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Strength Training with Steve Nash

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As the steely-eyed General of the Phoenix Suns, Steve Nash rules the court without the slightest hint of caution in his game. Whether fighting through a pick, absorbing an errant elbow to the ribs, or hitting the floor after one of his commanding drives, Steve shows little concern for his body. Off the court, its a completely different story.

Steve Nash’s incredible awareness of every detail of his body has propelled him to two NBA MVPs and 13 successful professional seasons. Since the start of his basketball career back in Canada, the 6’3” guard has been constantly honing, perfecting and developing all aspects of his athleticism. As a result, he’s drawn every ounce of performance and ability out of his wiry body to reach the pinnacle of the basketball world.

By now it should be passé to doubt Steve, or even to bring up the fact that he doesn’t look the part of an NBA star. That was kind of a fad in the mid-90s, when every major college coach in the U.S. had Steve’s videotapes showing up on his desk. The footage showed an undersized point guard at St. Michael’s University School crossing over fellow Canucks, mercilessly dominating entire defenses. Yet coaches rejected Steve’s scholarship applications, doubting his ability to take on quality competition. “People have always doubted me,” Steve says, recalling that experience. “I used to keep all of the rejection letters I got back in a shoebox. I held onto that for awhile as motivation. I was given one scholarship offer, to Santa Clara University.”

Despite its underwhelming size, Santa Clara proved to be a big opportunity for the imported point guard. Steve flourished under head coach Dick Davey, and the team made national noise during his four years there. The Broncos plowed into the NCAA Tournament as a 15-seed, shocking high-powered Arizona one year and taking out Maryland in another. It was during his career at Santa Clara that Steve got used to being underestimated and running with [and putting down] bigger, higher-rated opponents.

Steve’s collegiate career, combined with his impressive performance at the Nike Desert Classic, garnered enough attention before the ’96 NBA Draft to convince the Suns to take him as the 15th overall pick. Many times, this is when an athlete can stand up, call out his doubters and say, “Look at me now!” Not for Steve, though.

“Fortunately, I was somehow a first-round draft pick,” he says. “But I was still doubted that I’d have a long career in the NBA. Then I was doubted that I would be a starter, and doubted that I’d be an All-Star. At every level that I’ve taken it, I’ve always had naysayers.”

Now sitting atop the game, Steve has proven the doubters wrong with every milestone and award earned throughout his NBA career. He no longer keeps rejection letters stuffed in a shoebox, but Steve doesn’t have to look far for motivation. “I would say the last few years there have been a lot of people supporting me,” he says. “I seem to have overcome [being doubted] only to find that now I’m an ‘old man’ and I’m ‘over the hill’ [laughs]. That’s good though; that’s what I’m used to. I wake up every morning as an underdog, regardless of the awards or the amount of years of success I’ve had.”

The perpetual underdog started 81 games for the Suns last season, supplying his team with more than 11 dimes per game and shooting 90 percent from the foul line and about 43 percent from behind the arc. Steve continues to elevate his game by refusing to overlook any part of his preparation—in season or out. “I set goals for myself and know I work hard throughout the season and throughout the off-season so that I have peace of mind,” he says. “If things don’t go well, I know that I’ve worked as hard as I can. It puts me in a good state when I’m slumping and not playing well. I don’t feel like I’m second-guessing the amount of work I’ve put in. It eliminates a whole psychological barrier that I would have to overcome if I felt like I had been cheating myself.”

Steve’s exhaustive approach demands an incredible amount of time and dedication, along with help from one of the league’s best, Suns’ strength coach Erik Phillips. Phillips acknowledges that Steve is an immaculate pupil. “His work ethic is always perfect,” Phillips says. “He maintains a level of strength and stabilization throughout the whole year, so we will take little steps here and there pre-season, during the season and post-season. Steve’s an unbelievable athlete who is so in-tune to his body. He knows what he needs to work on and what he needs to lay off of. Anything I ask him to do, he is the poster child for the correct technique.”

Steve’s ability to talk the strength and conditioning talk proves that Phillips isn’t exaggerating the point guard’s knowledge: “Erik’s philosophy of [using] corrective exercises, which help you correct deficiencies as an athlete and prevent injuries down the road, is a great baseline to set any training regimen by,” Steve says. “His ability to use functional training to get gains off the court, which allows you to transfer more easily onto the court, is another way to become more athletic and better prepared for the longevity of the season and the competition at this level.”

Every off-season, Steve and Phillips work to get Steve’s body strong enough to support the reckless style and hustle that define his game. “Most of the strength component of Steve’s workout is [centered around making him able to] absorb blows on the court—fighting through picks, getting knocked down, getting fouled,” Phillips says. “We’re working on Steve being the first off the ball and beating a person to a spot.”

Steve adds, “My training goals are always to get into great shape so that I can prevent injury and that I’m well prepared to take on the competitive level and pounding it takes to get through a season. We’re trying to find ways to get a little more athletic, stronger, more powerful, quicker and with better endurance. We’re always trying to get little gains every day, at the same time having the thoughtfulness to go about it the right way to prevent injury.”

