The question about how to get faster for football come into my inbox at least a dozen times per week. I thought we had the whole football speed thing figured out, but, recently I was forced to train in a commercial gym…sadly, this was a wake-up call that most football players have ZERO idea how to get faster.
It’s rare that I step into a commercial gym to do any football strength and speed training with my football players these days. But, on the rare occasion that I am forced to go into one of these creep-joints, I’m always struck by two strange phenomena’s:
1. Most guys look like light bulbs; all upper body, no legs
2. The leg training done by most “athletes” is an embarrassment
The great majority of the leg training effort is going into leg curls, leg extensions, leg presses and maybe the occasional squat…usually done with no more than 225-lbs bar. This may be fine for the average guy, but, for those football players who ask, “How can I get faster for football, you need to train the legs hard and heavy.
Most football players should take a page from the playbook of Powerlifter’s training: you must absolutely attack the hamstrings and glutes! The oft-mentioned posterior chain (PC) is of utmost importance to athletic ability. The hamstrings, glutes, and lower back are key to being fast and lifting heavy weights in the Deadlift and Squat. Any football player can get faster and more explosive, yet many never do.
These athletes usually neglect training the muscles most responsible for speed development: the muscles of the PC.
In training the hamstrings, a few important points must be emphasized.
· The hamstring group is made up of the biceps femoris, the semitendinosus and semimembranosus muscles. All must be worked hard for maximum strength and speed.
· The hamstring muscles have two functions: bending the knee and hip extension; both motions must be trained.
· The hams are made up of a high percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers and therefore must be trained heavily. These muscles respond better to lower reps – even as low as singles!
· Because of the high amount of fast twitch fibers, the hamstrings respond well to eccentric work.1
· If they’ve been neglected, the hamstrings will have to be worked more often until they catch up to the powerful quads.
Keep these points in mind when designing a training program for the hamstrings.
The following 12 exercises will hit the hams and glutes hard and heavy.
Choose one to three of them and add them to your training. I suggest putting in one of these movements after your main leg exercise of the day (i.e. Deadlifts or Squats). Shoot for 4 – 6 sets of 4 – 6 reps per movement.
You will need a special Glute-ham bench for this exercise. The movement looks something like a back hyperextension except that your legs are bent at the knee and you pull your self up with the hamstrings, glutes, and even the calves by pressing your feet into the toe board and flexing the hamstrings hard. Every gym should have one of these. For more info on this exercise and the Glute-ham bench, check out some of the writings of the Westside Barbell Club, who really popularized this exercise.
The Glute-Ham raise can be done after ever session if using only bodyweight. Or, you can add weight and use it like any barbell exercise. This is one of those rare movements where I doubt you can ever do too much.
Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs)
RDLs are similar to a straight-leg deadlift, with the exception that instead of simply bending at the waist and pulling up on the bar, you have the hips travel backwards when bending over. For many, the SLDL neglects the hamstrings while overworking the lower back. This is especially true for short-leg, long-torso lifters.
The RDL will probably do more for your hamstrings and glutes than any other exercise, with the exception of Deadlifts. It really is a very underrated movement for both athletic performance and for aesthetic appearance. The RDL can do wonders for those wishing to get faster for football.
Be sure to keep a flat back; you can use both clean and snatch grips for variation. This is a movement where you definitely want to keep the reps low. 4 X 6 is a good set-rep scheme to start with. Really push those hips back, stretch those hams out, then pop up.
This can be made more difficult by using one DB at a time.
I picked up this little gem from Pavel Tsatsouline. This brutal exercise is performed with two dumbbells or Kettlebells. Place the DBs on the other side of the foot of the leg you are working. With a slight bend in the knee, bend forward at the waist and grasp the DBs.
The non-working leg should be well behind you and off the ground. Go as high as you feel comfortable with. Now, with straight arms, pull the DBs up to waist height while dragging the back foot forward until you are standing erect on two feet, with the DBs at waist height.
This is a great movement to improve football speed because it works the hamstrings one leg at a time, very similar to running.
Snatch Grip Deadlifts
I got an email the other day asking why I advocate using the Snatch Grip Deadlift (SnDL) so much and why not other variations.
Well, there are several reasons, however, all variations of Deadlifting should be used in your football strength program… especially if you want to be as fast as possible!
· Snatch Grip Deads just force you into a lower position, thus forcing the hamstrings and glutes to work harder. Plus, the benefit of the work the entire back gets.
Whenever you can involve the hamstrings more, the better off you are for building leg strength and especially for speed! If your hams are weak, forget being fast.
I would use straps on a SnDL because of the wide grip.
But, don’t go crazy wide on the grip. I’m 6′1 and my index fingers are about an inch outside of the outer rings on a York bar. I know you’ve probably seen O-lifters use the collar to collar grip, but, even when I competed in O-lifting, I didn’t go out this far.
Some would say to simply pull off of a platform, which is fine, but it’s a different movement. Part of the fun of SnDLs is how hard you must also force your abs to work to keep you from falling forward. This exercise really teaches you to sit back when pulling from the ground; an invaluable lesson for anyone wanting to improve their Deadlift.
Snatch Grip Deadlifts from a 4-inch Box
Let’s take a brutally effective exercise and make it even harder by performing it on a 4″ box (or block of wood). This exercise will absolutely terrorize the hamstrings and glutes…with a nice added bonus of hitting the upper back and traps quite nicely. One thing you’ll notice with RDLs and SnDLs is that the upper back and traps are usually pretty sore the day after. Anytime you have to hold a heavy bar and then do multiple reps in a pulling movement, the traps and upper back have to work hard to stabilize the load.
The 4″ box will create a greater range of motion but isn’t so high as to alter body mechanics significantly. If you find your form breaking down at 4″, try using a 3″ box.
Focus on sitting back and letting the hams and glutes do all the work. If there’s one mistake I see over and over again on this movement, it’s that when the weights start getting heavy, lifters start using their arms…that is a recipe for disaster. If you find that you are arm pulling, lower the weight a bit and build back up.
This exercise can also be used as a Max Effort (very heavy) movement or it can be used as an accessory lift.
Band Leg Curls
This is a great movement to train the hams in a dynamic way. The bands will help train the legs to stay strong through the entire range of motion because the exercise will get harder as you get closer to the finish.
Choke a band around the uprights of the rack, sit on a bench and place the band around the back of your ankles. The band should have some tension while your legs are extended. Now, contract the hamstrings hard and do a fast, explosive leg curl.
Band leg curls can also be done one leg at a time. 3 – 4 sets of 8 – 12 is sufficient.
Lunges have gotten a bad rap because most dummies at the gym use a 3-inch stride and 2lb DBs. However, when done with more moderate-heavy weights and in a Dynamic (explosive) fashion, the lunge can be a tremendous tool in your strength training toolbox.
· The lunge should be a fairly long stride, and instead of simply stepping forward and then back, once your foot hits the ground on the forward stride, explode back up.
Lunges performed in this manner are also effective because the athlete actually opens and closes the kinetic chain while performing the movement, and the lunge also helps the athlete become strong in supporting a high percentage of his bodyweight on one leg, very similar to running.
Don’t be afraid to go heavy on the lunge. No one said you must do them for sets of 15! 3 or 4 sets of 4 – 8 will hit the hamstrings and glutes thoroughly.
Dynamic Medicine Ball Leg Curl
This exercise works great as a finisher and also helps develop explosiveness in the legs.
Begin by lying face down on the ground with your legs together. Have a partner roll the medicine ball down the back of your legs.
When you feel the ball get to your ankles or the backs of your shoes, explode the ball back up to your partner with a leg curl-type motion. It may take a few reps to get it perfect, but when you do, the ball will fly up and back toward your head and your partner should catch the ball at about waist height. This is a great movement to train the hamstrings in an explosive, curling manner. If you are prone to strained or pulled hamstrings when running, give these a shot. You can up the reps on this exercise; sets of 8 – 10 would be advisable.
Please make sure to get a partner who can catch the ball.
Towel Leg Curl
You can probably tell by now that I’m not a huge fan of regular leg curls. The machines are just so limited in their movement patterns and resistance.
