Soccer Strength and Conditioning
Updated: Nov 14, 2018
The end goal of a strength and conditioning program for a soccer player is to improve their performance on the pitch.
Strength training shouldn't aim to turn a soccer player in to a powerlifter, it should aim to make them a fitter, faster and stronger soccer player who is available for selection all season.
Focus on whole body strength and conditioning with time dedicated to developing strength, power, speed and mobility in the fundamental movement patterns.
Improving a soccer player’s general athletic qualities will transfer to improved on field performance.
Overview of Soccer Strength and Conditioning
Soccer is highly technical, tactical and psychological, but it's also very physical. All other things being equal, the fitter and faster team will win.
Strength, power and speed training make soccer players more effective. The explosiveness to burst past an opponent and the conditioning to do so in the 90th minute can be developed through structured strength and conditioning.
However, there are big variations in the methods used amongst elite clubs, lower league clubs and amateur players.
Some clubs will prioritise strength and conditioning sessions and make these sessions mandatory for all players (thumbs up from me); some clubs will leave it up to the players to partake on a voluntary basis (hmmm…) and some clubs will dismiss strength and conditioning completely (in an environment of marginal gains, these clubs are leaving large portions of performance on the table… enjoy relegation).
Anyway, this article isn’t meant to persuade soccer coaches to prioritise strength and conditioning, it’s to provide some insight into how the dedicated soccer player can use strength and conditioning to improve their performance.
Soccer strength and conditioning can take a number of different approaches. The specific approach taken will often depend on the management’s beliefs surrounding strength and conditioning and the motivations of the player themselves.
Factors such as a player’s age and position, the time of season, the number of games a player is playing and time available to dedicate to strength and conditioning sessions will also influence the shape of a strength and conditioning program, and thus there is no single ‘strength and conditioning for soccer’ program that all should follow. Your strength and conditioning for soccer program should be specific to you as an athlete.
What Physical Qualities do Soccer Players Need?
As with any strength and conditioning program, the demands of the sport, as well as the needs and capabilities of the individual, should be considered before designing a program.
Soccer is a highly demanding sport that requires a combination of physical qualities, including:
Aerobic Endurance: Players have to last 90 minutes.
Anaerobic Endurance: Soccer involves lots of short sprints, jumps and bursts of power — players have to be able to recover quickly from regular bursts of short and fast action.
Speed: Players need speed to get away from opponents, counter attack, get back to defend and create space.
Acceleration: Being fast over short distances will get a player to the ball before their opponent, put them in a position to make a tackle, allow them to burst past their opponent and place themselves in advantageous positions.
Agility: Soccer features lots of changes of direction in response various stimuli such as the ball and the movements of teammates and opponents.
Soccer Strength: The ability to be strong on the ball, in the tackle and when marking opponents at set-pieces is invaluable and can be the difference in game-changing situations.
Cartwheel Technique: You just scored the winner.
Fit, Fast, Strong, Ready to Play
The ideal result of a strength and conditioning for soccer program is to produce a player that moves better, is more resilient to injury and is stronger and faster on the pitch.
This can be achieved through basic strength, speed and power training that focuses on the fundamental movement patterns that require the body to move as a whole.
Soccer involves sprinting, kicking, jumping, changing direction, acceleration and deceleration.
The hips and legs are key to these movements, so focussing on increasing the strength and power of the lower body (without adding any unwanted mass) is a priority for many.
The movement areas to focus on are:
A combination of these will help the player develop strength, stability and power in the lower body which will help them run faster, kick harder and perform better on the pitch.
Deadlifts (regular and stiff-legged)
Rear foot elevated split squat
Single leg hip thrusts
Upper body strength is important for soccer players. Not only is upper body strength required for well rounded athleticism but it makes a player stronger in the air (when going for headers), stronger on the ball and stronger in shoulder to shoulder challenges.
The key movement areas to focus on are:
1 arm dumbbell overhead press
Dumbbell bent over rows
1 arm rows
Plank variations such as 'stir the pot'
Anti-motion core training such as Pallof presses
Being explosive is important for a soccer player and this can be developed in strength and conditioning sessions by utilising different types of power training.
A combination of 'heavy', bodyweight and light-weight power training can be used depending on the athlete’s capabilities.
Bodyweight plyometrics such as: squat jumps, box jumps, hurdle hops, broad jumps and counter-movement jumps can be used. Both bilateral (jumping from two feet) and unilateral (single-leg jumps) exercises can be used. Super-setting the squat movement pattern with bodyweight power exercises are particularly effective and also make very good use of time.
