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Physiological Testing of Basketball Players: Toward a Standard Evaluation of Anaerobic Fitness

Delextrat, Anne; Cohen, Daniel

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: July 2008 - Volume 22 - Issue 4 - p 1066-1072
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181739d9b
Original Research
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Delextrat, A and Cohen, D. Physiological testing of basketball players: toward a standard evaluation of anaerobic fitness. J Strength Cond Res 00: 1-7, 2008-The aim of this study was to examine whether the changes in the rules of the game instituted in 2000 have modified the physiological factors of success in basketball. The performances of 8 elite male players and 8 average-level players were compared in order to identify which components of fitness among agility, speed, anaerobic power, anaerobic capacity, and upper body strength were key determinants of performance in modern basketball. Each subject performed 7 tests, including vertical jump (VJ), 20-m sprint, agility T test, suicide sprint, 30-second Wingate anaerobic test (WAnT), isokinetic testing of the knee extensors, and 1 repetition maximum (1RM) bench press test. The statistical difference in the anaerobic performances was assessed by Student's t test. The main results showed that, compared to average-level players, elite-level players achieved significantly better performances in the agility T test (+6.2%), VJ test (+8.8%), peak torques developed by knee extensors (+20.2%), and 1RM bench press (+18.6%, p < 0.05). In contrast, no significant difference between groups was observed on 20-m sprint, suicide run, and parameters of the WAnT (p > 0.05). These results emphasized the importance of anaerobic power in modern basketball, whereas anaerobic capacity does not seem to be a key aspect to consider. In this context, coaches are advised to avoid using exercises lasting ≥30 seconds in their physical fitness programs, but instead to focus on short and intense tests such as VJ, agility T test, and sprints over very short distances (5 or 10 m).

Department of Health and Human Sciences, London Metropolitan University, London, United Kingdom.

Address correspondence to Anne Delextrat, a.delextrat@londonmet.ac.uk.

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Introduction

Physiological testing of team sport players is an essential component in the evaluation of training programs and the assessment of players' progress during the season. Analyses of the physiological requirements of basketball in the past 20 years showed a major reliance on the anaerobic metabolism (8-10). Indeed, a large amount of jumps and sprints occur during a game, demonstrating the importance of anaerobic power (26), and the fairly high average blood lactate values recorded in competition show a significant involvement of the glycolytic energy system, also referred to as anaerobic capacity (26,29). Consequently, coaches and scientists have developed various tests of anaerobic fitness to assess these 2 qualities and to evaluate the effectiveness of the physical conditioning undertaken by their players.

However, the nature of basketball has changed since new rules of the game were instituted in May 2000. These changes included a shorter attack time from 30 seconds to 24 seconds, a reduction in the time spent on the backcourt from 10 seconds to 8 seconds, and a subdivision of the game into four 10-minute quarters instead of two 20-minute halves. It is believed that the new rules have modified the tactical and physical demands of basketball, making the games faster and affecting the physiological characteristics of the players (3). In favor of this hypothesis, Ben Abdelkrim et al. (3) showed in a recent study performed on elite under-19 male players that the new rules of the game have led to a higher total time spent in high-intensity activities (16.1% of live time versus 15.0% of live time in the study of McInnes et al. [26]) and greater number of actions per game (1050 ± 51 actions versus 997 ± 183 actions in the study of McInnes et al. (26) (performed before the new rules). However, blood lactate values observed by these authors were slightly lower than values reported in less recent studies (5.5 mmol·L−1 versus 5.7-6.8 mmol·L−1 [3,26,29]). These changes in the metabolic load experienced by players in competition must be taken into account by coaches to elaborate appropriate physical conditioning programs.

