Center of Strength
Jackie Ansley is the Founder of Sports Excel and Performance Training Inc., both located in Knoxville, Tenn. A former NCAA Division I player and high school coach, she has trained more than 120 professional women’s basketball players as well as top collegiate teams, including Tennessee, Purdue, and Penn State.
Training & Conditioning, 14.4, May/June 2004, http://www.momentummedia.comOn the basketball court, post players are often the center of attention. Coaches will develop their offensive game plans around good centers, and may even change their offense completely if they do not have a dominant one. On defense, a powerful center can influence her opponent on almost every trip down the court.
These players deserve the same amount of attention in the weightroom that they receive on the court. Many centers have relied on the advantages of their height at lower levels of play only to find that advantage negated at higher levels. Top college teams typically have someone 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-6 at center and a couple of 6-foot-plus players at forward. So now these centers have to use their strength and agility to compete, not just their height.
I have had the opportunity to work with some great post players, such as Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson, Michelle Snow, Kara Wolters, DeLisha Milton, Ashley Robinson, Lindsay Taylor, and many more. My work with each began the same way, by studying them completely. My evaluation methods vary based on the circumstances, but I use as many sources as possible, from game tapes to the way the players perform in various tests, such as two-foot vertical jumps, shuffle drills, and linear sprints. I also ask the players and their coaches what they want to get out of the training sessions.
The underlying questions I need to answer before designing a program are: What does this player need to be a better center? What can I do to help create a strong, dominant center who will play effectively on both ends of the floor?
Although each player has different attributes and needs, there are some common problem areas in many of the tall centers I see: hip strength, core strength, balance, and body positioning. The second two problems result from, yet also exacerbate, the first two. Insufficient hip and core strength inhibits a center’s ability to achieve good body balance and positioning on the court. Bad habits created by a lack of balance and proper positioning, in turn, lead to further weakening of the core and hips.
These four classic problems also combine to create another deficiency: lack of explosive power. Without good core strength, balance, and body positioning, centers can be easily pushed around and bodied out under the basket.
To absorb the constant physical pounding that centers face game after game, they must develop a solid core. Even centers with enough playing skills to succeed despite a lack of core strength may see that weakness manifested in lower back pain. Once a center has developed sufficient core strength she can begin to work on agility and quickness.
A comprehensive preseason conditioning program for basketball centers should address all of these needs systematically. This is achieved by integrating stretching, strength training, core work, and speed, agility, and quickness (SAQ) training into one program, such as the one presented in Table One (below). Of course, the program should be modified when working with younger players, players with less training time available, or players with a lower overall level of conditioning.
In the desire to make your centers bigger, faster, and stronger, it’s easy to overlook the importance of stretching. Many of the players I see are very tight, yet do not take the time to stretch. This will often show up in a player’s inability to properly perform certain drills (such as dropping the knee when they stride out during linear strides) or repeated injuries.
Before beginning any of our workouts, I have players warm and lubricate their muscles with some jogging, followed by both static and dynamic stretching. Table Two (below) provides a sample warmup program that incorporates both static (stationary) and dynamic stretching (ballistic movements in all planes of motion).
Once the warmup and stretching are complete, the players’ muscles will be more elastic, and blood flow and muscle metabolism will be elevated, thus increasing the effectiveness of their workouts.
To drive home the importance of stretching before any workouts, practices, or games, I frequently ask players how many times they have said, "It took me three trips down the court to finally get my legs." Once they have learned to start every session with stretching, they always want to continue because they feel ready for whatever comes next.
Don’t forget about post-workout stretching. Finishing each strength and conditioning session with stretching allows athletes to relax the muscles and gently return the body to its resting state. It also keeps circulation slightly elevated, which lets the muscle cells deliver nutrients to and clear metabolic wastes away from the muscles. Thus, muscles recover faster, are less sore, and are better able to stave off cramps and injuries.
Here are some examples of the exercises I use for a cooldown stretching routine:
• Hamstring/calf/straight leg to ceiling, right/left
• Glutes/low-back bent knee to chest, right/left
• Glutes/hamstring/low-back/calf crossover straight leg
• Glutes/low-back/bent-knee crossover, upper back flat
• Piriformis ankle to knee (prone)
• Piriformis low-back figure four
• IT band prone to leg over
• Low-back/IT band/piriformis/sitting up crossover lower-leg in, top leg over to hugging knees
• Quads/supine heel to butt, right/left
• Hip flexors supine, elevate knee, heel to butt
• Hip flexors/abs supine, push-up (hips flat)
The bedrock of my preseason program for centers is strength training. I constantly preach to the athletes that success on the court begins in the weightroom. Power, speed, and agility all rely on strength, so it’s important to build a proper strength base before training these other areas. Without the proper strength, athletes can’t do the rest of the workouts needed to improve, and the risk of injury is greater.
Since some athletes are a little reticent about spending a lot of time in the weightroom, I prefer to structure my program with shorter weight work sessions spread throughout the training week rather than bunching weightroom work into its own days. I seem to get more strength built when I split weightroom work into a four-day program. However, a three-day split can also be effective.
The program design is based on the age of the athlete and her baseline strength when she reports for preseason conditioning, which should begin about six to eight weeks prior to the first practice. Ideally, the athlete has increased her overall strength in the off-season so we can focus on power and explosion as they directly pertain to basketball. If not, this base strength must be developed first before specific power and explosive training can begin. This is especially true for centers since long-limbed and thinner players will often be lacking in upper-body strength.
In Table Three (below), I have shown typical upper- and lower-body routines and core training for the first week of lifting, which I will vary with each post player depending on her muscular endurance and strength. I choose exercises that relate directly to what the players need to do on the court and adjust the mix to address specific weaknesses that I have seen.
During the first four weeks of the preseason, I focus on overloading and increasing loads as much as possible. But even in this stage of strength training, I encourage the athlete to think about being explosive and performing the concentric phase of each lift with speed. They must then be able to control the weights on the negative.
After four or five weeks, I evaluate each player’s progress and start to change their sets and reps to get them ready for the first day of practice. When it comes to the numbers of sets and reps or the amount of weight, I am more concerned with increasing the work load each week than reaching any preset maximums.
Along with our structured core training, I challenge players to focus on core activation and proper posture throughout the entire workout. In everything we do—warm up, weights, speed-agility-quickness exercises, and court workouts—I hammer home the importance of the core and balance.
By working intensively on agility (change of direction/change of speed) and explosive power (first step along with vertical leaping), you can create a more explosive, more active, and quicker center who is able to compete at a higher level. This process begins with training footwork and teaching athletes how to load their hips and gain more explosion and balance.
To develop foot speed, I focus on performing the positive phase of lifts quickly. Whether they’re doing leg presses, leg curls, or other exercises, I stress the importance of exploding quickly to start, then pausing before controlling the weight on the way down. I also tie their ankles together with bungee cords and put them through shuffle drills, or even run them through one-on-one drills with a ball.
Loading the hips is very important to developing the explosive power needed to become a better rebounder, post up strongly, hold space, and be ready to shoot once the ball is received. It also puts a center in a better position to move her feet when the player she is defending receives the ball. Many posts are not able to execute multiple jumps without losing elevation each time. By improving hip strength and learning how to get in proper position with their hips down in a quarter-squat type of stance, posts can load their hips and elevate better in multiple jumps.
After footwork and hip loading comes specific agility work. Many posts can only play well if they stay in one spot. Once they are asked to make cuts they lose all balance and strength.
I continually challenge the athlete in each SAQ workout and try to convey to her how this skill comes into her game. I’ll constantly ask, "What are we working on? Why are we doing these drills?" If a player understands how a drill can help her down the road, then she will usually work extremely hard.
In Table Four (below), I have included two sample SAQ workouts that address lateral movement and linear explosion. As we progress through the preseason, I will change the work level and number of reps to keep the workout challenging.
I also adjust the workouts to meet each player’s specific needs. For example, one player may be great straight ahead and weak laterally, so I would increase the number of side runs or zigzag shuffles. Another player may have the opposite characteristics so I would use more high-knee skips or run-throughs.
The drills prescribed to each player should represent what she actually needs rather than a one-size-fits-all agenda. I know some strength coaches have some favorite drills they like to use, but you must ask yourself, "Is this player ready to do this particular drill? Will it make her a better center?"
My emphasis when developing the cardiovascular fitness of any player is avoiding excessive impact. This is even more important with centers, many of whom are more inclined to foot and ankle problems because of their size.
I do not recommend having players jog long distances. We have all done long-distance running as athletes or prescribed it to our athletes. But players need to prepare for the specific demands of their position. Post players need to develop endurance that allows them to recover very quickly between repeated high-intensity efforts that engage a lot of fast-twitch muscle fibers. They do not need endurance that allows them to sustain a steady, moderate intensity involving mostly slow-twitch fibers. Long-distance running is therefore counterproductive.
I do not have players run on the track in the preseason. I can get the job done while limiting the pounding they receive by using cardio equipment such as a stationary bike, elliptical trainer, or cross trainer, as well as sprint drills on the court. I avoid treadmills because of the constant pounding on the legs and feet.
I use workouts featuring sustained, high-intensity intervals. These can go as long as two minutes at high strides per minute (spm) or revolutions per minute (rpm) with an active rest of one to two minutes at a lower spm or rpm. As the first practice approaches, we move to short sprint intervals (15- to 45-seconds at a higher spm or rpm with 15- to 45-second active rest at a moderate spm or rpm). Table Five (below) details a sample cardio program.
If your facilities permit pool workouts, they are another excellent way to perform conditioning work with minimal impact. These workouts can incorporate not only cardio training but also strength and power training while producing a fraction of the impact forces that are absorbed on the court.
Regardless of the resources at your disposal, you will be able to help your centers become more effective on the court if you are able to build their core strength and improve their agility. The specific exercises and drills are only tools and are of little use if not used correctly. So, make sure athletes are ready for the drills you assign and that the drills will benefit the player on the court.
Forward jog - 2x30 yds
Toe walk/heel walk - 1x15 yds each
Forward/backward ankle flip skip - 1x15 yds each
Standing quad/hip flexor stretch - 2x10 sec. each
Forward/backward butt kicks - 1x10 yds each
Forward/backward skip - 1x30 yds each
Straddle stretch (middle, left, right) - 1x10 sec. each
Front to back leg swings (straight leg) - 1x10 each
Frankenstein walks/skips - 1x15 yds each
Carioca (left/right) - 1x30 each
High-knee skips - 1x30 yds
Bound skips - 1x30 yds
Combination skips - 1x30 yds
Standing hip circles (front/back) - 1x5 each way/each leg
Backward reach back skips - 1x30 yds
Backward sprints - 2x30 yds
Table Three: Strength Workouts
Lat pulls in front - 3x8
Cable low rows - 3x8
Pec deck - 3x8
Push-ups - 3x10-15
Shoulder press - 3x8
DB shoulder raises (lateral, front, reverse) - 2x10 each
Triceps overhead cable ext. - 3x8
DB curls - 3x8
Pull-ups/dips (weight loaded if needed) - 2x10 each
Hip abduction - 3x15
Hip adduction - 3x15
Leg press (single leg) - 3x10 each
Leg curls (single leg) - 3x10 each
Short arcs (single leg) - 3x10 each
Calf raises (standing or seated) - 3x10
DB step-ups - 3x10 each
Tuck jumps - 3x10
Box jumps routine:
•Single box up (2 feet) - 1x10
•Single box drop off and up - 1x10
•Single box over - 1x10
•2 boxes drop off and up (small to big, big to small) - 1x10 each
Bridges on floor (front, back, left, right) - 3x30-60sec. each
(add 5 leg lifts at end to challenge)
Push-ups on physio ball - 2x10
Physio ball pass over and back - 1x10
Medicine ball routine:
•Overhead pass - 2x10
•Chest pass - 2x10
•Trunk twists - 2x10
•Crunch to push pass - 2x10
Focus is on lateral explosion/lateral movement
Mini hurdles (6-8 hurdles):
•Side runs - x2-3
•Side runs back and forth - x2-3
•Side runs and back - x2-3
•Side hops - x2-3
•Side hops back and forth - x2 each
Balance and stabilization:
•Defensive stance with movement (hold 10 sec.) - x3-5
•Single leg stabilization (hold 5 sec.) - x3-5 each leg
•Single leg hops (5 sec.) - x3-5
•Skate jumps with sidewinders - x3
•Skate jumps without sidewinders - x1-2
•Zigzag shuffles with sidewinders - x3
•Zigzag shuffles without sidewinders - x1-2
•Zigzag shuffles on visual command, sprint back - x4
Court sprints (build to 1:1 rest to work ratio)
•Big threes - x4
•Figure eights - x2 clockwise/counter clockwise
•Shuttle sprints - x2 start left/start right
Sample Cardio Workout
This workout is for the elliptical trainer. Start with a 15 minute warmup at level 6-8, 150 strides per minute (spm). Workout then consists of sustained high-intensity intervals that range from 170 to 200 spm with active rest consistent at 120 or130 spm. All are at level 10. Finish with cooldown.
High Intensity ------------------------ Active Rest
2.0 min. at 170 spm ------------------ 1.0 min.
1.5.min. at 180 spm ------------------ 1.5 min.
1.0 min. at 190 spm ------------------ 2.0 min.
0.5 min. at 200 spm ------------------ 2.5 min.
1.0 min. at 190 spm ------------------ 2.0 min.
1.5 min. at 180 spm ------------------ 1.5 min.
2.0 min. at 170 spm ------------------ 1.0 min.