The Training Plan Damian Lillard Used to Return to the Court Stronger Than Ever - Men's Health Magazine Australia

The Training Plan Damian Lillard Used to Return to the Court Stronger Than Ever

NBA star Damian Lillard’s journey back from a major injury spurred a new outlook on life – and his tactics show how anyone can recover from setbacks stronger and better than ever. (Plus: more comeback tips from Jamal Murray, P. J. Tucker and Grant Hill)

Damian Lillard knows this drill well – but it’s never felt this good. He grabs the thick black handle of the giant machine, called a Proteus Motion, in front of him. The handle is attached to a black tube, which slides in and out of the massive, rotating machine opposite Lillard. An LCD screen sits to the left, tracking his every (power-laden) movement.

Lillard is in Gem Fitness (aka the Lions Den), a gym that sits on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. It’s a multi-room facility that blends classic equipment (dumbbells, sleds and a single trap bar tucked between a wall and a treadmill) with more unusual gear, like the Proteus, a handful of pneumatic resistance machines and a mini barbell with grips that slide across it (for better biceps curls). On one wall in the main room, there’s a picture of Lillard, standing, ripped and shirtless and seven kilograms heavier. It was taken during the pandemic, when he showed up here daily and was in the best shape of his life. Back then, he says, “I was just training to train”. 

Now he has new purpose: back in January, the 32-year-old Portland Trail Blazers star shut things down after months (correction: years) struggling with a core-muscle injury, and he could only watch (actually, he barely watched; more on that later) as his teammates stumbled to their worst record in 17 years. It was one of the lowest points in Lillard’s storied 10-year NBA career – but he’s turned it into an opportunity. Since then, he’s happily embraced a challenge that almost every guy is destined to face: a comeback. This moment is part of that. The 188-cm guard plants his feet, exhales loudly, and starts twisting his torso and hips to the right, pulling the handle back as he does. Then he shifts explosively to the left, abs tensing, grip tightening. Each twist lights up Lillard’s obliques, abs and hip stabilisers – and a few months ago, each twist would have made him grimace. Not today. Thirty seconds later, he releases the handle and smiles. He gives a silent nod to his longtime trainer, Cem Eren, then walks up to an oversized treadmill set to an incline. “Just being able to get through my workouts strong and comfortable,” he says, “it’s been a blast.” 

Lillard is fully rehabbed from his core muscle injury, but he continues to train hard at the Lions Den, doing everything from uphill sprints to twists on the Proteus Motion to bodyweight core moves. PHOTOGRAPHY by Nils Ericson.

Coming back from injury is a skill, and like any skill, anyone can master it. This NBA season, that skill is on display. From New Orleans big man Zion Williamson (foot surgery) to Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (torn ACL) to Aussie star Ben Simmons (back surgery) to a host of other big names, this season is full of major-injury comebacks. And every bounceback includes lessons that go beyond the physical, because recovering from injury is as much about rebuilding  your mind as it is about regenerating muscle tissue. 

Damian Lillard knows. He enters this season physically refreshed, and that’s on display during his photo shoot with MH. When somebody tentatively asks him to dunk, instead of worrying about his abs and groin, he coolly bends his knees, then effortlessly explodes upwards like a coiled spring. He glances around afterwards, as if to make sure everyone saw. Then he dunks again. 

His remade body is matched by a new mental approach. Before his injury, like most athletes, he thought himself immortal. Now he’s acutely aware that his body might fail him – and that even his legacy isn’t permanent. His eyes narrow as he quietly focuses on another set on the Proteus. “Subconsciously, I did think I was bulletproof,” he says of his pre-injury mindset. “Now I’m trying to bulletproof myself.”

PHOTOGRAPHY by Nils Ericson

Trouble brewing

Before all that, Damian Lillard had to admit he had a problem. This was a process. He first felt the searing pain along the inside of his right thigh in 2014. The Blazers were in training camp, and Lillard remembers his right lower abdominal area “started locking up” late in a practice session. “I couldn’t bend. I couldn’t run. It was just really uncomfortable,” he says. A day later, he felt the same thing in practice. Weeks later, the pain seemed to go away. Halfway through the regular season, it returned. 

The pain was almost always there after that, even when Lillard was at his best. Early in the 2019 season, he recalls dropping a career-high 60 points on the Brooklyn Nets, drawing raves from fans and friends. “And I remember limping into the house,” he says. “I was literally bending over.” 