Several authors have attempted to identify the physiological characteristics contributing to success in basketball before the changes in the rules of the game by comparing elite basketball players and average-level players or comparing basketball players and athletes from other sports with the same fitness level (6,10,12). The factors of success in basketball found in these studies were acceleration (time to perform a 14-m sprint), agility, suicide run time, vertical jump (VJ), and muscular endurance of the lower limbs (10,12). In contrast, no significant difference between groups or contrasting results between studies were reported in speed, flexibility, and upper body strength (6,10,12), showing that these qualities might not be essential in basketball.

In this context, further studies are needed to examine whether the factors of success in basketball are still the same after the changes in the rules of the game. In addition, most of the tests used in the studies previously described were performed in the field so it is not known whether the differences observed would also be evident in laboratory tests known to be more valid and reliable than field tests (2,7).

Therefore, the purpose of this study was to identify the physiological determinants of performance in modern basketball. It was hypothesized that, with the new rules of the game, the factors of success in basketball would depend mainly on anaerobic power, with less reliance on longer efforts characteristic of anaerobic capacity. A secondary objective was to describe the anaerobic fitness of elite European players, since most of the research done in basketball focused on North American players (6,17,21,22,31).

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

The experimental protocol of this study was elaborated to compare the anaerobic performances of elite basketball players and average-level basketball players in a range of field and laboratory tests. It is believed that the tests showing significant differences between the 2 groups of players will allow identify the components of fitness required in modern basketball, whereas the parameters that will not discriminate between elite- and average-level players may not reflect essential qualities for success in basketball. This type of protocol has been adopted in several previous studies on fitness in basketball with similar objectives (6,10,12). The range of tests proposed have been chosen for their relevance to the efforts experienced in basketball and their use in scientific studies on anaerobic fitness of basketball players.

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Subjects

The participants included 8 elite male basketball players with a minimum of 3 years of experience at a national or international level (players part of the first team of the university), and 8 players of an average-level (players part of the second team of the university, Table 1). In 2005-2006, the first team was involved at the highest level of the British Universities Sports Association (BUSA) championship (Premier League), while the second team played at the third level of the BUSA championship (Tier 2). Playing positions were equally represented in both groups to avoid any bias effect of playing position on the anaerobic capacity of the basketball players, as it has been previously reported (12). All the subjects were volunteers and signed a written consent after being fully informed of the experimental procedures. Furthermore, this project was approved by the local Ethics Committee (London Metropolitan University Ethics Committee, United Kingdom).

Table 1

Table 1

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Procedures

Each subject was tested on 4 separate occasions and performed a total of 7 tests. Testing sessions were completed within 2 weeks and a rest period of at least 48 hours was allowed between sessions. All the tests were undertaken in November 2006, when players were involved in the first part of the championship and were at a good fitness level. The sessions were presented in a random order and involved several field and laboratory tests described below. Session 1 was performed in the sports hall used for the training sessions. It consisted of 4 field tests presented in this order: VJ, 20-m sprint, agility T test, and suicide run.

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Vertical Jump Test

The most frequent tests employed by basketball coaches are jump tests because they are easy to set and simple to interpret (27). The VJ test was performed in this study, starting in a standing position with both feet together. From this stationary position, the subjects took 1 step backward with 1 foot, and then brought both feet together before jumping as high as possible. Arm swing was allowed during this test. It was conducted on a rubber-coated contact mattress connected to a digital timer (Ergojump; Globus Inc., Treviso, Italy). The flight time was used to calculate the change in the height of the body's center of gravity (4). The subjects performed 3 jumps with at least a 30-second recovery, and the best result was recorded. This test is characterized by a very good test-retest reliability (coefficients of variation of 3.0%) (24).

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20-m Sprint

The subjects were allowed 2 trials for the 20-m sprint, starting in a stationary position, with the fastest performance recorded. The sprint was performed on the basketball court, and time was recorded by photocells (Wireless speedtrap2; Brower Timing Systems, Draper, UT) placed at the start and finish lines. The 20-m sprint test has demonstrated high levels of reliability in physically active men (correlation coefficient of 0.91 between test and retest) and does not need any practice session beforehand (28). Performance in this test was also significantly correlated with playing time in NCAA Division I male basketball players (r = −0.62) (16).

