Overload Exercises for Variable Body Types and Segment Lengths

I have the good fortune as a college strength and conditioning coach to work with Women’s Basketball. What do I love about working with this population?

  1. We train almost all year long.
  2. They are well disciplined and hardworking.
  3. I have them five days per week in the summer.

The best part however, is an opportunity I saw to broaden my philosophy and experiment with new ideas concerning the strength component of our program. Basketball presents two unique opportunities. The first is that it is a smaller group (I only have 15 student-athletes,) the second is the huge differences in body type, and not just by position group.

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USA Women’s Basketball, 2012 Olympics. #12 Diana Taurasi (G/F, 6’0″ – Phoenix Mercury) vs. #5 Seimone Augustus (6’0″ – Minnesota Lynx)

My Subjective Observations:

Look at two of USA Basketball’s forwards in the picture above, #12 and #5. Although they are both listed at 6’0,” the torso to leg length ratio difference between these two women is pretty large. If you don’t see this right away, imagine they were both sitting on the bench. I bet (#12) Taurasi would be far taller than (#5) Augustus. Augustus’ legs make up the resultant difference when these women stand beside each other.

Types of Squats that I see:

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Left: Inclined Torso (common with shorter torso relative to femur.) Right: More upright torso (common with torso length that exceeds femur length by a greater ratio.)

In the picture above are two common squat strategies that I see. With the vertical red line indicating the ‘line of force’ provided by the resistance (in this case, a bar loaded across the shoulders in a back squat.) Basic physics and biomechanics tells us that whichever joint is the greatest distance from the resistance (furthest from the red line) will be the one challenged most by the resistance.

In the case on the left, the hip joint is much further from the line of resistance than is the knee. This suggests to me that the demand is being placed largely on the low back and hamstrings (provided adequate “tightness” is maintained and the lumbopelvic junction remains intact – neutral/anterior pelvic tilt – to this point in the ROM.) This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if the goal is overload, for the purpose of inducing overload-related adaptations, I’d much rather use a heavy rack pull (addressed below in “why overload?”) Notice also that the picture on the left with some minor changes looks a lot like a deadlift.

In the picture on the right, the hip and knee joint are relatively equidistant from the red “line of resistance.” With a more vertical torso running closer to parallel with that same line, we can assume that more of the load is being evenly dispersed over the primary movers of both the hip and knee joint, and less on the low back.

My Objective Measurements:

This led me to do some segmental measurements with my own team of women. I used about half of a training day (which was only soft tissue in this case anyways) and took the following three measurements of each player.

  1. Seated against a wall (upright on the ischial tuberosities) from the floor to the AC joint. (Red line)
  2. Laying supine from the palpated greater trochanter of the femur, to the tibial plateau. (Blue line)
  3. From the tibial plateau to the inferior border of the lateral malleolus. (Green line)

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I know I would likely be blasted by anyone who actually takes segmental measurements for research purposes, but I believe these to be significant “functional” landmarks. Specifically concerning the seated measurement to the AC joint. My argument here is that any exercise, with the bar held in the hands on a vertical line below the AC joint (deadlift, or RDL,) or a bar across the shoulders (back squat) or anterior shoulder (front squat,) the terminal functional length of the segment is ultimately the AC joint. I would love to hear opinions to the contrary if they are available.

My initial suspicion was that it isn’t enough to train this team in two groups (Guards and Forwards,) there seemed to be Guards with segmentally “forward-ish” body types, as well as forwards with “guard-ish” body types. My guards who squat well in my opinion, will still squat, as will any forwards that can demonstrate competency in the movement. But looking at the segmental measurements might help me identify those that can and should, vs. those who can’t and shouldn’t. I don’t want to spend half my time coaching someone to squat better if it is statistically unlikely that they will be able to.

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Measurements taken on three segments of collegiate women’s basketball players.

