General Preparation Before Basketball-Specific Training

Basketball-specific or sport-specific training is the rage. Trainers and strength coaches market their training as basketball-specific, as the rash to specialize early hastens the demand for sport-specific training.

Sport-specific training is now another marketing gimmick. When a strength coach says that his program uses only basketball-specific movements, while showing a video of an athlete bench pressing, all meaning is gone. There is nothing wrong with the bench press; however, how is it specific to basketball? How is lying on a bench and pressing a weight overhead a basketball-specific movement?

Similarly, adding a basketball to an exercise does not make the exercise “basketball-specific.” How is a walking lunge holding a basketball overhead basketball-specific?

Basketball-specific does not mean the use of a basketball in general exercises. Basketball-specific exercises are ones that tax the appropriate energy systems with the same movements used in basketball: Sprints, stops, changes of directions, shuffles, crossover steps, jumps, landings and more. Basketball-specific means training all three energy systems: ATP-CP, glycolytic, and aerobic.

Because of the acyclic nature of basketball, athletes tax the ATP-CP and glycolytic systems. The ATP-CP fuels activity for 6-10 seconds, while the glycolytic system lasts for two minutes. Basketball players rarely  if ever move consistently for more than two minutes due to the stoppages in play, not to mention down time away from the ball. However, some aerobic development is necessary to improve the quality of the glycolytic system.

These systems can be trained in a basketball-specific manner. Drills such as tag and the Mirror Drill that utilize short, intense bouts of multi-directional activity are basketball-specific whether or not a basketball is involved.

Before one reaches basketball-specific training, however, the player needs general preparation. This is true over the lifespan of the athlete, and in an annual periodized plan.

In Easy Strength, Dan John writes about Quadrant 1, which encompasses all the general movements once learned in elementary school physical-education classes.

Leaping, bounding, jumping, landing, twisting, pushing, pulling, climbing and more. Now, since children do not learn basic movements like skipping, squatting, crawling, climbing, and more, these skills have to be incorporated early in one’s sports development and early in the season.

I am working with a junior college women’s basketball team through its optional summer workouts. My goals for the summer were for them to return for classes being able to skip, do 10 push-ups, do one pull-up, land from a jump in a proper position for a static landing, and perform repeat jumps with good technique. If we can do those things in mid-August when class starts, I will be happy because these are actually big tasks for incoming freshmen who could not squat without lifting their heels, absorb force, do a proper push-up, etc.

In many cases, it is the coordination as much as the strength – they have to learn to coordinate these movements before we can add a load. In a perfect world, college athletes would possess all these movement skills prior to matriculation, but the world is imperfect. Some players are able to reach a scholarship level despite dramatic flaws or holes in their general athletic development. They have become very proficient at compensating for these holes. However, to reach a higher level, and/or to stay healthy, they cannot continue to compensate: They have to improve. Improvement starts with a return to the basics, not a concentration on trying to be basketball-specific.

Last week, I was fortunate to watch Will Claye train as he prepares for the Olympics.

Claye is in Quadrant 4 (John), as he is a very elite, very specialized athlete in the triple and long jumps. Therefore, this close to competition, his exercises were very, very specialized. As an example, Claye was not doing full squats, lunges, or step-ups: He was going to the same angle as his take-off. That is task specific strength training. However, after the Olympics, he will return to a period of general preparation where he will do similar exercises through a greater range of motion.

With my basketball players, we are not basketball-specific right now because we are doing general training. We are doing deadlifts, full front squats, goblet squats, and high step-ups as general training. These are not basketball-specific movements. You don’t move in this position in a basketball game:

However, the general strength development is important to prepare the players for the forces involved in playing the game of basketball. These are some exercises involved in our general preparation.

I believe the team will be talented and should win a lot of games. Therefore, I am going to extend the general preparation, probably through September. In October, we will begin our specific preparation where exercises and workouts become more basketball-specific. For instance, once we reach the specific preparation, we will hang clean; we will not full clean. That is a range of motion more specific to basketball. When we learn to clean in our general preparation, we will progress to full cleans (hopefully). As the season nears, I will enter the pre-competition phase of our training program. I am going to count the pre-season tournaments as part of the pre-competition period because the league record and conference tournament are most important. I want to extend the intensity of the training as long as possible. The competition period will start, in terms of our off-court program, around January 1.

Now, different teams periodize their years differently. High-school players need a double peak because they need to peak in the high-school season and the club season. With college players, we can extend the off-season longer and spend more time on general preparation focusing on the coordination development, general strength, and teaching the techniques of the lifts. This is especially important this year as there are a number of freshman, and the returners barely lifted weights last season. Next season will be much different because we will return at least eight players with a year of experience with all these lifts. We will be able to increase the intensity earlier and train harder due to their better base of strength from this year and their improved technical proficiency.

Every athlete, at every level, needs general preparation before moving to sport-specific exercises. The younger the athlete, the more general preparation is necessary. With a 10-year-old, all conditioning should be general, while a professional athlete spends a short amount of time in general preparation and a lot of time in basketball-specific training. When athletes fail to participate in general preparation as a young athlete, or fail to develop general strength and proper movement skills at a young age, they need a longer general preparation period to remedy the lack of development. Ignoring these needs simply puts the athlete at risk for an injury or a premature peak.

While general preparation may not market as well as basketball-specific training, more time spent in Quadrant 1 will enhance an athlete’s athleticism and provide a better foundation for sport-specific success.

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

  • What Is A Playmaker?

    Who decided that a point guard has to be small? More importantly, what is a point guard? We expect a point guard to be a leader and have a high basketball I.Q. Why don’t we expect or challenge all players to develop this game awareness? Why rely on only one player? Read more →
  • The PBDL Concept

    English soccer academies wait until players are 11 to play full 11v11 soccer; in Italy, youth basketball players participate in skill-oriented clinics at 6-years-old, but start competitive games at 12. In the United States, kids play 5v5 full court games and compete for national championships when they are 8-years-old.

    Read more →

  • Starting A PBDL

    The PBDL emphasizes learning and development. Presently, players and parents have numerous recreation options - leagues based on fun and equal participation, typically for beginners - and numerous competitive opportunities - teams focused on strategy, game preparation and winning. There are few true development leagues - until now.

    Read more →