10 Best Exercises for Soccer Players To Maximize Performance
When designing a soccer strength and conditioning program, figuring out what the best exercises are to decrease the risk of injury and improve performance is critical. This is because we’re almost always limited by time.
For collegiate programs, the NCAA mandates how much time is allowed for training each week. But, even if there isn’t a time-limiting rule, we all have things in our life – school, work, family, etc that makes it hard to spend hours on end in the gym.
Figuring out the best exercises that absolutely should be in your soccer strength program can help you maximize your time in the weight room and to make sure your efficiency matches your intensity.
So, which ten exercises do I think are the most important and why should you care? I’ve spent 20 years working as a sports performance coach and I’ve written strength training programs for soccer players at almost every level.
Best Exercises For Soccer
I’m a huge believer in Olympic lifts for athletes to build power and explosiveness. The first Olympic lift variation that I like to introduce to Soccer Players is the Clean Pull.
Clean Pulls are a less technical variation of the full Clean. The starting position is the same as a Clean (and the popular Power Clean variation) but the catch is removed. Instead, the athlete drives up, getting full extension through the hips, knees and ankles but keeps the arms straight throughout.
Clean Pulls allow Soccer Players to start training for power almost right away. As technique continues to become more proficient, players can then progress to more complex variations.
- Bumper Plates
- 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, almost touching the shins.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hips and shoulders rise at the same time (torso angle remains constant)**.
- 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.
- Finally, as the bar passes knee level, wrists remain curled and elbows rotate out to the side, core and back should still be tight and engaged.
- Once the bar crosses the knees, the bar is then pulled explosively, bringing the shoulders back and up.
- From the power position, this is where the final explosive hip extension occurs along with the full extension of the knees.
- The foot drive shifts from the whole foot to now extending up through the balls of the feet.
- The triple extension of the hip, knees and ankles is followed instantaneously by a quick, aggressive shrug.
- Bar is pulled vertically close to the body as the traps shrug to elevate the bar.
- Now, either retrace back to the floor or drop the bar and then reset.
*An easy way to get your grip in a shoulder-width position is to place your hands one thumb length away from the start of the knurling of the bar. This width will work for 90% of lifters. Wider athletes may end up sliding their hands just a bit wider and vice versa for narrow athletes, but it’s a good starting point for anyone.
**One of the biggest mistakes with clean technique is that lifters will shoot their butt up first, locking their knees out and then they end up pulling the bar with their back instead of their legs. This is most often caused by lifters trying to rush the first pull too much. Don’t get ahead of yourself.
Back Squat is the ultimate lower body exercise to build strength. No other exercise can match it when it comes to developing not just strong quads, hamstrings and glutes but low back, core and even upper back strength.
If you don’t feel you’re ready for Back Squatting with a Barbell just yet, you can try a simpler variation like Goblet Squats while you gain confidence in your technique. Back Squatting with a PVC Pipe is a great way to start learning the movement without having to use any weight.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I’m a big fan of Front Squats as well. In fact, they are worthy of being in this Top 10 by themselves. However, if I can only choose one or the other for my soccer workouts, I’m choosing Back Squats.
- Squat Rack
- The athlete should actively pull their shoulders together and back in order to 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.
- The concentric portion of the squat involves the athlete rising out of the hole via a combination of knee and hip extension.
- 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 soccer 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.
A strong back is essential for shoulder health and upper body strength. The Pull-Up trains the muscles of the back (Lats, traps, rear delt, rotator cuff) to be strong and resilient. Another added benefit of the pull-up is core and lower back stabilization.
A full range of motion in your pull-ups is critical for success here. I like to progress soccer players into pull-ups. We initially will start with an eccentric phase, followed by an isometric, and finally a concentric one. I sometimes have players use bands to help with their pull-ups initially if necessary.
If you’re not ready for the pull-up, don’t worry! You can start with Inverted Rows and Lat Pulldowns to gain strength. I also recommend straight arm hanging and isometric holds with your chin over the bar. These are great alternatives that will help you in the pull-up progression.
Once you’re able to cruise through sets of 10 to 15 pull-ups, add in extra challenges like a weight vest or pausing at the top of each rep.
- Pull Up Bar (Either as part of a rack or a wall-mounted bar)
- 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.
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.
Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
One of my favorite horizontal pressing movements, the Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press is a great option for soccer players. This pressing movement is great because it can be overloaded, trains single-arm strength, and is extremely joint-friendly.
