The Road to a National Championship from a Physical Preparation Perspective

Recently, I had the opportunity to coach alongside Chris West at the University of Connecticut (UConn). I primarily worked with the men’s basketball team and had the privilege of being a part of their national championship season. My primary objective at UConn was to develop an efficient year-round training program. I’d like to note that Chris West, Associate Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, is one of the most knowledgeable, genuine, and open-minded coaches I ever worked with. He allowed me to implement my training methodologies at the highest level of basketball competition in the Big East Conference.

My program design placed a premium on physical preparation, which was a training quality I made a point of demonstrating to each player. With the help of Chris West, the men’s basketball coaching staff, and the dedication of the entire team, we had a very successful season. This result, I firmly believe, was the product of our training methods.

The process began with forming an in-season program. We implemented a concurrent-emphasis (complex-parallel) approach because this would allow us to address all of the different strength qualities efficiently. The NCAA regulates how many hours an athlete can train and it includes practices, as individuals, travel, games and physical preparation. Although our athletes were the most skillful collegiate basketball players in the nation, their physical preparation was still at a novice level. With that in mind, we stuck to the basics and implemented one individual and two team training sessions per week. Every week, the training sessions were performed on different days due to the game and travel schedule. We organized the two team training days alongside the most intense practices. In doing so, we kept all of the central nervous system (CNS) intensive stressors, like practice and training, on the same day. The one individual training session was performed in accordance with each player’s class schedule. This individual training day placed an emphasis on restoration and prehab/rehab. We made sure to organize the training sessions in a CNS intensive and CNS extensive manner. This maximized each player’s physical preparedness for game day.

As a result, all players increased or maintained their strength levels on all four primary movements. Additionally, each athlete maximized recovery between practices, games, training sessions and improved their muscular imbalances and asymmetries.

The two team training sessions consisted of the primary and fundamental lifts. These included the box squat, trap bar deadlift, bench press and chinups. The Max Effort and Sub-maximal Effort Method was the emphasis of both training days. It was chosen for its effectiveness and simplicity. We used a modified version of the 5/3/1 Method, which worked great. On day one of the first training session, athletes box squatted and bench pressed. On day two of the second training session, athletes performed trap bar deadlifts and chin-ups. The volume and intensity for the day was dependent on the player’s role and their amount of game minutes. For example, if Player A was a starter and had a total 38 minutes of game play, he would perform a recommended rep range at a given intensity for the specific lift within the 5/3/1 template. During the five’s week, he worked up to 77.5 percent. During the three’s week, he worked up to 82.5 percent, and during the one’s week, he worked up to 90 percent. Player B, who was a red-shirt and only practiced, would perform the “money set,” which meant taking the final set of 5/3/1 for as many reps as possible and try to set a personal record (PR). The same percentages were used for Player B and A.

A collegiate athlete has stressors that change daily. With this in mind, I used the modified 5/3/1 method because each athlete had different preparedness levels on any given training day. These stressors may include: studying for an exam, lack of sleep, poor nutritional choices, and/or having a bad practice/game. All of these can affect the player in a negative manner. Therefore, the player’s strength levels change dramatically and these stressors must be taken into account when training collegiate athletes. Moreover, the 5/3/1 method is perfect because of its flexibility. If the player was feeling good and recovered, we pushed for a PR. On the other hand, if the player was fatigued, we’d have him perform his minimum recommended reps. This would be their 5/3/1 RM for that given day and then they were done for the day.

On the two team training sessions, we used the Dynamic Effort Method. This included different variations of jumps and medicine ball throws. We placed these movements up front as a CNS primer for the upcoming primary lifts. Due to the amount of jumping and shooting already being performed during practice and game play, we kept the volume low. However, not every player performed this method. As with the primary lifts, the player’s role determined how we programmed jumps and medicine ball work. Starters normally omitted the dynamic work and went straight to max effort work. Many in-season programs omit the dynamic effort work all together. I feel it is important to perform jumps and throws because of the explosive/reactive stimulus, technical aspects, and the use of developing the a-lactic energy system for power and capacity. Dynamic efforts allowed us to continually teach the proper mechanics of producing and absorbing force.

Below is an example of a three-week wave for the two day team training sessions. Each wave would progress or regress the dynamic exercise selection in accordance with how each player responded to the stimulus. We trained the same four primary movements for the entire season. Because the team was at a novice level, there was no need of rotating exercises. Great emphasis was placed on technique and perfecting each and every rep.

