Strength Training for Football
The fitness nerd in me loves watching football. Just ask my wife – she strategically makes plans on the weekend to limit my football intake. This is a good thing, because I would probably get consumed by the television and turn into a zombie. Not exactly husband of the year material. But with a background in the sports science, watching athletes sprint, cut, and accelerate really excites me to the point where football is probably the only sport I enjoy watching on TV.
That enjoyment has transferred over to my passion – personal training. Unfortunately with the advent of the internet, every gym teacher thinks they’re an expert in strength and conditioning. As a result, we have a nation of young athletes exposed to lifting heavy weights with bad form just so a coach can brag about his numbers. It’s time to fix that and set the record straight on specific strength training for football.
First and foremost is the fact that if you want your son/daughter to excel in football, they need to train – no exceptions. It can be a bit harsh for some to except, but football is arguably America’s number one sport, and the field is extremely competitive. It’s also a brutal sport – and football players can stay injury free while trying to build a bulletproof physique in the gym. Rest assured that your investment will pay off – a longitudinal study done with Division 1A football players proves this. Examining athletes’ four year careers shows consistent improvements in body mass, reduced body fat, vertical jump, bench press strength, and 40 yard sprint time (1). Researchers also made note that the athletes made the greatest gains in their first year, showing that whatever previous training they had may have been subpar.
Here’s the biggest issue with strength training programs for football: most are done with just the concept of piling a bunch of weight on the poor kid. This is bad news because strength training is nothing to mess around with. In an interesting study, researchers found that subjects who strength trained had more muscle damage than those who competed in a Division I football game (2)! So it’s nothing to play around with.
The first thing that most players try to tackle is to gain weight. Gaining muscle is a process, and a huge chunk of it is going to take place in the kitchen. More importantly than trying to slam a bunch of food on the athlete is to learn good nutritional habits and build healthy lean tissue. At UEFP we routinely track and measure everything that we do – meaning that if you want to lose weight, then you lose fat. If you want to gain weight, we make sure that muscle is being built. Getting the scale to jump up due to overloading on fast food won’t translate to success on the football field.
Gaining muscle also takes a lot of work in the gym. A smart plan requires that the athlete spend the early part of their season building the muscle. It’s too hard to do this during the season, and you also want the athlete to spend plenty of time in their new body prior to the start of the season. Packing on muscle during the season can actually disrupt the athlete’s performance, as they need time to adjust to their new weight gain. So rule #1 is to make sure that any weight gain routine occurs shortly after the season just ended.
The second rule is to organize a training plan that gets the athlete to their current max strength and power levels at the start of the season. Once there, you can maintain those levels during the season. So after we build some muscle with the athlete, we then focusing on increasing his or her strength. Lastly, we want to make that new found muscle and strength into something functional for the athlete to use. This is where the real fun starts because now we can focus on not only the sport of football, but the position as well. After all, a lineman and a cornerback are going to have to focus on different aspects of their training.
So one way we can do this is to focus on different phases, such as building muscle, enhancing strength, and then power training. For some advanced athletes, we may be able to focus on several of those aspects at once. Research has shown that following a specific plan is the way to go; subjects who followed a training plan increased their strength in the bench press by 28% (3). This was compared to subjects who followed no plan and just did 3 sets of 10 repetitions; this group had no change whatsoever in their strength levels.
An overlooked aspect of strength training is the concept of structural balance. What I usually see is a bunch of athletes who can bench press some impressive weight but can’t do a single chin up to save their lives. The same can be said with leg pressing a small car but struggling to perform a front squat. Structural balance means that muscles are balanced in their level of strength, so improving an athlete’s chin up will actually allow them to improve their bench press….without even bench pressing! It will also help prevent injury – you can’t get better at anything if you’re injured. A summary of 149 Division II athletes found that nearly 50% suffered from chronic injuries during their season (4). Don’t let injuries ruin your game.
I’ll tell you an interesting story to conclude things. A well known strength coach told an account of how an athlete refused his services when the coach said that he needed to re-teach the athlete how to properly lift and train. The athlete scoffed at this – he got strong in high school and needed more advanced training to try and walk onto a team. The athlete went his own way but came back a year later – to help deal with a torn ACL and a bulging disc in his spine. The athlete spent more on insurance, copays, and gas driving to and from the doctor’s office than they ever would have on training.
1. Stodden, D.F., Galitski, H.M. “Longitudinal Effects of a Collegiate Strength and Condtiioning Program in American Football.” (2010) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24.9, 2300-2308
2. Kraemer, W.J., et al. “Recovery From a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Football Game: Muscle Damage and Hormonal Status” (2009) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23;1, 2-10
3. Monteiro, A.G. et al. “Nonlinear Periodization Maximizes Strength Gains in Split Resistance Training Routines.” (2009) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23;4, 1321-1326
4. Vetter, R.E., Symonds, M.L. “Correlations Between Injury, Training Intensity, and Physical and Mental Exhaustion Among College Athletes.” (2010) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24:3,: 587-596