Soccer-Specific Strength and Fitness Program: Form and Leg Exercises Part I

by CoachZ on August 15, 2009

The first article in this series on off-season, soccer-specific strength and fitness training dealt with nutrition and diet. The focus was on just how important these two factors are, nutrition and diet. The two are inextricably linked to each other as well as to the overall success of the program. The second article in the series dealt with warm up, stretching, and flexibility. The proper soccer-specific warm up, followed by a comprehensive, individualized stretching program, can make or break not only a single workout but the overall effectiveness of the program and competitive match play, as well. Once the above-mentioned components are in place and their importance understood, it is time to begin the actual soccer-specific workout regimen.

The actual first workout series should begin with a holistic aerobic/anaerobic focus, the soccer-athlete attempting to push himself, and I am using himself in a generic sense, this applies to both male and female soccer-athletes, to the edge of aerobic efficiency and beyond. The goal of such a program is to extend endurance, along with overall fitness and muscle development. The first few workouts should be largest to smallest muscle group based, high intensity circuit training in practice. The entire workout should last no longer than 75 minutes, and that includes warm up and stretching which we have already established as taking no more than 35 minutes. In fact, the actual duration of the workout will be much shorter, particularly if the workout is done as prescribed below. As stated above, the first session on day one will be high intensity circuit training with almost no rest in between exercises. The idea is to push the soccer–athlete beyond his or her current capacity, while at the same time taxing the various muscles involved and forcing them to recover and rebuild.

Before we move on, the concentric and eccentric contractions must be fully understood. The success or failure of your soccer-specific strength and fitness training program is dependent on understanding and implementing the program in the proper manner; and, that means understanding the motions involved in the individual exercises. Proper form is crucial for good results and to avoid injuries. Heavier is not always better! I have watched more muscle-heads train themselves right into stress and trauma-related injuries because of what I call the “bigger, heavier, better syndrome.” Proper form, meaning an emphasis on using the correct technique, often makes or breaks a strength and fitness regimen. In order to implement proper form, seat positioning and the actual motion used during the exercises themselves must be understood. Concentric and eccentric motions are crucial and must be used properly to fully engage the musculature, as well as the associated connective tissue, in just the right way.

The concentric contraction occurs when a muscle shortens in length, thus developing tension. The concentric or positive accomplished when the leg is raised in a leg extension exercise or a bar is brought from mid-thigh to the upper chest in a barbell curl. The eccentric motion and contraction involves tension while the muscle is being lengthened during the downward motion of the leg extension or the downward motion of the bar during the barbell curl. There has been a lot of research done on concentric and eccentric motions, the benefits of each and precisely what muscle fibers are recruited during each motion. Recent research seems to suggest that the eccentric motion actually activates more fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Plyometric exercises are particularly useful eccentric exercises, particularly ones involving a maximum high-force eccentric motion like step jump or box jump exercises. However, jumping exercises, and stair climbing, should not be added to a training program until the soccer-athlete is in the advanced stages, as knee injuries are a reality for inexperienced or unprepared athletes.

The concentric movement is generally the first portion of the exercise and the eccentric the second. The count is usually concentric or positive in two seconds and the eccentric or negative down in four. Or in the case of a lat pulldown, down in two seconds and back out in four. The thing to remember is that the eccentric or negative portion of the exercise is the most effective overall. While the data is somewhat ambiguous, it has been shown in recent research, and anecdotally in over 30 years of training athletes, that the negative or eccentric motion is where the majority of the work is done and where most of the benefit is derived. Eccentric or negative-only exercise routines are very effective but can be very risky. However, if the concentric and eccentric movements are incorporated into an overall program, integrated into a balanced strength and fitness program, the results can be impressive in a short period of time.