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Agility T Test

Widely used by coaches and scientists, this test is the most appropriate agility test for basketball because it uses most of the basic movements performed during a game (10,19). The subjects were asked to sprint from a standing point in a straight line to a cone placed 9 m away. Then they had to side-shuffle to their left without crossing their feet to another cone placed 4.5 m away. After touching this cone, they side-shuffled to their right to a third cone placed 9 m away, side-shuffled back to the middle cone, and ran backward to position (30). The faster of 2 attempts was recorded.

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Suicide Run

The suicide run is a test commonly used in basketball in order to assess the anaerobic capacity of the players (27). Anaerobic capacity reflects the efficiency of the glycolytic system and refers to efforts between 30 and 90 seconds. This test consists of a 143.3-m sprint with several changes of direction. The subjects started from a standing position behind the baseline and ran at maximal speed to 4 different lines: the near free-throw line (5.8 m), the half-court line (14 m), far free-throw line (22.2 m), and far baseline (28 m). As they arrive at each line, they sprinted back to the original baseline (5). In this study, the subjects were dribbling while running the whole distance, and a stopwatch was used to record time. Two players performed the test at the same time to encourage maximal effort.

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Wingate Test

Session 2 took place in the university laboratory and consisted of the 30-second Wingate anaerobic test (WAnT). Before this test, anthropometric measures, including height (cm), body mass (kg), and body fat percentage (%), were taken. Body fat was assessed by bioelectrical impedance analysis using the Tanita BC 418 MA Segmental Body Composition Analyzer (Tanita Corporation, Tokyo, Japan). The WAnT test was conducted on a cycle ergometer (Monarch 824E Ergomedic, Varberg, Sweden) adjusted to fit the subjects' anthropometric characteristics. After a 5-minute standardized warm-up on the cycle ergometer, the subjects were asked to pedal for 30 seconds at maximal speed against a constant load equivalent to 0.075 kg·kg−1 body mass (18). After completion of the test, the following variables were calculated: peak power (PP, W) determined as the highest value generated in 1 second, mean power (MP, W) determined as the average power during the 30 seconds of testing, and a fatigue index (calculated as the lowest power generated in 1 second divided by the PP). The reliability of the WAnT has been tested by several authors, all of them showing correlation coefficients between test and retest > 0.94 (2).

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Isokinetic Testing

Session 3 also took place in the university laboratory. It was devoted to the evaluation of the maximal concentric strength of knee extensors of the subjects' dominant leg using an isokinetic dynamometer (Cybex Norm, Phoenix Healthcare, Nottingham, UK). This test has been widely used in basketball, especially to monitor the changes in the strength characteristics of the player during the season (11,14). The dominant limb was defined as the leg that the player would use to kick a ball, as it has been determined in previous studies (31). The subjects were seated on the chair, with their knee and hip joints at a 1.57 rad angle, and their thighs and trunk secured by straps. After a standard warm-up followed by a few practice trials, the peak torque (N·m) during leg extension was measured at 2 velocities: 1.05 and 3.14 rad·s−1. All subjects performed 3 attempts at 1.05 rad·s−1 and 5 attempts at 3.14 rad·s−1, and the highest value for each velocity was recorded. A 2-minute recovery was allowed between the tests, and the 2 velocities were undertaken in a random order. Isokinetic peak torque measurement has shown good test-retest reliability (from 0.82 to 0.91) (23).

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Bench Press

During session 4, the subjects' upper body strength was assessed in the university fitness gym using the 1 repetition maximum (1RM) bench press test. This test is the most commonly used to assess the upper body strength of basketball players (27). The aim is to reach a 1RM effort within 3-5 attempts, as it has been previously described (20). Briefly, the bench press was performed in the standard supine position. The subjects lowered an Olympic weightlifting bar to mid-chest, and then were asked to press it until full arm extension.

