The 3 Biggest Basketball Conditioning Mistakes

Note from MR: Zac Cupples is a guy who I’ve known for years, and back in the day he even studied under the Jedi Master Bill Hartman here at IFAST.

And you know I don’t put a ton of guest content on the site, mostly because I only want to publish high-quality content.

However, when you get a guy that has worked in both the NBA and the D-League to offer up his thoughts on basketball training, well, it’s really a no-brainer!

In this article, Zac is going to give you the three biggest mistakes he sees when conditioning basketball players.

Here’s Zac…..

The whistle blows, echoing all along the near empty practice facility.

From the baseline, everyone took off for the preseason conditioning test.

This year’s test involved running repeat 10’s. A “10” consists of running the court length ten times, followed by a 2 minute break. The goal was to complete five, and the intent was to get our guys in shape.

There I was, watching some of the best basketball players in the world.

Guys who would make your head turn and jaw drop with athleticism.

Athletes who could change direction on a dime, dunk so hard that the crowd would be silenced (true story), and play well over 30 minutes against some of the greatest players in the world.

Yet as I watched my guys perform this test, one thing stood out to me in particular.

“They didn’t look very athletic.”

These were guys, days earlier, catching alley oops, making remarkable dives for loose balls, and quickly cutting to the basket over the course of multiple pickup games.

I saw a disconnect.

A disconnect in what we think it takes to prepare for a sport versus what it actually requires.

A disconnect between sport coaches and physical preparation coaches.

We cannot blame one coach or the other, but the lack of collaboration within the coaching staff. All parties involved in preparing athletes for competition are at fault.

Let’s look at some of the biggest mistakes we make preparing our athletes for competition. By knowing what we do wrong, perhaps we can make the necessary changes to better prepare our athletes not just to survive their sport, but thrive.

Mistake #1 – Using General Conditioning to Prepare for Sport

“I need to get my wind back.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I would rehab someone back to play, and despite doing everything right, they’d be smoked that first full contact practice.

I did everything in my power to ensure that their conditioning was up to snuff. Tempo runs, high intensity continuous training, high resistance intervals, alactic capacity training; you name it, we did it. Yet, the result was the same.


basketball conditioning recovery
But your heart rate recovery was 45 seconds, fam!

This problem led to a stark realization about the conditioning methods we all as physical preparation coaches champion:

They don’t provide transfer to our client’s sports and activities.

My coach would tell me that we as physical preparation coaches cannot make better basketball players. While I fought tooth and nail for us back then, I see his point now.

A sport’s loading patterns of both the energy and neuromuscular systems are different, more chaotic.

There are unpredictable scenarios, and in-game work durations can widely vary.

Just as a basketball player might get better at focusing by meditating, he or she won’t necessarily hit a higher free throw percentage.

The same is true for our conditioning.

You can do step ups until the cows come home, but it won’t help you make a play late in the 4th quarter down 3 after you’ve already played 35 minutes.

The only way to ensure that our clients are in peak conditioning for their sport is to intelligently prepare them by using their sport.

You have to practice your free throws, and you have to play your sport; it’s the best way to be a better player.

Employing this paradigm requires understanding a sport’s tactical, technical, and energy system needs. If you don’t understand the sport your athlete is performing, do all you can to figure it out.

In my case, I befriended and sought mentorship from a few brilliant assistant coaches, Joe Boylan and Joe Barrer. These guys taught me a great deal about tactical scenarios, defensive strategies, technical aspects of finishes, pick and roll coverage, and several other things regarding basketball.

Having this newfound knowledge allowed me to relevantly apply energy system principles in a meaningful way for what our coaches needed from our athletes.

A collaborative effort between sport and physical preparation coaches is the best way to solve this mistake. If the sport coach uses tactical and technical principles, coupled with the physical preparation coach’s energy system knowledge, both the athlete and the team will maximally benefit.

Unfortunately, this team effort is rare, which leads us to our next mistake.

Mistake #2 – Basketball Drills do not Match Sport Needs

“On the line!”

How many times in our lives have we heard this dreaded phrase when practice goes sour? A phrase followed by endless running until the morning pancakes end up on the floor.

Ah, the fond memories of having too many pancakes before basketball practice.

Sadly, I’ve both seen and experienced these practices one too many times.

We fail at a particular task, run at speeds and distances never reached in the game, and then proceed to continue playing terrible basketball.

This line of thinking is problematic.

