Every year, I watch high school athletes put in a lot of hard work and effort during the spring and summer to get bigger and stronger. Putting on size is a major concern for many football players wanting to make a major impact on the field. By the end of the summer, most athletes are at their biggest and strongest, and it seems like all of that effort has paid off. I’ve seen this cycle play out over and over again. Unfortunately, it always seems to end the same way – by the end of the season, much of that size and strength has evaporated and the advantage that was gained through training is gone.
If you’ve been trying to gain weight, chances are you’re at your biggest right now. If you’ve been watching carefully, you’re also probably starting to lose some of it already. Most high school football players begin to lose size and strength during two-a-days because you aren’t lifting weights (at least not as hard as you were over the summer) and, more importantly, you probably aren’t eating as much as you need.
The good news is that this doesn’t have to happen. The even better news is that it isn’t that difficult to maintain your size and strength throughout the season. Just think about how great it would feel to be at your biggest and strongest during the playoffs. Instead, most athletes look in the mirror in late October and can’t believe it’s the same person that was standing there in August. It’s really not uncommon to drop 15 pounds over the course of the regular season, which would definitely make you look and feel different – not in a good way.
The first thing you should do is lift weight twice a week during the season. Your lifts don’t have to be long, but you need to get them in. I recommend lifting on Monday & Wednesday or Sunday & Tuesday if most of your games are on Fridays and Saturdays. A Thursday game may change your plans slightly, but that shouldn’t be very difficult to work around. Just change that week’s schedule so you’re not lifting the day before a game.
Most people are concerned about being really sore or tired from lifting, and they don’t want it to affect their game performance. As long as you continue lifting consistently, this will not be an issue. Consistency is the key to this process.
The problems occur when you take 3-4 weeks off, and decide to start lifting again two days before a game. That will get you sore because your body isn’t used to it anymore. Anything new will cause this response, but a consistent lifting schedule will alleviate this problem.
I recommend doing a relatively heavy training session with low reps on Monday and a lighter session with higher reps on Wednesday. Both days will be total-body lifts that last 30-40 minutes. On the heavy day, plan on doing 2-4 sets of 3-6 reps per exercise, using 80-85% of your 1RM weight on multi-joint exercises like bench press, squats, trap bar squats and rows. Don’t take these sets to failure and take plenty of rest between sets so you never feel very fatigued. I also recommend a gradual increase in the number of reps or the weight you use.
For example, your first two weeks should be 3-4 reps with 80% of your 1RM. Weeks 3-4 should be 4-6 reps with 80%. After week 5, move up to 85% and go back down to 3-4 reps for a couple of weeks. By week 8, you should be doing 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps with 85% of your summer max weight. That should be difficult, but still very doable. You won’t get sore or overly fatigued from this because you’ll be lifting consistently, gradually building up to this. If you’re able to do 4-6 reps with 85% of your max going into the playoff, you’ve done an excellent job. Just be sure to hit your lower body hard on these days because the second day will focus on the upper body.
On the second day of each week, include a one-leg strength exercise like one-leg squats or one-leg leg press and a hip-hinge exercise like a glute/ham raise or Nordic Hamstrings. Do 2 sets of 8-12 reps and that’s all for legs. Focus the rest of this session on upper body lifting, using rep ranges of 6-12 and only doing 1-3 sets per body part. Take each set to failure or close to it, but keep the volume low. Feel free to include extra arm work on Wednesdays to keep your guns blown up.
Eating for Size
Because you’re expending so much energy at practice every day, it’s especially important to increase your food intake during the season to make up for this. Three of the easiest ways to maintain your weight during the season are:
Eat a big breakfast every morning. Most guys get up late and eat something very small for breakfast if they eat anything at all. I recommend waking up 15 minutes earlier so you can eat a better breakfast. Try these: Scramble some eggs with cheese and throw it on a bagel with an extra piece of cheese. Pour a big bowl of cereal along with a piece of toast with peanut butter and a glass of juice. Eat a bowl of oatmeal with walnuts, fruit and a big glass of milk. Mix up a shake with protein powder, frozen fruit, milk and yogurt and grab a bagel to go. All of these breakfasts will start the day off in a way that will help maintain your weight and give you energy for practice.
