Training Basketball PlayersBy Charlie Weingroff, DPT, ATC, CSCS
Matt Sharky in the UK has been given a great opportunity to direct the training of his country's top junior basketball players from U19 down to U13. This is a tremendous opportunity to represent his country and develop young people that regularly populate the D1 teams in the United States.
At his request and my privilege, I will provide some prevailing thoughts that I think are critical in training basketball players.
1. Mobility and Stability
As I warned Matt, my views may not seem as basketball-centric as some would expect. I think athletes are athletes, and from a foundational level, human movement is the same for everyone involved. Obviously the Joint by Joint prevails, but there are singular impacts to the Joint by Joint that I think are more prevalent in basketball players.
One is the height of the players. Bottom line is that a longer lever is harder to control. No matter if it's a long femur, longer humerus or spine, length requires more stability. When the muscular and neuro-muscular systems are challenged as they are in these under- or poorly training individuals, the body will rely on bony approximation and ligamentous strain for stability as well as shifts in tone away stabilizers, creating tension in mobilizers such as the hip flexors, hamstrings, calves, etc., all the places we typically see "tightness."
Coming from the 5 foot nothing walking fire hydrant, having long levers is not the devil's spit. Longer levers typically come with bigger hands (better to grip you with) and bigger frames like shoulder girdle which provide better angles to buttress the spine.
The second point regarding mobility and stability is that most basketball players are what Gray would call Over Powered Athletes. These folks have a Ferrari engine in a ‘72 Beetle frame. The gap between high level basketball players and also-rans is very, very large. The guys that Matt is going to be working with are gifted. They have inordinate fast-twitch fibers and are beyond capable of outrunning their foundational movement dysfunction. Basically, they can still run and jump through the roof at elite levels despite the destruction they are doing to their joints. Now with the adolescents Matt is going to be working with, he can impact their strength and power. But even the U19 guys, he might already be looking at 35-42″ verts. They aren't going to be going any higher. Their durability is going to be where he can help the most. He will have to respect that even when/if strength and power can be enhanced, it must be within the framework of their Functional Performance Pyramid. Whether it's using the FMS or not, I expect training mobility and stability will be the first governor on his player's success.
2. Cervical motion
Buddying off of t-spine limitations that you would expect to see above, one of the most underrated aspects of performance is cervical motion. Taller people, much less players, live much farther away from the world. They have to bend over and look down a lot. That forward weight shift in the upper quarter adds up. The documentation of inter-regional dysfunction with poor cervical motion is clear.
I also think that tall basketball players shield their height from some sort of shame with the upper-crossed posture. I think in some ways they are embarrassed of their "differences." This biomechanical and emotional stress has very underrated effects on mobility/stability and performance.
Check on all of your athletes, clients, and patients if they can EASILY reach their chin to the chest. Get their head almost parallel to the floor looking upwards. Can they turn their head and drop their chin EFFORTLESSLY to touch their clavicle. If they can't, I firmly believe you are leaving inches on the Vertec wheels on the platform, and seconds in the lane. The neck matters for a number of reasons: fascial length tensions that span the entire body, breathing function, spinal stability, peripheral vision, reaction time. If the neck is off, the rest of your body is not optimal. A tight neck is not normal, and it is not efficient. Certainly we will see this more with basketball players.
Get a manual therapist on your team to get the neck on the swivel, and then mobility/stability training and proper breathing training is what you can do to lock it in.
3. Tall Spine
Certainly this principle applies to everyone, but the t-spine is a major offender again from the length and typical in-game postures of a basketball player. I think the T-Spine is as big a part of this ideal stereotype of spinal stability as it can impact the neck as above, the scaps, the low back, and the ribs as they would pertain to breathing techniques. Not only do we need t-spine mobility, but the tall spine posture from the crown of the head all the way down to the buttcrack should be long and stiff during all stability training. Maybe even call it T-spine stability. Longer levers are harder to control, but maybe it means just less or smaller progressions in external load. Long levers are never going to get someone to APF Elite or up on the board for top benches and squats. But that doesn't mean they aren't strong.
This principle holds for anti-spinal movement training and level changes. One of the best teaching tools for this is what I call the Frog Squat, where you take a DB or KB and hold it in goblet position and let the system drop you into a squat. All the while you are packing the neck in and getting tall in the spine. Every push into your spine should get you deeper into your hips. It's a nice teaching tool for the tall spine along with posterior pelvic tilt in all anti-extension positions.
