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Gaining 20 pounds of muscle isn’t the solution for Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball

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Young Lakers Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball have faced calls to bulk up this summer, but that might not be the most effective way for them to grow.

Los Angeles Lakers v New York Knicks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say “Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball just to need to put on 20 pounds of muscle this summer and they’ll be straight”, I’d be able to afford the first quarter of a Lakers home game at Staples Center.

This idea that weight and muscle mass (hypertrophy) equates to strength is a common misconception and simply isn’t true (click here, here, here, here, and here for more info). Rather, there are other factors like “neural adaptations” (aka the nervous system becoming more efficient at a specific movement) that are key contributors to strength gains - as the chart below demonstrates:

What this chart means is that even if Ingram and Ball did gain 20 pounds of muscle, it could result in as little as a two percent increase in their strength levels. The relationship between strength gains and muscle gains is potentially that weak for players who are early in their lifting careers (And I’d definitely place Ingram and Lonzo into that category).

There’s a reason why training to gain muscle (“hypertrophy” training) is a different protocol and methodology than training to gain strength.

In addition to this weak relationship between muscle mass and strength, there’s significant variance in how each person’s body responds to training, with some gaining lots of muscle but some not much at all (click here, here, here, and here for more info).

Compare guys like KG and KD at their physical peak:

NBAE/Getty Images
Getty Images

To guys like Giannis (entering his physical peak) and LeBron:

NBAE/Getty Images

Some might say “oh, Giannis and LeBron are just training better” but KD and KG have and had access to some of the best training staffs in the league. The reality is that merely looking at someone’s body doesn’t give all the information about their strength level. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

For example, would you expect a dude who weighs a little under 165 lbs to set the deadlift record of 684 lbs in Australia?

Doctor’s Note: If you’re now foaming at the mouth to go deadlift, make sure your technique is pure and PLEASE do not lean back at the end like he did (that’s done in weightlifting to show the judges you have completed the reps, it’s not a part of good deadlifting form)

It’s apparent that multiple factors other than just visible muscle mass contribute to strength. That’s a nice transition to our next topic...

What Contributes to Strength

Lots of stuff. Check out this eye popping chart summary:

Credit - StrengthTheory.com

So now, lets review each one in detail … Just playin. Let’s look at two of the key factors that make me very confident that both Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball can gain significant strength quickly.

A. Moment Arm

The concept of a moment arm is a foundational basis of physics (if I just caused anyone PTSD, my bad). To put it really simply, a moment arm is the distance between the axis of rotation (pivot) and wherever force is being applied. When force is applied, it creates torque at the pivot point.

The longer the distance, the stronger the torque. For example, try opening a door near the hinge (A) vs opening the door farther away from the hinge (B).

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

It’s way easier to open the door in scenario B. That’s due to the longer moment arm generating greater torque and thus the hinge rotates with much less force needed.

The other example I like to use is loosening a bolt with a wrench. The farther away you grasp on the handle (Force B on the graphic below), the easier the job becomes. Again, due to the longer moment arm.

So what in the world do arms, doors, and wrenches have to do with BI and Lonzo?

In the human body, muscles act upon joints to create movement. The muscle length equals the moment arm and the joint equals the pivot point.

With lengthy players like Ingram and Ball, they have long limbs with long muscles which means huge moment arms (sick of that word yet?). This turns even marginal gains of muscle strength into exponential gains of force production and applicable strength (click here and here for more info).

That’s one key factor in their growth, and the other (arguably the most important) one is....

B. Skill Acquisition

Skill acquisition speaks to the “neural adaptations” that were mentioned in the chart earlier.

As you practice a specific movement, your mind and body become increasingly effective at performing it. They are constantly learning and figuring out how to produce the optimal force and stability required for that movement (click here and here for more info).

This “learning” process is actually your nerves becoming more efficient at firing and sequencing in the specific pattern demanded by the movement. This is known as “neuromuscular efficiency”, aka “nerves that fire together, wire together.”

I think about it like moving to a new city for a new gig. At first, your schedule is scattered, you’re trying to get a new routine down, and a lot of time is wasted. However, you slowly figure out your favorite grocery store, gym, watering hole and back streets. Eventually, you’re just whizzing through while sneering at tourists. Extreme efficiency.

For the human body, this increased efficiency results in greater force production and strength gains in one’s movements. This is especially true during whole-body, complex movements (which is basically every basketball movement).

Applying this to BI and Lonzo, let’s say they’re constantly working on how to leverage their shoulder and create contact to unmoor their defender when they drive into the paint.

Getty Images

With repetition, their neuromuscular system will figure out the optimal efficiency for that specific movement, resulting in significant strength gains regardless of whether they’re lifting weights or not.

A prime example of how skill acquisition influences strength is CP3. His mastery of certain body contact allows him to create physical separation against anyone.

Like when lowering his shoulder:

Or using his hip and elbow:

And the ultimate:

It’s that “old man strength’ that has come from thousands, if not, millions of repetitions. In other words, Paul’s body’s wiring (the nervous system) knows exactly which muscles are needed to stabilize his body while recruiting others to optimize force.

Based on what we know about players in their early lifting years, I’d argue that the lowest hanging fruit for BI and Lonzo to increase their strength isn’t the weight room. Rather, it’s working on — and perfecting — their leveraged movements to maximize the process of neuromuscular adaptation.

Put more simply, efficient, effective movement is strong movement.

In conclusion

Hopefully by now you’ve realized that mentally wrapping measuring tape around Lonzo and Ingram’s biceps when they post new Instagram pictures doesn’t tell us much.

Both are early in their lifting careers, which means strength gains are going to significantly outstrip muscle gains, and there’s a lot of variation player to player in terms of muscle growth (hypertrophy) anyways. As players become more advanced lifters, that relationship certainly can change with muscle gain being more closely related to strength gains.

For more info on that progressive relationship and considerable depth on the topics I’ve covered here (and much much more), check out this piece by Stronger By Science.

In the meantime, Lonzo and Ingram have the advantage of lengthy limbs and moment arms to create more joint torque and strength. Further, each can gain considerable strength by becoming more and more efficient and effective with their movements (neuromuscular efficiency).

In those rare moments when I’m not gawking at LeBron in awe…

...I’ll be looking at how Ingram and Lonzo are able to stabilize their bodies against contact (absorb force) and deliver force (create contact) to unmoor opponents. Those are true indicators of strength.

All that being said, a player can be the strongest ox on the range, but none of that matters if they have poor technique in contact situations or aren’t comfortable with contact in the first place.

But that’s for another time. Thanks for reading.

Dr. Rajpal Brar is a doctor of physical therapy specializing in injury rehab and prevention, stress management, and sport performance at 3CB Performance. You can read more of his sports-related musings at TheInjuryInsight and GrandStandCentral and follow him on twitter and Instagram @3cbperformance.