NBA Strength and Conditioning Trainer Felipe Eichenberger Dishes on What NBA Workouts Are Like

Tristan: Alright, welcome in everyone! We have with us on the line, Mr. Felipe Eichenberger. He's Coach Felipe Eichenberger, the Head Strength Coach for the Denver Nuggets. Coach, how are we doing today?

Felipe: Doing great. Doing great. Just here in Denver figuring out training and happy to talk to you guys.

Tristan: Absolutely. Happy you can take some time away from your schedule here to talk to us as well. We want to get right into it. We definitely want to start from the beginning where we start with all of our coaches and players. Find out a little bit about your background. Now you've been the Head Strength Coach there for a few years with the Denver Nuggets. What were you doing before? And when did you start getting into this whole strength and conditioning field?

Felipe: Yeah, so it's a funny story because I was born and raised in Brazil. Came to United States to play in a small school in Oklahoma, Northwestern, Oklahoma State. And my passion was, you know, it's basketball. And then my sister was a pretty high level swimmer. And I always follow her training. And I also really thought how interesting was swimming and how she trained, how she ate, all of those things. She was like a professional level. When I came to United States to play basketball, I expected it to be very, very similar to what she was doing. You know, so like, all the training, nutrition, but since it was a smaller school, we didn't really have a strength coach, so to speak. So all the assistant coaches and head coach were doing the strength and conditioning, but I saw that, you know, all the other teams were kind of stronger than us, kind of faster than us. And I'm like, there's some more that we can be doing just to win games, you know? And studying a little bit, I mean, my major was Physical Education with sports science.

So I started getting really interested in the area and working out myself. I've been working out for a long time. And that's where everything started, where, you know, like I would go work out with the guys at the gym, my teammates, and try to study and do the workout that our coach put together for us. But then I was like, well, that's not making much sense. And then why are we doing this? And then, just, you know, the "why", that's where my passion started. Then, you know, lucky enough to do a couple of internships, get my degree, and landed with the Denver Nuggets, this being my ninth year, six years an assistant, and then three years as strength and conditioning, their head strength coach.

Craig: What was your degree in?

Felipe: So my degree was a double degree. It was health and sports science, what they call it, and sports management, the second degree. And then my master's degree is in kinesiology.

Tristan: Got it. So I'm curious, while you were at Northwestern State there, did any of your teammates come to you for maybe some training tips? Or did that really start in your internship phase and obviously with the Denver Nuggets as well.

Felipe: Well, there were actually, it was like the post player. He was in a bigger school and he came as a transfer and he really knew and he really understood, not understood. He knew the importance of like lifting. So we would like go to the gym and, you know, as a young, you know, 18, 19, 20 year old, you just try everything. So, you know, we will go and bench for two hours and you know, and I'm like, "Man, that should be more to this, this is cool." And taking more classes and, you know, being around my sister, like I said, I was like, I was going to do physical education as my degree. So it wasn't like, I wasn't really leading workouts for the team, but... Because, you know, that's the coach, you know, the system and all the games that they had there. And like I said, when I came from Brazil, I mean, it took me about, you know, two, two and a half a years to really fluently speak the language, which I spoke the language good enough to pass classes and play.

So, you know, it was like where my passion really started, but at the same time, like I wasn't leading any workouts by that time or anything yet, cause I had to play and go to school too.

Craig: So let's talk about this journey a little bit more. I know you condensed it for us, but does this mean you had internships with the Denver Nuggets, or how did that journey end up there, end up to the pros? It sounded like there were a lot of steps that we skipped there, that you got right there into the Denver Nuggets organization.

Felipe: Yeah. So, after I got my degree, I did an internship in Las Vegas at IMPACT Basketball, which is a training facility for NBA players during the offseason. So I moved to Las Vegas, did the internship for like four months, four and a half months or so. And then I had an opportunity to go to Denver at that time because you know, I had some friends here, had nowhere to go. I mean, they offered me a job to stay, but then I had, you know, for multiple reasons, I had to come to Denver. So I met a couple of the Nuggets players at the time, where I talked to them was like, "Listen, I'm going to Denver, is there anything you can do for me?"

