The evolutions of basketball over the last decade have been transcendent, and with few exceptions have been occurred more rapidly than any other sport in recent history. As we have seen basketball shift towards a positionless model, athletes have demonstrated an incredible ability to be adaptable by expanding their skillset to meet these demands. Where for decades we saw clear delineation between Centers/Forwards/Guards, and specific body types to meet those positional requirements, we now see athletes 6’8” (and up) with ball handling and shooting skills that were once only expected of backcourt players. Despite the excitement this has brought to the game, we cannot overlook the challenges it has presented players and the physical demands imposed on their bodies. As we will cover throughout this article, the training approach in the gym must be compatible to the demands of the sport. And for basketball athletes, this may be more challenging than ever before.
Unique Attributes of Basketball Players
You don’t need me to tell you that basketball players are tall, abnormally tall at that. The anthropometrics of NBA players is fascinating to observe, demonstrating a collective average of 6’7”/218 lbs./7.5 BF% along with a modest 83” wingspan and 104.3” standing reach (2,6). Basketball players conventionally have much longer extremities relative to torso length as compared to other team-sport athletes. Beyond the spectacle it may be, these disproportionate extremity lengths will have a significant impact on training considerations.
A few notable points with this include the amount of torque that is experienced at the proximal joint, the ratios of tendon length (insertion points) relative to muscle length, and the effects on center of mass relative to base of support (COM_BOS). Although this isn’t always the case, taller athletes and athletes with significant extremity lengths may struggle to perform conventional movements such as back squats and deadlifts. As shown in the video below, taller athletes can often have difficulty tolerating the ranges of motion demanded with conventional lifts, particularly with compressive loads such as with back squats.
Beyond their unique frames, basketball athletes have been notorious for not exactly loving the weight room. Despite the unarguable benefits of strength training, this apprehension to training can be an impediment for coaches. Basketball athletes also endure substantially high volumes of on court time throughout the year, as the saying goes- “hoopers love to hoop”. While early sport specialization has infiltrated several sports, it is probably most evident in basketball with the massive surge of AAU leagues and summer/specialty camps. Between these increasing demands for year-round basketball along with the aversion to weight training, basketball players may be more vulnerable to chronic overuse injuries due to the repetitive strain placed on connective tissue. This recipe can present disproportionate development across biological structures (i.e., connective vs. contractile tissue rations), as certain tissues are constantly being loaded while others become neglected.
Mechanical Demands of Basketball
Strength has become an elusive, even at times ambiguous term. How we define strength is a prerequisite for how we measure it, and quite frankly, a lot of our tried and true evaluations for measuring strength fall remarkably short of meeting sport transferability. For instance, consider athletes like Kevin Durant, Ja Morant, or the recent number one overall pick Victor Wembanyama to name a few. Now, I don’t know any of these athletes personally, however, I’d be willing to bet none of these guys would meet contemporary measures of being “strong”. In fact, during his NBA combine testing KD notoriously couldn’t bench 185 for a single rep, leading to beat writers and pundits labeling him everything from an injury risk to a surefire bust candidate… we all see how that one turned out. Ja Morant, who I’d all but guarantee can’t back squat over twice his bodyweight, is one of the most explosive jumpers and dynamic movers the league has ever seen. Nevertheless, it really does challenge the status quo of “how strong is strong enough?” AND “How do we define strength?”
The expression of strength in basketball is nuanced, complex, and not something that is purely measurable. The game is derived from creating leverage and demonstrating positional strength that is often expressed in a reciprocating or reactive nature. Contrary to strength evaluations coaches have relied on for years- i.e., bench press, back squat, or Olympic lift maxes, expressions of strength in basketball are more closely related to the ability to create and utilize leverage and maneuverability. Simple examples of this include a post player backing down a defender to get to the basket, a guard initiating and absorbing contact while going up for a fastbreak layup, or players scrambling and fighting for a loose ball. In each of these cases, it isn’t the player with the greatest absolute strength that normally wins, but rather, the one who can position themselves and create better leverage against the opponent. This acknowledges the significance of core strength, strength of the distal extremities (hands and feet), and the nuanced ability of creating strength through length (integrative force).
Mechanics of Fascia
Fascia can be simply understood as a global connective tissue that is continuous throughout the body. Fascia, made up predominantly of water, collagen, and elastin fibers, is a viscoelastic tissue that possess non-Newtonian properties (1). The dynamic nature of this tissue is demonstrated by the varying densifications throughout the body, along with its sensitivity to temperature, velocity, and tensile capacity. Fascial tissue is also highly enriched with sensorimotor bodies such as free nerve endings, proprioceptors, and mechanoreceptors (5). These sensory bodies are predominantly responsible for detecting and transmitting signals based on the environmental demands being experienced (4) and are critical for expressing and dispersing forces.
Fascia, particularly in regards to movement and training, is commonly organized by compartments and lines throughout the body. As noted in the graphic above, we have approximately 78 myofascial units (Stecco, C.), and roughly 10 identifiable myofascial lines that span the body from head to toe (Meyers, T.). While this does present a modified view of anatomy from what we’re introduced to through academia, it does not negate the conventional anatomy concepts we’ve all ascribed to. The way I look at it is that our conventional anatomy isn’t wrong, but it is incomplete. By incorporating this fascial view on how the body is organized and functions, it can provide a more thorough approach to organizing and prioritizing training.