Pack a snack. The time between lunch and dinner is really long, especially with football practice stuck in there. After school, it’s really easy to eat a quick snack. Throw a meal replacement bar or PBJ in your bag so you don’t have to think about it after school. You could also have a bagel, a meal replacement shake or some fresh fruit. If you have a refrigerator or time to go home, the possibilities are unlimited.
Eat before bed. One of the easiest things to do at the end of a day is put away a nice PBJ and a glass of milk. You could also replace the jelly with a sliced up banana or honey if you want some variety. If you’re not into PBJ, try a piece of pizza, a bowl of cereal or a fruit smoothie with protein powder. The point is to eat something that has a combination of protein, carbohydrates and fats.
Of course, you still have to eat a good lunch and dinner and drink plenty of water, but taking advantage of the tips above will make it a lot easier to stay big and strong during the season.
If you’ve gotten really strong using a solid strength progression program, but haven’t noticed great improvements in your speed, the lesser known exercises shown in this article will transform your strong legs into springs that will propel you forward faster than you ever knew possible.
Getting athletes faster has always fascinated me, and I know I’m not alone. TV announcers enthusiastically celebrate fast athletes. Coaches and trainers have written hundreds of articles on the subject. Athletes constantly discuss what they feel works and doesn’t work. Parents, coaches, agents and athletes spend hard-earned money to get faster because they know it can mean the difference between making a play or getting beat, earning a scholarship or being overlooked, winning and losing, even enjoying sports or quitting.
The sports world truly has an obsession with speed. Speed has taken over just about every sport, at every level, and there is simply no way around the fact that fast athletes have an advantage. So, the question everyone asks is “How do I get faster?”
The follow-up question always seems to be something like “Does training actually work?”
I can answer the second question with an unequivocal YES. We can definitely get athletes faster through training.
The first question, however, is a little harder to answer.
I’m fortunate to have spent the better part of the past 20 years working with athletes on improving their speed, and I’ve learned a lot from these experiences. I’ve had plenty of success getting athletes faster, and the “speed formula” still isn’t perfectly clear to me (anyone who says it’s perfectly clear is lying). I’ve had multiple guys break 4.4 on the 40 for NFL scouts. I’ve have multiple 300+ pounders break 5.0 in the 40. I’ve helped hundreds of athletes drop .2 – .3 seconds off their time and thousands of kids go from being “slow” to “not as slow.”
Like I’ve said, I’ve learned a lot from these experiences, and I still don’t think there is a clear answer. There are too many variables. Yet, through years of coaching, reading research and talking to other professionals, I believe we’re getting closer to developing a formula for increasing speed.
Research can be pretty boring, though. I often feel like reading research is a waste of time and it frustrates me that many of the conclusions are so obvious. Through the years, however, I’ve realized that all of the research on one topic is like a castle, and each study is just one brick. Looking at one brick may be boring, but when you stack a whole bunch of them up in the right way, things start to come together.
It has become pretty obvious that you have to practice running fast if you want to get faster. Your mechanics must be solid so you can apply force into the ground as efficiently as possible. I’ve learned that acceleration and top-end mechanics are two totally different movement skills that you need to practice and refine if you want to be as fast as possible.
You also need strength and power to drive the train. This is done in the weight room through basic methods, but basic lifting isn’t all that’s necessary. If just lifting got you really fast, there would be a lot of really fast, big dudes at powerlifting meets. The trick is to be able to apply that strength and power into the ground, in the right direction, in an incredibly short period of time and have the muscular stiffness to “rebound” forward every time your foot hits the ground. That’s what propels you forward like you’re being shot out of a cannon.
We often hear about the same old methods:
Power Exercises/Olympic Lifts
Do not throw any of these out! These are tried and true methods that work, and should be a part of any serious performance enhancement program. As we put together the pieces of the research puzzle, though, it seems that there are a few simple things we could be doing to fill in some of the holes.
Two of the most important, and least addressed, aspects of speed are:
1. Hip extension force
2. Ankle/foot/knee stiffness or rigidity
Check out this video demonstrating the exercises below.
