Strength Training with UConn Basketball and Nebraska Volleyball

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Like most basketball or volleyball players, you want the sickest vert around. You constantly work toward reaching the next rung on the net that hangs from a rim or that's tied to two posts. Getting enough air to slam monster dunks or score a kill with every hit is your final destination.

One question for you, though: on your crusade for the highest hops, do you ever think about coming down from your leap, instead of getting up? The muscles you use to get off the ground aren't the same ones you use to cushion your landing. And when you forget to properly condition the necessary muscles, injuries can result. No vertical—no matter how nasty—is worth anything if you're grounded in the training room.

Specific lifts and a few plyometrics can prepare your muscles and joints to oppose the force of landing a jump. Chris West, UConn basketball's strength and conditioning coach, and Laura Pilakowski, Nebraska volleyball's strength coach, lay out a few drills their high-flying athletes use to prep their landing gear.


West's program implements accessory lifts, such as the Single-Leg Squat Off Box and Reverse Lunge, to prevent injuries that landings can produce. "The biggest benefit from our program is the injury-prevention side of things," West says. "If we can keep the athletes healthy—avoiding tendonitis, hip and back problems and other knee injuries—we're going to be a pretty good basketball team."

With every lift, West stresses posture first and foremost. "Posture is the most basic expression of strength," he says. "Look at what old people tend to lose—their posture. It becomes worse and worse as strength decreases." West hammers his message home by reminding his athletes of an old parental cliché: "When your mom tells you to sit up at the table, she's not telling you that you have bad posture. She's calling you weak."

West recommends incorporating at least one of the following accessory lifts into your lower body workout two days a week. Perform 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps for each lift. Initially, perform the Single-Leg Squat Off Box using only your body weight. If you perform the Single-Leg Box Squat with weight, West suggests holding dumbbells in a front squat position (at shoulder level with thumbs pointed toward shoulders and elbows forward) to maintain good posture. For the Reverse Lunge, use weight equal to 65 percent of your one-rep max for the lift.

Single-Leg Squat Off Box

• Stand with one foot on box, one leg off
• Squat down pushing hips back; keep chest up and back flat
• Extend arms to balance
• Lower hips until thighs parallel to ground
• Extend at knee and hips; return to starting position

Coaching Point: When you squat, push your hips back and keep your heel in contact with the box. Work on controlling the movement down and pushing through your heel as you drive up.

Single-Leg Box Squat

• Stand on one leg with box behind you on floor
• Lift knee of opposite leg so foot is 6-12 inches off floor
• Squat down pushing hips back; keep chest up and back flat
• Lower hips until butt gently touches box
• Touch other foot to floor and stand up using both legs

Coaching Point: Your initial impulse will be to fall onto the box when performing this lift, but don't do that. You don't want to come down as hard as you can. So, I tell my athletes to pretend they're sitting on a tack. This forces you to really gain control of the weight and your body.

Reverse Lunge

• Stand with bar on back and feet hip-shoulder width apart
• Step backward into lunge position
• Lower hips until back knee is 1-2 inches off floor
• Don't let front knee move past toes
• Push off front leg, return to starting position

Coaching Point: Stepping backward into the lunge, rather than forward, reduces stress on the knee while still providing the benefits of a normal lunge. I tell my athletes to imagine they're on skis for this exercise. It's much easier to maintain balance if you keep your legs slightly apart instead of stepping directly behind the front foot.


No vertical training program is complete without plyometrics. Once Pilakowski has properly prepared her athletes in the weight room, she takes them to the turf of their indoor training facility. "We look to convert strength from the weight room into power through plyometrics," she says. "But before we even start the power stuff, we work on landing. That's really important for any sport."

She calls the first part of her landing program "Small Box Work." Making use of a 12-inch plyo box, Pilakowski's athletes do a series of three drills: Depth Jumps, Lateral One Up/One Down and Two-Leg Lateral Jumps.

For each movement, Pilakowski looks to make sure her athletes' knees stay in line with their feet and that they move from one jump to the next as quickly as possible. "It's not healthy if their knees collapse when they land," she says. "To produce the most power for each jump, the knees have to stay in line."

Use these drills at the beginning of your plyo workout no more than two days per week. Allow for full recovery between sets, typically between a 3:1 and 5:1 work-to-rest ratio. For example, if a set takes 15 seconds, rest for 45 to 75 seconds before the next set. "You need to jump for maximum height with each drill, so take plenty of rest" she says. "Plyometric drills are about quality not quantity."

Depth Jumps

• Start on box with feet hip-shoulder width apart
• Step off box
• Land and immediately jump for height
• Perform 4 sets of 5 reps

Lateral One Up/One Down

• Start with left foot on ground to left of box and right foot on top of box
• Jump up and right
• Land with right foot on ground and left foot on box
• Jump up and left
• Land with left foot on ground and right foot on box
• Perform 4 sets of 10 reps. One rep equals movement to left and right

Two-Leg Lateral Jumps

• Start with feet together on ground to left of box
• Jump right onto box for speed
• Jump onto ground to right of box for speed
• Immediately jump left onto box for speed
• Jump onto ground to left of box for speed
• Perform 4 sets of 10 reps. One rep equals movement to left and right

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