A letter from camp: Scenes from Michigan basketball's vaunted summer workout program

By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Writer
Published August 17, 2014

One by one, and then all at once, they enter the weight room with business to attend to.

There’s some catching up for a few players, a little good-natured ribbing for others, but most noticeably, there’s a quiet nervousness coming from the freshmen clustered at the training tables.

Some of the players’ parents are in town to watch practice, but this is hardly a social affair. There is work to be done for the Michigan men’s basketball team, and it starts in the back room of the William Davidson Player Development Center.

Standing in the center of the 5,500-square foot room is its designer, strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, watching players file in.

A former basketball player at Ohio State, Sanderson has held his post at Michigan for five years, churning out more than his share of vastly improved players. Those players’ names and faces adorn the walls of his dojo — a constant reminder to everyone who enters just what can be accomplished within those walls.

Those accomplishments start here, with offseason lifts and practices that have earned the moniker “Camp Sanderson.”

Motivation is a cornerstone of what Sanderson asks from his players at “camp,” so there’s no shortage of it anywhere in the building. Trey Burke’s Associated Press National Player of the Year trophy is front and center in the lobby, sharing a case with Michigan’s 2013 South Regional Championship hardware.

A plaque on the back wall, evidently posted in 2012, boasts some of Sanderson’s most famous products. In comparison to NBA Combine results from the players’ base testing, the progress is staggering.

Among the highlights are Burke’s vertical jump — from 23rd in 2011 to 1st in 2012 — and Tim Hardway Jr.’s ¾ court sprint — 45th in 2011 to 1st in 2012. And that’s without mention of the improvements he facilitated for Nik Stauskas or Caris LeVert.

The lift that’s about to begin isn’t part of the spring program that most people credit for the major improvements by Stauskas, LeVert and company, but it’s part of the process.

It's the process, not the numbers from an NBA combine or the awards at the end of the season, that matter to Sanderson. And to a team that needs to be stronger now, one that just lost six players, the process has never been more important.


If you’ve watched college basketball in the last three years, odds are you’ve seen the fruits of Camp Sanderson.

But you haven’t seen the charts and spreadsheets planning each workout, all tailored to each individual player.

In Sanderson’s time at Michigan, he has had just two players who needed to drop weight — now-departed forwards Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan. Everyone else is tasked with adding size and teaching the body to make efficient use of its muscle mass.

“People think heavy weights get you big and bulky,” Sanderson said. “But it’s completely opposite. Light-moderate weights with lots of volume and with lots of eating get you big and bulky. Heavy weights with low amounts of reps gets you really strong and make your nervous system really efficient at producing force.”

In a broad sense, Sanderson has three phases of lifting: General Preparation Phase (GPP), Basic Strength training, and Max Strength training. GPP is about lifting low weights in high volume, trying to build a strong base and sheer size to the muscle.

Because of the sheer muscular trauma in GPP, players develop a strong working capacity. That working capacity is key to the process in terms of injury prevention and also expands the potential gains players can make.

“Bigger muscles have more force potentials — they can produce more force,” Sanderson said. “You get big jumps in your vertical jump, your speed, and your ability when you can produce (more) force on the ground.”

Once that force potential — the idea that the more your max is, the more force you can exert — is there, they move to moderate weights. They begin with about 80-85 percent of the players’ max capacity, four to six times — in the Basic Strength phase. Then players gradually push themselves until its time to test in Max Strength, where the ultimate gains are revealed.

It takes a lot of work and a lot of motivation to see those gains. But Sanderson says those have been nearly automatic for players lately.

“I think in this program, with our culture, they see all the success,” Sanderson said. “From day one, they’re very interested and very engaged I don’t have to sell this whole thing. There’s pretty much an immediate buy in. That’s what happens when you win two Big Ten Championships and get to an Elite Eight and a Final Four.”

Already, freshman forward Kameron Chatman has told Sanderson he’ll be spending next spring and summer in Ann Arbor. He wants to go through the same program Stauskas, Burke, LeVert — and most recently sophomore guard Derrick Walton Jr. and sophomore forward Zak Irvin — have gone through.