Day 1 and 2 Dynamic Effort/Max Effort/Sub-maximal Effort Method

Primer (Dynamic Effort): the same exercise is performed for a three-week block and then is progressed or regressed for next phase/block.

A1: Jumps Performed on Day 1

  1. Box Jump/Seated Box
  2. Jump/BB Squat Jumps (Reactive)

Weeks 1-3: 3-5×5 at 60-70% of best box jump height

  • This works on deceleration and landing mechanics.

Weeks 1-3: 3-5×5 at 60-70% of best box jump height

  • This works on producing force from a static position and deceleration.

Weeks 1-3: 3-5×3 (1 (reactive) +1 (absorbed)) at 10% of their box squat 1RM

  • The first jump is reactive and the second jump is absorbed/reset and that would equal one rep. This works on increasing reactive ability with decelerating/absorbing force with a fast transition to producing force with proper mechanics.

– Or –

A1: Throws Performed on Day 2

  1. Tall Kneeling Chest Pass with Hip Extension
  2. Half-Kneeling Rotational Side Throw
  3. Overhead Medicine Ball Slam
  1. Squat to Stand Chest Pass
  2. Standing Rotational Side Throw
  3. Recoiled Overhead Medicine Ball Slam
  1. Diving Medicine Ball Chest Pass
  2. Two Shuffles into Rotational Side Throw
  3. Overhead Medicine Ball Slam to Jump Squat

Weeks 1-3: 3-5 x 5-10

  • Throw into open space – no rebound effect.

Weeks 1-3: 3-5 x 5-10

  • Throw into open space – no rebound effect.

Weeks 1-3: 3-5 x 5-10

  • Throw into open space – no rebound effect.

A3: Antagonist Static Stretch (Player Specific)

Week 1-3: Elevated Box Hip Flexor w/ Rotation 3×3+10s

– Or –

Prone Shoulder Internal Rotation Stretch 3×3+10s

Primary (Max Effort/ Sub-maximal Effort):
B1: Box Squat (Performed on Day 1)

Box height was always at parallel or below parallel. We used the box to gauge depth, to have a perpendicular angle with each player’s shins, and to add more of a posterior chain emphasis because most of the players were very knee/quad dominant.

– Or –

Trap Bar Deadlift (Performed on Day 2)

The guards and most wings pulled from the floor, but forwards and centers pulled from a position that would allow them to get in the most efficient and safe biomechanical position.

Week 1: 3×5 at 40, 50, 60%

  • Warm-up Sets: Emphasize Perfect Reps with Compensatory Acceleration Training
  • 1×5 at 70% (Work Set)
  • 1×5 at 75% (Work Set)
  • 1×5+ at 77.5% (Optional “Money Set”). Each training session we ‘d make the call to push it or get in and get out.

Week 2: 3×5 at 40, 50, 60%

  • Warm-up Sets: Emphasize Perfect Reps with Compensatory Acceleration Training
  • 1×3 at 70% (Work Set)
  • 1×3 at 77.5% (Work Set)
  • 1×3+ at 82.5% (Optional “Money Set”). Each training session we’d make the call to push it or get in and get out.

Week 3: 3×5 at 40, 50, 60%

  • Warm-up Sets: Emphasize Perfect Reps with Compensatory Acceleration Training
  • 1×3 at 70% (Work Set)
  • 1×1 at 80% (Work Set)
  • 1×1+ at 90% (Optional “Money Set” – Each training session we would make the call to push it or get in and get out)

C1: Bench Press (Performed on Day 1 and is the same as the Box Squat Progression from Week 1 to Week 3)

– Or –

Chin-ups (Performed on Day 2 and is the same as the Box Squat Progression from Week 1 to Week 3)

B2 or C2: Corrective Exercise (Player Specific)
Week 1-3: Glute/ Psoas Activation or Lower Trap Activation

  • Example (Glue and Psoas) Single Leg Hip Lift with Tennis Ball Hold 3×3+5-10s holds
  • Example (Lower Trap) Forearm Wall Slides to Y-Retraction 3×8-10

Perform the corrective exercises with the warm-up sets to reinforce proper technique and to make sure the specific muscles are functioning correctly.

