10 Best Lower Body Exercises For Football Players
Jacked arms may look good in pre-game warm-ups, but lower body strength is what actually makes a difference after kickoff.
It’s also not enough anymore to just train and hope for the best if you truly want to maximize your ability. Picking the proper lower body exercises to build a strong and explosive lower body is key.
In this article, I’m going to highlight some of the best lower body exercises for football players. These are exercises I’ve used with athletes over the course of two decades working with elite college football players.
Let’s get right to it.
Lower Body Exercises For Football
Football is a game of power and explosiveness and no exercise better trains for power and explosiveness than Power Cleans.
Power Clean trains football players to explosively extend through their hips, knees and ankles in a sequenced, coordinated manner. Catching the bar also teaches players how to receive and absorb force – something that is often overlooked, but an extremely important ability for both performance and injury prevention.
Power Cleans also teaches many intangibles that can carry over to the field. The ability to mentally lock in, focus, brace and have attention to detail is something you won’t find with many exercises. There is something about “winning” or “losing” each rep that I believe sets Power Cleans apart from almost anything else in the weight room.
I could literally go on and on about how important I think having Power Cleans as a staple within a training program is. In fact, I wrote an entire piece about how, not just football players, but all athletes should power clean.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Elbows should break out to the side as the bar continues to rise.
- As 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.
Power Cleans are a technical lift that requires proper coaching. While they are an amazing lift for developing power, they can lead to injury if done incorrectly.
If you do not feel comfortable with the proficiency of your power clean technique then you should avoid doing them. If that is the case, consider one of the following alternatives.
If you could only give me two exercises to train a football player, I would pick Power Cleans and Back Squats. (If I only had ten exercises, here are the 10 I would pick)
No other exercise is going to build strength as effectively as the Back Squat. I’m talking about strength where it’s most useful for a football player as well – in the legs and hips. Strong biceps are great, but it’s a strong and powerful lower body that will dominate the line of scrimmage and break tackles.
Not only will Back Squats build strong legs, but they’ll also help develop a strong core and a strong back which are also both pretty important for football athletes.
- In setting up for the Back Squat, athletes choose between the high bar and low bar positions. (I personally teach the high bar position with athletes)
- Regardless of bar placement, the athlete should actively pull their shoulders together and back in order to create a shelf for the barbell to rest on.
- 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 concentric portion.
- The concentric portion of the squat involves the athlete rising out of the hole via a combination of knee and hip extension.
- 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.
It is better to set the safeties one level too low vs one level too high, as the athlete can either let the bar off of their back or allow themselves to lean forward until the bar hits the safeties. In the event the safeties are too high, the barbell has a chance of colliding with them during the exercise.
There seems to be a rift within Collegiate Strength and Conditioning about whether Back Squatting or Front Squatting is more beneficial for athletes. And it seems that everyone has chosen a side and you’re either a Back Squat proponent or a Front Squat advocate.
Which am I?
I think football players should be doing BOTH.
Back Squats and Front Squats both have their pros and cons and BOTH should have a place in a football strength and conditioning program. Why anyone would pick one and throw out the other I’ll never understand.
- Set the height of the squat rack so that the barbell is about 1-2 inches below the flexed elbow (Elbow pointing toward the squat rack prior to taking the weight off the hooks).
- For now, I am going to assume you are using a two-finger clean grip. (More on grips below).
- Walk closely to the barbell and place it very close to your neck.
- Bring your elbows up and the barbell should be resting on the raised anterior deltoid muscles. You are now holding the bar with what’s called a “front rack position” (THERE SHOULD BE NO STRESS OR TENSION ON THE HAND OR WRIST TO HOLD THE BARBELL).
- With your front rack, lift the bar off the hooks. I recommend a staggered stance to lift the barbell off the rack.
- Take 2 steps back and set your feet slightly wider than shoulder width. Toes slightly pointed out.
- Maintaining a strong front rack, take a deep breath, and brace the core.
- Initiate the squat by hinging the hips back and bending the knees simultaneously.
- Descend into the squat with control until your hip crease is slightly below the knee. (Most professionals consider this to be parallel or just below parallel).
- At this point, the core should be braced, the front rack strong, elbows up, and the lifter is ready to drive out of the “hole” and stand the weight back up.
- Keep a balanced foot with a strong arch, drive through the heels, and drive the hips until you are back at the top of the movement and ready for the next rep.
- Clean grip with 1 or 2 fingers. This is the most common grip used by Olympic lifters and athletes. This trains the specific position the bar would be in at the catch of a clean and therefore very advantageous for these athletes.
- Crossed arms. This is a common grip for athletes that want all the benefits from the front squat but may not have the flexibility or need for a finger grip.
- Lifting Straps. This allows the lifter to get the front rack position, engaging the upper back musculature, and takes a lot of stress off the fingers and wrists.
By far the most common mistake with Front Squats (and most all compound movements) is improper form.
Because the lift is very technical, uses the whole body, and requires patience and persistence, lifters oftentimes have incorrect form without realizing it, go up in weight too quickly, and potentially injure themselves. Make sure to learn proper technique and never sacrifice technique for weight.
Be patient with your flexibility. Persistence and working hard on your flexibility will pay off with front squatting. Remember to always warm up prior to any lifting session. Work on flexibility drills during warm-up sets as well. After your session, use cool-down techniques, foam roll, stretch, and hydrate.
In regards to your setup and form; treat every rep like it’s a 1 rep max. Put a tremendous amount of detail in your setup (Do it the exact same way, every rep).
Need an alternative for Front Squats? Here are 12 Front Squat alternatives to develop lower body strength.
