How NBA players are staying in shape at home: 'It's been a challenge'

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How NBA players are staying in shape at home: 'It's been a challenge'

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How NBA players are staying in shape at home: 'It's been a challenge'

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The NBA’s 2019-20 season was suspended indefinitely on March 11 due to the COVID-19 outbreak and it remains to be seen when the league will be able to resume play. But as long as resuming the season is a possibility, NBA players must stay in shape at home so that they’re ready in the event that they get called back to work. 

HoopsHype talked to a number of NBA players, strength-and-conditioning coaches and trainers about what their at-home workouts entail, how teams are helping players stay in shape and why this break impacts some players more than others.

HOW PLAYERS ARE STAYING IN SHAPE

“I’m basically doing jail-house workouts,” New York Knicks guard Elfrid Payton said with a laugh. “I’m doing a lot of core workouts in my house little planks, sit-ups and stuff like that. I’ve also been doing some running around my neighborhood and some sprints in front of my house. Other than that, I’m working out inside.”

Payton said that he initially thought this would be a short-term, two-week stoppage. Several days after the NBA suspended play, the Knicks had a team-wide conference call and that’s when he realized the severity of this situation. On March 16, Payton returned home to Louisiana to be with his family and get out of New York. 

“My body knows that this is the time of year when I should still be playing,” Payton said. “This is when you’re usually revving up, so it’s just different. It’s weird.”

Players are doing their best to stay in shape remotely, but it’s been difficult since they’re on their own and have limited resources.

“My wife and I put together a make-shift gym in our backyard,” Detroit Pistons guard Langston Galloway said. “We have some weights and dumbbells and things like that. Cardio is huge right now. That’s what I’ve been focusing on the most – how can I keep my conditioning up there and as close to game shape as possible?”

“I’ve been doing some body-weight work, and then I’ve been getting outside to run,” Boston Celtics forward Semi Ojeleye said. “I’m kind of blessed that I live outside of Boston, in Brighton, so I have a little bit of space to run. I’m just trying to mix it up and fall in love with the grind for now.”

“It’s been a challenge,” said Los Angeles Clippers forward Patrick Patterson. “I live in an apartment, so it’s difficult to set up situations where I get [everything I need]. I do an hour-long workout in the garage with all of the items that I have. I mix in runs in certain areas in L.A. that have hills. I’ll mix in yoga sessions in the garage; I go on YouTube and type in yoga and then do a yoga session. That’s really all I can do right now.”

Several players and coaches said that they’re approaching this the same way they would an offseason training program (minus the on-court work, in most cases). 

“When we started getting word from the NBA that there wasn’t really an end in sight, we started realizing, ‘Okay, this may be closer to an offseason-type break, so we’ll have to plan long-term and adjust our workouts,’” said one Eastern Conference strength-and-conditioning coach.

“I’ve been having my same workout, really, that I do in the regular offseason,” Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine said. “I work out pretty much every day, get my shots up and lift a lot. I’m still lifting to try to keep my body in shape. The main thing me and my dad have been working on right now is just staying strong and not putting on too much weight. I like my frame right now; I’m about 205 lbs.” 

But unlike the offseason, there’s no end in sight. It’s unclear when (or if) the season will resume, and it’s up to each team to decide when they’ll reopen their practice facility.

“It’s been hard, man,” Payton said. “It’s just tough because we’re kind of in limbo. You don’t want to go too hard and then we’re away for so long, but then you also don’t want to do too little and not be ready when they start back up because that’s how injuries happen. You’re just in the middle, trying to do [just enough].”

“Oh man, it’s been a shock to my system,” Galloway added. “I’ve never been at home during this time period – the last time was when I was in high school. It’s so crazy.”

Each player talked about how badly they’re missing basketball and how they previously took the game for granted.

“The other day, I was watching videos of someone working out,” Ojeleye said with a laugh. “I’m not even watching game-film! I’m just watching guys getting in the gym and doing drill work and working on their craft. I think I miss that the most right now; that’s what made me fall in love with the game.”

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HOW TEAMS ARE HELPING PLAYERS

Because the NBA stoppage happened so quickly, teams didn’t have a chance to prepare for this and were forced to adjust on the fly.

One NBA strength-and-conditioning coach explained how his team put together a customized workout plan for each of their players. He splits his players into groups (such as “younger development guys,” “veteran guys,” and “high-minute guys”) to determine the general framework for each, and then he further individualizes each plan based on what the player needs to work on and their equipment and surroundings.

“Early on, we were helping each of our players locate tracks and football fields near their home, just because it allows them to do more,” the strength coach said. “When we’re customizing each player’s workouts, we’re taking into account what he has access to. If the guy lives close to a track and can get out there, we include different workouts than we would for a guy who doesn’t live near one.”

Several NBA teams have started using an app called TeamBuildr, which allows them to send workout instructions and videos to their players while tracking their progress. The Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder are among the teams using this app to guide their players.