The individual training sessions were designed with an overall emphasis on restoration between training, practice and games. Individual sessions addressed player-specific muscular asymmetries, imbalances and weak points. Ideally, we performed these individual training sessions within 24-48 hours after competition. This promoted recovery from the game and prepared them to handle the two upcoming team sessions. Again, the volume and intensity of the session depended on the player’s role. Player A, who played the 38 minutes, would come in to foam roll, stretch, and perform activation exercises such as: glutes, psoas, lower traps and external obliques. Player A would also possibly perform some low volume assistance work/corrective exercises, such as: rowing, single leg variations and torso movements. Player B, the red-shirt, would attack this session differently. Similar to Player A, he would come in to foam roll, stretch and perform activation exercises. The difference would be the volume performed with the assistance work/corrective exercises as he is opting for a higher volume. We emphasized the Repeated Effort Method with all of assistance movements, but not to complete failure. Player B would leave one to two reps in the tank.

As far as exercise selection on the assistance work, I’m a firm believer in getting the most out of your body weight for external resistance. With that in mind, we got a lot of use out of the Blast Straps. We performed a ton of strap rows, face-pulls, push-ups, split-squats, single-leg deadlift, and fall-outs. This is also a time where we included the “tempo” method to speed up the recovery process. There wasn’t a major emphasis on this method. Athletes performed different tempo medicine ball throws (push, overhead, rotation, and scoop toss variations), tempo runs (on the court), and low-intensity plyometrics (rare – but was implemented). The Prowler for tempo sled marches and drags would be another option, but we didn’t have access to one. The university purchased some of them for the off-season, good on them. Below is an example of the individual sessions.

Individual Restoration Day and Repeated Effort Method:

Foam Roll (SMR): Choose 3-5 problem areas and spent 30-60 seconds rolling each area


  • Glute/Piriformis
  • TFL/IT Band
  • Pec Minor
  • Lat
  • Adductors

Static Stretches: Choose 3-5 static stretches that complement the foam rolling and hold each stretch for 3-5 reps x 10-15s


  • Partner Hip Flexor/IT Band Stretch
  • Prone Hip External Rotation Stretch
  • Knee-to-Knee Stretch (Floor or Stability Ball)
  • Wall Pec Stretch
  • Band Lat Stretch
  • Activation Exercises: Choose three different exercises focusing on the glutes, psoas, lower traps, and/or external obliques. If the player performs the movement correctly we progressed them and if they have trouble, we’d regress them.

Week 1

  • Single Leg Hip Lift with Hold 3×3+10-15s
  • Lateral Short Band Shuffle 3×5-yard each direction
  • Standing High Knee Grab to Hip Flexion Hold (Above belly button) 3×3+10s
  • Wall Slide or Forearm Wall Slide with Y-Retraction 3×8-10, and/or Tall Kneel
  • Chop, Lift, or Belly Press and Hold

Week 2

  • Single Leg Hip Lift with Tennis Ball Hold 3×3+10s
  • X-Band Walks 3×5-yards each direction (Knee flexed and knee bent)
  • Supine Short Band Hip Flexion (Above belly button)
  • 3×3+5-10s, Band “No-Money”
  • Pull-a-parts 3×10+2s, and/or Half Kneel
  • Chop, Lift, or Belly Press and Hold

Week 3

  • Elevated Single Leg Hip Lift with Band 3×10-20
  • X-Band Walk with Short Band around mid-foot (Knee’s Bent and Knee’s Straight)
  • 3×5-yards each direction
  • Standing Short Band Hip Flexion from Bench 3×3+5-10s
  • Y, T, W, U, and Is 3×8-12+2s, and/or Dynamic Chop, Lift, or Belly Press and Hold

Assistive Exercises
Here the players performed a lot of horizontal pulling, single leg exercises and torso movements. We also used some vertical pulling, horizontal pushing, and hip dominant (posterior chain) exercises. If the player performs the movement correctly, we progressed them and if they had trouble, we regressed them. Each session was player-specific for the exercise selection.

