It’s that time of year again when spring ball is over and you are responsible for your health and physical fitness over the summer. Many times you are left on your own, with no program whatsoever, so you scour the magazine isle in your local grocery store looking for the muscle magazine with the newest program to help you take your game to the next level come fall.
Other times, you may be provided with a basic strength program from you coach; however, your coach may not fully understand the strength and conditioning aspect of training (many football coaches still retain the ‘weights for upper body, run for lower body’ mentality from the 80’s), and the muscle magazine may not be geared towards improving your on-field performance.
To help determine if your summer program is up to snuff, I’ve compiled a checklist of specifications that your chosen program should meet for optimal performance.
1. Proper & Detailed Warm Up
If your workout doesn’t contain an in-depth warm up, this should be your first sign to ditch it. The warm up is the perfect time to focus on movement quality, and get those little corrective exercises into your program that you couldn’t otherwise fit.
Similarly, the goals of the warm up should be to:
- Increase heart rate
- Stimulate central nervous system for activity
- Enhance movement quality
- Muscle activation.
To achieve these goals, warm up exercises should constantly be switched to avoid plateau and neural adaptation. If the program doesn’t swap warm up exercises, at the very least, every 2 weeks, that is a sure sign of trouble. Also, if the program simply suggests ‘warm up’ at the top of the workout with no details, you will be left guessing on how to perform one of the most complex pieces of the training puzzle.
Even if the warm up does then provide the above, it should also contain an explanation of how to execute each movement listed. All too often, athletes are thrown exercises to complete without any knowledge about its technique or internal/ external ques. Make sure the workout provides these explanations, if they weren’t already previously demonstrated for you.
Take Home Point: Ensure warm ups do their job & reinforce proper technique.
2. Linear Periodization
Whether or not linear periodization is the best form of periodization is highly debatable. However, you are a football player looking to make strength gains for on the field, and for this sort of endeavor, linear periodization has stood the test of time and forged some world class athletes.
What is linear periodization, and how do you know if it is in your program? Basically it is this—progressively using the same lifts week after week with increasing reps or weights so that each workout, you come back lifting more than last. For your workout then, you will be looking for a multi-week chart that is designed to record your numbers to ensure that you are progressing where it counts.
However, this does not apply to everything in the program, nor should it. Accessory movements in the program should be done in a bodybuilding style and will not be able to be progressed in such a manner, consider for a moment how hard it would be to continue increasing weights on movements like a dumbbell lat raise for several weeks.
Take Home Point: Main movements should continuously be progressed.
3. Treadmills Shouldn’t Be Included. At All.
Maybe it’s just a stigma I have with the football training community, but I see treadmills prescribed as an exercise tool far too often. Out of the hundreds of football strength and conditioning programs that I’ve looked over, I’ve seen at least 1/3 which contains, either directly, or indirectly, the prescription of treadmills at some point.
An athlete’s ability to train is finite. If you use this time that you have available to do something that has such small returns as running on a treadmill, you are completely misusing valuable time that could much better be placed in other movements which provide more value to the nature of football.
If you are going to use the treadmill for a warm up, as many programs do, you can much more successfully use this time in other full body movements that also work on mobility, coordination, and sport specific conditioning such as crawls, ladders, step-ups, suicides, tumbles, and other gymnastic movements.
Take Home Point: Treadmills—just don’t use em.
4. Runs Scheduled over 3 Miles
This is a point right in line with #3. Mid-distance and distance running for physical preparation of football (and baseball) is a completely outdated concept that needs to be addressed and brought down. At no point in a football game, will you continuously run for bouts of 3+ Miles (and even less than that), and not to mention the slew of potential health risks associated with distance running, i.e. increased estrogen, shortened Achilles tendons, decreased lean body mass, etc..
I would even take this a step further, and say no runs over 100 yards, but I do understand that the occasional run for the sake of a run can always be fun, and should never be overlooked, so feel free to run, just understand that there are far more valuable things you could be doing to develop yourself as an athlete.
Take Home Point: Distance running should be avoided.
5. Focus on Compound Movements
This is more of a problem associated with workouts that you may find in muscle magazines, but not all workouts that you find will make you a better athlete. Many times these workouts are specifically designed with the premise of ‘develop a bigger chest in 12 weeks’ or ‘get beach season ready’ or whatever, point is, these bodybuilding style, muscle splits will not always be the best for athletic performance.
The body is one whole unit and should be treated as such. This is not to say that the workout can’t follow a more ‘powerlifter’ style workout and have an upper/lower split, but you should definitely steer away from bodybuilding splits like bi’s & tri’s, chest & back or anything like that. Isolation exercises minimally help with sports performance, and should only be thrown in as an as accessory movements, or occasional finisher.
