College football workouts are mentally and physically taxing. They're built to strip you down and build you up into the complete athlete — one with the strength, speed, flexibility, quickness, power, and endurance necessary to succeed on the field. The game requires it all. But without a coach present, football strength and conditioning programs can be difficult to manage.
So we're here give you the everything you need to create and execute a football strength and conditioning workout program in our ultimate college football fitness guide.
Here's the guide to the guide:
1. Football Workout Plan Goals
2. Create a Strength and Conditioning Schedule
a. Strength and Power
b. Speed and Agility
c. Endurance Training
3. Football Strength Straining Concepts
a. How to Warm Up
b. Splits and Workout Schedule
i. Phase One: Loading
ii. Phase Two: Muscular Endurance
iii. Phase Three: Tempo
d. Football Lifts
4. Rest and Recovery
Before you start thinking about how to structure your plan, it's important to know exactly what you want to get out of this.
The first thing you need to do is set a target for yourself. In a piece called 6 Things Football Players Must Do to Get Better This Off-Season by Stack.com, Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson said, "a football player at any level must set goals. Goals give you a mark to shoot for and keep you motivated when you face adversity." [divider]
Football Workout Plan Goals
You should have short, middle, and long-term goals. In the short-term (one to seven days), goals need to be specific and attainable. "I will hit the gym three days this week and also spend three days on the field," or, "I will not miss a meal this week," or, "I'm going to wake up an hour early and go for a run four days this week."
In the middle-term (one to two months) your goals should relate to your fitness. Maybe that means you want to add 20 pounds to your bench press or cut 0.1 seconds off your 40-yard-dash time — whatever it is, write it down and keep it somewhere you will see it every day. This will constantly remind you that your football offseason workout schedule isn't a nine-month commitment — it's a one-day commitment you repeat every day for nine months.
Your longer-term goals should be more conceptual, but still specific and personal. These aren't goals for your team — you and your teammates can discuss team-goals before the season. These goals are for you and you alone. Maybe your long-term goal is to be the starter on opening day, or lead your conference in tackles, rack up double-digit sacks, or get recruited by your dream school. Commit this goal to memory and think about it often. Visualize it coming true.
In this way, your college football workouts start before you ever set foot in a gym or on the field, or even on campus. When you visualize yourself accomplishing your goals, you bring them one step closer to reality. Imagine how it's going to feel when you get there, and don't skimp on the details.
What do your pads feel like? What does the crowd sound like? What's your assignment? How does your body feel?
The more you visualize before you get to the big day, the calmer you'll be in the moment because you've been there before — every single night. These visualization exercises will also help to keep you motivated when your offseason strength and conditioning workouts get tough. [divider]
Create a Strength and Conditioning Schedule
Your college football training program isn't a program unless it has a schedule. Write down a schedule you can commit to every week and make it a priority. You don't need to plan the specific lifts or exercises you'll do, but you do want write the focus of each day and stick to this plan.
There's no such thing as an off day, by the way — your body doesn't take them. Everything you do will either help you get better or make you worse, so make sure that even on your days off lifting, you're getting the most out of your rest and recovery. We'll talk more about this later.
Aim for six days "on", one day "off" per week. Your "on" days will cycle through several types of strength and conditioning workouts — some for strength and power, some for speed an agility, some for flexibility and stabilization, and some for endurance. Most of your workouts should be a combination of all of the above.
Obviously your college football workout program should be tailored to the demands of your position — linemen should spend more time on strength and power than defensive backs, for example, who should focus more on speed and agility — but every football player needs to be athletically well-rounded.
Your offseason strength and conditioning program should include at least one of the following types of workout per "on" day. Mix and match them to maximize your benefit, but be sure not to overdo on any muscle group. So don't do speed and agility after you do a lower body weight workout. Make sense?
Strength and Power (3-4 days per week)
Men's Fitness has a good football lifting program you can use as a basis for your football weight training program. It's three days a week and focuses on "compound lifts" like squats, bench press, and power cleans. These multi-joint lifts use more than one muscle group at a time to help stabilize, balance, and add strength to every movement on and off the field.
Make sure to change up your football weightlifting program once every three weeks or so — your body is great at adapting to stress so you need to periodically change it up so you can continue to grow. NFL.com posted an article with some great do's and don'ts for periodization in a recent piece about creating a football offseason workout program. They also talk a bit about football nutrition and training safety.
Core needs to be a big focus of your football training program as well. Hips, back, and core are a football player's powerhouse — if these aren't strong he's at a much greater risk for injury, and a much greater risk of getting run over on the field. Incorporate planks, tire flips, wood choppers, and core circuits into your offseason training plan. Check out the video below for a circuit you can add to the end of your regular weight training routine.
Speed and Agility (2-3 days per week)
All the strength and power in the world won't help you if you can't get to your assignment on the field. Football is a stop-and-go game, so the speed portion of your strength and conditioning program should be built around short bursts at 100% effort. Focus on things like wind sprints, ladders, and cone drills — anything where you have to accelerate and decelerate quickly in short bursts. Between each drill, rest for long enough to get back to almost full recovery so you can go full-bore again. This is how you'll develop "football speed."
Check out the following video for some excellent drills to make you faster on the field.
Endurance Training (2-3 days per week)
Endurance training for a football player isn't about long-distance running, swimming, biking, or any other steady-state cardio. An endurance football workout is more about repetitions. Lots of sprints. You want to exhaust yourself physically and mentally, since that's where you'll be in a game. Check out these sprint workouts for football players to get an idea. This is how you'll get into "football shape."
Football Strength Training Concepts
How to Warm Up
Football workouts should begin with a dynamic warmup. Every time. It doesn't matter if you're on the track doing speed and agility training, in the gym doing your weight training program, or on the field running routes — a good warmup is essential to preventing injury and performing your best.
To start, get your heart rate up with a short jog. Not more than five minutes at 70% exertion — just to get your blood pumping. Once you're warm, it's time to stretch. But avoid static stretching before you work out. A 2013 meta-study found static stretching prior to a workout can reduce strength by 5.4%, power by 1.9%, and explosive performance by 2.0% in subjects no matter what their age and gender. Static stretching can be good when you're finished with your football workout, but not before.
Instead, stretch dynamically — through movement — as demonstrated in the video below.
Splits and Workout Structure
You can choose to structure your football weight training program in many different ways. Some people like to do upper body one day and lower body the next. Others like to do a "push" day followed by a "pull" day, where you push weight away from the center of your body one day with lifts like bench press, shoulder press, and squats, and pull it toward you the next with things like dead lifts, rowers, pull ups, and curls.
How you split it up is up to you. Maybe for the first three weeks of your offseason weight program you decide to do an upper/lower split, then the next three weeks you do a push/pull split. Whatever you do, just be sure not to work the same muscle group to fatigue two days in a row. Your muscles need 48 hours of recovery time after you push them to failure before you can do it again.
Whatever you decide to do on a given day, always think "middle out." Start with your biggest muscles first — the ones closer to the center of your body (chest, back, glutes, quads, hamstrings) and work your way out to smaller muscles at the end of the workout (shoulders, biceps, triceps, calves).
The reason you do this is because you need your triceps to get the most out of your bench press. If your triceps are tired when you start your bench, you won't be able to work your chest as hard as you should. But you don't need your chest to do triceps extensions. Big lifts first.
The three most important lifts for football are squats, bench, and power cleans. These are compound lifts like we talked about earlier, and should be done immediately after you warm up, before you do any other lifts. Why? Each of these "big muscle" lifts requires several different muscle groups to work in unison, so if you fatigue one part of the chain before you start, you won't get as much out of them as you could.
Phase One: Loading
At the beginning of the offseason, focus on building power by lifting high weight at low rep counts. Aim to fail between 4-6 reps each set, and recover fully before you go again. Along with proper diet and rest (which we'll discuss below), this will help you gain muscle. The first 6-8 weeks are called your "load phase."
If you need to gain weight, this is your best time to do it. Nutrition is the biggest part of weight gain or weight loss, and we'll cover that below, but workouts are important as well. You'll use many of the same techniques bodybuilders and strongman competitors use to grow muscle mass.
Phase Two: Muscular Endurance
After about six weeks of low-rep, high-weight work (maybe three weeks of an upper/lower split and three weeks of a push/pull split) you will start phase two. In this phase, increase your rep target to between 6-10 per set. As you do this, the rest period should decrease from 90 seconds to around 60 seconds between each set. This will help develop muscular endurance. You'll be able to lift the same amount of weight more times and therefore keep your strength up over the course of a game.
Phase Three: Tempo
As the season approaches, you enter phase three, where you move away from isolation splits like the push/pull or upper/lower you've been working so far and move toward full-body workouts. You will reduce the rest even further through a principle called reciprocal inhibition — where you work opposing muscle groups on alternating sets.
For example, after you warm up, you might start your workout routine with alternating sets of bench press and bent over rows with 15-30 seconds of rest between each set. When you flex your chest, your back muscles are forced to rest. When you flex your back, your chest is forced to rest. This is reciprocal inhibition, which keeps your heart rate high while still allowing each muscle group adequate time to rest and recover before you put a load on it again.
Squats help build muscle in your quads, glutes, hamstrings, back, and core. Basically everything that helps you run faster, jump higher, and hit harder. But they need to be done right. Your football training plan is built to make you better, but if you don't pay attention to your form it could make you worse.
