Jan 29, 2015Strong Inside
At Xavier University, not all the women on the basketball team follow the same training plan. For the team’s post players, a specialized strength training program focuses on the position’s specific on-court requirements.
By Rich Jacobs
Rich Jacobs, MS, SCCC, CSCS, wrote this article while serving as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Xavier University, where he worked with the women’s basketball team. In July he accepted a position as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning coach at the University of Florida. He can be reached through his Web site at: www.strengthnpower.com.
Some coaches consider themselves lucky to have one All-American on their roster. Last season, the Xavier University women’s team had two–both of whom played inside. In addition to earning All-America honors, Ta’Shia Phillips and Amber Harris were also first round picks in the WNBA draft in April.
Led by a strong inside game over the last five years, the Xavier program has captured four regular season Atlantic-10 Conference championships, four A-10 tournament titles, and made five trips to the NCAA Division I Women’s Tournament, including a run to the Elite Eight last season. While our post players had substantial help from their teammates to achieve success, they also worked hard in the weightroom. The standards for post players here are high, and the off-season is when we address weaknesses, further develop strengths, and work to help them fulfill their potential.
I believe our strength and conditioning program has helped to put our post players in a position to be successful not only by improving performance, but also by keeping the players relatively injury-free. Like any program I design, the workouts I create for our post players address those athletes’ specific needs and their individual roles on the court. The following is an inside look at my off-season post player strengthening program and the transition into preseason.
BEHIND THE PLAN
Because of the specific skill sets required by post players, they have different strength and conditioning training protocols than guards and wing players. The energy systems used are similar, but differences in body type also result in different training needs.
Posts tend to be bigger and their muscles are usually longer than those of guards, making some exercises, such as the squat, more challenging to perform with a full range of motion. Therefore, modifications need to be made to accommodate their larger bodies. For example, I may use a split squat or leg press in exchange for the standard squat. At Xavier, we want our posts to be strong and powerful, so I work hard to make sure our workouts address those areas.
Another point of emphasis is injury prevention. When designing a program for these athletes, I want to address the most common injury sites: knee, ankle, and head (concussions). I also consider the balance of training between agonist and antagonist muscle groups. For example, I do not want to train the chest proportionate to the back. In a lot of athletes, the chest is usually tighter than the back, causing a kyphotic posture or forward rounding of the shoulders, which could compromise the joint. Training more back and posterior shoulder muscles combined with chest stretching will help to pull the shoulders back, allowing the head of the humerus to set in the joint properly. This may help to prevent a shoulder injury in the future.
My program design philosophy is based on research, purpose, the ability to progress safely, and my own successful past experiences. I consider one or all of these guidelines when choosing exercises and the application of them.
When drawing up any training plan, I start with a spreadsheet that includes six training compartments–four major and two secondary. The legs are split into two parts: Hips and posterior chain. The other two major compartments are the chest and back. The shoulders and core are also important to proper athletic development, but for programming purposes I do not include them as a major compartment.
I list the compartments on the spreadsheet in one vertical column and add horizontal rows representing each day of training. (During the off-season, we strength train three days a week.) This gives me a visual map so I can insert the number of sets performed for each compartment on the corresponding days. I am then left with an outline, which allows me to systematically develop a program. Our team participates in summer league and open gym play several days a week during the summer, so I take their extracurricular activities into consideration when designing the program to avoid overtraining.
DAY BY DAY
In July, the fun begins. I divide our training days up so we train during the week and recover over the weekend. During the first summer session, there are three to four post players who stay on campus and train. During the second session, all of our players return to prepare for the upcoming season. I use Monday, Wednesday, and Friday as our strength and power days, which include at least one power movement per day. My program is designed to give players at least 24 hours of recovery before their next strength training session.
I develop the program around six-to seven-week mesocycles. Within each mesocycle, I build in one or two microcycles featuring lower repetitions and increased intensity. This periodization change occurs every three to four weeks. Early in each mesocycle, the repetitions are higher because my goal is hypertrophy and muscle endurance. The higher repetitions give me an opportunity to hone technique and safely increase intensity.
Regardless of the cycle, each day is a full-body training session with emphasis on one of the four major compartments: chest, back, hips, and posterior chain, followed by additional work to address the minor compartments. For the first mesocycle, I incorporate power movements into each workout, followed by exercises that focus on hypertrophy and strength building.
We wrap up each workout by attacking the core musculature. A basketball player’s body needs unrestricted movement in all three planes–front to back, side to side, and rotational. So each day, the players train the core in one of the three planes. The core movements that I prescribe always use more than just the rectus abdominus and obliques because the body’s core is more than just abdominal muscles.
