You’re stranded on a deserted island and you can only take 10 exercises with you to train for football season. Which 10 do you take?
It’s an interesting question for strength and conditioning nerds like myself to think through, but the question can actually help you prioritize your football workout program. You may not be stuck on an island, but we’re all restricted by time.
Figuring out the best exercises that absolutely should be in your football strength and conditioning program can help you maximize your time in the weight room and to make sure your efficiency matches your intensity.
So, which ten exercises would be my ten choices and why should you care? I’ve spent 20 years working as a sports performance coach working with elite college football players. I may not know much, but I do about training for football.
Top Exercises for Football
If I could only pick one exercise to train football players it would be the Power Clean. Power Cleans are basically a total body movement that develops power, strength and coordination. It’s one of the best exercises almost any athlete can do to improve athletic performance.
The only real decision was to choose Power Clean (catching in a quarter-squat power position) or a full Clean (catching a full front squat position). Ultimately, I chose Power Clean over Clean for two reasons.
First, it’s a little easier to teach technically. With each component you remove on an Olympic lift variation (in this case the full catch), the lift becomes a little easier to learn. Second, because I can only choose ten exercises, I actually like the additional upper body strength the Power Clean provides by having to pull the bar higher to the power position.
- Bumper Plates
- Power Clean is a true total body lift. Almost every major muscle group is involved at some point during the movement.
- Start with feet hip-width apart with toes straight ahead (or ever so slightly pointed out).
- The bar should be over the middle of the feet. I always used the knot in your shoelace as a visual cue.
- Grip should be slightly wider than shoulder width.
- The grip is a pronated grip (both palms facing down) and the lifter can choose, although highly recommended, to use a hook grip.
- The wrists should be slightly curled so that the knuckles are pointed straight down to the ground.
- Shoulders slightly over the bar, arms straight, hips slightly higher than the knees.
- Back should be flat or have a slight arch. Shoulder blades should be pulled back and the upper back including the lats should be engaged.
- I recommend for beginners to look straight ahead because it helps with maintaining good posture and body position.
- The last thing that should happen as the lifter is setting up in their starting stance is to take a deep breath in and engage, or brace, their core.
- Raise the bar off the floor at a constant speed using the legs by driving the feet through the ground. Arms should stay straight and the barbell shouldn’t be ‘yanked’ off the ground.
- As the bar comes up, keep the bar close to the shins and the feet should remain flat, driving the feet hard into the floor.
- Once the bar crosses the knees, the bar is then pulled explosively, bringing the shoulders back and up.
- As the lifter continues to drive vertically, the shoulders will end up slightly behind the bar and the hips, knees slightly bent and the ankles will have just a bit of flexion left in them.
- The triple extension of the hip, knees and ankles is followed instantaneously by a quick, aggressive shrug.
- Elbows should break out to the side as the bar continues to rise.
- As the bar elevates from the shrug, the feet shift from hip width to shoulder width to prepare for the catch.
- Elbows rotate around the bar and ‘shoot through’ to help receive the bar in front of the shoulders. Triceps should be parallel to the floor in the finished catch position with the elbows forward.
My biggest coaching point for Power Cleans is to just say if you don’t feel comfortable with your technique, then I would refrain from doing them. Wait until you can be properly coached on how to do them correctly so you do not injure yourself.
In the meantime, here are 9 Power Clean alternatives you may be able to try out instead. Some of the alternate exercises I list there are much more beginner-friendly.
I would consider Back Squat the 1B to the Power Clean’s 1A. I think it falls behind the Power Clean, but not by much.
Having a strong lower body is critical to a football player’s success and no exercise is better equipped for building a strong lower body than Back Squats. Simply put, no other exercise can beat it in terms of building muscle strength and muscle mass.
Yes, there are other effective forms of squatting (there is another on this list) and single-leg movements are very important too (there is one of those on this list as well). But, Back Squats should be one of the primary focal points of your training.