Overall, the parameters calculated from these tests may allow the determination of a physiological profile of the basketball players according to 5 main characteristics: speed (20-m sprint), agility (T test), anaerobic power (VJ, isokinetic torques of the knee extensors, PP from the WAnT), anaerobic capacity (suicide run, MP, and fatigue index from the WAnT), and strength of the upper limb (1RM bench press).

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Statistical Analyses

Mean and SD values of each performance were calculated for the whole group and each subgroup. A test for homogeneity of variance was applied to the data for each group for all comparisons and revealed no significant differences. Therefore, the statistical difference between the first team and the second team in the anaerobic performances was assessed using Student's t test for unpaired samples. The level of significance was set at p ≤ 0.05.

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Results

Speed, Agility, and Anaerobic Power

Results did not show any significant difference between the 2 groups of players in 20-m sprint performance (p > 0.05, Table 2). In contrast, significantly better performances were achieved by elite players compared to players of average level in the agility T test and VJ (differences of +6.2% and +8.8%, respectively for the agility T test and the VJ; p < 0.05, Table 2).

Table 2

Table 2

In addition, significant differences between groups were shown in the isokinetic knee extensors performances (Figure 1). Indeed, significantly greater absolute peak torques were achieved by the players of the first team compared to the players of the second team at 1.05 and 3.14 rad·s−1 (differences of 20.2% and 19.7%, respectively, between the groups at these 2 velocities, p < 0.05, Figure 1). When these values were expressed relative to the players' body weight (BW), the difference was significant at 3.14 rad·s−1 (139.9 ± 20.5 %BW versus 119.2 ± 17.0 %BW, respectively, for the first and second teams, p < 0.05), but not at 1.05 rad·s−1 (183.4 ± 17.9 %BW versus 159.2 ± 28.9 %BW, respectively, for the first and second teams, p > 0.05).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Finally, the performances of the first team and second team during the WAnT are displayed in Figure 2. The PP achieved by both groups did not differ significantly (p > 0.05, Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

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Anaerobic Capacity

As shown in Table 2, no significant difference between elite players and average-level players was shown in the time to complete the suicide run (p > 0.05). Similarly, no significant difference between groups was reported on the MP achieved during the WAnT (p > 0.05, Figure 2). In addition, the fatigue index showed that players of the first team experienced less decrease in power during the 30 seconds of the test compared to players of the second team; however, this difference was not significant (57.4 ± 14.9% versus 47.2 ± 15.1%, respectively, for the first and second teams, p > 0.05, Figure 2).

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Upper Body Strength

Results show that the players of the first team achieved significantly better performances in the 1RM bench press (+18.6%) than players of the second team (p < 0.05, Table 2).

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Discussion

The main results of the present study indicated that players of the first team achieved significantly better performances in VJ height, agility T test, 1RM bench press, and peak torque of the knee extensors compared to players of the second team. However, no significant difference between groups was observed for the WAnT, 20-m sprint, and suicide run tests. These results indicate that the factors of success in modern basketball are mostly related to agility and anaerobic power, while anaerobic capacity does not play a major role.

No significant difference between players of the first team and players of the second team was found in 20-m sprint in the present study. This result is similar to previous findings reported in Australian junior players of national level before the institution of the new rules (12). These results show that speed may not be a major factor of success in basketball. In favor of this hypothesis, only moderate correlations have been reported between sprint time and playing time in Division I college basketball players (r = −0.62, [16]). Many authors and coaches use distances of 20 or 27 m to test their players because it is close to the length of a basketball court (13). However, during a game, the players are rarely in a situation where they have to sprint on the whole court distance, and video analyses of competitions have shown that the high-intensity runs performed by players of national level lasted between 1.7 and 2.1 seconds, which roughly corresponds to distances of 10 m (3,26). As a consequence, sprint tests over shorter distances might be more appropriate to administer to basketball players, and acceleration, rather than speed, might be a better factor of performance in basketball. Overall, players of the present study demonstrated a slightly lower performance compared to Australian players (mean sprint times of 3.33 seconds versus 3.19 seconds in the present study and the study of Hoare [12], respectively). No comparison was possible with North American players.

