I see a lot of misunderstandings about legs training in soccer and other team sports, as well as in track & field.
Things are so simple – max strength, strength speed/power and plyo is everything your legs need for intermittent high intensity running sports (sports games especially; I will write down nothing about conditioning because it will be increasing through games, and game related drills of varying intensity…). Max strength for quick stopping after high speeds, DEMANDING changes of direction, in-place vertical jumping and opponents “pushing” because there is very short but enough time for/or almost max strength producing; strength speed/power for less demanding changes of direction, quick starting (any direction), acceleration and deceleration because here you need sub max strength and a bit of plyo; plyo for sprinting and in-motion quick jumping because there is not enough time for max strength producing – each step/ground support phase lasts 0,1 to 0,2s and for max force/strength reaching you need 0,6 to 0,8s.
Now, I am going to give you examples (some exercises) for the each of 3 abilities.
For max strength, classic deadlift (or adjusted modification) is always at the top of the list (or rack pull – even more sport specific because of higher/bigger angles at hips and knees). If you want to spare your low back than I suggest front squat (not back) or barbell Bulgarian split squat (even less low back dangerous); or KB/DB “step up” variations (it’s “concentric contraction only” exercise but perfect for basic legs strengthening for power/plyo drills – especially single leg vertical jumps and sprinting accelerations). Those are good for vertical jump – vertical drive (+ plyos for full jumping potential). Forward lunge is good for quick stopping and demanding changes of direction but maybe it’s better for strength/speed power phase; low cable split squat is an excellent one for quick stopping and demanding changes of direction in this phase – less joints stressfull because there is no impact but still specific enough because the cable is pulling you forward and you need to resist that with forward leg – the good one especially during in-season (if you bend over a bit it becomes even more specific for quick STOPPING); side/lateral lunge for quick stopping on side and demanding changes of direction on side; split squats for changing direction from backward to forward (back leg)… Those are good for various “pushing” with opponents also. Remember, those exercises are perfect base for those specific on-field movements and by doing them properly you will be better on field (plus less chances for unexpected injuries). All max strength exercises should be executed with “full speed effort” during concentric contraction phase (85-100% of 1 rep max, 1-5 reps per set – I would avoid 1 rep max in team sports; 3-6 sets).
But… hmmm – let’s see what Greg Nuckols says: “In my experience, a one rep max is less stressful than a rep max, and risk is probably lower as well (you need to stay locked in for one heavy rep instead of multiple reps, and your form won’t degrade due to fatigue).”
For the strength/speed power – pushing sledges, KB swing, power clean, hip thrust, gliding leg curl (on the video below)… Maybe the most specific one for quick starting and acceleration is forward sledge pushing (backward pulling for backward fast running because feet stays a bit longer on the ground than in forward sprinting); power clean could be good for QUICK in-place vertical jumping (quick starting also, especially because the drive force is vertical and during starting and acceleration our bodies are leaned forward a bit which means maybe we need a bit more vertical drive than horizontal – more about this below); reverse lunges for single legged jump; all types of lunges for less demanding changes of direction and deceleration; gliding leg curl (horizontal drive) is a very similar exercise to running pattern (almost the same leg muscles work)… Maybe hip thrust doesn’t look like more specific exercise to running (sprinting mostly) but researchers have found that it is – it could make a good transfer to running (especially during the full speed phase) because of horizontal hip drive (like in running). But it’s not that simple (keep reading below…). Hip thrust could be also a good max strength exercise (max strength is the base for explosive movements because of good neural drive/stimulation and it should come before/precede to explosive movements in periodization mesocycle plan). All power movements should be executed with as max as possible speed (50-75% of 1rep max approximately – up to 6 reps per set, 3-5 sets). Of course, some med. ball work is acceptable but less important for soccer players.
