Freelap Friday Five with Dr. Ramsey Nijem
Ramsey Nijem DSc, is entering his fourth season with the Sacramento Kings, his second as the team’s head strength and conditioning coach. Responsible for all aspects of sport performance, Nijem spent the last two seasons as the Kings assistant strength and conditioning coach. Before joining the Kings, Nijem was the head strength and conditioning coach at Santa Barbara City College, and prior to that he was an assistant strength and conditioning coach at UC Santa Barbara.
Freelap USA: Can you explain your approach to monitoring the training loads of your players? How has this impacted their health, as well as how you continue to program work in the weight room?
Ramsey Nijem: Monitoring training loads is critical for prescribing appropriate loads. Understanding how much the athletes have done (considered the external workload) and how they are responding (considered the internal workload) provides a measure of readiness and serves as a compass to guide loading parameters. We monitor game loads in the NBA with a camera system positioned above the court in every arena, which provides GPS-like data such as distance, speeds, and frequency of accelerations and decelerations. In practice, we use a wearable to quantify loading demands.
We also collect subjective wellness data to understand how our athletes are handling not only the demands of the game, but also the stressors of the season—travel being the biggest non-basketball stress. With 82 games in six months, half of which are played on the road, there is no shortage of stress influencing the athlete’s ability to recover and perform.
This data is used to generally estimate levels of risk: whether an athlete has an increased, decreased, or neutral risk of injury. The fitness-fatigue model proposed by Bannister in the 1980s has recently been rebranded and computed as the acute:chronic workload ratio. This ratio provides a measure of how much the athlete has done relative to what they have prepared for.
Typically, the acute period is quantified as the sum of load in a given week, while the chronic period is quantified as the rolling average of the previous month. Take, for example, an athlete who has run 12 miles in the past week. If this athlete has run 40 miles over the past month, then on average they have prepared for 10 miles per week. Taking the acute load of 12 miles and dividing by the average chronic load of 10 miles gives a ratio of 1.2 (12/10 = 1.2). The literature to date suggests that ratios between 0.8 and 1.3 are protective against injury. While many limitations exist, the use of 0.8-1.3 as a safe zone is popular in the sport science community and provides a nice rule of thumb for practitioners to begin monitoring training loads.The fitness-fatigue model proposed by Bannister in the 1980s has recently been rebranded and computed as the acute:chronic workload ratio. Click To Tweet
While we do not necessarily subscribe to a hard and fast range of 0.8-1.3, when we do suspect an athlete has taken on loads that elevate their injury risk, we adjust our training prescriptions on the court and in the weight room to manage the risk latency (i.e., the time following the initial elevation of risk). Occasionally, a conversation occurs with all stakeholders to limit the basketball load, but more frequently we adjust our weight room loading and increase our efforts on the recovery front.
The nuances of training load are beyond the scope of today’s conversation, but it’s worth noting that what we know regarding loading and injury risk is minimal, as the relationship between loading and injury is complex. I have recently completed a dissertation in this space—specifically loading in the NBA and injury risk—and while I cannot share our results, it is safe to say that a single number to quantify injury risk is closer to magical than medical.
Freelap USA: What is your approach to maximal strength levels and development with NBA-caliber players? How much absolute strength is needed for durability through a full season?
Ramsey Nijem: We love lifting heavy as much as any other strength and conditioning coaches. Given our population, however, we have to appreciate the risk involved with training heavy and the loads that our guys are already dealing with. We’ll take isometric mid-thigh pulls to get maximal force output measures and can track that over time with little concern for injury risk, as it’s isometric and the output is under the players’ voluntary control. We do not do 1-repetition maximum (RM) tests with our players; we do, however, take 3RMs of lifts such as the trap bar deadlift. Those types of lifts are a safe option, lend themselves well to the levers of NBA players, and provide a dynamic measure of maximal strength.
We also use an isokinetic squat machine to test speed-strength qualities, which is of course not maximal strength, but provides valuable insight into the athlete’s ability to generate force. We frequently will program sets of 2-5 repetitions so that we are touching above 85% of 1RM during the season, providing us with maintenance exposures so we are not losing strength in-season.
