If you have found yourself here, it means you’re looking to take your football performance to the next level, and I’m excited to share what’s been working for our athletes with you, so that you can strengthen your crucial leg muscles for peak performance on the field.
In our experience, strong legs are essential building blocks in most sports, with football being no exception. In order to achieve explosive speed and the dynamic changes of direction required for success on the pitch, while managing to avoid potential injury, you need not just strong but balanced strength throughout your legs.
So while building strong legs for football might seem straightforward, but we’ve seen a lot of people get it wrong. Taking the time to get it right will be the difference between performing at your best and spending weeks on the side-lines over trained.
Let’s jump right in, here’s what we’ll be looking at:
Training with football in mind – Injuries, Imbalances and Frequency
In order to build strength for football you need to train with the intention to improve your performance, understanding the needs of a football match and the demands on your body is essential.
When looking at injury data on football players, 12% of all injuries come from the hamstrings, with 60% of all injuries in the quadriceps coming from the dominant leg. This information combined with the typical muscle imbalances in football players outlines a clear directive for specific training methods to acknowledge these imbalances and reduce injury risk.
Balancing strength training and it’s benefits alongside actual football matches and training will require the number of strength training sessions to vary depending on concurrent training intensity and schedules, this will further change depending on the level of play and whether you are pre/post season or off-season. (if this is all getting a little complicated have a look at my example of a strength and conditioning plan layout for football players)
Typically you would look to train your legs up to 1-2 times a week, of course this will depend on your training load with a more moderate approach being taken if you’re in season and looking to maximise recovery. These training sessions would be split into either 1 leg specific workout or 2 full body workouts with elements of your legs being trained in both.
The Types of Leg Training We’ve Used With Our Athletes
It will come as no surprise to you that in order to build strong legs for football you have to train them, where strength training for football might differ from your typical weightlifting routine is that it will be performance focussed. That means your exercise selection will require a distinct set of guidelines:
- Both Unilateral (one-sided) and Bilateral (both-sided) movement patterns must be trained. This is essential not only for the obvious strengthening but to allow your body to be able to maintain coordination and balance throughout movements under load both on one or two legs (think jumping vs sprinting).
- A mixture of power and strength exercises must be trained. This is essential for joint health and the transference of strength at speed on the pitch in a sporting setting.
- Exercises need to be trained in multiple planes of motion (up and down as well side to side) to accommodate for the rapid changes in direction occur on the pitch.
- Exercises need to accommodate the nature of the sport itself and the requirements it demands of your body (more on this below)
So our football athletes follow strength and conditioning programmes that include strength, power, multiple planes of motion, and a mixture of one-sided and both sided exercises.
Top 5 Exercises for getting stronger at football
There a number of very beneficial leg strengthening exercises that are applicable to someone looking to increase their lower body strength in football however it’s important to make sure you’re training efficiently with your sport in mind, so here are my top 5 exercises for a stronger lower body in football.
- Hip Thrusts: While glute strength overall is often overlooked when building lower body strength, the Hip thrust exercise is an essential tool in strengthening the posterior chain. More than just a simple glute building exercise the Hip Thrust has been shown to have greater sporting carryover, specifically vertical jump height, initial sprint speed (10-20m) and T test agility drills than the back squat in a similar football focussed test group. When conducting the hip thrust make sure to focus on having your stabilising feet at a 90 degree angle with your body when at the peak of the muscle contraction, and aim to achieve the full range of motion.
- Romanian Deadlift: Typically the most under-developed leg muscles in footballers, the hamstrings make up 12% of all injuries in football players, this is in of course in part due to the nature of the sport of football and it’s rapid acceleration, deceleration and direction changes but also because footballers typically have significantly more powerful quadriceps than hamstrings with the imbalance leading to a heightened injury risk. This exercise works to help decrease the imbalance between the quads and the hamstrings to provide some level of injury prevention. When completing the Romanian deadlift aim to make sure that the bar path is moving up and down relatively close to your body, focussing on scooting your glutes and hips backwards, keeping your chin tucked.
- Front Split Squat: Would a leg training exercise list be complete without squats? The front split squat varies from the traditional back squat in two important ways and that’s why it made the list. Firstly it is unilateral, relying on individual legs for strength and the other for balance, this will increase the demand on supportive muscles to enhance coordination. Secondly in the front rack position it both loads the quads more than the back squat while additionally creating a secondary load on the core. The lift itself is more advanced than the back squat so the weight will be lower with will lower the overall stress on your nervous system aiding in recovery when trained alongside your other football sessions. When completing the Front Split Squat, aim to keep your core engaged at all times making sure to not overload the bar, maintaining good posture throughout the lift squatting until your front leg reaches a 90 degree angle.
