The benefit of strength and strength training for footballers is well supported by research. For example, De Proft and colleagues had one group of Belgian professionals perform extra weight training during the season. Compared to a control group of colleagues who did no extra training, the players improved their kicking power and leg strength.
In addition, British researcher Thomas Reilly showed that the stronger players outlasted the weaker players in terms of a regular place in the team, and had reduced injury risks. He recommends that leg strength in particular is developed, especially in the quadriceps and hamstrings, to help stabilise the knee joint, which is the most frequently injured joint in football.
Peter Apor, a Hungarian researcher who has been involved in long-term studies of Hungarian professionals, agrees, saying that knee-extension torque has been associated with success in the game and that strong hamstring muscles in relation to quadriceps are crucial to knee injury prevention. Another common football injury is hernia, for which the best protection is developing strong abdominal muscles.
From this brief review of the research, we can conclude that strength and strength training, especially in the legs and trunk, are important for footballers who want to improve kick performance and reduce the risk of injury. To increase general strength, a workout consisting of leg press, leg extensions, leg curls, bench press, lat pull downs, abdominal and lower back exercises, would be ideal.
This can be done with multi-gym equipment, which is also safe and easy to use. In my experience, some professional players use the club’s gym equipment to perform this kind of workout after their official training session. Reilly found that players who voluntarily performed extra strength training were the ones who suffered the fewest muscle injuries. Therefore, since maintaining a fully fit squad can be a big problem, it makes sense for clubs to encourage or schedule general strength training for all players.
And sprint times, too
Another piece of research – by Taiana and colleagues in France – showed that a 10-week leg-strength training program for footballers improved their 10m and 30m sprint times and their vertical jump performance.
These motor tasks are obviously very valuable. However, this study used a training program that targeted maximum strength with heavy resistances. Although this type of training is a proven method for enhancing sprint speed and jumping power, it is also difficult to include in the regular training program of a football team, because the recovery required after heavy resistance training might interfere with the regular competitions during the season.
As with strength training the value of good sprinting speed for footballers is well supported by research. Ekblom found that the absolute maximum speed shown during play was one of the parameters that differentiated elite players from those of lesser standard. This is supported by a study with German division-one players by Kollath and Quade. They showed that professionals were significantly quicker than amateurs over 10m, 20m and 30m. The acceleration difference to 10m was especially significant. This suggests that better players need superior acceleration and maximum speed to play at a higher level. Interestingly, the 30m speed was similar for the German professionals regardless of position.
The training regimes of footballers must therefore reflect this need for good acceleration and maximum speed. Peter Apor suggests, in making fitness recommendations for footballers; that players need to develop the musculature of a sprinter. I have already mentioned the benefit of maximum leg-strength training with heavy resistances for developing acceleration and speed.
Taiana says that the players he trained for maximum leg strength were able to play at the weekend without detriment if the strength workout was on Tuesday. This once-a-week routine was still found to be beneficial. However, this type of training should be used with caution. Two or three sessions a week during the off-season would bring about much greater gains in maximum strength. Taiana therefore recommends that this type of training should be used in the off-season and then maintained with one workout per week once the competitive season has started.
Step by step
Another point to remember is that maximum strength training should be a progression from general strength training with sub maximal loads. Heavy maximal resistance exercise, while very effective, is for advanced strength trainees only. Zatsiorsky recommends that good abdominal and lower back strength are essential if heavy lifting exercises are to be used. Thus, the first step for improved sprint speed is ensuring a good basic level of strength.
American trainers George Dintiman and Robert Ward recommend that an athlete should be able to perform one maximum leg press of at least 2.5 times body weight, and have a hamstring to quadriceps ratio of least 75-80%. Both these measures can be tested on the standard gym machines. Good abdominal and lower back strength are also essential for sprinting speed, as the trunk muscles are required to stabilise the sprinting movement.
Hop, bound and jump
Plyometric exercises are another proven training method that enhances leg power and sprinting speed. McNaughton cites soccer as one of the many games where short, explosive power is required, and that plyometric training is a useful complement or alternative to strength training to achieve this. Once the players are used to it, plyometrics may be more convenient than weights for speed development in terms of scheduling during the season.
Plyometric exercises are typified by hopping, bounding and jumping movements. These exercises demand a high force of contraction in response to a rapid loading of lengthening muscles. For this reason, they should be more accurately called reversible action or rebound exercises. The training effort increases the force production in the muscles, but the movements are performed at faster speeds than weight-training exercises. Thus rebound exercises are more specific to the sprinting and jumping movements in football.
Quality and Speed is the priority
These exercises should be done in 3-5 sets of 8 repetitions for each leg, with at least one minute’s rest between sets. The quality and speed of the movement is the priority. The other training element that is required for improving sprinting speed is sprinting itself. This should be done with maximum efforts over 30-60m. Again, at least one minute’s rest between runs should be allowed so that quality can be maintained.
Remember, with this kind of training the aim is to develop the maximum speed; endurance should not become a factor. Sprinting done uphill, with weighted jackets, or towing weights is also useful because it adds resistance to the sprint movement, placing greater load on the muscles in the most specific manner. Again, short distances with long rests are recommended.
Fitting it in I have discussed research that shows the importance of strength and speed for elite football performance. From this, I have suggested four types of training:
- General strength training to help prevent injuries, improve kicking performance and provide the basis for good sprinting speed
- Maximal leg-strength training, which is a progression from general strength training for advanced trainees only, but one that is extremely useful for developing speed and power
- Plyometric training exercises, which complement strength training as an effective alternative
- Maximum sprint running over short distances with or without added resistances
The main question that now needs answering is how can this training best be scheduled into an already full training and competing program?
Plyometrics and sprint training are usually performed when fresh. However, as it is a requirement of football to be able to sprint when fatigued, one could argue that sprint work should be done after a training session. One answer could be a short but high-quality hopping, jumping and sprints workout after a skills session. For example, 3×8 squat jumps, 3×8 skips for height, 3×8 hops for distance each leg, 3 x 30m towing runs and 5 x 40m sprints would be a short but useful workout if performed once or twice a week throughout the season.
Scheduling strength-training workouts is more difficult. If the program is weekend matches only, then players could do a general strength-training workout on a Monday and Wednesday afternoon, leaving plenty of time to recover for the weekend match. However, if there are midweek fixtures, then strength training may have to be sacrificed or reduced to light workouts purely to maintain strength.
Start in the off-season
The best way for a player to develop his strength would be to start a strength-training program in the off-season. Three strength workouts a week would result in improvements.
Once the pre-season training starts, the player can reduce to twice weekly and then fit in workouts when possible during the season. This way the player can maintain the strength gains made during the summer.
Maximum strength exercises should only be targeted during the off-season. Afterwards, they should be done only once a week to maintain strength during the season. Maximum strength can only be achieved if it is concentrated on, and training for it can interfere with other important activities.
With careful planning and careful selection of exercises, keeping sessions short but high quality, extra training should be practicable, although sensitivity to the training status of the players is important when prescribing extra sessions.