Lillard was dealing with athletic pubalgia, a condition often mislabelled as a “sports hernia”. Essentially, his inner thigh muscles had torn slightly, and that was disrupting his movement at the hip. And partly because he’d played through the injury, it was slowly wrecking his abdominal muscles. “It’s like a groin injury that moves up into the abdominal wall,” says physical therapist Erik Meira, who would eventually oversee Lillard’s recovery. “It’s not a sensation that you can mentally block out and just go past.” 

Except Lillard did exactly that for seven years. But with each season, the pain increased. Last year, he couldn’t ignore it. “I started feeling like my body couldn’t do what my mind wanted it to do,” he says. 

So after 29 games, Lillard ended his season and spent early January visiting specialists. By the end of the month, he’d undergone surgery. His rehab kicked into high gear a week later, when he first began working with Meira in Portland – and he had little time to waste. He was expected to be in game shape six weeks after surgery. Yes, that was an aggressive timeline, says Meira, especially when you consider how long the injury had plagued Lillard. But there was a reason: your muscles are built to be pushed. “If you rehab them slow,” says Meira, “they heal to what’s asked of them”.  

PHOTOGRAPHY by Nils Ericson

No, this doesn’t mean you should ditch your crutches one day after any surgery. But you should go as hard as your PT team says you can in your own rehab.Physical therapist and personal trainer Dan Giordano says to use a pain scale: don’t be afraid to work up to 3 out of 10 on that scale. “You might have some pain,” he says. “You just shouldn’t push to a higher state of pain.” Lillard handled his own rehab like that. Early on, he says, he felt “uncomfortable as shit”, especially when he moved laterally, as he might do while defending an opponent on the court. He paid no attention, because experts had told him the pain did not indicate reinjury. And that’s all he needed to know. “I would say that the trust I had in them made me more confident to just kind of go,” he says. “I was never hesitant.” 

At the end of six weeks, Lillard stepped onto the court with Meira for a one-on-one rebounding drill, which simulated much of the pounding Lillard would take in a game. Meira’s job was to hack Lillard, doing everything to keep him from grabbing a rebound. Lillard dominated. His aggressive rehab approach had worked. 

Sort of. Damian Lillard still needed to address his mental health, which is an underrated key to returning from any injury. From afar, he’d seen the Blazers fall apart, and even a string of 60-spots from Dame D.O.L.L.A. wouldn’t  have changed that. For the first 10 years of his career, he’d battled to dominate every game, even when Portland was being crushed. Months removed from surgery, that seemed silly. “They’re not gonna be worried about my life,” he
says, referring to fans, the media and team brass. “But my kids and my mum and my wife, they’re gonna be in my life forever.” 

For the first time since arriving in Portland, he focused on family. He’d pick up his son from school one day, go to Target with his wife, Kay’La, another. There were more FaceTime chats with his mum. Once obsessed with what the media might be saying about him on Twitter, he deleted the app from his phone entirely. “I couldn’t place my happiness in basketball,” he says. “Now I’m seeing this is what really counts.” 

Lillard has maintained these new priorities, and that’s allowed him to have more fun with the 82-game NBA grind. And he hasn’t reinstalled Twitter. “I’ll be able to play the game with more joy,” he says, “without caring or expecting anything from [anyone]. I’ll be able to play freely.”

PHOTOGRAPHY by Nils Ericson

He won’t forget the injury that led to all this, though, because he understands one truth of every comeback: it’s never over. As Lillard rebuilt his core, he discovered other issues. Chief among them, his right Achilles kept tightening up, the result of a broken foot he’d suffered at Weber State University. So even after officially being cleared for game action, he kept training with Meira. The therapist addressed Lillard’s Achilles with eccentric focused calf raises. Lillard would stand with a heavy bar on his shoulders, the balls of his feet on a small block or plate. He’d drive up onto his tiptoes by squeezing both calves. Then he’d remove his left foot from the block and slowly lower back down. 

Damian Lillard gradually began refining his in-game imbalances, too. He’d scrimmage with Blazers staff members and have the clips sent to his iPhone to study. He pulls one up after finishing his session with Eren. “See how tentative I am there? That’s not good.” His core stayed on his to-do list, too, because, as Meira says, you never forget an old injury: “You never, ever stamp an injury as ‘healed.’ Because 10 years down the line, all of a sudden that old injury starts to get achy.” 

