At best, the theory went, weightlifting was a waste of time.

At worst, it would wreck your game.

Muscles and basketball, after all, just didn’t mix.

Want to ruin your jumper? Pump some iron. Want to get slow and stiff? Pump some iron.

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Such was the conventional wisdom of the not-too-distant past. As in, only a few decades ago.

“Oh, yeah, you used to hear that all the time,” said Greenwood boys basketball coach Bruce Hensley, who’s in his 27th season with the Woodmen.

“They’d become too muscle-bound and you’d lose some of your flexibility,” Hensley added.

“But obviously, if it’s done the right way and you use the proper technique, that doesn’t happen.”

Today, as thinking on the subject has evolved dramatically — along with the physical nature of the game itself — the only consequence of weightlifting for basketball players is to not do it.

Core strength, explosiveness and flexibility are as essential to the modern player as a smooth jumper or crossover dribble. And it’s why many spend nearly as much time in the weight room as they do in the gym.

Basketball is still a game of skill, but players who combine skill and strength are far more likely to excel than those who only have or the other. And as evidenced by the expansion of weight rooms and advanced conditioning classes in high schools, that is true of the game at all levels — prep, college and pros.

“The game was so much different that the thought of lifting weights for that game was kind of counter-intuitive,” said Franklin College men’s coach Kerry Prather, who’s in his 33rd season with the Grizzlies. “But as the game itself has become more physical at each level, then the effect of strength on that is obvious.

“That’s a connection that I think has made a big difference.”

Jon McGlocklin remembers a time when there was no connection at all between strength training and basketball.

A legendary player at Franklin High School, McGlocklin starred at Indiana University in the 1960s and enjoyed an 11-year career in the NBA.

He was an All-Star for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969 and a champion with them in 1971.

Like most players of his era, he seldom lifted weights.

“We did no lifting at IU,” said McGlocklin, who retired from the NBA in 1976. “Few (pro players) lifted, and there was no equipment provided by NBA teams.

“We were all mostly on our own.”

Today, most players — at the high school level on up — are under the direction of certified strength and conditioning coaches who help players target muscles that enhance their game in a variety of ways.

Training with a purpose

Strength for strength’s sake is a plus for not getting pushed around on the court. But strength in core areas, such as the abdominals, quads, hamstrings and calves, can improve speed, jumping ability, balance, explosiveness and overall conditioning.More importantly, developing joint strength through proper technique can reduce the risk of injury.Those are the areas Luke Harris, the strength and conditioning at Whiteland Community High School, targets for the Warriors’ boys and girls basketball players.

“We develop their muscles in a way that keeps on the court. We do exercises to improve lower body strength to keep injuries from happening,” Harris said. “We do a lot of core strength work so that they can have good core stability, good balance and have control of their body. That keeps them from getting injured.”

“Other than that, we just focus on strength and power, developing lower body strength and core strength so that they can have the ability to generate power and jump and stop and change direction.”

Sydney Crowe, a 5-foot-10 junior guard on Whiteland’s girls varsity team, started weight training her freshman season. She credits the targeted basketball exercises for making her not only a better all-around player but a more confident player.

She doesn’t get shoved around easily.

“It’s made me a lot stronger. Playing against other girls who are really strong, you have to be stronger so that you can stand your ground,” said Crowe, who — like her teammates — trains four days a week in the weight room.

Most of the time, she looks forward to the workouts. If for no other reason because of what they do for her game.

“You have to walk in there with the attitude, ‘You have to get better,’ because coach Harris doesn’t like slacking at all,” Crowe said. “He likes to push us. So even on days where you don’t want to be in there, you still have to work really hard.

“It ends up making it seem like it’s not so bad, so that you’re having fun, even on the days that you’re not feeling it at first.”

Justin Conley, a senior starter on Greenwood’s boys team, is a 6-foot, 160-pound guard. A three-year starter, he has been one of the Woodmen’s most skilled players but has never been one of their most physically imposing. Were it not for pushing himself in the weight room, he might never have played varsity at all.

But because he does, he’s arguably Greenwood’s most complete player.

“It’s definitely helped me getting to the bucket, rebounding, defense. It’s just improved my overall power in my game,” Conley said. “It helps your game a lot.”

Once players understand the benefits, it takes less coaxing to get them in the weight room.

“Basketball players are usually the ones who aren’t the most enthusiastic about strength training,” Harris said. “But once they see how it’s going to help them to better in their sport, they but into it a little bit more.”

Debunking myths

Strength training has become such an integral part of development that it is as common as working jump shots. And despite beliefs of a previous era, weightlifting is not — and never has been — detrimental to jump shots.As modern research demonstrates, the opposite is true.“Assuming that you continue to shoot as your strength develops, it becomes a better shot,” Prather said. “You pick up range, quickness of delivery, being able to shoot through fatigue, all of that because shooting is a muscle-memory reflex. And as your muscles get stronger, if you are still shooting, then your muscles just naturally memorize that increase in strength, and you get all of the advantages of that.

“We’ve never, ever had a kid where we’ve said, ‘You need to back off the weights because of its effect on your shot.’”

Hensley, who played football and basketball at Greenwood, grew up in an era when most basketball players didn’t lift.

But fear of bulking up wasn’t necessarily the only reason players avoided weights.

“Not that many people did in other sports, either. I don’t know if they had the facilities to do that, quite honestly,” said Hensley, who also played basketball at Franklin College. “Even when I was in college, we lifted, but it wasn’t rigorous. It wasn’t something you did a whole lot of in the offseason.

“But now it’s a big part of the game.”

McGlocklin can only imagine what kind of player he and his NBA contemporaries might have been had the evolution started sooner.

Although he lifted a little in high school, McGlocklin seldom touched weights in college or the NBA. Yet he averaged double figures for his pro career, was regarded as one of the NBA’s best shooters and was on the starting backcourt on the Bucks’ NBA championship team alongside another slim guard player who was pretty good in his day — fellow Hoosier Oscar Robertson.

“I do believe if we had had a major lifting program we would have been even better players,” said McGlocklin, who scored 9,169 points in his NBA career. “For example, my first season with the Bucks, I lost 15 pounds during the season, averaging 40 minutes per game.

“If I had had weightlifting, I could have maintained my weight and my strength.”

And not sacrificed his jumper, in the process.

Because basketball-specific lifting isn’t about beach muscles. It’s about forging stronger, healthier, more efficient players.

“I think lifting has come a long way,” Hensley said. “You lift to avoid injuries. You lift to become more flexible. You lift to become better athletically quicker, stronger, faster.

“I think it’s an evolution in becoming an overall better athlete, more than anything.”

At a glance

Benefits of strength training for basketball

  • Improve acceleration and court speed
  • Improve range of shots and passes
  • Improve explosive power, particularly in the vertical jump
  • Significantly reduce risk of joint and tendon injuries

SOURCE: Sports Fitness Advisor

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Rick Morwick is sports editor of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2715.