Strength Training with Freddy Adu and D.C. United

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Strip away the awards, accolades, endorsements and hype surrounding this soccer phenom, and you are left with a dedicated, young athlete—one who is willing to do all the right things to get the most out of his still- developing body to accomplish every one of his dreams. You and Freddy are the same.

Randy Rocha, strength and conditioning coach for D.C. United and director of the Sports Performance Academy, knows Freddy's age is a key factor in his development. "Freddy's growth plates are closing now," he says, "so you might have already noticed that he's becoming more muscular, as he will continue to do over the next few years."


Strip away the awards, accolades, endorsements and hype surrounding this soccer phenom, and you are left with a dedicated, young athlete—one who is willing to do all the right things to get the most out of his still- developing body to accomplish every one of his dreams. You and Freddy are the same.

Randy Rocha, strength and conditioning coach for D.C. United and director of the Sports Performance Academy, knows Freddy's age is a key factor in his development. "Freddy's growth plates are closing now," he says, "so you might have already noticed that he's becoming more muscular, as he will continue to do over the next few years."

Freddy's development over the past year confirms Rocha's observations. Freddy says, "I have seen some amazing results since I joined D.C. United last year. I have become much stronger and gained 10 to 15 pounds of muscle. Coming in here, I was just a little kid, and I am still growing. But for me to compete against these guys, I have to put on more muscle. I don't have to be as big or weigh as much as they do, but I want to be able to compete and hold my own against them. I really focused on weightlifting and conditioning. I feel better and stronger out there as a result."

Training Freddy is a delicate matter due to the natural growth taking place. "We want to complement his natural gift and not get in the way of it," Rocha explains. "He has been given an explosive gift and a quickness gift, and we don't want to do anything to slow him down. I would hate to get him benching 250 pounds, squatting 350 and building bulk that will negatively affect his game. He doesn't need to run through people; he needs to run past people." To accommodate Freddy's natural skills, therefore, his training emphasizes muscle endurance and strength, not one-rep maxes and heavy weights.

Recognizing the importance of preserving his natural gift while improving his conditioning, Freddy says: "I want to put on another 10 or 15 pounds, but do it without losing my quickness. I know I am still growing. I don't know how much more I am going to grow, but it really doesn't matter to me. As long as I am fast, strong and have my feet firmly on the ground, then I'll be able to hold my own and do the things I want to do."

Rocha says D.C. United's in-season training program "focuses on the specific body parts that are used on the soccer field—ones that increase speed, strength and vertical leap. That all falls under one term: explosiveness."

Soccer conditioning is different from many other sports, according to Rocha. "Soccer players should not look to get big and bulky, but should instead stay lean, flexible and wiry so they can get through tight spaces without contact."

Rocha has outlined three specific goals for Freddy to accomplish using the program he developed for the 2004 MLS Cup Champion, D.C. United.

>Goal 1:
Before a recent match against Chelsea, Freddy approached Rocha and told him that he would really like to improve his acceleration speed. Freddy knows he has the ability to cover 10 yards amazingly fast, but he admits concern about acceleration when he and an opponent are competing for a ball or when he has a breakaway. Freddy works to improve his acceleration so he can excel in these situations.

>Goal 2:
Freddy, at 5'8", is shorter than many players he faces. Rocha and Freddy work to improve the explosive power of his lower extremities, which will increase his vertical leap. Increased jumping ability will allow him to get to headers over taller opponents.

>Goal 3:
To complement Freddy's natural gift—he is one of the fastest athletes to ever handle a soccer ball—Rocha's program helps maintain and improve his quickness and cutting ability.

In-Season Strength Training
D.C. United players strength train twice a week in season. The program increases strength and explosive ability without creating bulk or hindering flexibility and speed.

Squat with Heel Raise

  • Begin standing with bar across back of shoulders

  • Sit back and lower down under control until thighs are parallel to floor. Keep chest up.

  • Drive up explosively without changing angle of torso

  • Extend hips, knees and ankles

  • Hold this locked position for .5-1 second

BENEFITS: "This is one of the most beneficial exercises out there, because it simulates a vertical leap and opens up the joints through triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles. You get to work that last bit of explosion, because the movement does not end when you straighten the hips and knees."

Angled Walking Lunge with Medicine Ball

  • Hold medicine ball behind head with both hands

  • Lunge forward with right leg to 1 o'clock position

  • Lower until back knee nearly touches ground; keep front knee behind front toes

  • Push up into standing position and lunge left leg to 11 o'clock position

  • Repeat in walking fashion

BENEFITS: "The angled part of this exercise really opens up the adductors and is a little more functional than a straight ahead lunge. When you are on the field, you're not always moving straight ahead. Soccer players—especially centers—have to reach way out for balls with their legs, and this drill places a bit of torque and stretching on the back leg to better prepare them for it."

