Old habits die hard, and perhaps we can say the same about antiquated perceptions regarding the physical training of soccer athletes. Clinging to old beliefs is understandable because change is hard. Change can be even harder if the beliefs brought about some measure of success in the past. After all, if it doesn’t appear broken, why fix it?
There is great comfort to be found in the status quo. However, growth can only truly occur after we become uncomfortable. We must question the accepted norms. This is what drives me—tasteful disruption in the constant pursuit of better, faster, and more efficient. This drive has led me to challenge certain misconceptions that still exist around the training of a soccer athlete. As a result, I have compiled a list of seven common myths and effective strategies to improve the current philosophies.
Myth #1. Lifting Weights Will Make a Soccer Player Bulky and Slow
A great deal is still misunderstood about the role of resistance training, specifically as it relates to an athlete. For better or worse, the mere thought of weights appears to evoke strong imagery of Arnold and Franco slapping 45-pound plate after 45-pound plate onto a barbell and crushing rep after excruciating rep chasing that legendary “pump.” To the average person, weights are synonymous with mass.
As awesome and motivating as Pumping Iron is, it is not an accurate depiction of how an athlete would specifically utilize weight training to help on-field performance. Unfortunately, not being able to distinguish between bodybuilding and power training, and avoiding weights as a result, will most likely prevent a soccer athlete from optimizing performance and, even worse, increase the likelihood of a preventable injury.Not being able to distinguish between bodybuilding and power training, and avoiding weights as a result, will most likely prevent a soccer athlete from optimizing performance. Click To Tweet
The SAID principle states that the body will specifically adapt to the imposed demands placed upon it. Bodybuilders look to build mass by primarily training in a specific rep range and at a submaximal intensity level that optimizes a combination of time under tension, metabolic fatigue, and muscular damage to build muscular size. Muscular growth or hypertrophy results when both the number of contractile fibers, known as sarcomeres, and the non-contractile elements, such as sarcoplasmic fluid, grow simultaneously. Simply put, bodybuilders lift moderate weights in higher rep ranges consistently to solicit these types of adaptations.
Soccer players, or any movement-based athletes for that matter, would use resistance training to enhance power and speed qualities. These types of adaptations are just as much neurological as they are muscular. Power and speed are best developed through high-intensity lifts with very low rep ranges. Power and speed both require full recovery between sets to preserve the intricate intermuscular and intramuscular coordination required to achieve the desired neurological adaptation. Athletes actively try to avoid time under tension, metabolic fatigue, and excess muscular damage when training with weights because they stunt explosiveness. Couple this type of training with the typical volume of running, jumping, and cutting done while training for and competing at soccer, and it would be nearly impossible to gain any appreciable excess bulk.
As an example to highlight the differences mentioned above, if a bodybuilder were to do a traditional back squat, their typical set, rep, and intensity scheme might look something like 4-5 sets of 8-12 reps at roughly 60% of their one rep max. A bodybuilder might even employ other strategies to further increase time under tension, metabolic fatigue, and muscular damage, such as assisted negatives and partial reps. Conversely, for an athlete to optimize speed and power utilizing the same back squat as the exercise, the athlete may train 5-6 sets of 2-3 reps at 80% of their one rep max. In this scenario, the total volume is much lower than that of the bodybuilder and the intensity is significantly higher.
A well-coached athlete should also be aware that fatigue is the enemy of speed, so instead of grinding through forced reps, they should immediately terminate a set once bar speed drops. To further enhance the neurological effect, a soccer player may combine their sets with an explosive med ball throw, jump, or sprint. As with many things, it’s not what is done but how it is done and the intent behind it. In the above example, the same exercise was utilized in dramatically different ways and, as a result, would yield completely different adaptations.
