Football Strength & Conditioning: Bridging the Gap
Football players, ruggers, and all other contact sport athletes need to be big, strong, fast, mobile, agile, and be covered in a suit of muscled up body armor to protect them from the other twenty maniacs running around knocking each other over. To have a successful team, most of the players need to have these attributes. Simply having one or two studs on the team with outstanding numbers can score you a few big plays, but will never win you a championship. When training in a team environment, we can’t put our focus on what works for some guys some of the time. We need to put our focus into what works best for most people most of the time. Also, several factors need to be considered when training in a group environment, and the strength coaches job of managing the madness is trifold. The coach needs to manage his limited time with the athletes, the available space he has to train, and of course, the personnel he has to work with. How to accomplish this is dependent upon the philosophy of the organization.
The strength coach must also realize the needs of the players. These needs are obvious in most cases for any chosen sport. But needs for the individual are less obvious due to injuries, weaknesses, and imbalances. Personalizing an individual’s needs usually take a back seat in group training programs, as it becomes nearly impossible to monitor 75 different programs within a single group of athletes. Through time and experience, the coach will learn what special attention certain athletes will need depending on their positional requirements and personal issues.
Football is not a healthy man’s game and we don’t play it for fitness. We are the modern day gladiators of team sport. Outside of martial arts, no other sport gets celebrated for hitting another man so hard that bodily fluids get excreted from multiple orifices while simultaneously collapsing a lung, breaking a bone, or debilitating another human being in any other way.
There are not many anatomical positions foreign to an average football player by the middle of a season. These guys get pushed, shoved, knocked down, kicked, punched, gorged, trampled, bulldozed, Russian sickled, Jimmy Supafly Snooka’d, banana hammocked and double-fish-hook-camel-clutched hundreds of times throughout the season. These guys know pain, trauma, agony and suffering, torn bones and broken ligaments. With the exception of the kicker, these guys live in pain for months on end.
Therefore, training for general fitness is not the best way to train for football. Footballers need some specialization. I am not advocating to mimic the exact movements they make on the field in the weight room, I am just saying that there are certain attributes that football players need and don’t need. Specifically, they need to be very strong. They do not, however, need to be able to jog a mile with poor mechanics. Jogging as no place in football. They need repetitive short bursts of speed and power, a suit of heavily muscled body armor to help protect them from injury. They need adequate flexibility to handle being contorted into unexpected awkward positions and not get traumatized. Not only do they need to deliver punishment, but they need to learn how to take it as well, learning how to avoid and absorb impact is crucial to longevity in this sport. And arguably the most importantly, the mental toughness to keep pushing forward when you’re in pain and everybody wants to quit.
Basic strength is the foundation for all other physical elements of your training. If you are not strong, then your potential for speed development will be limited, as well as your ability to repeatedly perform a task with any level of intensity. The barbell in my opinion is the single best tool for getting an athlete stronger in the shortest amount of time. However, there is not always a parallel carryover to weight room strength and performance on the field. The only way to increase your skill is to play your sport. Fortunately, there are other types of training you can do to ensure there is a positive transfer from the weight room to the field. To bridge the gap between weight room strength and game time performance, I like to use unconventional and odd object training. Proper barbell training is widely known to get athletes very strong, that is undeniable. But most traditional barbell exercises work the body in only a single plain of motion. You can obviously make adjustments and use a barbell for truly unlimited movement patterns. But due to spatial and safety concerns, these types of exercises and training modalities are better suited when paired with the appropriate
tools. Its kind of like hammering a nail with a pair of vise grips. You can hammer it all you want, but there is a better tool for the job.
A power clean is a great exercise and I recommend it go into most football programs, but if the athlete performs it incorrectly it is not a great exercise any longer. Also, the barbell generally moves straight up and down for the most part. Some good options to supplement a barbell power clean would be sandbag lifts like cleans, shoulders and throws, where you would basically rip the bag from the ground to your chest, your shoulders or even throw it right over your head. You also have the added option to use rotational lifting with sandbags as well, which isn’t quite as effective or safe with a barbell. You would simply place the bag by your side and you have the option to lift with a traditional stance or a split stance. We also have tire flips that encourage you to move your feet as you run through the movement. With a traditional power clean, you lift the bar off the floor and explode through your hips, shift your feet out slightly as you receive the weight at your shoulders. You essentially move straight up and down. With rotational cleans and tire flipping, you add side to side and front to back movement under load, as well as up and down. I’m not saying you should take barbell training out of the program, it is great if it is being performed properly, just consider supplementing additional movements to enhance athleticism and bridge the gap. Walking sandbag or kettlebell halfmoons are a great example of a supplemental exercise that can exhibit power, mobility and agility in multiple planes and ranges of motion. I like to look at my supplemental exercises as my training’s salt and pepper, it does not replace my meat and potatoes, it just makes them a little better. If you skipped your meat and potatoes and only ate spices, you’d have a pretty shitty meal that would get you smoked on the field. Adding spice to your training keeps the athletes excited and always recruiting new muscles synergistically by incorporating new movement patterns. Also, in my opinion, single and double kettlebell snatches, cleans, swings and power jumps are easier to teach, and help the athlete perform full body explosive movements with a faster learning curve.
Deadlifts are another phenomenal exercise, probably the best, at getting people stronger and more muscular all over their entire body. The only problem with it is that the only time we lift something perfectly balanced with perfect form is when it’s on a perfectly loaded barbell and put right against our perfectly aligned shins. Well, if we have been doing any kind of deadlifting or cleaning for a while, our shins are nowhere near perfect. Certain deadlift variations either before or after the main lift is beneficial. One arm straddle deadlifts, suitcase deadlifts and one arm farmers carries all help to stabilize and strengthen the trunk muscles which are necessary for all athletes and life in general. Also, heavy stone, keg and log lifting is a great tool to get someone stronger with less than optimal body positioning. As I stated earlier, athletes get forced into awkward positions all the time while placed under pressure. If you never train outside of perfect conditions, your likelihood of injury will rise as soon as your demanded to move with force in an awkward position. You can call it unsafe or imperfect training if you want, but lifting, carrying, and throwing uneven and oddly shaped instruments will create a more balanced and safer athlete by preparing them for the rigors of the job.
