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Strength Training For Basketball To Prevent Injury And Improve Performance

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 01 February 2018
Hits: 1103

Of all the sporting athletes we work with in our Sports Specific programs, basketball would be my personal favorite. Having played the game from the age of 11 right up to 42 years of age at A grade level or higher for nearly all of this time it is fair to say I am a basketball junkie. I grew up watching Michael Jordan and saw the evolution of the sport having really big dudes who could hardly run, to what it is today with elite athletes and players who are almost 7 foot like Lebron James and Kevin Durant but can handle a ball, and move like a guard. I have also seen the evolution of guards with incredible skills like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving who have incredible quickness and change of direction, as much as the ability to shoot. As with any sport practice of the fundamental skills like shooting, dribbling, and rebounding etc is essential but the little things that separates average players from great players will come down to the athletic movement. Being able to move faster, and with more efficiency than others is the missing link to taking your game to a new level. And this can only be achieved through a well designed strength training program. Unfortunately most of the strength programs you see being used today are still using outdated body building concepts that will ruin athletic performance, not enhance it. This article I am going to share with you what the "basketball specific" strength exercises and methods are so you do not make this same mistake.

Basketball Is An Athletic Sport & Requires Athletic Strength Training?

One of the biggest mistakes I see basketball players make, especially young kids starting strength training for the first time is using body building methods and exercises. The biggest difference between sports training and body building is the intention of the exercises and methods.

  • With body builders they have one goal - "To look good in a mirror". Athletic performance, and the ability to move fast or efficiently is sacrificed and not a requirement.
  • With sports the goal is to enhance your ability to move faster with speed, agility and power so you can have an athletic edge over your opponent. Movement skill is everything and cannot be compromised.

Bigger is not necessarily better. How many body builders have you seen playing in the NBA lately? Sure they are big and muscular, but they move like robots, slow and inefficient. They move as if they have a weight plate tied to their leg. Even though they are bigger they are not necessarily stronger. Traditional strength training methods using body building principles will sacrifice your efficiency, power and velocity of movement for muscle mass producing the “muscle bound” body rather than an athletic one. Years ago you may have seen these players playing and they would have been power forwards or centers who just rebounded and posted up. In today's modern game of high pace "small ball" with the likes of Steph Curry exposing these players in pick and rolls is where these players are vulnerable and eventually become a liability to their team. One things is for sure, what you see happen in the Pros will filter down to domestic competitions as teams look for better ways to win. You can no longer afford to rely on just being big.

Athletes need size and strength that will increase power and performance not just to look good with your top off.

Typical body building exercises include:

  • Bench press & pec fly
  • All pin loaded machines such as leg extension, pec deck etc
  • Bicep curls & tricep isolated movements
  • Leg press
  • Endless isolated abdominal exercises

Now while some of these exercises may in fact be needed at times, and they may indeed produce bigger muscles. Understand they have no focus or emphasis on improving movement, and they are definitely not going to help you develop a killer crossover. Excess muscle size without strength will add excess body mass and potentially make the athlete slower and less mobile. Too much time spent training maximal strength will take away from sport specific energy system conditioning and could have a negative effect on skill acquisition and movement pattern development. The leg based exercises like leg press, leg extension and leg curl are particularly worrying as they completely ruin movement patterns like squat, single leg stance and the timing and stability requirements of the joints in the lower limbs. And the danger to basketball players ending up with career ending injuries like ACL tear or full ruptures is extremely high if there is a weakness in the stability and timing of these joints. More on this later.

Great article to read about this is Why The Squat Is Superior To The Leg Press

What Are The Best Basketball Specific Exercises?

Before we can answer that question we need to be sure of two key things.

  1. Can you move correctly with all key movement patterns.
  2. What are the demands of the game on your body.

We also must consider that every athlete is physiologically and physically unique, some may have history of injuries where the next person does not. What works for one may not work for the next. Even what position you play can have a different focus on what your exercise choice may be. You must consider all these variables before jumping straight into a program and this is where I see so many people make massive mistakes by following some other person's program or getting a pro players workout off the internet and copying it.

Where do you start?

Learn To Move Well First Before Sports Specific

It is pretty simple right? Yet how many people completely ignore this basic rule. This would be like trying to shoot three point shots on the run before you even know how to shoot a free throw.

