With regards to basketball training, a lot of attention seems to be placed on vertical jump or vertical power development. However, a crucial component that is often overlooked is horizontal power development, i.e. the first step!
What do Russell Westbrook, De’Aaron Fox and John Wall have in common? Not only are they among the elite in the NBA, but they all possess an explosive first step. The more explosive your first step, the harder it is for a defender to stay in front of you. Without a solid first step, all the dribbling moves in the world still won’t make you a very intimidating offensive player.
An explosive first step isn’t just about taking that one step quickly, however. It’s about taking that step quickly and then accelerating at a rapid pace. The quicker you can reach top speed or something close to it, the more deadly you’re going to be on the court.
Before we look at my top four first-step development exercises, let’s lay down the basics on acceleration. Acceleration is the rate at which speed of an object is changing. From 0-10 yards is where the majority of acceleration takes place. After running for approximately 10 yards, the acceleration will give way to maximum velocity, thereby reaching top speed.
Observe the image of John Wall below:
Notice both the angle of his body and his shin angle. The ideal shin angle is approximately 45 degrees. The shin angle can closely mimic the body angle. Too far forward in either your shin angle or body angle (less than 45 degrees) and it will be difficult to generate optimal knee drive and maintain your balance. Too upright, and we will not get the proper angle to generate optimal horizontal velocity. In terms of eye line, I believe looking at a point on the ground 3-4 feet ahead of you can help achieve better shin and body angle.
During a sprint, ground contact time—meaning how long your foot is actually on the ground during each step—is longest during the acceleration phase. Furthermore, the initial steps of acceleration are shorter than the steps you take at top speed. Now that we understand some of the key body mechanics for a dynamite first step, let’s dive into four of my favorite moves for building better first-step explosiveness. When integrated into a sound strength and conditioning program, these moves can help you blow by the competition. They’re each demonstrated/explained in this video, with additional details found below:
Exercise 1: Stomp Step-Up Knee Raise
This move is demonstrated at :33 in the above video. Select a box height that flexes your knee to no more than 90 degrees when you have one foot on top of the box. While the true angles of acceleration for your first step are only approximately 45-60 degrees of knee flexion, we want to ensure you are able to accelerate out of any position on the court.
Begin with the foot on the box flat-footed and arms in a “lip/hip” position. Lift the top foot about 2-3 inches above the box and ‘stomp’ your foot on the box. Use this stomp to propel you into a step-up. Keep your knee in a flexed position with your ankle dorsi-flexed and your hip flexed at the top of the movement. Minimize pushing off the back leg to place training emphasis on the top leg. Return to start position, with your top foot remaining on the box. Repeat for 6-8 reps then switch feet.
To progress the movement, add a band. Step on the band and wrap over your shoulders/around your neck (see pics below for details). Repeat the above steps and overcome the resistance of the band. This movement is demonstrated at :47 of the above video. A further progression is to add a jump at the top of the movement, shown at 1:17 in the above video.
Exercise 2: Single-Leg Broad Jump
This movement is demonstrated at 1:41 in the above video. Begin in a single-leg stance with your arms in the opposite arm, opposite leg position. Simultaneously, quickly drop down to load the training leg, swinging the opposite leg back to preload your movement. Explosively swing your knee up and jump forward as far as possible while sticking the landing. Repeat the movement for 6-8 jumps per leg, 3-4 sets.
You can progress this movement by adding a 6-inch (intermediate) or 12-inch (advanced) hurdle (see the 2:12 mark of the above video). Assume the starting position in front of the hurdle and hop over the hurdle. Upon landing, quickly explode forward as far as possible and control the landing. Walk back to the hurdle and repeat. Repetitions: 6 per leg, 4 sets.
Exercise 3: Pre-Loaded Accelerations
This move is demonstrated at 2:50 in the above video. Begin in an athletic stance. Hop backward approximately 12-18 inches into a split athletic stance and accelerate out for 3-5 powerful strides. Repeat the drill 5 reps per side. Feel free to alternate your feet or look to train your ‘weaker’ side first.
To progress this drill, add a basketball to train your first step with ball handling (see 4:33 in the above video). Repeat the overload acceleration drill as described.
Exercise 4: Banded Overload Accelerations
This overload drill requires a band and a partner or a fixed and sturdy object to be the anchor to properly execute. It’s demonstrated at the 5:06 mark of the above video. The band will be attached to the fixed object or partner, while the other is looped into the other end of the band.
The back partner should be similar in body weight to the front partner and assume a strong and athletic position. Wide foot base, low and planted into the ground. Do not allow the front partner to pull you out of position.
The front partner will lean forward to take the slack out of the band (there will be minimum tension on the band but the band should not be stretched to its end point). On command, the athlete will explosively accelerate out until the end point of the band, focusing on powering “out of the gate” and exerting maximal effort with each stride. At the end point of the band, they will allow the band to pull them back to start position. Upon returning to starting position, immediately explode out again to the band’s end point. While it may seem like the workout is about resisted accelerations, it really is about overloading the return step and then overcoming the load to accelerate out again. Repeat this for 3-5 plants/foot or for timed repetitions (<15sec/set).
Add a ball to incorporate ball handling to your banded overload first step training session, as seen at 7:42 in the above video.
Mix Up Your Angles of Attack
Due to basketball’s 3D nature, you will have to consider training in different angles. Most often, a basketball player’s first step will be diagonally, not straight ahead. Most of the outlined drills can be executed in multiple directions to improve your first step in all directions which can improve your ability to not only execute several offensive breakdown moves but also enhance man-to-man defense. Simply follow exercises 2, 3 and 4 with the listed progressions, sets, reps and training the appropriate angles.
Photo Credit: Ned Dishman/Getty Images, Brian Rothmuller/Getty Images