Now that the proper movement is understood and the importance of warm up and stretching has been reviewed and is understood, it is time to begin the actual workout. After completing the warm-up and stretching routine, the soccer-athlete proceeds immediately to the leg extension machine. Leg extensions are important because they work the quadriceps, solid quad development is crucial for optimal performance, and also because leg extensions warm up and work the knee and the supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments associated with the knee joint.

Proper seat positioning in the leg extension exercise is crucial. The seat should be snug against the buttocks and the back of the knees also snug at the front of the seat. Once the seating is correct, lean back, relax your upper body, loosely grasp the handles, and lift your legs. The concentric or positive motion should be up in 2 seconds and the eccentric or negative down in 4 seconds. The eccentric is the negative motion, down, and the concentric is the positive, up. The negative motion is the most important motion overall, and it is the portion of the exercise most people neglect. The exercise should be done to failure, to the point where the legs cannot perform another repetition, between 8 and 12. If 12 repetitions can be completed in good form, it is time to increase the weight. Conversely, if 6-8 repetitions cannot be completed in good form, the weight should be lessened until such time as 6-8 repetitions can be completed efficiently and correctly.

Once the leg extensions are completed, the athlete moves immediately to the leg biceps or hamstring curl, machines will either allow standing or lying on the stomach. The soccer-athlete lies face down on the machine with the buttocks remaining down (do not lift them!), the stomach flattened against the machine pad. Note: the tendency is for the buttocks to lift up which stresses the lower back.

• The legs curl up in 2 seconds, the pad touching the buttocks on the way up
• The weight down in 4 seconds. As soon as the weight almost touches the stack, the weight is lifted back up to the buttocks
• Repeat up in 2 seconds
• Down in 4 seconds

Always, always keep the stomach flush against the machine…and the buttocks down. Continue the exercise until you cannot do another one…or until you reach 12 repetitions. If you get to 12 reps, move the weight up the next session. Always shoot for between 8 and 12 reps, constantly pushing to increase the weight and the repetitions.

Next, move immediately to the leg press machine. Leg presses are a key component to an overall program of soccer-specific strength and fitness. While leg presses are a common exercise, most athletes use the leg press improperly…as do most trainers. The angle of the knee should never exceed 90°! Additionally, the exercise should be performed in a 2 second concentric and 4 second eccentric manner, meaning pushing out or pressing the weight out in 2 seconds and bringing the weight back so that the knees are at 90° in 4 seconds. Once again, this should be done for 8 to 12 repetitions, always pushing for 12 reps and then moving the weight up accordingly. It is advisable, particularly when first starting, to have a workout partner or spotter to ensure safety.

The leg extensions, leg bicep curls, and leg presses are the three most common, and most important exercises for the legs. The exercises should be done in rapid succession, one set for each exercise, particularly when first starting a soccer-specific strength and fitness program, and until failure (the athlete cannot do another rep safely). After a few weeks, additional exercises, sets, and even repetitions can be added to the program for increased intensity and variety. The upper body should always be left relaxed, there should be little to no tension in the upper body while working the legs. Additionally, breathing should be deep and controlled, at no time should the athlete hold his or her breath! Breathing should be out, exhaling during the concentric or positive motion and in, inhaling during the eccentric or negative phase.

Many believe soccer is played with the legs and feet alone. We have already discussed just how wrong that line of thinking is. The leg workout is just as important as the upper body work, perhaps even more so, but not for the reasons many believe. The additional attention the legs receive has as much to do with injury prevention and the development of power, particularly for kicking and for defensive stance, as they do for overall strength and quickness. In the next article we will discuss two more leg exercises, ones that can be added to the above program in time, and two variations of exercises for the calves. The calves are often neglected and must be worked hard and often. I will get into the reasons why. Once again, all leg exercises should be done at peak intensity, and in rapid succession…but with proper form. Once we discuss the additional exercises for the legs and the calves, we will move on the upper body, to include the core muscles…and even the forearms.

Professor John P. J. Zajaros, Sr.
Skype: johnzajaros1

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