Six Exercises to Build the Reflexes of an NBA Player

NBA stars such as Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors or Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets have the seemingly superhuman ability to evade a defender to create an open shot or to find a passing lane to a teammate. Their agility gives them an athletic edge on the court, says Larry Sanders, a movement specialist and former strength and conditioning coach for the Detroit Pistons. They also help players avoid injuries, he says.

This NBA season in particular, he notes, where many players had less time for off-season recovery after the 2020 season was delayed by the pandemic, some of the most resilient players have been taken down by injuries both during a compressed regular season and in the grueling playoffs.

“When the body starts to fatigue, we figure out how to perform a movement even if it takes the body out of alignment and into a potentially harmful position,” he says. “That’s when injuries happen.” Mr. Sanders notes it’s more challenging for taller people to maintain balance while performing explosive, dynamic plays. He works with basketball players to help them maintain body control and spatial awareness while performing athletic movements.

But you don’t have to be an NBA All-Star to reap the benefits of quick reflexes and coordination. We tend to lose spatial awareness and balance as we age, Mr. Sanders says. This puts people at a higher risk for falls. The following exercises will help you have more stability and body control performing day-to-day functions like getting out of a car or trying to keep your balance while riding on the subway when you have to stand. With more body control, you’ll also be able to recover the next time you slip on ice or trip on a root trail running, he says. And quick reflexes and mobility can be a secret weapon in sports like tennis, soccer and basketball.

Mr. Sanders says the following exercises can be performed as a warm-up or as a workout. Start slow and gradually increase speed.

The Workout

Box Breathing to Victory Pose

Why: “Our bodies can either be in fight-or-flight mode or in rest-and-digest mode,” says Mr. Sanders. “We live in the former when we are plugged in and on our phones all day. Box breathing can help turn that fight-or-flight mode off.” He has players perform the victory pose drill prior to practice or a game. He says it helps them set an intention and visualize success.

How: Lie on your back with your legs straight out and hands by your side or resting on your stomach. Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four. Slowly exhale for a count of four. Repeat for one minute. Now stand up with feet shoulder width apart. Keep your spine tall as you raise your arms above your head in a V-shape as if you’ve just won an Olympic medal. Now lift your heels to rise onto the balls of your feet. Close your eyes and hold for 10 seconds. Visualize the outcome you want for your workout or some other aspect of your day.

Mr. Sanders performs the victory pose as part of a pre-workout visualization practice.

Shock Absorption Drill

Why: Mr. Sanders says this drill helps teach the body how to decelerate whether you’re lunging to grab a pass from a teammate or running down the stairs to catch the subway. Landing with your feet slightly wider and offset, he says, helps with shock absorption. “This is a great warm-up drill that works on coordination and helps teach the body how to have control during an athletic movement.”

How: Stand tall, hands by your sides, palms open and facing forward. Hop out to 45 degrees with your right foot while reaching both hands straight out, as if you’re a basketball player trying to catch a pass. Land as softly as possible on the right foot, then hop out to the left at 45-degrees while extending the hands. Perform for one minute.

Mr. Sanders demonstrates the shock absorption drill.

Push-Up Hold-Shoulder Taps

Why: “If you look at LeBron James, his body isn’t shaped like a V, it’s boxy like a Greek statue,” he says. “That’s true core power.” This drill works core stability while engaging the upper trapezius and neck muscles, and lengthening the spine. “Gravity jams our bodies down,” he says. “This exercise decompresses and expands the spine.”

How: Start in a high push-up pose with hands directly beneath your shoulders. Bring your right hand off the ground and across the body to tap the left shoulder. Do not let your hips dip or sink to one side as you perform the movement. Return the hand to the floor. Now bring your left hand off the ground and across the body to tap the right shoulder. Perform five to 10 sets for 10 to 20 seconds.

Options: Widen the stance of your feet for more stability. If the drill is still difficult, perform it on an incline by placing your hands on a chair or couch.

Step-Up With Spacer

Why: The step up is a basic exercise that helps build coordination, balance, core strength and ankle flexibility. It also shines a light on the body’s imbalances and dysfunctional movement patterns, says Mr. Sanders. “A lot of us, especially taller people, step inward,” he says. In basketball, if your stance is too close, it affects the accuracy of your shot, he says. By placing a spacer of 1 to 6 inches in height and 5 to 12 inches in width on the step, it provides a visual cue to make sure you are keeping the hips open as you step up and down.

How: Find a step around 7 inches in height. Mr. Sanders uses half a foam roller or even a basketball as a spacer, but says a book or a rolled up towel will also work. As your right foot steps up, your left hand should swing forward and vice versa. Repeat at a comfortable pace for 10 to 20 seconds, making sure your feet land outside of the spacer. Perform five to 10 sets.

Push-Up With Fast Hands

Why: “The team with the most deflections—not steals or turnovers—wins,” says Mr. Sanders. “If you look at old photos of Michael Jordan his hands are always behind his hips, loaded and ready to pounce.” This drill helps build Jordan-like reflexes so you can be better at sports like basketball and tennis, or games like Spikeball, he says. It will also help you catch your keys as they fall off the counter, or grab a carton of milk before it spills.

How: Start in a high push-up pose. Raise your right hand off the ground and extend it a half of a hand-length forward. Return it to the ground and extend the left hand forward. Slowly increase speed. Do not let your hips sink or dip from side to side. Perform for 10 seconds then press back into downward dog for 10 seconds. Repeat five times.

Options: Widen the stance of your feet for more stability. If the drill is still difficult, perform it on hands and knees or on an incline by placing your hands on a chair or couch.

Mr. Sanders works his core stability by doing a push-up with fast hands.


Nick Hagen for The Wall Street Journal


Why: “This is the best upper- and lower-body coordination exercise,” says Mr. Sanders. Kristaps Porziņģis of the Dallas Mavericks used this drill while recovering from a meniscus tear, he says. “It was a low-impact way for the 7’3” player to regain athletic movement again and help rebuild his coordination and reaction time,” says Mr. Sanders.

How: Stand with feet hip-width apart and arms by your sides. Think about running in place with your feet while simultaneously playing the bongos with your hands, palms facing down, he says. “The idea is to have fast feet and fast hands at the same time.” Start slow and build speed. Repeat 10 seconds on 10 seconds off for five to 10 sets.

Options: Start with just the hand movement or just the feet movement.

Mr. Sanders moves his hands and feet as quickly as possible to perform the bongos drill.

Write to Jen Murphy at workout@wsj.com

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