Hmmm, although achieving of full speed sprinting in soccer isn’t so often, I need to mention something interesting I found recently. Hip thrust exercise is good for sure when it comes to building better butt, rehabilitating/preventing injury, and possibly for performance – but some researchers have found that it’s a poor choice for improving sprint speed! “This seems counter-intuitive, sprinting is done horizontally (its a mix a horizontal and vertical), therefore doing some horizontal training should transfer! Well, the hip thruster may fail to produce sprint speed for a few reasons. The first is the lack of specificity of the speed of movement. Meaning the way in which the hip thruster was performed in the studies was too slow to transfer (sprinting is a really fast movement). Secondly, maybe the glute’s just aren’t that important for running fast in comparison to the biarticular muscles (ones that cross two joints). There is little doubt the gluteus maximus is very active during sprinting. However, it may function more as a stabilizer rather than in a force production role: “The major functions of the gluteus maximus during running are to control flexion of the trunk on the stance-side and to decelerate the swing leg” (Lieberman, Raichlen, Pontzer, Bramble DM, Cutright-Smith, 2006). For those of you who are in the glute’s are important for generating sprint speed, don’t fret, research does demonstrate faster sprinters have greater glute:quad ratios (Sugisaki, Kobayashi, Tsuchie, & Kanehisa, 2017). (This raises the old whole chicken and the egg debate). Some findings suggest that increasing maximum hip thrust strength through use of the barbell hip thrust does not appear to transfer into improvements in sprint performance in collegiate level athletes (Bishop, Cassone, Jarvis, Turner, Chavda, & Edwards, 2017). In the end, it appears the hip thruster is a poor exercise choice for sprint coaches. For performance benefits, it may be better to stick to other exercises. Future research may want to look at higher velocity, lighter load hip thrusters.” – Brett Holland. Maybe some other components (different speed, load…) could have a better transfer? Who knows… More research on this topic needs to be done! “It seems that “force vector” may not be as important for determining training transfer to sport as was previously believed. Other specific strength qualities, such as high-velocity strength and eccentric strength, may be more relevant. Sprinting requires eccentric hamstrings strength, high-velocity hip extensor strength, and high-velocity hip flexor strength. So nordic curls, jump squats, and hip flexor exercises with ankle weights or elastic resistance should work well.” – Chris Beardsley
Remember: “The exercise is not a cure-all or a guarantee for speed improvement (especially if just the one). Instead, it’s fair to look at the entire leg and even the trunk and shoulders for answers.” – Carl Valle
I would like to mention one more interesting thing here. When it comes to acceleration (the first phase mostly), athlete’s body is in inclined position a bit (leaned forward) and it seems that vertical drive forces are included/important a bit more than during the sprinting phase (when full speed has been reached). That being said, it seems that “vertical pushing exercises” like squats etc. have a bit bigger influence on field transfer in the case of soccer (we have mentioned that acceleration is more important in soccer compared with reaching the full speed). During the full speed, the torso is in more vertical position and that’s why horizontal drive forces are more important (hip thrust, the exercise on the video below etc.). Please don’t take it for granted because everything is intertwined! One more thing correlated, when it comes to trained athletes – one newer study shows that half and quarter squats are better than full squats for improving both sprinting ability and vertical jump height. But exercises performed with a greater range of motion (ROM) cause greater gains in muscle size, so it’s more useful for younger athletes and injury prevention/reduction training.
“Many strength coaches maintain that full squats are the only way to improve sports performance. However, most athletic movements involve the hip and knee moving through only partial ranges of motion. Since strength is joint angle-specific, it makes sense that half and quarter squats may have an important role to play. Some important studies have revealed that when introduced in well-trained athletes, quarter and half squats were superior to full squats for improving sprinting and jumping abilities. The findings of other studies showing a superiority of full squats in untrained individuals is likely a result of their ability to increase muscle size more quickly (larger ranges of motion are better for hypertrophy).” – Chris Beardsley
“One study compared the effects of a sprint running training program with and without a weighted vest in amateur soccer players. The addition of a weighted vest had no incremental benefit beyond the normal, unresisted sprint training. This may be because the direction of additional force application is not horizontal.” – Chris Beardsley (Rey, E., Padron-Cabo, A., Fernandez-Penedo, D. (2017). The Journal of S&C Research, 31(10), 2659-2666).
