Strength and conditioning coaches at the professional, college and high school level will all agree that weight training is imperative for the development of their athletes. The BIG question is: What are the best exercises for the job?
You will hear many different opinions on the best way to train – from power lifting, exercise equipment, Olympic lifting and circuit training to a combination of these and many more. As a coach first of all you must critique your individual athletes. Different athletes have different needs and different strengths. Only then can we develop the proper program for your football team.
When I think about what a football player needs to dominate the field of play, I think first and foremost about their ability to run and hit the opposition with a great amount of “Explosive” force. Let’s face the facts coaches, if you have an athlete that can move and hit people with authority he will probably be a leader on the field inspiring others by his example.
What other factors are important for football players? Most would agree running speed, and the ability to overcome their adversaries. How about strength and flexibility? Strength is a “no brainer’, if you're not strong you'll never be fast , in other words the athlete requires great muscular strength to run at high speeds. Look at sprinters for instance, they are extremely strong and very powerful athletes. You can’t run fast if you're not strong. Muscular strength secures and stabilizes the joints and helps keep them in sound working order. So without strength work, the joints of the body could never stand up to the punishment from contact sports. The player would be injury prone and have a very short career. How about total body flexibility? Can you be a truly physical player if you are not flexible? I don't think so. Many coaches and some great players would argue this statement. There are great players that aren’t the most flexible people in the world. So if the non-flexible athlete increases their flexibility through stretching and strength training through the full range of motion, what will be the outcome? I feel that increased flexibility grants greater leverage for proper body position and is one of the intangibles for running speed through greater stride length. Not to mention helping to keep players from injury. Nothing that you do will keep you totally injury free because of the nature of the game, but it will definitely add years to your career and aid in your ability to recover from day to day.
Those are the most often mentioned major factors for top performance of football players. What else is important for these athletes? The last one I'm going to mention, but not least is overall body conditioning. So we must perform total body movements to condition ourselves to prepare for the physical stresses that we face on the field. I’m talking about exercises that are more sport specific in nature. I’M TALKING ABOUT TRAINING ON YOUR FEET BECAUSE YOU PLAY ON YOUR FEET !
I believe the best exercise that encompasses all your physical needs is the CLEAN AND JERK. It has everything you need to become a bigger, faster, stronger, more flexible and most important of all – a more EXPLOSIVE athlete. Come on football coaches – let’s focus on an exercise that will improve players' speed and power and finish off with the bench presses later in the workout. Don't be lazy just because you already have the job, learn how to teach the Clean & Jerk and you may build a football dynasty.
So how do you teach the Clean & jerk? Here is a straight forward stage by stage approach. Pictures help… Let’s go through each photo and capture the key points.
If you look at the starting position in the clean you see proper body posture. The back is straight and the shoulders are forward of the bar. A similar position that an offensive lineman takes just before the ball is snapped on a passing play. However, when lifting the hands are closer to the body because you are preparing to lift the barbell. This is important because if you are out of position from the start you won't have the leverage later to perform the movement. The proper starting position or stance is important in both athletic skills. If the athlete doesn't start right he'll rarely finish with a positive result.
The bar has just passed the knees and the athlete is preparing to bring the hips forward with a quick stretch reflex action. At this point the player is in the POWER POSITION. It looks like the stance a linebacker takes at the point of attack. All athletes (not just football players) can produce more power out of this position than any other. For this reason it is important to teach the proper form in the 2nd pull of the clean. Just watch any sporting event that requires speed and quickness and you'll see athletes in the power position.
The athlete has now achieved full body extension. He is high on the toes, the torso is straight, he has shrugged the shoulders to maximum height and he is almost in flight with the barbell. This part of the movement is very important and must be fine tuned. Football players will get tremendous benefit from this if it is done with GREAT SPEED and in PROPER POSITION. Basically what I mean when I say tremendous benefit is: YOUR PLAYERS WILL BE KNOCKING THE FIRE OUT OF THE OPPOSING TEAM!
As the athlete pulls himself under the bar, he must be prepared to receive it. Once again he must be in proper body position. As the player meets the bar he must force the elbows high and drive through the heels as he stands up with the weight. This force through the heels will take the stress from the knees and give the player increased strength through the full range of motion. This provides the athlete with greater flexibility, which in turn will help with their ability to run.
One of the most FOOTBALL SPECIFIC aspects of this part of the clean is as the bar meets the shoulders, the support muscles in the abdominals, shoulders and back have to be very strong to hold the proper position with the weight. This is similar to what the athlete experiences when they are blocking and tackling. The forces that are put on the body's support muscles mimic the forces the football player experiences when they are hitting their opponents. Players will get stronger and better conditioned from doing the squat clean. This movement helps players develop tough durable athletic bodies.
Many football coaches still believe that deep squats are detrimental to athletes, because they are afraid of knee injury. We need more studies published proving the benefit of deep squats and not the old wives' tale that they will hurt their athletes. Football coaches need to hear studies about how elite Olympic lifters can out-sprint some of the best sprinters in the world for up to 30 meters. How many times do players run farther than 30 meters in a game? With a few exceptions most players play within a 20 meter area or less. And the fact that there are fewer injuries to the lower extremities in Olympic lifting than in soccer and most other sports.
The 6th picture shows the lifter in the dip part of the jerk. Once again notice the body position. The chest is up and the back is straight. The heels are down so the athlete is able to produce maximal force against the platform. If the lifter was on his toes at this point, he wouldn't be able to produce the same amount of power and would put undue stress on the knees. So save the knees and let’s get ready to jump. We are basically in the vertical jump position with the weight on our shoulders.
The 7th picture in the sequence shows the lifter during the actual jump. Look at the amount of power the lifter is producing as he jumps with the heavy weight. This is the second time in the clean and jerk when the athlete fully extends his body. Every time a football player hits the opposition he should be extending his body violently. The players that have the strength, power and courage to do this are more successful and are contributing members of the team. Before I move on, let me make one more statement about the vertical jump. If there is a truer test of power than the vertical jump let me know about it so I can use it when I am doing athlete testing.
The final picture I will show is the lifter with the bar at arms length. At this point the athlete's center of gravity has risen from below the belly button to somewhere over his head. This would give the football player improved balanced and increase the strength of the shoulders and other associated support structures. This exercise helps give the player the strength to keep his opponent at arms reach.
Is "The King of Lifts" King for football? I believe every football program in America should do them so their athletes can reap the benefits from this style of training. A good athlete will become a great athlete if their coaches would make an effort to learn how to teach the techniques that could turn their programs around and maybe even give them a little job security. Take away all the fancy equipment and put the bar on the floor. Only then will you develop your athletes to their full potential.
South Texas LWC President
Team Houston Head Coach
PS: Tim Swords is a former 4 year letterman in football at East Carolina University and signed 2 professional football contracts.