Originally appeared on: http://jmoorestrength.blogspot.com/
Incorporate these six exercises into your programming to build strength and stability in your entire midsection that will have a real impact on your on-field performance.
Football is a game that requires quick, powerful, multi-directional movement in every conceivable plane while athletes initiate and react to contact with other players. Football players, depending on their positions, must be able to block, shed the block of another player, make tackles from a variety of angles, and carry the ball while other large human beings try to bring them to the ground. All of these tasks require a strong and stable midsection capable of resisting rotation, distributing force from the ground through the body as efficiently as possible, and generally maintaining midline position while the upper and lower limbs are moving and performing work around it.
As a collegiate offensive lineman, my goal every play was to maintain my positioning and impose my will on defenders, who had the benefit of being able to see the ball and throw me by grabbing my jersey. While I was never the biggest guy on the field, I became an All-Conference offensive lineman because I was able to maintain my position on defenders, opening holes for running backs and protecting the quarterback. Operating effectively in a sea of bodies while a 280-pound defensive tackle tries to grab you and throw you off your feet requires stability throughout the entire body, and it begins at your body’s center. If you are unable to maintain tension in your core, winning the battle in the trenches becomes an impossible task. The need to have a strong and stable torso is equal for skill positions like running backs and wide receivers, as well as linebackers and defensive backs. Regardless of what position you play, you will never be successful if the force of an opposing player is able to bend you like a wet noodle. While each position on the football field has its own physical requirements, they all share the common need to develop an iron midsection.
With that in mind, it is incomprehensible to me that so many football players are training their cores in a way that has absolutely no application to their sport. Having played for 10 years in high school and collegiate settings, I’ve seen every manner of abdominal exercise performed by football players. The list of ab exercises is lengthy and includes crunches, sit ups, cable sunrises, plate oblique rocks and kneeling cable pull downs (just embarrassing to watch), but they all possess one common trait: they miss the point of core work entirely. The abdominals in their entirety and the muscles of the lower and upper back are designed to work as a unit to stabilize and protect the spine. When you attempt to isolate the anterior core with simple spinal flexion exercises like crunches, sit-ups, and kneeling cable pull downs, you not only fail to utilize the entirety of the musculature that is responsible for spinal stabilization, but you create imbalances between these muscles and increase your risk of serious back injury and chronic pain. To truly build a midsection that will benefit you on game day, you need to train the muscles responsible for stabilizing the spine as a unit, with movements and isometric holds that tax these muscle groups as one and help to reinforce proper posture and positioning.
Use these six exercises as accessory work at or near the end of your workouts to build strength in your core that will transfer to your big lifts like squats and deadlifts, improve your on-field performance, and help to prevent back injuries and eliminate chronic pain.
1) The Half-Kneeling Paloff Press
Two weeks ago I visited Fairleigh Dickinson University, the school where I played six years of collegiate football, to train with some friends who share my passion for weightlifting. Near the end of the session my friend, who is still an offensive lineman there, wanted to know if I had any “core” exercises for him to do. I immediately set up a light red resistance band, put him in the half-kneeling position, and showed him my favorite version of the Paloff press. I watched as this 250-pound offensive lineman, who I have seen casually squat 473 lbs without a belt, struggled to keep himself upright as the band pulled him over.
The half-kneeling Paloff press is my favorite anti-rotation exercise because it puts you in a seemingly simple position and immediately displays your weaknesses. If you are unable to properly brace your core to resist the band’s rotation, it will show immediately. If you lack mobility in the hips, thoracic spine, and/or shoulders, it will also become apparent.
What makes this exercise so effective is that because you are in a half-kneeling position, with the outside knee up and the inside knee down, you have far less support and stability from your legs. The lack of assistance from the legs will cause most athletes to nearly fall over the first time they try this exercise, because they haven’t learned yet how to truly use their breathing and the tension that can be created in the abdominals and back to stabilize their torso against lateral force. This is a skill that must be developed in football players, as many times they will be hit, pulled, thrown, and dragged from various angles as they try to move in their intended direction. The success of a player — and any given play as a whole — may depend on a single athlete being able to resist the force of another player, and remain on track.