Developing Hip Extension Strength
When the foot hits the ground during a sprint, the powerful hip extensors are responsible for “pushing” the leg backward. The greater the force and, more importantly, rate in which that force is developed, the greater the propulsive effect will be. With this in mind, it seems obvious that the glutes and hamstrings need to be a major focus in your training. Stronger hip extensors will be capable of producing more force.
Taking this a step further, the principle of specificity tells us that these hip extensors need to be trained in the same range of motion (or as close as possible) as in sprinting. That means these muscles need to fire hard when the thigh is slightly in front of the hips and into extension. Unfortunately, in most squatting variations, the glutes are actually used much more at the bottom of the exercise (when the hip is in flexion) than at the top when the legs are nearly straight. As you rise to the top of a squat or RDL, the tension on the hips actually decreases. That is not what happens during a sprinting motion. This doesn’t mean that those exercises shouldn’t be used, just that there is more to the equation.
If you’ve followed any of the work of Bret Contreras, you’re probably familiar with the hip thrust or glute bridge. This exercise has been shown to maximally stimulate the glutes in the range of motion used in sprinting. I like to combine Bret’s work with Mike Boyle’s theories on unilateral exercises, so I prefer to do the one-leg glute bridge for speed development. I feel like the one-leg version is much easier to implement with athletes, requires much less set-up time and is more specific to sprinting.
Another option I’ve used for years is hip extension on a multi-hip machine. It strengthens the hip extensors in the same range of motion as the glute bridge but in an upright posture that is very similar to sprinting. This forces you to engage your core in an upright posture in an effort to stabilize the spine and pelvis. Very few exercises require upright spinal stabilization while firing the hip extensors (which is what happens during sprinting), so it’s a logical choice and a very useful exercise.
Not everyone has access to a good multi-hip machine that is both adjustable and has enough weight to be effective. That’s why I’ve included two options for hip extension.
Because I use these exercises with athletes looking to improve speed, I typically have them use a fast concentric contraction followed by a controlled negative. Research indicates that a faster concentric contraction may have slightly better carry-over to sport, so I try to incorporate this kind of contraction into my routines.
Knee & Ankle Rigidity
When the hip forcefully extends, the foot hits the ground with great force. To take full advantage of the hip extension force, fast athletes are able to keep their knees and ankles rigid so that all of that force can be delivered into the ground and “rebound” them forward. If the knee or ankle “gives in” to that force or “deforms” at all, some of the force will dissipate and be wasted, and the rebound effect will not be nearly as great.
Think of your legs as pogo sticks. If you jump on a pogo stick with a super strong spring, the harder you jump the higher you’ll go. But, if you jump on a pogo stick with a weak spring, a big jump will just mush it down to the bottom of the stick. The harder you jump, the more it mushes and the more the force is lost. To be fast, you need strong springs.
This is actually a big reason why the strongest guys aren’t usually the fastest. They can deliver a lot of force into the ground, but they often don’t have the “stiffness” to successfully rebound after an enormous force is applied. Instead, their knees and ankles buckle, or deform, under the extreme demands so the force is never able to be used optimally. They have mushy springs.
In a recent interview, renowned speed researcher J.B. Morin told Bret Contreras that creating ample stiffness in the ankles and knees was of paramount importance to speed development. Through several studies, he found that the fastest athletes don’t produce the most force. Instead, they are able to produce great force quicker than slower athletes. This suggests that the amount of force is only one part of the equation, and that creating muscle stiffness (that allows for the rebound effect when the force is delivered into the ground) may be the missing element in many training programs.
Researchers are now catching up to what’s being done in the field, which means we should soon understand more about how to develop optimal programming. The disconnect, however, is that most researchers still don’t understand exactly how to develop or coach speed; they just know how to examine, measure and quantify it. It’s up to us to figure out how to use this information.
Years of experience have helped me figure out that using the following, lesser-known, exercises helps develop the rigidity Morin was talking about.
TKE (Terminal Knee Extension)
What I love about the TKE is that it involves both the quads and hip extensors in the ROM used in sprinting. The only problem is that it is often done with a band, which means it’s difficult to overload without becoming awkward. I like to start with the band, then move to a multi-hip machine where we perform the exact same exercise with greater resistance. Like the hip extension exercise, you need a good multi-hip machine with adequate weight to make this effective, but it’s a great option if you have one. If not, you can increase the thickness of your bands, add multiple bands or move farther away from the attachment point. I recommend holding on to something in order to stabilize your body. If you don’t do this, you many have difficulty using enough resistance to make the TKE effective.
Because the TKE works the knee joint in the ROM needed during sprinting (the last 10° of extension), and resists hip extension, it just makes logical sense to employ it. While exercises like the squat and deadlift develop the quads and glutes as well, they do so in a ROM that is nowhere near what we use when sprinting. When you approach the lock-out position of the squat or deadlift, the quads and hips have their strongest leverage, but are resisted the least. That’s why we can use so much more weight in a lockout than in a full ROM exercise.
Dozens of studies have shown that you will always gain the most strength in the ROM utilized during training. If you train with the knee bent at 90°, it will be strongest at 90°. If you train with the knee bent at 10°, it will be strongest at 10°. This is precisely why we need to train in the same ROM as in sprinting. This certainly should not be all you do, but it should be incorporated into some of your routines.
One-Leg Short Box Hops
Plyometrics are used in just about every speed program I’ve seen, but quick, one-leg hops onto a low box are an under-rated exercise for developing ankle/foot rigidity and knee stiffness. You need to attempt to “lock” your ankle into the correct position and spend as little time on the ground as possible. The ankle should be slightly dorsi-flexed and should remain stiff, or rigid, on each hop instead of going through plantar flexion and dorsi-flexion. The knee should also stay rigid instead of flexing/extending (deforming) a lot. You want to feel like a pogo stick with a strong spring inside.
Attempt to spend as little time on the ground as possible just like in sprinting. Start with just 5-10 reps on each leg and gradually move up to 20 or more. Focus on quality, not quantity.
I first came up with Foot Poppers several years ago when I was trying to get some athletes to understand how to strike the ground with rigid ankles. All of the research on plyometrics has shown that the quick reversal of eccentric to concentric contractions teaches the body to fully utilize elastic energy. Most of the plyo exercises I had seen focused more on the hips than the lower leg. The ones I had seen for the lower leg involved relatively weak contractions such as rope jumping. While jumping rope is a great way to start developing ankle rigidity and endurance, I wanted something that was more intense.
Foot poppers should be used sparingly and mainly as a teaching exercise for most athletes because they can produce such great force through the ankle. The video shows it best, but the idea is to put the ankle in a slightly dorsi-flexed position (like used when sprinting), and “pop” it into the ground. As the downward force goes through the rigid ankle and knee, it will create a rebound effect that will send you upward.
The support leg should be slightly flexed so the drive leg can actually hit the ground rather than just meet it. Using an improper foot placement or ankle position can result in injury or ineffective training, so be sure to use this one under the guidance of a skillful coach. I recommend starting conservatively and not driving too hard into the ground. Begin with just 5-10 reps on each foot and only perform this 1-2 times per week. You will gradually build up the stiffness and conditioning to do more reps, and you’ll find yourself “popping” upward higher and higher as you learn to use the elastic energy.
You can also do Foot Poppers while leaning into a wall. This creates a forward lean so the foot is driven backwards, similar to happens during acceleration. Don’t ever perform this when you have great soreness in the calves, ankles or feet.
Like I said before, these exercises will add excellent special strength or stiffness to your lower body, but they are not all you should be doing. Continue to train the basic exercises, run sprints, work on your mechanics and stay in shape. Use these exercises as a supplement to your program so you can start to fully utilize all of the hard work you’ve put in to the weight room and gain the speed that will make a difference on the field.
You’re probably getting ready to start your off-season football training. It’s an exciting time. Everyone is always jacked up and ready to start the summer because the season is now just around the corner. If you’re getting ready to go, here are a few things to consider and include this summer:
Football is all about speed. Big, slow guys can try to fool themselves into thinking is all about size and strength, until the fast guy gets past him on every play. Before you do anything this summer, make sure to address your speed. I’m not talking about silly little ladder drills or cute little gadgets – run short distances as hard as you can.
Acceleration is the key to football speed, so make sure you acceleration mechanics are right. If you can accelerate, you’re routes will be crispier, your tackles harder, your runs longer and your coverage tighter. If you’re going to spend time doing one thing this summer, get better at accelerating.
Attack Your Weakness
Give yourself an honest assessment of what you need to be a better football player. You may be missing players because you’re not fast enough. You may be getting banged up because you’re not big enough. You may be ineffective because you’re never in shape. Your football skills may not be up to par.
Whatever it is, find it, and attack it this summer so you’re a better player this fall. If you’re not sure about this, ask one of your coaches. They can probably tell you why you don’t play as much as you’d like or what you can do to take your game to another level. If your coach can’t tell you, then go to a college camp and ask them. If you can’t go to camp, watch game film from last year and figure out what mistakes you were making. Don’t make the same mistakes this year. Do something pro-active this summer to eliminate at least one deficiency in your game.
Total Body Strength
Yes, a big chest and jacked up arms look good on the beach, but that’s not where you play football. Don’t forget to include plenty of work on your legs, upper back, grip and neck. Too many guys spend all their time on beach muscles, and not enough time on the things that will actually help them on the field. Instead of being the guy who somehow always misses leg day in the gym, be the guy who gets there early and stays late.
For God’s sake train your neck safely and efficiently. If you don’t know how, ask for some help or check out www.NeckTraining.com for tips on how to save your brain and neck.
Be smart with your training. There’s no reason to hurt yourself trying to lift too much weight with bad technique. No one is going to care that you cleaned 300 pounds if you hurt yourself in the process. I see YouTube videos all the time of guys using horrible technique on cleans, squats and deadlifts all so they can say they lifted the weight. I also hear about guys with messed up backs, hurt wrists and bad shoulder problems because they let their ego get in the way of progress. You shouldn’t have to hit the training room before every lift just to get treatment on your back. If something is hurting, you need to change your approach.
You better show up for camp in shape. Here’s what happens all the time. Guys show up for camp big, strong and out of shape. Coach runs you hard the first day to send a message. Those guys get really sore and show up the next day set up for injury. Coach runs the team again, and hip flexors, hamstrings and Achilles tendons start to tighten up fast. Next thing you know, those guys are on the sidelines watching someone take their spot.
Show up in shape. Do your running in July so you can practice hard in August.
Position Specific Work
You probably know what position you’re going to play, so start working the movements you’re going to do in the fall. Work on your stance, backpedaling, catching, throwing, kick slides, etc. so you’re a better football player this year. It’s great to be an athlete. It’s even better to be an athlete that can play a position well. Learn to play a position well.
Put Your Work In
You’re going to maximize your summer training program by doing it consistently. No program is going to work well if you don’t do stick to it. I’ve seen a lot of guys waste their talent by showing up half the time.
Not only will that get you sub-par results, nothing will drop your credibility faster. It’s always funny to watch the guy who didn’t show up all summer try to tell everyone what to do during practice. No one wants to hear it from you, even if you’re talented. Put your work in, get your hands dirty and help create an atmosphere of hard work by showing up every day for whatever your coach has planned for you.
You can always do extra work later, but show up for your team workouts no matter what.
Guest poster Wil Fleming of Athletic Revolution in Bloomington, IN brings us a great piece on how he organizes his speed & agility workouts.
How do you go about selecting speed and agility drills for your athletes daily use and instruction?
If you were like me you would choose the ones that you like, equal parts lateral and linear and then write them in the program. You would probably use some progressions from simple to complex.
Well, that is what I used to do.
Recently our speed and agility programming has become systematized in a similar way as our strength training. This has helped our athletes to become much better at the skill of speed and agility. We are able to determine where each athlete is struggling and design the program to improve in that area.
Is the athlete struggling in recognition?
Is their technique lacking?
Are they not powerful enough to explode out cuts?
To actually break up speed and agility programming into the parts we need to focus on, it is important to understand what it is that can improve through speed and agility drills.
In terms of linear speed there are 2 primary areas in which we can see improvement.
The first of those is in the technique of the movement. By improving technique we are truly working to improve the athletes ability to achieve biomechanically advantageous positions. We look to improve the athletes overall body position in the acceleration phase of linear sprinting, the position of foot contact, and the use of the arms during acceleration.
Secondly we look to improve power production or maximal explosive strength in the early phases of acceleration. Training for power, in speed events can effect maximum strength, as well as bring about neuromuscular changes.
When it comes to lateral speed there are again 2 primary areas in which we can look to cause improvement.
Again we will look to see improvement in the athlete’s technique of movement. Of greatest concern to us is the athletes overall and specific foot position and the hip height during the change of direction maneuver.
The second area and often overlooked area of change of direction that we will seek to improve is mental cognition. The speed of change of direction movements is often determined by the athlete’s ability to recognize and process the information being presented to them, and their ability to react to the given stimulus.
Using these 4 categories where we can effect the most change we have devised a “4 puzzle piece” speed and agility training program for athletes.
Puzzle Piece 1: Linear Speed Training Technique
Piece 1 focuses on creating the foundations upon which we can build power and speed. All the power in the world will be for nothing if the athlete cannot get in, and maintain the correct positions.
The foot strike, arm swing and general body positions are the areas in which we focus the most of our time training athletes.
A variety of drills can be used for training linear speed, but being that it is the “skill of speed” we are trying to improve, each needs to be coaching intensive. Simple 10 yd sprints from a split stance can allow you to get athletes in the correct starting position, with hands and weight distribution just as you would like to see them.
Puzzle Piece 2: Linear Power
Improving linear power is greatly dependent upon an athlete’s strength and explosive strength training. That being said, the cyclic nature of sprinting requires that time be devoted in the training process to cyclic power development.
To improve cyclic power resisted sprints of a short distance with long rest periods are the most appropriate training method. Prowler push sprints, sled drag sprints, and band resisted sprints all fit this mode. While the actual technique of sprinting may be altered slightly, the focus is on the rapid and repeated development of power.
Puzzle Piece 3: Lateral Speed Training Technique
Piece 3 gets us to the basics of lateral change of direction. Many athletes lack the necessary tools to cut and change direction effectively to start with: developing the proper foot position in relation to the body, the proper foot position in relation to the ground and the proper hip height are the areas of focus.
Short distance single plane movements start this progression e.g. 1 shuffle step to a cut. We progress our athletes to greater distances and then add new directions of movement out of the cut or new types of movement into the cut e.g. crossover 10 yards to sprint.
Puzzle Piece 4: Complex, Recognition Lateral Speed Training
The last piece of the puzzle is using cognitive skills to more closely replicate the conditions of game play. The speed of lateral movement is determined by an athlete’s ability to recognize and react to the stimulus on the field.
A great drill for this is our “5 Cone Drill.” With 5 different colored cones spaced evenly in a line the coach should use verbal or visual cues to let the athlete know what cone they must move towards. The type of movement (shuffle, crossover, sprint) should be determined beforehand, and the athlete will move to the cone using that movement pattern.
Using these 4 pieces to design your speed and agility training will allow you to see where your athletes are lacking ability and improve in just that area. Your athletes and your program will benefit from taking a new approach to speed and agility.
Years ago, the University of Nebraska did a study to determine which physical tests were most highly correlated to on-field success. The 10-yard dash was the top drill, illustrating very clearly how important the ability to accelerate is to the game of football. Most coaches will tell you that the athlete who can dominate their opposition in the first ten yards will win the battle. If you’re creating a football speed training program, acceleration should be the first thing you address.
Acceleration is often talked about, but very few coaches understand or are able to teach proper mechanics. Many of the fastest athletes in football have figured it out on their own, but I still see a lot of really fast players struggle to demonstrate their speed because they simply don’t accelerate well. They have great top-end speed, but they just can’t get started with a burst. That burst is often the difference between making a play or getting beat.
As I was teaching him acceleration techniques, Phoenix Cardinals LB Paris Lenon stopped me and said “This makes so much sense, why hasn’t anyone ever shown me this? I’ve been playing ball for years, and nobody ever taught me this.”
This is not uncommon. Most athletes get a little instruction on sprinting mechanics, but teaching acceleration is much more evasive. Sure, it takes work and coaching skill to get athletes to do it correctly, but if it’s that important, you’d think it would be the emphasis of every team in the world. Unfortunately, it’s simply not being done very well.
