Faster & Stronger: A Look at the Gophers' Strength & Conditioning Program

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The Golden Gophers line up on the sideline of the Williams Arena court. Clad in their maroon and gold practice gear, they are ready to get started. For the next several minutes, they go through a series of warm-ups--from slow lunges to straight-legged kicks to calf stretches. The Gophers go through this sequence of dynamic and static stretches before each practice.
Go Gophers! Elliott Eliason
Go Gophers!
The Gopher strength & conditioning program has helped Eliason put on 43 pounds.
Go Gophers!

While head coach Tubby Smith and his assistants run most of the practice, Kevin Kocos is the man in charge of those first few minutes. Kocos is now in his second season as director of the men's basketball team's strength and conditioning program, and his fourth season overall with the program. He earned his Bachelor's Degree at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and before earning his Master's Degree at Minnesota, he was an intern with the Chicago Bulls strength and conditioning program.

During the season, the Gophers lift in the weight room with Kocos twice a week. Out of season, they train with him Monday through Friday, incorporating more agility, speed, and conditioning drills as well as weights. The volume and nature of the work depends on the time of the year.

"In the beginning of the season a lot of times, it's getting them prepared for the volume of work they're going to be doing on the court," Kocos said. "We do a lot of conditioning in the preseason. Then after that, I can progress them to getting stronger, more explosive, and doing the things that are going to transfer more on the court--getting them faster, playing better defense and everything."

Now that Minnesota is most of the way through its Big Ten schedule, the team's strength and conditioning needs are different from way back in the nonconference season. At this point in the season, Kocos has the Gophers lifting lighter weights, but with quicker repetitions.

"The speed in the weight room will transfer over onto the court and be very fast, and power output will be a lot higher that way," he said.

Workouts must not only be tailored to where the team is in the season, but also to where each individual player is.

"You need individualization, because all these guys come from different training backgrounds," Kocos said. "Some guys will still benefit from doing heavy weight training and getting stronger. Other guys are already strong and they need to work on their speed and explosiveness more. It depends on every individual. Some guys are so fast already, but they're not even strong enough to put on the brakes, so to say, and stop themselves and make cuts."

In his time at Minnesota, Kocos has been particularly impressed with the improvement of guard Austin Hollins. He has been in the starting lineup for nearly every game of his sophomore season, and he is averaging more than eight points per game. Kocos would attribute a portion of that success to Hollins' added body weight and increased lifting capacity in the weight room.
Go Gophers! Austin Hollins
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Austin Hollins has significantly increased his lifting capacity since arriving at Minnesota.
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"I believe he's put on about 25 pounds of body weight and he's put on about 75 pounds on his back squat, 50 pounds on his bench, about 50 pounds on his power clean," Kocos said. "You can see it in the way he moves on the court--how he jumps, and how he makes cuts--that it's really helped him."

To make those types of gains with each player--to successfully individualize each player's training program--Kocos collaborates with the basketball coaching staff as well as team athletic trainer Roger Schipper.

"We're always in daily communication, finding out, 'This guy might need a little more conditioning because he didn't play that many minutes the other night,'" Kocos said. "Or, 'This guy's ankle's very sore because he rolled it the other day, so we might need to modify that to do only single-leg stuff.' Or things of that nature. So injuries, conditioning--it's changing every day."

To limit those injuries as much as possible, the Gophers must do their stretches correctly. Those slow movements might not seem as exciting as lifting hundreds of pounds or increasing a vertical leap, but really, the two functions of the program--preventing injuries and building better athletes--work toward the same goal.

"Everything we do here is geared towards injury prevention," Kocos said. "The stronger I make them, the more efficient they're going to be on the court, the less likely they are to be injured. It's not all completely separate--injury prevention and performance can be one and the same. As long as they're becoming better at these movements, they're going to be safer athletes."

While safety is always important, all competitive athletic programs have aspirations beyond keeping their players healthy. To win games in one of the top basketball conferences in the country, the Gophers need to have the physical tools to stay in the game against other Division I players who have worked just as hard. Experience, basketball-specific skills, and smarts all play a role. But sometimes, it is strength and conditioning that can determine who has the edge.

"The difference maker between elite athletes and anonymous athletes is speed and explosiveness," Kocos said.

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