Highlighted in yellow, are the “best” squatters on the team. By that, I mean they are able to squat with a relatively upright torso, to good depth, with decent load. The numbers to the far right are the Torso:Femur length ratios. Interesting to me was that the closer they are to a ratio of nearly 1 (meaning the torso and femur are the same length,) the worse they are at squatting with mechanical advantage split between the knee and hip joints. It seems to be that those with a greater ratio (1.24+) or higher are “better” squatters. Of course, my sample size is absurdly small (n=15,) but I’m looking forward to garnering some more subjects from our volleyball team and from other coaches at different schools.

What does this mean for ME?

More often than not, I would see something like the inclined torso squat being done by my forwards. Not coincidentally, most of my forwards and some of my guards who squat like them, scored in the 1.09 – 1.2 range. I chalk this up partly to the fact that females are generally more “leggy” than males (with their legs accounting for up to 2/3 of total body length more often than men.) These observations are what led me to take measurements and try to determine if there were some members of each group who should be training in a hybrid group.

Considering the picture up top with the red lines and the stick figure squats, one thing stuck out to me. If I take a player who squats with an inclined torso, I’m not really accomplishing all that much using a back squat as a primary “overload” exercise. Using a knee height rack pull, I can get my inclined torso squatters in a similar body position while overloading with a lot more intensity. Granted, there are things that make the back squat better than a rack pull, but I’m talking specifically about overloading in this case. For the forwards group presently, we use the rack pull (concentric emphasis) and the Sn. Grip RDL (eccentric emphasis) for overloading the hips while addressing knee flexion related quad exercises and multi joint movements with accessory training later in the workouts.

Why such an emphasis on posterior chain “single joint” strengthening? For forwards, they spend much more time running end-to-end in a more upright “top speed” position. With the exception of initial acceleration, much of their time is spent using long hamstring driven hip extension strides to propel them up and down the floor. The Rack Pull and Sn. Grip RDL’s address both phases of contraction with a relatively fixed open knee angle while training overloaded hip extension.

The purpose of this article: Overload exercises for variable body types:

Why overload? 

Introducing a heavier external load to this population can be done safely, and carries great benefits. With exposure to greater external loading, we can expect a greater neurological stimulus, in terms of motor unit recruitment, firing sequence, and major intermuscular coordination around the center of mass (hips.) In addition, we trigger (in theory, since many other factors such as diet and sleep play a role in maximizing them,) greater hormone signalling that encourages total body adaptation in terms of lean muscle mass increases, increased resting tone, elasticity, and therefore greater power outputs. All while avoiding movement patterns that could conceivably overuse joints that are victims of the wrong exercise for the wrong body type.

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First look at these pictures would suggest to you (likely) that the guards will have more variety in their training. Although that may be true, this is done not only by dictation of their body type, but also by the demands of the sport. In a video analysis done by the basketball strength staff at University of Utah, it was determined that of 4 major directions – forward, backward, lateral left, and lateral right – or any combination of those, the guards moved forward only 25% of the time. They spend most of their time moving laterally and diagonally forward and backward. During this time they are also spending most of the time accelerating and decelerating with a greater degree of knee flexion than most forwards would ever expect to experience as regularly. Acceleration dictates that there will be far greater amounts of quad driven knee extension in multiple planes than there is during upright top speed running. They are what Andrea Hudy calls a “lateral reactive” athlete in her book Power Positions.

As I mentioned earlier, forwards primarily spend their time running from baseline to baseline. These movers are my interpretation of what Hudy calls “Linear Athletes” in this context.

Altogether, these are my simple observations put into practice of training women’s collegiate basketball players as far as our exercises that are specifically designed for overload. The rest of our sessions, and most of our time spent before training is spent on improving neurologically controlled active mobility, as well as addressing the “deficiencies” left out by our major compound exercises.

How do I implement?

On my team, we have been training in two groups determined by position. Our overuse injury rates have been far lower than in years past, and our power outputs (as determined by body weight scored against vertical jump testing, for a later article) have stayed fairly consistent over the course of the season thus far.

We really only split into two groups for training in the latter third of the summer and over the course of preseason. Most of the time leading up to that period is spent doing GPP type training wherein the goal will be to challenge multiple ranges of motion in unfamiliar planes of movement, as well as early progressions of what we plan to load during the true strength phase.

