Thursday, January 24, 2013

Blast from the Past - Interview with Francesco Cuzzolin (former Raptors strength coach)

In Fall 2010, I had the great opportunity to sit down with then Toronto Raptors strength & conditioning coach, Francesco Cuzzolin, for a couple of hours, and pick his brain about what it was like to work as a strength coach for a professional sports team, and some of the methods he uses while working with elite basketball players.  After recently speaking with a parent of an elite youth player, I recalled Francesco mentioning that it will typically take 4 off-seasons of hard work to develop a complete athlete, and thus why it is so important for young players to start learning how to train properly at a young that they aren't spending their early college/professional years stuck on the bench, unable to handle the rigours of elite competition because of their limited strength and/or overall athleticism. 

In a properly designed long-term training scheme, the first off-season should typically be reserved for developing the athletes general fitness qualities, and movement patterns.  By the end of this first off-season, the athlete should move well, know how to perform basic lifts and other training protocols, and see at least some improvement in their strength, speed, vertical leap, lean muscle mass (if they've reached puberty), and decreased body fat (if they need it).  Overall though, the primary goal is to teach them how to move and train increase in performance will definitely be seen, but we're not aiming to turn them into elite athletes the first year.

The emphasis of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th off-seasons will ultimately depend on what the athlete's individual needs are.  A very skinny athlete who is at least a year past their peak height velocity (largest adolescent growth spurt), will likely need to focus on developing greater muscle mass.  An athlete who genetically carries quite a bit of body fat will need to focus on losing weight, and learning how to eat to avoid putting on excess body fat.  A genetic freak (naturally muscular, lean, powerful) may be best served just trying to 'not get hurt' through strict maintenance of movement patterns, and increasing their relative strength.  Speaking of genetic freaks, it is often easy to assume that since they're already more athletic than 95% of their competition, that they don't need to dedicate much time to training off of their respective field of play.  Yet if we look at recent examples of Adrian Peterson (NFL), Morgan Reilly (NHL), and I guarantee Derrick Rose (NBA) this spring...freak athletes who have torn their ACL, are forced to dedicate their lives to building their bodies back up through PROPER & SAFE training, and have returned to perform better than ever...even the freaks can get even better by properly preparing their bodies for elite competition.

It is difficult to create a program looking four years into the future, as with many athletes it will be very difficult to predict what it is that they will need to work on.  Past the first off-season of learning to train and general fitness, it is necessary to perform a needs analysis on each of your athletes.  Do they need to put on muscle? Get stronger & more powerful?  Do they need to lose body fat? Do they need to just 'not get hurt'?  Maybe they are already injured and a bulk of your off-season must be spent going back to re-developing sound movement patterns and general fitness.  In a perfect world they do not suffer injuries, and each off-season can be spent on putting another piece of the puzzle in place.  However, as Cuzzolin mentions below, no matter what the athletes main needs are (save injury), the last 6 weeks of the program should be spent developing power that is transferable to the sport itself. 

Here is a brief article I put together in October 2010 based on my chat with Francesco.  Check out his presentations at

Back in October, the Toronto Raptors were in Vancouver undergoing training camp to prepare for the upcoming NBA season.  During some of their downtime, I had the pleasure of interviewing head strength & conditioning coach, Francesco Cuzzolin.  Born and raised in Italy, Francesco has 20 years under his belt working with teams competing in basketball, volleyball, and rugby.  The vast majority of his experience has been involved with basketball, as he has been the strength coach for the Italian, Russian, and Serbian national teams.  He has also spent 15 years as the strength coach for the storied Benetton Treviso basketball franchise, winners of 7 Italian League championships, and 8 Italian Cup titles.

The purpose of this article is not to simply re-write, verbatim, everything that we talked about, but to give an insight to how professional basketball players are trained.  You will also be able to perceive physical and psychological coaching methods used to coach a professional basketball player, which can be crossed over to your coaching of the average Joe or weekend warrior.