Many NBA teams have purchased equipment for their players to facilitate their at-home workouts. Quite a few players didn’t have any equipment at home prior to this, since they could always just go to their team’s practice facility or their offseason training site. 

Some teams have sent out treadmills,” Patterson said. “I’ve heard of teams sending ladders and ellipticals. For me, personally, I’ve received ladders, weights, resistance bands, medicine balls, BOSU balls, benches, boxes and jump-ropes from the Clippers. I have pretty much everything that I need – minus a treadmill.”

“The Celtics sent me a stationary bike, a couple of kettlebells, some bands, a BOSU ball, an AIREX balance pad and other equipment like that,” Ojeleye said. “I got everything from the Celtics; before this, I didn’t have anything except for one mini band.”

Like Ojeleye, Payton said he didn’t have any equipment at his house prior to this break.

“I didn’t really have any dumbbells or anything here because I never really needed them; I could always just go to the gym,” Payton said.

In addition to purchasing equipment for players, some teams have let their players borrow machines or weights from the practice facility (since nobody is using them).

“We loaned out some of the equipment in our facility to the guys who were staying in our team’s market,” an Eastern Conference strength-and-conditioning coach said. “We knew that some guys, especially veterans, were leaving to go home. But for the guys who are staying in our city, we tried to get them the equipment they needed (within reason) like weights and either an exercise bike or treadmill.”

Teams have also been trying to help their players stay motivated. For example, the Celtics have been doing team-wide workouts over FaceTime and having celebrity guest speakers join their Zoom meetings to mix things up.

“We get on FaceTime about three times a week and work out as a group,” Ojeleye said. “That’s been good, just to keep guys mentally engaged. When you’re just working out by yourself, it can be a grind. But when you have people with you, it helps the time go by faster… About once a week we’ll have an organization-wide Zoom chat. We’ve had some people come talk to us. Sometimes, it’s someone providing updates on the virus and this whole situation; other times it’s people like Mark Wahlberg, LL Cool J and Myron Rolle and they just talk about what they do, and we’re able to learn from them.”

The Clippers are doing team-wide workouts as well, according to Patterson: “Three-to-four times a week, our strength coach puts us all in a Zoom session and every morning around 10 a.m., there will be some type of hour-long workout. We all just sign in on the Zoom session and our trainer is right there, leading a workout for an hour.” 

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard

SOME PLAYERS IMPACTED MORE THAN OTHERS 

While some players didn’t have a single piece of equipment until their team stepped in, other players have everything they need and are able to train like usual.

LaVine is back home in Washington, where he has access to a full basketball court, 50 yards of turf, inflatable hills, a full weight room, batting cages and more. This is where LaVine trains every summer with his father, Paul, and it’s where he’s working out now. 

“I feel really fortunate that I have these amenities,” LaVine said. “It’s obviously something that was put in place way before we knew what was going on with everything in the world. I’m just so happy that I can keep my same routine and my same work-out lifestyle. Because it’s tough for a lot of people who are limited… I’m fortunate that I have this set-up, so I can work out the same way I would in a regular offseason.”

Right now, most players don’t have this kind of set-up. The Eastern Conference strength-and-conditioning coach said none of his players have access to a court at the moment.

“We’d love for our players to be doing on-court work and we’d definitely recommend that, but I don’t think any of our players have access to one,” the strength coach said. “We have to make the best of this and figure out things they can do from home.”

Payton has an outdoor court next to his house where he was shooting, but then they took the rims down to encourage social distancing. The individuals who have access to a court could have a big advantage when play resumes, which isn’t lost on players.

That’s a big-time plus,” Ojeleye said. “They can go in there, work out, clear their head and almost feel like they aren’t even missing anything – it’s like the offseason for them.”

“Some people I know have a gym and an actual basketball court in their home, but I don’t have that,” Patterson added. “I actually thought about hitting up Lou [Williams], Kawhi [Leonard] or Paul [George] and being like, ‘Hey, can I borrow your court for a little bit?’ or, ‘Can I borrow your gym just to get a workout in?’ For a lot of those guys in the upper echelon who have the large homes with a court and a large gym in them, it’s easier for them to stay in shape just because they have all the equipment.”

While this break has certainly forced every NBA player to adjust, certain individuals are less reliant on their coaches and trainers. For example, Galloway points out that veterans may fare better than young players during this NBA stoppage since they have years of experience keeping their body in playing shape (whereas young players are still learning and may depend on the trainers and coaches more). Many veterans know all the drills and workouts they’re being assigned, so doing them alone isn’t a big deal.

The Eastern Conference strength-and-conditioning coach agreed that his younger players typically need more structure and guidance than his veterans. Because of this, he and his staff are communicating with the team’s young players daily, whereas they are only checking in on the veterans every two-to-three days.

Dave Hancock, who was the Director of Training and Performance for the Knicks and now trains athletes like Kevin Durant and Odell Beckham Jr., is mainly concerned about two groups of players: the youngest players and the oldest players.