It also acts as an anti-rotational movement forcing the core to stabilize with weight only being pressed on one side at a time. This is much more likely how soccer players are going to use their upper body strength on the field fighting for position.
- Grab your dumbbell, sit on the edge of the bench, and sit the dumbbell on your thigh vertically.
- Take a deep breath, lie flat on your back on the bench, and get your dumbbell in position ready to press.
- Lay your free hand on your stomach. Placing your hand on your hip (as shown in the featured image above) will help balance you more is a more beginner-friendly hand placement.
- Keep your feet flat on the floor.
- 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.
- The dumbbells should be slightly angled at roughly a 45-degree angle to the torso. (representative of the path you are descending with your elbows).
- Press the dumbbell up.
- Control the dumbbell down during the eccentric movement and draw the dumbbell in, keeping the elbow at that 45-degree angle from the torso.
- The dumbbell will make contact with your torso right at the nipple line on the chest.
- Once contact is made, drive the dumbbell back up.
- Complete the designated number of reps and then switch sides.
- When your set is done, do not freely drop the dumbbell without checking your surroundings. You could drop the dumbbell and it might hit a person nearby. Or your could drop your dumbbell and crush your fingers on a dumbbell that was left next to your bench.
- The best way to finish a set is to bring the dumbbell back to your thigh and stand up with it. Or have a lifting partner take it from you.
If you’re familiar with Dumbbell Bench Press but are new to this single-arm variation, you’ll probably be pretty surprised by just how much you need to brace your core to keep from literally rotating off the bench. For this reason, start light and then work your way up in weight.
I love Pistol Squats. I love Pistol Squats because they’re a bodyweight movement that will absolutely smoke your legs without putting any added stress on the posterior chain.
If you’re designing a strength training program you have to be really careful with how much you are taxing the posterior chain. So many exercises – Olympic lifts, squats, and hinging movements like RDLs and Bent Over Rows – all stress the posterior chain. This is part of what makes Pistol Squats truly special.
Pistol Squats are also a TRUE single-leg movement. Many single-leg movements like lunges and step-ups can be ‘cheated’ and a soccer player can still compensate for a weaker side. Pistol Squats are one leg and one leg only. No opposite leg to give you a little boost if you need it.
Want to find out if one of your legs is actually stronger than the other? Do Pistol Squats.
- 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 figuring 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.
Nordic Hamstring Curls
Nordic Hamstring Curls are by far my favorite hamstring exercise and it’s not even close.
Because they work. Scientific reviews like this one constantly prove that including Nordic Hamstring Curls in a training program helps reduce the risk of a hamstring injury.
They also happen to be a really tough bodyweight exercise that if you build it into your team’s culture can become really competitive. Anything that can turn competitive in a weight room is something you want to have in the program.
Finally, seeing a player do their first unassisted rep all the way to the floor and back up is really cool to watch.
- A Partner (or something that can hold your feet on the ground)
- Start on your knees with a partner holding your feet (dorsiflexed, toes in the ground).
- Hold your hands in front of your chest, brace your core and lock in your hips (keep hips forward).
- Now, keep your body in a straight line (shoulders, hips and knees) and lean forward.
- Lower slowly and under control as long as possible.
- Touch your chest to the ground, using your hands if necessary (they will most likely be necessary)
- Finally, give yourself a little push to get started and then use your hamstrings to curl yourself back to the start.
The ultimate goal is to be able to lower yourself to the floor, touch the ground with your chest, and then curl yourself up without using your hands. However, this takes practice and a ton of hamstring strength. Be patient and focus on your progress each time.
Don’t allow your hips to shoot out. Keep the hips forward and maintain a straight line going through your shoulders, hips and knees.
Only use as much push with your arms coming off the ground as needed. How much is the right amount? Trust me, when you get it just right – you’ll know.
Single Arm Dumbbell Snatch
Another explosive exercise that I love for soccer players is the Single Arm Dumbbell Snatch.
It’s easy to learn, it’s unilateral (one side working at a time) and is a great Olympic lift variation to develop power that can help improve your explosiveness. It’s also a total body movement working both the upper body and lower body.
- Grab a dumbbell and stand with feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Stand with knees slightly bent, brace the core and set the back – shoulder blades pulled back, lats engaged, chest out.
- Hinge forward by pushing the hips back and let the dumbbell slide down right in between the knees, coming at a stop just below the knee.
- You are now in the ‘power position’.
- From here, drive the feet through the floor and aggressively extend the hips, driving the shoulders up and slightly back.