Exercises such as med-ball throws and slams are an excellent low-skill method of developing triple extension power and introducing rotational power.
Upper body and rotational power isn't necessarily too important for soccer but can provide a bit of variety and help to develop well rounded athleticism.
Heavy Power Training
For players that are particularly keen on the weight room, or more importantly have good enough technique, exercises such as power cleans and hang cleans can be used.
These movements take time to learn though, so if power is the goal and time is limited, a player is better off focussing on bodyweight and light-weight power training.
Soccer players need to keep their hips, adductors and legs healthy so mobility movements should be trained daily. Keeping a healthy T-spine and shoulders is also never a bad thing and easily incorporated into a daily routine.
Mobility movements are easy to incorporate into warm ups, cool downs or as active recovery between sets of strength exercises. Dedicating some time to keeping the whole body mobile will go a long way towards keeping players injury free.
A couple of good starting exercises are:
Squat mobility (hip and knee flexion)
Spider shapes (single leg flexion with external rotation)
Pigeon stretches (hip external rotation)
Thoracic extension and rolling
Speed, Acceleration and Agility
Game saving tackle vs. being sent off... Who gets to the ball first: you or the goalkeeper… Game won vs. game drawn… speed is often the difference in soccer.
The best way to develop speed and acceleration is a topic of great debate. Some argue that all the speed and acceleration training a soccer player needs comes from the game itself.
Others argue that the game-specific perceptual and cognitive factors involved in soccer-speed render agility drills pointless and others argue that speed and acceleration will improve simply by virtue of strength training making the athlete stronger.
In my opinion, soccer players become faster through:
Becoming stronger in the fundamental movement patterns (squat, hinge, push, pull, lunge)
Speed and acceleration mechanics coaching
A soccer player is never going to display the mechanics of Usain Bolt, but nor are they going to be sprinting for 100m in a straight line.
Weight training will increase the amount of force an athlete is able to exert, power training will increase their explosive strength and ability to absorb force, and being coached on the basic mechanics of sprinting will ensure that their technique allows them to maximise their speed potential.
Much of a soccer player's agility training will come from their matches and technical soccer training but it doesn't do any harm to include some agility drills and scenarios. The ability to decelerate is an often overlooked aspect of performance, and this quality is enhanced through strength, power and agility training.
Match Fit: Aerobic and Anaerobic Endurance
Last summer I saw an under 12s team doing their pre-season fitness training. They were running around Arthur’s seat with their football boots on (metal studs and shin pads for some). I asked the coach (who was waiting at the bottom of Arthur’s seat) what was going on, he said the kids “needed to get match fit for the upcoming season.”
I have a feeling that in the aftermath of that session a few players enthusiasm for soccer may have waned and a few more players may have been lost to injury... I digress…
Best Way to Get Match Fit
The best way to get match fit is to play matches. Sounds simple, it is.
The only way to replicate the intensity of match play is by playing matches. Ask anyone who has come back from injury and they will attest to this.
Match intensity can be replicated in team training by way of manipulating pitch size and playing scenario (small sided games) — these methods are for your soccer coach to implement, perhaps with some help from a strength and conditioning coach.
If you're not starting games or you're coming back from injury...
Second Best Way to Get Match Fit
Outside of team training a player can add some prolonged intervals with short recovery periods. I prefer conditioning work to be as specific to the sport as possible and thus like to incorporate some kind of technical soccer task in to conditioning training. This can be done in a variety of ways and is up to the creativity of the player/coach.
Run fast for 30 seconds and then take 30 seconds of active recovery, repeat 4 times and then go straight in to a crossing, dribbling or shooting task, and then back into the 30 seconds of running.
Perform a dribbling course that finishes with a shot. Immediately sprint back to the half way line and start the dribble course again. Repeat 3 times and rest. Then go again, perhaps altering the skills and technical component of the task.
Vary the work and rest durations and the soccer task to keep the conditioning as specific to the demands of a match as possible.
Incorporating the ball in to conditioning sessions is easy to do creates an element of soccer-specificity. Soccer skills will start to deteriorate when under fatigue and thus it’s good to become proficient at maintaining a high level of skill output when tired. Plus, players will tend to prefer conditioning with the ball!
Ineffective Way to Get Match Fit
Regular long and slow jogging. Soccer involves bursts of high intensity activity and so this type of activity has to be included in conditioning.
The above is a brief overview of the key components of soccer strength and conditioning. It's enough to get most started and make significant progress. Providing specifics is beyond the scope of the article and will depend on the individual player’s capabilities, needs and goals.