To perform this movement, attach a resistance band to an immovable object or use a cable column and set yourself up perpendicular to the anchor point. Begin in the half-kneeling position, with one knee on the ground and one knee up. The front knee should be at a 90- degree angle, the knee extending directly out in front of the hip, with pressure being placed on the big toe, little toe, and heel. The back knee should be down on the ground at a 90-degree angle, with the foot directly behind the knee, and the toe dug into the ground. Keep your torso upright and eliminate any arch in your back. Grasp the cable with your inside hand and place your outside hand on top of it. From there, inhale deeply, fully activating your diaphragm as you extend your hands straight out in front of your chest and hold that position, resisting the pull of the band. Continue to hold that deep breath as you raise your extended arms over your head and pause again, maintaining the same torso and lower body position the entire time. Remember, stability is key. Finally, exhale, and reverse the movement, lowering your extended arms to chest-level, then bending your arms and bringing your hands back to your chest. This constitutes one rep. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 repetitions, focusing on control and maintaining proper position the entire time.
2) The Bulgarian Bag Spin (& Drag)
It’s unfortunate that the Bulgarian Bag is such an uncommon tool in most gym settings. However, if you are lucky enough to train at a gym that has Bulgarian Bags, or you invest in one or in building one (Youtube it) yourself, you will have access to one of the best ballistic anti-rotation you can perform. The Bulgarian Bag is an odd, crescent-shaped object made out of leather with two thick handles, one on each end. It was originally created to train elite wrestlers and combat athletes because it allows for a unique combination of anti-rotational stability, development of grip strength, and high intensity muscular and cardiovascular endurance training. Though the Bulgarian Bag was intended originally for wrestlers and grapplers, it has tremendous carryover to the training of football players as well.
If you’ve ever watched a great offensive lineman, defensive lineman, or linebacker play his position, you will see an athlete who is either excellent at getting his hands on defenders and keeping them there, regardless of where the player moves or what he attempts to do, or a wizard at getting his hands on an offensive player and shedding his block. Either way, using your hands in football to make blocks or shed blocks requires tremendous grip strength and anti-rotational core strength and stability. You must be able to quickly get your hands on the opposing player and either counter his movements by maintaining a rigid midsection or get him off of you by throwing him.
The Bulgarian Bag spin and drag forces you to resist the rotation of the bag, as it tries to fly away from you. You also must maintain an incredibly tight grip due to the fat handles that are at each end of the bag. Finally, because it is a cyclical movement, it can be repeated for many repetitions or in short bouts of high intensity, both of which will jack up your heart rate and tax your muscular and cardiovascular endurance. In order to perform the Bulgarian Bag spin and drag, start by dragging the bag across the front of your body, beginning with the hand on the side you are dragging the bag to on top. For example, if you are dragging the bag left, your left hand should be on top initially. Then, quickly and violently pull the top hand down and punch the down hand up, effectively switching the position of your hands so that if you are dragging the bag left, your right hand is now on top. Keeping the hand that is now up as close to your head as possible, keep the bag’s momentum going, mimicking the motion of taking a cape off with your top hand. As the bag travels around your head, continue to build its momentum by forcefully pulling it down and repeating the movement. After each spin, add the drag by reaching your arms out to the side as your whole body turns, then violently drag the bag back across your body and spin it the other way. The spin can be done by itself or in conjunction with the drag.
To improve muscular, cardiovascular, and grip endurance, perform timed circuits of 30 to 60 seconds of work at a time with short rest periods and a lighter bag. To improve anti-rotational strength and stability, grip strength, and power, perform 10-12 reps in each direction with slightly longer rest periods and a heavier bag.
3) The Pallof Walkout
The half-kneeling Pallof press is a tremendous exercise, but it has a major flaw. It does a great job of teaching and reinforcing anti-rotational core stability, but it does so in a position where the legs are not part of the equation. The game of football is played on the feet, and coordinating the entire body as one powerful unit is a skill that all football players must possess. Therefore, anti-rotational stability must also be developed with the athlete on his feet, utilizing the muscles of the legs to help keep the lower body in a strong position while stabilizing the torso. You would be amazed at the number of athletes who excel in the half-kneeling position, but when I move them to the standing position or ask them to move laterally, their toes turn out, their hips start shifting to one side or the other, and their knees start caving in and out uncontrollably.
