Friday, October 2, 2009

Getting Pervis Back in Service - By Bob Whelan

Reprinted with permission of Hardgainer, Vol. 9, No. 3 (November-December 1997)

I was checking my messages in mid-July and heard, “Hi Bob, this is Shaun Brown, the strength and conditioning coach of the Boston Celtics. I’d like to speak with you about the possibility of training Pervis Ellison, who lives in the DC area in the off season, until he reports to us in Boston in late September.” That was a phone call I answered right away! I was born and raised in the Boston area and have been a Celtics fan my whole life. There is no other team in the world that I would rather help.

After I spoke with Shaun he said he would call Pervis to see if he was interested, but Pervis had to be willing. This had to be a voluntary decision, not one forced upon him. If Pervis did not want to do it, that would be the end of it. As it turned out, Pervis was very interested, and willing to try anything to revive his basketball career. Pervis is a 6-10 center, and was the first player chosen in the NBA draft in 1989. He won the NCAA championship while at the University of Louisville, but so far has not reached his full potential in the pro’s due to his many injuries.

The background

While in college, Pervis was nicknamed “Never Nervous Pervis” for his clutch play in playoffs. In the pro’s, however, it’s been a different story. Danny Ainge, a former teammate of Pervis with the Sacramento Kings, nicknamed him “Out of Service Pervis.” Pervis has had both of his knees operated on twice. His left knee, especially, has been giving him problems since he shattered his left knee cap a few years ago. Over the last few years Pervis has spent more time in the whirlpool than on the court. But when he plays, he does great. He has excellent production based on time played.

A few days later, Shaun flew down to my place in Washington and we went over Pervis’ training. We hit it off well, as our training philosophies are very similar. Shaun is a no-BS hardcore guy. He has to be to work for Rick Pitino, the Celtics’ new coach and President, who is a fanatic about team strength and conditioning. (Shaun also worked for Coach Pitino at The University of Kentucky.) The Celtics have gone from “the outhouse” to “the penthouse” as far as their strength and conditioning program is concerned. According to Pervis, last year the players were “on their own” for strength training. They would just “dabble with the weights” when they felt like it. Their equipment was little more than a Universal machine. This year, under Rick Pitino and Shaun Brown, they will have about fifteen new Hammer Strength machines to work with. They will have even more equipment next year when their state-of-the-art training complex is finished. They will also have Shaun Brown “in their faces” for every workout. They will be one of the best, if not the best conditioned team in the league.

Pervis arrived a little later, with his agent Bill Strickland. We all found a machine to sit on (or lean against), as I have no unused space. Shaun did most of the talking, explaining to Pervis our training program. Pervis has never consistently trained hard with weights.

Pervis has been with poor, losing teams his whole pro career—ones that had poorly-run strength-training programs. Shaun and I both believe that what Pervis needed was to train his whole body hard and consistently, with an organized and personalized high-intensity program. His knee problems were mainly cartilage ones (not tendon or ligament) that have been repaired (or “cleaned out”) surgically. We were not going to retreat from working his legs. Not working his legs has got him nowhere in the past except to the whirlpool. We were going to attack the problem and have him work his whole body with emphasis on his legs, to strengthen his “weak link” and make his knee joints more stable. Pervis was enthusiastic and ready to get started.

Getting down to business

We then put him through a workout, but did not hit him too hard. Shaun and I both took turns to work him, but we did not want to “cripple” him and scare him away. I wanted him to come back. Our next workout was in just a few days and I didn’t want any cancellations. Pervis thought he had been put through the wringer during that first workout, but he hadn’t seen anything yet.

During Pervis’ first workout (in front of his agent) we found out important things about his training, such as prior injuries, range of motion limitations, proper poundage to use, and any pain felt. He had no upper-body problems. Only his knees “sometimes” bothered him. We started each exercise light and moved him up to find the right training poundages to start out at. We also found the correct settings for him in machine exercises.

Once his training poundages and range-of-motion adjustments were documented, he was ready to go for the next workout. (On the Tru-Squat, I started him on a partial squat, down to only about 6 inches above parallel. Then over the course of a few workouts I moved him, hole by hole, down to parallel-depth squatting.) Remember that Pervis is a professional athlete and only 30 years old. Even with his gimpy knees he is in tremendous shape when compared to the average person off the street. A regular middle-age guy off the street would need several weeks as an adjustment/break-in period before training hard.

The next workout I gave Pervis the same two-hour orientation that I give everyone else. I also had him order The Psychology of Winning and The Magic of Thinking Big (see last issue), and gave him a copy of Brawn. After orientation I had Pervis do a “Fifties Day” workout. He got a kick out of the fifties music playing. I had him do fifty reps on the Tru-Squat, Horizontal Tru-Press, Hammer Behind Neck Press, Hammer Iso-Lateral Row, and Hammer Pulldown. (A weight was selected for each exercise that was heavy enough to require several sets to failure in order to complete the 50 reps.) We also did some extremely slow reps just for his left leg (weakest knee) on the Hammer Iso-Lateral Leg Press. We did extra stretching, ab work, and grip work, and I even initiated Pervis with a visit to sandbag alley. I had to help him get the 150-lb bag up to bear-hug position, but once he got his arms around it he managed to get it up and down the course. Pervis really worked his ass off!

