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The Best Strength Training Methods & Exercises For AFL Football

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 10 October 2016
Hits: 32993

We all know that strength training plays a massive part in making a sporting athlete great, and AFL Football is no exception. Over the years as the game has become more professional and the stakes higher it has become as important as the skills element of the game. All the professional clubs employ a full time Sports Conditioning coach to try and get every last drop of talent and potential from their players. Unfortunately the education of how they do this does not filter down to the amateur clubs or even semi professional players. Reliance on body building techniques, and overuse of useless beach muscle exercises like bicep curls and the bench press make up most of the current football players toolbox of exercises. Lifting progressively heavier weights will not in itself lead to improved power and speed, but many athletes and coaches still get caught up with this ‘heavier and bigger is best’ strategy. Too much bulk is just that: an additional load to transport around the field or into the air. If increased muscle size on its own brought the required results, then why do we not see body builders dominating the AFL? It’s how you develop the size and strength, and relate it to movements that you need in your game, that counts. As the Women's Football League has developed it has become apparent that for females a conditioning program is just as important, if not more so. Females cannot get big even if they want to, but they can get stronger and faster. Remember Bigger does not mean better, and does not mean you can generate greater force and ultimately more power, which I would say is what every football player who has taken part in our Sports program says they want. You can still add size and some bulk but it has to be done at the right time of year. In this article, I show you exactly how.

What Are The Best Exercises For AFL Football?

For starters it is definitely not the leg press or the bench press. Secondly there is no magical one size fits all exercise that does it all.

I encourage you to do a full assessment first to establish what you weaknesses are and where to start. (Click here to watch our video on Sports Assessments). For the best exercise is the exercise for you, one that targets these weaknesses, needs, and the skill sets of your position. Having said that there is some key MOVEMENT PATTERNS that are vital to ALL players regardless of position and ability. Notice I said movement pattern and not exercise. The body only knows movement, it does not understand muscle isolation.

The body does not know it's little finger from it's little toe when trying to execute complex movements at high speed and in a split second as happens in a game of football. The body will use the closest pattern of movement it has stored in it's software and run this program to execute movement. Strength training without optimizing these patterns is a potential disaster. This is where injuries like ACL rupture or tears are created and compensatory movements that translate to poor performance. Having a program to not just optimize these patterns but make them better than ever is so important.

Below is one very simple chart of explaining the role of exercise choice and what each layer depends on. Sports specific exercises can only effectively be trained once all the layers underneath are completed. This takes time, good planning and a strong focus on quality over quantity which would be another area lacking in most sports, in particular AFL Football.

The second chart shows how one pattern being the single leg squat can effectively change 14 other movements, either good or bad, for it is the foundation from which all the others are built. When you know this, it is easy to choose exercises more carefully with an objective of moving stronger, faster and more powerful than before. Before you say what is the relevance of single leg squats, think about just how much you would use the single leg squat in a game of football.

  • You run by landing on ONE LEG before swinging through to the other leg and repeating the process
  • You kick the ball standing on ONE LEG
  • You often jump for a marking or ruck contest off of ONE LEG
  • 70% of ACL injuries are non contact and from ONE LEG landing or pivoting movements. (eg Bob Murphy, Nic Naitanui)
  • To change direction to evade or chase an opponent all of your body weight is placed on ONE LEG before shifting to the other leg

The single leg squat makes all of those movements for it is the base upon which they are built. If the base sucks, so does anything that shares this timing and pattern!

Movement is everything!

If the only way you know how to move is dysfunctional, you will continue to create damage to their body for it knows no other way. The sooner you learn how to use a more efficient and effective way to move the better, and this will prevent weakness and pain taking over your body. I must state that it is not only injury prevention that is of importance with learning to move efficiently,  for strength, fitness, and sporting performance can never be truly achieved without these skills. Therefore, the rules of functional movement apply to all of us. The degree of difficulty will vary from person to person, but the fundamentals will always remain the same.

The Key Movement Patterns are:

  1. Squat
  2. Lunge
  3. Bend
  4. Push
  5. Pull
  6. Twist
  7. Gait (running)

In addition to the movement patterns is the BIO-MOTOR ABILITIES required. These are what we call the 8 Must Haves for Sports. And they include things like Balance, Flexibility, Agility, Speed, Power, Coordination, Strength and Endurance. You need to define what abilities you need to be the best at and make sure your program is designed to enhance it.