The Pallof Walkout is my favorite version of the Pallof press. It forces the athlete to maintain a stable midsection, fighting the pull of the band as they step sideways away from the anchor point. While stepping sideways, an athlete must activate his or her glutes in order to keep the knees from caving in, and to help maintain a neutral hip position. While the anti-rotational stability benefits are tremendous, what really makes this movement shine is the inclusion of glute activation and lateral movement while maintaining a rigid and neutral torso position. There are very few times, if ever, where you are standing still on a football field engaged with another player. As a football player you are constantly moving your feet to impose your will or move to a better position in order to defeat your opponent. While moving your feet in a variety of planes of motion, you must be able to maintain a strong and stable torso position, or fight off other players who are trying to move you off your track. The Pallof walkout teaches anti-rotational core stability and glute activation while the body is moving, all of which are essential skills to learn to be a successful football player.
The Pallof walkout is most effective when it is done with a resistance band, because the band tension will increase as the athlete steps further away from the band, making the drill even more challenging. However, if you don’t have access to bands, it can still be performed with a cable column. Stand perpendicular to the anchor point where the implement is attached, gripping the band or handle. Extend your arms straight out in front of you and tighten your abs to stabilize your midsection. Begin with your feet shoulder width apart. Leading with your front foot, take a step sideways, and then take a step with your back foot to bring your feet back to shoulder width. Repeat for three to four steps away from the anchor point, making sure that your torso position remains exactly the same as it was when you began, and that your knees remain in line with your toes. Activate your glutes with each side step. Then, reverse directions and sidestep back to your original position, again leading with your front foot. Repeat for 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps.
If an athlete is struggling to keep his knees out or activate his glutes, use a light miniband around the athlete’s knees to provide feedback and an external cue to open the knees up with each step. Conversely, to increase glute activation in more advanced athletes, you can put a stronger miniband around the ankles in order to make the sidestep more challenging.
4) Valslide Hand Walks
The value of the Valslide hand walk isn’t in its movement specificity to the sport of football, but in that it helps to increase the stability of the torso, hips, and shoulders, while also promoting a tremendous amount of glute activation when done properly.
Shoulder injuries in football are all too common. Contact injuries like dislocations and separations caused by violent collisions with other players and the ground, as well as soft tissue injuries like labrum and rotator cuff tears happen on a regular basis. Therefore, it is imperative that football players spend enough time working on movements that will help to strengthen and stabilize the shoulder joint. There are very few movements that accomplish this as effectively and efficiently as walking and crawling on the hands.
Many times, football players focus so much on putting up huge numbers on the bench press that they completely neglect building strength, control, and stability with their own bodyweight. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen 300+ pound bench pressers struggle to crawl or walk on their hands, as their arms and shoulders quake and their torso sags and flops all over. Somewhere along the line many people have forgotten the importance of bodyweight strength and focused entirely on maximal strength and hypertrophy gains for the upper body. There is no doubt that being extremely strong and muscular in the upper body can be beneficial in the game of football, but without a base of control and stability with one’s bodyweight in open space, it becomes impossible to use maximal strength properly and in a safe way.
To combat this, exercises like the Valslide hand walk can be incorporated into a training program as warmup/activation and/or assistance work. To perform the movement begin by placing each foot on a Valslide or furniture slider. Use a slick surface like turf or carpet that will allow the Valslides to glide easily. Posture up into a pushup position, shoulders stacked directly over the hands, back flat, hips even, and abs tight to ensure there isn’t an arch in the back. From there, walk one hand in front of the other slowly and under complete control. Put as much weight on your hands as possible, keeping the toes on the Valslides only to drag them behind you. At the same time, maintain tension in your midsection and contract your glutes to ensure that your hips don’t shift from side to side as you walk. Also, with each “step,” press the ground away from you, keeping your arms straight the entire time.
Walking on your hands is unnatural to most people, and the very first thing that will happen is their hips and torso will twist and turn with each step of the hand and drop toward the floor. To combat this, the athlete must learn to activate the glutes and maintain a neutral spine and hip position by activating the abs and squeezing the lats as he or she moves forward. The result is an increase in shoulder stability, awareness of body positioning — specifically of the lower back and hips — and an increase in glute and core strength. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-20 yards walking forward, immediately followed by 10-20 yards backwards. This exercise should not be performed to complete failure, but rather with a focus on time under tension and proper positioning.
