Football is a physical sport. Although strength and mass aren’t as important as in games like rugby, resistance training is a vital aspect of improving performance, especially at elite level. With the World Cup underway, we’ve looked at functional gym movements that can be directly applied to the beautiful game. In other words, the best gym exercises for footballers.
Should footballers lift weights?
Before we dive into the movements, let’s have a discussion about whether lifting weights benefits footballing performance or hinders it.
It’s clear from many experts that a standard training programme that focuses on muscle hypertrophy is not optimal, primarily because there is excessive volume. More volume equates to more muscle, not better performance. It could also lead to more DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), which may affect skill-based training sessions.
So when lifting weights, the focus should be on enhancing strength in the right areas, relevant to actions during a game. Put simply, the goal should be to train movements, not muscles.
Do premier league footballers go to the gym?
In the Footballer’s Football Podcast, premier league strikers, Callum Wilson and Mikail Antonio, talked about how they generally avoid lifting weights to build muscle.
“For a footballer, you don’t want to carry that extra muscle. For me, do I need to do bench press? No, not really”, said Wilson. “Lifting weights is not something I regularly do.”’
Antonio, despite personally holding a lot of muscle mass, said that he doesn’t lift weights either. “If I even look at weights, I bulk up instantly”, said the West Ham striker, “So if I’m going to do anything, it’s going to be core. If I put on weight, whether it be from muscle or not, it will make me slower. And I don’t want to lose my pace.”
This is an interesting perspective from two top-level footballers who already possess a high level of muscle and strength, partly due to gifted genetics. It’s worth considering that both of these players are strikers who like to play off the shoulder of defenders and therefore must prioritise pace over everything. If this conversation was with a target man or a centre-back, or a younger player with less physical development, they may have different priorities.
Now, let’s get into the football gym exercises.
1) Trap bar deadlift
When you see clips on documentaries like All or Nothing or an England training camp on YouTube, this movement pops up all the time. It’s the deadlift performed using a trap bar rather than a conventional barbell.
In our blog detailing how to increase your deadlift, we go into detail about the tremendous benefits of the movement. Its ability to stimulate everything from core strength, quads and the entire posterior chain makes it a surefire way to enhance overall strength.
This is the same movement with the same benefits, but using the trap bar eradicates any harmful tension on the lower back. Saying that, the conventional deadlift is a safe movement when the technique is executed correctly, but using the trap bar any potential risk.
2) Lat pulldown
A strong back provides a solid foundation for a well-rounded, functional physique to rest on.
Lat pull-downs are a great compound movement that build mass and strength in the latissimus dorsi muscle – a key part of your posterior chain.
A solid posterior chain is essential for shielding the ball with your back to an opposition. Think of a broad-framed target man holding the ball up, a full-back seeing a ball out for a goal kick, or a midfield maestro keeping possession.
- Go to a lat pulldown machine and attach the long bar.
- Add the pin to a weight that allows you to complete 8-12 reps.
- Pull the bar down towards your chest, leaning your back slightly.
- Pause at the bottom, the bar just above or lightly touching your chest.
- Control the bar back upwards.
3) Jump squats
This movement mimics the in-game action of jumping for headers. Training with a heavier load improves the explosive power of his calves, hamstrings and quads. When jumping without the same load, it enhances jumping height. Picture Cristiano Ronaldo hanging in the air for a header, or Gianluigi Donnarumma claiming a cross.
- Get into a squat rack and load up the barbell with super lightweight, or just keep it as an empty bar.
- Step out with the bar on your back, perform a squat down to parallel and jump upwards, keeping the bar stable on your back.
4) Walking lunges
Footballers are constantly accelerating and jumping off a single leg throughout a game. Alternating lunges will improve your explosive speed, which translates to everything from more effective dashes down the wing to higher leaps when defending corners.
- Find an open space in your gym which you can walk into without obstruction.
- Grab two dumbbells, around 12-25kg.
- Perform a lunge with one leg, repeat with the other while moving forward.
5) Bench press
The bench press is undoubtedly one of the best compound movements to build general upper-body strength, particularly the anterior chain. This includes the pectorals, anterior deltoids (front of your shoulders) and core.
Why is it useful for football? We heard striker Callum Wilson say he wouldn’t do bench press earlier, most likely because he fears losing his pace. That said, although players don’t need to possess excessive upper-body strength, having none at all can be very detrimental to performance. There are a lot of body-to-body actions in football, so a solid frame is needed to compete in physical battles.
6) Bulgarian split squat
Similar to lunges, the Bulgarian split squat is great for increasing leg strength, sports-specific performance and preventing injury. It also enhances explosive power used for shooting and sprinting.
The Bulgarian split squat can be performed in a number of ways. The most effective is to take a flat bench and dumbbells, place one foot on the bench, and lunge down while carrying the weights. Using a bench allows you to get a larger range of motion than a standard lunge.
7) Side lunge
A perfect example of training movements over muscles, this exercise is essential for a footballer’s rapid stops and changes of direction. You certainly won’t find many bodybuilders doing this, as it’s very much a movement that relates directly to the game itself.
- Start by standing tall with your feet parallel and shoulder-width apart. Your back should be straight and your weight on your heels.
- Take a big step to the side and, ensuring you keep your torso as upright as possible, lower until the knee of your leading leg is bent at around 90°, keeping your trailing leg straight.
- Push back up and return to the starting position.
8) Dumbbell step-ups
The exercise increases strength in your quads, glutes and hamstrings. It also enhances balance and stability. All the work done on the hamstrings is crucial for football players – the stronger and more stable these muscles are, the more power from your legs when striking the ball.
- Get a flat bench and two dumbbells, around 12-20kg.
- Hold the dumbbells by your side.
- Step one leg up on the bench followed by the second, holding the pose at the pose in a balanced and stable position. Do this by engaging your core.
- Step back down one leg at a time.
9) Single-leg box jumps
This movement increases explosive power off the ground. Think about centre-backs challenging for leaders, or a goalkeeper launching from one leg to collect a cross.
- Find a box and jump on with one leg. Make sure you stay balanced at the top.
- Jump down, landing on the same foot.
- If you prefer, you can start by jumping down on two feet. You will still get the benefit of explosive power and it’s a good way to get used to the movement.
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