Strength training with Michigan State basketball

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Learn how to strength-train for this contact sport.

By: Josh Staph

Strength is a distinguishing factor on the basketball court, according to Mike Vorkapich, Michigan State's basketball strength and conditioning coach.

"If you take two good players with all other things equal, strength will make one stand out," Vorkapich says. "A strong, wellconditioned player will show better on the court than a player who has a short jump shot because his legs are too tired to get enough lift."

Spartan men's and women's basketball teams are mainstays in the late rounds of the NCAA national tournament. In 2005, continuing their seven-year streak of making it to the tourney, the men plowed their way to the Final Four. The women closed out a 32-4 season with a loss in the championship game.


Vorkapich believes that because basketball has evolved into a "banging sport," working the whole body is necessary. "It's no longer just a lower body game," he says. "I see a fair number of shoulder injuries. Strengthening the upper body is vital to withstanding the contact."

Multi-joint exercises, such as squats and bench presses, recruit the most muscle, so Vorkapich begins every session with them. All Spartan workouts are done in a progressive overload process, meaning the number of reps stays fixed while the weight gradually increases.

Vorkapich ups the weight when an athlete can complete all the reps. "All our rep schemes are done with safety and specificity in mind," he says. "Basketball players are not power lifters; we don't do one-rep maxes. We strength-train for the sport of basketball, which is why reps stay high."

The Spartans spend only an hour in the weight room during the off-season and 20 to 30 minutes in season, so every minute is well spent. When appropriate, a one-minute rest is used. Between exercises the players spot teammates, work their cores or superset their lifts. "There is no secret ingredient," says Vorkapich, "just an efficient way to get work done."

Vorkapich uses push/pull patterns to superset. "If we do a set of squats, then we go do a hamstring exercise to work the opposite set of muscles. The walk back and forth to different exercises is the rest," he explains. Another push/pull pattern Vorkapich uses is a military press superset with chin-ups.


The Spartans emphasize strength training and individual skill work in the off-season. Vorkapich created three strength-training schedules, all consisting of 15 to 20 sets. He chooses one each week, depending on the team's schedule outside the weight room. The four-day split is used when the team is on the court less.


Once they begin agility and conditioning work in the preseason, the players use only a three-day split. Vorkapich cuts the number of sets to 10 from 12, but the team still benefits greatly from weight room work.


When the season starts, Vorkapich tapers lift days to two a week. To aid recovery, he schedules workouts for the day after a game, and to prevent overtraining, he chooses exercises based on the team's energy level and the head coach's regimen. He says, "If coach is running them hard in practice for two hours, I have to think to myself, 'Am I even helping them by doing extra leg work in the weight room?'"


To build a workout, choose one exercise from each group. Begin with exercises that use the most joints and muscles. For full body workouts, mix upper and lower body exercises until you perform 15 to 20 sets in the off-season and 12 to 15 in season. Include core work before, during and after each weightlifting session.


  • With bar resting on back and feet slightly wider than hips, descend slowly by bending at hips, knees and ankles until tops of thighs are parallel to floor
  • Ascend by extending hips, knees and ankles without changing position of torso


  • Position yourself on the machine with feet slightly wider than hips
  • Lower weight until knees are at 90-degree angle
  • Press weight until legs are almost straight


  • With bar across back, step forward into lunge position keeping front of knee behind front toe
  • Push back into standing position so back knee almost touches ground


  • Position yourself on a hamstring machine with straight legs
  • Curl legs until heels reach butt
  • Lower weight in control until legs are straight again


  • Hold bar upright with slight flex in knees, bend forward at hips and slide bar to front of legs, keeping a flat back
  • Drive hips back and lower bar as far as possible without changing flex in knees or spine position
  • Ascend in same fashion until standing


  • On a glute/ham machine with legs locked in place, move torso until chest is parallel to floor
  • Drive knees into foam pad at 90-degree angle until body is upright
  • Lower back with control


  • Stand at four-way hip machine with legs parallel to ground and pad on inside of thigh
  • Using groin, push against pad until leg is perpendicular to floor


  • Stand at four-way hip machine with pad outside thigh
  • Using outside of hips and leg, push against pad until leg is parallel to ground
  • If hip machine is unavailable, perform with ankle band for resistance


  • In athletic stance, with elastic band around ankles, shuffle by locking out trailing leg
  • Repeat in continuous fashion


  • On leg extension machine with shins under pad, raise weight by extending legs until parallel to ground
  • Lower weight to 60-degree angle and repeat


  • Hold bar slightly wider than shoulders
  • Lower bar in control until it touches just below chest
  • Push up bar until arms are straight


  • Holding bar across collarbone with shoulder-width grip and slight flex in knees and hips, extend hips, knees and ankles simultaneously to explode bar from shoulders to locked position above head


  • Hold bar under chin with shoulder-width grip, press over head until arms are straight


  • Place left knee and hand on bench and hold a dumbbell with towel wrapped around its grip in right hand
  • Keep back flat; pull dumbbell toward torso
  • Lower it with control until arm is straight, and repeat
  • Switch sides and repeat


  • Grasp bar with overhand grip and straight arms
  • Pull body up until chin is above bar
  • Lower body with control until arms are straight; repeat


  • Grasp bar with underhand grip and straight arms
  • Pull up body until chin is above bar
  • Lower body with control until arms are straight; repeat


  • At pull-down machine, grasp bar with slight backward lean
  • Keep shoulder blades pinched and core tight; pull bar below chin
  • Maintain upper body position during pull
  • Return bar by keeping control to start position; repeat


  • Lie on ground with arms overhead
  • With arms and legs straight, fold up until hands and feet meet above belly button


  • Perform crunch on a physioball without letting ball move


  • Lie on back with legs in air and hold a med ball in front of chest
  • Twist to one side then other without moving legs


  • Position yourself on back extension machine with torso perpendicular to ground
  • Raise torso until parallel to ground, keeping back flat
  • If you lack access to back extension machine, perform lying across physioball

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