The summer is truly the best time for players to become stronger, more powerful, quicker and faster in order to gain an edge next season. Designing the most effective workout plan could well be the difference between winning and losing.
Here are a few general tips to maximize any football strength program:
1. Identify individual muscle imbalances/joint restrictions
DO: To start any strength program, it is imperative to have each player thoroughly evaluated by a licensed medical professional who can identify muscle imbalances and/or joint restrictions. Discovering these abnormalities and properly addressing them will allow the athlete to develop the proper foundation for maximum strength improvement while significantly reducing the chances of potential injury. Remember, you don't want to build a beautiful house on a faulty foundation or eventually it will come tumbling down.
As an example, I recently had the opportunity at my facility, the Fischer Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, to evaluate a veteran NFL defensive back who suffered a very mild lower leg injury in their recent mini-camp. As we evaluated him, we discovered some faulty movement patterns that we quickly had to address with corrective exercises to enhance his offseason training program. If we had not intervened, I truly believe his lower leg injury would re-surface in training camp or in the season.
DON'T: Just use the mirror and look at the "beach muscles" (chest, abs, arms) to determine if an athlete is in great football shape.
Just because someone has low body fat percentage and large chest and arm muscles doesn't mean that they are prepared for the rigors of a football season.
Periodization is the progressive cycling of various variables such as reps, sets, speed of contraction, volume (amount of work), intensity, rest time, type of exercises and frequency of training. Changing these variables avoids over-training injuries, plateaus and ensures maximum benefit by properly stimulating your neuromuscular system.
DO: Start with proper intensity (loading) and volume in this periodization program.
Many times, I start even my NFL players with particular bodyweight exercises to make sure that the athlete can handle their own body weight before adding any external loads. For example, I have many of my NFL clients start with a single leg bodyweight squat before going to weighted bar squats. Through this we can detect some areas that need improvement, quickly address those and then move on to more progressive exercises without compromising technique and quality of movement.
As far as volume, I normally start my athletes with a total body workout three times a week to ease back into the weight room. This phase is typically at three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions with a one minute rest in between sets. This initial phase is not long, lasting around three to four weeks. Next is the strength phase which normally includes strength training four times a week in a split body routine (training specific areas of the body on certain days)
DO: Progress thorough the basic stages of periodization.
After the initial re-introduction back to the weight room, I often challenge my NFL players with the strength phase. This phase basically consists of three to four sets of eight reps with a two minute rest in between sets because the weight is more intense. If a player can perform eight reps with some ease, the weight is increased to challenge them to barely get to the eighth rep. As stated before, this is usually performed in a split body routine setup, four times a week. Furthermore, this phase can generally be anywhere from three weeks to six weeks in length.
The next phase is the power phase. This is usually a split body format as well but the intensity of training is much higher. A normal power phase workout usually consists of four to five sets of three to five reps with a three to four minute rest in between. Also, because the intensity is so high, the amount of different lifts/exercises (volume) are normally lowered as compared to the previous phases.
DO: Rest between lifts.
Not only is proper sleep imperative for ultimate strength gains but lifting specific body parts with proper rest is important. A great rule of thumb is a 48 hour recovery time for your muscles. For example a high intensity chest workout would require a 48 hour period of non-intense chest work.
DON'T: Compare yourself to others in the weight room.
Don't worry about how much weight is being lifted by someone else. It matters more about the quality of the form of the exercise and how many reps that particular athlete can perform before failure in each set than anything else. Strength training is about the athlete competing against themselves personally rather than comparing themselves to someone else. I have seen some super strong lifters in the gym that can¹t play a lick of football.
DON'T: Get stale.
Do not do the exact same exercise movement and/or the same weight (intensity) for more than three weeks consecutively. This type of training will lead to a plateau where there is no gain in strength!
DO: Use the best fuel.
Properly fuel and re-fuel the body before and after each workout with ideal foods. Eating low-glycemic index carbohydrates such as brown rice, nuts, beans, pasta, fruits and vegetables two to three hours before a workout will sustain the athlete throughout the workout. After the workout it is imperative to eat something within 45 minutes of completing the workout. This post-workout meal should consist of carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, yogurt, yams, sweet potatoes and brown rice along with a lean protein like fish or chicken (non-fried). If location or time is an issue, recovery drinks are an excellent choice as they will properly replenish the body at the approximate ratio of two to one (carbohydrates to protein).
DON'T: Use bad fuel
Avoid fried foods, soda pop as a part of your fueling strategy. These are just empty calories with no substantial nutritional value or benefit. Also avoid high glycemic index carbohydrates such as white breads, honey or high fructose corn syrup laced foods as they will be quickly absorbed and the athlete will not have the adequate fuel levels to complete the workout.
4. DO: Specialization of exercises
Create different programs for the different positions on the football team. The way your quarterback trains needs to be different than how your offensive linemen train. The physical demands and requirements are much different, therefore your training should be different.
For example, your offensive linemen need to perform much more pressing type movements and be larger in physical size whereas your quarterback may need to focus more on rotator cuff exercises and not getting to 300 pounds in weight.
DO: Train the body to be strong in all three planes of motion (forward/backwards, side to side and rotationally).
DO: Train the core muscles (abdominals, hip and lower back muscles) in each workout session. A stronger core will help facilitate improved leg and upper body power and balance.
DON'T: Train in only one plane of motion. For example, it is great to do traditional squats, but the game of football moves in all directions so train that way. You can include lateral lunge squats and rotational squats to provide the athlete with a full arsenal of multi-directional strength training for the legs.
DON'T: Just do crunches and sit ups as the core program. The core needs to be trained in all types of positions, (prone-face down, standing, half kneeling and on one legged stances) in order to strengthen not only the abdominals but also the hip and lower back muscles.
DO: Look forward to and dominate your workouts with passion. To be the best, it takes a deep determination. Have fun.
DON'T: Play this game for the money of just the fame. Those kind of teammates quit when times get tough.
Utilize these tips for your individual strength programs and enjoy your success this upcoming season.
-Brett Fischer is a licensed physical therapist, certified athletic trainer, certified strength and conditioning specialist and a certified dry needling provider. He has worked with the University of Florida, New York Jets, PGA & Senior PGA TOUR and the Chicago Cubs.