And you know, some of the guys, I'll try to help, I'll pass information along. So I got in touch with Steve Hess, who was the Denver Nuggets, head strength coach for a long time. And from that point on, I came to Denver with no job, but I, you know, I called him every single day for months, and since, you know, my name was passed by some really good players, he didn't want to say no to me. So he's like, well, call me tomorrow. Like, Oh. So I call him then the next morning, two times a day for a long time. So after a while, after, you know, a couple of months calling him, he's like, "You know what, I have a gym in downtown Denver. It's a performance gym. Go interview with my head trainer there and see if you can get a job. I'll recommend you and, we will go from there." Because I mean, I think he was tired of me calling. But, so then I worked at his gym for a year or so. I was in touch with him. He would bring me in with the Nuggets a little bit to help.

And then during the lockout, actually, there was the lockout season where his assistant left for another team. And then I was training some of the Nuggets players because they were not allowed to train any of the players. So he just passed them onto me. And, you know, the players highly recommended me it seems like. And then before the season started, he brought me in and he interviewed me and I mean, he knew me for a long time already, so he brought me in and said like, "Hey, you want a job? The guys like you, I think you're going to, it's a good gig for you." And that's where everything started.

Tristan: Wow. They had the power of networking and persistence there. I love that. I'm sure that feeds right into your workout plans as well. Now we're going to get into some of the favorite drills that you like to do with these professional players, but I've got a question about when you first get these guys into your locker room. Let's say it's a new draft pick. Let's say it's a new pickup for the team. Maybe somebody you've never worked with before. Obviously they are the, if not the peak, pretty close to the peak of their athletic prowess. Is there any kind of test or identification process you go through to figure out what these guys need to work on the most?

Felipe: Yeah. So we have some baseline tests that we do as a performance team and as, you know, the medical staff as well. So we do the movement testing. We do a force plate testing, which is a counter movement jump. A mid-type pull. And then we calculate their DSI. And we also do a VO2 Max Test, which with the team, I found the last three years it's better to do the beep tests. So we do the beep tests with them as a team, and it's pretty cool. We get pretty competitive and we get some data. Got some good data on the guys now after three years.

Tristan: Real quick. What is that? What do you mean by the beep test?

Felipe: The, like, the beep test. What's the new other name that they use?

Tristan: Is it the pacer?

Felipe: Yes, yes! The pacer test.

Tristan: Just making sure. Yeah. You run back and forth between a line. I think there are about 60 yards apart or so. You got to make it before that beep goes. Right?

Felipe: Yes, yes, yes. The pacer test, I know there are multiple names. We call it the beep test. So we have the data. So we have the data for three, you know, three years now. And then we had the VO2 for the players that have been with us from before that we did on the treadmill. But like I said, I felt like doing as a group would be better than doing it as one cause on a treadmill, they would give up after just a little bit. You know, like our vets knew that they only had to go for... I mean, our physiologists were just like, "Hey, you can go for six minutes max, or eight minutes or whatever you can go, just give me your max," and measured their VO2 max. So they were like going less and less at the treadmill and just saying like, "I quit". And then we would try to, you know, some regression calculations there to find their VO2 Max. And I'm like, "Okay, let's run it as a group."

But, anyway, so we put that all the data together and then we can, we'd come up with the best plan for each individual player. Then as a group, we always have our vitamins. The vitamins are movement preparation pretty much so... It's called vitamins for us cause, you know, it's like everyday take your vitamin, so like it's your vitamins that are gonna make you better. So it's just that terminology that we use. So each player will have their vitamin that's specific for each player. And then we have the dynamic strength index that we got on the force plate, and then we can see where to start working with each guy. Most likely if it's a rookie, if it's like, he's first coming into the league, we're going to spend a lot of time with movements with them just because now they stay spending less and less time, less and less time in the weight room with their college coaches.

