So you want to make the team? You’ve seen the others out on the field on crisp, cool, autumn nights, clashing in their one hundred yard pit, and you want some of this. You want to be a part of this—you need to be a part of it—and if someone has to ask you why, well, they just don’t understand. Oh, you’ve got it bad. You want to make the team.
The good news is you can. These guys are—or were, at one time—just like you. But maybe you’re thinking, “ah, I’m not like them. I’m not good enough.” Stop! Don’t think that. Maybe you’re not as good as they are right now, but the good news is you can do something—maybe an awful lot—about it. Whether athletes are born or made is not as important as the reality that you can always put in the effort to get better, you can improve. The good news is you can work at it, and that good news can pay off.
Where you are right now, you’re not quite sure how to proceed. You know what you want, but you don’t know how to get there. You’ve not played organized football, and you know you need to work on some things before you can even try out for the team. You’ve played sports informally, but you haven’t lifted weights and you can tell that strength is one of the things you need for football, and you’d feel a lot better about trying out if you could get stronger, for sure, and maybe bigger, too. So how does a beginner start?
First of all, it’s important to know that football is a game of many aspects and necessary abilities: speed, quickness, agility, balance, strength (more precisely, explosive power), sometimes size, aggression, the willingness to hit along with the ability to tolerate being hit, and not least important, significant skills and specific techniques, as well as the more elusive quality, a feel for the game. That sounds like a lot, and it is. The list isn’t even exhaustive. We can add attitude, or temperament, which influences how you apply all these other things, how you work at things, and we are getting close to a more comprehensive picture. But don’t be intimidated. Most players, even the pros (some all-pros, too) don’t have all these abilities in abundance, and again, the best news is that you can work at many of these things and make substantial improvements.
We’re going to work on one aspect of football that is often most lacking (other than game and/or practice experience)—even greatly so—among beginners, and that is strength. Basic body strength. This is where weight-training can be extremely beneficial. Again, this is not the only thing a beginner should work on, and it should be integrated into a total training program, but that’s what we’re going to focus on here. Why? Because this is where some of the most dramatic progress is possible, especially for a newcomer.
At this point, you may be confused. There are so many things you’ve heard about: explosive training, chain and band training, plyometrics, and so on. And many coaches or trainers will put you right into their complex programs from the beginning. But what we’re talking about here is someone who is not yet physically developed, who needs the basic foundation for possibly pursuing those more advanced (and sometimes controversial) training methods. So, let’s break it down. What do you need the most to start playing football? Two things. Speed and strength. If you hear coaches talk, whether they are high school or pro coaches, it comes down to these attributes. They’ll sometimes talk around these things, but if you break it down, that’s what they mean. You’ve got to be quick enough, fast enough to get from one place to another on the field before your opponent, and when you get there, you have to be able to deliver or absorb a hit. And yes, strength plus speed equals power, so let’s begin developing strength and speed.
Before weight-training, you should do a program of basic physical training. This is so important, so often neglected, for any athlete, but it can help your football and your later weight training enormously. For speed, sprint. For strength, we’ll do bodyweight exercises. Again, coaches and trainers of advanced athletes would say you have to do things beyond sprinting to help speed, and some would say bodyweight exercises are not sufficiently challenging to develop the kind of strength we need here. But keep in mind these are beginning athletes. Sprinting itself, if an athlete has not been on any kind of a program for speed, will help bring out the athlete’s latent abilities—you might say it will express their speed, same with bodyweight exercises regarding strength. (Advanced athletes, also, can incorporate these, of course, into their more complex programs.) Some football greats have largely developed and honed their speed and strength via sprinting and bodyweight resistance exercise. Herschel Walker comes to mind, there are others.
The purpose of this article, though, is to get to the weight-training, so we’ll cover the bodyweight exercises (calisthenics) and sprinting only briefly. But again, it doesn’t mean they’re not important. Train the bodyweight exercises, such as push-ups, pullups/chins, bodyweight squats, calfraises, dips, three non-consecutive days per week. Repetitions and sets are up to you. Start with a half-hour total for each workout, then work up to an hour or even more if you can. You need to develop the repeated ability (stamina/endurance) to do these physical tasks, and it will help you develop the ability to get through football practices as well. Either on three other days or after your bodyweight exercises, do a series of sprints. You can include sprints various distances, such as forty yards, twenty yards, one hundred yards. You need to ease into the program with both the amount of sprints and the rest times between these. As you are new to this, you will be surprised at the fatigue this creates. But as you build up to it, you will handle it better and you’ll make progress in your speed. Do no long distance running on this program, although you may occasionally run up to a mile; occasional quarter-miles or 220’s might suit you better. But emphasize the football distances, the shorter sprints. You will be surprised at how much even a five to fifteen minute workout will help you at this stage of your development. You may make dramatic progress in speed and stamina just from these workouts. Keep up this program for at least six weeks; twelve might be better.
Beginning Weight Training
At this point you are ready to tackle the weights. You don’t, however, want to jump into a strength/power program yet, as weight-training can stress the body very differently than even your basic bodyweight exercises. Instead, begin with the general whole body workout for eight-twelve repetitions. Coaches who criticize this as a “bodybuilding workout” (the ultimate insult in their minds), fail to understand (or have forgotten) how this actually contributes to the physical foundation and acclimating a novice athlete’s joints, muscles and bones to the stress of weight-training.
Exercise: Bench Press, Front (a.k.a. Military) Press, Rows, (Curls, Tricep Extensions—these two optional), Squats, Calfraise, (Ab work optional). At this point, do one to three sets; this is the basic type of workout that has worked for so many athletes in so many sports. This workout replaces the bodyweight exercises for now, but keep up your sprinting, though you should vary your distances so as not to get stale and to try to continue to develop your speed. In both the sprints and the weight-training, don’t train to failure. Several minutes of all-out sprinting intervals at this stage of development may retard progress and result in overtraining. Twelve weeks is a good time frame for this program.
In our initial weight-training program, you should have gained some strength and muscle mass, though the program’s real value for the aspiring football player is that it will prepare him for this next stage: the acquisition of significant strength, along with some additional muscle mass.
Here, we’ll work differently, as the program shifts from medium repetitions to lower repetitions, with even more focus on the main strength exercises. Strengthening the legs, hips, back and shoulders will also contribute to the resistance to injury when football camp with contact begins. Each muscle group will be worked twice per week instead of three times, which allows for higher poundages to be used.
Monday, Thursday (Chest, Shoulders, Arms)
Bench Press 3 to 5 sets, 6-5 reps
Front/Military Press 2 sets, 6-5 reps
Close Grip Benches 2 sets, 6-5 reps
Curls 2 sets, 6-5 reps
Tuesday, Friday (Thighs, Calves, Back)
Squats 3 to 5 sets, 6-5 reps
Front Squats 2 sets, 6-5 reps
Calfraise 2 sets, 15-20 reps
Deadlifts 2 to 4 sets, 8-6 reps (Tuesdays only; Fridays do Rows, 2 to 4 sets, 6-5 reps)
If you have done some weight training for one or two years, you can progress to the next workout, which is similar to the previous one but uses even lower reps and heavier weights and uses an additional set or two in each exercise:
Monday, Thursday (Chest, Shoulders, Arms)
Bench Press 4 to 6 sets, 8 repetitions down to 3, increasing weight
Front/Military Press 2-3 sets, 8-5 reps
Close Grip Bench 2-3 sets, 8-5 reps
Curls 2-3 sets, 8-5 reps
Tuesday, Friday (Legs & Back)
Squats 4 to 6 sets, 8 repetitions down to 3, increasing weight
Front Squats 2-3 sets, 8-5 reps
Leg Curls 2-3 sets, 8-12 reps
Calfraise 2-3 sets, 10-15 reps
Deadlifts 3-5 sets, 8-5 reps (Tuesdays only, Fridays do Rows, 3-5 sets, 8-3 reps)
Every three or four weeks you can attempt a single, either a personal record or maximum in the bench, squat or deadlift. Your first two workouts of the week should be your heavier ones, while you should use less weight in the other two, which will be the second time in the week you work each lift/muscle group. Don’t train to failure on these programs; the heavy weight will be taxing enough. Keep something in reserve; just keep progressing. As always, train with good form and train safely. Have spotters or safety racks. Include warm ups and stretching of course. If any program is too much for your level of development or work capacity, back off and try to work up to it. Gradual progression is much-maligned these days, but there is still a large place for working up to something as opposed to jumping in (without sufficient preparation). Long-term progress will be better this way, and you’ll have the foundation to go on to more advanced programs for football weight-training should you need or require them.
In the last two programs, the four-day lifting programs, you should continue your sprinting, apart from your weight-training. Either the same or other days is fine, whatever way is realistic for you to do and for your body to take. You should also, in these two programs, include some of the direct conditioning, or skill, technique and agility drills which your team, coach or off-season employs. And if your team or school has a strength and conditioning coach, better still. You will, of course, and should, follow their program or check with them. There are many good strength coaches and programs as knowledge is more available and shared than ever before. If you are on your own and your school, team or program doesn’t have a strength coach (or even an off-season program), then these weight-training workouts can help you.
A Combination Program
Here’s a program for someone who wants to both increase strength and gain weight at the same time. Keep in mind that although it is possible to gain muscle mass/weight on the low reps program (using as few as three reps), the five to six rep program provides a better combination of muscle and strength. The following workout is another way of achieving strength and muscle/weight gains by dividing the tasks a bit more.
In it, you’ll work the bigger lifts (bench, squat, deadlift) once per week in a strength workout, with those corresponding main muscle groups worked another time in more of a muscle mass/hypertrophy workout. The workout is three days per week.
Monday (Strength: Chest/Shoulders, Arms)
Bench Press 4-6 sets 8-3 reps
Close Grip Bench 2-3 sets 8-5 reps
Curls 2-3 sets 8-5 reps
Wednesday (Muscle Mass: Whole Body)
Inclines (or Front Press, not both) 2-3 sets 8-12 reps
Pullups 2-3 sets 8-12 reps
Curls 1-2 sets 8-12 reps
Ly. Tri. Ext. 1-2 sets 8-12 reps
Front Squat (or Hack Squat, not both) 2-3 sets 8-12 reps
Calfraise (high block, no weight) 1 set of 50-100 reps
Ab work optional/if it interferes with your trying to gain weight, leave it out
Friday (Strength: Legs & Back)
Squat 4-6 sets 8-3 reps
Leg Curls 2 sets 8-12 reps
Calfraise 2 sets 10-15 reps
Deadlifts 3-5 sets 8-5 reps (Rows 3-5 sets, 8-5 reps every other week)
This is a good combination workout which should increase muscle mass and strength, as many beginning players must do. Keep up your additional sprint/football drills—whatever work you need to do in that department and can recover from. As for nutrition, if you eat enough and eat right, you should be able to gain weight and the muscle mass you need. For many, who either play another sport or work an after-school job or a summer job—whatever other commitments you have, it is often more challenging to eat sufficient calories and nutritious food even more than it is to make it to and through your workouts. Try to eat well, though, and try to eat good protein sources such as beef, fish, chicken, etc., milk is good if you can digest it, carbohydrates in the way of potatoes, pasta, rice, etc., fresh vegetables and fruits and so on are all good. Don’t load up on junk, and you needn’t use many supplements, though protein drinks are good (not as good as real food, perhaps) meal replacements and protein/energy bars less so, but eat something instead of nothing, even if it is at times less than ideal if you are trying to gain the weight.
In any or all of the workouts, try not to substitute exercises from those listed and try to work up to the full workout. Though one acceptable common substitution can be power cleans for deadlifts. Some coaches decry one or both of these exercises, but they are great for aspiring football players. Also, if you have to cut back on the workouts, though, do so; energy and recovery are at a premium, and the idea is to make the workouts effective, to have you strong, fresh and energetic when your football training camp begins.
This series of workouts should be able to take you from being a complete novice regarding weight training for football, to a stage where you are stronger and competitive enough to be able to develop and display the other football skills you need. Naturally, an experienced high school player, or college lineman or pro linebacker or defensive back with five or ten years experience is going to have different needs, and for them a different, more specific program is no doubt necessary. But the principles are the same which direct the construction of these workouts: to become bigger (if needed), faster, and stronger. And these workouts should begin to take care of the “stronger” part.
Work hard in these weight training workouts. Push yourself. Develop a strong attitude to conquer the weights. Make them do your bidding. Football is a sport that requires a strong attitude, and the toughness to surmount obstacles. Your weight workouts can help develop or reinforce that attitude. You can handle the workouts.
And remember those cool fall nights? You still want to be a part of that. With your strong mind and strong body, you can do it, you can make the team.
Greg Sushinsky is a natural bodybuilder who has trained for several years. He is a professional writer who has written extensively about bodybuilding, with numerous training articles appearing in Musclemag International, Ironman magazine, Reps! and others.Greg continues to train hard and enthusiastically. He strives to maintain a lean, proportionate physique, write and publish on bodybuilding, and continues to do and pursue many writing and publishing projects in his other areas of interest. He continues to advise and consult with bodybuilders, athletes and fitness people. Read Complete Bio.