Leg Strength for Soccer with the Red Bulls

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Pierre Barrieu was in charge of getting the U.S. Men's National Team strong, fit and pitch-ready heading into the 2006 World Cup. He and National Team head coach Bruce Arena have since taken their expertise to the MLS' New York Red Bulls, instantly revitalizing the organization. Currently near the top of the Eastern Division, the Bulls are on the run, with strong legs driving them, poised to contend for the MLS Cup. 

"Nobody can argue that leg strength is not extremely important for playing a better game of soccer," says Barrieu, the team's fitness coach. "It's well known that in all sports, the stronger your legs are, the better your lateral movement, speed and quickness."

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Pierre Barrieu was in charge of getting the U.S. Men's National Team strong, fit and pitch-ready heading into the 2006 World Cup. He and National Team head coach Bruce Arena have since taken their expertise to the MLS' New York Red Bulls, instantly revitalizing the organization. Currently near the top of the Eastern Division, the Bulls are on the run, with strong legs driving them, poised to contend for the MLS Cup. 

"Nobody can argue that leg strength is not extremely important for playing a better game of soccer," says Barrieu, the team's fitness coach. "It's well known that in all sports, the stronger your legs are, the better your lateral movement, speed and quickness."

These benefits, although obvious, are not easy to reap. In fact, when it comes to soccer, proper lower body training can be counterintuitive. Instead of strengthening the muscles you use most on the field, you should focus on the ones you don't. "The demands of our sport—the constant running, cutting and planting—overload your quads and glutes," Barrieu says. "This creates weak hamstrings and groins, so it's no coincidence that 90 percent of soft tissue injuries in soccer occur in these areas."

Consequently, Barrieu focuses his training with the Red Bulls on restoring balance between these opposing muscle groups and attacking leg muscles that otherwise get left behind. He finds that too many young players train the same muscles they overload while playing, which puts them at an even higher risk of injury. "In addition to general strength training, we target specific muscles to remain healthy and return balance to the strength ratios," he says.

Another training mistake Barrieu sees younger players make is wasting time trying to develop leg strength for shot power. "Shooting strength comes from improved biomechanics and technique, not leg strength," he says. "Most right-footed players have stronger left legs, because that is the one they plant and jump with. However, they have less kicking power on their left side."

Barrieu and his training weren't the Red Bulls' only recent acquisitions. When team leader, long-time international star and '06 U.S. National Team Captain Claudio Reyna joined in January, the club gained a talented and experienced player. Another recent addition, Juan Pablo Angel, brings the hustle and energy to New York that made him such an asset to Aston Villa. "He's a guy who has a great work ethic and understanding of what we are doing in the weight room," Barrieu says. "He got into it right away, and he will see the benefits soon."

Since Barrieu has just begun his service with the Red Bulls, the results of his training plan have yet to be revealed. But by the time the Red Bulls battle their way into the MLS playoffs this fall, they will experience improved reaction time and quickness, thanks to the improved push in their legs.

The following four exercises are part of Barrieu's regimen.

Lunge With Dumbbell Curl

• Hold dumbbells at side and step forward into lunge
• Hold lunge position, and curl dumbbells to shoulder level
• Using front foot, push back into standing position
• Lower dumbbells to side; repeat for specified reps
• Lead with other leg

Variation: Perform a Reverse Lunge by stepping backward into lunge
Sets/Reps: 3x10 each leg
Benefits: Hamstring, glute, core and arm strength

Barrieu: Although soccer is played mostly with the lower body, you don't want to be strong on the bottom with nothing on top. I've combined the Lunge with an upper-body movement to work both areas of the body in conjunction, through the core. This exercise forces you to stabilize your hips and core.

Single-Leg Med Ball Reach

• Balance on left leg, holding 10- to 15-pound med ball in right hand
• Keeping left leg straight and back flat, bend forward and reach right hand to left foot
• Return to start position; repeat for specified reps
• Perform on right leg

Advanced: Stand on stability pad
Sets/Reps: 3x6 each leg
Benefits: Hamstring strength/Balance

Barrieu: This is an eccentric load, so we keep the volume low. Hamstring injuries almost always occur during this eccentric contraction, when the muscle fibers are being stretched away from each other, so this is the best way to train them.

Dumbbell Squat

• Hold dumbbells at side and assume athletic stance with feet slightly wider than hip width
• Keeping knees behind toes and chest up, sit back and lower into squat position until tops of thighs are parallel to ground
• Drive up and forward out of squat position

Sets/Reps: 3-4x10
Benefits: General lower-body strength/Balance

Barrieu: Using dumbbells is more adaptive to our sport, because you are always fighting for balance. It is harder to squat with dumbbells than with a bar, and especially a machine. If you want to get stronger, you have to squat.

Side Lunge with Dumbbell Press

• Hold dumbbells at shoulders, then step right
• Lower into lateral lunge, keeping right knee directly in line with right foot
• Press dumbbells overhead
• Using right foot, push to standing position
• Lower dumbbells to shoulders; repeat for specified reps
• Perform to left

Sets/Reps: 3x5 each leg
Benefits: Lateral movement/Shoulder, groin, core and hip strength

Barrieu: As you press, you have to remain stable in the hips, or else you will stretch even further. When you're running and then have to plant and turn, you stretch the same muscles involved with this exercise. The faster you can react to that stretch, the quicker you can change direction.

Related videos:

Med Ball Catch and Crunch Video 

Back Hyper Twist Video 

Midfielder Clint Mathis talks training. Click here for video


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: SOCCER | STRENGTH TRAINING | STRETCHING | TRAIN | DUMBBELLS