Not that Meira had to monitor everything alone. Shortly after Lillard completed his rehab work with Meira, he did a Zoom call to introduce Meira to Phil Beckner, his longtime on-court skills trainer, and Eren. He tasked the group with building a schedule that would let him sharpen his game while continuing to build a more durable body. “I just don’t know how to not go hard,” he says. “So I had to make myself not the person in charge. Now they all have the schedule.” Most days during the summer, he trained with Meira first thing. Then he’d head to Beckner to shoot around. He’d wrap up each day working with Eren. On this day (and most days), Lillard starts with moves to test his abs (see “Core Curriculum”, below), then finishes with boxing drills that hone footwork and build cardio. 

And on this day, his old injury is the furthest thing from his mind. His new body has been (and continues to be) tested on the court in scrimmages against Blazers staff members. He’s adhered to every piece of his comeback schedule. “I’m ready,” he says. “And it’s one of the best feelings ever.” After seven years, nothing beats moving pain-free. 

Core curriculum

Trainer Cem Eren challenges Damian Lillard’s core in every workout. One of his favourite moves to do that: the weighted bear-plank row.

OWN THE BEAR PLANK

Get on all fours, hands on dumbbells directly below your shoulders, knees below your hips. Tighten your abs. Raise your shins off the floor. Have somebody place a 10-kilogram plate on your back, just below your shoulder blades. 

CRUSH THE ROW

Keeping your hips and shoulders square to the floor, row the right dumbbell to your right hip. Return
to the start and repeat on the other side. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 7-10. 

PHOTOGRAPHY by Nils Ericson

Damian Lillard’s Bounce Back Workout

Rotation and Core Work

Repeat this circuit for 3 to 5 rounds

1A. Proteus Motion Trunk Rotation

30 seconds

1B. Proteus Motion Push-Pull

30 seconds

1C. Chaos Pallof Press

30 seconds

Pull Work

Repeat this circuit for 3 to 5 rounds

2A. Bear Plank Renegade Row

10 reps per arm

2B. Water Bag Rotation

Low Back and Leg Work

3A. Machine Good Morning

10 reps

3B. Machine Hip Abductor

Boxing Finisher

Drills and Mitt Work

3 to 5 rounds of 2-minutes


More bounce-back secrets from the NBA’s best

Jamal Murray

Recharge your legs like Jamal Murray

After tearing the ACL in his left knee in April 2021, the Denver Nuggets guard needed all of last season off to recover. He spent that time relearning basic motions, mastering jumping mechanics in a pool (to shield his knee from impact), and running on a water treadmill. Then he gradually progressed to strength moves. He’s back in action now – and still keeps two fundamental moves in his regimen. 

TRAP-BAR DEADLIFT

TRAP-BAR DEADLIFT

Stand in the centre of a loaded trap bar. Push your butt back and reach down to grasp the handles. This is the start. Stand with the weight, squeezing your glutes. Lower back down. That’s 1 rep. Do 3 sets of 6-8 twice a week, building glute strength, which helps protect your knees. 

BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT

BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT

Kneel on your right knee, right instep on a bench. Straighten your left leg. This is the start. Lower your torso until your left thigh is parallel to the floor. Stand. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 10. – Keith Nelson Jr.

Evolve your game like Grant Hill

Don’t try to bounce back from every injury, says the Hall of Famer, who details the injuries of his 19-year career
in his autobiography, Game. Learn from his comebacks – and know when to walk away 

1993: Watch Your Weight

As a junior at Duke, Hill suffered a season-ending toe injury. He blamed himself for gaining weight before the season and says he “became a little bit more conscious about playing at a certain weight”. 

2000 – 04: Explore!

Hill played 47 of 328 games in his first four seasons with the Orlando Magic, due to a devastating ankle injury. So he tweaked his diet and visited the chiropractor. The strategy worked: he played nine
more seasons. 

2012: Know When to quit

Hill managed four straight healthy years before injuring his right knee midway through 2012. At age 39, he rehabbed again – but something was different. “My body was saying, ‘Look, it’s time,’ you know?” says Hill, who played one final season. “Your body talks to you.” Be sure to listen.

PJ Tucker
Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Adjust your expectations like P.J. Tucker

Some setbacks force you to recalibrate. Case in point: P. J. Tucker. The Sixers forward is in his 12th season, thanks to the way he bounced back from a mental blow in 2007. That’s when the Raptors cut Tucker, who had been an all-around star at the University of Texas. His response: he reinvented himself as a role-playing defensive stopper and returned to the league in 2012. His secret: be honest with yourself and figure out your true strengths. “To be a guy like me, a good role player and strong defender, and have the longevity in this game, you have to be a realist with yourself.” 

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