Sumo Deadlift

  • Stand at bar with wide stance

  • Grasp bar with over-under grip inside of knees

  • Drive up to standing position keeping back flat and chest out

  • Lower through same motion with control

BENEFITS: "The wide stance works flexibility by opening up the hips and working the adductors. This exercise yields tremendous results in building a strong lower-extremity base."

Physioball Hamstring Curl

  • Lie on back with heels on physioball

  • Raise hips toward ceiling and curl heels toward buttocks

  • Extend legs with control keeping hips raised

BENEFITS: "This is a core and hamstring exercise combined. It's a functional exercise, because it works the hamstrings in an unstable environment instead of lying down on a weight machine, where you don't have to worry about anything except curling the leg."

Split Squat

  • Stand with bar on back and feet split one in front of the other

  • Lower down with control keeping front knee behind front toes

  • Drive up into starting position when back knee nearly touches the ground

BENEFITS: "The split stance works more unilateral strength than when both legs are in the same position. Also, when you use this split stance in a weight bearing position, it produces a great stretch in the hip flexor of the back leg during the down phase."

Jump Squat

  • Begin in standing position with shoulder-width stance

  • Lower into squat position and cock arms behind you

  • Jump for maximum height by rapidly extending hips, knees and ankles and bringing arms forward and up

  • Land softly sitting back on heels with knees behind toes

  • Immediately squat again and repeat jump with minimal ground contact time

BENEFITS: "Super-setting this exercise with split squats is crucial. Guys hit fatigue doing the split squat, and then have to perform 10 jump squats using similar muscle groups. This trains them to be explosive and burst when they are fatigued. It also teaches them to use their upper body to generate power—as if they were going up for a header."

Lateral Squat

  • Begin in wide stance with bar on back

  • Squat to one side, keeping knees behind toes and driving hips back

  • Push up to starting position and repeat to other side

BENEFITS: "This is another great unilateral strengthening tool. When you are in a deep squat position to one side, the groin on the other side is getting a great stretch."

Alternate Step-ups

  • Hold medicine ball behind head with both hands

  • Step onto 24" box with one leg without pushing off back leg

  • Lower down very slowly with same motion

  • Repeat with opposite leg

BENEFITS: "The high box really develops the hips and the glutes, because it forces them to work to drive your body upward."

Closed-Chain Hamstring on Treadmill

  • Stand on a treadmill that is not turned on, with left foot on side platform

  • Raise right leg in high knee motion

  • Drive leg down through running motion

  • Push belt of treadmill back explosively with heel and then toe

  • Bring leg back up to high knee and repeat continuously like you are running

BENEFITS: "Hamstring injuries are so common and problematic for soccer players. They don't occur when you are pushing off, because your joints are still slightly closed and it's your quads that are being worked. The injury happens when you become upright and your hips extend, because that is when the hamstring is lengthened and tested. A soccer player needs to train the hamstring in this position in a closed-chain environment. Closed-chain means the foot is in contact with the ground, which is hard to accomplish in training. Most hamstring exercises are open-chain, because the foot is not in contact with anything."

Physioball Trunk Rotation

  • Sit on medicine ball and walk feet out until only shoulder blades are touching ball

  • Hold medicine ball straight out in front of chest with hips raised

  • Rotate to one side keeping feet planted and hips raised

  • Return to center and repeat to other side

BENEFITS: "This drill works the obliques in a rotational manner—similar to how they are used when trying to make a move around someone."

V-up with Medicine Ball

  • Lie on back with arms straight overhead holding medicine ball

  • Fold at waist, keeping arms and legs straight until ball and feet meet above middle of body

  • Lower back down with control

BENEFITS: "This exercise builds strength in the upper and lower regions of the abdomen."

Core Stabilization
The only way for a player to fight for and win a position on the field is to link the upper body to a strong lower extremity through a strong core. "A strong core is more important to soccer than to any other sport. Although contact is limited, when it does occur, it happens with the upper body in a closed-chain position with your feet on the ground. If someone pushes you across the chest and tries to hold you off, your abdominal region and core react."

D.C. United performs core work about twice a week in season and 3-4 times a week in the off-season, at the end of practice or workouts.


  • Lie on back with knees at 90-degree angle and feet flat on ground

  • Roll chest and shoulders up until shoulder blades and mid-back are off ground

  • Lower down with control and repeat


  • Lie on stomach with elbows bent under you

  • Raise body into air until only elbows and toes are touching ground

  • Your body should be flat from head to toe. Keep abs and buttocks tight.