Fit to Train

In this day and age, it has become easier to stress the importance of strength and conditioning to players because the young players see how hard the elite NBA players work.  They realize that for their fine motor skills (shooting, ball handling etc) to show the greatest output, they must be able to express their peak athletic ability.  Immediate results in the league depend, in part, on their athletic development coming in from college.  Have they reached full athletic maturation yet? Have they been shown how to lift with pristine technique?  Possibly of utmost importance, are they fit to train?  Unfortunately for some players, they enter the league without the physical stature to compete against grown men over 82 games in 6 months.  Even worse, some players enter the league without the prerequisite mobility, stability, and movement symmetry needed to even begin training for the hypertrophy and maximum strength which they require to contribute on the court, night in and night out.  Enter the importance of showing the athlete results in ANYTHING.  Whether you increase their mobility, or improve their stability, the athlete needs to have trust in you, that what you are coercing them into is beneficial to their career.  Another notable way of keeping their attention is to educate them.  Teach the athlete about their body, and the methods you are using to enhance it.      

Long Term Development

It takes years to fully develop an athlete.  This development process will be shorter or longer for different players, depending on their training status entering the league.  Even if a head coach gives their input and asks for the athlete to increase their hops, gain bulk, and become stronger in a single off-season, it is the role of the strength coach to determine the weakest aspect of the athlete each off-season and strive to eliminate that weakness in the time from the season ending to the beginning of training camp.  It is important to note, however, that six weeks prior to training camp, peak power is the objective of EVERY player.

Once the young player has been deemed fit to train, they must first establish a work capacity.  This will be accomplished by ensuring a solid aerobic base, and performing metabolic conditioning of the ATP-CP and anaerobic glycolytic systems.


Methods Discussed

Whether the player is a string bean ectomorph or has mesomorphic attributes, the development of speed strength is always integrated into the program.  Speed-strength is the amount of force which can be developed against little external resistance or zero external resistance.  This requires explosively performing a lift with ~20% of the athlete’s 1-rep maximum. 

Compared to an NFL player, 99% of NBA players are considered skinny.  This is due to the fact that excess bulk has little importance in basketball, rendering traditional mass building exercises, such as the bench press, useless in most circumstances.  A center must push opposing centers and absorb upper body contact, making this, in most cases, the only position benefitting from the bench press at some point in their training. 

Speaking of absorbing impact, basketball players must be able to absorb impact either from contact by an opposing player or by deceleration of their own body weight.  As fast as the athlete can absorb the impact, they must be able to accelerate by pushing off their opponent, performing a cut in the opposite direction, or going straight back up for the rebound or put-back basket.  To be precise, acceleration and deceleration must be performed in ALL planes of motion AND unilaterally. 

Developing hypertrophy can be a hard task for a young NBA player.  Success requires them to lift with enough volume and eat the required calories, while at the same time expending A LOT of energy on the court developing their fine motor skills (shooting, dribbling, etc.).  A unique method to use in this scenario is to perform very slow repetitions (i.e 3-5 push-ups in 1-3 minutes) in order to develop the high eccentric tension needed for muscular hypertrophy.  This method ensures hypertrophy, along with the development of fine motor skills, without depletion of precious calories and risk of overtraining.  To note:  This super slow method is used at the end of the hypertrophy workout which would include 3 sets of 10 repetitions for the main muscular group and another 3 sets for the antagonist group.    

Finding time for lifting sessions during the grind of the 6 month NBA season (8 if you make it to the NBA finals) can be hard to come by.  This makes it essential that every weight room session take no longer than 45 minutes.  Before, or after, practice or shoot around, players will hit the weights with the main goal of keeping joints free and ready to go.  The high intensity, low volume sessions consist of circuits with five stations.  1) Legs 2) Push 3) Pull 4) Ankle health 5) Core.

Have ever wondered why it takes your favourite player so long to return to his pre-injury level of production?  Or maybe you ask yourself how a player who loafs around all summer can be put through a gruelling training camp and pre-season practice sessions, only to still gasp for wind once the season rolls around?  This is because a player should optimally have at least six weeks to work on anaerobic conditioning prior to the start of the NBA season.  It is not required of the player to begin the season at their genetic potential of conditioning.  The goal is to peak in the 7th month of the season, just in time for the playoffs.  For the player coming back from an injury mid-season, they need a minimum of one month of intense conditioning to have themselves fit enough to compete at a high level.  It is not until the third week of a given mesocycle that a strength coach can have the athlete go all out.  The first week is set aside for assessment, ensuring the athlete is fit to train.  The second week is intended to ensure the athlete does not suffer any immediate setbacks from the training load.  The strength coach will allow the athlete to go all out in the third and fourth weeks.     

1 comment:

  1. you are great at what you do. i hope the athlete get its cut. i feel bad for him. keep hitting us with such articles. they are amazing. great job!