So they come in with, you know, not even knowing... I mean I've got, not even guys can hold a plank for 30, 35 seconds. I got guys that don't know how to squat. And you know, you're also talking about, you know, players that come in and are humongous, right? So, like, I have this player here that's 7'3", crazy wingspan. And you know, like if you put just like overhead squat with no weight for him, he's just... His posture is not very good. So, what are we going to do? We're going to start, even if we start, you know, coaching this guy from the beginning, from, from zero. I mean, it's going to take a little bit for him to learn his patterns. So, you know, we keep basic. I think that, I mean, to answer your question, we divide the groups by, you know, at this point where we are, I think, you know, we are a pretty good team in the West Conference right now. Coming from last year, very successful season, but we divide the guys in three groups, right? So we have the starters, we have the stay ready, and you have the development players.

The development players are going to be the younger players, where you are going to do a lot of movements. They're going to do... They're our future. You know, we're training them. There's a probability they're going to play, but they're there to develop. Like, we know that upfront. The stay ready guy. It's like, "Hey, listen, you might play 10 minutes a game, but be ready to play 30 and also stay ready." And then the starters, you know, I mean, the starters are just different. They play the most amount of minutes. They start every game. You know who they are. And we just try to maintain and try to keep track of their loads and everything else.

Craig: A little more about players that you first work with. One thing that came to mind is differences between players who are one-and-done in college or versus players that you get who've played, you know, three, four years in the college level? Do you see any big differences in their readiness for the NBA, especially from a strength and conditioning standpoint?

Felipe: I do. I think that players, I mean, players that come after three years, two, three years, they come more developed, with like their strength and in the weight room. You know, they... More than that, they know the importance of the weight room. Because, in my mind, was that your choice to wait two more years to come to the league, or were agents and people telling you like, "Hey, don't go now that you know, I'm probably not going to get drafted." You know what I mean? So those guys come with a different mentality where they're like, "Hey, I had to work." You know what I mean? Those are the guys that like really needed to work. The guys that are probably, that're one and done, they're very, very talented and they have very high potential. So, but they do, I mean, they do come a lot more ready. They, you know, they're a lot more mature. You know, we try to talk about training age. They have a little bit more like ears on at training age versus the younger guys that're a one-and-done, you know?

Craig: Any bad habits that you see from players who are new to the league?

Felipe: I don't know if they're bad habits. I think that I would call misinformation on what the league's about. You know, they come in not you know, knowing that they're going to play a very, very high level. I also think that a lot of people tell them what the NBA is about, but they've never been around the NBA. So that makes information, makes players like, "Oh, I've been told this, but it's not actually how we did in the NBA." You know, I think that becomes their bad habits because they come in, I mean, some players really come in and be like, "Oh, I made it to the NBA. I'm set." And it's like, well, not really. You still have to work very, very hard to play. So it's like they don't think they have to lift weights. They don't have, they don't think they have to do conditioning. All those things is they think they got to come in and just play basketball, you know. And I get it. That's where they come from. That's why they got drafted.

But, you know, the NBA is such a high level that, I mean, 1-15 can play. You know, if you don't get prepared, you know, start that bad habit from the beginning. You might get passed by anyone, you know?

Tristan: Exactly right. We see the development of some guys from just a bodybuilding standpoint, from their rookie year on, and we see the guys that tend to fall by the wayside in that respect. So let me ask you, just from a process standpoint here, how much time do you actually get to spend with the players going through workouts in season versus offseason?

Felipe: Well, I mean, the good thing about approach, you don't have a time limit. So when the players first come in, we spend as much time as we can with the players developing, right? The toughest thing about the NBA is as soon as the season's over, they don't have to stay where they are playing. So Denver is, it's tough because not, I mean, not a single player is from Denver. So as soon as they know like the season is done tomorrow, probably in the next day, players already going back to their home towns, you know. So it's more like communicating with them, explaining what you expect them to be at when they come back. Keeping touch with them. You know, say like, "Hey, I know you want to go back home. Go take whatever, two weeks off, and then start this." Who are you going to train with? And just keeping touch with that player. You know, in the NBA we travel around the world. I mean, I've been to Serbia, I've been to a lot of countries you go train players to go see players. So we tried to spend as much time as we can if, you know, that answers your question. But it also depends where they are. And there's a lot of other things going on off season that we have to deal with, from like summer league and other things that we cannot be with the players 100% of the time.

