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.
Table of Contents
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.
If you could only give me two exercises to train a football player, I would pick Power Cleans and Back Squats.
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.
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.
Hang Snatch (more specifically Hang Power Snatch) is the second Olympic Lift that I would put in my top ten.
Hang Snatches are 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.
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 to 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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, seeing a player do their first unassisted rep all the way to the floor and back up is really cool to watch.
All the exercises up to this point have been pretty traditional up to this point, but there is no chance I’m leaving off the Prowler. 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.
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.