Becoming a Soccer Dynamo: The Science Behind Athleticism
This article was written by guest columnist Mat Herold.
Being your best: A highly skilled soccer player can hide their sub-optimal physical development and think that what they’re doing is either sufficient or adequate when they could often be even better than they are if they were appropriately trained.
Now I know better: Many soccer players seem to hate doing any physical preparation that doesn’t involve the ball, or isn’t dressed up as some sort of “soccer-specific” exercise such as agility ladders, parachutes, mini hurdles, or bungee cord drills. I was one of those players, and it cost me greatly during my youths soccer club and college days – in the form of injuries and subpar performance – on the soccer field.
Being a good athlete makes a difference: Skill and tactical understanding will always be the root of the Beautiful Game, but in order to execute the skills under the demands of the modern game, athleticism is becoming more and more important. What would legendary Barcelona superstars Messi, Suarez, and Neymar be without their speed, power, and ability to avoid and sometimes absorb viscous tackles?
The Role of Strength in Athleticism
It surprising more soccer coaches and athletes have not realized that the stronger the muscles are, the more force they can produce in a given movement.
In order to accelerate faster and jump higher, you have to overcome your body weight. Think about elite shot putters and how big and strong they must be in order to throw a 16 pound ball. Most of the shot putters in the Olympics bench press around 500 lbs. Your body weighs much more than 16 pounds, so it should make sense that improving your leg strength is necessary to improving your ability to propel your bodyweight around with ease.
Ignoring the role of strength in athleticism and tinkering around with fancy plyometric and speed training drills will leave you or your athletes incapable of making any really noticeable gains in speed.
What Does Science Say?
In a study done on players from Rosenborg FC, perhaps the most successful a Norwegian professional football club, maximal strength in the half squat exercise had a significant correlation with speed in distances measured up to 30 meters as well as vertical jump ability (Ronnestad, 2008; Wisloff, 2004).
In high-school-aged soccer players, it was found that leg muscle volume (overall muscle size) and maximal half-squat strength were significantly related to 5-meter sprint times (Souhaiel, 2009).
Female soccer athletes utilizing high-load back squats as the means of strength training (average increase of 33.7%) demonstrated an increase in rate of force development by 52.3%, and running economy at anaerobic threshold improved by 4.7% while no changes were observed in the control group (Hoff, 2001).
As you can see, faster players have the strongest legs and by increasing leg strength, displays of speed and power increase. Adding strength also improves running economy since it takes less effort to maintain the same amount of work.
Stronger Legs Is Key
Most often, when people want to show off their physical prowess, they flex their biceps, pump up their chest, or pull up their shirt to reveal their abs. It‘s not often someone turns to show you their hamstring definition, or squeezes their glutes and asks you to take a poke. Although the latter would look pretty ridiculous, as far as athleticism and injury prevention go, it would be far more telling.
The size of the legs may vary from individual to individual but the legs, particularly the glutes and upper thighs are always strong relative to the frame or body type in a swift soccer player. A good way to think of it is by looking at three types of dogs who all run really fast. They have different builds, but each carries dense muscle mass around the front and hind legs.
- Greyhounds, the fastest of all dogs. They are long and lean (Neymar, Ryan Giggs, Gareth Bale).
- Pitbulls who are shorter and more muscular (Messi, Overmars, Hulk, Maradona, Aaron Lennon, Zola).
- Boxers who are a hybrid (Walcott, Cristiano Ronaldo, the original Ronaldo, and Robben). All three carry a good amount of muscle; the distribution varies depending on their frame.
Those who are built like greyhounds have some genetic advantages speed wise and that is why they may be fast despite the fact that they are not very strong or do not train with weights.
Lets look at what factors are in your control and which factors are not in your control:
Factors Not in Your Control:
The impact of genetics and DNA
1. Limb length: To an extent, longer limbed athletes “leverage” their strength better meaning it will take less strength for someone taller to produce ground reaction force. An example is Usain Bolt who is 6’6 inches tall.
