How the New York Knicks train

Bar Malik, the team's strength coach, talks nutrition, regeneration, and more.

Mubarak “Bar” Malik brings a wealth of knowledge to his position as the director of performance for the New York Knicks. After graduating from West Chester University with a BS in exercise and movement science and getting his MS in movement science, Malik worked on training programs for baseball players and then military special ops forces. Now in his fourth year with the Knicks, he is responsible for designing and overseeing the players' strength and conditioning workouts. While his path to working with NBA players wasn’t linear, it’s precisely this unique background that Malik credits for his success. We spoke with him about pro basketball, regeneration tips, and more.

Stay tuned for more coverage on Facebook Live when Furthermore goes courtside with the Knicks on February 27.

How did working with baseball players and military personnel help shape your current training philosophy for the Knicks?

“Baseball is unlike any other sport because you’re playing every day during the season. There’s not as much downtime. You have to figure out how to overload the nervous system just enough to allow [the players'] performance to be affected in a positive manner, while also allowing for recovery time. Showing up and paying attention every day for 162 games (to be able to modify the training program) takes a lot of mental endurance. Focusing on the details so much more critically and building that mental fortitude was a great experience for me and something I was able to bring to the NBA. With the military, I was thrown into completely different experiences. I learned that the human body is able to do whatever the mind is able to do. In piloting a program for the special ops, I had to take into account that the average age is 32. The program had to be all-encompassing: in addition to building core strength and mobility, it had to address sleep and nutrition. We looked at the different ways the nervous system responds to stress and tracked saliva, for example, to see how well they were recovering. Saliva can show if you’re dehydrated or over-training. With the Knicks, it’s also a well-rounded approach. We use tools that help us monitor the nervous system such as heart rate trackers. We’re always trying to balance the ‘controllables’ (the imposed demands of the game such as the distance covered running) versus the ‘uncontrollables’ (each athlete has a different heart rate response, tissue response) and tailor our program as much as possible based on these factors.”

Do you customize routines for each player?

“Yes, it’s individualized. The structure and training philosophy here focuses on the entire athlete. Members in each department of the team come together to develop a routine for each player. Before the start of every game and each day of practice we go through an assessment and look at the demands of the player’s position, their training history, previous injuries, and age. A lot of people think that training is just lifting weights. That’s the easiest part of the job. If you load the tissue up enough it’ll adapt more. But there are so many variables, external and internal, that fluctuate day to day. When they play 60 minutes of overtime for example, that changes everything. Overtime is a huge challenge, physiologically. It’s non-stop looking at information (how much did they run compared to last week or the week before?) and changing the program daily to fit each player.”

What challenges do you face while on the road?

“It can be hard to fit in workouts. You definitely can’t fit all of the players in a hotel gym. We over-pack. My room looks like a second equipment room. When you’re at home you have the luxury of using your own tools and facilities and the flow of the day runs itself. But when you’re on the road you don’t have that. I want to manage the variables, not the athletes, so I’ll bring all the equipment: portable cold tubs, compression gear, and trigger point therapy kits."

What advice do you have for things to do (or not to do) pre- and post-workout?

“Pre-workout, we need to prepare our bodies and make sure that the areas that need mobility have the range of motion. This starts with soft tissue work. As we age, we forget that our bodies need to be warmed up. This is true for everyone, not just elite basketball players. Prime your body with 10 to 15 minutes of dynamic flexibility. Avoid static stretching. Post-workout, recovery is huge. Take a cold bath within three hours of activity, which you can do anywhere. Put some ice in your hotel room bath and make sure it’s 53 degrees or cooler. Do this for six to 10 minutes. It shuts down the vessels that allow for blood flow to clean out the lactate and helps you recover a lot quicker.”

How do you maximize regeneration?

“We survey the players to see how much sleep they’re getting since sleep is such an important part of regeneration. We encourage them to take micronaps that are one to two hours long and work on techniques to help unwind, such as meditation. Our director of medical is very into the mindfulness aspect. The players have access to the Headspace app. It doesn’t take long: it can be 10 minutes of meditation, where you focus on breathing. The team also has scheduled mindfulness sessions. Some of the guys are more into it than others, but it’s something we believe in as part of the training culture. And if two guys benefit from it, great. I’m also a fan of compression pants. I find the 20 to 40mmHG are the best fabric technology for sports recovery.”

How does nutrition play a role?

“Nutrition is key. For the players and athletes in general, I think the biggest thing is to eat often, 4 to 5 meals per day, that incorporate a good protein, a good carb, and fruit. Eat your colors. There’s a nutritionist who works with each of the players individually. Since basketball is an indoor sport, a lot of the guys don’t get enough vitamin D exposure. We’ll have fresh juicing stations around so they can supplement with things like beetroot extract to get extra nutrients.”

Any standout moments working with the team?

“We have 10 new guys on the roster. They all have different backgrounds. The challenge is to get these players who haven’t been exposed to this system [of training] to buy-in immediately before the season starts. We strive to get our team to become compliant so every day we know what to expect and they know what to expect. To see that materialize has been the biggest success story for me. In the NBA, everything isn’t mandatory. We technically are only required to have two official lifting sessions a week. We do four and they all show up. To see that on recovery-optional days, the guys who you’ve only had for five to six months all show up, that’s when I know they bought in. To see that happen, that they trust what you’re trying to get them to do, it’s a big win.”