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Soccer-Specific Strength and Fitness Training – Warm-Up, Stretching, and Flexibility
An adequate warm-up program is an important part of any stretching and flexibility regime. The right balance of warm-up and stretching an integral part of any soccer-specific strength and fitness training program. Injury prevention is a crucial consideration and and important reason for an individualized warm up, stretching, and flexibility program. Prior to initiating a workout program, a routine soccer practice or a match, the soccer athlete must be warmed up and have stretched for a period of between 15 and 30 minutes, not only to reduce the risk of injury, but to improve training results and match performance.
The proper warm-up routine has several important elements. The elements of a properly structured warm-up and stretching regimen must be integrated into a holistic strategy designed to properly engage all of the various muscles of the body in such a way as to be ready for peak performance prior to the workout, practice or competition. Every muscle and muscle group must be working together and fully warmed up in order to reduce the chance of injury, regardless of whether it is due to stress, strain or trauma.
Why is warming up so vital to the overall success of a training program?
Proper warm-up before training is important for a number of reasons and is responsible for a myriad of benefits. The properly designed warm-up routine prepares the athlete, physically and mentally, for peak performance and for strenuous, physical and mental exertion. While there are many reasons for this, the most important may be the fact that warm-up increases the body’s metabolism and core temperature. As a consequence of an overall increase in temperature, there is accordingly an increase in the temperature of the various muscles involved in training and competition. Increased muscle temperature, and the associated increase in blood flow, allows for muscles that are ready for strenuous activity, being oxygenated, fully fueled, and supple. Additionally, the warm-up will also have a positive, overall cardiovascular effect, increasing both heart and lung function and allowing for more complete delivery of oxygen and energy-providing nutrients to the musculature during periods of peak demand. Once again, this has a ripple effect and the connective tissue, so at risk during periods of strenuous activity, to be warmed up and prepared for activity prior to the workout or competition. The latter is vitally important, as many sports-related injuries are connective tissue based, as in ACL injuries!
How to Develop a Warm-up Program for a Soccer-Related Strength and Fitness Training Program
There are several factors and considerations that come into play when designing a soccer-related strength and fitness training program. Along with diet and nutrition, warm-up, stretching, and flexibility are crucial to the overall success of the program. For that reason, we will spend quite a bit of time on the proper warm-up design and integration in this article.
It goes without saying, or should anyway, that it is very important to begin with the simplest and gentlest movements and tasks first. The idea is to move from one motion and movement to the next, an overall build taking place, and once again a ripple effect leading to a fully engorged and oxygenated musculature prior to strenuous activity. The process of easy to difficult, slow to faster motions and activities, each building and compounding upon the other, fully engaging the athlete’s body and optimizing performance regardless of the task involved.
The body, if properly engaged and warmed up, will be at its mental and physical peak prior to strenuous activity and the demands of soccer-related performance, whether for strength and fitness training, practice or match play. With the body at peak readiness, optimally engaged mentally and physically, the likelihood of soccer-specific, sports-related injuries will have been minimized and the soccer athlete can continue into the training or the competitive area fully prepared. The next step, now that we understand why…is how!
The Four Components of an Effective Soccer-Specific Strength and Fitness Training Warm-up
The first stage is a general, overall warm-up program. The second stage is static stretching and differs from the third stage, that of soccer-specific stretching and warm-up. The fourth stage is dynamic stretching, stretching used to engage and involve the entire musculature, synergistically. The four components are equally crucial to the overall success of the program, one building upon the other, all equally vital. The components come together, in very much the same way as muscles do, synergistically, all four working in unison to prepare the body, physically and mentally; and, also preparing the soccer-athlete for whatever is to come. Once again, this process is designed to ensure the soccer-athlete has minimal exposure and consequently risk of sports-related injuries.