The reason we split into groups is to introduce some of those truly overloading compound exercises. As it stands, we train two major lower body movements per group and one major upper body movement as a team.

An example of our standard split for the week as far as major movements would be:

Day 1: All Players – “Combo Stretches” followed by a shoulder and hip activation series. Overhead Press progressed to Push Press (Choice DB or BB.) Followed by Guards: Back Squat, Forwards: Snatch Grip RDL’s – ACCESSORY MOVEMENTS

Day 2: All Players – Extended Warmup, Ladder Footwork followed by Guards: Trap Bar Deadlift, Forwards: Rack Pull from Knee Height. – ACCESSORY MOVEMENTS

Day 3: All Players – MedBall WarmUp, Slideboard, followed by Bench Press (DB or BB.) – ACCESSORY MOVEMENTS

Typically the rest of our workouts will consist of a couple more exercises such as Chinups or Pullups, as well as lunges/KB Swings in multiple planes of movement, or other horizontal pulling exercises (both supported or unsupported, unilateral or bilateral.)

All this being said, the squat for guards, Sn Grip RDL’s for forwards, the trap bar for guards, and the rack pull for forwards are all meant to be overloaded in a way which suits their body type. Using these exercises will put the targeted muscle groups at a mechanical disadvantage without compromising other joints, or having the load used be limited by an inconveniently long segment in another area.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Overload Exercises for Variable Body Types and Segment Lengths

  1. This is a GREAT article. Seriously, thank you for writing this stuff down. My wife (a former volleyball player) and I are both about the same height (me 6′, her 5’11”), but her legs are around 3-4″ longer than mine, if not even longer. Compared to that Seimone Augustus photo I think they’re even longer than that. What I’m trying to say is that she has pretty much the longest legs I’ve ever seen.

    So…her squat mechanics make so much more sense now. I’m looking forward to sharing this with her along with some of your recommendations (rack pulls / RDL’s).

    Do you have any other advice for lifts that are good for here with a barbell? Right now she is doing lots of leg press / decline press, but we’ll be getting a power rack for the basement soon and I’d love to keep her lifting safely.

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    • Josh,

      I’m glad you found the information useful. I had an intern last summer who asked me based on my training methods for the basketball team: “are there people in your opinion that should never squat with a bar?”

      It’s a challenging question and there are a few answers. First, my training methods for this specific group are based on the fact that my duty in this role is to help them play basketball, not lift weights. That means it’s got to be safe first, ideal second.

      I’ve also had one athlete since writing this article who absolutely obliterated my theory and ratios. She is literally 70% leg, measured the same way I demonstrate in the video, her torso is 24.5″, femur 20″, and tibia 15″giving her a femur:torso ratio of like 1.2. Despite this, she had one of the most beautiful front squats I’ve ever seen. I wager she’s got a decent degree of femoral retroversion and is also a butterfly stroker.

      Considering her uniqueness with respect to her femoral morphology, mobility, she is more the exception than the rule. She had a great deal of external rotation ROM in her hips and could squat to full depth in a front squat with a nearly perfectly vertical torso. So that’s the first thing you could try. Front squatting or heavy goblet squatting to satisfy your “mobility” category of movements, with rack pulls/RDL’s/Deadlifts if possible comprising your overload movements. I would recommend trying a small heel lift with the squats to see if that makes any noticeable differences, and if it does, maybe get her some lifting shoes. Why not? It’s free!

      Next, I also really like the “Bulgarian” or Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat as a 2nd or 3rd “tier” lower body movement for all of my athletes. If you do this correctly it will absolutely smoke your glutes/quads. It can be a great mobility tool, as well as decently overloaded. I’ve got female swimmers of about 125-135 pounds bodyweight who can handle roughly 115-120lbs on a barbell bulgarian squat for 4×6 on each leg.

      Let me know if this is helpful, or if you have any more questions. Would love to hear about your experimenting!

      Cheers,

      Alex

      Like

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