“Kevin Durant is disciplined about how much he does, how often he does it and how hard he works; he knows himself and the intensity that he has to work at to keep his game at that top level,” Hancock explained. “But it’s the rookies and the players who don’t know their bodies as well that you’d have to [monitor]. For players who are in their rookie season and they’re just getting used to the intensity of playing in the NBA and then it just stops, they’re the players I’m concerned about – the rookies. 

“There’s also some concern about the older veterans, the oldest players. Rest can be great for the body, but how much rest do you actually need? How much is too much? It’s a real fine line, a real tightrope that you’re on, and every individual is different.”

Hancock created a performance-tracking app called Apollo, which uses wearable technology to monitor a player’s heart rate, speed, accelerations, decelerations and other data. Several NBA teams have reached out to Apollo in recent months since they’re looking for ways to monitor and improve their players’ at-home workouts.

CONCERN OVER INCREASED INJURY RISK

While everyone would love to see the 2019-20 NBA season resume in the near future, some players and coaches are worried that restarting play too quickly after this extended break could lead to significantly more injuries.

“I fear the injuries that could possibly happen if guys aren’t staying prepared,” said one NBA strength coach. “That’s a big thing I’m worried about. It’s hard for guys to mimic what they do in games, but they need to somewhat try. The guys who don’t are going to have a hard time. The league could decide to jump right to the playoffs just to finish the season quickly and that’s when the intensity is at its highest. You’ll have some guys who haven’t done much for a while trying to play their way into shape. Well, couple that with playoff intensity and there will be a lot of injuries that come with that, unfortunately.”

It’s probably human nature to rest more when nobody knows when they’ll play again,” the coach added. “And the season is such a grind; these players have been working extremely hard for five or six months and some of their bodies are pretty beat up, so I definitely understand the temptation to just rest and not work hard at home.”

But even if a player is working out every day at home, it’s near impossible for them to replicate what they’ll be doing in games when they’re training alone. 

“Athletes are pretty good at keeping themselves in reasonable shape, but it’s the intensity that’s the key,” Hancock said. “If they are just putting up shots, the intensity isn’t there. In a game, they’re exploding with power, accelerating, decelerating, cutting, pivoting, moving with quickness – all things that are difficult to mimic when you’re by yourself.”

As previously mentioned, many players don’t have access to a court, so they’re simply doing cardio, lifting weights and trying to stay fit at home. Because they aren’t getting in any on-court work, they could be at a higher risk for injury when they start playing five-on-five again. A number of players expressed their concern about this.

You can’t really duplicate or practice game shape, unless you’re playing in games,” Galloway said. “That’s why this is so difficult. I know a lot of players are nervous about this time and about going back to playing. All we can do right now is just try to stay in the best shape that we can. We may have to do a kind-of training camp and reset the season. If they don’t, people are going to be getting hurt left and right, and nobody wants that. Everyone wants to see the best players on the court.”

“I think they really should be [careful],” Payton added. “There should be no less than three-to-four weeks [of training camp] before they start playing again to get players back up to that intensity after sitting around for so long. It’s not like everyone has access to a basketball gym to even be somewhat in shape. If this was happening over the summer and we could go right into training camp, that’s different. But in a situation like this where nobody can move and everybody is stuck inside, I don’t think it would be smart for them to rush us back into playing.”

Patterson is working out often, but he pointed out that he has no way of knowing whether he’s working hard enough (or if he’s potentially going too hard). He’s worried that even if he stays in decent shape, it won’t be enough to prevent an injury when he’s back on the court with the Clippers.

I heard something on ESPN or the radio – I can’t remember – but someone said that these playoffs are going to be the best playoffs that have ever happened in the NBA,” Patterson said. “They were like, ‘You give these guys two or three months to rest their bodies and heal up and then unleash them back on the court, it’s gonna be amazing!’ I’m like, ‘No!’ Right now, with the virus and everything going on, certain guys have courts and have better opportunities to stay fit, stay in shape and fix their bodies. But for everyone else, you can’t really go work out, you can’t go to the gym, you can’t go to certain facilities to do what you do. 

“I do have concern for myself and other guys across the league who don’t have the equipment and everything that they need to get stronger, stay ready and stay prepared, or who may not take this break seriously and try to rest a little too much… Then, next thing you know, the season starts back up again and they give us a couple weeks before we [finish the] regular season or we go straight to the playoffs, and guys’ bodies aren’t nearly the same as they were before the stoppage began.”

The players who aren’t working out much during this period (and there will inevitably be some) would have the highest injury risk.

“Normally, with an athlete of this caliber, they’ll start to detrain in six weeks if they aren’t doing much,” Hancock said. “Then, it will normally take them six weeks to get back in shape. There’s no way that the league will gives players six weeks of prep before finishing the season, so the ability to communicate with these athletes remotely and ensure that they’re working out is very, very important. If I was still working for an NBA team, I would be concerned about injuries, 100 percent.” 

It would be great to have the NBA back sooner than later, but the short-term benefits may not be worth the long-term consequences if the league isn’t careful when it comes time to resume play.

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