Darryl Eto is presently Senior Performance Specialist at Athletes’ Performance, a world-class performance training company with locations in Tempe, Arizona, Los Angeles, California and Gulf Breeze, Florida. Over the course of his 25-year career, Darryl has successfully worked with developing high school athletes, collegiate All- Americans, and professionals in American football, basketball, baseball, hockey, track and field, and tennis.
Over the last 20 years, basketball has changed. Players are bigger, stronger, faster, and more powerful. Play is much more physical. And longer seasons mean more games. No doubt, the game has evolved. But have your training programs?
At Athletes’ Performance, we often see elite-level basketball players that lack decent core stability. Some athletes can jump out of the gym, but can’t land without their knees caving in. While the game has become more physically demanding, the number of injuries has increased.
Proper conditioning can significantly reduce the risk of injury and improve performance, but the most critical areas and movements to develop are often the ones nobody wants to train. What follows are five underrated elements of basketball training. Work on them consistently with your athletes to improve strength, stability, mobility, power-and ultimately, their performance on the court.
1. CORE STABILITY
One of the best ways basketball players can help protect themselves from the physical punishment of the game is to focus on the core, or more importantly, the pillar. Your pillar encompasses the muscles of the hip, shoulder girdle and torso, all working together as a functional unit. The core, in the center of your pillar, is the foundation upon which all movement occurs. When the core muscles work in a smooth and synchronized manner, they help maintain correct spinal and pelvic alignment while the arms and legs are moving. Core stability also allows the body to prevent collapse and return to symmetrical balance after movement. In other words, strengthening this area can help a player develop greater body control on the court, hopefully decreasing their potential for injury.
Why it's often overlooked: Training the core is typically not something a basketball player feels will affect his game. It’s not like performing plyometrics to improve jumping ability where it’s easy to see how the exercise relates to performance on the court.
How to improve it: A common misconception is that doing sit-ups and crunches is all you need to train your core, but that only trains one portion of the core in one plane of movement. Here’s a sampling of exercises that develop all muscles from the hips to shoulders:
- Body weight exercise: Prone Pillar Bridge, Side Pillar Bridge (photo 1), Glute Bridge (photo 2).
- Loaded exercises: Stability Cable Lift, Stability Cable Chop (photo 3).
- Total-body integration: Perpendicular and parallel medicine ball throws.
Incorporate these exercises into your program, and then apply the same principles used in the weight room to practice during movement skill drills-moving without the ball, shuffling, sprinting, and so on. That way, athletes improve awareness of proper back and hip position on the court as well.
2. HIP STABILITY
The constant running, jumping and change of direction in basketball places tremendous stress on the knees one reason knee tendonitis is so common. Another source of knee problems is a lack of hip stability. The muscles of the hip, especially the gluteus medius, help control the femur (upper thigh bone) and guide proper knee alignment. Each time the foot contacts the floor, whether from running, jumping or cutting, the foot, knee and hip should be aligned. But, instability through the hips, can cause the knee to misalign.
Think of it this way: If the elbow flares out during shooting, it’ll affect the accuracy of the shot, right? One part of the body disrupts another. Well, if the hip muscles don’t stabilize properly, then the hip tends to jut out while the knee collapses and rotates inward with each foot contact. What’s more, running, jumping and cutting can create forces of more than 3 to 5 times your bodyweight. As this happens over and over again, the patellar tendon can become irritated and inflamed, causing pain and potentially injury.
Why it's often overlooked: Training the hip stabilizing muscles can be tedious and challenging. The exercises require concentration to maintain proper form and alignment. They can also be uncomfortable because the muscles of the hip, when challenged through various routines, fatigue to the point of discomfort or "burn."
How to improve it: Here’s a sampling of movements to include in your program:
- Isolation exercises: Mini Band Linear Bent Leg Walking (photo 4), Mini Band Lateral Bent Leg Walking.
