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Football Practice - how to get football fit

John Shepherd explains how getting into real shape for football requires an amalgamation of training methods. You have to be powerful, quick, agile, and flexible and have a 'good engine'.

Conditioning for football has travelled light-years in the last decade. Clubs are determined to get as much out of their multi-million-pound investments as they can. Therefore, sports science plays a big part and players are subject to rigorous physiological assessment and testing. As a weekend warrior, you will not have quite the same backup team to ensure your football fitness, but what can you do to achieve optimum condition?

Warming up for football

A recent survey indicated that hamstring strain rates were linked to the amount of static stretching Premiership footballers performed. The more 'bend down and touch your toes and hold' stretching they did, the more they were likely to strain their hamstrings in practice and matches. This may come as a surprise, but it should not when you consider football's physical requirements. Players have to make repeated dynamic movements, such as sprints, jumps, and turns. Research from Finland discovered that in season, players could make 3900 jumps and 7000 turns, for example. These movements require dynamic muscular contractions; contractions that have little relevance to those involved in held stretches. Most top clubs now employ dynamic warm-ups, which place a much greater emphasis on active and football-relevant dynamic mobility.

Professor Angel Spassov is a conditioning expert, originally from Bulgaria who is now based in the States. He is a football specialist and has worked with six World Cup squads. The professor has put together a specific football warm-up. You should use and adapt it to your purposes if you want to avoid crying off with injuries that could be avoided.

Spassov's warm-up involves both passive and active elements. For the passive part, he advises players to loosen their muscles 30-60 minutes before the game/training session, by rubbing their ankles, knees, all the leg muscles, lower back, neck, and shoulders with a heating ointment, preferably one that is odourless and not too hot on the skin. The active warm-up that follows is divided into two parts:

1. General

This begins with 6-8 minutes of jogging, followed by the neck, shoulder, lower back, and abdominal stretches. There should be 2-3 different routines, with 10-12 repetitions of each. Next, legs (hamstrings, hip flexors, abductors, adductors, quads, and calf muscles) are targeted with passive (held) and dynamic stretches (2-3 standard routines with 10-12 reps with performance speed increased every set for the dynamic stretches, such as leg swings). Next varying-intensity sprints are performed in different directions. At the end of this part of the warm-up, players' pulse rates should have reached 160-170 beats per minute.

2. Specific

This begins with various kicks of the ball with both legs and various technical moves with the ball, such as dribbling and stopping the ball. These should progress to medium intensity and be performed with another player, then to high intensity with players combining into groups to practice all the technical skills at the highest possible intensity and speed.

Spassov's suggested warm-up makes sense and should control players' progression to match readiness. With the early parts of the warm-up performed individually, players should focus on their movements and progression and not be tempted to perform too dynamic movements before their muscles are fully prepared.

Football speed

All players require speed. Everything else is equal, the faster you are, the better player you will be. However, football speed is different from the speed required of a sprinter.

  • Football speed is reactive and often unpredictable
  • The first step (linear or rotational) could make all the difference to getting past an opponent or close enough to make a winning tackle.
  • A skill will often have to be performed based on speed, tackles, headers, passes, shots, and so on
  • Although elite players play on pitches that could support a game of bowls, many of us will not be so lucky. Muddy, undulating surfaces will impair speed generation.
  • A sprint may be needed when you are 'blowing hard' (see developing football endurance later)

Your training must reflect the above considerations. Use these practices to improve your football speed:

  • Turn and sprint drill
  • Players stand on the halfway line, to a command they turn and sprint 10m. Repeat six times taking 30 seconds' recovery between efforts whilst varying the turn direction
  • Run at three-quarter pace for a ball placed 20m away. Dribble it and swerve around a cone and pass after a further 15m. Repeat six times with 40 seconds' recovery between each effort
  • 'Speed dribble' over 30m (from standing: dribble as fast as you can in a straight line). Repeat six times with a 1-minute recovery between each effort
  • Floor ladder drills You may have seen players performing various drills through floor ladders on TV.

