(National Team Training Photos: Abhinav Jerath)
Zak Penwell is a bear of a man. If he wants to, he can squeeze average sized males such as this reporter to a pulp with his bare hands. Luckily, we caught him in a contemplative mood on the sidelines of the inaugural 3 on 3 National Championships at the Thyagaraj Sports Complex, New Delhi that concluded in early April. Zak has been working behind the scenes with the Indian National Basketball squads for over two years now and has literally taken our players from strength to strength. His path-breaking Strength and Conditioning (S&C) booklet was published online for free last year on the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) website. This one of a kind booklet reveals the complete BFI program for training basketball players that can be used by promising and eager talent in our country, from amateurs to top pros.
This interview is by far the most detailed that Zak has given, and contains a wealth of information. His responses reveal an unwavering commitment to developing the strength and conditioning needs of our national teams across all age groups, whether youth, senior men or women. What also shines through is his humility (he didn’t charge a penny for his booklet), long term vision, patience and sensitivity (to the financial needs of Indian players). Through this freewheeling chat, learn more about the most overlooked aspect of sports i.e. S&C and the man behind the Indian Basketball muscle.
For how long have you been in Strength and Conditioning?
I’ve been here (in India) for about 2 years and was in the UK for about a year and a half. Prior to that, I was in America, working with UConn (University of Connecticut) which just this morning (10th April) won the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships. I also spent some time at the Olympic Training Centre in the US and was in the military before that. So in some way or another, I’ve been doing something along these lines for about 6 to 8 years.
When did you get interested in S&C? Were you one of those athletes who had to pay a price with an injury?
(with a smile) I didn’t pay the price. I used to play American Football and lacrosse, two very violent sports, but I never had any serious injuries. I was introduced to S&C fairly early, in high school when I was 14. I never cared about lifting weights just for the sake of lifting weights. But what I always loved about it was that they made me better at the sport I wanted to play. For me it was football. If I wanted to be faster, if I wanted to be quicker, if I wanted to jump higher, lifting weights helped me do all these things.
That’s what I tell my athletes as well— you don’t have to enjoy what we do in the weight room. The exercises are hard. Whether I’m working with football players or basketball players, if what I’m doing isn’t helping you to be better at your sport, then it’s wasting your time.
THE INDIAN EXPERIENCE
You joined the Indian team around the same time as former India Head Coaches Pete Gaudet and Kenny Natt. The current Head Coach is Scott Flemming. Does working through different head coaches affect your job in any way?
Yes. Your effectiveness is absolutely going to be affected by what the head coach wants, how much they are open and what’s their philosophy. From that perspective, Coach Scott Flemming is phenomenal. We’ve had conversations about what we want to do and how we want to get there which I think is a really good thing for Indian basketball.
You’ve worked in the UK and US before you came to India. Didn’t it feel like you were moving backwards considering that in the UK and US you were probably part of more sophisticated programs?
Yes, absolutely. But the excitement for me was trying to bring those things from the west and make India better. I’ve travelled and lived overseas in Asia before, though I hadn’t been to India. So there are certain things that will always surprise you. But the big picture is that I knew India never had S&C before I got here, so this was a chance to build something up the right way.
At any point of time did you feel frustrated by the lack of progress made by players or the administration?
(with a twinkle in his eye) You control what you can control.
That is such a diplomatic response! Do you plan to stay here for the long haul? As you can see, it is going to take a lot of time to raise the physical standard of Indian players…
It’s a long term project. With all real change, it takes time. We are building the foundation now. We’ve had the senior men in a couple of times (for training sessions) and we’ve seen good starts with strength gains for all of them. Now we just have to keep going. It took a while to get our weight room set up the way we needed it. We now have a phenomenal weight room, probably the best sports performance weight room in India, without a doubt.
As the national S&C Coach, you work with the Indian teams at all levels: senior, junior, male and female. Which of your players have had the biggest gains?
I don’t want to name specific players. Probably just by watching (the 3 on 3 nationals that was under way in the backdrop at the time of this interview) you can get an idea of who are the best every time. The ones that never stop. The ones that have that motor which is always running. Usually they are the same guys who in the weight room are like that. Like I said before, weight lifting is painful. But if players can start to see that they are not getting pushed around any more, not getting the ball slapped out of their hands in traffic, as they start to understand and believe that their efforts are paying for them, then even if they never like it, which most people will never do, they’ll still be committed to it if they want to be good basketball players.