This video breaks down exactly how I teach acceleration mechanics to football players when they start training with me. I use these same cues and the same instruction when I train players for the NFL Combine or NFL Pro Days. I use the same stuff when I teach young athletes, high school athletes, college athletes or NFL vets. They all need to accelerate faster, and if I’m going to correct their mechanics, this is where I start.
I hope the video helps you understand the basic principles of acceleration for football speed.
Creating a football speed program is one of the most important things a coach can spend time on. Football is a game of speed, and I’ve seen impact a game in more ways than I can count. I’ve also seen a lot of coaches struggle with developing speed, so I’m going to explain some of the principles that must be understood.
An effective football speed training program should focus on teaching athletes how to move efficiently and increase the amount of force they are able to put into the ground during this movement. Unfortunately, most coaches are still wasting a tremendous amount of their athlete’s time and energy focusing on doing drills for the sake of doing drills, without understanding how these drills are supposed to help. They find a bunch of drills on the internet or at a camp, put them together in whatever order feels good to them, and call it a football speed training program. Without a thorough understanding of how speed is developed, your football speed training program will never produce optimal results. Let’s take a look at the important factors involved in an effective football speed training program.
Four Factors of an Effective Football Speed Training Program
An effective program has to take important pieces from several areas of science: physiology, neurology, biomechanics and motor learning. Note that “drills” are one of the scientific areas we need to drawn upon. Drills are simply a way to help develop one of these areas. Understanding how a particular drill affects the human body is the key to drill selection and football speed training.
Biomechanics & Motor Learning – Athletes must learn how to put force into the ground in a way that will help them move more efficiently. While not everyone needs to run, cut and accelerate the exact same way, there are certainly ways that are more effective than others. These techniques need to be understood and taught to young athletes so they aren’t making gross errors in their movement.
Drills should be selected that teach athletes the best way to apply force into the ground. They also need to be taught in a way that creates real movement changes. I often see football speed programs that look like they address mechanics on the surface, but when you get right down to it, it’s all just fluff. Things like A-skips, B-skips, ladder drills and mini-hurdle drills do nothing for most football players, yet we see them shoved down their throats all the time.
Rather than including a drill for the sake of including drills, understand what each drill teaches, and only select the ones that are pertinent. Wall drills, for example, can be used to teach the mechanics of a forward lean, high knees and forceful backward push during acceleration. If, however, you’re just throwing the drill into your program because you saw someone else do it, the drill is a waste of time. It’s absolutely vital that you take the time to teach the athletes HOW to do the drills and HOW to move.
Keep in mind that motor learning is very specific to the skill you are practicing. That means that you are only going to get better at the exact skill you are practicing, and very little transfer will take place from one movement to another. In other words, practicing skips and ladder drills will get you better at skips and ladder drills. Practicing sprinting and acceleration will get you better at sprinting and acceleration. What do you want to get better at?
Of course, some movements are difficult to learn and require “lead-up” drills. The wall or tall & fall drills are examples of drills that help athletes learn how to accelerate. A drill may work perfectly for one athlete, but not all of them, so you need several ways of teaching the same skill. Always keep in mind, however, that the goal is to teach athletes how to run faster, not how to perform a drill. The drill should always be a means to an end.
Physiology – Once mechanics are addressed, we need to get athletes stronger so they can produce more force. If the increased force is put into the ground with good mechanics, the athlete will run faster. If the mechanics are not efficient, the force will not be used as effectively as possible and your results will be sub-par.
Most strength programs today include some version of a squat, which is a great place to start developing strength. We’re not going to get into the details of squat technique, but correct form should always be used. A good football speed training program should also include work on the hamstrings, groin and hips through exercises like glute/ham raises, RDL’s, hip extension, hip flexion, glute/hip bridges, leg curls, slideboard inner thigh, side lunges, 3-D lunges and the Nordic hamstring exercise. I see these exercises omitted from way too many programs, so make sure you are addressing all of the muscles involved in football speed. You don’t have to do every one of these exercises every day, but the hips, groin and hamstring should be taken as seriously as the squat.
