Just as all great football teams have common traits (good defense, team work, great coaching), all football strength programs share common qualities that set them apart from the pack. Here are the seven traits that separate the great strength programs from those that look good on paper but produce nothing.

1. Build insane strength

Strength is the root of all success in football. We all know (or should know) that max strength is foundational to all other elements of athleticism (strength, speed, agility). So why would some programs completely ignore the very building block of athletic success?

Two reasons:

  1. They come from the “too much strength is bad” HIT Jedi crowd.
  2. They don’t understand how to build actual top end strength.

The former group believes that because elite super heavyweight Olympic lifters and powerlifters are generally big, strong, and appear to move slowly, building that kind of max strength will make an athlete slower. They see a guy pull an 800-lb deadlift and think that because the bar is moving (relatively) slow, the football player will be slow if he lifts heavy.

First, it's the intent to move the bar as fast as possible that counts. Second, football speed (and any other sport’s speed) is based on force production. How much force can your legs produce into the ground? How much force can your legs put into the ground through your hips and into your opponent's chest? The answer is determined by how strong you are. Why on earth would anyone think that a guy who squats 140 lbs would hit harder than a 600-lb squatter? Isaac Newton would smash an apple on your head for such blasphemy.

Now on to the second point. Moving your weight up five lbs a week while doing endless workouts of three sets of eight will only get you so far…and that’s not very far at all. The same is true for the descending rep schemes. Simply dropping reps from 12 to six over the course of several weeks isn't real strength gain. All you’re doing is reducing volume, but the weight never changes much.

It’s sad how many players talk about their disappointment when they go to max outs and discover the supposed weight they should be able to hit based on the percentage of their six reps/sets is a work of science fiction. What you can do for one rep (i.e. how much force you can produce for a short burst) is in a completely different universe from what you can do for sets of eight.

To add to their frustration, the writers of bad football workouts don’t explain that if their one-rep max improves, so does their eight-rep max. But improving their eight-rep max does absolutely nothing for their max out strength. As we talked about earlier, your max strength is what determines how fast you are, how hard you hit, how high you jump, and ultimately how good of a football player you can become.

Work on max strength with multiple sets of low reps or by doing max effort work. Don't be afraid to have beginners do low reps, especially multiple sets of triples.

2. Have a template, not a tablet

If there’s anything worse than the “strength is bad crowd,” it’s the “set in stone” guys. These are the athletes and coaches who picked out a style of training (usually without much thought) and blindly applied the principals. They won't change even when failing and refuse to accept that someone else’s teachings might help them. You’d think they were handed stone tablets with strength training rules on some mountain in the Middle East.

There’s a company in Utah that is notorious for such things and they do it with only a basic knowledge of how to get stronger, bigger, or faster for football. But I’m not naming them so figure it out on your own. Anyway, this  company and those like it are a perfect example of putting together a program, incorrectly applying sound principles (use of chains, incorrect box squatting) and using percentages so rigidly that the actual physical, mental, and psychological state of the athlete is ignored.

This was also a huge problem when word got out about how the Bulgarians and Soviets trained their Olympic lifters. Suddenly, every high school football strength program had guys training at X percentage today and Y tomorrow. Why? The chart said so. This isn't any way to train an athlete!

Rather than be dogmatic, successful football and athletic strength programs typically follow a template based on their core beliefs. There’s a reason certain programs are so successful—they have their beliefs and principals but are willing to try and experiment with just about anything they think can help them get stronger. Football programs need to follow suit.

Don’t be afraid to listen to someone who does things differently than you. There might just be something there that can help your program go to the next level. Keep your beliefs and vision, but be adaptable if you want to be successful.

3. Know the needs of the sport

I’ll admit that as a football player and someone who is responsible for the strength and conditioning of football players, this point makes me insane. I’m not a sports-specific maniac, but your program must address the needs of your sport. This is usually a huge problem with conditioning, but it infects the strength portion of the program as well.

There’s a “football workout” posted online that ranks on the first page of Google. It was written by a personal trainer from a very large fitness orientated gym chain. The program is awful. It has insane volume, no heavy leg work, and, for the love of God, tempos.

Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated incident. I get emails from coaches and players who structure their program that way because they read it on a website or in one of the bodybuilding magazines. They mean well, but they're completely missing the point. They usually believe that if your ten-rep squat moves up five lbs, they’re getting stronger for football.

As we talked about in point one, we know this isn’t true. Football players need to be insanely strong. Strength equals speed. If two guys have similar technique, the stronger guy will win. Your training should reflect this. If you coach wrestlers or MMA guys, guess what? They need to be strong too. It’s true of pretty much all athletes.