Hang Power Snatch
Hang Snatch, more specifically Hang Power Snatch, is the second Olympic Lift that I would put in my top ten.
Hang Snatches are a great lower body exercise for football for multiple reasons. First off, they’re extremely easy to teach. If an athlete understands how to set their back and brace their core then they can usually pick up how to Hang Snatch within a few sets.
Second, Hang Snatches help teach and develop raw power. The weights used with Hang Snatches are lighter than those used for Power Cleans and therefore the athlete can focus on moving the bar as fast as humanly possible (while maintaining proper technique of course).
It’s for this reason, the emphasis on the speed end of the speed/strength curve that I love Hang Snatches so much.
- 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 complete extension. Don’t be in a rush to pull with the arms as that will cut your power short on the movement.
Now let’s jump into some single-leg movements. Single-Leg movements are critical for the physical development of football players because so much of the sport is actually done on one leg (even if it may not seem obvious). Jumping, sprinting, tackling, battling for position at the line of scrimmage is often done on one leg at a time.
Single-Leg exercises also help fight against any lower body asymmetries that may occur over time (one side being stronger than the other). Asymmetries often lead to compensations (or are caused by compensations in the first place) and eventually oftentimes injury.
Reverse Lunges are one of my favorite single-leg movements because stepping backward takes away forward momentum which can be stressful for the knees. It’s also easier for athletes in my experience to maintain a more upright torso while doing Reverse Lunges as opposed to regular Lunges.
- Unrack the barbell similar to how you would unrack a bar for a back squat.
- Grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades and engage the lats to create a stable shelf to sit the bar on
- Place the bar across the traps, brace the core and remove the bar from the rack by standing tall and then walking back out of the rack.
- Once you’ve created enough room for yourself from the rack you can begin the movement.
- Step backward with one leg, giving yourself enough room to be able to drop into a lunge comfortably without feeling overextended.
- Keep the chest as upright as possible and drop the back knee to roughly one inch from the floor.
- Now drive through the heel and midfoot of the front foot to drive yourself back up tall.
- Repeat on the opposite leg and alternate back and forth until all reps have been completed.
When you step back, make sure to keep the feet shoulder-width apart. If you’re feeling very off-balance in your lunge there is a good chance that you are stepping the lead foot directly behind the front foot (essentially placing yourself on a tight rope).
Keep the front foot flat on the floor when in the lunge position. One of the most common mistakes is raising up onto the ball of the front foot. One of the reasons for this is often the next most common mistake that I see with Barbell Lunges…
Make sure to take a big enough step. Often times I see athletes take way too small of a step. This leads to lunge being extremely cramped and can lead to a whole host of other issues.
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 to the posterior chain.
If you’re designing a strength and conditioning program you have to be really careful with how much you are taxing the posterior chain. So many exercises – Olympic lifts, squats, 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 an athlete 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.
- 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.
- 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’re not able to 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.
Figuring out where to focus your energy is the first step toward improving your Pistol Squat.
Speaking of the posterior chain, let’s shift gears to a couple of lower-body exercises that focus on the posterior chain. First is RDLs, or Romanian Deadlifts.
I really like RDLs because they do a tremendous job of building strength throughout the entire posterior chain, from the Erector Spinae muscles of the low back, through the glutes and finally the hamstrings. Even the upper body which has to stay engaged to maintain posture throughout the lift gets challenged.
It’s also a great supplemental exercise to almost every exercise listed above it on this list. You can’t get maximum benefit out of any of those exercises without the foundation of a strong posterior chain and Romanian Deadlifts will build just that.
- 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. If you have tight hamstrings you may be doing well to get the bar to mid-shin.
Trying to reach the bar to the floor will result in the lifter losing their neutral spine and rounding their back… which leads me right into common RDL mistakes.
Nordic Hamstring Curl
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 culture can become really competitive. Anything that can turn competitive in a weight room is something you want to have in the program.
- 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.
- 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, breaking the 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.
All the exercises up to this point have been pretty traditional up to this point, but there is no chance I’m leaving off Prowler Pushes. If you’re unfamiliar with what a Prowler is, it’s basically a sled that you can add weights to and then vertical handles that allow you to push it.
Keep the weight a bit lighter and you can work on power. Load it up and focus on building strength. It’s an amazing tool.
It will also, as anyone who has ever pushed a prowler for multiple sets will tell you, tax your anaerobic system to the max. Want to get in football shape? Try an exercise that requires total body exertion for 8 to 10 seconds at a time repeatedly.
- Set your prowler in an area where you can push it at least 20 yards without hitting anything.
- Load the prowler with weight.
- Get behind the prowler and grab the high handle position.
- Hinge at the waist, bend the knees and extend your arms.
- Drive your legs and push the sled forward.
The prowler push is a full body movement. Keep the core tight, nice neutral spine, and keep those arms extended (Arms can be bent when focusing on heavier loads).
Focus on a strong knee drive and pushing through your feet to keep the prowler moving. Your body angle will be very similar to how you start a sprint. So the lower body action should be very similar to running.
A very important consideration here is the surface you are pushing on. Ideally, you are pushing the prowler on turf. This gives enough surface tension so that the prowler doesn’t glide or get stuck too easily. If you are pushing on a slicker surface like concrete or carpet, you may have to load more weight on the sled.
You may not have expected to see sprinting on a list of lower body exercises, but that’s just how important I believe sprinting is for football 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 football players have gotten away from actual sprinting. 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 on the field – you better be doing that in your training.
There are many great exercises that got left off the list. For example, there are no true plyometric exercises. I really struggled with whether Bounding, which I absolutely love for football players, fit on this list or not.
However, this list is a great starting point and I believe a sound football training program should include all (or at least most) of the exercises listed here.