Stage One: Overall and General Strength and Fitness Training Warm-up
The overall, general warm-up consists of mild, minimally demanding physical activity. I recommend jogging, no faster that a brisk walk, generally for 400 meters or one-quarter of a mile. We then jump on the stationary bike, increasing the intensity and duration from a low tension setting and a duration 2 minutes, to a high of medium range tension for up to 20 minutes; and, in winter we start off with the stationary bike. The level of difficulty and the length of time on the bike is usually determined during testing and is determined by the soccer-athlete’s overall level of fitness. A good indicator that the athlete is starting to warm-up is a moderate sweat and perhaps an elevated heart rate and respiration. The heart rate and respiration are usually tracked by chart at the onset of the program and then weekly; this will help in establishing overall training results, and also will aid in watching for signs of overtraining.
The primary goal of stage one is to increase the pulse and respiration, an indication that blood and oxygen are being moved at a faster rate through the body. As stated, increased heart rate and respiration will thus increase blood flow to the muscles and provide for oxygenation and energy supply to the muscles during strenuous physical training. The increased blood flow and nutrients to the muscles also helps elevate the overall body and muscle temperature; and, this in turn will provide for a better static stretching stage.
Stage Two: Stepping it Up and Static Stretching
Stage two is the static stretching phase and is really the basis for overall flexibility. Given the importance of the static stretch, and of flexibility in general, it is always interesting how few soccer-athletes engage in it…or any other stretching routine for that matter. Static stretching is slow, easy, and constant stretching of the various muscles groups and is usually quite safe; and, it is a very efficient and effective means of achieving overall flexibility. The biggest issue with stretching is in the form and the carry out, how the stretches are actually carried out. The proper way is in a long, ballistic-free motion, one of constant and applied pressure to a specific muscle or group of muscles. If done properly, the static stretch is very safe and quite beneficial. During the second stage of the warm-up and stretching program, the static stretch must include the various major muscle groups, working from largest to smallest muscles groups and then back again. The entire regimen will generally last from five to fifteen minutes, at first; and, taking somewhat less time as training progresses.
In order to properly stretch the muscles during the static phase of stretching, the athlete’s body must be in a position in which the muscle or muscle group is under constant, applied tension. To begin with, the muscle or muscle group to be statically stretched is relaxed. Additionally, the opposing muscles are also relaxed. The opposing muscles consist of those muscles “in front of” and “behind” the target muscle or muscle group. Then, carefully and with deliberation, the athlete slowly and carefully places the body under pressure, with emphasis on the area to be stretched, increasing overall tension to the muscle, or muscle group. At the point of greatest tension, the stretch is held in place, allowing the muscles, tendons, and ligaments to stretch and, when possible, to lengthen. This stage of the soccer-related, strength and fitness training program is extremely effective in advancing flexibility. Stage two assists in lengthening muscles and tendons, and in a synergistic fashion impacts ligaments too. The static stretching allows for a greater degree of movement and range of motion. This stage is crucial in sports-related injury prevention, as it, once again allows for a strengthening, as well as the aforementioned lengthening of muscles and tendons.
Stage one and stage two form the foundation for what will follow. The first through fourth stages form an overall and effective soccer-specific warm-up and stretching program. The overall warm-up and stretching program thus laying the basis for the training to follow. It is crucial that the first two stages be completed completely and in the proper fashion before increasing the intensity and moving into stages three and four. The correct implementation of stages one and two will provide for safe and effective exercise in stages three and four.
Stage Three: Soccer-Specific Stretch and Warm-up
Generally, if the focus of the warm-up and stretching was on practice and match play, we would now move to paired stretches and various warm-ups designed to be competition-specific. However, because this is primarily focused on strength and fitness training for soccer-athletes, we usually up the level of the stretching to include another round of static stretching, followed by a number of isotonic-related stretches. The primary focus in stage three must be inside out, largest to smallest and back in. That is, for the upper body a series of stretches including the back, chest, shoulders, triceps, biceps, forearms, wrists, and hands. The neck is very important and great care must be taken when stretching the neck for obvious, and not so obvious reasons. The neck has a number of very small muscles and muscles groups but, as Woody Hayes once pointed out to me, “as the neck goes, so goes the body.” While Coach Hayes is obviously a legendary football coach, but his lesson was not lost on his student (yours truly). The neck should always get special attention and, as a soccer player, the neck plays so many roles, its importance cannot be overstated. After the upper body and the neck, the lower body is next. Included in the lower body are stretches for the gluteus maximus and minimus, the hips, quadraceps, hamstrings, calves, ankles, and feet. Finally, the abdominals must be focused on, and they get special attention because, like the neck, they are a determining factor in the overall performance of the body.