The specificity of speed testing in basketball should take into account the fact that during a game, sprints are not only performed forward but also backward and during side-shuffle movements. These skills could be described as agility, classically considered as an important component in basketball performance (16). In the present study, first team players achieved significantly better performances in the T test compared to players of the second team (+6.2%, p < 0.05, Table 2). This is in accordance with the results of Gillam (10) who found that basketball players achieved significantly better performances in the agility T test (5.5%) compared to the physical education majors (10). These findings suggest that agility is an important characteristic to consider in the physical conditioning of basketball players. Data from game analyses provide further evidence to support this assumption. Indeed, it has been reported that players performed very frequent (every 2 seconds) changes of movement type or direction during a game (26). In addition, it seems that the new rules of the game have led to a greater total number of actions undertaken during a game (1050 ± 51 versus 997 ± 183, respectively, in the studies of Ben Abdelkrim et al. (3) and McInnes et al. [26]). In particular, Ben Abdelkrim et al. (3) described that shuffles accounted for a large proportion of live time (8.8 ± 1.0%, 17.7 ± 2.5%, and 14.2 ± 1.0%, respectively, for shuffles of high, moderate, and low intensities). Players of the first team of our study demonstrated lower performances than American college players (average times ranging from 8.95 to 9.12 seconds) (14,22).

Elite players achieved a significantly higher VJ height compared to average-level players (+8.8%, p < 0.05, Table 2). Jump performance is a key element in basketball, as several authors have reported a great number of jumps performed by elite male basketball players during a game (44-46 jumps [3,26]). Results similar to those of our study have been reported in a previous study on Australian junior basketball players, showing a significant difference in VJ performance of 11.7% between the 8 best shooting guards and the other shooting guards involved in the national championship (12). Furthermore, Hoffman et al. (16) showed that the strongest correlation between playing time and the performances in several anaerobic tests was observed for VJ height in Division I college basketball players (r = 0.68, p < 0.05). All these results suggest that jump performance is a major factor of success in basketball, and this component of fitness must be a key area to develop during training sessions. Generally, the basketball players of the present study were characterized by a slightly lower performance compared to Australian players (60.4 cm observed by Hoare [12]) and a considerably lower performance compared to North American players (jump heights from 61 to 71.4 cm reported for NCAA players), (17,22). These observations, together with our previous results, illustrate the lower fitness level of European basketball players compared to American players and highlight the necessity to develop the explosive power to be competitive in international competitions.

Some of the tests previously mentioned, in particular the VJ test, aimed at assessing the maximal power of the lower limb. However, tests performed in the field are known to be less valid, reliable, and accurate than tests performed in the laboratory (1). Therefore, in the present study, the assessment of the strength of the knee extensors was also performed in the laboratory, using an isokinetic dynamometer. The results of this test revealed that the players of the first team developed significantly greater peak torques compared to the players of the second team at 1.05 and 3.14 rad·s−1 (only the difference in the relative peak torques at 1.05 rad·s−1 was not significant). These findings confirm that after the changes in the rules of the game, anaerobic power is still a key determinant of success in basketball. Therefore, the tests previously described, currently widely performed to monitor the changes in the players' strength characteristics during a season or to assess the effect of a training program (11,14), must still be used by coaches. Comparison with previous results shows slightly lower performances achieved by our first team players compared to NCAA basketball players (151.7 N·m or 172%BW versus 179.4 N·m or 145.4%BW, respectively, in the present study and in the study of Hoffman et al. [14]). This emphasizes the need to improve the explosive power of the lower limbs in European players.

Because of its longer duration than the previous tests of this study, the suicide run is a better predictor of the players' anaerobic capacity than aerobic power. Indeed, anaerobic capacity, defined as the “maximal rate of energy production by the combined phosphagen and lactic acid energy systems” (25) is required for exercises lasting between 30 and 90 seconds. In contrast, anaerobic power is required in exercises lasting a few seconds only. The suicide run is widely used in basketball, not only in the testing of players, but also in the training sessions. Results of the present study did not demonstrate any significant difference between the 2 groups of players on suicide run performances (p > 0.05, Table 2). This finding is in contrast with the results obtained by Hoare (12), showing significantly faster times to complete the suicide run in “best” versus “rest” Australian male and female basketball players. Although additional data would be needed to support our results, they indicate that since the changes in the rules of the game, basketball relies less on anaerobic capacity. This is characteristic of a faster game, with shorter actions undertaken at a higher frequency, as it has been highlighted by Ben Abdelkrim et al. (3). Within this context, it is reasonable to question the use of the suicide run or similar efforts lasting around 30 seconds in training sessions, which is still adopted by European coaches. It seems more relevant to focus on shorter exercises performed at a higher intensity, as it would reflect the physiological load experienced during a game and develop anaerobic power rather than anaerobic capacity. The average times recorded for the 16 players in the present study were slightly better that the performances of the Greek junior national team (average times of 29.00 seconds versus 29.53 seconds, respectively, in our study and in the study of Apostolidis et al. [1]). Interestingly, no data for the suicide run are available in the literature on North American players, showing that this exercise might no longer be used by NCAA coaches.

Similarly to the suicide dribble test, the 30-second WAnT, performed in the laboratory, has been described as a good tool to assess anaerobic capacity (32). In the present study, no significant difference between players of the first team and second team was reported in the MP and the fatigue index recorded during the WAnT. This result supports the performances obtained in the present study in the suicide run and shows that anaerobic capacity is not a key factor of success in basketball, in particular, since the changes in the rules of the game. The values obtained are quite similar to data previously reported in European players (PP of 10.7 ± 1.3 W·kg−1, MP of 8.0 ± 0.7 W·kg−1, and fatigue index of 49.5 ± 20.4% for the Greek junior national team [1]). Again, no data are available in the literature to characterize the anaerobic capacity of North American players.

The last test performed in the present study was the 1RM bench press. A significant difference between the 2 groups of players was observed in the performances achieved in this test (p < 0.05, Table 2). Similar results have been observed in previous investigations on NCAA players (difference of 6.3% between “best” and “rest” players in the 1RM bench press) (6). In addition, the results achieved by our players were slightly better compared to the performances reported for NCAA players, which suggests that European players do not need to improve their upper body strength (1RM values ranging from 89.1 to 104.1 kg) (6,14). Therefore, a good level of upper body strength seems necessary for basketball players. However, this quality is not as important as other characteristics previously described, as Hoffman et al. (16) observed that performance to the 1M bench press test was not a good predictor of playing time during a 4-year longitudinal study performed on 29 NCAA players.

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Practical Applications

The results of this study showed that the necessity to develop anaerobic power in basketball is still fundamental since the changes in the rules of the game. In contrast, anaerobic capacity, suggested as a factor of performance before 2000, plays a less important role in modern basketball. Therefore, coaches are advised to focus on strength and power development, using short and intense exercises in the physical conditioning of their players. Agility and upper limb strength are also key factors to consider. In this context, tests such as the VJ, agility T test, sprints over very short distances (5 or 10 m), and 1RM bench press would be relevant to assess the effectiveness of a training program, whereas exercises lasting ≥30 seconds, such as the suicide run, must be used less by coaches. Further studies examining the relationship between these tests and aerobic field tests and some indices of performances measured during a game would be needed to establish a standard battery of tests for basketball.

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Acknowledgments

The authors gratefully acknowledge all the players of London Metropolitan University for their participation and coach Nicholas Kamilieris for his cooperation during the training sessions.

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    Keywords:

    anaerobic power; anaerobic capacity; Wingate; jump; agility

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