3 Steps to Better Basketball Conditioning - Indianapolis Fitness And Sports Training
Athletic Development

3 Steps to Better Basketball Conditioning

written by Mike Robertson


Growing up, I loved playing basketball.

In fact, basketball is the reason I’m doing what I do today.

As an athlete, I was willing to do whatever it took to get the most out of my body.

Whether it was lifting weights, doing plyo jumps, or working on my conditioning, I just wanted to be the best basketball player possible.

After my sophomore year, I made some serious strides in my game.

I was getting stronger and more athletic.

I was getting more consistent with my jump shot.

And most importantly, I understood the game a lot better than I had in the past.

So when my basketball coach (who was also the cross-country coach) told me I needed to run cross country to get into shape, I took him up on his offer.

Now I’m by no stretch of the imagination a runner, but I’m competitive as all get out and hate to lose.

Over the course of that season, my 5k times for cross country dropped from race-to-race.

By the end of that year, I hit my goal for the season:

I wanted to break 20 minutes, and in my last race, I ran a 5k in 19:10!

Coming off that season, I was ultra-confident in my conditioning.  After all, I’d just shaved four or five minutes off my 5k time.

I had to be in great shape, right?

Needless to say, when the basketball season rolled around, I got a rude awakening.

Guys who I used to dominate were blowing past me like nobodies business.

My legs felt heavy and slow.

But you want to know the worst part of all this?

After a minute or two on the court, I was sucking wind and running out of gas!

So what gives?

How had I done that much conditioning, yet still not been in shape?

Let’s start with a brief tutorial on the various energy system we have to produce energy.

(And trust me – I promise to make this light and fluffy. No hardcore science – promise!)

After that, I’m going to give you three simple things to do to help you show up in-shape when it comes to pre-season.

Ready? Let’s do this!

Basketball Conditioning 101

When we talk about conditioning, we’re talking about our bodies ability to produce energy.

When you’re sprinting, jumping and cutting, your body is producing energy to meet the demands of your sport.

Every one of us has three energy systems in our body:

  • The alactic system,
  • The lactic system, and
  • The aerobic system.

Let me give you a brief breakdown of each, as that will help you better understand the methods I outline below.

The Alactic System

The alactic system is our short burst energy system. If you were to go out and start sprinting at full tilt, you would use your alactic system to produce energy.

The alactic system is great because it gives you 8-10 seconds of free energy.

But the down side is equally great:

It only supplies energy for 8-10 seconds!

Once you max out the alactic system, your body shifts to the lactic system.

The Lactic System

When most athletes think conditioning, they immediately think of the lactic system.

After all, this is the basis for most sports conditioning programs. Because if an athlete isn’t lying on the ground puking, they’re not working hard enough, right?

The lactic system is used when the intensity of our exercise stays high for a prolonged period of time.

Let’s come back to our previous analogy. If you pop out of your home and start running, you’ll use your alactic system for 8-10 seconds.

But after that if you continue to run hard, your lactic system will takeover.

The lactic system is our intermediate energy system – it’s great for longer duration, high-intensity work.

Yet if you stay “lactic” for too long, your power will drop off and you’ll be forced to down-shift into the aerobic system.

The problem with too much lactic training for a basketball player is two-fold:

  1. Lactic training and aerobic training work against each other. Quite simply, the better you get at lactic training, the less aerobic you become.
  2. Lactic training is not sport-specific. While a basketball player will tap into the lactic system from time-to-time, it’s not the most prevalent energy system used. Instead, basketball tends to be a blend of alactic (explosive work) paired with aerobic (lower-intensity) demands.

The Aerobic System

Last but not least we have our aerobic system.

The aerobic system is fantastic for producing energy for long periods of time, which is absolutely critical as a basketball player.

Unfortunately, the aerobic system has gotten a ton of negative press over the years. This often comes from the fat loss community (where lactic training is king), and from coaches who don’t understand physiology.

As I mentioned above, the aerobic system is key if you want to be able to hoop for 32, 40 or 48 minutes.

The key is that you don’t do low-end aerobic training at the exclusion of all the other types of work!

Now that we’ve got a general idea of the different energy systems, let’s talk about a simple, three-step process you can use with your athletes to take their game to the next level!

Step #1 – Build Your Base

Target: The Aerobic System (Low-End)

The first step to building a complete conditioning program for a basketball player is to develop a base.

When it comes to basketball, you know that a game is X mintues long. Even if your athlete doesn’t play the entire game, there’s one simple fact you can’t ignore:

You need a big conditioning base if you want to play a lot of minutes!

Too often, coaches want to jump right into high-intensity conditioning methods. These are great for wearing an athlete out and making them feel like they worked hard.

Like I stated above, though,that’s actually the last thing you need, especially early-on in a program!

In the beginning of the off-season, you need to focus on low-intensity, cardiac output (CO) style training.

