This article was provided by Training and Conditioning
John Shackleton, MS, SCCC, has been the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the men’s and women’s basketball teams at Villanova University since 2012. In that span, both squads have secured five straight postseason berths, and the men won the NCAA Division I national championship in 2016. Shackleton can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
My professional mission statement hangs in my office on the wall above my computer. It reads: “Provide Villanova University basketball with a dynamic training system that embodies multiple methods of training, which aim to reduce the risk of injury and prepare each athlete physically and mentally for the game of basketball.” Not only does this sentence define my ultimate goal as the performance coach for Villanova men’s basketball, it also affords me a clear vision when deciding on strength and conditioning strategies.
This mission is important to have during the competitive season. Strength and conditioning during this period is always a delicate balance of complementing players’ physical development without detracting from their ability to compete on the court. Because of this, I divide our in-season training program into three phases—comprised of the preseason, regular season, and postseason—and cater each one accordingly. Both our athletes and coaches trust that our weightroom work will never jeopardize performance during games, so they’ve bought into the program wholeheartedly.
By staying true to our mission, we’ve seen results where it counts—on the court. Over the past four seasons, Villanova has won more games than any basketball program in America and earned four consecutive Big East Conference regular season titles, along with two tournament titles. The squad has made the NCAA Division I Tournament each year, winning the national championship in 2016. It’s a privilege to know that we’ve struck the right balance with our in-season training to help the team reach these heights.
SETTING A STANDARD
The foundation of our training during the season is built on high expectations—both for the players and myself. I expect the athletes to buy into two core values: bringing an honest effort at all times and using great technique. These are the two most important variables of our strength and conditioning work because they highlight how we train, which is what maximizes results.
That being said, if I demand athletes always bring their A-game, they should hold me to the same standard. Every day, I am all-in on the Villanova men’s basketball program and will do whatever is in the athletes’ best interest to make them better.
However, a major challenge I face is staying grounded to my core values while implementing new strategies to increase athletes’ overall performance. Sport performance coaches today need to have a filter to sift through the copious amounts of information that come out. Whenever I come across a trend or tool for the first time, I assess it with two questions: 1) Is it practical? and 2) Does it fit our culture? If the answer is no to either question, I immediately scrap the idea and move on.
Using this filter, I’ve developed an in-season training approach that’s holistic and collaborative. It can be described as dynamic in nature, meaning it’s just one element of a system that’s never stagnant, and I constantly meet with coaches throughout the year to refine the development of our athletes. As a result, the specifics of the in-season training regimen may change, but the basic framework—splitting it into three phases and balancing strength and conditioning with on-court performance—remains the same.
With our mission laid out, we’ve covered how we establish our culture and how we make decisions regarding the team’s in-season training. We put these decisions in action starting with Phase 1, which is a four-week preseason block that begins the first week of October.
With the implementation of Polar Team Pro player tracking technology over the last few years, we discovered that our team traditionally registered its highest training loads during the month of October due to the frequency of practices and demands of strength and conditioning work. Having this data enables us to now plan workouts strategically to avoid such high loads.
We have found that the players respond best to training twice per week during Phase 1. On these strength and conditioning days, the athletes work out in the morning and then practice six to eight hours later in the afternoon. Scheduling our training sessions separate from practice provides transient performance benefits as a result of the nervous system being primed. This ultimately leads to more resilient and highly conditioned athletes once the competitive slate begins.
Weightroom sessions during Phase 1 are limited to 45 minutes. Each one starts with a 15-minute dynamic flexibility and activation warm-up that targets the posterior chain musculature; mobility and stability of the ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders; and static and dynamic core stabilization.
The strength portion of our training sessions lasts 30 minutes and is performed in a circuit to keep the work rate and intensity high. Tempo is a focal point in our lifting because we want to constantly increase players’ work capacity ceilings to reflect the intense, physical, and fast-paced way we play.
For this reason, many of our Phase 1 movements follow a rep tempo prescription. This means that exercises on athletes’ workout sheets are often accompanied by a series of four numbers or letters. For example, a sequence we commonly use is 3:2:X:1. The first number (3) is the time in seconds it should take to complete the eccentric muscle contraction of a lift. The second number (2) is the amount of time to pause in the stretched or lengthened position. Next, the third number or letter (X means no time, explode as quick as possible) describes how long it should take to complete the concentric muscle contraction. Finally, the last number (1) is the amount of time to pause in the contracted or shortened position. So one rep using the 3:2:X:1 prescription should take six seconds.
