Weight Training and Football: The Most Neglected Yet Valuable Tool In The Game

Weight Training and Football


Football is the nations favourite sport. It’s passion, pace and unassailable ability to provide astounding highs coupled with devastating lows is what has engrained it well and truly in our hearts. Football is more than a game: it is a cult, religion and belonging to which fans dedicate a lifetime to following their team unremittingly through thick and thin.

Modern Day Football

Due to the evident devotion fans have towards the game, modern society has whole hearted taken advantage of this love, inflating the cost of ticket prices, merchandise and TV sales exponentially over the past decade. Despite its birth as a grass root entity representing the common man, Football is now a ruthless billion-dollar industry.

So in an age where elite players now earn more in a week than many people would do in a life time, it is astounding to see that the majority of clubs bare little to no importance on one of the most primary aspects of the game: how well their players move.

In my opinion, there is very little difference between preparing someone for a strength sport and skill based team sport. The basic objective is to give an athlete the ability to apply efficient power to a movement pattern. This could be a kick, sprint or squat.

Mobility and joint stability are pivotal in the world of sport. Basic movements such as hip, knee and ankle flexion can dictate and predict speed, strength and injury. Now this may seem obvious to some, however the inability to do these basic patterns can have severe consequences when applied to a high octane environment.

The Simple Analogy

Range of movement is insurance. The more insurance you have, the safer you are in a compromising position. If you were to do a biomechanical analysis of the movement needed in football, it may report that the maximum amount of dorsiflexion at the ankle for any given situation is 30 degrees (this is an arbitrary figure and purely for the example).

Say you have two players who perform a very simple ankle dorsiflexion test. One player scores 30 degrees, the other scores 60 degrees. It may be concluded that both have adequate levels of ankle mobility to safely play football. However, what would happen if both players were to sustain a challenge from behind sending their knee travelling over their toes whilst their studs are firmly placed in the ground?

The player with a poorer range of motion is much more likely to sustain a significant injury or tear than his more flexible colleague. His body being rapidly forced in to an unknown position will likely result in some form of muscle, tendon and ligament strain leading to time off the pitch. This is not saying the other player, wouldn’t get hurt, but it increases the chances of his injury being less severe. With player fees now regularly exceeding £50 million, time off the pitch means losing a hell of a lot of money.

Tightness: What causes lack of mobility?

A lack of mobility is a lack of strength. I’ve come across studies that show manipulation under anaesthetic can improve muscle range of movement after injury. This is because the body’s nervous system is not aware of the position it is being put in to. “Tightness” is seldom just a shortened or tight muscle. It is the central nervous systems way of protecting a joint because the surrounding muscles do not have the strength and therefore capability to complete the joint action in it’s terminal range.

So how does this happen?

When playing a high volume of game time, a player’s body will adapt to the stimulus it is exposed to the most. If a player kicks with his right foot, it is likely the right foot will be more flexible, whilst the left is “stiffer” and less mobile. This makes perfect sense. One foot has more dexterity to play intricate passes and place curve on the ball. The other must support the entire weight of the body whilst manipulating the placement of the hips and torso. Rigidity massively helps for this.

When a muscle group, such as the Calves, Soleus and Tibialis Anterior muscles are not strong, the body will very cleverly “tighten” up surrounding areas, such as plantar fascia and the achilles to compensate. Muscle weakness causes a reduction in range of movement. Smart, periodised, specific training plans can very easily rectify this.

What are the implications of this?

An easy way to measure whole body risk of injury is the overhead squat test. In a course I attended 3 years ago, we were informed that in a well established Premier League team, only one player performed adequately enough to get an “OK” score on the test. So in other words, athletes who devote their entire livelihood and focus to maintaining peak, physical condition, get paid incredible amounts of money and enjoy “God-like” statuses amongst supporters cannot exhibit a basic movement pattern. Furthermore, we were told about a striker, one of the best Premier League players of the early 00’s, who in 18 months of rehab made zero progress on an injury and had a hip adduction of 20 degrees when tested. In Lehmann’s terms, his hips could barely move. Now when ticket prices and the cost of being a supporter generally increase every year, this causes some need for concern. Are these elite athletes really that elite?

When you want to be the best it goes way beyond what you do on the pitch. Performances over 90 minutes are only a fraction of what contributes to achieving greatness. A player can only to as good as his weakest link and so therefore it is imperative that you bare a diametric precision on factors such as nutrition, recovery, sleep and strength.

What next?

This being said the art of strength training is somewhat of a taboo in the modern game. Players fear being sore after weight training, or not wanting to be too big and slow on the pitch and some are just too lazy and ignorant to comply. This is a sad state of affairs when such a simple tool so readily at their disposal could add years on to their career, minutes on to their game and even zeros on to their pay cheque.

Biomechanists are all aware how the posterior chain dictates how fast an athlete can run. Whether it be the glutes, hamstrings or lower back that is the main contributor is not the issue, the message is simple: if you are stronger, you are faster.

And what of injury prevention? Weight training does not only improve muscle strength; it strengthens tendons, ligaments and bones. Now over a season, is it the best team that always wins, or the team who sustained the least amount of injuries to key players?

It will only take one team in the premier league to comprehend the importance weight training to revolutionize the game on a global scale. Leaner, more muscular players are faster, harder to knock off the ball, can jump higher in the air and are less likely to get injured. These are all highly desirably attributes for the game yet easily obtainable through basic and astutely periodised training. I’m not saying we will soon breed an army of overly muscular body builders who bully teams in to defeat, far from it. However, which ever team employs mandatory weight training sessions twice per week and looks to add 3-4 kilos of lean muscle on every player throughout the off season will go on to reap incredible benefits from the results.

Additional Links

To learn more about how to trainer elite athletes, and more specifically, footballers, listen to my Podcast with Wolfgang Unsold.