- Squat Rack
- Erectors (Low Back)
- The athlete should actively pull their shoulders together and back in order to both create a shelf for the barbell to rest on.
- A good cue here is to have the athlete pin their elbows down by their sides, similar to the bottom position of a Lat pulldown, before placing the bar on their shoulders.
- Generally speaking, the athlete should place their hands as close together as comfortably possible, which helps maintain the aforementioned upper body tightness and shelf for the barbell to rest on.
- After setting up properly, the athlete un-racks the bar and walks it out of the uprights, takes a big breath in, braces their core, and initiates the eccentric portion of their squat.
- While maintaining a tight brace in their core and tension in their upper back (as mentioned in the setup paragraph), the athlete initiates downward motion of the bar via simultaneous hip and knee flexion until the crease of their hip goes below the knee.
- The especially important part of the range of motion is taking the muscle to its full eccentric length, demonstrating that athletes further benefit by taking their squats to the deepest depth that their mobility allows.
- Once the athlete reaches their lowest position in the squat, they transition from the eccentric to the concentric portion.
- In rising out of the hole, athletes commonly experience sticking points either in the hole or when they are just above parallel. These can vary based on each athlete’s relative strengths and weaknesses, or some technical errors to be addressed later.
- Once the athlete completes the rep, they exhale, and either initiate the next rep or re-rack the bar.
There are two bar position options for Back Squat, low-bar and high-bar. I recommend and teach the high bar position when working with athletes, including football players.
The most important aspect to watch for when doing Back Squats is the potential rounding of the back. Immediately end any set where form begins to break down and the back begins to round. A rounded back is probably the most common cause of injury with squatting.
One of the most common mistakes is heels coming off the ground. Athletes who are having trouble due to poor ankle dorsiflexion, long femur length relative to their height, or a combination of both, can use a device to elevate their feet such as weightlifting squat shoes, an angled plate, or 2.5lb weights to help address the issue.
Pull-ups are my favorite upper body exercise for football players. I realize some football players, namely offensive and defensive linemen, will struggle mightily doing pull-ups at first because of their size. As a former offensive lineman myself, I can tell you that doing pull-ups while weighing over 300 pounds is not easy.
There are modifications that can be made while building the strength to be able to do pull-ups. Doing Band-Assisted Pullups, Pull-up Holds and Eccentric Pull-ups are all variations that can be utilized until regular Pull-ups can be done.
My favorite “modification”? Have the big guys spot each other on pull-ups. Becoming strong enough to not need a spotter can be a heck of a motivator. Plus, it’s great extra shoulder work for the spotters. Win-win.
- Pull Up Bar (Either as part of a rack or a wall-mounted bar)
- Upper back
- Abdominal and lower back muscles (Stabilizers in almost all movements)
- Approach the pull-up bar and grab the bar with a pronated grip (palms facing away).
- Use a bench to get to the bar if it is too high.
- Later in the article, I will talk about variations, alternatives, and modifications where the supinated (palms facing in) grip will be discussed.
- Squeeze the bar and engage the core muscles and do not cross your legs.
- Engage the upper back and pull up until your chin is over the bar.
- Pause for 1 second with your chin over the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.
I would highly recommend this movement to any lifter or athlete. It provides all the benefits of an upper-body pulling movement with little to no risk.
By far the biggest mistake I see in the pull-up is lifters not using a full range of motion. Hang all the way down and maintain great tension through the shoulders and abdomen.
This was probably the exercise that I struggled with the most making a decision. Single leg work is a critical component of any football strength training program. That’s not up for debate. However, I struggled with which single-leg exercise to pick.
I picked Pistol Squats for my single-leg movement for a few reasons.
First, it’s a true one-leg exercise. Many single-leg movements actually use both legs, especially as players continue to go up in weight. Pistol Squats are a single leg squat this is literally done on one leg – no opposite leg to use for assistance whatsoever.