These exercises are designed to improve, speed, agility, and reactive ability. They will positively affect your neuromuscular system if used over time so that you will be able to get your legs moving that bit quicker. There are hundreds of permutations that can be used with one or more ladders. Here are some examples:

  1. One foot in each rung (use a low knee lift and concentrate on foot speed, driving your arms backward and forwards)
  2. Step sideways through the ladder. Keep low and light on the ground
  3. Run back through the ladder one rung at a time - use your calf muscles and ankles to generate your speed and do not forget to coordinate your arms with your legs
  4. As (I) above but on exiting the floor ladder take control of a ball dribble 10m around a cone and speed dribble back to the start

Improve your first step

Incline your trunk forwards and piston your legs back behind you whilst pumping your arms backward and forwards as fast as you can. Look at Christiano Ronaldo, the Manchester United and Portugal player, and how he modifies this sprinting skill when dribbling. Practice!

Developing power for football

Footballers are athletes in every sense of the word. All will resistance train. Their training plans will involve bodyweight, weights, and plyometric (jumping) exercises. Weight training will provide foundation strength for more specific football conditions, such as speed, to be built.

Key weight training exercises for football include

Squats, lunges, leg extensions, and leg curls (with the latter, concentrate on the lowering phase of the movement to reduce potential hamstring strain). Lift a medium to heavyweight (70-80% of 1RM) using 6-10 reps over 2-4 sets. Everything else being equal a larger muscle will be more powerful and enduring.

Can weight training make you a net buster?

Research has indicated that improving kicking power directly through weight training or other means is unlikely to produce positive results for greater kicking power. You will get greater returns by working on your technique. However, greater muscle power can significantly improve other aspects of play, such as your leap and sprinting and injury resilience.

Bodyweight exercises

The dreaded 'burpee' (squat thrust with a jump at the end) still has a place in football conditioning, and other bodyweight moves, such as press-ups and sit-ups. Put them into a circuit that lasts (with recoveries) 20 minutes and contains ball skills, and you are onto a winner.

Incorporating 'keepy-uppy' and short distance passes between players in a circuit will condition-specific power and skill endurance - the ability to perform a precision skill under conditions of fatigue is crucial for football players.

The core

Pay particular attention to core strengthening exercises, such as crunches and 'chinnies' (alternate knee to elbow sit-ups), hyper (back) extensions, and the plank. A strong and dynamic core is required to maintain player solidity on the ball and reduce injury.

Football specific core strength exercise - sit-up with a header

Sit on the floor with knees bent to a 90-degree angle as per regular sit-up. You will need a partner who should carefully toss a football toward you as you reach the top of your sit-up. At this point, you head the ball back to him. You then control the descent of your body as it returns to the floor. Complete 10 over 4 sets swapping positions with your partner.

Football specific circuit

Perform at '20 seconds on 30 seconds' off basis - Press-ups, squat jumps, crunch, keepy-uppy, simulated headers (alternating left, double, and right foot leaps from a static or one stride approach), the plank, wall passes over 5m alternating left to right foot strikes, burpees, chinnies, single-leg squats, sit-ups with header (see above), 10m sprints (back and forwards), floor ladder drill.

Developing football endurance

Forget the 10-mile runs; football is an anaerobic (stop/start) activity. You will be much better off performing various pace running repetitions over distances from 10m to 100m with short recoveries. Some workout examples:

  • Twenty minutes of jogging, sprinting, walking and half speed, and three quarter-paced runs. Coach (or the fittest player taking part) determines the distance to be run and the recovery by calling out, for example, '20m sprint, walk 40m three-quarter pace run, jog back' and so on. This drill should be contained within one-half of the pitch.
  • Pass and sprint drill - Two players stand 10m apart. They perform 20 alternate left to right leg passes and then turn in opposite directions to sprint 10m around a cone and back to the start position to perform another set of passes. Take 30 seconds' recovery and repeat five times.
  • Players perform 20 press-ups and 20 squats on one goal line, jog to the centre circle to collect the ball, sprint dribble toward the other goal and then shoot from just outside the penalty area (keeper optional). Repeat five times with jog back recovery between efforts.

Use these practices and drills in your pre-season training and maintain your fitness with them in-season and you will be challenging for the title (whatever your level) come next spring.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • SHEPHERD, J. (2007) Football Practice - how to get football fit. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 47/ November), p. 11-12

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • SHEPHERD, J. (2007) Football Practice - how to get football fit [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

John Shepherd is a health, sport, and fitness writer and a former international long jumper.