Strength Training for Football… The Elite Approach

Strength training for football has to be more comprehensive than virtually any other sport…

Not only does football require different types of strength (and different lifting programs), it also varies from position to position.

But spend just a small amount of time planning and the benefits can be staggering…

If you aren’t taking a structured approach to your weight lifting, using the foremost training techniques that you’re about to encounter, you are doing yourself a great disservice. Change your routine and watch your performance skyrocket.

As we’ll discover in a moment strength training for football is an art and a science – but mostly science…

Different Phases of Strength Training for Football

Over the course of a year your football strength training program should follow some well-defined phases or cycles.

Unlike the recreational bodybuilder who follows a variation of the same routine week after week after week, strength training for football varies significantly depending on the time of year.

Usually, the football season is broken into 3 major phases…

  • Off-season – 6 months
  • In-season – 5 months
  • Transition – 1 month

During the off-season the objective is to build the maximum of strength, size and power possible. But because the off-season is so long it’s broken down into small macrocycles. We’ll see exactly how later…

In-season strength training for football is about maintaining the gains in strength gained over the off-season. Volume and intensity is reduced considerably.

The transition phase is all about rest and recuperation. It’s good to have some time off each year from weight training, to allow the body (and mind) to fully recharge.

Even within each phase, the intensity and volume of each session varies…

For example, over a 6 week period intensity might start off lower at week 1, reach a peak by week 3, taper off at week 4 and reach a peak again at week 6. This way you are proactively avoiding overtraining and burnout. If you try and train at 100% every session, sooner or later your body will force you to rest – and it’s usually just before a big game!

Different Types of Strength Training for Football

A bodybuilder’s primary objective is to build size and definition.

But contrary to popular belief, larger muscles are NOT always stronger or more powerful muscles. Not only that, too much bulk will reduce your speed, agility and quickness.

When most non-professional athletes visit the gym or the weight room, what do they do?

They follow a classical program of 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions. They might throw in a few drop sets or super sets for good measure and they stick to traditional exercises like the bench press and dumbbell curls.

Football players (especially linemen) do need bulk and a lot of bodyweight. But they also need high levels of strength and sport-specific power.

Wide receivers, defensive backs and tailbacks need less bulk and more speed and agility. But they still need strength and power.

So is the bodybuilding system the most effective for football players?

On its own – no.

But as a phase in the off-season, lasting perhaps 4-6 weeks, it serves a very important purpose.

Training for maximal strength (which is just as important) takes something a little different than 4 sets of 10 reps. So does converting that strength into explosive power – perhaps the most important physical trait for all players to posses.

We can break strength training for football into three separate categories. Here’s each one in detail…

Functional Strength Training for Football

Football, like any other competitive sport places uneven strains and stresses on the body…

The right side may grow to be stronger than the left. Agonists like the quads may become more developed compared to the antagonists (hamstrings). And as prime movers grow ever stronger, smaller, stabilizing muscles get neglected.

Regardless of how experienced a weight lifter you are it’s a good idea to factor in a period of anatomical adaptation training. In fact, more experienced lifters are more likely to be out of balance than beginners.

Novice lifters should spend at least 8 to 10 weeks in this phase. Weight lifting veterans should aim for about 3 to 5 weeks.

The objectives of this phase are to prepare the body for more demanding sessions later on in the program. Tendons, ligaments and connective tissue are strengthened to withstand the heavy loads of subsequent sessions.

One of the best set-ups for functional strength training is circuit training…

Don’t assume that circuits have to incorporate a cardiovascular element – that’s just one example used in the fitness industry. Circuits can be purely strength based…

You can devise a circuit using just bodyweight (beginners) or medicine balls and free weights. The number of stations can vary too – between 6 and 15. Also decrease and increase rest intervals to change the intensity.

The chart below offers some more training parameters for functional strength training for football…

Functional training guidelines

Increase the intensity gradually over the course of this phase. By the final week, intensity should be such that it leads naturally into maximal strength training or…

Hypertrophy Strength Training for Football

Hypertrophy is simply an increase in muscle mass due to an increase in the size or each fibre…

Football players are one of the few groups of athletes who genuinely need to train for increased bulk and lean weight – particularly linemen. Yet this is the only type of strength training that most athletes do.

Although a bodybuilding-type program is the best way to increase lean weight and bulk, it is not the most efficient method for increasing maximum strength. As a result, even linemen should dedicate only about half of their total strength training routine to building mass.

The off-season may last 6 to 7 months. To reach peak performance by the end you need to develop high levels of maximum strength, lean muscle mass and most importantly… explosive power.

But you can’t do it all in one go.

Instead, split your pre-season into smaller macrocycles…

A macrocycle is simply a period of time (maybe 4-6 weeks) in which you set a very definite outcome and follow a very specific type of training. Here’s how…

After a macrocycle of functional strength training (i.e. 4 weeks), you might then train for hypertrophy or increased bulk for 4 weeks (another macrocycle). Then you’d follow a maximal strength program for 4 weeks, then a power lifting program for 4 weeks and so on…

This will be much clearer to see at the end of this article when we tie everything together.