CO is lower intensity work, where the heart rate is between 120 and 140 beats per minute. When you work in this lower intensity zone, you can actually increase the size of your heart.

How crazy is that?

Just like you can build a bigger bicep by doing curls, you can build a bigger (and more efficient) heart when you do the right type of conditioning.

This low intensity training drops your resting heart rate, and builds a massive conditioning base moving forward.

(Side note: If you want more of the hardcore science behidn this, make sure to read this article: You NEED Long Duration, Low Intensity Cardio).

The obvious question here is:

What types of conditioning should we do?

While you can go out and run for 30-40 minutes in this zone, I wouldn’t recommend it – especially for a basketball player.

Not only is it incredibly boring, but running for long durations at a steady clip can lead to excessive wear and tear throughout the body.

Instead, we’ll often create circuits for our athletes where they’ll do various exercises in a circuit fashion. It might look something like this:

  • Hit the tire with a sledgehammer,
  • Push the prowler,
  • Perform upper body pushes and pulls with a dragging sled,
  • Throw medicine balls against the wall, and
  • Perform ab exercises to strengthen the core.

The key to all this is keeping the intensity low, and working in that cardiac output zone of 120-140 bpm.

Here are two of my MLS soccer players going through a cardiac output circuit at the start of their off-season program.

So step #1 is building that big aerobic base. What’s next?

Step #2 – Build Your Explosive Power

Target: The Alactic System

While I spent a lot of time doing low-intensity work with my cross country training, this is one of the main areas where I missed the boat as a young athlete.

The alactic system, or your bodies ability to be explosive, is absolutely critical in basketball.

Whether it’s your first step quickness, the ability to rise up and get your shot off, or being able to stay in front of your opponent, the alactic system is crucial.

The most obvious way to address this is by becoming faster, stronger and more explosive. The weight room is your friend in this regard.

But once we’ve built that strength/speed/power, we have to be able to use it time and again over the course of a game!

Alactic conditioning is often done at the end of a training session, and focuses on explosive exercises done for a short period of time.

This could include exercises such as:

  • Sled or hill sprints,
  • Pushing a prowler,
  • Kettlebell jumps, etc.

Here’s what the kettlebell jumps look like – apologies for not finding a better model!

The key is to be fast and explosive on every rep. Doing things at half-speed won’t cut it!

We’ll start with 6 seconds of work and 90 seconds of rest, and then strive to work longer and cut the rest period over the course of the off-season.

So we’ve covered the long duration demands, as well as the explosive demands of basketball.

What are we missing?

Step #3: Build Your High-End Workload

Target: The Aerobic System (High-End)

The final step to building a complete basketball conditioning program is working on high-end aerobic training.

Say what?!?!?!

Doesn’t that statement contradict itself?

I thought the aerobic system was only for low-intensity work?

Not really.

Within each system, you have to think of it as a spectrum. So yes, you have the low-end, low-intensity work like long duration running or jogging.

But within that aerobic system, you also have a higher-end range that you need to tap into to be successful.

Think of it like this: There are times in every game where the athletes are up and down the court, with minimal breaks.

They may not be going at full tilt the whole time, and there may even be times of slow play, but the movement is consistent and prolonged.

This is where that high-end aerobic system development comes into play.

To address this, we’ll often do some higher intensity running on the court or treadmill. The key is to be in the right intensity zone, which is right around your anaerobic threshold (I’ll spare you the details on this one).

At the end of the day, though, you need this high-intensity aerobic development to make sure that you can go for long periods of time without needing a break.

Bonus Step: Lactic Work

Target: The Lactic System

While most basketball conditioning programs revolve around high-intensity, lactic work, this is actually the last thing they should do.

In fact, if we’re going to incorporate lactic work into our athletes’ programs, it’s generally the last 3-4 weeks of their off-season program.

Remember that the lactic and aerobic systems don’t play well together. When we improve our lactic system, we do it at the expense of our aerobic system.

But I’m also a realist, and I know that many coaches are going to use lactic training either in their practices, or in their conditioning.

As such, I’m going to give my athletes a dose of this high-intensity work in a controlled setting before I send them off to pre-season.

By doing this step last, they’ll not only be in fantastic basketball shape, but they’ll be prepared for almost anything their coach can throw at them conditioning wise.


Whether you’re a young basketball player who is just getting into the game, or a high-level pro, improving your conditioning is something everyone can do to take their game to the next level.

If you want help with your conditioning this off-season so you can outlast everyone else on your team, be sure to check out the IFAST Off-Season Basketball Camp which starts on July 11th.

If you want to have a member of the IFAST team call you to talk about the camps, click here.

And if you’re ready to sign-up and take your game to the next level, click here.

We can’t wait to see you this July!

All the best



Mike Robertson

Leave a Reply