The means do not match the end.

Ideally, drills should contain work to rest ratios that mimic game situations, incorporate game skills, and follow the desired pace and tempo that coincides with the head coach’s philosophy.

When designing all programming, especially sport-specific skills, we must ask ourselves the following question:

“Does this match the goals of the sport?”

Consider basketball’s work to rest ratios. The following ratios are classified by the following intensities:

  • High (sprinting, defensive slides, shuffles, shooting, jumping, cutting, and battling in the post),
  • Medium (jogging), and
  • Low (walking, stoppage time)1.

Every one second of high intensity activity is accompanied by four seconds of medium intensity and five seconds of low intensity; giving us a 1:4:5 ratios of High:medium:low1.

The above ratio is the average, as game scenarios can range from a high intensity of 2-20%, medium intensity of 17-68%, and low intensity of 30-72%2. These variances can be accounted for by team playing style, opposing team pace, game situation, player position, and quarter as examples3.

Now that we have an idea of work to rest ratios, next we will look at how long these high intensity bouts last:

  • 51% lasted longer than 1.5s
  • 27% lasted longer than 2s
  • 12% lasted longer than 3s
  • 5% lasted longer than 4s; with the worst case scenario being 8 seconds1

These high intensity bursts occur roughly once every 7 seconds, with accelerations occurring every 14 seconds, and decelerations/changes of direction every 29 seconds3. Speeds of these bursts can go up to 13-15 mph over a 30m distance4,5.

These accelerations are interspersed in games with jumping. This explosive activity may occur up to 50 times in a game, with an average of about 44 at the professional level5,6.

If we were to put all these values into a potential game scenario, an NBA point guard may sprint down the 29m long court, cut off a screen from a post player, shoot a quick three pointer, then immediately sprint back on defense. This entire series may take anywhere from 5-10 seconds.

basketball conditioning drill
A fundamental play in basketball, and a drill that can create several excellent conditioning scenarios

Now that we’ve looked at the external work characteristics of basketball, let’s consider the physiological response to the game.

In-game heart rate averages at around 175 bpm, with a range of 155-189 bpm, with heart rate typically higher in the first half compared to the second half2,7.

Free fatty acid bloodstream concentrations tend to be higher in the second half, indicating increased aerobic contributions7. The aerobic system is important for basketball because it allows for effective recovery from short sprints in the short term, and from high stress events such as games in the long term8.

The basketball work to rest ratios we saw above exhibit this aerobic system dominance. A 1:4 work:rest ratio better maintains work and power levels compared to shorter work to rest ratios by allowing 50% restoration of creatine phosphate stores9.

This restoration, along with lactate clearance and inorganic phosphate removal, are performed by aerobic system5.

Given all the aforementioned data, we can classify basketball as a sport that combines going fast over short distances (alactic) interspersed with slower speeds over longer periods (aerobic).

How often do we see basketball drills and conditioning match what the data shows?

From my perspective, rarely, even at the highest level.

Most drills are either too long to reach game speeds, too short to reach game distances, too coached to allow for normal rest periods, or completely unrelated, as is the case of 10’s or full suicides.

Even scrimmaging, intended to simulate the game, has an astronomical intensity difference from the real thing. Comparing 5-on-5 scrimmaging to live play, game workload is 40% higher, heart rates averages 10% higher, and VO2 levels are 22% higher6.

We have a gap that needs to be bridged. If we expect perfect execution in-game, we must achieve mastery of game skills under game conditions—that includes physiological.

Given the data, most drills ought to incorporate 1-8 seconds of intense activity, with 4-32 seconds of either jogging, walking, or stoppage time for recovery. Practicing free throws after these intense bouts works great here as well, considering these shots are typically performed after periods of high activity. I would argue that this is probably the only useful way free throws can be practiced.

There are several options we can use to quickly reach game workloads.

I’m a big fan of small sided games, with my personal favorites being 3-on-3 and 3-5 dribble 1-on-1.

Because each individual has to spend more time moving in these games, workloads generally are higher. Regarding 1-on-1, ensure you are getting enough rest between sets, keeping that 1:4 or 1:5 ratio. Shooting free throws after a score can fill this need.

Full court scrimmaging, where the coach cues the team to periodically push the pace, can also be beneficial. The less tactical coaching that occurs during these bouts, the better. That way we do not create excessively long rest periods, and reach game speeds more frequently.