Now, the bigger culprit is on the conditioning end. No matter how many times it’s written, put on video, or screamed about, guys are still jogging in an attempt to get in game shape. Why is this so hard to understand? We don’t jog in a game. We never run distance. The aerobic base myth is pure poppycock so stop doing it!

Football is a game made up of short, intense bursts. Tudor Bompa once remarked, “A football linebacker performs like a bulldozer—in short bursts, mowing down everything in his path. To have this athlete perform distance running is blasphemy.”

Sprinting or running with a sled or the Prowler somehow isn't as effective as the things the guys on the cross country team do?

4. Constantly improve

If there’s one negative that many coaches and athletes share, it’s wanting magical results instantly. For coaches who are still on the fence about the values of a solid strength program, the time it takes to see dramatic results can be maddening. And of course, we all know most players want to go from benching the bar to 300 lbs in two weeks. Anything less is seen as a dramatic failure. Maybe it’s a condition of our instant gratification world, but most guys don't have enough patience when it comes to improving in the weight room and on the field.

Having max out days, record boards, and skill testing/stats are great ways to mark the big accomplishments. They should be spotlighted because they are huge for motivation. But after a disappointing max out day, the wait can be hell. Thus, we must also put an emphasis on the smaller victories—the PR days no matter what the exercise, the small improvements in form, speed, or jumping ability. Mini-testing and impromptu strength tests can be just what some guys need to keep the motivation high and serve as short-term reminders that what they’re doing is working.

Another solution is to film everything. If the school allows, video strength, conditioning, and speed sessions. Take pictures during sessions. We live in the day to day and can lose sight of where we were just a few weeks ago. Sometimes seeing those 10 lbs of muscle you gained in a picture or how much better you’re sprinting on film is even bigger than hitting a huge PR in the squat. Always strive for constant improvement.

5. Build game speed

Somewhere along the line, football speed training went to hell in a hand basket. The track influence combined with every gimmick imaginable led to guys working hard and spending money but ending up frustrated when they found their fancy new 40-yard time did absolutely nothing for their abilities on the football field. If you want your strength and conditioning program to lead to more wins on the field, forget the damn 40 and concentrate on building game speed!

Game speed is what gets you to the ball carrier and gets running backs into the end zone and defensive linemen to the quarterback. It’s also what wins games.


Make sure you address maximum strength and that maximum force applied to the weights in the weight room. Move laterally. Use sleds and Prowlers. Work on flexibility. Train with sandbags and odd objects to work the body in the ways it has to work on the field. Worry about building the strength needed to produce more force so you can get faster for football in the only way that counts—on the field!

6. Address skills and mobility along with speed and strength

Being big and strong is great, but you must be able to move on the field. Training football skills and mobility is extremely simple, but as with most things, people overcomplicate. There isn't any need to design extreme skill/mobility sessions for your off days. Simply recognize what skills you need to develop, such as general movement skills that can be addressed with exercises like:

  • High knees
  • Butt kicks
  • Striders
  • Lunges
  • Lateral lunges

Then move on to specific football skills. For example, an offensive lineman might get into a stance and then go through all these steps. Then build from the steps into a short, fire out sprint. Then do some pass blocking steps, shuffles, or other related movements.

Do this as part of your warm up. If you’re getting in between 100 and 120 workouts throughout the year and include some skill work each time, you will improve beyond what you ever thought possible. And what I just described can be done in less than ten minutes. Then move on to any needed mobility work including:

  • Stretching the hips, back, legs, and shoulder girdle
  • Foam rolling when needed
  • Dynamic stretching

Doing this several times per week will pay such a huge return on the time invested that it has to be seen to be believed. Why wait until four weeks before the season begins to start actually training for football?

If you can, try to get the guys out “playing” football even in the off-season. This is a form of conditioning, but it’s also a way to increase athletic ability. Simply line up what you have and let them play. Really, they’re running endless sprints of differing length, but they’re doing it in the name of fun. Just remember to stress the importance of using good form. (Even if they’re playing flag, remind them to break down the same as if they were tackling.)

7. Have long-term visions and values built in

Anyone who’s coached for awhile will know this. If you take over the job of a strength coach for football players or athletes of any kind, you have them for four years. If you don’t have a long-term vision of what your program will look like, the results you’re after, and the methods you’ll use to get there, you don’t have a program. You have a mash-up of random workouts.

Keep your template, but keep an eye on the long-term development of your players on the field, in the weight room, in the classroom, and in life. Some of the greatest life lessons I learned were out on that practice field and in the weight room from a coach who was just as obsessed with making us better men as making us better players. Never underestimate your influence on a young player.