Here are the parameters for hypertrophy strength training for football…

Guidelines for hypertrophy football training

There are some key differences between bodybuilding and hypertrophy training for sport. Here are the main ones…

  • As a football player, stick to working the prime movers – bodybuilders target every single muscle group.
  • You should rest for 3-5 minutes between sets – longer than bodybuilders
  • Split the routine so body parts are worked only once or twice a week.
  • Keep sessions to no more than 3-4 per week – bodybuilders train up to 6 days a week.
  • Stretch at the end of each session and between sets. This helps offset muscle shortening which will decrease your speed and power.

For a sample hypertrophy football strength training program click here

The second major form of strength training for football is…

Maximal Strength Training for Football

What does it really take to build maximal strength?

Increasing the cross-sectional area of each muscle (or to be precise, the contractile filaments within each muscle) greatly affects strength. You do that through hypertrophy training. But it doesn’t end there…

The bodybuilding or hypertrophy approach fails to adequately recruit the powerful fast twitch motor units. And this has a huge impact on your maximal strength…

Only by lifting close to maximum loads will you condition your body to recruit fast twitch fibres.

And remember why you are developing as much maximal strength as possible…

To perform at your best, your ultimate outcome MUST be to acquire as much explosive power as you can. And power is closely related to strength.

Here are some parameters for maximal strength training for football…

Strength training for football

For a sample maximal football strength training program click here

For most athletes this is where their strength training ends – with maximal strength or hypertrophy. That’s a big mistake. One more component of strength is essential to maximize football performance…

Power Training for Football

It doesn’t matter how strong you are, if you can’t transfer that strength into sport-specific movements, it’s next to useless. And sport-specific movements happen very quickly…

To be a powerful player you must possess the ability to contract strong muscles very rapidly.

If two athletes meet head on at full force, it is the more powerful athlete that will prevail NOT necessarily the stronger of the two. So what’s the next logical phase in strength training for football?

Conversion to explosive power.

Bodybuilding and maximal strength training doesn’t adapt the neuromuscular and central nervous systems to rapidly recruit more fast twitch fibres.

Power training does.

As result you become faster and your body can apply more force in a shorter space of time – a huge asset to your game!

Power training can be quite complex. There are several well-known methods such plyometrics, isometric exercises and ballistics. What is key to all of them is the speed and quality of movement…

Effective power conditioning is relatively low in volume. This phase typically occurs when skill and tactical training predominates so it’s important to preserve energy. Just a handful of highly specific drills that closely match the demands of the game are required.

Here’s a brief synopsis of three types of power training…

Also known as jump training, plyometric training uses light loads (usually bodyweight) and very fast, explosive movements. At the crux of these exercises is a rapid movement from eccentric to concentric contraction. The shorter that transition, the more powerful the result.

Caution needs to be exercised with plyometrics as its repetitive nature can lead to overuse injuries. Football players may benefit from the fewer repetitions and heavier loads in isometric training (see below).

Click here for more information on plyometrics

Ballistics also uses relatively light loads at high speeds but differs from plyometrics. Force is applied through the full range of motion rather than for just a split second. A good example is throwing a medicine ball powerfully – force is applied from the start to the end of the movement.

Isotonic Weight Lifting
This technique simply incorporates traditional strength training exercises used in other phases. The key difference is that lighter loads (50-80% 1RM) are lifted in quick, explosive bursts. Weight lifting movements like power cleans and jump squats are more appropriate than bench presses and leg presses for example. Of course this assumes that you have been taught correct technique.

Here are some key guidelines for isotonic weight lifting exercises…

Power training for football

That should give a fairly good idea of how and why strength training for football varies so much over the course of a season. Now it’s time to link everything together into a comprehensive, but simple to follow training plan…

Develop Your 12-Month Master Plan!

Remember back to the start of this article? We split the football season into 3 phases – off-season, in-season and the transition.

The charts below covers a complete 12-month program. It assumes the season begins late august ending in late December…

12month strength training for football

Notice how different types of strength can feature in the same phase? There is always some overlap. What is important is that one form of strength training predominates – according to the outcomes you’ve set.

During the in-season the number of sessions reduces significantly. The goal is to maintain the gains built up over the off-season while you concentrate on skill and tactical training.

Finally to sum up…

These are just examples of how you can set out your program depending on your position. For linemen more emphasis is placed on hypertrophy. But you may feel that even as a wide receiver you lack necessary bulk, so adjust your program accordingly.

With this master plan in place why not look at some of the other articles for individual sessions?

Anytime you find a sample strength program in a magazine (or online) look first at how it fits into the bigger picture.

You’ll even be able to cherry-pick the best exercises and adapt them to fit your own tailored routine – and that’s what elite strength training for football is really about!