If you need an athlete to reach game speed, there are a few drills I’ve found useful. A few of these don’t require a basketball, but contain basic basketball skills.

First, we can work on transition defense by encouraging an all-out sprint back to protect the basket:

This drill can also be performed emphasizing a bit more offense and dribbling, though most people are unable to reach faster speeds with dribbling. To better increase speed production, take fewer dribbles, almost throwing the ball out in front of you:

If we want to incorporate change of direction and cutting, half-suicides are a great drill to use. I prefer half over full because the work durations are a bit closer to what occurs in-game:

To work on defensive skillsets, we can perform drills that incorporate defensive slides and hip turns:

We will discuss programming these methods and many others more specifically in part two.

Mistake #3 – Not intelligently Progressing Workload

I’ll never forget “the game.”

We had eight players on our roster at the time, and midway through the second quarter, we had one guy go down with back spasms.

Then in the third quarter, we lost a guy to a non-contact knee injury.

To put the icing on the cake, we lost another guy with a foot injury.

Started with eight, finished with five. It was by far the worst thing I had ever experienced working in basketball.

Just a string of bad luck, right? Without context, one might think that. But considering what the prior two weeks consisted of, you would see that you can make your own bad luck.

During that two-week stint, we had a 3-game road trip, with two of the game occurring on a back-to-back.

The travel schedule for these games is absolutely brutal.

All flights are done commercially, so you are getting up at 4 in the morning to go to a new city, often traveling across multiple time zones.

After an early morning flight to head back home after the last game, we had a couple hard practices over the next two days.

Critical mass, “the game” came a few days later. Throw in a reduced roster, with greater minute demands spread across each player, and you can see that these injuries were not just bad luck.

Jordan basketball conditioning
We were all Crying Jordans during that game

I’ve seen the flip side of this situation as well. Towards the end of the year, we were practicing less frequently and it showed.

We would go into games despite doing many things right, and appear sluggish and uncoordinated as a team. Many losses followed.

Both of these scenarios are problems of the same coin: workload management.

Workload is defined the amount and intensity of activity performed in a given time period. When measuring workload, we predominately look at two load types: external and internal.

External load is simply the amount of work performed. In basketball, this load is monitored typically by GPS, RFID, and accelerometry. If you’ve heard of devices like Catapult or STATSports, these units measure external load. These devices can measure many variables, such as velocities achieved, acceleration frequency, distance traveled, etc.

Sadly, cost often prohibits wide usage. Less costly measures for coaches to consider could be session duration, number of jumps, or drill repetitions multiplied by time10.

Internal load measures an individual’s physiological and psychological response to the work performed10. Devices such as heart rate monitors, heart rate variability, and subjective questionnaires can monitor this variable. A practical measure could be multiplying session duration by rating of perceived exertion (RPE) on a 1-10 scale. This measure in particular has been shown to be valid in basketball players11.

Anecdotally, session duration times RPE can be problematic.

Sometimes players will give you the same number with each session, underscore their RPE to appear tough, give a “ZERO” or refuse after a loss, or even “number inflate” to let you know that they “go hard, son!” These situations can be mitigated by education, and most importantly, acting on your data sets.

I was fortunate to work with a coach who understood the importance of load management, and would alter practice intensity based on what workloads were looking like. When athletes saw these changes, they knew I had their back, and gave me near 100% compliance. Even after tough losses!

Both external and internal load are used to monitor workload deviations. Excessively large workloads over a given time period are not necessarily problematic. The greater danger involves acute (i.e. short or abrupt) spikes in workload. This problem involves a large load increase relative to prior bouts, and is strongly associated with injuries10.

Equally problematic is keeping workload to a minimum.

As workload increases, fitness qualities such as aerobic capacity develop10. As we recall, this quality is primo for basketball, both as a necessary energy system and recovery enhancer. Low chronic (i.e. longer time period) workloads do not develop fitness necessary to play at a high quality, and predisposes one to hit workload spikes more frequently.

The acute:chronic workload ratio is by far most impactful measure to negate these problems. This measure looks at the workload relationship between small and large timeframes. The literature most commonly utilizes 7-day averages in relation to the previous 28 days. A ratio greater than 1.5 increases injury risk over the next seven days two to four-fold10, and continues to increase injury risk over the following week as well12.

This measure allows us to appropriately progress workloads. We can even work someone to a high degree, as long as we do not progress them too far beyond what their fitness levels allow. Keeping the ratio between 0.85-1.35 allows us to progress fitness with the lowest possible injury risk10. As chronic workload builds over time, there is a greater protective effect against injury12.