Be progressive with every exercise you choose to maximize your strength gains. Simply working hard is a great start, but carefully documenting your progress is a much more efficient way to develop strength. Choose a system of progression that works for you, and stick to it for several weeks at a time before you change anything in your program. The human body takes time to adapt to a stimulus like a strength program, so be patient and stick with your program to develop strength.
Neurology – Increasing force through physiological changes is important to increasing football speed, but increasing the speed in which your body produces that force is just as important. The ability to produce force quickly is often referred to as power. In speed and agility, power is important because you need to put force into the ground as quickly as possible in order to move fast. Strength training will help make this happen, but explosive training will make it happen more efficiently.
Explosive training is all about optimizing your nervous system so your muscles will contract quickly and in a coordinated fashion that produces maximal power. This can be accomplished through training methods such as plyometrics, weighted sleds or resisted movement, Olympic lifting, medicine balls and high speed strength exercises.
The key to enhancing your neurology is to perform the exercises with precision, maximum speed and maximum effort. This means that you’ll be performing relatively low reps (less than 10 reps per set) with each exercise having slightly different guidelines. You’ll also want to perform these exercises when you’re fresh and give yourself long breaks between sets. This allows you to give maximal effort on every rep, which will train your body more effectively.
Combining these important areas of science will help you create the most effective football speed training program possible. Understand the purpose of each drill or exercise and apply them in the most efficient manner possible. If you follow the guidelines outlined in this article, you’ll be on your way to developing explosive football speed.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written in the past, you know that I love talking about speed training, but football speed training is definitely one of my favorite topics. I’m fortunate enough to be able to work with many great athletes on their football speed, and I still find it fascinating after nearly 20 years in the industry. That’s a big reason I decided to start Ultimate Football Speed – as long as I enjoy it so much, I figured I might as well blog about it too.
Jim Kielbaso training Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril and Don Muhlbach of the Detroit Lions
Football speed is slightly different than general speed training. Like most training, there are more similarities than differences, but football speed includes a combination of many things you just don’t see in other sports. Straight ahead speed, agility, precision route running, sport specific footwork and movements, power, strength, anaerobic power, coordination, tactical awareness, position specific skills and deceleration are all part of football speed.
Each position has very specific needs and most players have their own individual needs. So, it’s always challenging to figure out exactly what an athlete needs. It’s like a puzzle and the different training methods are the pieces. They’re all sitting right in front of you, but you have to figure out how to fit them all together. That’s what makes strength and conditioning, and football speed training, both an art and a science.
Training a football player is rarely cut and dry. There are always going to be differences in the needs of each athlete, and football probably has the widest spectrum of needs.
I truly enjoy combine preparation for many reasons. First, this kind of training is almost a laboratory environment in the sense that you have control over many variables because the athletes are generally with you almost exclusively for a couple of months. Second, you know the tests, so you simply have to practice them in the most efficient manner possible. Unlike true football speed training, you don’t have to worry about every single aspect of the game. You can focus on the tests and position drills.
Of course position drills bring a lot of football speed into the picture, but none of the drills involve an opponent, so it’s quite a bit different.
As soon as the combine or pro day is done, however, now it’s time to get back to work and prepare for camp. That’s when we get to start adding more conditioning and traditional drills because we don’t have to spend so much time working on the details of each test. It’s great to watch a guy improve dramatically on his 40, shuttle, vertical jump, bench press, etc., but it’s just as much fun to work on football specific drills that are going to help his on-field performance.
I also enjoy the strength training aspect of football training. It’s obviously a huge part of football speed training, but many coaches seem to be taking a strange direction where they’re chasing big numbers in the weight room. Football players should absolutely be as strong as possible, but worrying about a guy’s deadlift, squat or clean max is completely unnecessary and a waste of time and energy. Instead, you need to spend time getting stronger on big lifts, but you also have to get stronger in other areas so you can’t just focus on the bench, squat and clean. Those lifts are not football, so don’t turn them into the focus of your training.
I’ll be talking a lot more about football speed training on here, so I hope you check back often and leave comments about what you like, dislike or want to see on here. I’ll see you soon at Ultimate Football Speed.