In the back section of Sanderson’s weight room, any nervousness from freshmen has long since dissipated. Lil Wayne’s “She Will” is blaring through the speakers while the players go through their dynamic stretch routine, the one they do before every workout, year round.

The team moves to the medicine balls and the yelling starts., the music no longer audible. Sanderson doesn’t have to do much coaching at this point. He’s setting up the next stations, his expression business as usual.

This is his model at work, the desired modus operandi of a program that has quickly climbed the ranks of the nation’s finest. Quick to deflect any praise from himself, Sanderson prefers training methods that are “time tested and true.

“(The program Michigan runs is) not gimmicky, it’s really sound scientifically,” he says. “I think that’s what gets results.”

Sanderson’s forte, Olympic lifts, are what his team moves to next, separating into teams grouped by size, strength and age.

Walton Jr. and Irvin form one pair, Dakich and sophomore forward Sean Lonergan another. All the freshmen except one are grouped together, doing a slightly different lift tailored to the stage they are at in their progression.

“What we do is we teach top-down. The power position is the top position (around the waist,)” Sanderson said. “Then you teach mid-thigh, knee, then below the knee, on blocks.”

Most of the freshmen are working on power snatches from the knee level.

The lone exception is freshman forward Ricky Doyle, who finds himself matched with sophomore forward Mark Donnal at the station nearest the door.

“(Doyle) reported early, so I got an extra five weeks with him,” Sanderson said. “So he basically got the equivalent of what Caris and Nik got. He’s just more proficient (than his classmates.) I haven’t re-tested him on our NBA Combine testing, but I’m sure we would see some big gains already.”

As far along as he may be relative to his classmates, Doyle is far from perfect on the bar. Paired with Donnal — whom Sanderson believes may have the best technique of the bunch — he’s getting as much value watching his teammate as he is lifting the weight himself.

“Triples, let’s go!” Sanderson shouts, springing the first lifter of each pair toward the bar.

“Set one!” The players respond in unison.

After he has watched Donnal do his first rep nearly perfectly, Sanderson interrupts Doyle’s first lift, making an apparent adjustment to his stance.

Around the room, there is plenty of grimacing, but even more encouragement.

“Whatchu got, 23?” Someone shouts toward LeVert, who pulls up the bar and flexes a surprising set of biceps.

Across the room from him is Doyle, getting ready for his next turn. Sanderson watches closely and intervenes once again to change Doyle’s grip.

In a program that is all about repetition, it’s important not to get into bad lifting habits, and Sanderson makes sure no one does.

Just then, Beilein walks in with a pair of recruits and their families. Hearing Lil Wayne’s “Every Girl” over the speakers, Beilein cracks a joke to his tour group.

“They’re using my playlist.”

They all laugh, but one recruit is stuck staring with wide eyes at Doyle, who is now repping the weight with great form. Beilein gestures around the room, smiling, visibly proud of the work he is seeing.

No Wolverines break their sets to acknowledge their coach. Beilein checks in with freshman forward DJ Wilson, who is left to stretch on training tables with a broken pinky. He also says a few words to Doyle, but only between lifts, and then leaves the team to their work.


This Sunday lift is just the appetizer of a three-hour night for the Wolverines, but you’d never know it watching them.

As the team starts their final set, they do so knowing they have a two-hour practice to follow and another, shorter lift after that.

Doyle picks up the bar, but quickly drops it back down. There are 185 pounds on it now, nearly double the weight that was on during the first set. He’s done the rep twice following more lifting before that, and his muscles are giving him resistance.

He tries again, with the same result. As everyone puts away the weights, it seems as though he’ll have to settle one rep short.

But then, he steps back, saying, “Let’s go, I got this.”

He hits the rep, gets a pat on the back from Donnal.

“He’s a very determined kid,” Sanderson said. “He really is.”

So he files out with the rest of his team. It's another day at camp.