Imagine the same exercise but single leg option (more specific to running). If it’s hanging position uncomfortable, you can try “hands on the ground” variation. If it’s still uncomfortable (front shoulder ligaments straining), you can try “hip thrust” set up (the best option for someone who has an issues with arms)
For plyo, I suggest learning a proper landing and pre-jumping technique first: jump on the low to medium box, jump off the low box (single leg, both legs, frontal movement, lateral movement). Than you are ready to start nice progression (in place small jumps with stick – small broad jumps with stick – broad jumps with mini bounce – continuous jumps with more serious stretch-shortening cycle/over barriers bounds and hops – depth jumps comes the last because it’s the most intensive movement). Each exercise you can do with single or both legs – with frontal or lateral/side movements. Be careful, don’t overload your athletes because almost everything is whether light or heavier plyo (running, playing the soccer game with almost all segments of the play). When it comes to load, the same rules like for the strength/speed power moves except there is no additional weights – you should use ONLY bodyweight exercises. Try not to use more than 8 jumps per set! Only pro players who have already passed good training could use some additional weights while doing plyo but not more than 2 weeks per year (but I don’t recommend it to anyone at all). On the video below you can see not the best but decent example of plyometric progression (the working principle is important in this video, don’t focus on technique and hurdles height).
Stick to the each phase long enough to prevent injuries!
Interestingly, one research has found that plyometrics significantly improve sprint, jump, agility performance outcome measures in YOUTH soccer/football (Bedoya et al, 2015). Guidelines are as follows: 2x sessions per week (72hrs rest between sessions); 8-10 weeks minimum; start with 50-60 contacts per session and progress gradually to no more than 120 per session; 3-4 exercises ranging from 2-4 sets of 6-15 reps. But when it comes to serious plyo training, keep in mind that you need good strength base.
Besides the other things, when prescribed correctly, it has also been shawn to significantly reduce injury risk. In a systematic review of injury prevention programs for adolescent athletes, it was found that programs that included plyometrics reduced injury risk by 55% vs 26% for those that didn’t (Rossler et al, 2014). It’s a very good idea to include multiple direction jumps and both double and single leg lands.
I just need to mention loaded jumps. In my opinion, it’s only for advanced athletes (athletes with resistance training experience). One research has found that it’s even better for improving jumping and sprinting performance than Olympic weightlifting (Helland, C., Hole, E., Iversen, E., Olsson, M.C., Seynnes, O., Solberg, P.A., Paulsen, G., 2017).
Those exercises mentioned above will help our players to become stronger, more agile and faster AFTER THE DECISION HAS ALREADY BEEN MADE! But game related soccer exercises with a lot of thinking (+ experience) will help our players to make decision FASTER (anticipation) – which is probably the most important ability in soccer!
“The Importance of Impulse – Getting stronger is critical for acceleration, as again, ground contact times are longer and the muscles have more time to generate force. But at top end speed for a 40, 60, or a 100 yard/meter dash, you have minimal time to generate force, and this is why impulse is so important. To improve impulse you need a shift in your mindset with regards to the weight room. Max strength work is great for getting strong and helping with acceleration, but we need something more to improve impulse and force production at high speeds. If an athlete needs to improve their top-end speed, you can focus more of your training time on reactivity and elastic properties (plyos and jumps) versus heavy strengthening exercises in the weight room. Plyometrics and jumps of all varieties put a greater focus on the tendons, reactivity, and utilizing the stretch shortening cycle. Strength training in the gym, on the other hand, puts more of a focus on the muscles and pure strength. Furthermore, single-leg bounds can have an immediate carryover to sprinting performance, as they force the athlete to create force quickly. While you may not want to use these methods year-round, a cycle or two of reactive and explosive work prior to camp may be hugely beneficial for the overall explosiveness and top-end speed or your athletes.” – Mike Robertson (2014)
“Concentric (resisted sprint) training has a bigger impact on ACCELERATION, while eccentric muscle actions (unresisted sprinting, which is what increases stiffness) seems to be more effective for MAXIMUM SPEED. This may help determine the use of strength training as well. Having looked at some more research, I suspect there is no interference between resisted and unresisted sprinting – but ultimately it is very hard to say. I think that they should compliment each other, because the resisted sprinting is altering concentric force production and technique, while the unresisted sprinting is improving eccentric force production, hence the increase in stiffness.” – Chris Beardsley
You can make some combinations in training, for example a few reps of max front squat (or resisted sprint) – then immediately some very short and fast specific movement after squats (some action with a ball – no resistance) on the field, everything with the aim of producing PAP effect (post activation potentiation). You must master the BASICS first because PAP training is highly technically demanding! Actually, you need to master basics and strengthen enough overall body before starting with technique FIRST of almost any exercise mentioned above!
