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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: 8311

Of all the sporting athletes we work with in our Sports Specific programs, basketball would be my personal favourite. 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 Unfortunately, most of the strength programs you see being used today are still using outdated body building concepts that will ruin athletic performance, not enhance it. In 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 centres 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 centre 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.

 

Agility Training Is Essential

The most basic concept of agility training and how to develop a "killer crossover" move in basketball is that to move to the left, you must push off with the right foot. This means you need to have a degree of strength in single-leg and split stance positions and the ability to transfer your weight very quickly.

"If you cannot decelerate you will not be able to change direction and accelerate." - Mike Boyle

The goal with agility drills should be efficient, effortless, flowing movement that transfers directly to the functional task you are trying to improve. Training deceleration is essential to providing the person with the tools to execute stops, instantaneous changes of direction, and explosive first step quickness. Performing agility drills takes more than just setting up a few random cones and speed ladders too.

Shortly I will show you several great agility drills to use for improving your lateral quickness but I do suggest to read the detailed article about agility training here - 25 best agility training exercises to enhance change of direction

Always remember stability is needed to gain strength, and strength is needed to produce speed and power and the ability to brake.

"Effective stopping demands a high level of eccentric strength demands. It is the proportionate bending of the ankle/knee/hip. Basic strength is a pre-requisite for force production and reduction."

Many of the exercises will demand the body to handle forces in an eccentric mode up to 12 times body-weight and be able to change direction and overcome those forces. This all must be done in tenths of a second. It is developed through exercises that develop unilateral and reciprocal leg strength. These qualities must be developed together for the person to succeed in mastering the exercises. This means that you must be working on your strength program in combination with your agility work for one feeds the other.

Many sporting coaches believed all you needed to do to get better at these drills was do more work through repetition of the movement. Their theory was the more the athlete did the drill the stronger they will get, but unfortunately it does not work this way. The bad habits and patterns that are developed due to improper strength often result in poor movement mechanics. So even though the athlete is completing the drill, the transfer to the sport will be negative as they will be learning how to compensate. Incorrect repetitions lead to the acquisition of faulty movement patterns that will create the formation of compensation, poor performance, and eventually injury.

You can read more about this in the article - Why it is never good to sacrifice exercise technique

Okay to some of my favourite 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 picture below.

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 Orthopaedic 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.

  

Low Box Lateral Cutting Drill

Out of all the agility exercises to use for lateral change of direction this is the best. It is also the very movement we see the ACL tear happen in!

There are three critical factors to always remember when moving to lateral cutting drills.

First, you need to learn how to control what is known as “shoulder sway”. This is important in maintaining balance during explosive change of direction and if you witness an ACL tear you will often see the person demonstrating shoulder sway right at the point the knee goes. When you plant your foot quickly to change direction but do not control the upper body by recruiting good stiffness through the core, the shoulders will move you sideways to the direction you are moving. As a result, you will have too much of your body weight heading in one direction and it to change back the other way will not only be slower but risky as you will need to twist over your knee to get back! There is many reasons why this may happen but knowing to avoid this mistake will already make you more efficient.

Secondly, you must learn to stay low by keeping your hips behind you. This is a common mistake we see at all levels and you fail to stay low during a cutting move, your ability to effectively brake the movement is compromised. If the body is not loaded well, it certainly cannot explode concentrically as well. The athlete must learn to reposition the feet from a low athletic stance so that proper loading occurs.

Lastly, the previous 2 mistakes often occur as a result of improper plant foot angle. Stutter steps or poor balance often stem from this error. The plant foot angle is intended to provide an optimal base for eccentric control of deceleration and concentric force production during the subsequent acceleration or push-off movement. If the foot plant is correct, the deceleration and the push-off movement become smoothly linked. 

Watch the videos below to see how this works.

 

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.

  

Obviously there is a ton of other exercises I could use other than these but I hope this gives you a better idea of how you can incorporate exercises that change how you move by improving your neurological motor programs. As opposed to simply improving strength on a muscular level.

Special Report With Additional Information

Below is my most detailed report relating to agility and change of direction exercises and methods. I originally created this report as a rehabilitation program for ACL knee injuries but decided to include a stack of additional information to use as a preventative program as well. This report provides you with detailed assessments and step by step instructions for implementing all of the functional movement patterns and agility drills seen in this article.

 

Summary

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.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily.

And if you live in Melbourne Australia and need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me by clicking the banner below and we can organize a time to discuss how we can help you. And make sure you subscribe to our FREE NEWSLETTER so you stay up to date with our latest tips and secrets relating to health and fitness.

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Functional Training For Sports - By Mike Boyle
  • Athletes Acceleration Speed Training & Game Like Speed - by Lee Taft
  • Knee Injuries In Athletes - by Sports Injury Bulletin
  • The ACL Solution - by Robert G Marx
  • Understanding & Preventing Non-Contact ACL Injuries - American Orthopaedic Society For Sports Medicine
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions for the Hip & Shoulder - by Evan Osar
  • The Psoas Solution - by Evan Osar
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek