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8 AFL Specific Strength Training Mistakes

Once you start to actually strength training to be a better footballer, rather than strength training the same as everyone else does, you will ask yourself why I didn’t begin training AS a FOOTBALLER earlier.

Why are there so many mistakes still being made with ineffective training programs? I see the same mistakes being made repeatedly each day by amateur/country level footballers (and sadly even guys playing at even higher levels) aiming to improve their performance on the field but going about it in all the wrong ways.

Mistake #1 – Training like a bodybuilder rather than like a footballer

Classic mistake. Unfortunately, the player with the biggest biceps probably isn’t going to help you become a better footballer. There is a huge difference between training for these two completely different sports. Whilst a certain amount of size is certainly good for a physical sport like footy, too much size is often detrimental, as your cardiovascular system will have to work even harder than previously, simply just to maintain the level you were at previously. Not only that, but even a slight gain in size is detrimental if you aren’t gaining at least a proportional improvement in functional strength. Just because you are putting on size doesn’t mean that you are improving your performance, and in most cases, they aren’t improving at all.

Mistake #2 – Training primarily in 1 plane of movement

Football is played in a 3-dimensional environment, where our bodies are challenged in 3 planes of movement (sagittal, frontal and transverse.) So, it would make sense to train our bodies in all 3 planes of movement, yet if you look at the strength training programs out there, about 90% of exercises performed are in the sagittal plane. Interestingly, about 85% of soft tissue and joint injuries that occur in football occur in the frontal and transverse planes.

Mistake #3 – Sticking to the same sets and reps’ schemes for each exercise –ALL YEAR ROUND

Sets, reps, rest time and intensity are all interdependent variables that are rarely considered when training, however, a little more understanding of these is required when it comes to getting the most from your football strength training program.

It is well known at the elite level of sport (and has been for decades) that the way you train (what types of exercises, how much weight, how many sets and reps, how much rest time, etc) must be changed at different times over the course of the season, depending on what stage of the year it is. If not, not only will you stop making gains in performance, but you will actually go backwards!

Mistake # 4- Too much isolation training

This is another bodybuilding habit that has infected the training programs of many athletes. In short, if you are doing bicep curls and tricep extensions and shoulder abductions and calf raises, you aren’t improving your physical performance for football at all. You are simply isolating a muscle in a way that it is never actually isolated in football, and as a result, gaining nothing. When you are training to improve your performance and functional capacity, you must train your nervous system not just your muscles. Your nervous system controls your muscles and every movement you perform, and if your nervous system isn’t being trained and improved, neither is your performance. Isolation training does nothing for your nervous system or your performance. Don’t get me wrong, isolation training has a place (specifically with the initial stages of rehab or if there is a real specific focus that you require to correct a deficiency.) However, if you are an athlete with only limited time to dedicate to strength training (say 2- 3 sessions) then you must make everyone a real efficient one with ‘bang for your buck’ exercises. Isolation exercises are at the bottom of your list.

Mistake #5 - Too much machine training

Only of the pin loaded or plate loaded machines. Cable pulley systems do not count as machines. A functional strength training program for footy will not include any machine exercises. Or if it does, they will be minimal, and only considered once the real exercises have been completed for the session.

Football requires a great deal of core control and joint stability when performing anyone of a wide range of movements; accelerating, decelerating, kicking, changing direction, jumping, marking, tackling or absorbing contact just to name a few. These are tremendously challenging tasks, and is it any wonder so many injuries to shoulders and knees and hips arise when we are forced to perform these tasks yet don’t condition our bodies for them? A certain amount of ‘prehab’ (‘prehabilitation’ – conditioning appropriately before any injury arises) is a necessity and should be a focus of every sport strength training program, not just football. In short, any exercise done on a machine does not provide for this, as these exercises do not require any work from your core muscles or joint stabilisers, as the machine is on a fixed axis, meaning the machine determines the path of your movement, regardless of if you have any control of it or not.

Mistake #6 - Not enough focus on muscle balance, mobilisation and recovery

Tight muscles and muscle imbalances leading to poor posture around certain joints or over the whole body (as an imbalance in one place will normally lead to imbalances elsewhere) will lead to pains and eventually injury. It may seem obvious that a certain degree of flexibility is required to play football effectively and with minimal soft tissue and joint injuries, however you can also exacerbate existing muscle imbalances with a poorly rounded strength training program. In fact, a great majority of the guys you see around you at the gym who on the outside have impressive looking physiques, actually have bad muscle imbalances as a result of poor training programs. In other words, they may look good, but their balance and functional capacity for movement isn’t good. It probably doesn’t really matter if you are training for your next bodybuilding event, but as soon as you start competing in a sport requiring some functional and explosive movement, particularly the most dynamic sport on the planet in Australian football, you are placing yourself in a position where injury is inevitable, if not in the short term than at some stage later.

It is important to realise that poor muscle balance and whole body posture will not just greatly increase the incidence of injury, but also reduce your movement efficiency and therefore by definition, your performance.

Mistake #7 – Not enough lower body strength training

Another classic. If 50% of your strength training isn’t spent on your lower body, you aren’t doing enough. No the running work you do doesn’t count! This mistake isn’t as commonly known as you may think it is, and you may not realise just how widespread this is. We know that biceps and chest and triceps are common in the gym, and if you need to miss a workout, its leg day. Strong legs are more important to you than bigger biceps or chest. At the end of the day, these things are irrelevant, because you want to be a better conditioned footballer, not a bodybuilder.

Mistake #8 – Being too anterior chain focused

Posterior chain can go under-trained, and as a result, muscle imbalances develop, and over time, as more and more training and playing occurs with such imbalances, injury results. 2 great examples in footy; hamstring injuries as a result of under training the hamstring and glutes, and only focusing on quads, and shoulder injuries (particularly dislocations and subluxations) as a result of upper body muscle imbalance and the resulting poor rounded posture (shoulders rounded and chest depressed, too much bench pressing) In short, we must not forget the back half of our body if we want to improve performance, but also reduce injury.

Bodybuilding itself is a sport, and I don’t know of any bodybuilders that strength train like a footballer, or a netballer, or a swimmer.