When it comes to exercise selection during Phase 1, we perform two blocks of three exercises each on both days. Block 1 always incorporates the complex training method, which involves executing an exercise under a heavy load and then performing a similar movement under a lighter load as explosively as possible. We utilize the complex training method to target high threshold motor units and their corresponding fast-twitch muscle fibers in order to enhance explosive power in our athletes.
Although a three- to five-minute rest is recommended following the first set in complex training to fully exploit the benefits of post-activation potentiation, our players perform the second movement immediately afterward. We do this because basketball players must become accustomed to performing in a fatigued state. After all, they can’t take breaks in between plays during games to recover their explosiveness.
Our complex training in Block 1 for Day 1 includes our max effort bilateral lower-body movements. These consist of the barbell box squat, safety bar box squat, pit shark belt squat, and trap bar dead lift. In Block 1 for Day 2, we do our max effort upper-body horizontal or vertical pushing movements, such as the bench press, incline bench press, or strict press. The athletes’ current state of physical development dictates what specific exercises are used. The explosive exercises paired with the max effort movements are performed using bodyweight (box jump variations), with band resistance (Vertimax), or with medicine balls (vertical and horizontal throw variations).
Regarding loads for the max effort movements, our upperclassmen typically stay in the 75 to 85 percent range of their one-repetition maximum. Our younger players perform sets of five reps and ramp up the weight in each set until they begin to strain.
Following the complex training sets, the third Block 1 exercise is a vertical pull on Day 1 and a horizontal pull on Day 2. We often perform pull-ups on Day 1 after the athletes’ backs have been compressed under heavy loads because this exercise is one of the best for overall upper-body strength development and posterior shoulder health. Horizontal pulls are incorporated on Day 2 to target balanced muscular strength of the posterior chain. Basketball players need to have strong upper backs because force is transferred from the ground up through their back to their hands during play. If there is a weak link in this force-transfer chain, performance will suffer.
Block 2 on both days consists of exercises from the following categories: vertical push, horizontal push, horizontal pull, posterior chain, posterior shoulder, and unilateral lower body. We spread these movements out to keep the program balanced. For example, if we do a vertical push on Day 1, we will do a horizontal push on Day 2. However, we hit each movement at least once a week to ensure our athletes are attaining balanced total-body muscular strength. Repetitions are typically in the strength-endurance range of six to 12 to accumulate the time under tension necessary for hypertrophy adaptations. (See “Preseason Push” below for a sample workout from Phase 1.)
Besides our two mandatory lifting days in Phase 1, some of our athletes perform a voluntary third day of training. Typically, these players want to improve their conditioning, body composition, mobility/flexibility, or strength. The third workout is designed specifically for each individual athlete, and it usually entails some form of low-impact aerobic conditioning, hot yoga, active isolated stretching, or strength training.
PHASES TWO & THREE
After Phase 1, we shift into Phase 2 and then Phase 3. Phase 2 begins in early November with the start of the regular season and continues until our postseason conference tournament gets underway in early March. Phase 3 picks up from there and lasts through the end of the season. Our training program for Phases 2 and 3 will be discussed together, since we use a similar strength workout in both—although it’s performed twice a week during Phase 2 and once a week in Phase 3.
A major challenge faced during both phases is maintaining the right balance of work and recovery so our athletes are ready to play our brand of basketball when they step on the court. During Phase 2, we typically play two games per week, and we bring the team in for what we call a “flush day” the day after each game. The objective of our flush days is to optimize our team’s active and passive recovery by getting the blood circulating throughout the body.
Flush days start on the basketball court with a 10-minute dynamic warm-up, followed by 20 minutes of rhythmic jump shooting. We monitor our players with Polar Team Pro technology to make sure their heart rates stay in the aerobic zone (60 to 70 percent of max heart rate) to facilitate the recovery process. Next, the team heads to the weightroom for a 30-minute total-body strength training session. The athletes finish the day with 20 minutes of contrast bath therapy for passive recovery.
