Football training: improve your speed, power and strength

What can you do to achieve optimum condition?

Conditioning for football has travelled light years in the last decade. Clubs are determined to get as much out of their multi-million pound investments as they can. Sports science therefore plays a big part and players are subject to rigorous physiological assessment and testing, As a weekend warrior, you won’t have quite the same back-up team to ensure your football fitness, but what can you do to achieve optimum condition?

Warming up for football

A recent survey indicated that hamstring strain rates were negatively linked to the amount of static stretching that Premiership footballers performed. Basically, the more ‘bend down and touch your toes and hold’ type of stretching exercises they did, the more they were likely to strain their hamstrings in practice and matches.

This may come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t, when you consider the physical requirements of football. Players have to make repeated dynamic movements, such as sprints, jumps and turns. Research from Finland discovered that in the course of a season, players could make 3,900 jumps and 7,000 turns. These movements all require dynamic muscular contractions; contractions that have little relevance to those involved in held stretches. Most top clubs now employ dynamic warm-ups, which place a much greater emphasis on active and football relevant dynamic mobility.

Professor Angel Spassov is a conditioning expert, originally from Bulgaria, who is now based in the USA. He is a football specialist and has worked with six World Cup squads. The professor has put together a specific football warm-up. You should use and adapt it to your purposes, if you want to avoid crying off with injuries that could be avoided.

Spassov’s warm-up involves both passive and active (dynamic) elements. For the passive part, he advises players to loosen their muscles 30-60 minutes before the game/training session, by rubbing their ankles, knees, all the leg muscles, lower back, neck and shoulders with a heating ointment, preferably one that is odourless and not too hot on the skin.

The active warm-up is divided into two parts:

1. General.

This begins with six to eight minutes of jogging, followed by neck, shoulder, lower back and abdominal stretches. There should be two to three different routines, with 10-12 repetitions of each.

Next, the legs (hamstrings, hip flexors, abductors, adductors, quads and calf muscles) are targeted, with passive (held) and dynamic stretches (two to three standard routines with 10-12 reps, with performance speed increased every set for the dynamic stretches, such as leg swings).

Next, varying-intensity sprints are performed in different directions. At the end of this general part of the warm-up, players’ pulse rates should have reached 160-170 beats per minute.

2. Specific.

This begins with various kicks of the ball with both legs, and various technical moves with the ball, such as dribbling and stopping the ball. These should progress to medium intensity and be performed with another player, then to high intensity, with players combining into groups to practise all the technical skills at the highest possible intensity and speed.

Spassov’s suggested warm-up makes great sense and should control players’ progression to match readiness. With the early parts of the warm-up performed individually, players should be able to focus on their own movements and progress and not be tempted to perform too-dynamic movements before their muscles are fully prepared.

Football speed

All players require speed. Everything else being equal, the faster you are, the better player you will be. However, football speed is different to the speed required of a sprinter.
1. Football speed is reactive and often unpredictable

2. The first step (linear or rotational) makes all the difference to getting past an opponent or close enough to make a winning tackle.

3. A skill will often be have to performed from the basis of speed – tackles, headers, passes, shots and so on.

4. Although elite players play on pitches that could support a game of bowls, many of us will not be so lucky. Muddy, undulating surfaces will impair speed generation.

5. A sprint may be needed when you’re ‘blowing hard’ (see Developing football endurance, on the next page).

Your training must reflect the above considerations. Use the following practices to improve your speed:

1. Turn and sprint drill

Players stand on the halfway line; at a command, they turn and sprint 10m. Repeat six times, taking 30 seconds’ recovery time between efforts, while varying the turn direction.

2. Run and dribble intervals

Run at three-quarter pace to a ball placed 20m away. Dribble it and swerve around a cone, and pass after a further 15m. Jog back and repeat six times.

3. Speed dribble

‘Speed dribble’ over 30m (from standing: simply dribble as fast as you can, in a straight line). Repeat six times, with one minute’s recovery time between each effort.