  • Hold for 10 seconds, lower and repeat

MODIFIED: Lift body only to elbows and knees.

ADVANCED: Lift one leg about 6" while in the plank. Hold 3-5 seconds, then switch legs.

Side Bridge

  • Lie on side with elbow tucked underneath and feet on top of each other

  • Lift body into the air with only foot/ankle and elbow touching ground

  • Elevate hips and keep core tight

  • Hold for 10 seconds

MODIFIED: Lift body to elbow and knee.

ADVANCED: Lift top leg about 6" off bottom leg, hold 3-5 seconds.

SOCCER-SPECIFIC: Simulate side-volley by rotating trunk back a few degrees and then swiveling hip/leg forward as if striking the ball 5-10 times.

Active Warm-up
Rocha has the D.C. United squad perform a brief dynamic warm-up to prepare muscles for training and practice.

Bodyweight Squat

  • Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width with med ball in hands
  • Squat down under control, keeping knees behind toes until tops of thighs are parallel to ground
  • Drive up into standing position and raise med ball overhead; repeat

Walking Lunge

  • Step forward into lunge position, keeping front knee behind front toes

  • Lower down until back knee nearly touches ground

  • Raise and repeat with opposite leg in walking fashion

Lateral Walking Lunge

  • Step sideways into lateral lunge, keeping knee behind toes

  • Lower, keeping hips back toward heels

  • Raise and repeat


  • Jump from one leg to the other in running fashion

  • Fully extend back leg while raising front leg into high knee position

  • Explode quickly and cover as much ground as possible with each bound


  • Gain ground laterally by crossing one leg in front of, then behind, other leg

Forward Sprint with 180-degree turn

  • Sprint 10 yards and turn 180 degrees

  • Run backward 10 yards

Backward Run with 180-degree turn

  • Run backward 10 yards and turn 180 degrees

  • Sprint for 10 yards

Warm-up Drills
Rocha has designed a set of warm-up drills that work bilateral cutting and pivoting techniques to help players move comfortably in every direction. Rocha notes, "Everyone has a dominant side. And when players are forced to move in the direction to which they are less accustomed, injuries occur. This can happen when someone is sent a long ball or when someone marks an opponent and doesn't know where he is going to go."

Forward, Diagonal, Backward Run

  • Run to first cone

  • Cut diagonally and pivot into backward run

  • When you reach second cone, pivot into forward run toward third cone

  • Make cut at fourth cone and finish with forward run

Zigzag Running #1 with Bounding

  • Sprint to first pair of cones

  • Step through, decelerate and pivot between cones

  • Sprint to next pair of cones

  • Repeat same movement and continue in this pattern through course

  • When you reach last cone, perform single leg bound over three mini-hurdles

Zigzag Running #2 with High Knees

  • Repeat Zigzag #1 drill, but instead of pivoting between cones, step through, plant and run backward, performing a forward turn midway to next cone

  • Perform lateral high knees over three mini-hurdles at final cone

Sprints with Backtrack

  • Sprint 10 yards to first cone and pivot off left foot

  • Backtrack at angle back to next cone

  • Pivot off right foot and sprint straight ahead to next cone

  • Repeat movement through course of cones

Sprints with Shuffle

  • Same as Sprints with Backtrack, but shuffle at angle instead of backtracking

Cone Drills with Forward Sprint

  • Perform one of the following drills through four cones set up one foot apart

  • Sprint 40 yards for last repetition

Cone Drills:

1) Forward Shuffle

2) Lateral Shuffle

3) Lateral Hops

4) Lateral High Knees

5) Single Leg Hops

Kicks with Resistance

  • Attach bungee cord around waist with opposite end connected to stationary object or partner

  • Walk forward until cord has tension, then assume athletic stance

  • As partner continuously feeds balls to you, kick them back to him, alternating feet

Headers with Theraband

  • As one teammate provides resistance by holding the ends of a band wrapped around your waist, another teammate tosses balls toward you to practice headers

Speed Training
By training with resistance, Rocha's players develop the necessary speed to break free from defenders on offense and mark an opponent on defense.

Sport Cord with Tow and Release

  • Sprint 20 yards with partner standing behind you holding the ends of cord wrapped around your waist

  • After 20 yards, partner releases cord

  • Sprint remaining 40 yards at 100 percent effort

  • Switch places with partner

BENEFITS: "When you are running against the sport cord, it trains you to run with power. With all the shirt holding that goes on in soccer, you have to learn how to fight through the resistance. Once you are released, you have to be able to take off and accelerate."