Although fascia does not possess strong features for contractility, or generating forces, it is essential for the distribution and dispersion of forces throughout the body. The main functional properties of fascia include elastic, plastic, and viscous properties, which are all governed by the sensorimotor bodies. As I’ve mentioned, the roles and responsibilities of fascia are dynamic, and this speaks to why variability is desired in training. Our connective tissue needs to be elastic enough to tolerate strain, plastic enough to withstand shearing forces, and viscous enough to promote tissue glide. Beyond the isolated functions of fascia, and more importantly, is the role fascia plays in coordinating muscular groups.
Intermuscular coordination is a priority for optimizing mechanical relationships and force potential. Not only the magnitude, but the rate and coordination of forces are all dependent on the continuity of these myofascial linkages. The fascial tissue provides a direct medium between adjacent muscle groups playing a significant role in coordinating these muscular actions (3). Within these fascial compartments, neurovascular structures are embedded in these shared spaces and supply adjacent muscle groups, sometimes even agonist-antagonist muscles (3).
Taking a Fascial Based Approach for Hoopers
I’ve discussed fascial based training concepts extensively over the years, but I don’t believe there is any sport more fitting to adopt these concepts than for basketball athletes. Between the unique frames, the lack of love for conventional weight training, and the exposure to connective tissue injuries, basketball athletes are prototypes for fascial based training. It’s important to understand that while there are some distinctions, fascial based training does not require we do completely different things than what we would see in most conventional training approaches, but rather suggests we do some things slightly differently. I view this is as more so a change in perspective than it is in practice.
These distinctions start with position and directions of load. We’ve always been taught to organize movement as it relates to the three cardinal planes, which I believe to be incredibly shortsighted. Contrary to the three cardinal plane model, this approach suggests we challenge as many vectors as we can and doing so in a myriad of ways. The bilateral stance also has an abundance of limitation. Yes, bilateral stance is generally where athletes can apply or tolerate the most external force, but it also presents a position and pattern that compromises the purity of movements occurring in sport. I prefer to utilize mostly split, staggered, or single leg stances for the majority of my programming. I believe this adjustment in stance checks three boxes for hoopers- I.) providing a more favorable path of motion for taller athletes, II.) split/staggered stances are more compatible to the mechanics of movement in sport and III.) a better application for foot/ankle strength.
Where conventional training models are typically developed from the concept of overload, fascial based training should be more focused on the development of integrative force expressions. Similarly, rather than a blind pursuit of maximizing isolated force outputs, here we want to pursue the ability tolerate variability. What this means is creating training environments that challenge the athlete’s ability to do “similar things in a variety of ways”. This strategy doesn’t suggest we never load heavy, rather, increasing loads are simply a biproduct of training rather than a top priority. No differently than specifying training parameters to achieve specific musculotendinous adaptations, the same can be applied for fascia. Adjusting the training parameters along with the way in which movements are performed can selectively bias particular myofascial adaptations.
In many ways, basketball is a game of organized chaos, played within a relatively small confinement. Most of the expressions of strength, speed, power in basketball are reactive and highly multidirectional. With a high demand for rapid change of direction, acceleration/deceleration, and unpredictable contact, addressing proprioceptive acuity in training is critical for basketball players. In lieu of progressively working to produce more force, I would argue progressively challenging movement variability is more aligned to the demands of basketball. I also mentioned reciprocating strength and the importance of leverage in the opening paragraphs to describe basketball strength. Creating and utilizing leverage as a strength is dependent on the ability to integrate several mechanical compartments/structures to, in a sense, synchronize and create stability/strength. This is an attribute that can be strongly associated to the myofascial lines, and the ability to generate integrative force.
Strength is an ambiguous term that can be defined, applied, and understood a multitude of ways.
For the sake of basketball, the unique body types and demands of the game challenge the transferability of conventional strength applications.
Approaching training through a fascial based lens can be a useful modification to preparing basketball players in the weight room.
Albeit cliché to say, durability and availability are the most critical attributes an athlete can possess, particularly at the professional level.
Basketball players accumulate an enormous amount of repetitive stress by the time they reach the league. Training philosophies should account for consequences of repetitive stress and balance between contractile and connective tissues.
1. Findley, T. Chaudry, H. Stecco, A. Roman, M., 2012. Fascia research- A narrative review. J Bodywork & Mvmt Thera, 16, 67-75.
2. Korkmaz, MF. Cetin, A. Bozduman, O. (2020). Anthropometric evaluation of ratio between extremity length and body length in basketball player adolescents. Pedagogy of Phys Culture and Sport.
3. Krause, F. Wilke, J. Vogt, L. Banzer, W., 2016. Intermuscular force transmission along myofascial chains: a systematic review. J Anat., 228:910-918.
4. Langevin, HM., 2021. Fascia mobility, proprioception, and myofascial pain. Life, 11, 668.
5. Stecco, C. Functional atlas of the human fascial system. Toronto, Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2015.
6. Yixiong, C. et al., 2019. Key anthropometric and physical determinants for different playing positions during national basketball association draft combine test. Frontiers, 10.