I push Pervis real hard, but good form always comes ahead of poundage with me. I make Pervis use flawless form to minimize the chance of injuries.

He told me that those 50 reps on the Tru-Squat got his legs and glutes so sore that he had to use his baby’s foam-padded toilet training seat for a few days (even though he could barely fit onto -it). Now that’s sore! Pervis loves the Tru-Squat (Southern Xercise 800-348-4907, see my article on page 47 of issue #49). But being 6-10 he could never come close to doing a parallel squat with a barbell.

Training specifics

Pervis’ strength-training workouts had a core structure. We always started with a warmup consisting of five minutes of cardiovascular work immediately followed by ab work and static stretching. Then came five multi-joint major movements: (1) Horizontal Tru-Press (or Hammer Chest Press), (2) Hammer Row, (3) Tru-Squat (or Hammer Leg Press), (4) Hammer Behind Neck Press, (5) Hammer Pulldown. I use a lot of variety as some workouts are done with 3 straight sets per exercise, some in breakdown style, some with one arm or leg at a time (i.e., dumbbell style, as all my machines are iso-lateral—can be used one limb at a time), some are done barbell style (i.e., with both arms or legs working simultaneously). Plus once a month there’s a fifties day, and at another workout each month there is a slow day. We do a variety of manual resistance almost every workout (especially for inner and outer thighs, and hamstrings). Time permitting we do additional slow work for his weak leg, plus curls, grip work, and a sandbag carry.

I see most of my regular clients only twice a week, for just strength training. Pervis is almost a part-time job. I spend 2-3 hours per day with him, usually four days a week. I do conditioning (e.g., running drills on a basketball court), plus cardiovascular work and extra stretching with him. We train with weights on Monday and Thursday. On Tuesday and Friday we go to Catholic University (where I was the strength and conditioning coach several years ago, and still have a few contacts) to run on the quarter-mile track, swim in the pool, and do running drills on the basketball court. Sometimes he uses the Stairmaster instead of the swimming. I’m pretty much on my own with the strength-training part of the program, but defer to Shaun and follow his program to the letter for the conditioning part.


Pervis is getting stronger each workout, and has gained almost 20 lbs of muscle over the summer. His playing weight was under 235 lbs last year. He is a few pounds over 250 at the time of this writing. He will get even bigger and stronger because Shaun will work him real hard all season long. So far, his knees are feeling better than ever. The intensive running has caused his back some problems and he had to lay off a few times, but nothing serious. To help counter this problem we do a lot of stretching, and alter the intensity of the running. But he will have to be able to run hard to play for Rick Pitino.

Pervis is so big that a 20-lb gain in bodyweight only had the visual effect of a 10-lb gain on a regular-size guy. I advised him to eat a good breakfast every day. He has three main meals that include 5-9 portions of fruits and vegetables, and at least 8 glasses of water per day. A simple vitamin-mineral pill per day was the only supplement he took. I also had him eat two cans of tuna per day (between meals), one in mid-morning and one in the afternoon. So he had five feedings per day. I also encouraged him to drink a lot of skim milk each day. Natural food is the best protein supplement. The strength training has greatly increased his appetite, so he has no problem eating!

Shaun flies down the DC every 2-3 weeks to watch me put Pervis through his paces. The more Pervis sweats and screams, the bigger the smile on Shaun’s face. We have daily progress reports on the phone after each workout. Believe it or not, Pervis really likes the strength-training part of the program and realizes how important this could be to his career.

Pervis has made great short-term gains despite the fact that he has missed more than a few planned workouts (especially the running). But when he trains, he really works very hard. He will come to three workouts in a row, and then not show up. Then he will come back and work extremely hard for another week, and then miss a workout. Mind you, considering how well he has progressed, perhaps he needed the unplanned extra rest days in order to fully recover from each group of intensive workouts. Pervis has the potential to be as big and strong as Karl Malone if he applies totally commitment.

Since Rick Pitino took over, the Celtics have made so many roster changes that only a few players from last year remain on the team. Pervis could be a member of the Miami Heat of some other NBA team by the time this article comes out. But I hope he stays with the Celtics and is able to contribute. High-intensity strength training is just what Pervis needs to get back on the court and reach his full potential. If he stays with the Celtics, Shaun will make him train year round. It could be the piece of the puzzle that was missing for him to play regularly and injury-free.

Lessons to learn

There are many lessons that regular trainees can learn from Pervis’ strength training. Even an elite level guy needs to adapt to a new training program, determine safe ranges of motion, apply correct form, train very hard and briefly, eat every three hours or so, follow a sound diet that includes fruit, vegetables and plenty of water, and focus on progressive poundages in good form. The formula works for Pervis and my other clients, and it will work for you too.

“Maximum” Bob Whelan runs Whelan Strength Training in Washington, DC.
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