Strength Training & Football – More than just ‘bulking up’

As the season finishes and the off-season kicks in, many players will rightly look to beginning their preparations for next season sooner rather than later. This will often include extra running work, but then many guys will also choose to hit the gym and start doing some strength work. This strength work is normally done with the primary aim of ‘bulking up’ or ‘putting on some size.’ Unfortunately this will often lead to guys taking a standard bodybuilding style approach to their training, involving things like split body-part routines, a lot of upper body work and hardly any lower body work (because ‘running takes care of legs’) and the same sets and rep schemes used in bodybuilding. We have already discussed the pitfalls of bodybuilding-style training for footy here, so rather than re-hashing this discussion again, what we are instead covering here, are a few of the real benefits that there are to be gained from strength training for footy. A little extra size is certainly good, provided it is built in a certain way, but there is also far more to be gained from the strength work provided it is done correctly.

Injury Reduction

 A key part of training that is seldom considered is training to avoid (or at the very least minimise the chance of) injury, or a form of ‘pre-habilitation’ or ‘pre-hab’ if you will. Here I am not talking about isolating and training specific areas that you may already have a particular weakness in, but rather a more broad sense. Functional exercises will train muscles groups and muscle slings in a way that will lead to a reduction in certain injuries in a match or competitive environment, as a result of being conditioned in a similarly challenging way to how they will be challenged in footy. In short, when building a base of functional strength, and then building power on top of it, you are preparing your muscles and tendons, as well as ligaments and your nervous system (or neural control – what is really controlling your movements), for the stresses that they will be faced with in a game. You will be forced to jump and land, accelerate and decelerate, pivot, change directions, and perform these under heavy fatigue These will all place a lot of stress on your structures. As a result, the better they are conditioned with functional strength work, the more resilient your body becomes to injury when performing these tasks. But the key word here is functional strength work.


For example, the hamstrings, commonly injured be they full tears or just minor strains, are common. It may come as a surprise, but doing a hamstring curl on a machine (be it lying on your stomach or seated upright) will do absolutely zero to strengthen your hamstrings in a functional way (unless of course you are re-habbing a hamstring and this is your starting point) to avoid hamstring strains in footy. A far better option would be a standing single leg cable bend and row. The key point here; functional strength training will provide for less injuries in the competitive environment of a match. And after all, how frustrating is it to be so well conditioned (or at least have the impression you are) and then go out and get injured as a result of a non-contact/impact movement like a kick or a change of direction running?


Improved running ability

Just on this running and changing directions, functional strength work will also have a high level of carryover to improving running ability. Often ‘running’ and ‘weights’ are looked at as 2 separate components that are independent of each other, and need to be squeezed together somehow into a program, and where the results achieved from the 2 often take away from each other. For example, lots of running eating away the ‘muscle’ built up, or all the weights work and bulking up now slowing down your running ability. Both of these aren’t good things – and are a classic example of the 2 forms of training having a negating effect on each other.


The reality is, if the running and the strength work are being done properly, the strength work will actually complement to running, and improve it. In short, as you develop more functional lower body strength, particularly single-leg trained strength, you require less work to perform the same amount of work when running – or the same quality of output. Additionally, as there is more to running preparation than just running straight ahead – namely accelerating, decelerating and the changing of directions – as you will be required to do many times in a game, is also something that functional strength based training, and then power based training, will contribute to, as once again, with the added strength and power trained into these movements with strength work, you will require less effort for the same output, and even more importantly – your output at performing such tasks will also now have far greater potential to improve.


Training Movement Quality

When performing movements in the gym like squatting variations, or a multi-directional lunge, or whatever they may be – it is an opportunity to train your nervous system to be more effective and efficient at stabilising your key joints, while executing a quality of movement on top of it – or in other words, executing a coordinated movement with all the key muscles, tendons and ligaments – controlled by your nervous system. This ties in closely with both the running ability as well as the injury reduction point. By training quality movement into your nervous system under load, you will have a greater capacity to execute similar movements when your system is required to in a match situation. The of course on top of this base of strength – and then the power/plyometric work on top, the more specific work can then be built and developed on top (actual jumping and sprinting and agility, etc) now with a greater potential capacity built up.

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A base of functional strength – to build Footy-Specific expressions of power onto

This ties in very closely with the last point. When performing strength work, you are really aiming to build a base that will allow for enhanced footy specific expressions of power. A platform of stability and then improved strength is the base on which other athletic qualities in footy can be improved on, such as higher vertical leap or the better changing of directions, or the ability to push off an opponent.


So what we are highlighting here, is that the strength work is the platform from which other abilities can be built on. When thought of this way, you will be more likely to go down the track of questioning why you are doing a certain exercise – what are you aiming to get out of it – and what do you want to build on top of that platform. Far too many young players fall into the trap of the weights training becoming the central focus of their training - performing so many days of bodybuilding style training, where they become so focused on it, that it eventually takes over and they lose sight of what they are actually doing the weights training for in the first place. So don’t lose sight of the end goal. Yes a little bulking up is good – but only if you have built a better base of athletic potential to go with that size – as otherwise all you will find is that you have slowed yourself down.


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