If you want a cheap way to measure acute:chronic workload, I made an excel document that has a few ratios I’ve used in the past. You can download it by clicking here or subscribing in the form below.

Subscribe to Zac’s mailing list and download the accute:chronic workload spreadsheet and free updates

When measuring acute:chronic workload, be sure to keep your measures specific to the task at hand. Don’t mix basketball and weight room workouts into this value, a mistake I’ve made in the past.

When I’m working with athletes, I’ll keep two of these sheets going; one for external load and the other for internal load. For basketball, you can use number of drill repetitions multiplied by drill duration for external load, and session duration multiplied by session RPE for internal load. I look at external load as my first-tier flag, and if a spike occurs I’ll corroborate my findings with my internal load measure13.

Sum Up

Mistakes, we’ve all made a few. Yet learning from these mistakes provides us opportunities to become more effective sport and physical preparation coaches. To summarize:

  • General methods cannot replace sport conditioning: You must use the sport to effectively condition athletes
  • Practice how you play: All practices, drills, and scrimmages must consider the sport’s demands, pace, durations, and intensities.
  • Intelligently plan your workload: Acute:chronic workload should be maintained between 0.85-1.35, and total workload should be progressed over time to build fitness levels.

Zac Cupples

Stay tuned for part 2, where I go into greater detail on assessing and programming design to take your basketball skills to the next level.

Zac Cupples, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS

P.S. – Have mistakes you’ve made or seen made in the past? Comment below and let us know.


  1. Bishop D, Wright C. A time-motion analysis of professional basketball to determine the relationship between three activity profiles- high, medium and low intensity and the length of the time spent on court. 2006. International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport 6(1):130-139.
  2. Puente C, Abián-Vicén J, Areces F, López R, Coso JD. Physical and Physiological Demands of Experienced Male Basketball Players During a Competitive Game. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2017;31(4):956-962. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000001577.
  3. Abdelkrim NB, Fazaa SE, Ati JE, Tabka Z. Time-motion analysis and physiological data of elite under-19-year-old basketball players during competition * Commentary. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2007;41(2):69-75. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2006.032318.
  4. Gharbi Z, Dardouri W, Haj-Sassi R, Chamari K, Souissi N. Aerobic and anaerobic determinants of repeated sprint ability in team sports athletes. Biology of Sport. 2015;32(3):207-212. doi:10.5604/20831862.1150302.
  5. Araujo GGD, Manchado-Gobatto FDB, Papoti M, Camargo BHF, Gobatto CA. Anaerobic and Aerobic Performances in Elite Basketball Players. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2014;42(1). doi:10.2478/hukin-2014-0068.
  6. MP, B. PD, L. MC. The Physical and Physiological Demands of Basketball Training and Competition. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 2010;5(1):75-86. doi:10.1123/ijspp.5.1.75.
  7. Abdelkrim NB, Castagna C, Fazaa SE, Tabka Z, Ati JE. Blood Metabolites During Basketball Competitions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009;23(3):765-773. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181a2d8fc.
  8. Koury JC, Daleprane JB, Pitaluga-Filho MV, Oliveira CFD, Gonçalves MC, Passos MC. Aerobic Conditioning Might Protect Against Liver and Muscle Injury Caused by Short-Term Military Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2016;30(2):454-460. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000001102.
  9. Monica MBL, Fukuda DH, Beyer KS, et al. Altering Work to Rest Ratios Differentially Influences Fatigue Indices During Repeated Sprint Ability Testing. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2016;30(2):400-406. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000001122.
  10. Abdelkrim NB, Castagna C, Fazaa SE, Tabka Z, Ati JE. Blood Metabolites During Basketball Competitions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009;23(3):765-773. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181a2d8fc.
  11. Manzi V, Dʼottavio S, Impellizzeri FM, Chaouachi A, Chamari K, Castagna C. Profile of Weekly Training Load in Elite Male Professional Basketball Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2010;24(5):1399-1406. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181d7552a.
  12. Hulin BT, Gabbett TJ, Lawson DW, Caputi P, Sampson JA. The acute:chronic workload ratio predicts injury: high chronic workload may decrease injury risk in elite rugby league players. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015;50(4):231-236. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-094817.
  13. Gabbett, TJ. Personal communication. 2017.


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