Bench pressing is a staple in all football programs, and the curse of getting more reps at more weight, regardless of technique and careless of safety, is a problem for most programs. While the bench press is a wonderful upper body strength builder, many athletes lack the ability or knowledge to get the most out of the exercise by creating peak tension in the body during the lift. Also, your hands are locked into one position during the entire exercise, but on the field every athletes hands are methodically fluttering like bumblebee wings while pushing, pulling, punching and grabbing every pesky offender in the area. A fantastic supplement to the bench press is any type of bodyweight pressing work performed with some type of suspension trainer or rings, preferable with a mechanically disadvantaged leverage position. What I mean by leverage disadvantage is pushing from a position as far as possible from your center of mass. Performing a pushup with straight arms is a good example. It may not exactly be a pushup, but if you can manage to push your body in a range of motion without bending your elbows, you will be increasing core tension in your body, strengthening your tendons and other connective tissue, and strengthening more overall musculature throughout the body by actively recruiting more muscles simultaneously and synergistically. A poorly performed bench press can almost isolate the chest (and arms), but nothing performed on the field will isolate your chest. You’ll be forced to use your whole body during action or get beat by your opponent. Even if you do not or can not yet perform straight arm work, just performing basic push ups with the instability of the suspension system, by having your hands move freely through space and not be fixed on a barbell, can provide you tremendous strength gains and kinetic awareness, which is beneficial for all athletes. One arm and two arm pressing and pulling such as kettlebell presses and rows, jerks and pullups from various grips and angles are essential to develop a well rounded upper body, keeping those shoulders healthy for the duration of the season.
Last exercise for this article, but certainly not least, is the squat. Oh baby, the amazing squat, they make me so happy to see performed correctly, yet so many young athletes sacrifice form at the expense of a perceived greater max. Adding more weight to an improper movement is going to lead to problems. We all know it, but we do it anyway. Stop doing it now. OK, assuming squat technique is good, I believe that having the ability to perform a deep squat while keeping your feet flat, knees out and tracking the toes, hips back and low, back flat, chest up and shoulders back while under a heavy load will be the single best thing you can do for your athleticism, and thus, become a better football player. The amount of full body tension and mobility a heavy squat produces is unparalleled in barbell training. While its a known fact that squatting cures obesity, rickets, polio, cancer, diabetes, stupidity, AIDS, bone marrow disease, wild snake bites, hairy palms and tuberculosis, it is also believed by many professionals to have the ability to rid the planet of all weaknesses including homoinfectus vaginitis. Now that I have provided scientific jargon to conclusively prove that squatting is awesome, lets look at some variations to balance your strength and transfer that to the field.
Finding the balance of all attributes that equate to becoming the most dominant athlete one can be has long been studied and will continue to be tested. But, the fact of the matter is, all the best training knowledge in the world can be wasted if the athlete does not have the heart and desire to be the best they can be. No tool, device or training system can replace hard work and tenacious effort. The system is going to be reliant on the available time, space and personnel. The athlete has little control over these factors. What the athlete has total control over is their own personal goals and desire. The dedication and commitment the athlete puts forth can not be fabricated, it must come from true passion, he must have the heart of a warrior to push through obstacles and failure again and again until success is finally achieved. What determines success is up to the individual. When the athlete is mentally ready to begin the journey, and the coach provides an adequate training environment, only then can the athlete reach their full potential. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more valuable than a person with a dream, clear goals and insane work ethic to move them towards that goal. There is no perfect program for everyone, sets and reps schemes are always changing and exercise selection is always rotating, but the following workouts provide an example of the style of training I would expect from a football player.
Football Strength & Conditioning Day 1:A: Barbell Hang Power Snatch - 5 x 2
B: Sandbag Snatch Throw - 5 x 2
C: 1-Arm Kettlebell Snatch - 4 x 5 each side
D: Front Squat - 4 x 3
E1: Sandbag/Kettlebell Lunging Half Moon - 4 x 5 each side
E2: Broad Jump - 4 x 3-5
F: Burpees - 5 x 5 (No rest b/t sets)
G: Sled Drag - 5 x 40 meters (Any direction. Rest 45 sec)
Football Strength & Conditioning Day 2:A: Shoulder Prehab - 1 x 5-10 min
B: BB Jerk, Double KB Jerk or Handstand Push Ups - 5 x 3
C: Sandbag Push Throw - 5 x 3
D1: 1-Arm KB Push Press - 3 x 6/6
D2: Weighted Pull Up - 3 x 6
E1: Bench Press Variation - 1 x 6-5-4-3-2-2
E2: Row Variation - 6 x 6-8
F: Undulating Rope Waves - 10 x 10 sec work/30 sec rest
Football Strength & Conditioning Day 3:A: Clean & Jerk - Work up to a heavy single
B: Box Squat - Work up to a heavy double, using bands or chains if possible
C1: Tire Flip, Heavy Stone, Sandbag, Keg, or Log Lift - 5 x 3
C2: Sprint - 5x20 meters
D1: Double KB Squat Press - 5 x 5
D2: Double KB Swing - 5 x 5
E: Truck or Sled Push/Pull - 6-10 seconds work/35-45 sec rest x 10 min
Thank You, and Get STRONGer every damn day!