WORKING OUT IS NEVER FUN
Is it true that doing work in the weight room is never fun? The truly great players, at some point of time, don’t they start enjoying it as they begin to realise how much it elevates their game?
(with a knowing grin and bending his head slightly forward as if revealing a lesser known secret) A lot of players say that but few actually mean it. They say they like working out but perhaps what they are doing is working out at an intensity that isn’t at the level that will really help them improve. If you look at the history of S&C 40, 50 or 60 years ago, in almost every sport they said don’t lift weights as it will make you slow and less athletic. American football and track and field are some of the first sports to declare “you know what? Actually if you do it right it’s going to make you faster, more athletic.” There’s been a progression from these two sports and slowly others have caught on.
Basketball, I’m sad to say hasn’t been at the forefront of this change. Lots of basketball teams have strength coaches or talk about S&C but they are not really getting their players stronger. They are doing stuff they think is fancier, but which is not really increasing strength.
In other words, they (S&C coaches in general) are perhaps focusing on muscles that ‘look good’ such as the chest, biceps and calves. To take a cue from your booklet, it’s more important to focus on the hips, abs, lower back and shoulders. Are these the muscle groups most commonly neglected?
The core of our workouts is stuff like full body weights, squats, deadlifts etc., the so called ‘big multi joint exercises’ that are about producing force into the ground. The most important muscles for a basketball player are in the lower body: glutes, hamstrings and quads. Those are what are really going to make the most difference.
REMOVING ‘CORE’ MISCONCEPTIONS
That’s interesting to hear, that a basketball player should focus on the lower body. Based on our research, which is very internet based, we read that if we have limited time, we should focus on developing the ‘core muscles’…
What do you mean by ‘core’? There are lots of internet gurus who are making money off of people, confusing them on purpose by talking about ‘core muscles’. I use the phrase sometimes, but I don’t like it. There’s no good scientific definition of ‘core’. Is it just the abs? Do the abs include the pelvic region? When I talk about big lifts, I’m talking about squats and deadlifts where you are getting a lower body workout. You are also getting a ‘core’ workout, if you want to call it that, because you have to brace through it.
To be stronger you have to do what is called ‘progressive overload’. You have to keep making it harder. It’s the same thing with doing pushups. You can do 10 pushups, then 11, 15 and 20. But if all you do is putting the same amount of force into the ground over and over again, that’s not making it stronger. It’s simply making you put in the same amount of force for longer.
THE S&C BOOKLET
For somebody who wants to improve at basketball, he would want to know which drill will help him in which movement. Your booklet has a lot of things, but it doesn’t say “if you do this it will help your shooting”, or “if you do squats it will help your lateral movement.”
It does talk about that (to) some (extent). It talks about the fact that majority of athleticism in basketball comes from the lower body putting force into the ground. I know what you are saying. That’s the struggle with writing a booklet. People always want a cookbook they can just follow, “tell me A, do first. B, do second. C, do third.”
But you do have that. At the end of all the chapters, you have a detailed progression chart…
(with a nod of the head) I do have some of that. But even then I hope people don’t go straight to the chart and just try to follow that. What I really tried to do was give people the big concepts, so that they can make changes as are needed for them specifically, that they can understand ‘why’ they are doing it. Those are the things that are important to me. Don’t just do it to do it. If you do it just to do it you are probably going to do it wrong, and you are not going to get much out of it.
OVERTURNING LONG HELD NOTIONS
You have clarified in your booklet that knee injuries are not caused by the knees coming out way in front of the toes, but rather these are a result of the heels not remaining planted on the ground. Another correction you suggest is that when somebody does a pushup, they should brace their core. I can tell you from personal experience that 99% of the country does it the wrong way! So this whole issue of unlearning and relearning the right technique, is it something you had to battle with in terms of your own players? Did you have to correct them in what they were doing?