During the first mesocycle, I keep the repetition range between 11 and 15 for each exercise. Here is a breakdown of what we do during this period:
Monday is a full-body day with an emphasis on the back compartment. We start the session with 200 jump ropes as a warmup. The first exercise we attack is the dumbbell power-pull. I like this movement because it incorporates a need for fast triple extension and lowers the risk of injury by eliminating a catch. I prefer using dumbbells because it allows more freedom in the range of motion, allowing an easier adaptation to the movement.
We then transition to our main compartment work, which can be accomplished using a variety of exercises. I believe that variety keeps an athlete engaged throughout a workout by reducing the monotony of performing one exercise for several sets. For example, when working the back, we use the Hammer high row, Hammer pulldown, Hammer row or dumbbell row, dumbbell pullover, and modified pull-ups to exercise the back at multiple angles.
Once our back work is complete, we move on to addressing other compartments using auxiliary lifts that provide a great opportunity to strengthen other areas of the body prone to injury. For example, I use a glute series consisting of a supine hip extension, glute march, and single-leg hip extension that strengthens the maximus and medius on the sagittal and transverse planes. Here, the mini band lateral bound is one of my favorite movements because players are able to strengthen the glute medius and improve balance, which are both factors that have been shown to reduce the chance of an ACL injury.
We strengthen the hamstrings using a stability ball leg curl. I quickly progress the women to a single-leg variation, which requires increased glute activation and core stability. Players also do exercises in the supine position, which strengthens the intrinsic core muscles that help to stabilize the hip. Finally, on Mondays we strengthen the core in the frontal plane using a lateral bridge core hold, bench side crunch, and dumbbell side bend.
Wednesday is our leg day and is the most important and usually toughest workout of the week. Although we are strengthening the lower body three days a week, this is the day we use major multi-joint lifts that are essential to stimulating muscle growth. Today is also the loudest day in the weightroom because I encourage vigorous partner coaching to motivate players as they perform their lifts.
One of the exercises most effective at increasing strength and stimulating growth is the squat. Unfortunately, sometimes taller and/or bigger athletes cannot safely perform the traditional squat through its full range of motion. As an alternative to the squat, our team uses a piece of equipment to perform Dyna squats, which unloads the back and enables a taller player to perform a deeper squat, allowing for greater activation of the glutes.
Next, we move on to an alternating leg press machine. I love this piece of equipment because a player can really attack the legs and increase strength at a high rate without fear of injuring her back. The advantage to alternating legs is that it takes pressure off of the hips, which is great for those athletes who are tight in this area. The leg press is also a great piece for teaching effort. It is easy for me to ask for one more repetition when the athlete does not have to worry about breaking form–This wouldn’t be possible if she were squatting with 200 pounds on her back.
This day’s power movement is not a traditional Olympic lift. Outside of our weightroom, we have a long wood covered hallway that is nicely waxed. This strip of flooring is a perfect place to perform sled push and pull exercises.
On the basketball court, our post players are asked to push people around in the paint, so our training for improvement in the paint starts here. Our posts must fight for position, post up strong, and hold their ground. I like to use exercises that train their bodies to push with the hips while staying in a low position.
During our first leg session, players are asked to push a 135-pound sled 30 yards and then pull it back to the starting position. They perform this task twice and are coached to drive from their hips, explode hard through the floor, and not let up.
Next, we move to more traditional movements such as a diagonal dumbbell lunge, which allows us to work another plane of movement and the adductors. Other exercises include the Romanian deadlift for strengthening the hamstrings, and the Russian hamstring, which is a body weight version of the hyper-glute-ham. I like to incorporate movements that use the hip and posterior chain in unison since that is how they are used in sport.
Rounding out the workout is a shoulder prehab routine that includes I, Y, and T exercises, dumbbell bench press, and a dumbbell shoulder press with rotation. The I, Y, and T movements are performed by lying face down on an incline bench using light weight. The movement is a pinching of the shoulder blades followed by the arms lifting into the position represented by the letters I, Y, and T. I never see a post player grab a rebound in the sagittal plane only, so I like to train the body to be strong throughout the range of motion. This is why we use a rotating press, which works the body through all three planes.
Wednesday’s core exercises work the body through the transverse plane. I use a movement called the prone J, which activates the upper and lower body to train the core. In the exercise, the athlete is face down in a pushup position with their feet on the stability ball. They then rotate their body 90 degrees, pull their knees into the chest, and return to the starting position before repeating on the other side. We also perform a dumbbell torso rotation using a stability ball and the slide board rotational pike, which incorporates the upper body as well.