Once we get to Phase 3, we no longer utilize flush days, but we continue with the same strength training routine used in Phase 2. This usually takes place for 30 minutes once a week before practice.
The strength sessions utilized during Phase 2 and Phase 3 are carefully designed to mitigate the wear and tear on players. To accomplish this without jeopardizing the integrity of our core values (effort and technique), I put athletes through time under tension total-body workouts, in which I time all of the players’ sets with a stopwatch. Each exercise is given a rep tempo, and each set has a predetermined duration. For example, if a push-up rep tempo is 4:0:X:1, a rep should take five seconds. If a set lasts 30 seconds, athletes should be able to complete six reps per set. It might not sound like much, but the athletes are usually fatigued by the end of every set.
This approach mitigates wear and tear because the players don’t move heavy loads, and all movements are controlled and executed with full range of motion. This strategy also holds the players accountable for the effort they give because they must work until the time for each set is up.
The time under tension workouts for Phases 2 and 3 are grouped into four-week blocks. Each regimen contains four pairs of exercises executed as supersets with no rest in between sets. I intentionally use basic movements for these lifts that our players can execute with great technique. This keeps the training sessions safe and effective and allows our players to remain structurally strong and lean. We’ll pair a horizontal push and pull, vertical push and pull, bilateral lower body and posterior chain, and unilateral lower body and core anti-extension in every workout, and we mix up the exercises every four weeks to make sure the athletes don’t get used to the program.
To progressively overload our players over each four-week block, we increase the time allotted per set weekly by five seconds. For instance, we start with 30-second sets in week one of the first block and end at 45-second sets in week four. Loads generally increase from week to week, as well.
As with exercise selection, we also increase the time per set every four weeks to make sure athletes don’t acclimate to the program. So we start with 35-second sets in week one of the second four-week block and build up over the next three weeks to 50-second sets. (See “On the Clock” below for a sample time under tension workout.)
Whether it’s the first day of practice or the week before the national championship game, our athletes demonstrate the highest work ethic during in-season training, and they are all-in when it comes to our core values. I am blessed to be coaching athletes of the highest caliber, and the support I get from our head coach, assistant coaches, and performance staff is critical to my effectiveness. These factors push me to improve and keep the Villanova men’s basketball team performing at its best.
Below is a sample Phase 1 workout for Villanova University men’s basketball.
DAY 1: LOWER-BODY EMPHASIS
Dynamic Warm-up/Activation (30 seconds each)
High knee pulls
Single-leg Romanian dead lift
Forward lunge with trunk rotation
Reverse lunge with high reach
Lateral squats with anterior reach
Deep lunge, elbow to instep, T-spine rotation
Cable anti-rotation press: 3×8 reps each side
Sorinex rollouts: 3×10
Side bridge: 3×30 seconds each side
1A. Box squat (barbell): 2 to 3 warm-up sets of 5 reps, 3×5 at 80% of 1RM
Rep tempo: 3:2:X:1
1B. Vertimax band-resisted jumps: 3×5 (stick the landing each rep)
Rep tempo: Explosive as possible
1C. Pull-ups (fat bar, neutral grip): x30 (full range of motion with no cheating)
Rep tempo: 3:1:X:2
2A. Glute-ham raise: 3×8
Rep tempo: 3:1:X:2
2B. Incline dumbbell bench press: 3×12, 10, 8
Rep tempo: 4:0:X:1
2C. TRX body rows (feet on box): 3×10
Rep tempo: 3:0:X:2
ON THE CLOCK
Here is an example of a time under tension workout from in-season Phases 2 and 3 for the Villanova University men’s basketball team.
Week 1: 3×30 seconds each
Week 2: 3×35 seconds each
Week 3: 3×40 seconds each
Week 4: 4×45 seconds each
1A. Hammer strength incline press (neutral grip)
1B. TRX body row (supinated grip)
2A. Seated dumbbell shoulder press
2B. Lat pulldown (fat bar, neutral grip)
3A. Landmine squats
3B. Stability ball leg curl
4A. Alternating lateral box step-ups (hold kettlebells or dumbbells)
4B. Slide board body saw