Watch the videos below to see how to do all of the movement patterns and bio-motor abilities in detail. 

 

The more complex any of the exercises become the lower the intensity you must perform. For example a Barbell Squat we can execute at high intensity with 5 sets x 3-5 reps. However a single leg hop over hurdles we would not expose to too much load and perform 3-4 sets x 8-12 reps. All slow tempos will create more muscle size, strength and damage, whereas faster explosive tempos will still promote strength but more brain orientated and definitely more power, coordination and timing. Knowing when to use each one is vital for performance enhancing.

With regards to AFL Football Specific exercises the two videos below that show exercises used to improve tackling and keeping your feet in a contest, for football to give you an idea of how this works.

 

How To Structure Your Training Phases

Now you understand more about choices of exercise we look at WHEN to use certain exercises.

Before we jump into exercise programs it is important to discuss the complex topic of training strength and fitness at the same time.

Many sports demand that you have high levels of strength and power and be able to sustain these repeated bursts in games that last between 2-3 hours. Physiologically the two processes of building strength, power, and speed versus endurance are completely opposed to each other, and training both methods at the same time cancels out their effectiveness. This is why so many football players struggle to put muscle on while they are playing during the season.

The reason it is difficult to build both at the same time has a lot to do with the enzymes that produced from each type of exercise. AMPK leads to improved endurance and mTORC1 increases strength. The release of AMPK blocks the activation of mTORC1. This means that there is a block to improving both our endurance and our muscle mass and strength at the same time. Ask any body-builder what ruins adding strength and muscle and they will tell you endurance cardio.

The good news is you can get around this but you have to be very strategic with WHEN you workout, and what type of exercise methods you use. Watch the video below for a detailed explanation of what to do.

I also suggest to read the article - How to improve fitness without losing strength gains

A good football program as you now begin to see can be quite difficult to design as there is just so many things that need to be trained and there is not enough time to do it all. It has to be broken up into parts and depending on the time of the season you will focus on different things. The off season is the best time, and in fact the only time that players can get in the gym and build up some serious strength without fear of having sore and tired bodies that compromise training or playing. Knowing how to plan your program so you can make each component follow the next is where the secret and the art of this lies.

I often use advanced training methods with massive volume of sets, reps and advanced methods as per chapter one in the off season time. In pre-season the clubs go back to training and usually administer heavy cardio vascular endurance training. I then change my focus from just strength to speed and power, trying to limit any muscle loss as best as possible. During the season I switch between stability and integrated strength and power workouts with a real focus on quality movement. Usually the players are sore for a few days after games and training backs up quickly. It is important to keep them fresh and working on strategies to prevent injury here.

Below is another table explaining this.

Off Season Is Time To Add Muscle

Before you do anything be very clear on what the objective is.

OBJECTIVE: Add muscle size and strength.

As mentioned this time is the best and really the only time to add some serious size. Try to aim for 4-5 workouts during the week still sticking to integrated movements. Remember avoid thinking like a body builder. You could still split into lower body and upper body days for workouts like Wave Loading, but to retain pure movement I would prefer to keep full body multi joint movements.

It is during this time of the year that the football player can seriously try to pack on some serious muscle and size. It is the only time of the year that running is not necessary and is a good time to let the body recover from the stress of endurance training. It is important to not get lazy and put on unnecessary body fat and the best way to do all of those things is hit the weights room. I recommend players take at least 2 weeks break from all training after their last game and then hit the gym hard for the next 8-10 weeks before preseason starts usually in November.

It is during this 8-10 weeks you want to make the most of your time as you don’t have much before you go back to pre season that will involve lots of running. Mixing your programs up between slow tempo volume training for size, and high neuromuscular intensity training for strength is vital. Your choice of exercises will be a lot simpler here, in order to use advanced methods with the objective being to grow muscle in preparation for the next phase of power and speed.