Second, I think you really have to be careful with how much posterior chain volume you place into a football workout program. For instance, half of the exercises on this very list are posterior chain movements. Too much posterior chain work can lead to tight low backs (or worse).
Pistol Squats allow football players to focus on building true single-leg strength without added low back stress.
- None (If doing a modified Pistol Squat a box or bench to squat to will be needed)
Pistol Squat On Air
- Stand on one leg with the opposite leg straight and slightly out in front of the body.
- Squat down on the single leg by hinging back at the hips first and then bending the knee and hips until the crease of the hip crosses below the knee.
- Keep the heel flat and your weight distributed between your heel and mid-foot.
- Keep your torso as vertical as possible while maintaining balance and a flat foot.
- The opposite leg should stay straight and extend out in front of you as you squat down (tight hamstrings will make this almost impossible!)
- Once you reach the bottom of the squat, drive the foot through the floor and stand tall.
Pistol Squat To Box
- Instructions are the same as above, except the athlete will squat down to a box (or bench) instead of freely in an open space.
- Make sure the foot is close enough to the box so that the box is not missed when squatting down to touch it. (I’ve seen it happen)
- Control the descent to the box and sit as softly as possible. A light touch and go is ideal if possible. My favorite cue for this was to “treat the box like a glass coffee table.”
If you cannot do a Pistol Squat the first time trying, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Most athletes I’ve worked with have to start by using a bench for pistol squats. The first thing you need to do to start progressing is figure out where your real weakness is: strength or flexibility.
Some lifters simply don’t possess the strength at first to perform a full pistol squat on air. On the other hand, many of the athletes I’ve coached actually have the strength to do a pistol squat, but they lack the mobility to be able to go through the full range of motion without falling or their opposite foot crashing into the ground.
Figuring out where to focus your energy is the first step toward improving your Pistol Squat.
Based on my experience, football players love three things above all others in the weight room – core work, curls and Bench Press. I know this because I’ve watched enough weight room open hours where guys are left to do what they want over the years. Bench Press, Core and Curls have held true at every school I’ve ever worked at.
Now, just because guys like Bench Press isn’t the reason I’m choosing it as one of the ten best exercises for football players. The fact is Bench Press is the most effective pressing exercise for building upper body strength.
I know some would argue that Incline Bench is more ‘sport-specific’ or that Overhead Press is better cause it’s done on the feet and I understand both of those arguments.
For me, I believe training should develop bigger, faster, stronger and more mobile athletes – period. So, I’m going to design my training to do just that and Bench Press is one of the exercises that I believe will do it.
- Multi-purpose lifting rack
- Bumper or Iron plates
- Biceps (Isometric and eccentric contributors)
- Set the height of the barbell so that when you unrack the barbell, you are only doing a very short upward concentric movement.
- Lie flat on your back on the bench.
- Keep your feet flat on the floor. (Some do find it comfortable to pull the feet back toward their butt as they arch).
- Keep your butt on the bench.
- Pull your shoulder blades together and keep the back of your head on the bench. You will slightly arch your back. Keep your core tight and keep the shoulder blades pulled back tight.
- Take a thumbs-width grip from the knurling and completely close your grip. Keep your knuckles pointing toward the ceiling and squeeze the barbell.
- Later in this article, I will go over other popular grips and why they are used.
- Unrack the weight and take a deep breath.
- Control the barbell down during the eccentric movement and draw the barbell in, keeping the elbows at about a 45-degree angle away from the torso.
- The barbell will make contact with your torso right at the nipple line on the chest.
- Once contact is made, drive the barbell back up to the starting position.
Make sure to always have a spotter when bench pressing, regardless of the weight being used.
Control the weight on way down and lightly tap the chest before pressing up. I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve watched Bench Press like they’re mad at their sternum. Don’t do that.
I absolutely love Overhead Squats for athletes, especially football players.
First, it is the ultimate mobility assessment tool because it demands mobility from almost every part of the body. If there are issues with the shoulders, back, hips or ankles they are going to show up when trying to Overhead Squat.
