When you break down all of the action on a football field, everything that happens falls into one of three categories: sprinting, engaging in standing hand-to-hand combat, and changing direction. That's it. So to succeed on the field, you need to prepare during the off-season with moves that translate well to each of those functions. My top nine exercise recommendations are as follows:
Power (which is strength plus speed) is a key element for football players. Studies show that speed and power are the most important factors differentiating between starters and non-starters.
The Power Clean and its variations require you to exert a high amount of force against the ground through a series of rapid movements. It involves triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips, the same motion you make during a tackle or the start of a sprint. Involving all the major muscles of the body, the Power Clean offers so many benefits to football players that it deserves its own article. (See 5 Reasons Why Football Players Shoulder Power Clean.)
- Starting with the bar on the floor, grasp it with a slightly-wider-than-shoulder-width overhand grip.
- Position the bar over the center of your shoe laces, move your chest over the bar and push your hips back.
- Explode upward by fully extending your hips, knees and ankles.
- Forcefully shrug your shoulders to pull the bar up, keeping it close to your chest.
- Drop under the bar in a quarter-squat position and catch the bar in front of your shoulders with your elbows forward.
- Extend your knees and hips to stand up.
- Lower to start position, and repeat for specified reps.
Caution: You need a good strength-training base before attempting the Power Clean. Develop this strength with Deadlifts and Front Squats. Once you're ready to try the Clean, begin with the Hang Clean and have a certified coach work with you on the movement.
Although the Back Squat is certainly a great exercise, if I had to choose one, it would be the Front Squat. Why? The move reinforces good posture, engages the core and is a prerequisite for the Power Clean. The force (bar) is placed in front of the body, which is similar to where the force is when tackling. (Read Front Squat 101.)
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width and your knees slightly bent.
- Rest the bar across the front of your shoulders with a clean grip.
- Keeping your back straight and knees behind your toes, sink your hips back and bend your knees to lower into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
- Explode up by driving through your heels and extending your knees and hips to return to the start position.
- Repeat for specified reps.
Any time you line up as an offensive lineman, you're essentially performing a Deadlift. The move recruits major muscle groups, including the hamstrings, glutes, and back—all muscles you need to be strong and to perform better on the field.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, squat down and grasp the bar with a slightly-wider-than-shoulder-width grip.
- Position the bar close to your shins, fully extend your elbows, stick your chest out and look straight ahead.
- Simultaneously extend your hips and knees to stand up, keeping your back straight and the bar close to your body.
- Squeeze your glutes to complete the movement.
- Repeat sequence in reverse to lower bar to ground, and repeat for specified reps.
Football players need single-leg strength, and Lunges are a great way to build it. Besides working all of the major leg muscles (glutes, hams, quads), the move develops balance and fixes asymmetries—something that, if neglected, can come back to haunt you.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart with your knees slightly bent.
- Take an exaggerated step forward and lower your hips to the floor by bending your front knee until your thigh is parallel to the ground.
- Do not let your front knee slide forward over your toes or collapse inward.
- Extend your front hip and knee to stand up, and bring your back leg forward to return to the starting position.
- Perform with your opposite leg, and continue in alternating fashion for specified reps.
Another "king" exercise, Pull-Ups not only work your lats and back muscles, they also develop your shoulders, core and grip strength—all helpful attributes for a great football player.
- Hang from a pull-up bar with your palms facing away from you, hands positioned slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Pull your chest up to the bar, then lower yourself to the starting position.
This is a great push/pull combination that works the chest, back, shoulders, abs and hips all in one! Working the core while performing pushing and pulling makes this a great combo to develop functional strength for hand-to-hand combat. And having a solid core makes for better sprinting!
- Start in push-up position with your hands gripping dumbbells under each shoulder and your feet approximately hip-width apart.
- Perform a Push-Up; when you return to the starting position, row the dumbbell with your right arm, then row on your left side. That's one rep.
- Keep a solid plank position and do not let your butt or hips sway as you move.
- Repeat for specified reps.
DB Push Press
It's a great shoulder developer. In contrast to a Seated Press, this move engages the whole body with rapid hip and knee extension in an explosive fashion, just like you would on the field.
- Hold a pair of dumbbells at shoulder height just outside your shoulders.
- Bend your hips and knees to lower into a quarter-squat position, then forcefully extend your hips, knees and ankles to propel the dumbbells up.
- Finish the movement by extending your arms overhead, keeping your torso tight and head position neutral.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back to start position and repeat for specified reps.
They increase scapular stability, engages a number of neck muscles, and develops the traps—all good stuff to help protect your head!
- Hold dumbbells at your sides with your arms straight.
- Shrug your shoulders up, rolling them back and forward.
Standing Cable Chops
A great standing combat exercise that develops explosive pushing strength, balance, and hip stability. The move also engages the core.
- Assume a wide stance with a cable machine to your right.
- Hold the rope attachment in front of your chest with your arms extended.
- Rotate your upper body to the right as far as your range of motion allows.
- Keep your arms directly in front of your chest—do not move your lower body.
- Reverse the movement and rotate your upper body toward the left as far as you can, pulling the rope attachment as you move.
- Keep your arms directly in front of your chest and do not move your lower body.
- Continue rotating your torso in each direction for specified reps.
Sets/Reps: 3-4x6-8 reps.
What? No Bench Press? Although it remains in the Combine, the Bench Press is rated 24th among standing combat exercises, according to Dr. Matt Rhea, whose research entails program development and transfer exercises for football athletes. You're better off performing a pressing motion in a standing position. Or if you must lie down, try the Dumbbell Press on a Swiss Ball. It will increase your core and shoulder stability while addressing left-to-right imbalances. These types of exercises are tougher, so the weights you hit won't look as impressive; but remember: the tougher exercises will make you a better athlete and allow you to shine on the field, where it matters.
 Baechle, T.R. & Earle, R.W..(2000). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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