- Total-body integration: Mini-Band Squat - 2 Leg and 1 Leg (photos 5 and 6).
- Stability Jumps and Hops.
3. HIP MOBILITY
The ability to get into a low, defensive stance is a fundamental position for basketball players. But constantly being in this defensive stance can shorten the muscles of the hip, especially the hip flexor muscles (iliopsoas, tensor fascia latae, rectus femoris), making them less flexible.
When these muscles become tight, an athlete’s gluteal muscles can actually become inhibited, limiting hip extension and jumping ability, as a result. But the human body is so adroit at compensating that it will substitute other muscles to create movement. Since proper hip extension is vital for running and jumping, many times the player will use his back muscles instead of the hip or gluteal muscles to perform these movements. This can lead to spine problems because the back is not meant to perform this function.
A regular flexibility and mobility routine will help avoid these compensations from occurring and will counteract hip tightness.
Why it's often overlooked: Stretching in general can be tedious and sometimes uncomfortable for players. Left to their own routine, players will typically prepare for practice with light shooting and drill work. Rarely will you see athletes stretching on their own without a coach overseeing their actions. In the cases when they do stretch, it’s because they are sore or tight. It is rare when a specific flexibility/mobility routine is instituted as part of a preventative program.
How to improve it: Implement a regular flexibility and mobility routine as part of a preventative program, and include the following movements:
- Soft tissue release: Foam Roll TFL; Foam Roll IT Band.
- Flexibility: 1/2 Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch; 1/2 Kneeling Quad/Hip Flexor Stretch.
- Dynamic mobility: Back Lunge with Twist (photo 7); World's Greatest Stretch (photo 8).
4. ANKLE MOBILITY
Ankle sprains are very common in basketball. The ligaments of the ankle become stretched or torn, the area swells with fluid or edema, muscles that surround the ankle become weakened, balance and stability are disrupted, and ankle joint function is compromised. As the athlete heals, function begins to return, but normal range of motion, if not properly rehabilitated, can be still restricted. If ankle joint motion remains limited, the athlete will compensate to still be able to perform normal movement. This compensation can occur in the form of the arch collapsing or overpronation. Simply put, when the base of foundation of your body (foot/ankle) moves out of alignment, everything above it will follow. That’s why ankle sprains can be an underlying cause in knee and Achilles problems as well as bunions.
Why it's often overlooked: The common response to a sprained ankle is to ice it and rest until the swelling diminishes. After a short time, the player is back on the court thinking they’re fine. Unfortunately, if the player does not undergo any rehabilitative exercises, their ankle joint function will still be compromised, predisposing them to another ankle sprain. The biggest predictor of future ankle sprains is a previous ankle sprain.
How to improve it: Here’s a sampling of movements to include in your program:
- Soft tissue release: Foam Roll or Massage Stick - Calf, Achilles, Peroneals.
- Self ankle mobilization: Dorsiflexion Stretch - 1/2 Kneeling with Dowel.
- Total-body integration: Overhead Squat - w/abduction (Heal Lift, Mini-Band, Dowel).
5. SINGLE-LEG STRENGTH AND POWER
Basketball players often say, "I am a one foot jumper" or "I am a two foot jumper." To be a complete player, you must be able to perform both because different situations dictate a different take-off style. Besides, running is a single-leg support activity. Each propulsive stride in filling the lane on a fast break requires a strong and powerful push, while landing from a jump can be unstable onto one leg. For this reason, single-leg strength and power is importance not just for performance, but also for staying safe on the court.
Why it's often overlooked: Single leg strength must be developed off the court to be integrated on the court, but most weight room exercises, such as leg extensions, leg curls, leg presses, and squats, are typically performed with two legs.
How to improve it: Perform single-leg exercises, such as Single-leg Balance Squats and Single-leg Romanian Dead-lifts, as well as plyometrics.
Visit CorePerformance.com for instructional video demonstrations of the exercises featured in this article.