Second, if you want to see a football player that has tremendous shoulder stability, watch a player who can overhead squat their bodyweight. It also, by the way, takes a great deal of core strength and stability to do that as well.
That’s what makes the Overhead Squat such a great exercise and that’s not even to mention that they’ll still help build upper body strength and lower body strength.
- Bumper Plates (can technically be done with cast iron plates, but bumper plates are highly recommended)
- Erectors (Low Back)
- Grab a barbell with a snatch-width grip and raise it to full extension overhead.
- Set the feet shoulder-width apart with (optionally) toes pointed slightly out.
- Elevate the bar towards the ceiling and then create tension by ‘pulling the bar apart’.
- Set the eyes straight ahead, inhale and brace the core.
- Initiate the movement by pushing the hips back and then descending into a full squat position.
- Keep the feet flat on the ground, weight distributed through the heels and mid-foot.
- Keep knees pushed out and overtop the shoelaces.
- When you reach the bottom of the squat, push the feet through the floor and drive the hips up.
- Once you’ve completed all reps, drop the bar forward to the floor.
If you find yourself struggling to keep the bar in the overhead position (it keeps falling forward), then you probably have a mobility issue in either the shoulders or thoracic (mid to upper back). Switch to a PVC Pipe until your mobility improves.
Hang Power Snatch
I’m a big believer in the Olympic lifts for training football players to improve athletic performance. It’s one of the reasons I have Power Clean listed as the top exercise on this list.
Olympic lifts help develop explosive triple-extension of the hips, knees and ankles and focus on those fast twitch muscle fibers. It’s the same movement pattern seen in sprinting, jumping and exploding off the line of scrimmage during football season.
The Hang Power Snatch is an Olympic lift variation that really focuses on generating speed and power. The weight used is lighter and the technique is very basic which allows players to really ‘grip it and rip it’.
- Bumper Plates
- The Hang Power Snatch is a total body movement. Almost all major muscle groups are involved in the movement at some point.
- Address the bar with feet hip-width apart, toes pointed straight ahead or ever so slightly out. The bar should be resting just above the mid-foot. (I like to use the knot in your shoelace as a visual cue)
- The grip on the bar for a hang power snatch, or any snatch grip for that matter, is wide – placing the index finger on the snatch ring of the bar is a good starting point for most lifters. Using a hook grip is optional, but encouraged.
- Now, using your legs with a good flat back, lift the bar up to a standing position.
- Slightly bend the knees and push them out. Set the back by engaging the lats and squeezing the shoulder blades back. (“Big Chest” is my go-to coaching cue here) Eyes straight ahead.
- Hinge forward by pushing the hips back, bringing the shoulders over top of, or slightly in front of the bar. The bar should now be resting on the mid thigh to upper thigh.
- From this position, extend the hips aggressively by driving the feet through the floor and triple extending through the ankles, knees and hips.
- This complete extension should be immediately followed by a violent shrug, breaking elbows high out to the side to allow the bar to begin tracking up. Keep the bar close to the bar as it moves vertically.
Finish the movement by shifting the feet from hip width to shoulder width, rotating under the bar, dropping the hips down into a partial squat position and arms punch straight into a locked out position with the bar overhead.
Stand tall and either drop the bar back to the platform or lower back down to the starting position.
One of the biggest mistakes lifters make is to cut the pull short and not reach full extension. Don’t be in a rush to pull with the arms as that will cut your power short on the movement.
RDL (Romanian Deadlift)
Romanian Deadlifts, or RDLs, made the list because they are such an effective lower-body exercise, specifically the posterior chain. Having a strong posterior chain is a necessity to be able to do most things in a weight room including Olympic lifts and Squats.
Without a strong foundation you’re going to run into all sorts of problems and Romanian Deadlifts are a great exercise for helping build that.
