Longtime NBA Strength Coach Steve Hess on How To Train Like a Top Prospect

The former Denver Nuggets director of performance talks training programs and the best workouts for basketball players.

Strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess works with Timofey Mozgov #25 of the Denver Nuggets during the first day of training camp on December 9, 2011 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA Draft marks one of the biggest moments in a basketball player's life. The moment an athlete's name is called by the NBA commissioner is the culmination of all the hard work, training, and dedication he's put in over the years to achieve something most athletes will only dream of. 

But before the draft, they need to make it through the Combine, which is the league's way of testing players' strength, speed, agility, and power to determine their overall level of athleticism. Tests include timed sprints, bench pressing, vertical jump, and agility drills—not the sort of physical test you'd want to show up unprepared for.

It goes without saying that it takes tons of hard work and training to make it to the NBA, but few people know exactly what it takes better than former Denver Nuggets strength coach Steve Hess. Hess, who now serves as the chief performance officer at Panorama Sports Institute, worked more than 15 NBA Draft Combines during his 20-year career with the Nuggets. He helped train new players and show them the fitness level they'd need to maintain to last in the league. 

Along the way, Hess has developed some core principles to keep players on track and get them fitter. One thing he stresses in that players should always “prepare with intent” and “smash” every workout. What does that mean, exactly? Here’s how Hess explains it. 

“Training with intent puts you in the moment to focus on that very rep,” Hess told Muscle & Fitness. “Be conscious of everything you do, and make sure you train, fuel, hydrate, and recover with purpose. Focus on everything you do and do it with 100% effort. If you’re smashing your workouts, that means you’re making sure you absolutely benefit from every second of the workout. If that occurs, we smashed the workout. Over time, huge improvements will ultimately happen.”

Hess spoke with Muscle & Fitness about how he develops a workout program, what the NBA Combine test is like, and the nutritional tactics that keep him and his players fueled through every workout.   

M&F: You have decades of experience working with NBA players and helping athletes prepare for the NBA Draft. What are some of the ways you train your athletes to prepare for the NBA Combine test?

Hess: Every test is broken down and trained for by itself, so players learn the skills precisely. Once an athlete has mastered every test, I'll test them in the exact order in which they will be tested at the Combine. While they train for the tests, I will create a strength, power and endurance training program they can transfer with appropriate mechanics to basketball. My programs are individually designed and created to maximize the athlete’s performance by fully understanding their particular physiology and their particular goal.

How do you assess athletes to find what areas you need to focus on for a training program?

At Panorama Wellness and Sport Institute, we have created a performance profile for our athletes giving us their exact fingerprints. We have a multi-factor testing system which includes muscular skeletal analysis, glycolytic muscular content, lean mass, muscle age, V02 max and nutritional analysis. Can’t beat it.

What’s some advice you'd give recreational athletes for being successful in their training?

Prepare, prepare, prepare! Have your food pre-measured and ready to go. Have a basic workout plan that can be modified on the fly. Get things done in the morning. Always stay hydrated and remember, you have to sleep to recover. Be smart and understand what you are trying to achieve. Go slowly, eat appropriately, and understand the difference between sore and injured and embrace that it is going to be challenging.

You’ve worked quite a few NBA Combines in your career—how have they changed over the years? How has your preparation and training with your athletes changed over that time? 

The structure of the NBA Combine has stayed similar from year to year, but the measuring techniques have become more advanced. I feel organizations have become better educated as to what it all means. My training has become much more precise and my only concern when preparing an athlete is his/her success in all they do. My attention to detail is precise and I give all my athletes my undivided attention when I am with them.

What’s your philosophy when you develop a workout program? 

It is dependent on the time of year—pre-, post- or in-season, athlete requirements, athlete goals and ultimately designing it according to the structural and physiological limits of the athlete. We’re looking to slowly overload the body appropriately to enhance physiological benefits. Helping all my athletes feel great from the inside out while maximizing performance is not always easy.

What are the ways you recommend for athletes to fuel their training before and after their workouts?

I always endorse a well-balanced meal two hours before a workout—usually 5-6oz of protein with approximately 2 cups of carbs and some fruit. I love rice and chicken and anything which doesn’t create gastrointestinal stress before a workout. That’s a meal I usually consume an hour after I have eaten a MET-Rx Big 100 meal replacement bar. I recommend getting in plenty of water during the workout and try to throw in some branch chain amino acids. Finally, recover with a protein shake post-workout. I recommend the MET-Rx RTD 51 shake—it includes 3 different types of proteins that all digest at a different speed. I would then follow with a balanced meal adding in more fats from salmon or avocado.

What are the most important areas to strengthen for a basketball player for the Combine and the NBA Draft?

Your mind is the strongest thing you have. You must work on mental strength. Your stability and strength start in the feet, then your legs, core, and upper body all have to work together to create the ultimate machine. When everything works together and very few muscles are shut down, you have the opportunity to hit your full potential. In my opinion, the best athletes don’t necessarily move from A to B more effectively than us. They compensate better, helping them by improving their function in motion.

How do you prepare yourself and your athletes and fuel them for working out?

MET-Rx is great because it has products for every moment in the day to help your fitness regimen. Before or after your workout and even for a snack as you’re on the go. Their products are packed with protein and gives you the fuel to smash a workout and take it to the next level. Love their scientific formulas which absolutely enhance recovery and improve my ability to rebuild quality muscle.

What are your go-to products for yourself and your athletes in your training?

My go-to MET-Rx product is the BIG 100 Meal Replacement bar. It’s packed with up to 32g of protein and is a great tasting way to fuel up on demand, whether that’s before or after a workout, or when you’re hungry during the day and need quality nutrition, instead of that burger or slice of pizza. The Super Cookie Crunch flavor is my favorite, but they all taste great. Other products that I recommend to my athletes are the MET-Rx RTD51 shakes, 51g of slow digesting protein for extended muscle support, and the Ultramyosyn Whey Protein Isolate powders for lean mass, strength and exercise recovery.

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