Tristan: Right. They are their own person at the end of the day. Now, let's say that it's, you know, you're just getting started to ramp up the season here. You do get these guys back there, back, you know, for training camp. Maybe we're out of summer league at this point. What are some of the favorite drills that you'd like to walk them through? Can you walk us through it? Walk our listeners through it? What you like to do to really get them in that peak shape.

Felipe: Yeah. So, when they first come in... I mean, like, people think that like training camp now in the NBA is getting shorter and shorter. Before it was like a month. Now it's closer to like two weeks with preseason games, you know? So they come in actually like... You know, one of the biggest things, strength and conditioning people don't understand is relationships. They think just train, train, train is the answer. But if you don't have a relationship at this level with a player, they're not gonna listen to you. So before they even start training camp, you know, majority, I'd say 90% of the players aren't in Denver training for the past three weeks. So when they hit the ground running, for the first week of training camp, they're pretty in good shape. So the first three weeks before training camp, I do a lot of strength. I'll keep it simple. I do a push-pull, squat, or hinge. But we're going to work. You're going to work hard, and I mean, you should be working when you're home. So, you know, I expect not to be like from zero. You know, I expect you to have some training during the summer.

So we're going to work on strength. You're gonna work on strength for the first two weeks, and then we start adding some conditioning, right? So the conditioning, I mean, players, basketball players, they hate the tracker. They hate treadmills. So we do everything on the court. So we use a good amount, so like, I like to do the 10 that we call. Which is baseline to baseline. That's like kind of one of my favorite drills. So you start baseline, go all the way, start at the baseline and back 10 times. Every time you touch one of the baselines, it counts as one. And at times that we get... So if it's under a minute and five, it's okay. 1:03, it's good. And under 1:00, a minute or under, it's very, very good, you know? So we used that for a conditioning drill, but at the same time, knowing that, you know, if you say like, "Hey, run this under 1:05" and you know, you can run in the high altitude in Denver, you got a one 1:07, 1:06 we'd be like, alright so he needs some conditioning, you know. So that's one of the drills. And you know, like I say, players don't like treadmills, but players also don't like running without their ball, the basketball. So another drill that I do is same thing. Baseline to baseline. Just you add something, just add a sport, a sport-specific thing.

I give them the ball. And so the drill would be like, Hey, you're gonna get to one side of the court and the other side of the court. You start with five dribbles alternating hands, or one hand, it's up to you. So they have five dribbles to cross the whole court. On the way back, five dribbles again. Next time, four dribbles. Up to like all the way down to two dribbles where, you know, they have to get there. Which just becomes pretty challenging, right? So we could talk to me about like traveling, all those things, but at the same time, I just want them to have the ball and have some things to go for. So we start with five dribbles, so five, four, three and two and go back up two, three, four, and five. And that's pretty much like running tens, but with the basketball. And it gets pretty entertaining, pretty competitive. Because you say like now two dribbles, they look at you like, "Well, like, what the heck? I'm just going to throw the ball." You know? And I was like...

Tristan: Do you still keep that under a minute? Or try to?

Felipe: Well, I mean, we do a 38, 39 seconds. So we do sixes for that. Yeah. So, you know, you add a ball, you add something when you're just running a becomes a little bit more and more challenging to run, you know?

Craig: Some aren't as interested in the treadmill when they've got other options like that. But a machine that I've heard that a lot of NBA players really like is the climber machines, like the max climber types of machines.

Felipe: VersaClimber.

Craig: That's what it is. All right. Tell me a little bit about that. Is that something that you ever use with your players?