I did correct them. I won’t say battle. Anytime they learn something, just like a coach teaches them a new way to shoot, when they are used to one thing their whole life, it takes a lot of correction over time. You don’t just change your habits the first time you hear something negative about it. This is especially true when it concerns things about your body. You have groove patterns which you are used to. So we have got to re-groove the correct patterns. Most of our players have come along pretty well, in fact.
Sometimes. I mean those (instances you pointed out about the correct way to do pushups, switching off electronic devices in the lead up to sleep and the right nutrition) are not based off of my personal experiences. Those are based out of research, reading literature and studying what is out there. There have been lots of studies that have been done. So if you look at the actual science versus just what some guru is saying, then it makes a big difference. That’s why I don’t want to be some guru that people listen to and just do what I say simply because ‘Zak said it’. Maybe I’m wrong! My recommendations are based on not what the people are saying but what has been studied. That’s what I’m trying to pass on to people in a way that makes sense to the average person and they can apply it.
Many young players mimic NBA stars like Allen Iverson and start wearing arm sleeves or knee guards. What is your recommendation on using such accessories?
If you want to look cool and it helps you look cool I guess it’s all right. But if there is an injury, then that’s a question for the physio. Sometimes there is a purpose to wrap the knee or to try and keep it warm. Again, I’m not the one making that final call. Anything regarding the team, I pass if off to the physio and he’s going to try and do that (make that call). Are the sleeves these kids wearing, loose or tight? If it’s tight and restricts movement then it’s not going to be beneficial.
What are your views on the popular Air Alert program to increase vertical jump?
One of the players had that and showed it to me. It’s probably better than nothing. But it’s one of those programs that I could have written and charged money for. Our program is much better in the long run than doing Air Alert. To me, it’s a gimmicky product. It won’t have any real lasting benefit and it’s not going to give very substantial gains. Is it better than nothing? Sure. From what I’ve seen and remember of it, I think my biggest issue was that some of the exercises weren’t really going to be that effective and others weren’t explained that well. I was just worried about safety in some of them and that players were going to hurt themselves because it wasn’t explained well enough.
I try to be really thorough even when we are doing really simple things like push ups. Push ups is something you really can’t get hurt with. But anything with the lower body—that’s where most injuries happen. That’s where you want to be most careful.
ON WHY THE BOOKLET IS AVAILABLE FREE WITHOUT CHARGE
When I chanced upon your booklet, the first thing I wondered was why anybody would give out such valuable information for free on the internet. I imagine that if I ever were to write something like this I would have charged a bomb!
We could have charged a fair price for that book. That is something we discussed, but in the end, I felt I had to get it out to as many people as possible. We want to raise the level of basketball in India. The more we can get the physical standard up, the more we can help with everything else. So we thought if we make the booklet free and get it to more number of people, then we’re happy to do that. If anything, the question arises that if we did charge a small amount, would more people go out to get it and would they be more likely to follow it? That’s a hard question to answer. But I think decision-wise, it was the right thing to do (giving it out for free).
Were you happy with the response you received? Because it feels like the booklet just disappeared and you didn’t get the attention you deserved.
I could not care less about the attention. That doesn’t really motivate me. But when I see players improve, that’s what really ticks me on. That’s what I love— to see people improve. What is helpful, though, is that the more the word spread about the book, the more people read it, it then has the chance to help more players. Prior to this booklet, the choice for many players was between doing something the wrong way or not doing it at all. It was hard. The problem is that with some exercises, using the wrong technique can hurt you. For others you are still going to improve but not as much. So it is difficult.
Unlike other coaches before you, you stay in India 365 days a year. Tell us about your family.
Yes, I live in New Delhi. My family stays with me. I have a wife and two little kids.
Moving the whole shop must have been tough. It’s one thing for you to be passionate about S and C, but your wife must have been like “what are we doing here?!”, or was she fully supportive of your decision?
It’s a hard move, no doubt. But she’s fully supportive about it. We’re a team. Ever since we were working and dealing with training centres in the UK, we knew eventually we want to go and take our kids overseas. We both have lived in Asia as well as South America. We had an eye out for an opportunity like this. We didn’t know it would be India specifically, but we wanted to go somewhere where we could be excited about building S and C up from nothing, and take the family on an adventure at the same time.
