Spoiler alert: to be good at soccer, players need to be more than technically and tactically talented.
A player can only get away with just ball work for so long, until the bigger and stronger players run them over. This begs the question: What separates elite players from the rest?
The best soccer athletes are not only skilled and sharp decision-makers, but they are strong, powerful and conditioned. They make the physical component of the game a priority and are less susceptible to injury and more likely to outrun and outplay their opponents. Especially as players evolve in their careers and play at elite levels in college, professional and beyond, the physical side is the edge to success.
With that in mind, here are five tips (and 5 accompanying exercises) for soccer players to elevate their game in the weight room.
1. Include More Frontal Plane Exercises
Soccer players tend to live in a sagittal-dominated world. They perform Squats, Lunges, Deadlifts, Pull-Ups and Push-Ups. Sure, these serve many benefits and must be a priority in any program for maximal strength gains, but there also needs to be accessory training done in other planes to prepare for the specific actions in the game.
The frontal plane helps with lateral movements, agility and decelerating safely. The majority of the game is done multi-directionally, so players must be strong and powerful enough to make sharp turns around defenders and move off the ball quickly to get open for their teammates.
To be more soccer skill-specific, frontal plane strength helps with players being able to push off their plant foot as they execute a 1v1 move against a defender:
For more creative exercises in the frontal plane, read this article.
2. Perform Maximal Strength Work
Time spent on the pitch can range from 2-5 days a week. Players are running and doing ball work the majority of the time, so squeezing in 2-3 days of strength work fills in what cannot be accomplished on the field.
Training for maximal strength (80-90% 1RM) is good for improving speed and being able to produce more force. The more muscle a player has, the more force they can put into the ground while running 10- to 20-yard sprints, jumping for head balls or striking a powerful shot from outside the penalty box.
Maximal strength work should include the major muscle groups used in soccer, namely, the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors and hip extensors.
In terms of injury prevention, strength ensures players can handle external load, such as getting tackled, falling on the ground and absorbing forces from sharp turns. As high performance specialist Dr. Tim Gabbett says, “athletes need load in order to withstand load.” To that end, if players load and challenge their bodies with maximal strength lifts, it will help them to be more resilient to the high impact forces of the game.
3. Focus on Core Work That Translates to the Field
Breaking news: performing 100 Ab Crunches at the end of practice will not enhance a player’s performance. They may get six-pack abs, but the core is so much more than one muscle group and aesthetics. The first step to increasing speed, shooting power and multi-directional agility is to realize the core is made up of the hips, abdominals and low back. Players should ask themselves, “do I have a good-looking core, or a good functioning core?”
Some people have both, but the latter is what’s critical to athletic performance.
In order for a player to sprint with clean mechanics, the entirety of their core must be strong so they can achieve optimal hip flexion and hip extension without flexing the low back. A strong core also allows for less arm crossover when running at high speeds. When arms come across the body, players are not able to run their fastest.
For other actions like shooting, the core is a transfer of force from the upper to lower extremity, which means the stronger and more stable it is, the better shooting mechanics will be, and the more balanced a player will be on their plant foot.
Here are a few exercises to try:
Controlled Mountain Climber
Coaching cues: Keep the back flat, don’t let the hips drop below the shoulders, and avoid low back flexion by using the hip flexor to initiate the movement.
Coaching cues: Sit the hips back in a “hinge” position, keep the core still, initiate the movement with the arms while keeping the arms straight.
4. Think About Becoming More Powerful
Maximal strength work will help to increase speed and power. However, it cannot be the only thing soccer players do in the gym. Plyometrics, whether in the form of jumps, hops, bounds, etc., serve as an excellent complement to a soccer lifting program to increase rate of force development (RFD) and fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment. Additionally, different jump variations are excellent for training triple extension of the ankles, knees and hips, which is a movement pattern for sprinting.
Here are some exercises to try:
Transverse Box Jump
To get the most out of power development, make sure soccer players are training it as a complement to a maximal strength training regimen. Taking the conversation back to doing a variety of plane work, power exercises should be done in all planes of motion—sagittal, frontal and transverse to mimic the multi-planar actions of the game.
5. Do Not Ignore Upper-Body Strength
Soccer players do need their fair share of “leg days.” However, the upper body needs to be trained just as much, if not more.
Upper-body strength improves posture, body composition and ability to withstand forces in the game. With improved posture and body composition comes faster speed and pristine running mechanics. As an example, when a soccer player reaches maximal speed, their torso is upright and the muscles of the mid to upper back should be firing as much as the hip extensors to reach top speed. If their upper body is weak, with internally rotated shoulders and a slouched core, they will not be able to produce as much force and extension from their arms while running.
The best exercise a soccer player can do to train upper-body posterior strength is the Pull-Up or Chin-Up:
A movement like the Pull-Up also increases core strength, which allows soccer players to hold off defenders better. What’s more, adding upper-body strength to a lower-body strength program will help to improve a player’s body composition, allowing them to lose fat, put on more muscle mass, move around the field more nimbly and feel confident when stepping on the pitch.
Sure, being good on the ball is great, but incorporating strength and power work improves overall athleticism as well as enhances the skill components of the game.
Photo Credit: mikkelwilliam/iStock