As basketball players are often poorly educated in their training, need it be said that flexion training is complete nonsense even more so when you are taking a larger lever into a bad place. This equals more damage and an even larger struggle to crack out of the neuromuscular nut.
I would also like this principle to govern the limbs. Less load, FULL length through mobile segments of the shoulder (pull-ups, push-ups, bench press), hips (all level changes), and ankles (Deep Squat training). Especially in novice trainees, strength training should be mobility training inherently. Get LONG. Control length by going through length with limited load. Longer limbs have bigger risk/reward. Weak or inefficient athletes have "heavy" enough limbs.
4. Knee Performance
This is maybe what some are expecting when talking about a basketball player. Obviously knees and ankles are common injuries. And through the Joint by Joint, we should believe that ankle mobility, hip mobility, and core stability should beget good knee stability. I think that's true, but it's not the whole story.
The problem is that the basketball jump shot is inherently wrong everywhere. Heels are off the ground. Knees jut forward. Minimal hip hinge. Forward arms and head. If you saw this in the Deep Squat, it would look horrible, and in fact, I would gamble aggressively that most competitive basketball players not exposed to good training would score a 1 if they were pain-free on the FMS Deep Squat. But what is crucial in the jump shot is to maintain a straight up line of verticality to elevate over the defender's outstretched arm. You HAVE to use a bad squat to shoot successfully. And with that in mind, the knee pays the price. Poor surrounding mobility and stability AND knees jutting forward instills tremendous compression retro-patella and posterior meniscus. As the knee continues to flex, there is shearing of the femoral head against the back of the patella. Here is the bony stability that I mentioned above. Try this yourself. Just jut your knees forward without sitting back. Your knees will talk you out of depth. This crash is what an NBA rookie has already done maybe a billion times in the jump shot.
With this in mind, I would ask you to consider the vertical tibia in the box squat, dead lift, rack pull, and split squat as the evidence clearly supports deloading the knee with those techniques. There are both 1- and 2-leg options with the vertical tibia, and as I've mentioned before, loading is barely even necessary. I just came back from dinner with Bill Foran among others here @ Pre-Draft, and he described teaching Shaq to squat when he came to Miami with just all bodyweight.
The beauty of this training strategy is that I believe that the hip-dominant level changes create a posterior glide of the femur away from the retro-side of the patella, and when the real life movements of the real world are attempted, the compression has been attenuated.
While I am sure most would agree this is useful to restore the painful knee to non-painful, I also believe that this technique will improve performance. Clearly the posterior chain is a limiting factor to a quad-dominant squat, so if we can adjunct quad-dominant and hip-dominant choices, skewing power to quad- and strength to hip-, I think there is an accelerated balance and restoration of knee and spinal joint centration. With ideal centration in these "stable" segments, I have every reason to expect performance to improve and stave off pain. I firmly believe that folks that do not have pain simply do not have pain.........................yet.
My recommendations in this topic are box squats (high if necessary and with specialty bars to keep the bar high), deadlifts or more likely rack pulls starting at a height slightly lower than your dowel, split and RFE split squats with a long stride and vertical tibia (90/90 on the bottom). I do not think basketball players should catch the OL. The first and 2nd pulls meet these standards. The catch does not. A 1-leg unsupported squat can be done with a vertical tibia, but I'm not sure many individuals can do it. 1-leg unsupported can also be performed with a box squat technique, but these do not seem to be very challenging. I think most people just plop if not coached well.
Certainly these techniques have little honor for ankle mobility, so this must be maintained elsewhere, as well as integrated the full Deep Squat movement with such options as the Frog Squat or Toe Touch to Squat.
These suggestions are not an excuse to load up 3,4,5 wheels on a side, lock the bar low on your back, and sit back into an above parallel squat. That is trash. That technique is just an excuse to crush your spine and demonstrate that you don't belong in that squat.
Perhaps less rhetoric and theory and more meat and potatoes, these are the exercises I think have most application to fundamental movement and performance for basketball players or any individual.
Flexion-based: Deadlifts, 1-leg Deadlifts, KB Swings
Extension-based: Split Squats, RFE Split Squats
Rotation-based: Chops, Lifts, Turkish Get-ups
1-leg based: 1-leg Unsupported Squat, Step-ups
Squat-based: Squats (tread lightly with load)
Shoulder-based: Push Press, Pull-ups, Push-ups, Inverted Rows, Ben