KEEPING POOR FINANCES OF PLAYERS IN MIND
As part of the ‘cooling down’ regimen, you stress the benefits of foam rolling and how it can be done by purchasing an inexpensive heavy duty PVC pipe, as against fancier rollers sold by branded companies. A lot of fitness programs talk about how one should invest in expensive equipment. What is your take on it?
A lot of times, the people telling you to buy expensive equipment are also selling you that same equipment! They tell you ‘buy this or else you can’t get strong.’ A lot of these are scams. There will always be ways to make things more expensive, but will it help you as much? We could import a foam roller from America or we could use a PVC pipe. A PVC pipe costs me 75 rupees, so why should I import one from the States that will probably cost me 50 dollars!
As the S&C coach of the Indian national teams, has there ever been a situation that you want something but weren’t sanctioned the money for it?
I’ve stayed in very nice hotels; some amazing hotels, in fact. I’ve seen lots of extremely expensive weight rooms. I’ve gone to National Institute of Sports (NIS), Patiala and seen its weight rooms. They took me into one that had these super expensive machines from Italy. I looked at it and saw that the maximum weights you could do on any of these machines was about 15 kilos. Later I see a barn and wondered, “what’s in that barn?” The NIS folk dissuaded me saying “Naah…it’s just some old weights and stuff.” I said ,”let me see”. I went in there and found a weight lifting platform like the ones used in the Olympics. I was like – “This is what you need.”
So, on the one hand, they had the nice fancy expensive equipment they showed me, but there is no good training going on in there. I was extremely disappointed. There is a lot of money in there, but that is not what you need to do really good training. I’d rather have good value. Will I prefer to have more than just two ropes to do pull ups on? Sure. But the point of the booklet is that if that’s all you have, you can still do really good stuff. Now, if you can get a weight room with free weights and barbells? All the better. But just spending money doesn’t get you anything. When you are there (in the gym) it comes down to how hard and how smart you are working.
Tell us about the national practice facility.
It’s in the Indira Gandhi stadium, New Delhi. We have a room that was given to us by the stadium authorities and we filled it up with all our equipment. We knew all along that there are bigger and more expensive weight rooms, but there is nowhere that is built specifically for a sport like this one is. So 90-95 percent of this facility is custom made for us.
What about the use of videos in your training camps? Do you use videos of the players’ training? Do you freeze frame and point out to the players what they are doing right or wrong, or are these just things you see and catch with your own eyes?
Usually, it’s just seeing and catching them because I’m working simultaneously with an entire team. It’s a better environment when you work out as a team, but that means you don’t have a lot of time. You have to coach very quickly to a group. I’ve had some guys like Vinay Kaushik, who have come in to get extra work, so when he is the only one in there, there have been times when I get out the camera and film him. Then I’ll show it to him and he’d say “yeah it’s helpful to get feedback this way.” But when you have 12 guys or 16 guys all at once, a one hour session will take five hours if we take videos of everyone!
Tell us about your support staff.
It’s just me and my assistant, Akriti Sharma. But I also manage the physios for our camp. So, in a sense, I look at the whole spectrum of athletic preparation. Our physios operate at the baseline. When a player gets hurt, our physios have to get them back up to the level where they can be of use to me. My job is to take them from there and improve them.
So aspects like recovery and injury prevention i.e. getting somebody out of injury, that’s a physio’s job. Your job is to take a player from fit to uber fit?
Yes. But there’s obviously a cross of that. For example, if an athlete has a hurt right knee, I talk to the physio and if I find that his left knee is healthy, we will still do single leg squats on that left leg. He’ll still do all his push ups and pull ups and everything else. We’ll work around his injury. It’s not all or none. Slowly, as they become more and more healthy, they can do more.
A HARD TASKMASTER
So you have your players constantly training irrespective of injuries?