Remember, first move well – then you can move often and “strong” because: “Your brain is too smart to allow you to have full horsepower in a bad body position. It’s called muscle inhibition.” – Gray Cook
“When it comes to strength training, becoming efficient at faulty movement patterns is the worst thing you can do.” – Dr. Joel Seedman
“Strength is also a foundation for stability: active control of joints. If you lack it, you’ll rely more on passive restraints: ligaments, menisci, intervertebral discs, labrum, etc.” – Eric Cressey
But be careful because over-volume (multiple sets of heavy strength exercise(s) before high-velocity moves) could make you slower (but low volume is highly recommended): “I don’t recommend heavy strength training for improving linear sprinting, generally. I recommend high-velocity strength training with maximal effort and light weights. However, heavy strength training is still valuable for change-of-direction ability (agility) because it relates better to deceleration, which is essential for this skill. Either way, doing plyometrics or sprints after multiple sets of strength training (to take advantage of the post-activation potentiation effect) is probably not as helpful as you might expect. The accumulated fatique after such a large session would probably make the athletes slower, despite the stimulus. A better way would be to do the sprint or jump before the strength training, as this would enable the athletes to lift heavier weights.” – Chris Beardsley. Some authors have agreed that it could be reverse process also. Of course, it depends on training goals!
When it comes to full sprint (which is less important in soccer), look what Chris found: “If a sprinter is very gifted, strength training can make them slower because it converts their very fast twich muscle fibers (type IIX) to moderately-fast muscle fibers (IIA). This doesn’t affect most of us, who have far fewer type IIX fibers. But in athletes like Colin Jackson (who had a muscle biopsy done), the type IIX proportions are off the charts. I would quess Christophe Lemaitre would be similarly gifted, as he doesn”t do heavy strength training, and he is one of the fastest sprinters in the World.” But we can’t forget that heavy strength training works well when it comes to first part of acceleration (important in soccer and the first phase of sprint race – 100m). I watched some races where C. Jackson and C. Lemaitre won but were the slowest sprinters during acceleration (Lemaitre way more in his race). This is great food for thoughts (moderation wins again). These athletes could be even better…
Of course, overall strength and stability/mobility exercises are VERY important when it comes to injury prevention/reduction, here I am trying to explain what soccer players need at field so they can become more efficient. Just DON’T skip that 3 types of training and understand their practical values! I know there is a lot of coaches who don’t accept this – but they can’t ignore something which makes more sense than anything else. And remember, single leg strength exercises (unilateral) already mentioned above are a bit more important for athletes than bilateral exercises. Both legs comes like a good base which you should remain nonstop with basic big lifts but for majority of sports single leg rules because it’s more specific (running is single leg work as well as many jumping movements, ball kicking, cutting, starting/acceleration, stopping/deceleration, changing directions…). But be careful, don’t give always more-specific exercises to your athletes especially when they play a lot of games and have a lot of specific soccer work in general (because overuse injuries could happen and we need to give them more basic strength exercises to rest their “specific neuro pathways”). But anyway we always need to “support” specific work with basic and more-specific exercise at same time, for example “his highness” deadlift. Basic lifts never die and should be maintained through the whole athlete’s career! The most important think is MAKING TRANSFER ON SOCCER TRAINING/GAME (to be better on filed), and you can do it by doing basic big lifts like a deadlift (among other things). A lot of basic exercises are actually really close (functionally) to more specific “gym” exercises for soccer/running. Don’t forget that you can perform a bunch of “soccer specific” core exercises on TRX, TRX rip trainer, cable pulley machine… for example.
“Keep in mind, single-leg training (exercises) is awesome and every good coach loves them, but it CAN NOT replace your big, compound lifts. If you are chasing force production, big compound lifts are still king!” – Mike Robertson
Before I forget, I would like to mention something interesting here: “Flywheel training with eccentric overload is rapidly becoming a very popular way of training athletes to improve strength, size, and athletic performance. Recent study in professional athletes showed that flywheel leg press strength training was superior to conventional leg press strength training in all respects, although both types of training improved jump height and sprint time, something that advocates of “functional training” will not be very happy about…” – Chris Beardsley. Of course, that may means nothing – but it could be a good food for thoughts 🙂 .