However, you’ve noticed I included three leg curl variations in this article. Why? Well, as I said in the beginning, both aspects of the hamstring function must be worked. But, the machine leg curl is for weenies. Both the Band Leg Curl and Medicine Ball Leg Curl are great for training the hams in a dynamic fashion, but the resistance is limited.
Enter the Towel Leg Curl. Lie face down on a bench with your legs hanging off the edge. Have a partner wrap a towel around the backs of your ankles; now do a leg curl.
This method is superior for several reasons:
1) Variable resistance: you can have your partner increase or decrease the load as needed
2) Increased resistance during the eccentric phase; simply have your partner pull harder during the lowering portion of the lift and you fight against the resistance.
3) Variable paths: you can go wide or narrow, one leg or two, during the exercise. Switching up the path of the movement will do wonders for complete development.
The Towel Leg Curl can be done for medium (4 – 8) reps. 3 – 4 sets done can be done toward the end of the session.
Swings are one of the best, yet most misused, exercises to train the hamstring. The Swing is performed by most as a Squatting-type movement. This style was popularized by those using the Swing as a fat loss tool, which, when done for high reps, is quite effective.
However, we are after performance and hamstring strength here, so that is not the style we’ll be using. The true KB Swing; one that is done for speed, strength, and muscle development is a much longer range of motion with a definitive “snap” at the bottom of the movement.
Notice in the video below that at the bottom, when the K-bells are all the way back, I snap them forward. It’s that reversal of momentum that is of the utmost importance! If you are doing a slow swing, you are doing a worthless swing. Make sure you pop the hips on the way up to involve the glutes as well.
Don’t be afraid to go heavy on these. It is not written in stone that you have to do ultra high reps. Actually, you should shoot for 3 -4 sets of 4 – 6 reps. They now make Kettlebells up to 106lbs, so that should keep even the strongest among us working hard. A dumbbell can be used if no Kettlebells are available.
With football players, I’ve found this movement to be great when performed as a warm-up to a Max Effort (heavy) leg exercise. It’s great in that situation for waking the hams and glutes up and letting them know there’s work to be done!
Swings can also be used after a heavy movement, on speed day or at the end of a session as a finisher.
Upright Sled Walks
Pulling sleds and pushing Prowlers is a great way to condition, but it can also be used as an alternative way to develop the legs. When most pull or push a sled, they do so on an angle. In order to target the hamstrings you must pull from a very upright position.
This is best done while wearing a harness, but can be done by attaching the strap to a lifting belt. When you begin pulling, keep your body as upright as possible and rather than just walk, use your feet to “pull” the ground toward you. To see this in action, next time you walk your dog, get behind him and notice how dogs (all animals) step and pull the ground towards them.
You’ll know if you are doing this correctly because when you do you’ll feel an intense tightening in your hams.
Sled walks can be done in place of any of the other hamstring/glute exercises listed above. Start with 3 trips of 30-yards, and try to work up to 6. At that point, add weight.
If there’s one thing that makes the cardio crowd gasp in horror more than me telling them I think cardio is a waste of time, it’s when I tell them that instead of jogging on some God-forsaken treadmill, I go out and sprint!
Sprints are the long lost training tool that can improve your conditioning, torch bodyfat, and develop a killer set of hamstrings. Even if you are not an athlete, sprinting is still a great idea. The very act of sprinting places a tremendous and unique stress on the hams, glutes, and hips. Just take a look at the legs of any sprinter or NFL Cornerback, and you’ll get a good idea of what sprinting can do for your legs!
Remember, for the purposes of hamstring development, we will keep the sprints short. We are not after conditioning here (that’s another story for another article).
Start with 4 – 5 sprints of 30 yards. Build up to 8. Then, you can start playing with distances; try 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and even some Backpedal Sprints. If you haven’t sprinted in a while, start slow! You may not feel much while you’re out there running, but sprinting can cause big time soreness.
Treat sprints like the Upright Sled Walks: they can be done as an alternative to any of the other hamstring exercises or they can be given their own day. I’ve found that most athletes like to knock the sprints out right after their dynamic (speed) lower day. Some like to do them at the end of a heavy leg session. Experiment and see what works best for you.
There you have it. If your hamstring training is lacking pick two or three of these movements, put them in your program and watch your hamstrings produce Extreme Football Speed!