sets of two to three reps each at 75 percent of max and up–the players are free to decide for themselves how high they go.

For the hamstrings, partner glute-ham work is a staple. We also mix in stiff-leg deadlifts, single-leg deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and leg curls. Players round out these workouts with 10 minutes of core work and stretching using Swiss balls and bands.

Sunday is very important to us because it’s usually the only time we are in the weightroom together as a team. The other weekly sessions are more open-ended, scheduled around each player’s class and internship commitments.

Monday is an upper-body day, and the sessions last about 50 minutes. Our coaching staff pays close attention to each player’s progress in the bench press, setting individual goals for both one-rep max and 185-pound rep max. These workouts typically begin with a basic upper-body warmup and then proceed directly to the bench.

We typically prefer to use flat bench or flat close-grip bench presses, especially when using heavy weight, and primarily train with sets in the four- to six-rep range. But in the last few weeks before fall testing, we will add more weight and lower the reps to two or three to prepare for the upcoming max-out.

Next come cleans, presses, and/or use of a push-movement machine called the Hammer Strength Jammer. My assistant Ross Bowsher and I like the Jammer because it’s biomechanically safe on the shoulders and the motion is very similar to the jerk movement, which promotes triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips in a way that transfers very well to the explosive demands of basketball.

After that, the next 30 minutes of the Monday workout is less structured, with the athletes performing prescribed exercises for the shoulders, lats, and upper back. We usually assign one or two exercises for each muscle group, such as DB shoulders, alternate presses, shrugs, seated rows, standing bent-knee rows, lat pull-downs, and my favorite, chin-ups. The combinations vary greatly–perhaps the only constant is that we never do movements behind the head because the injury risk associated with them is too high.

The last five minutes of the session include several different stations, from partner resistance exercises to running the stack on biceps curls and triceps extensions. Finally, I like to challenge the players with a different finisher at each workout. For this, we frequently use chin-ups to exhaustion, partner push-ups, partner towel pulls, or planks.

Wednesday is usually our second leg day of the week. We consider it our heaviest day, and the session lasts about 45 minutes. We start with a total-body warmup, then do three to four sets of five reps of hang clean to squats followed by two to three more sets of hang cleans with two to four reps.

Next, we move on to heavy squats. After a three-week acclimation period, our players perform timed clusters of eight to 12 sets with two to three reps each. This squat work is very similar to our leg press progression, except that the squats are never performed to max effort. I have found sub-max clusters of squats are the best way to train legs for basketball, mainly because they force the athletes to really push themselves and their teammates. We keep it simple by starting each set on the minute, at around 72 to 75 percent of the player’s estimated one-rep max. Last summer, 12 of our 14 players were able to squat 335 to 365 pounds for multiple sets of three reps.

After that, we spend roughly 20 minutes on various exercises designed to correct strength imbalances between the right and left legs. Lunges are a staple of our program and we include many variations, such as twist, side, reverse, and overhead for three to four sets while holding 45 pounds and walking 20 yards (the length of our weightroom).

Because basketball involves dynamic multi-planar movements, our players do at least four sets of single-leg exercises in addition to their lunge work. Examples include one-legged leg presses, heel touches while standing on a bench, split squats, step-ups, and one-legged RDLs.

The last five minutes of the Wednesday workout are dedicated to hamstring-specific work. With a partner, players perform glute-ham exercises and leg curls. To finish up, we do superset hamstring work and lunges with core exercises such as V-ups, sit-ups, and Russian twists.

Thursday is our final lifting day of the week. We begin these sessions with an upper-body warmup, then go straight to the Jammer or to barbell-based jerk exercises. Players typically perform five sets of five reps, starting each lift on the minute to set a tempo for the workout.

Next, we move on to chest work using two of my favorite exercises: flat dumbbell bench presses and 10-degree incline bench presses with a barbell. I keep the reps high (eight to 10) and weight in the range of 65 to 80 percent of max. For a new progressive challenge, we are currently experimenting with the addition of chain-resisted bench presses.

To avoid overtraining, and because this is our second chest workout in five days, I carefully monitor the players to make sure they stay within my recommended ranges for sets, reps, and effort percentages. The final 20 minutes of Thursday workouts are similar to our Monday upper-body routine, but with a greater emphasis on the posterior chain. For example, I like to finish with partner-assisted towel rows, chin-ups, and side deltoid raises.

Thursday is also when we implement conditioning and agility components into our workouts. In this part of our training, we mainly want to overload the energy system to a greater degree than typically happens on the court.