Myth #2. Slow Soccer Players Need More Fitness
It’s easy to draw this conclusion when an athlete is consistently a step too slow and everything they do appears to be labored. Struggling to keep up is often viewed as symptomatic of being out of shape. However, the illusion of being out of shape often conceals the reality, which is lack of speed. Trying to fix a lack of speed with increased fitness only exacerbates the true issue. Fitness typically devolves into low-quality, low-skilled, high-quantity bouts of training when the athlete most needs high-skilled, high-intensity speed work with near complete recovery. Trying to “out fitness” being slow will frequently just leave the athlete tired and slower than when they started.Struggling to keep up is often viewed as symptomatic of being out of shape. But the illusion of being out of shape often conceals the reality, which is lack of speed, says @houndspeed. Click To Tweet
Charlie Francis championed the notion of “speed reserve.” The concept is relatively straightforward. If you can increase an athlete’s maximal linear sprint capabilities, all submaximal sprint capabilities improve as well. Since most sports are played at submaximal speeds, the ease at which they can run at slower velocities and repeat runs at the same slower velocities increases.
For instance, if you have two athletes, one of whom runs a 4.5 40-yard dash and the other a 5.0 40-yard dash, it is comparatively much easier for the 4.5 athlete to run a 5.4 as it’s an 80% effort, whereas the slower 5.0 athlete must exert 92% of a maximal effort to run the same 5.4 40-yard dash. The faster athlete would appear to be significantly more fit.
Instead of increasing the fitness demands on the athlete with unnecessary mileage and endless shuttles, a structured approach to enhance starting strength, acceleration, and max velocity simultaneously would be a better option. It may seem like a lot, but a solid 15-20 minutes of high-quality speed skill work that could also double as a great dynamic warm-up prior to soccer training to maximize skill acquisition 2-3 times a week would go a long way. If the average athlete competes on the weekend and trains with their team 2-3 times a week, a potential training schedule could look something like this:
Monday – Acceleration Theme
- Wall sprint, 3 sets of 5 steps (posture, shin angle, drive!)
- Resisted accelerations, 3 x 20 yds (band, sled, partner)
- “Get up” accelerations, 3 x 20 yds
- Broad jump + med ball throw, 2 x 3
- Low hurdle pogo hops, 2 x 10 hurdles (ssc, ground contact)
Wednesday – Max Velocity Theme
- Ankle dribbles, 2 x 15 yds
- Captain’s pose (5 bounce + boom), 2 x 15 yds
- Boom-boom-booms, 2 x15 yds
- Alternating thigh drives, 2 x 15 yds
- 10-yd run-up + 15 wicket run x 3
- 20-yd run-up + float 10 yds + hit 10 yds + float 10 yds
Myth #3. Soccer Players Shouldn’t Squat to Full Depth to Protect Their Knees
The typical argument for those who exclusively use partial ROM squats is twofold. First, full squats aren’t necessary because they lack the specificity regarding joint angles experienced while playing. Second, because of the amount of impact a soccer player endures while training and playing, it is wise to prevent putting the knees under more stress by avoiding squatting to full depth.
However, limiting an athlete from utilizing a full range of motion in any joint is not advisable, and you are only as strong as your weakest link. From an injury prevention standpoint, avoiding specific ranges of motion altogether in turn makes the neglected ROMs weak. In a sport such as soccer, with unlimited degrees of freedom, having the athlete train and compete under the belief that they are unlikely to encounter these neglected ROMs is a dangerous gamble.
Many studies have been done comparing partial squats and full squats. Admittedly, many of them were relatively inconclusive as to the distinct superiority of one over the other in terms of performance. What does appear to be evident, however, is that not using certain ROMs results in loss of strength at those specific ranges of motion. In other words, use it or lose it.
I have always contended there is no ability like availability, so given the choice, I want my athletes to be strong through the entire range of motion to enhance resiliency everywhere as much as possible. Ironically, in the effort to preserve knees with partial ROM squats, it is the limited range of motion that puts the knees under the most stress. In Mark Rippetoe’s book, Starting Strength, he suggests that anterior and posterior forces are unbalanced in a partial squat, exposing the patella to higher shearing forces. However, in a full squat, forces are balanced because of the tension the hamstring provides at the bottom of the squat.Ironically, in the effort to preserve knees with partial ROM squats, it is the limited range of motion that puts the knees under the most stress, says @houndspeed. Click To Tweet
Although I favor full squats because I believe it is good to be as strong as possible at as many positions as possible, I do find a lot of value in a partial squat from a performance perspective because of the joint angle specificity. An optimal squat program probably would include both variations. The ratio of full to partial should be individualized based on the proficiency of the athlete, as I would strongly suggest primarily squatting to full depth until at least a 1.5x bodyweight squat is achieved. As the athlete becomes more advanced and achieves prerequisite levels of general strength with a full squat, the freedom to incorporate more joint-angle-specific partials would grow. For instance, a novice lifter should exclusively squat through a full range of motion, while an athlete with more training experience may incorporate one joint-angle-specific partial squatting session for every three full ROM sessions.