There is seven MOVEMENT PATTERNS that are vital to ALL players regardless of position and ability. Notice I said movement pattern and not exercise. The body only knows movement, it does not understand muscle isolation. The body does not know it's little finger from it's little toe when trying to execute complex movements at high speed and in a split second as happens in a game of basketball. The body will use the closest pattern of movement it has stored in it's software and run this program to execute movement. Strength training without optimizing these patterns is a potential disaster.

Below is a pyramid that explains how sports movements are created and fully developed to their maximal potential.

This chart explains the role of exercise choice and what each layer depends on. Sports specific exercises can only effectively be trained once all the layers underneath are completed. This takes time, good planning and a strong focus on quality over quantity which would be another area lacking in most sports.

The Key Movement Patterns we keep talking about are:

  1. Squat
  2. Lunge
  3. Bend
  4. Push
  5. Pull
  6. Twist
  7. Gait (running)

Below is a great video that shows you how to assess each of these patterns and also goes into the Sports Specific Assessments we will cover shortly.

The key movements used in basketball would be:

  1. GAIT - Single leg stance is used extensively at high speeds the entire game. Any deficit here and you are in trouble
  2. SQUAT - Jumping is made from the squat pattern, and again this is used extensively in the game.
  3. LUNGE - Multi directional movement and deceleration using a lunge pattern again is another key pattern.

To a lesser extent bending and twisting are also key patterns used but more so in combination with the other 3 "big ones" just mentioned. Push and pull are the least demanding of the patterns but again extremely important for maintaining optimal health of shoulder function.

To help you out in assessing each of these patterns and correcting them if you are not moving perfectly well there is a FREE Report below you can get instantly and this has all the instructions of what to do for perfecting each pattern of movement.

You will also find a complete breakdown in detail of each movement in this article - Functional Movement Patterns Explained

Basketball Specific Exercises

Now that you have learned to move well, you need to identify what are the demands of the game on your body? This will determine what methods to use in your programming and what the objective of your training needs to be. What do I mean by this exactly?

Training movement is one thing, but training the body for various abilities known as Bio-motor abilities is another. Training strength is only one of 8 skills you must consider (see article The 8 Must Haves For Sports for more detail on these). These 8 skills are.

  1. Strength
  2. Speed
  3. Power
  4. Agility
  5. Balance
  6. Flexibility
  7. Endurance
  8. Coordination

In the case of basketball there is a high demand for speed, power, agility and balance. To some degree there is strength, especially for BRAKING and if you are a power forward or center position needing to block out, rebound and post up against big opponents. Endurance is also needed to some degree but not as much as you think and there always needs to be some amount of flexibility required. Coordination would also be very highly rated and you can see this at a pro level with a player of extraordinary coordination playing against one lacking and the highly coordinated player makes their lacking opponent look so slow. This is another example of where body building exercises can dramatically regress your brain's ability to coordinate, as there is little coordination required to complete a machine that doesn't move.

Now we know what key patterns of movement are and what skills are being demanded from the sport it is easier to select exercises and correct programming to enhance them.

Before I get to some of our best choices, what about Olympic Lifting? I myself like Olympic Lifts, but I find these are really overdone in sports conditioning programs and they are especially dangerous to basketball players with long levers and not great understanding of movement. People forget that these lifts are a sport in their own right and you need to spend a lot of time really understanding them before just hitting the gym and trying to do a 1 rep max lift. The relevance of this exercise to basketball I would argue is not that much. I would prefer the single leg and multi directional movements over an Olympic lift any day. The risk of injury from getting this exercise wrong is very high, and the time it takes to learn is extensive, for really what is a minimal reward to you in the long run. If you are good enough to do them go for it, but if not don't worry about them as you will get much more from learning to brake fast on single leg in lateral directions than these exercises.

Good video to watch about this is below.

Okay to some of my favorite basketball specific exercises which you will notice all have the key patterns and abilities we have spoken about. This is where learning to Brake makes you explosive and fast.

Single Leg Lateral Jump Over Hurdles

This exercise is awesome if you want to improve your crossover move and have the lightning first step foot speed and acceleration with a focus on minimizing preparation time between movements. Explosive changes of direction and nearing top-end speed in the shortest amount of time possible will ensure success in any dynamic environment. This particular exercises is awesome for demanding perfect explosive timing and body positioning required to execute a fast cut, meaning the carryover to the movement in the game is highly likely if you learn to master this in the gym.

I really cannot stress the importance of single leg training and perfecting it at the basic level and taking it to it's limit with endless variations. The game is demanding this from you, so you better be great at this in the gym or never reach your potential or worse suffer an injury. To see just how many possibilities we might use with single leg training look at the table below of just some of the progressions we may use with athletes in sports.

