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Soccer workout: strength and conditioning for great athletic performance

By Lucas Keating, 27 July 2020

Introduction to soccer strength training

Whether you want to play for your local pub on the park or in the elite professional leagues, soccer workouts should be as much of part of your soccer practice as ball skills and tactical awareness.  But when we talk about soccer fitness training too many people still think of the Incredible Hulk. 

The reality is that modern, science based soccer strength training is not like that.  Instead it is an array of well researched techniques that can enhance every aspect of your athletic performance if done right. There are also different ways on how to improve one’s strength and conditioning: individual training, training with a coach 1-1, at your local soccer school or academy, and finally attending to high-performance football camps (less than 30 days in duration) or football academies (residential in nature, from 3 up to 24 months). 

For example, Ricardo Pereira is an attacking right back signed by Leicester City from Porto in 2018.  Despite being a Portuguese international and having superb ball skills his position in Leicester’s starting eleven was soon in doubt.  In the physical world of the English Premiership he was continually being knocked off the ball and dispossessed.  However, the coaching staff at Leicester recognised the problem and a program of strength and conditioning training has transformed the player into an automatic first choice.

Basic considerations on strength and conditioning

Age

It is always important to consider your age, or that of the person or persons you are coaching.  Strength training routines, particularly soccer weight training, designed for adults can lead to serious injury if used for young players.  But that is not to say that kids should not do strength training.  They can and should as long as it is appropriate to their age. An American study has shown that 9-year-old children who add strength training to their skills repertoire perform better in jumping, endurance and flexibility than a control group who confine themselves to technical skills. 

But remember that children develop physically and mentally at different rates.  A one size fits all approach is inappropriate and a trained professional should always control individual loads, repetitions and technique to minimise the risk of injury [1].  Strength and conditioning program for children also needs to be progressive.  Progressive means that weights used increase with age, for example and rest periods become shorter at higher levels of fitness.

It is not advisable to start strength training in football until kids have acquired basic motor control skills.  Age 5 is therefore usually considered the minimum.  For primary school children the emphasis should still be on muscle control, particularly how to create and release tension in the muscles, and low intensity training (stages 1 and 2) to speed up connections between muscles and brain.  This is technically known as integrative neuromuscular training (INT). 

For older teenagers more pure strength training is beneficial and research shows that the benefit increases when the INT stages have been completed before puberty (Figure 1).  

Developmental Stage
Soccer workkout plan: theory and practice
Neuromuscular performance when INT is initiated at different ages. Photo credit: Peak Condition PDX 

 

 

Strength training and Gender

It may not be fashionable to admit it these days, but there really are physiological differences between men and women. Strength is just as important in the women’s game as it is in the men’s but male and female soccer players will need to use subtly different soccer workouts gym plans to gain strength.  

For a start, women typically start out with about a third less muscle mass than men and the composition of that muscle mass is different.  Women tend to have slightly more Type 1 “slow twitch” muscle fibres and slightly less Type 2 “fast twitch” fibres which means that they tend to be better at endurance rather than brute strength.  This seems to explain why men tire more quickly when doing resistance training repetitions (reps) [2]. 

The third main difference is the effect of strength training on hormones.  Men increase their Testosterone levels, promoting strength and muscle mass while women produce Estrogen which enhances the muscles ability to convert glucose into fuel.  One consequence of these physiological differences is that women tend to show greater gains in hypertrophy (upper body strength) than men as a result of resistance training but there is little difference in lower body strength gains. 

As football requires both upper and lower body strength, these studies suggest that soccer workout plans for male and female players need to be tailored slightly differently [3]. 

 

How strength and conditioning depends on the season

Pre-season strength and conditioning training are different from in-season training.  Essentially, pre-season is when you build up a reservoir of athleticism after the off-season rest period.  This should include strength, speed, power and endurance.  The exact program will depend on the length of the pre-season build-up.  It can last up to six months but the calendars in the modern game, especially at professional level football training, are becoming ever more congested and the close season and pre-season are becoming shorter. Trying to pack too much into a short period can increase the probability of injuries, so be realistic about what can be achieved in the time available.