Myth #4. Since Soccer Players Run and Spend So Much Time Exclusively on Just One Leg, They Don’t Need to Develop Strength on Two Legs
Although it may be true that most ball court athletes spend most of their time on just one leg, it is wrong to assume that they only need to develop strength on just one leg. The forces generated by unilateral efforts are far lower than those of bilateral efforts and, as a result, also generate far less stress systemically. On the surface, it may sound like a good thing to minimize stress in training, but soccer athletes must be prepared for maximal sprints and changes of direction, which impose the largest possible stresses on them. Avoiding large multi-joint bilateral movements like heavy squats and deadlifts will only limit the soccer athlete’s ability to both generate and manage the propulsive forces experienced while playing.Avoiding large multi-joint bilateral movements like heavy squats and deadlifts only limits the soccer athlete’s ability to generate and manage the propulsive forces experienced while playing. Click To Tweet
Although there is value in the added proprioception and enhanced stability that single leg efforts require, they just cannot be loaded heavy enough to generate the necessary forces and provide the intended neural response. Carl Valle simply states, “stability is reducing unwanted motion, not providing the motion the athlete needs.” With that said, a well-balanced approach to developing athleticism in a soccer player would showcase bilateral efforts such as squats and deadlifts and be supplemented by more stabilizing single leg efforts such as the rear foot elevated split squats (RFESS), step-ups, and multidirectional lunges.
Prioritizing skill- and labor-intensive efforts such as sprints, plyos, squats, and deadlifts and integrating them appropriately around the athlete’s sport-specific training and competition schedule is best for optimizing performance. Once the foundation of sport-specific training, competitions, and high CNS development is established, we can then start adding lower CNS efforts to supplement or provide the necessary change of pace to avoid plateauing. For instance, if an athlete competes on the weekend, the week could look something like this:
- Maximal sprints (95%+)/plyos
- Hex bar DL 2x2x90%
- Weighted chin-up 3×5
- Speed skill work (skips, wickets)
- Rear foot elevated split squat 75%x3x3
- Military press 3×5
- Med ball throws
Myth #5. Soccer Players Just Need Cones, Speed Ladders, and Mini Hurdles to Best Develop Athleticism
This misguided belief perhaps best exemplifies clichéd soccer training. It is unclear as to the origin of this belief, but I have always theorized that this is how a soccer coach would best go about trying to improve footwork and agility. After all, agility is perhaps the most prominent physical attribute of a successful soccer player, so the intent to develop it is correct, but the means by which it is developed could be more effective. Exclusively leaning on footwork and choreographed change of direction drills without building strength and power with varied, complex loads will limit the athlete’s performance and leave them more susceptible to injury.
To use a car as an analogy, the fancy footwork and ladder drills are like putting rims, a spoiler, and ground effects on a 4-cylinder, while adding strength and power turns that same 4-cylinder engine into a V6 or V8. Building a bigger engine addresses the underlying mechanism to all athleticism.
To specifically improve agility, high levels of eccentric strength and lightning-quick ground contacts must be developed. Eccentric strength allows the soccer player to rapidly decelerate and efficient ground contacts allow them to quickly redirect their trajectory. Conventional barbell exercises like squats and Romanian deadlifts emphasizing a slow stretch phase coupled with plyometrics in various directions are the best way to enhance athleticism and build tremendous capacity to change direction.
Simple examples of this type of training would be:
- Superset x4 front squat (5:0:0) 80% x3, hurdle hops x5
- Circuit x3 RDL (3:2:0) 75% x5, snap downs x5, underhand med ball throw (vertical) x5, pogo jump x10
Myth #6. Training on Unstable Surfaces Is the Best Way to Develop Stability When Playing
The use of instability to build core strength runs into the same load versus stability issue that exclusively training on one leg does. Constantly fighting to stabilize on a BOSU Ball or dangling kettlebells from jump stretch bands at the expense of larger compound movements such as traditional squats, deadlifts, speedwork, and plyometrics limits the soccer athlete’s exposure to the forces and stressors typically seen on the field.
