Hard Core Basketball

Core training for basketball must reflect the demands of the sport and address each athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning and can be reached at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 12.6, September 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1206/hardcore.htm

Forget about having your basketball players lying prone or otherwise parallel to gravity when they core train. In truly functional core training, the demands of a sport should dictate the primary body position in which the athlete trains. And for basketball, prone doesn’t cut it.

Instead, the great majority of basketball functional core training should be in standing and moving positions that stimulate and activate the core in patterns that reflect the demands of this game. This article illustrates how I plan a functional core training program for basketball players.

Functional core training is based on some simple principles. First, one should train the core before training the extremities. A strong, stable core will allow the extremities to better do their job.

Second, dynamic postural alignment is the foundation for functional training. All of the force that an athlete’s body produces is transferred through the core to some extent. As this force is transferred, the large muscles of the core act as an “anti-gravity” mechanism to give the body structural integrity that allows the limbs to position and reposition themselves according to the demands of the activity. Therefore, a good functional core-training program for basketball—or any sport—will work on the interplay between force production and force reduction (accelerating and decelerating) as it relates to the core.

Finally, functional core training must consider balance. Balance is a key aspect of movement that is closely related to a strong, properly functioning core. Movement is a state of dynamic equilibrium with an ongoing interplay of imbalance and balance. Just as posture is dynamic during sport activity, balance is also dynamic. As an athlete moves, there is a continual reaction to gravity and external forces such as the playing surface or other players on the court. The muscles of the core play a decisive role in this balance because all the forces of motion and gravity transfer through there.

With these concepts in mind, we can begin to think about designing a core-training program for your basketball players. The first step is assessing the athlete’s core condition.

It is important to first assess the athlete’s core condition to identify any deficiencies. Then, you can include exercises to address the deficiencies in the overall core-training program. The traditional method of assessment usually has the athlete in a prone or supine position seeking to isolate the relative strength of individual muscles in the core area. In contrast to the traditional method, I prefer using a functional assessment that is oriented in standing positions or other positions that simulate the posture required in basketball.

My functional assessment includes a simple qualitative analysis of the athlete’s core movements. This analysis consists of taking videos of the player doing his or her respective game activities from the front, side, and rear, if possible. I then use the videos to judge quality of movement. To give the videos a wider perspective, I also record a typical training activity and judge the quality of movement there, looking for patterns.

To illustrate the functional assessment, let’s look at a post player. For my videos, I would have the athlete perform a front pivot and a reverse pivot, a jump stop, and hops comparing the right and the left legs. I would also have the player reach up with his or her right hand and compare that to the same movement with the left hand. Then, I would film repetitive jumps timed for both 15 and 30 seconds to see what happens with fatigue.

When I review these videos, I look for key warning signs of core-strength deficiencies, such as a breakdown of posture as fatigue sets in or a breakdown of form when the movements become more complex.

After video recording the qualitative assessment exercises, I add a quantitative assessment that looks at the athlete’s movement from the top down and from the bottom up. Assessment driven from the top down refers to evaluative movements that are oriented and driven from and through the upper extremity. My favorite tools for top-down assessment are the following three types of medicine ball exercises: A chest pass off two legs and off one leg, an overhead throw off two legs and one leg, and a rotational throw in which I measure and then compare the distance of each throw with a rotation right and left.

Assessment driven from the bottom up refers to movements that are oriented to and driven from the legs. My choice of tools for bottom-up assessment is to utilize balance tests, excursion tests, lunges, jumps, and hop tests.

All of these evaluative tools give me feedback that will guide the selection of core exercises, as well as the emphasis that core training should get in each player’s program. Regardless of the evaluation, each player should do some daily remedial core exercises to build and to later maintain core conditioning. Some remedial core exercises include basic rotations.

Once the athlete is evaluated, I carefully consider all of the following when designing a core-training program and selecting the exercises:

Demands of the sport. Basketball is a skill-dominant game of quick starts and stops with rapid changes of direction. Consequently, the basketball athlete’s core must be well trained for sudden acceleration and deceleration.

Demands of the position. The simplest breakdown of basketball’s positions is to divide the athletes into post players and perimeter players. Post play has higher strength demands, there is more contact, plus shorter and quicker movements. The perimeter players have more open-court movements, but less contact with other players.

Physical qualities of the athlete. The physical qualities of the athlete should include three considerations: dynamic postural analysis, injury history, and a performance and training history of that athlete. Dynamic postural analysis is something that a coach can visually determine by watching if the player can control his or her body in the various positions that are demanded in the game. If form breaks down, then remedial core training and other strength training is probably necessary.

Considering an athlete’s injury history will help you decide if and when remedial core training exercises are to be implemented and what movements are to be avoided. For example, a chronic tendinitis issue would require restriction of certain training activities.

When examining an athlete’s performance and training history I try to see if that person’s performance is consistent or inconsistent. Inconsistent performance can be a clue that the athlete has some core training deficiencies that need addressing. Also, looking at the extent of the athlete’s training background can help you determine if the athlete has been able to build a sound foundation of core strength.

For the purposes of effective program design and efficiency, the core exercises that you select for your basketball players should be classified as one of four types: stabilization exercises, flexion/extension exercises, rotation exercises, and throwing/catching exercises. This system of classification allows you to distribute exercises to ensure adequate recovery and effective coverage of all aspects of core movement.

My favorite basketball core-training tools include bodyweight/gravitational loading, which requires no equipment, just your body; the Body Blade, which is a good tool to use in conjunction with weight training; the power ball or kettle ball, which is very good for swinging and throwing; dumbbells, which allow work in diagonal and rotational patterns; stretch cords, which are very portable, are easy to use solo or with partners, and are good tools to link the upper body with the core; and the medicine ball, which is the most versatile core-training tool for use in partner or solo activities.