Last but not least, changing directions and quick feet/feet frequency play huge role. Like derivate of things mentioned above, you should learn that at sports field like a kid – especially quick feet frequency at small spaces, and once you get older – it will look better and faster. Don’t get me wrong, a proper/safe technique of almost everything you should learn like a kid (up to 12 years of age). If you miss it (a proper technique of basic moves/exercises), you will never reach your full potential and injury risk is high because of compensatory movements and poor alignments (your body adapt on every wrong technique, very often it ends up with noncontact injury – acute injury during wrong chronic movement patterns). Wrong movement patterns can even reduce economy of your movements which means losing more energy than necessary – you could gas out earlier. Good technique is one of the most important things!
Oh, I forgot, if you want faster stride frequency in linear sprinting (some researchers found we could influence more on it in training than on stride length, but anyway genetics plays a huge role) you should strengthen hip flexors and glutes/hams (beside some well-known muscles). These muscle groups play a huge role (if strong enough) in driving legs faster forward-backward – SWING phase (quick initiating and stopping legs; as hip adductos and abductors do with side/lateral moves). Glutes are especially important for stopping leg (up) at the end of front swing phase because during high-knees sprinting knees are more bended (up) which means shorter hams (shorter hams = less strength capability). Glutes are extended in that position and can perfectly utilize elastic strength and strength capability in general. Also, functional core strengthening will stabilize pelvis on the best way during sprinting and this is the base – main condition for moving legs fast (not stable pelvis = not much fast legs; you can’t be fast on unstable surface – hip muscles need stable support/pelvis because they are attached somewhere on pelvis).
Be careful when it comes to implementing these exercises in practice, I wrote nothing about planning/programing/periodization/order… That’s the separate huge topic! I just need to mention one rule of thumb here. Up to 15-16 years of player’s age, he/she should MASTER the basic bodyweight movements and then approach to high quality resistance training step by step (gradually). And keep the form pristine because you need clean mechanics for clean results!
And for the end, some thoughts by Chris Beardsley: “If I was programming a workout to achieve improvements in both high-velocity strength and maximum strength for athletes, then I would always put the high-velocity strength exercises first. 3 sets of each type of exercise per workout, and 2-3 workouts per week would be low (good) volume. The number of sets and reps are not relevant, because athletes should never train to failure anyway, because fatigue reduces high-velocity strength gains. And since all athletes should always move the bar with maximal intent, the important thing is the percentage of 1RM. So for vertical jumping, heavy loads are valuable (>90% of 1RM, or <5RM) while for sprinting, light loads are more useful (<30% of 1RM). Essentially, athletes will often use heavy back squats for jumping (I would just limit volume), but mainly jump squats for sprinting – he means on track sprinters here (maximum strength training is probably best minimized). From a practical perspective, greater volumes are not ideal for athletes, because they lead to disadvantageous fiber type conversion. So we want to achieve the maximal possible strength gains with minimal training. Therefore, I usually recommend 3-4 sets, 2-3 times per week of a couple of carefully chosen exercises. These are done far from reaching failure, so maybe 3 reps for heavy loads, and maybe 8 reps with inter-set rests of about 5-10 seconds for light loads. …there will likely be a potentiation effect, as long as you do not get too fatigued. But more importantly, high-velocity strength is very quickly impaired by fatiguing exercise, while maximum strength is more resistant to fatigue. So, if you try and do high-velocity training after anything else, it will be less effective. Force production is high in sprinting, but it is still produced in a very short time window. And since explosive strength and maximum strength are very different qualities (per research by Tillin, Balshaw and others) and are developed by different training methods, using heavy loads will not produce the optimal improvements in early phase RFD. I am not saying that heavy strength training cannot improve athletic performance. I am saying that high-velocity strength training with light loads is a better and more efficient way of training.”
But wait, look what did I find from the same author? “Training with heavy weights produces similar hypertrophy to training with light weights to muscular failure, but using heavy weights still produces greater gains in maximum strength. In addition, training with heavy loads also produces greater gains in rate of force development (RFD), which is a key quality for athletes. This may be partly because of the greater increase in neural drive, and partly because of the larger increase in tendon stiffness. One of the mechanisms by which maximum strength might be increased by strength training with heavier loads is an increase in tendon stiffness. Several studies have shown that tendon stiffness is only increased after training with heavy loads. A stiffer (less compliant) tendon allows muscles to produce more force, and a greater rate of force development. Concentric m. contraction leads to greater increases in explosive strength (RFD).” – Chris Beardsley. TRAIN BOTH!
Thanks for reading and all the best,