Friday is our final day of lifting for the week and the primary compartment we train is the chest. Typically, women do not like to work the chest as persistently as men. This makes it imperative that my plan contains variety and exercises other than just the bench press.
We start with kettlebell swings. I really like this movement because I am able to focus on explosive triple extension without having to spend weeks teaching a complex form. The progressions are endless. We can switch from two hands to one, turn a swing into a snatch, and alternate arms. I incorporate a lot of variety into a basic movement to provide a power element to the workout.
Next are the chest sets. Players perform two sets each of dumbbell bench presses and dumbbell incline presses. These are big movements that require a large amount of muscle activation and serve as the building blocks for the chest.
Following the dumbbell presses is one set of medicine ball pushups. I use these to work on core and shoulder stability while activating the chest muscles. I always have at least one toughness-building exercise each day that requires concentration and maximum effort to complete. Manual resistance exercises are some of the toughest to complete, so I include the manual resistance fly to round out our chest work.
The other major compartments are still being worked on Friday, but at a lesser intensity. I use a dumbbell push-press to work the shoulders and achieve some hip activation. Meanwhile, dumbbell rear deltoid work is done to address the posterior shoulder, a commonly weak muscle group in basketball players. I also like the straight-arm pulldown to work the back and shoulders as it strengthens through a range of motion that protects the shoulders from potential injury.
Core work consists of movements in the sagittal plane. The band crunch with rotation combines both the sagittal and transverse planes, but for this workout, I use a sagittal plane movement. This is a great exercise combining flexion of the hip flexors with activation of the rectus abdominus and obliques. Players also perform manual resistance sit-ups, which use a partner to induce stimulation. I also like to incorporate exercises that focus on core stabilization, so I have players hold a strength yoga position such as the prone bridge.
TUESDAYS & THURSDAYS
Conditioning is a constant component of our post players’ off-season work. Our goals during this portion of training are to maintain fitness levels for the players who are in good shape and get those who are under-conditioned in better shape with improved body composition.
Two days a week, usually Tuesday and Thursday, we do non-specific conditioning work such as hill runs, sand agilities, sprints on turf, stair runs, and anything else I can think of to keep us engaged and off the court. Each conditioning session starts with the Musketeer warmup, which is 15 minutes of dynamic stretching followed by static flexibility work. Actual sprint time will be 30 to 45 minutes followed by a cooldown and stretch.
As we move closer to the preseason, our conditioning work becomes more energy system-specific, which means our work-to-rest ratios become closer to what they would be during a game. The goal is to be ready to work hard during preseason practices.
I consider it my responsibility to keep the starters and key bench performers healthy through the postseason because those players give us the greatest opportunity to win a championship. This past season, we went undefeated for the second consecutive year in conference play. Thanks to hard work in the weightroom–and a little luck–our team sustained minimal injuries and no season-ending injuries the past two years.
The team gets progressively stronger and more confident every time they step into the weightroom. My records show that the athletes consistently improve at our preseason conditioning evaluation–which includes a vertical jump test and body composition testing–and on average, team body fat percentage continues to decrease.
Every year, I re-evaluate my plan and measure its effectiveness by looking at our injury rates and performance on the floor. I also talk with the head coach to see where she may want improvements or what has worked well. My program is always changing and adapting.
I do not believe that I am the reason why our team is so successful, nor am I responsible for the accolades received by Ta’Shia and Amber. However, I like to believe that because of their effort and commitment to following the strength and conditioning plan, those players were better prepared to battle our opponents and achieve success on the court.
Author Rich Jacobs regularly contributes blogs and monthly features to our Web site. For more of his thoughts on training collegiate athletes, type “Rich Jacobs” into the search window at: www.Training-Conditioning.com.
Sidebar: CONCUSSION PREVENTION
As with other sports, concussion prevention has quickly become a main focus in basketball. There have been a number of recent studies showing that strengthening the neck muscles may help to reduce a player’s risk of concussion.
These studies have implied that having strong neck muscles may reduce the subconcussive forces that occur as a result of hitting the floor or taking an elbow to the head. Having strong neck muscles will help to dissipate the force.
To address this issue, we have our players do manual resistance neck work. For example, they do manual resistance exercises and trapezious pulls or shrugs. This usually occurs on Mondays and Wednesdays of our workweek to spread out the accompanying soreness.