As far as how much strength is needed for durability, I’d say that if an athlete can squat 327 lbs or more, then they have the minimum absolute strength to avoid injury. Now of course I’m being sarcastic there… I cannot say precisely what level of strength is adequate for a player to make it through the grueling NBA season unscathed. While I could give a general rule of thumb—such as squat 1.5 bodyweight and deadlift 2x bodyweight—these numbers are quite arbitrary, nor do I have confidence in them as injury prevention thresholds.
When I get asked questions such as “how strong is strong enough?” I like to reply with the following question: “how can cats jump so high?” As a thought experiment, I challenge readers to research an answer. It’s a question that demonstrates how complex strength is, and therefore how difficult it is to quantify the levels of strength that would reduce risk of injury. If you do find the answer, please send your answer my way on twitter @DrRamseyNijem (shameless twitter plug).
Freelap USA: What are some of your favorite means, other than barbell and dumbbell resistance, to train your players?
Ramsey Nijem: While we are big fans of traditional barbell and dumbbell resistance training, we love to mix it up with the various implements. Our approach is focused more on the movements we desire, rather than the means, so we can expose our athletes to variety within our consistent patterning. So, in addition to the barbells and dumbbells, we use center mass bells, medicine balls, cables, suspension trainers, sleds, and the athlete’s bodyweight to change the loading parameters and motor constraints. In addition to providing novel stimuli, various training means provide variety, which aligns with my thoughts on developing resilient athletes.
An added benefit to using various means to achieve our desired outcomes is the avoidance of monotony. If we were to stick to dumbbells and barbells exclusively, our players would get bored and their training experience would take a hit. That’s not to say we consider enjoyment over the athlete’s needs, but if we can achieve our desired training goals and maintain a fun training environment, then I am all for it.If we were to stick to dumbbells and barbells exclusively, our players would get bored and their training experience would take a hit. Click To Tweet
Freelap USA: What are some common deficiencies or weak points you see in your incoming players? How can these athletes be better prepared for their time in the NBA?
Ramsey Nijem: The biggest “deficiency” we see is a general lack of strength. Many athletes are entering the NBA after just one year in college, meaning they get to us with little-to-no training background. While most of these guys are quite impressive athletically, the systems they need to maintain these qualities are absent. While I enjoy a 40+ inch vertical as much as the next guy, we are more concerned with the ability to land from that—does the athlete have the motor control to land efficiently from a biomechanical standpoint? Does the athlete have the strength—specifically eccentric strength—to absorb the landing forces? Can they turn that load around for a second jump? Can they do these things in the 4th quarter? The answers to these questions are what we seek in the weight room for our young players.While I enjoy a 40+ inch vertical as much as the next guy, we are more concerned with the ability to land from that. Click To Tweet
Athletes can better prepare for their time in the NBA by developing a sound movement library before they get here. Learning how to squat, hinge, lunge, bridge, push, and press with proper trunk control and mechanics are critical to building robustness, and the ability to do these things will accelerate that process. While an NBA player does not need world class powerlifting strength—nor do they need to move like a ballet dancer—the ability to load and control movement is critical to developing strength along the strength-speed continuum, which ultimately leads to stronger, faster, more durable athletes.
In addition to having a sound movement foundation, I’d also add that proper rehab of injuries from earlier in an athlete’s career would prove beneficial later in their career, as re-injury or new injuries occur. While it is tough to quantify objectively, lack of proper return to play could elevate future injury risk. The best way to achieve success in any sport is to maintain healthy status, and in turn the ability to consistently train for the sport.
Freelap USA: What is an area that you see being the future of NBA player development and physical preparation?
Ramsey Nijem: The future of NBA player development is exciting. A paucity of literature exists on the demands of the NBA game, which limits our ability to physically prepare athletes. My hope is that over the next 5-10 years, more data will come out that provides insights for practitioners to better prepare NBA players and prospects. While there are many barriers to the systematic investigation of NBA players and game demands, as the NBA sport science field progresses, collaboration and openness will begin to overcome some of the obstacles limiting our understanding.