Phase/Block 1 Exercises

  • Strap Row Variations 3-5×10-20
  • Strap Face-pulls 3-5×10-20
  • Push-up with Hand on Dumbbells 3-5×10-20
  • Goblet Split-Squat (Bottom Up) 3-5×6-12
  • SLDL with 1 DB 3-5×6-12
  • GHR 3-5×8-12
  • One Leg Squat 2-3×8-12
  • Dumbbell Row Variations 3-5×8-20
  • Dumbbell Step-ups 3-5×6-12
  • SB Rollout 3×10-20
  • Supine Bench Leg Raise 3×10-20
  • Front and Side Plank 3-5x10s+10s+10s
  • SLSU with Short Lever 3×10-20
  • Tall Kneel. Lift and Chop 3×8-12

Phase/Block 2 Exercises

  • C/S Row Variations 3-5×6-12
  • Band Face-pulls 3-5×10-20
  • Strap Push-ups 3-5×10-20
  • Goblet Reverse Lunge 3-5×5-8
  • SLDL with 2 Dumbbells 3-5×5-8
  • GHR 3-5×6-10
  • One Leg Squat 2-3×10-12
  • AB Wheel Rollout 3×10-20
  • Hanging Knee Raise 3×10-20
  • Front Plank with Reach and March 3-5×3-5
  • Side Plank with Row 3-5×10-20
  • SLSU with Long Lever 3×10-20
  • Half Kneel. Lift and Chop 3×8-12

Phase/Block 3 Exercises

  • BB Row Variations 3-5×5-8
  • CC Face-pulls 3-5×10-15
  • Push-ups with Chains 3-5×8-15
  • Goblet RFESS (Bottom Up) 3-5×5-8
  • GHR 3-5×5-8
  • SLDL with Barbell 3-5×5-8
  • One Leg Squat 2-3×12-15
  • BB Rollout 3×10-20
  • Hanging Leg Raise 3×10-20
  • Body Saw 3×10-15
  • Strap Fall-outs 3×10-15
  • DB Plank with Row and Push-up 3×5-10
  • Dynamic Side Plank 3×10-20
  • SLSU on GHR 3×10-20
  • Dynamic Lift and Chop 3×8-12

Tempo Method (Aerobic Capacity)

Tempo MB Throws: (Extensive MB Throws are performed with high volume but with a low intense effort. It is best to use the different throws against a wall to receive the rebound effect for continuous throws.)
Week 1: 300 total throws (3x 20 reps each throwing variation)
Week 2: 400 total throws (4x 20 reps each throwing variation)
Week 3: 500 total throws (5x 20 reps each throwing variation)

Tempo Runs: (Extensively performed in an interval fashion and is a blend of Long Slow Duration (LSD) and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). The difference is that tempos are not continuous or performed with high intensity. Then the player would have a rest interval of 60s, HR decreases below 130 BPM, or walk back the same distance. ) This method conditions the aerobic energy system and will help the player to recover between the short high- intensity movements they perform on the basketball court.
Week 1: 8-10 x 10-15s (length of the court) or forward sprint length of court + lateral shuffle + back pedal + lateral shuffle at 75%
Week 2: 10-12 x 10-15s (length of the court) or forward sprint length of court + lateral shuffle + back pedal + lateral shuffle at 75%
Week 3: 12-14 x 10-15s (length of the court) or forward sprint length of court + lateral shuffle + back pedal + lateral shuffle at 75%

Aerobic Plyometrics: I got this method from Joel Jamieson (Ultimate MMA Conditioning). This method was rarely used because of the novice training level. I did implement this with one player and had him perform a continuous low intensity jump that increases the rate of aerobic recovery as well as the oxidative qualities of the fast-twitch fibers. We used a 3-week wave where the volume increased and the rest interval decreased on a weekly basis. I choose to use 12-18 inch hurdles for the low-intensity jumps. This method was used for only a single phase or a 3-week block. Then I would switch to tempo runs or tempo throws (used this method majority of the time).
Week 1: 8 reps/30s for a total of 10 minutes
Week 2: 9 reps/20s for a total of 15 minutes
Week 3: 10 reps/10s for a total of 20 minutes

I feel this in-season program had a positive response due to the lack of any serious injuries that typically occur in a long collegiate basketball season. The team really made a statement about their strength, energy system development, and mental toughness through the Big East tournament and all the way to the National Championship.

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About the Author

Jamie Smith- Currently coaching at Total Performance Sports in Everett, Mass under C.J. Murphy. This past year Jamie was a volunteer physical preparation coach at the University of Connecticut under the tutelage of coach Chris West (Associate Head Strength and Conditioning Coach) and worked primarily with the National Champion Men’s Basketball Team, Men’s Soccer Team, and Women’s Soccer Team. Jamie received his B.S. in Sports Medicine with a concentration in Exercise Physiology at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. Jamie is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (C.S.C.S.) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)