Felipe: We do have a VersaClimber. We do VersaClimber classes during the summer. So it's a really high intensity machine. It's a really good machine, and started, you know, with a team, the NBA doing a lot of VersaClimbers, and then they add classes. And now everybody wants a VersaClimber. I like the VersaClimber for high intensity work. You know, because I mean, you can do a tabata. We can do a couple of tabatas on the VersaClimber and you'd be done. Or you can go for meters. And then you'd be like, if you really go hard, you'd be like really working your physiological and your physiology there. You know, we do use it. I mean, players love and hate. You know, one thing I don't like with the VersaClimber is some of our players are too big. You know, even though we have the extension for it, I just feel like that's not a natural position for the players, you know?

Craig: Got it. Okay. And so we talked a little bit about preseason types of workouts. How does that evolve? Say when you're in the middle of the season and the players should be in peak form, but potentially you've got some injuries and you want to prevent injuries as the rest of the season goes on. How does that change the strength and conditioning program for a team?

Felipe: Well, I mean, the first thing that I tell the players is consistency, right? So be consistent with me or be consistent with you. I mean, we have the deal, we're good. But like I said at the beginning, you know, we divide the groups by three groups. And I mean, the starters are going to be doing a lot more injury reduction, because I don't believe you can prevent an injury, but you can reduce the amount of injury that you can get. So we will work a lot on injury reduction exercises. And at the same time, my belief is, you got to just, you know, stay strong during the season. So we will find ways to lift weights. We will find a ways to lift heavy a couple of times a week. You know, give me one time, give me two times a week that we're going to lift heavy. And then players are like, "Well, we're playing every single day and we're playing..." We know our schedule is crazy and all this travel.

But what I do with the starters is I, you know, some players, for example, like on game day, they come in and do their movement trap. They do their vitamins, during the morning though. They go shoot, get ready, go play. After the game, I mean, we develop a, like we have up to five players coming up, and lifting after the game. They're all just five, like three starters. So even though they just played a game, even though they're depleted, if you don't get their workout in then, you're not going to have chance again. You know? So looking at the recovery, for the hours, that's one of the best times for you to get a workout in. I'm not saying when talking about hormones and all that, it's the best timing, but that's the only chance that we have.

So after the game, players are working out as well. If you are in the second group, the "stay-ready", you're going to lift a little bit heavier. So before games, the players come and it depends on their routine. They come and lift. And if you're in the develop group, just be ready as you get ready to get better. You're going to push hard. We're going to have your program ready to go. Just show up and show it. You know, just be ready.

Tristan: Sure. It's right there in the name. Be ready. So I'd like to ask personally, you've worked with than a few guys there in the Nuggets organization. With using names, without using names, is there a specific success story that you can tell us about? That maybe somebody came in, in that developmental group and eventually worked their way up to, you know, always ready. "The always ready group."

Felipe: Yeah, yeah. I mean, multiple stories. I mean, there was, you know, a player that came in and couldn't, literally couldn't hold a plank for 20 seconds. You know, people like ours, you know, our scouts just told us like, "Hey, we drafted this player. He has a good touch, you know, we're going to bring him in. Just try to work with him. If it works out fine, you know, let's just keep him going. He's tall, he's got a good chance. So, I mean, we worked, got his nutrition right, got everything, you know, like loved the weight room and, you know, became one of our best players, you know, if not the best player.

So, I mean, that's, you know, I can tell you three very similar stories, three, four, even more. I mean, a good thing or a very interesting thing about the Denver Nuggets is the organization never has had a number one draft pick. So majority of the players that are here now, for example if you look at our roster, we always have like, you know, we have a good amount of second rounders that they're pretty successful. They're pretty good. And we have a couple of, you know, first rounders as well, but the second rounders are, you know, there's guys drafted like number 40 something, so they're 40 players before them. And then, they became the best player on the team, you know? But I mean, that's just hard work and just believing in the system.