- Lateral Bound: Moving away from typical resistance training, the lateral bound serves to strengthen the movement patterns responsible for rapid lateral movement in a controlled environment. It serves to not only help improve lateral mobility but to also bolster the supportive muscles that work to cushion the impact of similar movements you might see on the pitch. progression for this exercise would make use of resistance bands to increase the loading both on the lateral movement and the supportive muscles used in landing and maintaining balance between bounds. When doing the lateral bond think of the movement as an arch as opposed to a straight line, you want to be moving up and over as opposed to straight over, this is to minimise the loading on your ankles and minimise the injury risk, when completing the Lateral Bound, focus on pausing for a beat between bounds to maintain control and stability throughout the process.
- Isometric Back Squat: This exercise might seem a little odd BUT it has been shown recently to have very beneficial carry over to football players specifically the explosive power of the knee flexion an extension, this increase in strength and power was observed at low, mid and high speeds. When doing the isometric Back Squat, due to the isometric nature of the lift and the short term extremely high effort it requires it is important that your core is engaged and you maintain a neutral lower back throughout the lift (treat every rep as you would a 1 rep max). Aim to exert yourself for no more than 6 seconds per lift as maximum effort will dip after this, and any extra time will be surplus to requirement.
An Example Football Leg Strength Workout
When creating a lower body workout it is beneficial to centre around your “key lifts” and build accessories around this, a good example could be:
|Front Split Squat
|5-8 (each leg)
|Dumbbell Step Ups
|5-8 (each leg)
|3-5 (each side)
|Kettlebell Hip Flexor Raise
|5-8 (each leg)
If you’re looking for a more detailed and depth full training programme specific to you and your sport then reach out!
Frequently Asked Questions About Football Leg Strength
Do you need strong legs to play football?
Yes. Strong legs play an essential role in successful footballing performances. Running, sprinting. jumping and kicking as well as the less obvious physical demands like having the agility to change direction rapidly, challenging for the ball and injury prevention all require a high level of strength in the lower body.
Should you lift heavy as a footballer?
When training to build strength in your lower body specifically for football, you should aim to lift as heavy as possible while maintaining good form and reaching the prescribed number of reps. These will of course vary depending on the exercise and the intention behind it (strength/power/speed). For more info, see this S&C for football guide.
How often should I train legs if I play football?
This will depend on the football training that you do alongside your training. A good starting point for strength training in football will be to do one leg specific session a week or to aim to complete two full body training sessions which will include elements of lower body strength training.
Do footballers skip leg day?
No. Footballers, especially at the highest level, spend a significant amount of time every week strengthening their legs in order to perform at their best when it comes to game day. Skipping leg day would serve to increase the natural imbalances that are promoted by the quad dominant nature of the sport, increasing your chance of injury.
Alright, that’s it for today. Time to get to work.
- Give our example workout a try for a few weeks and see how your body responds, or take the principles from the article and use them to put together your own training session
- If you want a bit more guidance or support, then feel free to reach out and we can chat about 1:1 coaching, or drawing you up a custom programme.
- Wang, K. and Wang, Y. (2023) ‘Strength training in the lower limbs of soccer players’, Revista Brasileira de Medicina do Esporte, 29(2), pp. 1–4. doi:10.1590/1517-8692202329012022_0631.
- N Millar, L Colenso-Semple, R Lockie, Risto Marttinen, A Galpin. (2020). In-Season Hip Thrust vs. Back Squat Training in Female High School Soccer Players. Journal of International Exercise Science. 13(4), pp.49-61.
- Pietraszewski, P. et al. (2020) ‘Muscle activity asymmetry of the lower limbs during sprinting in elite soccer players’, Journal of Human Kinetics, 75(1), pp. 239–245. doi:10.2478/hukin-2020-0049.
- Ekstrand, J., Hägglund, M. and Waldén, M. (2011) Epidemiology of muscle injuries in professional football (soccer) – diva, Epidemiology of Muscle Injuries in Professional Football (Soccer). Available at: https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:402100/FULLTEXT01.pdf (Accessed: 02 January 2024).