After a 15-minute active warmup consisting of movements like high knees, butt kicks, lunges, slides, and various types of skips, we do eight to 10 sets of simple plyos. I prefer using bleacher bounds to lessen the impact on the players’ joints, and we avoid high-stress plyos such as depth jumps. Then, after a brief water break, we do a 15-minute agility program emphasizing proper defensive positions. During these exercises, I want players to concentrate on maintaining a slightly lower knee bend than they’re used to–Coach Brad Stevens is very fond of telling players to “stay lower, longer.”

Our agility work focuses first on body control, then speed. The phrase “Agility is the ability to control your mass and change direction” is posted in our weightroom to serve as a reminder of how important body control is to success. Changing direction on the court usually involves unbalanced, dynamic one-legged movements. For that reason, we perform a lot of deceleration drills on Thursdays to complement the single-leg work we do on Wednesdays.

Players who enter our program can already run and jump proficiently, but they often do not understand the importance of decelerating under control and landing in a position they can react from. To be clear, we work on both acceleration and deceleration, but body control always comes first. You must control your body before you can control your opponent.

To improve agility, we employ an agility ladder and various footwork drills. The body’s positioning during the drills is of prime importance–I always stress quiet feet.

After agility work, we finish with 200-meter and 100-meter runs for roughly one mile of total distance. We then wrap things up with a cooldown jog and band stretching. FALL INTO PRESEASON

During the fall, we stay with the same basic four-day lifting schedule. It has been my experience that basketball players do best when the workouts are short (35 to 45 minutes) and frequent. We also stay with one conditioning-based workout each week.

By this time, coaches have begun individual skill work with players twice a week for 40 minutes at a time. These are very intense sessions in which the player works on sport-specific skills.

Before we implement any fall workout programs, our players undergo a battery of baseline body composition and strength and conditioning tests. A staple of these is the mile run, which is held as soon as players return for the fall semester. Though not overly sport-specific, the run gives our coaches a pretty good idea of where each player is in his conditioning and helps us adjust his workouts accordingly. Our expectation is that post players can complete the mile in under six minutes, wing players in under 5:45, and guards under 5:30. However, we adjust expectations for certain players upward or downward based on their ability.

To measure strength, we use the 185-pound bench press max rep test as well as one-rep max. Last season, six players benched over 300 pounds. Additionally, we test players on sit-up reps and the leg press.

During the preseason, players must also pass our four-line test: Starting on the baseline, they must run to the foul line and back, half court and back, far foul line and back, and far baseline and back. We want them to average between 27.5 and 29.5 seconds. This is an excellent gauge of speed, acceleration, and ability to change direction.

With the exception of a body fat test, all our test results are evaluated against teamwide goals set by the coaches. The team has until the season starts to reach those goals, and we have succeeded in each of the past four years–a span during which the team’s overall record was 118-22.

If we have an athlete who is behind in his test results, we will include one to two special workouts with a focus on conditioning only. We strive to make our conditioning sport-specific, emphasizing elements such as posture, change of direction, and sustaining a high energy level. Our players train to become better basketball players–not to do well on cardiovascular tests.


When official practices begin and the season is around the corner, we cut down to three days a week in the weightroom. We also back off on leg work because the players’ legs take such a pounding during practices and games. For instance, squats are phased out in favor of body weight work, lunges, and step-ups with reps in the 10 to 12 range.

We continue to hit the upper body hard, and most of our work is performed in the five- to eight-rep range. In a typical workout, we ask players to work at 72 to 80 percent of their one rep max if doing five reps, and 62 to 70 percent if doing eight reps.

Once the game schedule begins, we pare down our weightlifting even more. When playing two to three games and practicing three to four times per week, there isn’t much time left for strength work. Still, our goal is to get in two weekly lifting sessions.

Because we are focused on winning games, not building weightlifters, the last thing I want to do is wear a player down in the weightroom. That’s why our basic approach is to perform total-body lifts for 30 to 40 minutes during these sessions, supersetting opposing muscle groups.

We work the upper body at 85 to 95 percent intensity in-season, and stick to 75 to 80 percent intensity on the lower body. As the season advances, we back off another 10 percent or more. And in the postseason, we do almost no leg work other than some step-ups, lunges, and hamstring curls–usually totaling no more than six sets.

Based on our past success, including last season’s championship game appearance, I consider our approach to in-season lifting very successful. In fact, eight days after that game, we administered the 185-pound bench press rep test and found that the team maintained just over 90 percent of its preseason strength baseline.

At Butler, we are blessed to have athletes who accept their responsibility to prepare for the upcoming season all year long. Our sport coaches and conditioning staff all contribute by maintaining a 12-month commitment to physical preparedness, so on any given day, our team is never too far from game shape. Add it all up, and you have the Butler Way.

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