Absolutely. Unless they are in bed dying, I expect them to be with me. If they are bleeding then I’ll tell them to stop the bleeding and get back in with me. I don’t have a lot of mercy with them on the court. There is a point of understanding where you are at. When you are in the national team, you are not playing basketball anymore. You are ‘competing’ at basketball. This is vastly different from little kids playing. Kids should just have fun and enjoy themselves. But when you are representing your nation, no one else cares if you are hurt. They just care about how (well) you are representing the country. That is something each player should take very seriously. When they wear the India jersey, that’s the highest honour. So if you are not broken, but just in pain, I don’t care. You still have to work. But if you have an injury that’s only going to get worse, then you should go to the physio. When you are working, you are working. Afterwards, you can call your mom and she’ll care but when you are on the court and in the weight room, your mom’s not there. Let’s get the work done. Let’s get better and afterwards, you can let your emotions get the better of you.
These lines sound rehearsed! If you find that the energy is missing from players, do you use pep talk? Do you yank them?
I do whatever I can to help players get where they need to be. Sometimes it’s talking, sometimes you need something more. But yes, if I don’t have any energy, it’s hard for them to have energy.
You must prepare yourself too, right?
Sure, yeah! You should come and watch sometime. When we have a session, say at 2 o clock, I don’t let players come in at 1:59. I don’t let them come in at 2:02. At 1:59, I’m getting myself ready. I’m zoned out and trying to get myself psyched up for it. At 2 o clock I get up and get the door open. I bring them in. I’m yelling at them. We’re clapping and running straight in. They get set up and we go. If a player’s late, then I send him away to do his punishments, which isn’t really an issue anymore. Now the guys are there (on time).
So, to answer your question as to whether I get myself ready beforehand? Yes. I take a couple of minutes and gather myself and when I’m ready—Boom, we are on! Once the players are done and out of the gym, I’m usually exhausted even though I’m not the one working. I’ve got to keep up the intensity. I’m watching everything they are doing, walking around, correcting guys, making sure they are not getting hurt and encouraging guys who are going heavy.
Is it a problem communicating with your players? After all, India is a country of many states, each with its own language.
80 percent of the time when athletes act like it’s a problem, they are trying to get out of training. We have a couple of players on the junior teams who don’t speak or understand English. But for most part, on the senior teams, communication is a pretty minimal problem.
Where do we need to be before we can compete with other Asian teams such as China on a physical level?
We have set standards for all our big lifts such as squats, bench press and even vertical jump. The thing is that it doesn’t do a lot of good to say, ‘Hey this is what you should be and you are not that.’ So, we have levels that we want them to progress through. We have said ‘hey you know what? If you want to be able to compete for an Olympic spot at the Rio Olympics in 2016, this is the standard where we need to be.’
Can you tell us what your team averages are? This will ensure that every kid who reads this interview can work on his own using your booklet and try to reach that average. That’s the reason we want to know. Not so much for you to reveal inside secrets but to save some of your workload in the future! Let’s start with your minimum benchmark for vertical jumps.
Vertical’s actually ironically the least important thing that I focus on. Similar to what I’ve said in the book, when you increase strength, which we focus on the most, your vertical is going to go up automatically. All our players are jumping a lot already. Just jumping over and over and over doesn’t make you jump higher. If it did, then these guys will all have 40 inch verticals by now.
Our big focus is squats. This last camp, our first benchmark on the squat was to squat a 100 kilos. What I’m talking about here is the full depth squat—as low as you can go while keeping your back arched. Not a half squat. In our last camp, we started with a team average of 75 and went to a team average of 106 kilos.
We’ve got a camp in April and I expect to have at least four out of the 20 odd players, who can lift 130. Once we have cleared that, we’ll start them for 160. Most players manage to get to 100 kg with a couple of months of hard training. 130 might take a year or more. To hit 160, now you are talking three, four, or five years. The gains come easiest when you first start training. As you get going, it gets harder and harder to make those gains. I’ll like to see the team average go upto 160 kilos in squat. Now that’s tough. It’s doable, but it’s very tough.
Do all your players have individual charts to see their growth?
Yes, they all have their individual programs. We keep track of their testing, absolutely.
Zak is currently working on a second book that focuses on free weight exercises. The Indian senior men’s team has just concluded its April training camp that was held in Bangalore. The team is scheduled to take part in the upcoming South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) Championships in New Delhi from June 2nd to 4th, from which the winner will qualify for the FIBA Asia Championships. We wish Zak and the Indian team the very best for SABA.