This goal is achieved through adherence to the philosophy of the National Academy of Sports Medicine: build the base of the pyramid first, then build the top. In Steve’s case, stability is the base, with strength, then power comprising the rest. Not surprisingly, Steve grasped this concept when we met up with him. “Today we [did] a chest and back workout,” he says. “We were looking for strength and power gains, while at the same time adding elements of instability so we can work the total body. We use an unstable plane—whether it be on the [physio] ball or one leg—to create a more challenging and athletic approach to isolating a muscle group.”

The workout Steve performed consists of three chest exercises and three back exercises, all of which incorporate the entire body. Perform the following exercises one after another; rest for a few minutes, then perform a second set of each.

1. Physioball Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench

  • Lie with upper back on physioball, holding dumbbell at chest
  • Assume bridge position with shoulders, hips and knees in straight line and heels directly under knees
  • Drive dumbbell toward ceiling until arm is straight
  • Lower with control; repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1×12, 1×10
Coaching Points: Don’t lean to side during press // Use a nice, even motion // Don’t allow hips to sag
Phillips: Your glutes are working to maintain stabilization. Steve’s gaining chest strength through the dumbbell press, and he’s also using his core muscles to stay in that position and not fall off the ball.

2. Alternating Single-Arm Med Ball Push-Up

  • Assume push-up position with one hand on med ball
  • Perform push-up until both arms are straight
  • Roll med ball to other hand; perform push-up
  • Continue in alternating fashion for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1×12, 1×10
Coaching Point: Keep body in plank position with core and glutes tight
Phillips: Alternating your hands on the med ball makes you use your shoulder stabilizers and puts your pecs in a different range of motion on each side. You’re also doing a functional movement, because outside of playing offensive line, you’re never pushing straight ahead with two hands at the same time. Steve is always going one way or another, [and] we’re trying to mimic that.

3. Split-Stance Med Ball Chest Pass

  • Stand about six feet from wall in split stance holding med ball at chest
  • Explosively fire med ball into wall, obtaining full extension with arms and hands
  • Catch ball at chest; immediately throw it again
  • Repeat in continuous fashion for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1×12, 1×10
Coaching Points: Lock out back leg by firing glute // Bend front knee slightly
Phillips: This incorporates a little more power, but he’s using all of his stabilizers to stay in a split stance. You’re catching [the ball] in the same spot and throwing it as hard as you can against the wall. The chest pass is a basic basketball movement, so Steve can use the same follow-through movement he would on a chest pass. This also helps him [to be] be able to catch a pass from a teammate.

4. Physioball Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

  • Lie with chest on physioball, holding dumbbell with arm extended toward floor
  • Pull dumbbell to chest by driving elbow toward ceiling
  • Lower dumbbell with control; repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1×12, 1×10
Coaching Points: Stabilize on ball and use core and glutes to lock body into place // Avoid jerking up or hitting physioball with dumbbell // Use fluid motion around ball
Phillips: This is the same basis as the chest press except it’s a back exercise, which helps prevent the shoulders from rotating forward from chest work. This allows for gains on both sides of the body and prevents you from over-demonstrating one plane of your body. The single-arm aspect makes him stabilize in the opposite direction of the weight so that he doesn’t fall off the ball.

5. Single-Leg, Single-Arm Row

  • Assume single-leg stance with slight bend in knee
  • Hold cable attachment on same side as standing leg with arm extended forward
  • Raise opposite knee to hip level, bending leg to 90 degrees
  • Pull handle to chest by driving elbow back
  • Return handle to start position with control; repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1×12, 1×10
Coaching Points: Don’t twist or jerk body during movement // Don’t allow balancing knee to rotate internally or externally
Phillips: Try to get the non-balancing leg up to 90 degrees; it really gets your glute and core stabilizers working on the balancing leg. Making that glute work will help maintain your hip posture. Your instincts are going to make you want to twist, but if you twist on a single leg, you’ll fall down. This is just like going up for a lay-up; you’re in a single-leg position with your knee driven up to 90 degrees, and you’re required to make an upper-body movement based on where your defender is going. Also, when you’re coming down from a rebound, you come down on one leg and need to stabilize on that glute.

6. Overhead Med Ball Throw

  • Stand about six feet from wall in split stance, holding med ball overhead
  • Explosively fire med ball at wall with overhead motion
  • Catch ball overhead; immediately throw it again
  • Repeat in continuous fashion for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 1×12, 1×10
Coaching Points: Lock out back leg by firing glute // Slightly bend front knee
Phillips: Steve is doing a back exercise with this soccer-type throw over his head. He’s using his back muscles both to throw the ball and catch the ball coming back overhead. This is similar to any time Steve has to make an outlet pass or get into a weird motion. For example, he might be on a single leg, falling backwards and has to wait for the defender to go by to make a quick pass. Or when he fakes a shot, and he’s got the ball above his head in the first place, but decides to make a different angled pass from overhead. We are adding the weight of the med ball as a strength component.

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