Training basketball players

Basketball tends to be a traditionalist sport: players are coached and trained in the same way as their predecessors without regard for advancements in science. 

In a youtube presentation, track coach Dan Pfaff spoke scientifically about neurochemistry and biomechanics, things that would never enter into discussion with basketball coaches. He also talked about pedagogical principles, things ignored in most basketball circles although coaches are in a hurry to call themselves teachers and not coaches. I listened to Pfaff’s progression of how he developed his methods through trial and error, research, looking at athletes in other sports, and other methods, and it differed from the traditionalist approach in basketball.

There are three things that I picked out that relate directly to basketball:

First, he mentioned a study of intense bouts of activity on a cycle ergometer and its impact on endurance. He said that he does not do any endurance work or tempo runs with sprints or high jumpers or throwers because they are power sports. Instead, he is concerned with work capacity: a sprinter that has to make multiple starts over the course of a meet or a high jumper that has to make 20 jumps in a meet. These are multiple, maximal effort tasks. This is not endurance, as like a miler needing the endurance to run for four to five minutes, but work capacity. He suggests that these athletes build their work capacity through tasks that are biomechanically and neurophysiogically similar to their task.

I believe that I found the study that he referenced:

Burgomaster, K.A. Hughes, S.C., Heigenhauser, G.J.F., Bradwell, S.N., & Gibala, M.J. (2005). Six sessions of sprint interval training increases muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology, 98 (6).
Parra et al. (Acta Physiol. Scand 169: 157–165, 2000) showed that 2 wk of daily sprint interval training (SIT) increased citrate synthase (CS) maximal activity but did not change “anaerobic” work capacity, possibly because of chronic fatigue induced by daily training. The effect of fewer SIT sessions on muscle oxidative potential is unknown, and aside from changes in peak oxygen uptake (O2 peak), no study has examined the effect of SIT on “aerobic” exercise capacity. We tested the hypothesis that six sessions of SIT, performed over 2 wk with 1–2 days rest between sessions to promote recovery, would increase CS maximal activity and endurance capacity during cycling at ∼80% O2 peak. Eight recreationally active subjects [age = 22 ± 1 yr; O2 peak = 45 ± 3 ml·kg–1·min–1(mean ± SE)] were studied before and 3 days after SIT. Each training session consisted of four to seven “all-out” 30-s Wingate tests with 4 min of recovery. After SIT, CS maximal activity increased by 38% (5.5 ± 1.0 vs. 4.0 ± 0.7 mmol·kg protein–1·h–1) and resting muscle glycogen content increased by 26% (614 ± 39 vs. 489 ± 57 mmol/kg dry wt) (both P < 0.05). Most strikingly, cycle endurance capacity increased by 100% after SIT (51 ± 11 vs. 26 ± 5 min; P < 0.05), despite no change in O2 peak. The coefficient of variation for the cycle test was 12.0%, and a control group (n = 8) showed no change in performance when tested ∼2 wk apart without SIT. We conclude that short sprint interval training (∼15 min of intense exercise over 2 wk) increased muscle oxidative potential and doubled endurance capacity during intense aerobic cycling in recreationally active individuals.

Essentially, the four to seven maximal exercise bouts with four minutes of rest increased endurance capacities better than traditional endurance work. As a basketball coach, should traditional endurance routines persist in light of these findings?

I know a basketball coach who is very highly regarded. As soon as her students returned from spring break after the season ended, essentially a 10-day break after the season, she began endurance work with the players. They were on the track running repeat miles. The strength & conditioning coach met with her and explained that the distance work was affecting his ability to develop quickness and jumping ability. The basketball coach snapped back at the strength & conditioning coach that this is what basketball players do, and you just don’t understand basketball.

That begs several questions: (1) Is this the way that basketball players train? and (2) If it is the way that players train, why? Are there studies of basketball that suggest the need for lots of distance work? Is that the way that the game is played? Is that the best way to develop the work capacity needed to perform in basketball? Is 10 days after the season the cycle when basketball players should develop their endurance qualities?

The second note from Pfaff’s lecture was similar in application. He talked about Olympic lifts with his sprinters and throwers as a means of developing work capacity. He says that they do 10-12 sets of singles or doubles. He said that when he started this work with athletes used to a 4×4 routine, they questioned the approach. He had a rationale. First, Olympic weightlifters lift in a similar routine three times per day, six days per week and gain strength without adding weight because they stay in the same weight class. I lift five to six sets of doubles and I have increased my bench by 35lbs while losing 10lbs in the last year. Second, it comes back to the work capacity: a high jumper has to make 20 maximal effort jumps in a meet: this workout would have 10-24 maximal lifts in a workout. The work capacity is the same. He didn’t need to add long jogs to develop endurance; he could meet his athletes needs through the weightlifting.

Basketball is different than high jumping. When a coach develops his offseason plan, what is the goal? Goals change based on the age, experience, body composition, strengths, weaknesses, biomotor abilities, and more of each athlete. If a high-school freshman mimics the workout of an NBA player, he is unlikely to achieve the same results. They differ in numerous ways and need different training. Therefore, just because this is Pfaff’s work with a speed and power athlete, that does not mean that it would be the best approach with a high-school basketball player.

A high-school basketball player must master multi-directional movement while a sprinter runs in a straight line. A basketball player must have the work capacity to change movements every two seconds (Abdelkrim, El Fazaa, & El Ati, 2007; McInnes, Carlson, Jones, & McKenna, 1995), while sprinters run 9-10 seconds in a straight line. These are different activities and require different training. However, the 12×2 routine might be appropriate during a cycle of an experienced, trained basketball player.

The more important lesson isn’t that everyone should be doing 10-12 sets of doubles, but that there should be more thought about what a coach is doing in the off-season. Does the training match the game demands? What are the goals for the training? Does the training match the goals?

Finally, Pfaff talks about sled work for acceleration. He says that he does not do a lot of sled work. He says that football players will ask to use the sleds and then load it with four plates. This changes the movement. This is no longer a speed movement, but a strength movement, like training for a strong-man competition, not a sprint.

People believe that adding weight via a sled, weight vest, or Vertimax to a specific movement makes the training more specific. However, if the weight changes the biomechanics of the movement, the weight can have an adverse effect. Sprinters train to reduce the time spent on the ground; running with a sled with 180lbs increases the time spent on the ground. It may have other benefits, like for a defensive lineman who has to accelerate against a load (offensive lineman), but not for a sprinter because it is training the opposite of the desired result.

Similarly, when a basketball player uses a weight vest with too much weight or the Vertimax with too much resistance, it may increase the time spent on the ground (the amortization phase), while the goal in most cases is to reduce this time on the ground and increase explosiveness.

Those are the three primary take-aways: (1) there is a difference between work capacity and endurance, and work capacity, not endurance, is necessary for basketball; (2) there are different ways to develop work capacity, and different ways to organize resistance training beyond the traditional methods; and (3) just because an exercise involves a specific movement does not make the exercise sport or task-specific.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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