- Weight Plates (Bumper or Iron)
- Erectors (Low Back)
- Address the bar with feet shoulder-width apart, and toes straight ahead.
- Use a pronated grip about a thumb length from the start of the knurling.
- Now, with a good flat back, pick the bar up to a standing position.
- From here, put a slight bend in the knees and ‘set the back’ by squeezing the shoulder blades and engaging the lats.
- Brace the core and hinge forward by pushing the hips back.
- The bar should almost drag right down the legs, across the knees and straight down the shins. The whole foot should stay flat on the ground, but the weight should be on the mid-foot to heel.
- Maintain the neutral spine position throughout the descent and once you feel a good stretch in the hamstrings, drive the hips forward (hip extension) and return to the starting position.
The ‘depth’ that each person gets will be different and absolutely solely dependent upon hamstring flexibility.
Do NOT try to ‘reach’ the barbell toward the ground because you believe the plates should touch the floor. You may be doing well to get the bar to mid-shin if you have tight hamstrings.
Easily the most common mistake (and easily identifiable) that I see with athletes for a Romanian deadlift is rounding the back. This is usually due to either poor technique (like reaching) or simply using too much weight.
My high school football coach told me when I was a high school freshman that if I wanted a big bench press then I needed to do Dips. He would sit at the gym exit and make sure every person on the team got in 2 sets of 25 dips before leaving the weight room.
And you know what? My bench exploded (and we happened to be a pretty good football program).
Sure, I was 15 and my bench would have probably exploded regardless, but how effective Dips are at building upper body strength has never left me and I still am a strong believer in them as one of the best exercises for football players.
- Squat Rack
- Dip Attachment
- A Dip Station can be used as well if you have access to one.
- Shoulders (Anterior Delt)
Step By Step Instructions
- Attach your dip rack to your rack. This process will vary based on your rack and dip attachment. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely.
- Set your dip rack just above waist height. This will allow enough room for your feet not to hit the ground while doing reps, but not so high you feel you have to jump up into your first rep.
- Starting position is hands on bars, arms extended, knees slightly bent and feet crossed (crossing feet is optional but does help with unwanted swinging in my experience.
- Descend down by bending the elbows and slightly leaning forward.
- Lower yourself under control until the triceps become parallel with the ground and then drive yourself back up to the starting position.
- Repeat until all reps are completed.
The biggest mistake I see with dips is poor range of motion. If someone is struggling to be able to do reps, the easiest solution is to simply not lower yourself into a full rep, but this is incorrect. Use a spotter or find an alternative exercise for Dips.
The other issue I see athletes run into is unwanted swinging front to back while doing reps. Stay under control, keep a consistent rep path, bend the knees and cross the feet. These are all solutions that I have seen help eliminate swinging while doing Dips.
It’s been all weight room exercises up to this point but this list would not be complete without Sprints.
Sprinting is absolutely critical to not only building fast, explosive hamstrings, but healthy hamstrings as well.
There is no exercise that can be done in the weight room that can mimic the rate of force development of a sprint at maximum speed. And, if you hit the football field at the start of football season without your hamstrings being exposed to high-speed sprinting you are really putting yourself at a higher risk of a hamstring pull.
Sprints should be a part of your conditioning program as well. Conditioning for a football player shouldn’t involve mile-long runs around a track. It should be short-burst, explosive sprints and drills done with proper work:rest ratios.
Finally, as you get close to the season, take a weight vest out to the football field with you. A weight vest can help to simulate the extra weight in gear you’ll be wearing once practice starts. It’s a great way to get acclimated early.
There is no shortage of quality exercises for football players that you can utilize. However, in my opinion, those are the 10 most beneficial exercises that will help you improve athletic performance on the football field.
If you’re wondering why there are no core exercises listed above it’s because I felt they deserved their own top ten 10. Here are my 10 favorite core exercises for football.
Want even more ideas to incorporate into your football strength and conditioning program? Here are some speed drills you should be doing to improve your accelerating and max velocity.