The extent of in-season strength training will depend on your playing schedule.  On the basis of two games per week, one possible soccer workout plan involves a heavy strength workout the day before your first game of the week, followed by a lighter full body workout the day after your first game.  Then comes training on speed drills and soccer agility drills the day before your second match, with a sprinting and conditioning workout the day after, and then a rest day before repeating the program the following week.

Returning to playing after a long lay-off through injury is akin to the pre-season and players will need to recover their basic strength through a period of high-intensity soccer strength training.

 

Basic Terms and Approaches to Strength Training

 

Warming up and down in power training

Most players are aware of the need to warm up properly before a game and warm down again afterwards but they do not always realize that you should do the same before and after a soccer workout.  

Most of the videos which follow assume this and do not include warm-up or cool-down activities, so it is worth starting with a reminder of some techniques you can use to begin and end each training session.  

In the first video Sean Buckley shows you a dynamic warm-up routine which you can do as a team or individually as a part of soccer training: 

To end your training session, try this routine below.  It will help you to get blood flow back into your muscles, ease post-match aches and pains and start your recovery process:

Once you have recognized the differences in training regime required for different age groups, genders and times of year and established a warm-up and warm-down routine for yourself, then it is time to consider the range of approaches available to strength and conditioning.  

Many of these use technical terms from anatomy, physiology and sports science which can be confusing and off-putting for newcomers. This blog post will try not to assume any prior knowledge. We will define such terms as we go along.

Anaerobic and aerobic football training

Anaerobic training is about improving strength and power. It relies on muscles and it is important to understand that muscles are basically devices that convert glucose obtained from food into lactic acid in order to create energy.  Crucially, anaerobic exercises do not require oxygen but that means they can only be sustained for short periods because the lactic acid is a toxin and causes fatigue. 

An anaerobic soccer workout, therefore, normally consists of interval training. Internal training means short bursts of activity interspersed with periods of rest or lighter work.  That makes anaerobic exercises useful for soccer players because they need to make brief, explosive, powerful movements, for example, to jump to head a ball or stretch to make a tackle or interception. Cone drills and agility ladder drills are good examples thereof. 

Aerobic training, on the other hand, relies on the body making maximum use of oxygen to tap into its energy reserves over longer periods.  This too is essential for soccer p layers given that a typical Premier League player will cover 13 kilometers in a 90-minute match.  That kind of athletic performance requires the kind of stamina which comes from regular aerobic training to  maximize cardiovascular efficiency. We have a great write-up on pre-season soccer training which covers many approaches to the aerobic and anaerobic training. 

Expert in strength and conditioning recommend a mixture of anaerobic and aerobic training although the proportions of each vary in different sports.  Both can be used according to the FITT Principle. FITT stands for frequency, intensity, time and type where frequency refers to the number of soccer workout sessions per week, the intensity is measured as a percentage of your maximum heart rate, time refers to the duration of each session and type to the choice of anaerobic or aerobic.  

Both anaerobic and aerobic training can be done with or without balls. But in this section, we highlight activities with balls as these simulate match situations.                                                                                                     

A typical anaerobic drill for groups of 4 players presented below.  It concentrates on explosive stretching to make a pass, control a pass or make an interception and can be practised indoors or outdoors:

Remember, aerobic training is all about developing stamina.  One drill which develops this for an entire 11 a side team: 

 

Upper body, lower body and full body soccer workout

As explained earlier, a lot of workouts are done in pre-season training.  Traditionally they are done in soccer workouts gym sessions.  But during the Covid-19 pandemic gyms in many countries are closed and likely to remain so for long periods.  Therefore, this section will focus on strength training routines footballers can do at home in order to remain in shape for when matches resume.  

Two words of caution are needed.  Firstly, technical vocabulary and jargon is everywhere in the strength training business.  As a basic guide soccer exercises can be divided into:

1.    Resistance exercises in which a person pushes against something in order to build muscle mass and raw strength.

2.    Plyometric exercises which focus on agility particularly hopping, jumping and bounding.

3.    Stretching exercises.

Most power training exercises are designed to strengthen a part of the body or group of muscles and involve a particular type of movement although there are also compound exercises which strengthen more than one part of the body.  Some of the more common terms used for muscle groups and body parts are illustrated in the chart below:

soccer workout, strength training football
Photo credit: http://fitnessexercisesrokudore.blogspot.com/2017/05/names-of-fitness-exercises.html

 

Secondly, nearly all blog posts and videos about soccer fitness training are very prescriptive.  They specify exact numbers of repetitions for each exercise, fixed orders of exercises and precise rest periods between activities.  But they rarely, if ever, explain the science behind these numbers. This is misleading. 

As we said at the beginning of this article, there is no one size fits all approach to strength training in football, especially for children.  The old saying, “no pain, no gain” is often true.  It is the last two or three of a set of 10 repetitions which produce the benefit.  But listen to your body and do not be dictated to by coaches and “experts”.  Pushing yourself to do one more can be good but forcing yourself to do one too many can lead to injury.  

Having said that there are many routines out there which really can improve your athletic performance on the pitch.  We will explore a strength and conditioning program to develop upper body, lower body (leg) and whole-body strength.

Upper body workouts

It is important, first of all, to understand what is included in the upper body.  Footballers need to work on more than just the traditional he man chest.  For example, the triceps (muscles in your upper arm) are important if you want to develop long throw ins.  Similarly, do not neglect your back.  It can help you shield the ball from an opponent.  Meanwhile, strong hips help you turn with power as well as agility; important when you need to turn and volley a shot, for example.

You need to strengthen all parts of your upper body. Anybody with a garden, a ball and a bench can practice the drills suggested in the video:

The core

Modern upper body training methods tend to focus on the “core”.  This term refers to the middle section of the body between the hips and the shoulders. Think of it as a frame from which your limbs are hung.  It is, therefore, around this core that all movements crucial to success in soccer occur and failure to develop a strong core can lead to injuries, particularly knee injuries. For more anatomical detail see the writings of Donald T Kirkendall (2011).

In practical terms emphasis on the core has led to the development of innumerable soccer workout routines to strengthen the abdominal muscles (abs) which are a key part of the core.  Again, some of these can be done alone at home, in the garden or even on your living room floor, and require no equipment.  Exercises to strengthen the abs are power activities, often anaerobic and therefore best done in short bursts using a stopwatch or smartphone timer to control duration. A good example is on the video below:

Please, be noted, that there are a variety of high-quality soccer camps and academies presented on Sportlane from all over the world. If you are looking for a soccer program that caters to your specific needs (age, budget, location preferences, sport skills), - you will likely find something interesting. Our database has football academies in England, in Spain, in France, etc.

 

Soccer leg workouts

As we have said before, people think of football strength training as increasing the size of the chest and biceps and not much else.  But a good soccer leg workout is vital for raw speed, acceleration, deceleration and strength to ride a tackle and keep possession of the ball.  And it is not just one leg but both legs, also called unilateral strength.  

Of course, in many actions in football the player is balanced on one leg, shooting, for instance, but it is vital to develop equal strength in both legs so that you can balance on either.  It is also important to recognise that your legs have several parts and you may wish to focus on a particular area such as your knee joints, ankles or hamstrings particularly if you have a history of injuries in a particular area. 

Again, bearing in mind the ongoing Covid-19 situation, the strength and conditioning training shown below can be performed alone and at home where gyms are inaccessible.  

This video below offers home-based exercises for the knees but emphasises the need to strengthen the muscles supporting the knees to prevent injuries. 

The next video focuses on developing explosive acceleration in your legs featuring Wolves player, Adama Traore.  Again, this soccer leg workout is based on repetitions of a series of exercises with specified rest intervals.  The exercises aim to strengthen both legs. They can be done on a soccer pitch or in your garden and do not require any equipment.

Whole body workouts

Experts recommend that all players do a regular whole-body soccer workout to supplement more specific upper or lower body workouts.  Soccer.com have come up with this 30-minute routine suitable for men and women which you can do at home without specialist equipment:

 

Strength training in football with equipment

So far, we have concentrated on strength building routines you can do at home, with minimal equipment.  But if you have access to a gym, equipment and a professional trainer there are so many more possibilities. 