Volt Athletics' blog posted an article about perfect squat form. In it, they talk about the five things you need to do well to stay safe and get the most out of squats.
(By the way, Volt Athletics is a terrific resource for training information and football workouts. Their certified strength and conditioning specialists have developed a custom training platform for athletes of every level. They have custom individual athlete plans as well as team programs where coaches can monitor and direct players' training schedules. Might be worth talking to your coaches and teammates about.)
This lift will help you shed blocks and would-be tacklers by developing your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
During the early part of your football offseason weight training program, focus on power — you should aim to fail between four and six reps each set. Failure is good in this scenario, by the way, because you're failing in a controlled environment. Your body is doing absolutely everything it can to help you escape from what feels like a life-and-death scenario. When you fail, your muscles respond. While you rest they grow, hopefully so they will be ready to overcome the same strain next time.
This is why it's essential to always lift with a spotter when you use a barbell to bench press. You run the risk of serious injury if you fail without a spotter. The best case scenario is the weight lands on on your chest and you have to tip it off or roll it off. Neither are fun. The worst-case scenario is significantly more serious. Former USC running back Stafon Johnson had to undergo more than seven hours of surgery after a bar fell on his neck. He missed a whole season.
If you don't have a spotter, replace the barbell bench with dumbbell press. Dumbbells are actually a good idea for many upper body lifts. Your shoulders are incredible joints — they have the widest range of motion of any joint in your body, but as a result, are more susceptible to injury.
Shoulder presses and upright raises are safer with dumbbells because dumbbells allow your shoulders to move independently. A barbell can put unnecessary strain on your rotator cuffs.
There are many variations of the clean. Some are better for football training than others but no matter which you decide to use, you need to be careful. Cleans are one of the most technical lifts you'll do as a part of your football lifting program. They can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing.
Cleans are absolutely fantastic for hip explosiveness and strength, and are therefore one of the best exercises to help you hit harder, increase your vertical jump, and become a better football player.
Rest and Recovery
Your body doesn't take days off. Even when you're not in the gym, your body is going through metabolic processes that will either make you better or make you worse. So don't think of your days outside the gym as days off — they're rest days, and you need to rest just as hard as you work out if you want to see the benefit of your football training program.
When you work out, you create micro-tears in your muscle fiber. Basically, you're injuring yourself on a microscopic scale. That's why you're sore. But when you rest and give your body the fuel it needs to grow, it will come back stronger the next time, better able to face your grueling football weight training sessions.
This article breaks down the seven most important parts of rest: getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, eating right, maintaining good posture, stretching, self-myofascial release (foam rolling), and heat/ice/compression. It's a great place to start. [divider]
Buried all the way down at the bottom of the article is maybe the most important part of your football training plan: nutrition. If your diet isn't right, it won't matter how much time you put into your strength and conditioning routine, you won't get any better.
There are a few basic rules to follow. Avoid alcohol, sugar, processed carbohydrates, and anything from a package. Choose complex carbohydrates like oats, sweet potatoes, brown rice, wheat bread, and whole grains over simple carbohydrates like sugar, white bread, white rice, and white potatoes. Your body will ultimately turn any carbohydrate into sugar (glucose), which it needs to fuel your muscles and brain.
The only difference between a complex carb and a simple carb is the amount of time it takes for your body to break it down into glucose. Simple carbs are broken down and absorbed by the body very quickly, too quickly actually. When your body's glucose stores are full it has to store that energy somewhere, so it converts it into fat. Complex carbs are longer chains of sugars. They are broken down slowly, so your body has time to use the energy they provide as it is absorbed, resulting in less fat retention.
Aim for 1-2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. You really don't need to overdo it with protein. Your body can only utilize about 40 grams of protein for muscle synthesis at one time, so eating more than that in a sitting won't help as much as you might think. Spread out your protein consumption throughout the day to see maximum benefit.
Speaking of which, spreading your meals out throughout the day, with your biggest meals coming first thing in the morning and right after your workout, will allow your body to stay constantly fueled. The more consistent you can be, the less your body will retain excess fat. A well-rounded meal every three hours will keep you lean and mean.
Don't avoid all fats either. Fats are essential in hormone production (testosterone). Try to get a good amount of your fat from unsaturated sources like avocados, olive oil, and fish. Animal fats are okay too, in small doses.
This article on nutrition for football players is a great place to start your own research into nutrition. [divider]
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns about anything mentioned here, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @HEROSportsColt. I was a personal trainer for years and had to learn most of the lessons above the hard way. I'm not a nutritionist, nor am I a trainer anymore. I'm just a guy who has done a lot of research about football workouts, strength and conditioning, and football in general.
Feel free to leave any details about your football weight training program in the comments below.