So what movements should a good program consist of? The possibilities are endless, but there should be lots of hip hinges (deadlifts, RDL’s), squats (self-explanatory), loaded-carries (farmers walk, waiter carries), pushes (push-up, overhead press), pulls (pull-up, bent over row). Also, there should be some sort of explosive component programmed at some point in the program, such as cleans, snatches, high pulls, box jumps, etc..
Take Home Point: Make sure your program revolves around compound movements.
6. Pressing Should Be Balanced With Pulling
Although, this is not exclusively football by any means, it is a huge problem with weight training that needs to be addressed. Many times, trainees will over emphasize the muscles they can see (a.k.a. mirror muscles) and completely neglect the muscles of the back (lats, traps, teres major) and posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, erectors). But this is a horrible decision with dire consequences. Training the mirror muscles can pull the body out of alignment and cause serious imbalances that lead to poor blood flow, bad proprioception (body awareness), and in some cases, serious injury.
To avoid this situation, it is best to maintain a balance of pressing to pulling movements in your training program. Any sort of pressing movement should be accompanied by an equal amount of pulling movements. Some strength coaches even suggest that the amount of pulling volume be as high as 3 times the volume of pressing movements.
Take Home Point: Make sure the program has similar amounts of presses and pulls.
7. Emphasis on Posterior Chain Work
Your program should also consist of copious amounts of posterior chain work. As aforementioned, the posterior chain is the group of muscles that contain the hamstrings, glutes, and erectors. These muscles are those that make you a world-class athlete. All of your power comes from here and needs to be hammered with heavy deadlifts, squats, lunges, cleans, and snatches.
If it appears that your program is lacking in this area, it might be time to reconsider who the program is designed for. The posterior chain is your foundation of strength and should be treated accordingly. Continuously try to improve the strength of the posterior chain and you will be rewarded by being bigger, faster, and stronger.
Take Home Point: Be sure that the posterior chain is accentuated heavily in your program.
8. Movement Quality should be Stressed
This is definitely a boring topic, but definitely needs to be covered. With all of the disputes surrounding corrective exercises, like myofascial release (massage and foam rolling techniques) and stretching, it is important to understand these topics and have them properly implemented.
Football players as a whole tend to be a stiff group in need of myofascial release. Foam Rolling before and after your workout will go a long way in preventing all sorts of common football injuries. Make sure that you are learning these from a qualified coach with experience in this area.
Also, the warm up should contain a lot of movement quality and corrective exercise work. Again, this goes back to some of the other points, but it needs to be stressed. The warm up is far too valuable to be wasted on some poorly planned half-assed treadmill run. Make sure that your individual movement patterns are identified, so they can be addressed and fixed before you run into any sort of serious injury.
Take Home Point: Be sure to foam roll and work on your movement patterns, it will help you in the long run.
9. Speed Work Should Not Be Overlooked
Another common problem with the muscle magazines is that it doesn’t take into account sport specific demands such as speed skills. This is why your program should at some point contain speed work.
Now whether you want to interpret speed work as the Westside-style banded dynamic effort, sled pushes, Olympic lifts, or sprints, doesn’t really matter (although some combination of the above would be ideal). All that matters is that your program at some point works on developing high amounts of force production.
This point leads right into the next…
10. Olympic Lifts Should Never Be Programmed Above 3 Reps
Although sometimes it’s tempting to go balls to the wall on a high-rep Olympic lifting finisher, this is a terrible idea. If you see any of these programmed, you should really question the credibility of those programming it.
Now I’m not saying that this kind of thing is always bad, if you are competing in CrossFit, then you sure as hell better be a good high-rep Olympic lifter; however, what I am saying is that everything has a cost-to-benefit ratio, and for football players, high rep Olympic lifting is a recipe for disaster, and one with minimal benefits.
Olympic lifting is extremely valuable for athletic success, but, lifting heavy bars above your head in a fatigued state is a horrible idea. All it takes is one little slip near lockout, and your football career is over, and you’ll have some serious head trauma to deal with. Just make sure that the Olympic lifting is kept to the beginning of the workout when you are most fresh, and to rep ranges under 3.
Wrapping it up…
This isn’t anywhere close to a complete list of problems associated with many football strength programs, but these are the most common flaws that I’ve noticed in the hundreds of programs that I’ve sifted through. Always make sure that there is a reason behind every exercise in the program.
Be sure to constantly question what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. And most importantly, if you feel that you cannot find a good program, I always strongly recommend finding a qualified strength coach to help take your game to the next level.