When football players hit the gym, they usually focus on either heavy weight training to build size and strength or specific drills to improve athletic performance at a combine-style skills showcase. Both styles of training are important, and both styles have their place.
But maybe more than any other sport, football—with its sheer speed and raw collisions—demands explosive hips, cutting ability, and agility to transition quickly between acceleration and deceleration.
That’s why plyometric exercises are so valuable for football players. Plyometrics—up-and-down, side-to-side, and twisting movements—develop both strength and speed, activate the body’s central nervous system, and stimulate fast-twitch muscle fibers that enable the athlete to generate force quickly.
Plyometrics also help defend a player’s body against injury on the field by improving an athlete’s “elasticity,” the ability to withstand the rapid loads and muscle lengthening that occurs on each play. Think of a wide receiver straining to catch the ball or a defensive end maneuvering toward the quarterback—those motions demand explosive elasticity.
These 10 basic exercises—focused on plyometrics—will improve your ability to accelerate and decelerate on the football field and recover quickly between practices and games.
Pete Williams is a NASM-certified personal trainer and the author or co-author of a number of books on performance and training.
1. 3-Hurdle Drill
Why you should do it: This drill improves quickness and your body’s ability to perform cutting movements important in football. It also improves coordination.
How to do it: Take three low (about 6”) hurdles—books, cups, bricks, or similar objects will work—and lay each 2 to 3 feet apart from the other. Stand over the first obstacle. Quick-step laterally (that is, side to side) over the obstacles, never crossing feet. Rapidly reverse direction. Only your outside foot should go beyond the last obstacle. Go for 30 seconds.
2. Box Blast
Why you should do it: To improve explosive power in your hips and legs, which is especially important when creating separation from opponents on the field.
How to do it: Stand with one foot flat on a low (about 6-12”) box, arms bent to 90 degrees and cocked back. Jump vertically by exploding through the front leg, extending the hip, knee, and ankle. Land in the starting position—land on both feet but with slightly more weight on the box foot—and, without pausing, immediately take off the same foot, repeating the jump for 10 reps. Repeat with the other leg.
3. Lateral Bound
Why you should do it: To build explosive lateral power in your legs, which is important in football regardless of position.
How to do it: Stand in athletic stance, with both feet on the ground but most of your weight on your right leg. Squat slightly with the right leg, then use it and your glutes to jump to your left. Extend your right leg as you leap and land on your left leg only. Regain your balance and repeat to the other side. Hold for a count of three on each side. Do 10 per side.
4. 90/90 Stretch
Why you should do it: This opens up the torso and muscles of the middle and upper back—areas that take a pounding in football—and makes them more flexible.
How to do it: Lie on your left side with your legs stacked and knees bent to 90 degrees. Hold a pad or towel between your knees. While maintaining pressure on the pad or towel and keeping your hips still, rotate your chest and right arm back to the right. Trying to put both shoulder blades on the ground. Hold it for at least two seconds and return to starting position. Do 10 reps per side.
5. Base Rotations
Why you should do it: This works your hips, knees and ankles—all potential trouble spots for football players—while improving coordination.
How to do it: Stand with your knees slightly bent and your feet angled out slightly. Keeping your chest facing straight ahead, hop slightly off the floor and quickly rotate your hips to the right as you move your arms left. Land and jump back to the left, moving the arms right. Each jump should be very quick—you’re aiming for maximum speed. Continue for 30 seconds.
6. Squat Jump
Why you should do it: This works the hips, knees, and ankles. The so-called ‘triple flexion response’ creates power on the field, whether you’re running, leaping, or battling an opponent.
How to do it: Stand with your feet just outside your shoulders and your hands behind your head. Squat, keeping your knees behind your toes. After holding this position for two seconds, jump vertically. Think about pulling your toes to your shins in midair to prepare for landing. Land in the starting squat position, hold 3 seconds, and repeat for 10 reps. Be sure to land softly, with the hips back and down.
7. Ankle Jump
Why you should do it: This builds explosive power in your lower legs and helps with ankle flexibility, often a trouble spot and potential source of injury for football players.
How to do it: Stand with legs straight, arms to the side, and toes cocked toward your shins. Fire your calves and bounce off the ground as quickly as possible for 30 seconds by extending the ankles and pushing off the balls of your feet. Use the ground force to propel yourself up, landing on the balls of your feet.
8. Single-Leg Hurdle Hop
Why you should do it: By extending through the hip on one foot and landing on that same leg, you’re learning to land and absorb force, reducing the possibility of injuries common to the violent collisions and landings of football.
How to do it: Stand on one leg in front of a line of low (6”) hurdles. Hop over one hurdle, sticking and holding the landing on the same leg. Repeat over remaining hurdles. Land softly, absorbing the force through your hip and glute. Change sides and repeat on opposite leg.
9. Foam Rolling
Why you should do it: Sort of a poor man’s massage, foam rolling uses deep compression to roll out muscle spasms and imbalances that develop from the pounding football players take in practice and games. The compression causes the nerves to relax and also loosens muscle, gets the blood flowing, and helps the body recover.
How to do it: Roll along the roller anywhere you feel tight and in need of a massage. The foam roll not only addresses muscle imbalances, it’s a great barometer of the quality of your muscle and connective tissue. Recovery is a key part of football and the foam roller will help get you back on the field more quickly.
10. Trigger Point
Why you should do it: Even if you don’t play tennis, lacrosse or baseball, any of the balls used in those sports can improve your game. This “trigger-point therapy” will help relieve chronic foot pain and fascial tightness, which is a result of everyday life but especially from playing on hard surfaces such as the artificial turf still common at some levels of football. According to Eastern medicine, this process also improves overall health.
How to do it: Keep a lacrosse ball, tennis ball, or baseball under your desk. While standing or sitting, slip off your shoe, and roll back and forth over the ball, applying pressure to the arch of your foot.