2. Longer muscle fascicle length (Kumagai, 2003)
3. Muscle fiber type: ACTN3 gene produces a protein in their fast-twitch muscle fibers that has been linked to increased sprinting performance. Even though much can be done to improve your individual ratio of fast twitch to slow twitch muscle fibers within an individual, someone with the predisposition to be mostly fast twitch will have an advantage.
4. Body proportions: Having a higher center of gravity- related to being taller as having higher hips will create a higher axis of rotation for the legs. Also, having narrower hip structure provides biomechanical advantage.
5. Hormones: Having higher levels of testosterone in the blood makes a difference. While hormone levels can be increased, some athletes have naturally higher levels.
6. Efficient nervous system: again, can be improved but genetics are an advantage
Factors in Your Control :
Making the most of your opportunity
1. Biomechanics, neural efficiency, and running form: By releasing tight areas and activating weak or dormant ones, an athletes biomechanics can be improved so that a player’s running form is more efficient. Neural efficiency is basically using repetition to develop optimal running form and learning to synchronize firing patterns that will help produce power each foot contact.
2. Body fat percentage: Like a weighted vest, extra fat will slow you down.
3. Muscle fibers: The ratio of and function of fast twitch to slow twitch can be improved significantly through training.
4. Increasing testosterone: By getting adequate sleep, eating specific foods, and lifting heavy weights, an individual’s testosterone can be increased
5. Strength, power, and elasticity: Improving size and strength in correct musculature will help a player transmit more force into the ground each foot contact. Elasticity is synonymous with having “bounce” or “spring”, which is basically being able to transfer forces generated at the hips and legs into the ground without giving out and collapsing.
If you watched the 2014 FIFA World Cup Championship team Germany win, you saw that they didn’t lack speed or leg strength. Take a look at the legs and overall physique of some of the best professional soccer players in the game and you will see their athletic power.
Is there such a thing as being too strong?
The time it would take in the weight room to achieve an excessive amount of strength would almost require you to stop playing soccer altogether. Many times, having too much “bulk” is a result not of increased muscle mass, but excess body fat. When beginning weight training, many athletes will overestimate the amount of calories they need in order to recover which leads to gains in body fat.
I have never seen a soccer player get slower by adding muscle and strength to their legs unless they gained body fat in the process or took a complete hiatus from all sprint training, mobility work, and playing. I’ve also never seen anybody get relatively (strength relative to their bodyweight) weaker by gaining muscle unless they got fat in the process.
So Just Focus On Strength?
Muscular strength helps with horsepower, but horsepower on the field is all about explosive strength, also known as strength expressed quickly. Power is the term used for strength expressed quickly.
Power equals force times velocity, and while we have been talking about the importance of the force side of the equation, we also have to consider the importance of the velocity in which we express force.
Let‘s say there are two people, athlete A and athlete B, of the same height and weight who both squat a maximum of 300 pounds. If athlete A squats 200 pounds up from the bottom position in 1 second and athlete B squats 200 pounds up from the bottom position in 1.5 seconds, then athlete A is more powerful and will perform better on the field.
When training for sport, it is important to always make sure your power is improving along with your strength. When an athlete does not have good bar speed or speed of movement on their exercises but can hoist the weight slowly, it is usually better to drop the weight until they move the weights faster, thereby improving their power output.
I like to use the vertical jump or the broad jump as an indicator as to whether power is improving as an individual gets stronger. But don‘t worry too much about it, by including sprints, jumps, other explosive exercises and even just by playing soccer, your power will almost always increase as your strength increases. It really does not have to be that complicated. Strength is the foundation of power, and as high jump coach Dave Kerin says, ¨the high tide (strength) raises all ships (power)¨.
What About the Upper Body?
Having a strong upper body will never make up for not knowing how to use your body with proper positioning, timing and awareness, but if you have both, you are giving yourself an advantage.