- As you reach triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles – use a quick, powerful shrug and allow the elbow to break and begin the pull with the arm.
- Keep the dumbbell close to the body as it travels up.
- Once the dumbbell reaches the highest point of the pull, rotate at the elbow to catch the dumbbell overhead while simultaneously dropping the hips into a quarter squat and shift the feet slightly out.
- Finish the rep by standing tall and lowering the dumbbell down to the shoulder first and then back to the starting position under control.
- Repeat until all reps are completed and then switch arms.
The dumbbell should travel close to the body all the up until it gets about head height, then rotate the elbow, drop the hips and catch. Don’t allow it to swing forward out away from the body.
The second technique flaw is not staying braced through the return of the dumbbell to the starting position, oftentimes from being in too big of a hurry to knock out reps. Letting the dumbbell, especially the heavier you get, yank the shoulder down at the bottom of the rep is asking for trouble.
Push Ups get a bad wrap sometimes because they’re looked at as, well, not “advanced” enough. However, there are very few exercises that are as effective at building upper body strength and muscle mass as Push-ups.
I love the push-up for soccer players because it is a horizontal push, that can be overloaded, and is very shoulder-friendly. Because the scapula is free to move, you will find the weighted push-up to be very shoulder-friendly.
Once you’re able to do sets of 25 quality push-ups, load this movement with bumper or iron plates along the midback (Chains work well too if you have some) to increase the challenge. Another option once you’ve become proficient with regular push-ups is an explosive variation – clapping push-ups (pictured above).
For modification purposes (optional):
- Med ball
- Bench or box
- Lie face down on the floor.
- Pull your toes in so that you’re on the tip of your shoes.
- Eyes should be focused straight down or slightly up.
- Pull your hands close to about the nipple line of the chest, slightly wider than shoulder-width.
- Take a deep breath, engage the core and brace.
- Push yourself up in one unit. There should be no sagging of the waist. The entire body from head to toe should move up and then back down in unison.
- Feel your scapula upwardly rotate and make sure the antagonist muscles (Back and biceps) are fully engaging.
- Lock out your push-up and pause.
- Slowly lower yourself back down and get ready for the next repetition from just above the ground. Do not fully relax at the bottom of the push-up unless your program specifies.
Keep the elbows at a 45-degree angle. For maximal chest, shoulder, and rotator cuff engagement, do not let the elbows flare out away from the middle. Also, do not let the elbow hug right next to the torso.
Single Arm Farmer’s Walk
Single Arm Farmer’s Walk, also known as a Suitcase Carry, is a unique core stability exercise that emphasizes stabilization in the frontal plane. As you walk, the core has to continuously work to stabilize an upright torso, not allowing the body to bend to one side.
Want to not get pushed over by a defender on your side? This is the exercise that helps address that.
- Dumbbell or Kettlebell
- Grab a single kettlebell or dumbbell.
- Brace the core and begin walking in a slow, controlled manner.
- As you walk, focus on keeping the core braced and the shoulders and hips square and level.
- Once you cover the assigned distance (or time), switch hands and repeat on the opposite side.
You do not need to grab the heaviest kettlebell you can find. Find a weight that you can walk with and maintain proper form.
Don’t rush through. Single Arm Farmer’s Walk can be done for time or for distance. If going for distance, it should not be a speed walk to cover the ground as fast as possible. Stay under control and focus on form.
You may not have expected to see sprinting on a list of “weight room” exercises, but that’s just how important I believe sprinting is for soccer players. This sprinting can be part of a full program complete with sprinting drills, but it can also be as simple as just getting out and sprinting.
I think too many soccer players have gotten away from doing sprints in their training programs. I see so many players lift, condition and do far too many ladder drills. However, going out, lining up and running as fast as possible is neglected far too much.
If you want to run fast, you need to run fast. Even more, if you want your hamstrings to be prepared (and not pull) to do a full sprint once you’re in a breakaway on the field – then you better be doing that in your training.
Are these the only strength training exercises soccer players can do to improve their performance on the field? Of course not.
But, in my opinion, your strength training program should have all (or at the very least, most) of these exercises incorporated into it at some point.
Just make sure to focus on technique, don’t try to use more weight than you can safely handle and don’t slack on your nutrition and recovery. Do all of these things and you should see a big-time improvement in your on-field performance!
Finally, if you found this article helpful, then you may also enjoy checking out all my favorite core exercises for soccer players.