There is an old saying: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything becomes a nail.” Therefore, learn to use all the core-training tools available to you, keeping in mind the advantages and disadvantages of each one.

Generally, it is not necessary to combine your core-training tools. However, if you decide to combine them, do so with a specific goal in mind. Also, combine your choices of core-training tools with environmental modifiers in a logical, sequential progression. Environmental modifiers are those things that enable us to add variation to the basic core-training tools. They include balance beams, balance boards, foam rolls, airex pads, ABC ladders, and mini trampolines.

The key to combining the tools with environmental modifiers is to optimally stress the core, not perform circus tricks. Continually evaluate the effectiveness of the exercises by observing the quality of the movements along with the athlete’s ability to completely perform the prescribed sets and reps.

The actual exercise program should begin in the most challenging position the individual can control. To adjust the challenge from athlete to athlete, the program can be manipulated by changing the variables.

There are several guidelines that I find useful to keep in mind throughout the training year. These include volume guidelines, which are important because of the structure and function of the core, and because of the relatively high volumes that are necessary to stress the area in order to achieve any significant training adaptation. For rotational movement, for example, the exercises are usually done in sets of 20 repetitions. For total-body throws, the range is usually six to 10 repetitions. For wall throws or partner throws, the repetitions are generally 20.

The number of exercises per session should range from six to 10 exercises with the reps based on the training objective for each session. In addition, implement a time requirement of 15 to 20 minutes daily for core work. This does not have to be done all in one block, but can be distributed throughout the workout at strategic points.

Where to place exercises is also an important point to remember year-round. Core training can be effectively distributed throughout the workout beginning with the warmup. During the warmup rotations, chopping, flexion, and extension movements are especially effective. In the actual workout, throws should be done as a segment of the actual workout or as an actual workout in order to ensure high intensity and proper mechanics. Probably the least desirable time to train the core is after the workout or during cooldown.

When planning your basketball core training plan, build a foundation of a few exercises that should be mastered and consistently done well. Choose exercises that work the core in all planes of motion, including trunk flexion and extension on the sagittal plane, lateral flexion on the frontal plane, trunk rotation on the transverse plane, and combinations on the tri plane.

Finally, note that you should change the distribution of work volume in the preseason, competitive, and peak competitive cycles. In the preseason, the athlete should have higher volumes of exercises to help build strength, but those volumes should taper off as the season progresses to avoid overuse injuries. To illustrate this, see how the volume for some common core exercises differs between the three cycles:

Non-competitive cycle work distribution:

Day One. Cable core, medium volume. Total-body throws, low volume.

Day Two. Cable core, low volume. Rotations and wall throws, high volume.

Day Three. Cable core, low volume

Day Four. Cable core, medium volume. Rotations and total-body throws, low volume.

Day Five. Cable core and wall throws, low volume.

Day Six. Cable core, low volume. Rotations, medium volume.

Competitive cycle work distribution:

Day One. Cable core, low volume. Total-body throws, low volume.

Day Two. Cable core and rotations, low volume.

Day Three. Game.

Day Four. Cable core and wall throws, low volume.

Day Five. Game.

Peak competitive cycle work distribution:

Day One. Cable core and total-body throws, low volume.

Day Two. Cable core, low volume. Wall throws, medium volume.

Day Three. Game.

Day Four. Cable core, medium volume.

Day Five. Game.

Day Six. Game.

TABLE THREE: Sample Core Training Program

Basic Rotations (one set of each exercise)

Walking wide twist, x 20 forward and x 20 backward
Walking tight twist, x 20 forward and x 20 backward
Walking over the top, x 20 forward and x 20 backward
Walking figure eight, x 20 forward and x 20 backward
Base volume = 160 Repetitions
(Performed each session as warm-up)

Cable core trainer (stretch cord)*
Flexion/extension, x 20
Twisting, x 20 (10 each side)
Chop, x 20 (10 each side)
Big circle
a) Same direction, x 10
b) Opposite direction, x 10
Base volume = 80 repetitions
Low volume = 2 sets with 160 repetitions
Medium volume = 3 sets with 240 repetitions
High volume = 4 sets with 320 repetitions
* Cable core trainer can be performed with a partner or solo with the stretch cord attached to a secure anchor point.

Medicine-ball rotations
Standing full twist, X 10 each direction
Standing half twist, X 10 each direction
Half chop, X 10 each way
Seated sit throw, x 20
Seated side throw, x 10 each side
Solo medicine ball sit-up (two position, right and left), X 5
Base volume = 90 repetitions
Low volume = 2 sets with 180 repetitions
Medium volume = 3 sets with 270 repetitions
High volume = 4 sets with 360 repetitions

Medicine-ball partner or wall throws
Overhead throw, x 20
Soccer throw, x 20
Chest pass, x 20
Standing side-to-side, x 10 each side (cross in front)
Standing cross in front, x 10 each side
Around the back, x 10 each side
Base volume = 120 repetitions
Low volume = 1 set with 120 repetitions
Medium Volume = 3 sets with 360 repetitions
High Volume = 5 sets with 560 repetitions

Total-body throws **
Single-leg squat and throw, x 6 each leg
Single-leg squat and scoop Throw x 6 each leg
Over-the-back throw, x 6
Forward through the legs, x 6
Squat and throw, x 10
Volume = 46 Repetitions
** Because these exercises are used to excite the nervous system and achieve maximum explosiveness they are never done for volume because fatigue would compromise explosiveness.