Marc R. Bernier, PT CSCS, HealthSouth Soccer International Director
The nature of the sport of soccer poses many inherent challenges for coaches as they attempt to devise conditioning programs for their teams. Despite recent focus and education on optimal training methods, many “soccer conditioning specialists” still advocate the use of long distance, constant speed training drills and testing protocols (as evident during a recent internet search). In order to maximize the effectiveness of the training regiment, the training techniques must closely mimic the skills, movement patterns, and coordinated muscle activation patterns of the sport. Additionally, it is imperative that the appropriate energy systems are trained during the conditioning sessions.
Over the past several years, coaches have become more aware of the benefits of conditioning, which include optimized performance and injury prevention. However, there are “pitfalls” that some coaches have unknowingly fallen into when implementing a training program. The first is the belief that “windsprints” are a sufficient method to maximize soccer specific conditioning. The sport of soccer involves multi-planar movements, which include: changes of direction with explosive power movements; backpedaling followed by an opening step and sprinting after an opponent; dribbling through the opponent’s defense while being challenged by sliding tackles and shoulder charges; etc. All of these situations require the need for agility, speed, power production, quick footwork, core stability and superior coordination. “Windsprints” only prepare the athlete for isolated straight-ahead running, which is a relatively rare occurrence during a match. Additionally, performing 10 sprints at the end of a practice session will have little effect on the athlete’s conditioning level.
Circuit training has been a very popular strength training philosophy that has been used for many years in gyms and weight rooms. During a circuit training session, multiple stations are set up in which the participant performs different strengthening exercises at each successive station. For instance, a five station circuit can have the following components: 1. bench press; 2. lat pull-downs; 3. tricep push-downs; 4. rows; 5. bicep curls. A pre-determined time frame is established for completion of the exercise at each station, with specified rest intervals between each station. The end result is a very efficient, expedient workout that encompasses multiple muscle groups within the body. This form of exercise training allows a higher number of participants to utilize the available equipment and complete a full workout.
This same concept can be adapted to on-the-field soccer specific conditioning, with tremendous results. In order to achieve the best results, several criteria have to be met within each training session:
– Each station must have a specific objective that is fully understood by all the players.
– The intensity of effort at each station must be maximal, with a high degree of internal motivation on behalf of the athlete.
– Proper skill technique and form (i.e. – sprint technique) must be stressed and perfected. Performing the exercises with improper form will result in the same poor techniques being used during matches.
– Soccer-specific skills and conditioning drills must closely resemble those activities the player will perform during games. This requires a close evaluation of the physical demands placed on the player during matches.
– Multiple soccer-specific running patterns must be incorporated into the overall session, and all muscle groups from the core (midsection) down through the lower extremities must be trained in a variety of ways that are functional.
– Appropriate rest periods must be allotted between stations; however, the interval cannot be too long such that it reduces the training effect. Another goal of interval training is to improve the players’ ability to recover between exercise bouts, which is a key physical component for success in the sport of soccer. The best circuits are those that condition the players without them even realizing it; the sessions should be fun and interesting to the players.
Performance of the circuits can be made more efficient and challenging via the use of equipment that can be purchased from any performance catalogs. During training sessions at Mountain Brook Soccer Club, we attempt to utilize as minimal amount of equipment as possible, which typically includes hurdles, agility ladders, medicine balls, plyometric hurdles and plyometric boxes. It is very important to understand that over-reliance on equipment can negate some of the effort put forth by the athlete. It is also important to note that having access to “fancy” or expensive equipment does necessarily mean that the conditioning specialist knows how to use it properly for improvements in soccer performance, or how to use it safely. It is not uncommon for players to experience over-training injuries due to conditioning specialists not properly dosing and monitoring the exercise intensity and duration.
Typical circuit training sessions should include the following types of exercises:
– Anaerobic conditioning (soccer-specific sprinting)
– Functional strengthening of the core and lower extremities
– Plyometric activities for power
– Footwork and agility training
– Balance and coordination training
– Soccer-specific skills, with or without the ball
– Acceleration and deceleration training
– Recovery stations consisting of light ball work or stretching
Each of the above components does not have to be incorporated into each session; attempts to do that may lead to over-training. Additionally, it is important to monitor the players’ performance closely; improper technique should be corrected, and excessive fatigue requires the need to insert a “cool-down” station or longer rest interval between stations.
The greatest value in circuit training relates to its ability to train both the anaerobic (short duration, high intensity) and aerobic (longer duration, submaximal intensity) energy systems, both of which are utilized during soccer. The anaerobic system is trained within each station of the circuit, which is typically 2-3 minutes in duration, while the aerobic system is trained as a result of the completion of the entire circuit (which typically last 40-45 minutes). Ideally, rest periods should be approximately 1-2 minutes in duration, depending on the intensity of the exercises. It is the ability to train these two energy systems concurrently that makes this form of conditioning so successful for the sport of soccer. Previous conditioning programs usually only stressed one of these energy systems, either in the form of windsprints alone or long distance running, neither of which when performed in isolation is optimal. The construction and implementation of a circuit training program is limited only by a coaches or conditioning specialist’s creativity. When performed in proper doses, the circuit training program should result in a safe and extremely successful conditioning vehicle for your players and teams.
Marc R. Bernier is a senior physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist at the HealthSouth Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in Birmingham, AL. He is the Director of HealthSouth Soccer International, is currently the Sports Medicine and Training Advisor for Soccer Jr. Magazine, and is a Sports Medicine Consultant for the Galatasaray Football Club of Istanbul, Turkey, 2000 U.E.F.A Cup Champions. Marc encourages questions, comments and suggestions from the soccer community regarding soccer conditioning or injuries in soccer. He can be reached at 205-930-4719, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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