Advanced methods like Supersets and Drop sets or even strength endurance workouts like Giant Sets are great variations to use at this time and these will create massive muscle soreness and damage. This is about the only time of year you would do this. Avoid running or using any cardio activity as trying to improve fitness counters your attempts to build muscle. Remember in preseason you will end up doing heaps of this anyway. And you don't need to be fit now, you want to be fit in late Feb to early March leading into the season.

Your objective right now is to add muscle and do it fast! 

Preseason Is Time To Work On Power Speed & Strength

OBJECTIVE: Maintain strength & size but increase Power & Speed

Now that you have added some strength and size it is time to teach the body how to use it faster and more powerful than ever before. This phase you want to begin moving away from slow tempos to fast tempos. You want to move from simple exercises to more complex movements. For example previous phase would have used a lot of traditional squats, deadlifts to be able to lift heavy loads or complete massive volume of sets using advanced methods. Now you begin to simplify the method slightly but complicate the movement by changing the squat from traditional to single leg, the deadlift from being heavy with a trap bar to a bent over within a lunge. 

The training method we like to use a lot in this phase is known as COMPLEX training and is where you use a heavy loaded exercise mixed with a lighter but extremely powerful and explosive exercise of a similar movement. For example a Barbell Squat x 5 reps using a slow tempo, superset with a Box Jump x 8 reps with explosive tempo. Click here to see a video of this. This method is used often in basketball to improve vertical leap but can be used with almost any other movement pattern just as effectively.

Great video examples are shown below.

 

Make sure you check out the reports at the bottom of the page as they include a ton of other exercise ideas you can use.

During The Season 

OBJECTIVE: Focus is on MOVEMENT skills, Agility & Stability

During the season is very tough to try and implement an effective strength program. The damage caused from game day from collisions, sprains, bruises, fatigue both mentally and physically means that recovery is of more importance than more heavy training. Without adequate recovery injury is just around the corner. Your focus in this stage is to preserve what you have gained as best as you can and continue to develop incredible smooth, fluent automatic movements and skills needed for the game. Working on exercises with that focus on agility, stability and even power mean you can maintain strength but not create any more muscle damage or soreness.

How does this work? For when you move efficiently and at fast tempos you basically "cheat" on the strength component because your body is efficient at avoiding placing any undue stress into any joints or muscles. This is great news when you need to stay fresh for training and game day but want to be able to still develop speed, power and explosive ability needed to take your game to the next level.

Use of body building exercises and methods here is a waste of time and will only serve to make you slow and sore.

Sets and reps need to kept low and quality of movement kept high. Recovery strategies are of great importance and must be adopted here for you to fully reach your potential for an entire season.

Great video ideas are shown below.

 

Do You Need More Help?

Make sure you grab a copy of our FREE reports below. Back in 2011 I put together a very simple free report on training for football but so much has changed since then I decided to update it. I added another 30 pages of information with programs, exercise pictures and instructions and how to structure your season the right way to get results. Click the image below to get your FREE copy. The Little Black Book of Training Secrets is not a free report but this includes over 100 strength training programs and is the ultimate training resource for workouts and latest training methods.

  

Conclusion

This article is an absolute must read for any one male or female playing Australian Rules Football. Strength training is so much more than just lifting a record on the bench press and a few bicep curls. The days of just doing heaps of sand hill runs, boxing and various other "go hard go home" training methods are just plain stupid and not relevant to your game. You must strive to improve movement skills and develop strength with integrated patterns used in the game. The players who have that, "special talent" all possess traits of great movement.

To become the next Patrick Dangerfield or Gary Ablett you need more than just good foot skills, you need that exceptional talent to win the contest, stay on your feet and appear to have more time than everyone else to make great decisions. This is what coaches crave and makes players great. Learning the skills of the game is one big factor, but without exceptional movement, stability, strength and power you will never reach your potential.

It is time for Football players to see that there is better, easier and much more effective way to train. Train smarter with good quality not harder with focus on repetitious junk exercise is what is needed.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily. You can also subscribe to our FREE fortnightly newsletter by clicking here.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Athletes Acceleration Speed Training & Game Like Speed - by Lee Taft
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Knee Injuries In Athletes - by Sports Injury Bulletin
  • The ACL Solution - by Robert G Marx
  • Understanding & Preventing Non-Contact ACL Injuries - American Orthopaedic Society For Sports Medicine
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Balance - By Peter Twist