The core is often viewed incorrectly as synonymous with only abdominal musculature. The abs are merely a part of the athlete’s core region, which includes the entirety of the musculature around the pelvic girdle. The glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors (low back), adductors (groin), and psoas (hips) also are synergistically responsible for stabilizing the athlete. Unfortunately, as a result of this common misconception, much of the core musculature often goes neglected.
Another common misbelief is that the core is best stimulated by low-intensity, high-volume training. Due to the lack of intensity, most instability training would be categorized this way. However, the core is best developed through high-intensity, low-volume efforts, which are commonly seen in traditional maximal force and power development. Tremendous core stability is a frequently overlooked by-product of becoming strong and powerful with compound movements. You will have a brutally strong core if you are squatting 2.5x body weight and pulling 3x body weight!Tremendous core stability is a frequently overlooked by-product of becoming strong and powerful with compound movements, says @houndspeed. Click To Tweet
Thoughtful ways to enhance bracing and postural muscles while still working the powerful hip musculature would be changing a traditional back squat to a front squat, overhead squat, or Zercher squat, or even integrating cambered bars to alter the center of mass, etc. These alternatives would be far more potent at both forcing functional bracing and stability and imposing the necessary forces a soccer player must deal with than low-intensity, high-volume instability training.
Myth #7. Since Soccer Players Rarely Hit Top Speed, They Only Need to Train Acceleration Work
Although it is true that soccer players rarely hit max velocity because the nature of the game dictates constant changing of direction—which is more commonly associated with accelerating, decelerating, and agility—it is still important to develop top end speed. Developing top end speed provides context for acceleration work. Monitoring and actively trying to improve an athlete’s max velocity with a simple fly 10 will enhance that athlete’s acceleration phase as well. For the athlete to achieve higher and higher maximum velocities, they must become more efficient in their buildup to maximum velocity. Top speed and acceleration work very much in tandem with one another.
Developing both acceleration phase and top end speed simultaneously builds an athlete’s alactic capacity. This concept is critical and often overlooked in ball court athletes. As an athlete’s alactic capacity grows, they will be able to handle a greater volume of short-duration, high-intensity sprints (6-7 seconds max effort) and delay the onset of the effects of lactic acid. Increasing maximal linear speed allows the athlete to expend less energy during both maximal sprints and submaximal runs, giving the perception of greater fitness.Although soccer players rarely hit max velocity because the nature of the games dictates constant changing of direction, it is still important to develop top end speed, says @houndspeed. Click To Tweet
Top end speed development also makes a soccer player’s hamstrings more resilient to injury. At an athlete’s absolute maximum speed, their hamstrings are exposed to peak forces and stress in the most specific manner possible. Being able to properly control this narrative in a fully rested training scenario prior to competition is important to make sure the hamstring is properly conditioned. Continually playing at sub max speeds in training does not prepare a soccer athlete for the maximum speeds experienced during a game. Avoiding pure speed work of 95%+ intensities may provide comfort in limiting the likelihood of injury in training, but only heightens the susceptibility for injury during competition.
Appropriately integrating small doses of top end speed work when a soccer athlete is fully rested goes a long way. Priming proper upright mechanics with fly in wicket runs over 10-30 yards with various run-up distances is a simple way to ensure proper frontside mechanics. It also provides immediate feedback to the athlete as to the feel of the appropriate rhythm of ground contacts at top speed. Float hit float runs are also great to teach an athlete to relax at top speed, allowing them to truly explore what max speed should feel like. Monitoring the development of max velocity with a simple fly 10 will allow for objective feedback to ensure continual progress and, in turn, benefit the athlete’s acceleration phase as well.
Let’s Bust the Myths So We Can Build Athletes
Continuous reevaluation of current paradigms will always be necessary to drive further growth in the physical preparation of the soccer athlete. Pursuit of that which is simplest and most efficient will always lead to asking the appropriate questions that will ultimately optimize a soccer player’s performance. Unless we spend time educating the coaches, parents, and the athletes themselves, we will fight the same battles every year without creating the necessary programs to truly advance the sport.