Pursuit Drill

  • Attach a Theraband around your and your partner's waists with about two feet between

  • To throw you off track, partner performs a lateral shuffle to starting cone

  • Partner then sprints through course of his choice, changing direction at each pair of cones

  • Track your partner and keep his pace through course and every direction change

BENEFITS: "The man being pulled is almost like a defender, because he has to track the lead man and keep up. The unpredictability of the drill adds an extra degree of difficulty. The lead man gets a workout too because of the resistance."

Soccer consists of two continuous 45-minute halves, and the D.C. United players have to be able to go as hard in the 90th minute of a game as they do in the first. Rocha explains, "You need good cardiovascular endurance throughout the game, because you never know when you are going to have to hit a sprint and you don't get a lot of recovery time in between."

90-Yard Shuttle

  • Set up two cones 15 yards from sideline and two cones at midfield

  • Begin on one sideline while a partner starts on opposite sideline

  • Sprint 30 yards to cone at midfield and touch line

  • Sprint back 15 yards to first cone and touch line

  • Sprint to opposite sideline

  • Rest while partner performs same pattern in opposite direction

  • Alternate direction of touches and pivots

BENEFITS: "These shuttle drills train players to pivot in both directions. They learn to stop, change direction and then get back up to speed."


  • Begin at corner of field with partner at opposite corner

  • Begin steady jog along goal line and then along sideline until you reach corner where your partner began his jog

  • Immediately perform full sprint diagonally across field back to starting corner

  • As soon as you reach starting corner, repeat jog and sprint pattern

BENEFITS: "Not only does this teach a player to accelerate in the open field with proper form, it conditions a player's body to rest for a brief time and then be able to hit it again."

40-Yard Sprint with Lead Up

  • Jog for 10-15 yards and then burst for 40-yard sprint

  • Coast into jog for an additional 10-15 yards

BENEFITS: "The short recovery period of this drill trains an athlete to repeat the quality of acceleration when fatigued."

Flag/Cone Sprints

  • Place four flags or cones about 15-20 yards apart in linear fashion

  • Begin at one end of flags while partner starts at opposite end

  • Sprint around first flag and finish back at starting point, at which time your partner repeats same run at other end

  • As he finishes, immediately sprint around first flag again, circle back around starting flag, sprint and circle around second flag and finish by sprinting to original starting point. Your partner simultaneously performs same run on opposite side.

BENEFITS: "The flags simulate running around an opponent to avoid contact. This drill trains a player to avoid contact by squeezing through small spaces, because it forces him to lower his center of gravity and close his joints as he circles around the flag as quickly as possible."

Throughout Freddy's eventful childhood, someone was always knocking on his door to request his presence on the soccer field. Emelia Adu—the woman behind the boy wonder—played the role of gatekeeper as the requests mounted.

Freddy developed his soccer skills by playing barefoot with makeshift balls against grown men in the streets of Ghana. When the men barred the seven-year-old from playing for embarrassing them with his quick feet and flashy moves, Emelia came to the rescue by buying soccer balls, a scarce commodity in Ghana. To play with real balls, the men had to come to the Adu house, knock on the door and invite Freddy to play. He quickly returned to honing his skills by dominating men three times his age.

The Adus immigrated to the United States after winning a green card lottery at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana. Freddy was eight. Soon after he arrived, Freddy's skills were noticed, and he made the upgrade to playing on grass fields with cleats when a youth club team came calling.

While playing against Italian youth squads, Freddy was noticed by international observers. The world famous team, Inter Milan, offered Emelia $750,000 to allow Freddy to join their youth development program. Although it seemed like a dream come true for an immigrant mother working multiple jobs to support her family, Emelia promptly declined the offer—and many others as well—knowing that it was in Freddy's best interest to stay close to home and to focus on his intellectual as well as his physical development. After all, it was the desire to further Freddy's and his younger brother Fro's education that led the Adus to the United States in the first place.

When D.C. United made Freddy the highest-paid soccer player in the U.S. at the fresh age of 14, many people wondered how this kid was supposed to get to practice. Emelia took on the true role of soccer mom, dropping off Freddy at practice, just like thousands of mothers do every day across America.

Freddy, who earned his diploma at the age of 14 through an accelerated academic plan, hasn't been the only one to reap rewards from hard work and dedication. Now settled in her brand new house, compliments of her soccer prodigy, Emelia isn't afraid to brag about her son's success. "My mom has gotten a little carried away with the whole experience," Freddy says. "When I walk into the house, all I see are hundreds of pictures of me all over the walls. It's really out of hand."

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock