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Strongman contest tests limits for Lobo basketball

UNM basketball guard Tavian Percy pushes and flips a big tire in front of Tyler Stuart, the team’s director of strength and conditioning. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

J.J. Caldwell was warned.

When visiting Albuquerque in the past year and contemplating whether or not to join the UNM men’s basketball team, current Lobo players told him about the running.

They warned him about the conditioning.

They even sent him videos of them going through the mad scientist-type workouts of Lobo basketball’s director of strength and conditioning, Tyler Stuart.

So, he wasn’t surprised when it was his turn to stare down his first “Pit run” of the offseason. The regular exercise entails players running down one set of concrete steps in Dreamstyle Arena and back up the next row of concrete steps – about 1,200 steps in all around the lower bowl of the historic venue.

But after not having been a part of a regular conditioning program since his removal from the Texas A&M basketball team in January 2018, Caldwell wasn’t happy about having to partake in the program’s strenuous offseason conditioning program, either.

“I was mad at first when I first had to do it,” said Caldwell. “But once you’re locked in and tell yourself you’re going to have to do it anyway, then it gets easier. Tyler can probably tell you, I had struggles. I threw up so many times. But it’s good.”

Stuart, who like Lobos head coach Paul Weir is entering his third season running that aspect of Lobo basketball, said he recalls Caldwell’s anger about the work.

“When you come into our program, and how we do things and how much coach (Weir) and I emphasize conditioning and toughness, it can be frustrating,” said Stuart. “Yeah, he was mad. He was angry. But I’ll take that any day of the week as long as you’re angry and you do it. … With him, he’s attacked everything. He wasn’t pouting about it. There was no ‘woe is me’.”

Stuart has, for three offseasons now, orchestrated a strenuous approach to getting the Lobos ready not just for a college basketball season, but one with a brand of basketball admittedly not adopted by most teams.

In addition to the strenuous offseason – spring and summer – workout demands, the “magic bullet” training method for Stuart is a five-week “strongman” contest for the team that takes place shortly after classes start each fall semester and leads up until shortly before the first official practices of the season, which for the Lobos began last week.

At first glance, or at any glance, the strongman competition looks nothing like basketball.

A new discipline is introduced each week, and the players are timed as they complete the exercises, starting with flipping a 500-pound tire for about 40 yards. From there, there is a yoke carry (an apparatus players lift on their shoulders), a “farmer’s carry” that includes two handles and weights, a rope pull attached to a heavy sled and the final week includes a truck push of more than 100 yards.

Stuart says a lot of conditioning plans challenge either the mental or physical approach to getting in shape.

“Strongman finds a great balance between the two,” he said. “It’s both mental and physical. You’ve got to have it altogether, focused and locked in before you start, but you also have to have the conditioning for it.

“The strongman – the reason I’ve been using it for so long is because it transfers everything we’ve done in the weight room to the floor better than anything.”

But how does this actually help basketball?

“You’re moving at a bunch of different planes of motion,” Stuart said. “Just like sport, which can get quite chaotic, especially a contact sport like basketball, your body through the course of play is going to be asked to move and be strong in a lot of different ranges of motion and a lot of different angles.”

As for the players, Stuart said it’s not uncommon for second- or third-year players to be significantly better at the strongman than newcomers.

Junior forward Makuach Maluach, a thin 6-foot-5 guard when he arrived two years ago with UNM, enters his third season as a 6-7, 200-pounder who won this year’s strongman. Stuart said Maluach edged senior post player Carlton Bragg, but Stuart was also “really happy with where Vance (Jackson) has come from last year to this year” and singled out sophomore Tavian Percy and newcomer Vante Hendrix, a transfer from Utah, as the others who stood out this offseason.

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