In soccer, you need upper body strength for three reasons: to improve running speed, to ward off opponents, and to allow for maximal leg strength and power to be obtained.
Upper body strength is important for speed because acceleration (going from a standstill to as fast as possible over 5-30 yards) begins with powerful arm action.
The torque of the hip on one side of the body must be countered by the torque of the shoulder girdle on the other. The latissmus dorsi, or the lats, attach across to the opposite glute muscle, so when your left glute creates power to drive your left foot into the ground you can increase this power by having a strong arm swing on the right side. This is created by the lats. In addition, knee drive is important and this action is aided by a powerful up swing of the opposite arm. This up swing is created by strong shoulder and chest muscles.
As a word of caution, if you have the predisposition to put upper body mass on easily, be careful with how much attention you give it in the weight room. I have seen players spend so much time on their upper body strength and neglect their legs, only making it harder to change directions since their center of mass becomes higher. A lower center of mass helps create a lower center of gravity which is crucial to changing directions well. If the upper body becomes heavy relative to the lower body, it will be more difficult.
What’s Really Important?
Soccer is being played at faster speeds than ever before.
In order to display your skills and make a statement during the grittier aspects of the game, increasing your leg strength will serve you well. Adding muscle to your glutes and legs does not mean you have to become a powerlifter or a ¨meat head¨. While weight room exercises are very effective especially at advanced levels, many athletes can get great results using their own bodyweight.
Here are 3 simple exercises you can do anywhere that will put some strength and muscle that will carry over to the game. For the first 3 exercises shown, 1-3 sets of 5-10 reps each leg are good ranges. If you can get 10 reps, add in a progression. For the fourth exercise shown (hip thrusts), reps should be higher in the 10-20 range. If you can hit 20 reps, add in a progression.
Single Leg Box Squats or Pistols: Great for the quadriceps and glutes, and will make your first step more powerful and give your legs the strength to stop on a dime and change directions. Make sure to keep your heel flat and chest up. You can make it harder by doing more reps, using lower boxes or no box making it a pistol squat where you drop your butt to your heel, or add weight in the hands or a weighted-vest.
The Shrimp Squat: This is great for the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings and will really help your acceleration speed. In addition, it is a fantastic indicator if you have tight hips and limited ankle range of motion. As this movement gets better, not only will you move better on the field, but you will have less chance of injury.
There are several progressions, some of which have to do with flexibility and not just strength:
No hands on the back leg and use a block to make touching your back knee easier
Get rid of the blog and or hold the rear foot with one hand
Hold rear foot with both hands as shown below and you can also elevate the front leg to make it even harder.
Step up jumps: Another great single leg exercise, this time a little higher on the velocity side of things to develop that explosive power. If you were holding heavy dumbbells or a barbell on your back it would be more about strength development (force). Jump as high as you can and come down smoothly on the top leg before repeating. The higher the bench, the more you train the muscles in your upper thigh, versus a shorter bench that trains muscles around the knee joint.
Hip Thrusts: Excellent for training the glutes and hamstrings while teaching athletes not to use their lower backs as hip extensors. These will increase your top end sprint speed and overall movement quality and athleticism. There are several progression:
Double leg on ground then work up to single leg:
Double leg with back elevated and progress to single leg:
You can also place your feet on a bench like below and progress from double leg to single leg.
About contributing columnist Mat Herold:
Mat Herold is a former Division 1 soccer player for Fresno State University, has a Masters of Science degree in Exercise Physiology and now coaches at the collegiate level. A soccer coach at Santa Monica United Football Club, teacher and certified strength and conditioning trainer, Herold is constantly searching for better ways to learn and train soccer players. His goal with The Total Soccer Player is to combine the best information on soccer training, health, mindset, and sports performance available in order to help as many soccer players, parents, and coaches as possible avoid the same mistakes he made when he was paying.