Tristan: I love it. I love to hear that. Let me ask you, here at Hustle, obviously we are all about using technology in our training. Is there any kind of tech that you use with the Nuggets organization and implement every day or every once in a while with those guys?

Felipe: Yeah, so I mean, we have the GPS, we use the connection. It's the GPS system that we put in their shorts. We clip to their shorts or put in their shorts. They have a pocket. So we use that to collect the total load. That's going to give us high speed, low speed, distance, change of direction, and all of that. That gives us a good amount of load, a total load, to show how well or if the player's tired or not, and you know, we can accumulate that and compare to game load. Game load, we're not allowed to wear any devices, any hardware, but we have cameras around the arena that measure a similar load that we have with our GPS system. So we know if a player is at a hundred accumulated load, and you know, he is at 150 on the game. That's like, he worked a lot harder in a game and he works at practice. So that's one thing that we do every day. We do RPs every day. We use the force plate a good amount. We try to do a couple of times a week, depends on traveling schedule. But that's like what we are using often. I mean, we use the GymAware as well, trying to collect RPU for the guys. Because like I said, it's tough to do like a... Not RPU, sorry, not RPU, [it's] 1RM. Because it's tough to get, you know, a 7'3" guy to bench like "Man, I should do a 1RM with the guys." So we tried to like... How can we get as close as possible to his 1RMs and make sure that he's getting better that day with the load that we prescribed him, you know?

Tristan: Yeah, and I'm sure as more and more of these technological tools come out, you folks will be implementing them as well and seeing what works best for you guys. Well, Coach, we definitely appreciate the time here today. Before we let you go, we want to get into something we do with all of our coaches. It's a little rapid fire round. We're just going to shoot some questions at you real quick. You come back with the first thing that comes to mind. Sound good?

Felipe: Sounds good.

Tristan: Alright. I'm going to start where I always start here. What is your favorite sports movie of all time?

Felipe: Space Jam.

Craig: Great. Looking forward to the sequel?

Felipe: Yeah.

Craig: Nice. My question is, what's your favorite basketball shoe of all time?

Felipe: Any Jordan, I mean, any Jordan. You give me a Jordan and I'm just pretty excited. It doesn't matter. I have some pretty weird color Jordans that a player gave to me and you know, players looking at me like, why are you wearing those colors? Like, well I got it for free cause they're Jordans. I feel like they're the most comfortable.

Tristan: Alright, Coach, best pregame meal that you would eat before a game?

Felipe: Beet juice, espresso, and a carbohydrate with a protein. So pasta and chicken.

Tristan: Wow. That's something we haven't heard before.

Craig: Yeah. Good stuff.

Felipe: Yeah. I mean, keep it simple. Right?

Tristan: Yeah.

Craig: On YouTube, are there any accounts that, that you follow where you end up getting tips?

Felipe: Yes. I mean, there's an account of like a good friend of mine. It's science for sports. That's Max Schmarzo and I'm always in touch with him. He's from Denver. I always talk to him and we also talk about training and, you know, sometimes we spend too much time talking about training, but it's a good account.

Tristan: Got it. You said that's signs and sports?

Felipe: Yeah. It's Strong By Science, sorry, the website is.

Tristan: Got it. Just want to make sure there's one, make sure I got it cause I like to look it up myself here. Alright. Last question here. What's the best pregame music to warm up to?

Felipe: Anything high, anything that's like high-intensity, like any hip hop. Drake, Drake and I don't know.

Tristan: Got it. Yeah. Anything with the high tempo, high intensity gets you going. Well, Coach. you definitely brought the intensity to this interview here. Appreciate your time again. Again, it's coach Felipe Eichenberger, Head Strength Coach for the Denver Nuggets organization there in the NBA. We appreciate your time here. Definitely a lot of insight for our young guys out there, and I think there's more than a couple of morsels that they can pick out of this one. Coach. Appreciate the time, and hopefully we can check in with you down the line.

Felipe: Sounds good. Thank you guys for the opportunity. Again, anything you need from me, just let me know.