Obviously, the stretching program can and often does take up an entire workout session, particularly at first and until the routine is set. There are myriad stretches available and any number of them will suffice. However, if you would like to have a personalized program, one effective and designed just for you, you must engage the services of an experienced, and knowledgeable (they are not always the same), strength and fitness coach, one experienced in dealing with soccer-athletes, in particular.
By the time the athlete has completed stage three, he or she should be perspiring and their heart rate and respiration should be significantly elevated. The idea is to integrate the warm-up and stretching into the overall conditioning program is such a way that it has a number of cascading affects and effects on the body of the athlete, all with one thing in mind, optimizing overall development and match performance gains. In other words, it is my desire to see them be able to put it on the pitch!
Stages Four: Soccer-Related Strength and Fitness Training, Warm-up and Dynamic Stretching
Ultimately, the proper warm-up must culminate in a series of exercises known as dynamic stretching exercises or simply as dynamic stretches. Significantly, dynamic stretches often result in injury. The main reason for the high incidence of injuries due to dynamic stretching has to do with athletes who are not trained properly by coaches who are experienced in working with soccer athletes, or athletes in general, or the athletes themselves simply do not adhere to training guidelines. For the reasons stated above, dynamic stretching should only be engaged in when training with a competent strength and fitness instructor; and, not just someone who likes to work out and thought it might be a great business to get into! Dynamic stretching has to do with what I refer to as neuro-muscular coordination and is about muscle conditioning, rather than simply flexibility, as the name would seem to imply. The dynamic stretch regimen is usually designed and best suited for top-level amateur and professional soccer-athletes, those individuals who are well-trained, and are highly-conditioned, competitive athletes. A dynamic stretch routine is usually implemented as a final, ultimate step in a flexibility program adhered to for quite some time and it is obvious to trainer and trainee that the “next-level” is appropriate.
Dynamic stretching usually involves controlled movement, a bouncing or pendulum motion, forcing the muscle beyond its normal range of motion. Gradually and over time the degree of bounce and the range of the swing is heightened and increased to achieve an exaggerated range of motion and enhanced flexibility. The best example of this done in an incorrect fashion may be when young athletes attempt to stretch their hamstrings, one foot crossed in front of the other, bouncing up and down to stretch the biceps femoris. Done in this fashion, the young athlete may cause a micro-tearing of the hamstring and risk serious injury. But they see others do it and they model the behavior. A recipe for disaster…or at the very least a blown hamstring! During stage four, it is crucial that the athlete integrate dynamic stretches that are soccer-specific. Stage four the culmination of the soccer-specific, warm-up, stretching and flexibility program and will result in the soccer-athlete achieving peak mental and physical preparation prior to training and/or match play. At this point in the training session, the trainee is prepared for the what will come next, the rigors of an intense soccer-specific, strength and fitness training program.
Finally, the most neglected aspect of any training regimen, the warm-up and stretching, must come first. Without adequate preparation, both physical and mental, the soccer-athlete cannot hope to achieve peak performance and optimal training gains. The four stage training program is a workout in and of itself and will generally take between twenty-five and forty-five minutes to work through. As the trainee becomes used to the routine, its system and its rigors, the amount of time it takes to get through it is lessened. Interestingly, as time lessens, intensity increases…but so does the fitness level of the athlete. So, when integrating and off-season, soccer-specific strength and fitness training program into your training routine, it is imperative you recognize the importance of diet and nutrition, combined with a proper warm-up and flexibility regimen. With the above two components in place, we are ready to move on to the next ingredient, the actual soccer-specific strength and fitness training program.
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