Planning Strength and Speed Training for American Football
Reggie Johal looks at training methods to assist American Football players in improving their speed and strength during the off-season.
Like many other sports, American Football has a history of coaches with a poor understanding of the sport's demands inflicting upon players the necessity to run laps of the pitch and engage in other forms of training at odds with the sport's unique needs. With a constant stop-start style to the play, with the average game lasting no longer than ten seconds, followed by a much more extended rest period, its demands are closer to traditional sprinting and weight training methods, than sports such as Rugby or Boxing, where there is a much higher endurance element required. At the same time, the game has a significant aspect of lateral mobility and technical considerations, absent from pure speed or strength sports.
Given the full range of requirements for the different positions in football, this article will focus on planning the training for a typical week for Linebackers, Backs and Strong Safeties. However, the advice applies to most positions except Kickers and Offensive/Defensive Linemen. Even then, many elements would remain broadly similar to these positions.
Most American Football players today will already place a significant emphasis on strength training as this has been emphasised for a comparatively long time in the sport due to the ever-increasing demand for larger and stronger athletes. This does not mean players should automatically follow the training advice handed out in bodybuilding magazines or follow a generic college training program. Unfortunately, most college programs suffer from being overly simplistic due to the need to try to train 40 or 50 athletes at once in a facility. This type of training leads to the most simple, easy to administer programs being handed out to athletes rather than the most effective. Similarly, athletes who believe bodybuilding programs can enhance sports performance may potentially gain some muscle size but at the expense often of relative strength and speed going down, as well as a decrease in joint mobility if emphasising single-joint exercises. Additionally, bodybuilding programs' emphasis on training to failure and exhaustive work on individual muscle groups will lead to less energy being available for the high-intensity, explosive work which football demands.
Split Training vs Whole Body Training
Most players will often follow a typical bodybuilding protocol where individual muscle groups are trained with very high volume once per week. Unfortunately, while this may work under certain circumstances for bodybuilders, football players cannot afford to adopt this method. Most significantly, this training method makes it very difficult to integrate training with the demands of improving other elements vital to success in football. For example, many bodybuilders train back, quadriceps, and hamstrings on separate days. This will mean that most of the time, players will have insufficient energy to perform their other drills, sprint work etc., due to excessive muscular fatigue. Furthermore, split training will mean the central nervous system is constantly under stress from continually performing a high-intensity activity, leading to impaired recovery and the ability to perform other drills outside the gym with the required intensity.
We have two options. The first is to adopt a lower/upper body split, and the second is to select a full-body training program. Both options have their advocates. Splitting the body into lower/upper will mean legs get trained twice a week, meaning five days are left for rest. Only training legs on those two days means a higher volume of work can be performed. A typical whole-body approach consists of hitting the weights on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday basis. Because of the increased frequency and need to train the upper body, leg training volume would need to be reduced.
Depending on the athlete's needs, an upper/lower split is usually more helpful for increasing strength and muscle size, as many will struggle to maintain the intensity needed for a long, whole-body training workout. A sample lower/upper body split would be as follows:
Note: 2 x 6 means 2 sets of 6 repetitions.
Speed training for football players needs to consider that football sprints are usually of much shorter duration than sprinting in track and field events. At the same time, football players' body mechanics will be different from those you see in top-class sprinters.
A speed training program for football players will significantly overlap with that of Olympic athletes but with a limited requirement for the type of speed endurance work performed by sprinters during the summer track season. Instead, a football program should primarily emphasise acceleration techniques with a minor component of top speed work so that for the rare occasions for a full sprint, the player can maintain his high speed for longer.
Although there are many differing views on how to train speed, the approach used by Francis (1992) works well for integrating the other aspects of football training.
Speed Training Template for Off-Season
Rest times between sprints should be 2-3 minutes for 10m work, 3-5 minutes for 20m work, and 4-6 minutes for 30m work to ensure a full recovery.
The astute reader will notice the sprints are combined on a day where the weights pushed will be heavy. Depending on the athlete's needs, they could sprint in the morning and do the weights in the evening or vice versa. Both approaches will work. The main factor behind placing sprints on the same day as weight training the legs is to allow for a greater central nervous system (CNS) and muscular recovery. Trying to sprint on separate days (e.g. on Tuesday) would mean the legs still being fatigued from the day before and then having less rest before the next weight session for legs. By contrast, combining weight training with legwork on the same day is something sprint coaches usually recommend.
Tempo training is running the distance at a sub-maximal speed and walking the next 100m. It is very important both for active recovery (recovering from the previous day's exertions), learning to run in a relaxed manner (many athletes strain too much when sprinting maximally), and for overall conditioning and fat loss (the intervals being similar when running/walking, as the work/rest time in football and fat loss protocols such as Tabata).
With another high-intensity day scheduled for Thursday, Wednesday is a time to rest and recuperate. Some mobility and drill work is okay for those who need it.
Thursday's sprint training session is partnered with a low load, explosive lifting weight training day. The sprint distances complement the weights by being of a greater distance and speed. This is the day when the football player will work at their maximum speed. Still, we keep acceleration work in, albeit at a reduced volume, as acceleration is an essential factor for football as well as helping to Warm-up the body for the top speed work. Rest times can be up to 10min long for the top speed sprints. The work must be of high quality with full muscular and CNS recovery between sprints.
Saturday is the day when we should be at our freshest. There is no weight training before training, and we are furthest removed from the draining effects of the heavyweight training conducted on Monday and Tuesday. There is a greater emphasis on top speed work this time, with an increase in the distance up to 60m. It should be the time the athlete is setting his best times.
Going Past a Week
At this point, be aware that the approach is for a sample training week in the off-season. Strength and speed training should still be periodised as usual. A favoured method of many programs is to gradually increase training volume and intensity before incorporating a week of reduced volume and intensity to allow for super-compensation and CNS recovery. A 3/1 split of hard training followed by a more relaxed "unloading" week will help promote continued improvements rather than trying to continually add weight/sets/sprints to the program, which will only lead to stagnation.
At the same time, other exercises and techniques will usually be incorporated to provide the athlete's body with new challenges. Still, the overall goal should remain the same: to increase strength and speed over the long haul.
Although it will be easy for a beginner to make rapid improvements in both strength and speed following a structure such as that outlined, at some point, it is likely that either the weights or the speed work will have to be reduced in volume (although not intensity) and maintained so that the other quality being work can be emphasised.
Most 100m sprinters usually go from a program where strength increases are emphasised in winter to one where weight training is restricted to maintenance only so that full attention can be devoted to maximal speed work during the summer months.
Of course, American Football players may have differing views on which element needs emphasising. Still, the fact remains that given that neither strength nor speed improvements are realistic, the player should look at his off-season training program and consider which variable he needs to work on the most. Then, he can perform a greater or lesser amount of speed or strength work as he and his coaching staff deem appropriate. For a strong athlete with limited speed, this would mean reducing the volume of his weight work on his training days and training speed on the training day when the CNS and muscular system is freshest. On the other hand, a weak, fast athlete may wish to perform a limited amount of speed work and increase his weight training volume to raise his strength levels quicker.
Other factors beyond how the athlete structures his training are essential, including mobility drills, nutritional support, supplementation, recovery and regeneration techniques, and technical work. Although these are beyond the scope of this article, each element should be implemented carefully. Please check the other articles on this site for further reading.
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About the Author
Reggie Johal is a former international American Football player for Great Britain with a lifelong passion for strength and speed training and has assisted many athletes in applying training protocols for their sports. He can be contacted through his Sports Nutrition site.