4. Floor/speed ladder drills

You may have seen players performing various drills through floor/speed ladders on TV (you can also see these types of drills being performed on Peak Performance Premium – search: speed, agility). These exercises are designed to improve, speed, agility and reactive ability. They will positively affect your neuromuscular system if used over time, so that you will be able to get your legs moving that bit quicker. There are hundreds of permutations that can be used with one or more ladders. Here are some examples:

i) One foot in each rung (use a low knee lift and concentrate on foot speed, driving your arms backwards and forwards).

ii) Step sideways through the ladder. Keep low and light on the ground.

iii) Run backwards through the ladder one rung at a time – use your calf muscles and ankles to generate your speed and don’t forget to co-ordinate your arms with your legs.

iv) As i), above, but on exiting the floor ladder, take control of a ball, dribble 10m round a cone and speed-dribble back to the start.

Developing power for football

Footballers are athletes in every sense of the word. All will resistance train. Their training plans will involve body weight, weights and plyometric (jumping) exercises. Weight training will provide foundation strength for more specific football condition, such as speed, to be built on.

Key weight-training exercises for football include:

Squats, lunges, leg extensions and leg curls – with the latter, concentrate on the lowering (eccentric) phase of the movement to reduce potential hamstring strain. Lift a medium to heavy weight (70-80% of 1RM) using 6-10 reps, over two to four sets. Everything else being equal, a larger muscle will be more powerful and enduring.

Can weight training make you a net buster?

Research has indicated that improving kicking power directly through weight training or other means is unlikely to produce positive results when it comes to greater kicking power. You will get greater returns by working on your technique. However, greater muscle power can significantly improve other aspects of play, such as your leap, sprinting and injury resilience.

Bodyweight exercises

The dreaded ‘burpie’ (squat thrust with jump at the end) still has a place in football conditioning, as do other body weight moves, such as press-ups and sit-ups. Put them into a circuit that lasts (with recoveries) 20-plus minutes and also contains ball skills and you are onto a winner.

Incorporating ‘keepy uppy’ and short distance passes between players in a circuit will condition specific power and skill endurance – the ability to perform a precision skill under conditions of fatigue is crucial for football players.

The core

Pay particular attention to core strengthening exercises, such as crunches and ‘chinnies’ (alternate knee to elbow sit-ups), hyper (back) extensions and the plank. A strong and dynamic core is required to maintain player solidity on the ball and reduce injury.

Football-specific core strength exercise: sit-up with header

Sit on the floor with knees bent to a 90-degree angle as per normal sit-up. You’ll need a partner who should carefully toss a football toward you as you reach the top of your sit-up. At this point you head the ball back to him. You then control the descent of your body as it returns back to the floor. Complete 10 reps over 4 sets swapping positions with your partner.

Football-specific circuit

Perform on a ‘20 seconds on, 30 seconds’ off basis

Press-ups, squat jumps, crunch, keepy-uppy, simulated headers (alternating left, double, and right foot leaps from a static or one stride approach), the plank, wall passes over 10m, alternating left to right foot strikes, burpies, chinnies, single leg squats, sit-ups with header (see above)). 10m sprints (back and forwards), floor ladder drills.

Developing football endurance

Forget the 10-mile runs – football is an anaerobic (stop/start) activity. You’ll be much better off performing various pace running repetitions over distances from 10m to 100m, with short recoveries. Some workout examples:

1. Twenty minutes of jogging, sprinting, walking and half-speed and three-quarter paced runs. Coach (or fittest player taking part) determines the distance to be run and the recovery by calling out, for example: ‘20m sprint; walk 15m; 40m three- quarter pace run; jog back’ and so on. This drill should be contained within one half of the football pitch.

2. Pass and sprint drill. Two players stand 10m apart. They perform 20 alternate left to right leg passes and then turn in opposite directions to sprint 10m round a cone and back to the start position to perform another set of passes. Take 30 seconds’ recovery and repeat five times.

3. Players perform 20 press-ups and 20 squats on one goal line, jog to centre circle to collect the ball, sprint dribble toward the other goal and then shoot from just outside the penalty area (keeper optional). Repeat five times, with jog back recovery between efforts.

Use these practices and drills in your pre-season training and maintain your fitness with them in-season, and before long you’ll be challenging for the title  – whatever your level.

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