Make sure you check out our in depth article "How To Use The Single Leg Squat To Pinpoint Weakness" for more detail on single leg squat form and what to look for. This is not just critical for the power exercises but you will see shortly even more important for preventing injury.

Stability Lunge To Step Up With Single Arm Press

This exercise also works great on the floor, I just like to add a stability equipment like a BOSU for it simulates standing on a player's shoe which has happened to me so many times that resulted in terrible ankle injuries and over time a loss of confidence in my leg to jump. When I first used this exercise over 10 years ago I was amazed at how bad I was at first, but I was even more amazed at how much better I was able to stabilize in a game and was able to reduce the amount of ankle sprains from this similar position. My strength in my leap on lay ups, even block shots and rebounds was incredible. I used this as one of my key movements for years and never suffered any bad ankle sprains after using this.

Single Leg Landing & Preventing ACL Injuries

Remember earlier I said we would touch on this subject and for very good reason. Approximately 70% of all ACL injuries are classified as non contact situations where the person landed from a jump or tried to chase or evade a player only to fall to the ground in agony. ACL tears or full ruptures occur when you plant your foot on the ground and attempt to rotate your body in relation to that planted foot, placing a huge amount of weight on it.

In basketball knee injuries are very common as cutting and single leg landing is a massive part of the game as seen in the pictures above. The incidence of injury in young female basketball players is particularly concerning, especially when you know these career ending injuries can be easily avoided. There is many reasons why females report much higher cases of ACL tears - statistics show females have an 8 times higher rate of ACL injury versus males! (reference from the book Understanding & Preventing Non Contact ACL Injuries by American Orthopedic Society For Sports Medicine).

Some of the reasons include:

  • Less overall muscle mass
  • Wider "Q" angle placing the knee at increased danger of valgus collapse
  • Pivot with less knee and hip flexion
  • Increased internal rotation at the hip
  • Increased external rotation at the tibia
  • Less knee joint stiffness
  • Higher quadricep to hamstring ratio

The use of sleeves and knee braces is about as far as many take their preventative measures and unfortunately this WILL NOT prevent an injury. Read our article "Do Knee Sleeves Prevent Injury In Sports" to see more on this. The need for a basketball specific strength training program is as important as learning the fundamental skills of the game, in particular for young female players. It is not an add on, but absolutely VITAL!

A great article to read on this is here - What To Do If You Tear An ACL & How To Prevent It

Below is a video that shows you some of our single leg landing exercises.

If you currently have a serious knee injury or are recovering from one make sure you check out our online Knee Pain program that has a 60 minute video and PDF report with step by step programs to follow by clicking here.

Box Jumps

We could not leave this one out. An oldie but a goodie and also works well when used in combination with heavy squats to create what is known as "complex training", which is where you mix strength methods with power. When it comes to box jumps I like to begin with the jump to begin with, but really prefer to progress to the landing for this is where the real magic happens. This is known as eccentric strength and just like the last exercise is critical for injury prevention, but also vital for improving jumping height and explosive take off.

Eccentric strength is the lengthening phase of a movement, such as lowering your body during a chin up or squat. If your body and the muscles are not effectively trained to withstand eccentric loading (deceleration), potential energy is lost and worse injury is more likely to occur. In the case of the box jump it is when you absorb the landing.

A great video below demonstrates how we might use this. And alongside it is an example of where I use complex training of a Front Squat with a Box Jump to create strength with power.


Now obviously there is a ton of exercises I have left out and we could keep going and going, but I think you get the idea of how you choose the right exercises. Avoiding body building movements that only serve to make you slow and bulky, and using dynamic integrated movements like single leg squats, multi directional lunges and explosive squats are where your keys to success lie. Strength training for basketball is more than just trying to improve your vertical leap, it plays a massive role in preventing career ending injuries like ACL tears and many of the other non contact injuries seen in the modern game. The need for kids, in particular young females to learn the basics of movement and incorporating strength training is vital and coaches and trainers need to become aware of how to teach movement, instead of relying on knee sleeves or isolated strength drills that do nothing to change dysfunctional movement patterns. I love the game of basketball but I wish someone had of shown me this information when I was 16 or 17 years of age as I have no doubt I would have enjoyed the game much more and achieved so much more out of my body by incorporating simple strength training drills shown here.

Make sure you check out all the other Free Reports we have available by clicking here.

And if you live in Melbourne you can request a free consultation to see how we can help you take your basketball game to a new level by filling in the form below.