Weights

The role of soccer weight training is controversial.  Some people say it makes players less agile and poses safety risks but others argue that pumping iron is essential to build core strength.

The safety factor needs to be taken seriously.  The basic rules are:

1. Never work out with weights alone in case of injury or becoming trapped under a barbell.

2. If you are using weights in the standing position you are using all your skeletal bones to support you.  If you exceed the safe load for your individual physique and fitness level you will be unable to control the weights and are likely to twist your body potentially causing serious injuries.

However, the agility debate is largely the result of confusion between hypertrophy and strength.  Hypertrophy is a scientific term for muscle mass or, to put it crudely, looking big. It is not the same as strength.  Studies show that high reps with moderate loads increase leg strength without significantly increasing hypertrophy or compromising agility whereas low reps with high loads do the opposite.  In other words, it is not whether soccer players need to do weight training but what kind of weight training.  

The research shows that not only does power training improve linear sprinting speed (which along with technical skills is proved to be a predictor of player's success in proffessional football) but recent scientific research also shows that it improves the agility needed to turn before and after the brief, explosive sprints that are typical of soccer. In other words, the idea that soccer players who train with weights compromise their agility is a myth. But where and how to start weight training for increased strength on the pitch? 

As illustrated by the strength vs. agility debate, part of the problem with using weights is the specialist vocabulary and jargon involved.  It can be difficult to establish who knows what they are talking about which partly explains the fears that many parents have about allowing young soccer players to train with weights. If you already know you way around weight training then get on with it.  

A good example of what is possible for more advanced players using a professional soccer workouts gym is the following video from Reading FC, a team in the English Championship.

 

Equipment for resistance training

Other types of equipment that can be used, particularly for resistance training, including medicine balls, resistance bands and various types of pulling machines.  Medicine balls are widely used in women’s football, perhaps because they have fewer sexist, macho associations than weights on a barbell.  

Remember once again, that there is no one size fits all regimen.  You can vary the weight of the medicine ball to suit your own physique, age and fitness level.

Resistance machines are not small or cheap. You will almost certainly need to join a professional gym in order to gain access to them.  

Conclusions

The evidence is increasingly conclusive that football strength training is essential for all players who wish to maximize their athletic performance and compete successfully.  But soccer fitness training should never be prescriptive.  It always needs to respect the age, gender, physique, and experience of the individual athlete as well as the point in the season when the training will take place.  

Within those parameters, this blog has showcased a small sample of the huge range of videos that exist to help you build your strength.  Whether it is anaerobic exercises to boost explosive power or aerobic exercises to boost endurance; whether it is upper body, lower body or whole-body workouts; whether it is using weights or other professional gym equipment or exercises you can do alone at home; there is something for everybody.  So, get to it and plan your optimal soccer practice. 

Additionally, if you want to get a professional hand, check out high-performance soccer camps and academies to be hosted all over the world. They vary a lot from five days to two years in duration with a location in Spain, France, the USA, the UK. Specifically, one might be interested in soccer youth academies

Let us know if you need any assistance. Our professional team will help you all along the way. 

Footnotes: 

[1] Carlos Ferrete, et al. Effect of Strength and High-Intensity Training on Jumping, Sprinting, and Intermittent Endurance Performance in Prepubertal Soccer Players. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. February 2014 - Volume 28 - Issue 2 - p 413–422. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31829b2222

[2]  K, H. (2020). Neuromuscular fatigue and recovery in male and female athletes during heavy resistance exercise. – PubMed – NCBI.

[3] Roberts, B., Nuckols, G., & Krieger, J. (2020). Sex Differences in Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 34(5), 1448-1460.

[4] Bogdanis, A., Papaspyrou, A., Souglis, A., Theos,A., Sotiropoulos & Maridaki M. Sixth World Congress on Science and Football Proceedings: Effects of hypertrophy and a maximal strength training programme on speed, force and power of soccer players.