5) The Farmer’s Carry
There’s just something primal about carrying heavy objects. It’s a simple test of strength. Pick up heavy things and see if you are capable of moving them from one place to the next. Fortunately, carries aren’t just a way to see how strong you are. Carries are an extremely effective method for building slabs of muscle and strength throughout the entire body.
The farmer’s carry may be simple, but it’s never easy. While it may seem too good to be true, when you have to walk carrying two extremely heavy dumbbells that want to drag you down and pull you off balance, you must adapt and fire just about every muscle in your body to maintain proper posture. Heavy farmer’s carries strengthen and build muscle in the upper back, abs, lower back, forearms, shoulders, traps, and glutes, while reinforcing good posture. To perform this exercise simply pick up two heavy dumbbells and carry them with your chest up and shoulders back, a neutral spine position with your abs tight, your rib cage neutral, and the dumbbells locked tightly in your hands. Do not let the dumbbells swing or pull your shoulders forward, but at the same time don’t allow your back to hyperextend. Both of these will put excessive stress on your spine.
The farmer’s carry allows for overload of the entire body, which will lead to greater gains in strength and muscle due to the large number of muscle groups coordinated to successfully perform the exercise. Additionally the farmer’s carry teaches the athlete to stabilize against an extremely heavy external load while moving. This is a valuable skill for football players, who will be subject to external forces knocking them from all directions while they move.
Farmer’s carries will also develop tremendous grip strength and endurance. In the battle for the trenches, hand placement is everything. The man who has inside hand position on the line has a tremendous advantage over his opponent. Inside hand placement allows the player to control his opponent and effectively distribute power to their body. Unfortunately, if you don’t have the grip strength to maintain your inside hand positioning, it becomes useless. A vice-like grip will help blockers and defenders alike to maintain advantageous positions and dominate opponents from snap to whistle, and the farmer’s carry is among the best grip-strength developers around.
6) The Dead Bug
The dead bug is an excellent exercise to teach proper core stabilization, breathing, and body awareness. While it looks relatively simple, most people ignore the most important aspect of the dead bug and completely lose the training effect. While there are many variations of the dead bug, the one that I have found most effective for athletes involves simultaneous movement of the arm and leg on the same side of the body, while the other arm and leg pinch a small foam roller or just maintain position.
Lying on your back pinch a foam roller between your left elbow and left knee. Bring your right knee and right arm up so that they are in essentially the same position. Fully exhale and contract your abs, eliminating the arch in your lower back. You should feel your lower back push into the ground so there is no space between it and the floor. Draw your ribcage down into a neutral position.
Maintaining this position is the most vital aspect of this exercise. If your lower back loses contact with the floor at any point during the movement, you are missing the key element of the exercise, which is developing anterior core strength, core control, and developing the awareness of how to do so.
Inhale deeply through the nose, filling your lungs to the very bottom with air and fully contracting your diaphragm to expand your midsection 360 degrees. If you do this properly, you should feel your lower back push into the floor, your belly fully expand, and your abs contract. Continue to hold this position and pinch the foam roller as you extend your right arm up over your head and your right leg straight out. Stop just before your hand and your foot touch the floor. Focus on maintaining the tension in your midsection you created with your breath, never allowing your lower back to move or lose contact with the floor. Draw your arm and leg back to the starting position, while fully exhaling through your mouth, and contracting your abs hard to maintain the contact between your lower back and the floor. Repeat for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps on EACH SIDE.
It is important to understand that football players at every level need to have the strength and body awareness to maintain a solid torso position, even in the face of tremendous external force. The midsection must be strong and tight in order to allow the athlete to maintain balance and positioning, produce force against other players without wasting valuable energy and power, and maybe most importantly of all — protect the spine and other vital body parts from injury.
You can do all the crunches, knee raises, and kneeling pull downs you want, but they won’t make you a better football player. On the gridiron, a six-pack means nothing if it isn’t part of a system of core muscles that are strong enough to keep an athlete’s torso stable. I challenge you to take a hard look at how you are training to improve yourself as a player. Do you want to be someone who has a six-pack but gets tossed around the field like a rag doll? Or would you rather have the tools to use your power and strength to its full potential, while avoiding injuries associated with the violent game of football? Add these exercises into your training and dominate your competition.