Strength Training for High School Football Players

The main priorities for football players are: strength, power, size, and speed

  • Strength is the easiest to improve and the ceiling for improvement is very high
  • Power can also show significant improvement
  • Size can be improved by adding lean mass through strength training and diet
  • Speed (sprinting speed) is the hardest to improve however training for strength and power is likely to have a positive effect on it

3-6 hours of strength training per week are required for a program to provide optimal gains in strength, power, and size.

In this article I’ll provide you with key strength standards for high school football players some background, philosophy, and simple programming guidelines for high school football players to implement in the off-season.

Building the training plan

If the goal is to increase strength, a variety of exercises can be employed.  The key element is to select exercises that use the most weight while also requiring a high level of skill to perform.

Classic examples include back squats, bench presses, pull-ups, deadlifts, barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses, dips, and EZ bar curls.

If the goal is to increase power, select exercises that use the most weight while simultaneously requiring a very high rate of speed.

Classic examples include the clean, snatch, push press, and various weighted jumps

If the goal is to build muscle size, select exercises that use the most weight while also placing the most isolation on the target area.

Classic examples include the leg press, leg extension, leg curl, machine chest press, lat pulldown, power lat raise, power curl, and tricep pullover/pushdown

Most teens have limited time to lift in the gym so time must be maximized and prioritized.  Avoid extensive warm-ups, prolonged mobility drills, and extra fluff.  A maximum of 10-15 minutes should be spent on a general warm-up and for many a general warm-up may not be necessary (specific warm-up sets for the big exercises should still be employed).  Flexibility peaks around age 14, thus most teens have reasonably good mobility.  Specific ‘homework’ can be given to those athletes that require it to perform on their own time. 

Choosing the right exercises

Progressions/Regressions:

When working in groups, for each exercise it is ideal to have the primary exercise and then at least 1 or 2 various regressions which are available to students/athletes that might struggle with the primary exercise.

  Ex) Power Clean is the primary exercise

              Regression 1: High Pull

              Regression 2: Power Shrug

              Regression 3: Barbell Jump

  Ex) Pull-up is the primary exercise

              Regression 1: Partner holds feet

              Regression 2: Jumping Pull-ups

              Regression 3: Flexed arm Hang/Negative Pull-ups

              Regression 4: Bodyweight Row/TRX Row

  Ex) Full Squat is the primary exercise

              Regression 1: ¾ Squat (bottom of the leg parallel)

              Regression 2: ½ Squat

              Regression 3: Goblet Squat

              Regression 4: Straight Arm Goblet Squat

This allows everyone in the group to stay together and perform the same basic movement and work on the same basic goal.

Strength and power are the physical qualities that take the longest to improve.  Cardio and muscle endurance can be significantly improved in 1 month particularly if there is an existing strength base, strength and power cannot.  In the off-season, the primary focus should be training the abilities it takes the longest to improve.

In general, when training for strength and power the workouts should consist of the following:

  • 4-7 total strength training exercises per workout
  • 2-6 working sets per exercise
  • 2-5 minutes rest between each working set.

Coaches note: Working in groups of 3 often provides the ideal rest time for each individual on the key exercises

The number of reps can vary considerably as long as the intensity & effort is high; 1-20 reps per set will be common; with 3-12 reps being the most common.  If true power is the primary goal keep the reps lower. 

Concussion Prevention

Concussions are a major issue in tackle football.  The research is clear that a strong neck helps prevent concussions, with every 1 pound of neck strength reducing concussions by 5%.  Neck training should take place 2-4 times per week for 5-10 minutes.  This can be done before the workout as part of a warm-up; intraset while resting on other exercises; or at the end of the workout.  Good options include:

Self-manual resistance; partner manual resistance; bands; neck harnesses; other neck specific equipment

Position Specific Exercises

Each position should have some specific exercises that are particular to the demands and injury concerns of that specific position, as not all exercises will be as appropriate for all positions (pull-ups for lineman vs DBs for example).  These key exercises are in addition to the core exercises for all football players (clean, squat, bench).

Lineman:

              Key Exercises: Leg Press, Hack Squat, Sled Push

              Injury prevention: Ankle and knee strength and mobility

RBs/LBs:

              Key Exercises: Pull-ups, Sit-ups, GHR/Nordics, Power Curl, Grip

              Injury Prevention: Knee and trunk strength and mobility

WRs/DBs:

              Key Exercises: Pull-ups or muscle-ups, broad/vertical jumps, clap/1 arm push-ups, Sit-ups/hanging leg raises, GHR/Nordics, Grip/Finger exercises such as fingertip push-ups

              Injury Prevention: Knee and shoulder strength and mobility, finger strength and durability

Frequency of Training the Key Lifts:

LiftGeneral Range of FrequencyNormally Optimal
Clean1-3 x week2
Squat1-3 x week2
Bench1-3 x week2
Pullups1-3 x week2
Shoulder Press1-2 x week2
Deadlift1/2 – 1 x week1
Core2-4 x week2
Neck2-4 x week2

A Note about Squats

In the sport of powerlifting, the squat has a specific objective that must be met – the top of the hip must be below the top of the knee which results in a below-parallel squat.  This is often referred to as a full squat. 

I do not believe it is necessary to make all athletes perform full squats. 

Lifters with longer legs and shorter torsos may find squats performed to powerlifting depth feel uncomfortable and hard to do with weight that will challenge the target muscles.  The goal is to find the type of squat that will best improve their athletic performance, as such the lift should look natural and comfortable and move at a reasonable tempo. 

It is useful to break the squat into ¼ ranges of motion.  A ¼ squat is rarely useful and generally is not a very effective exercise.  Most athletes will want to at least perform a ½ squat.  I find that most football players do well on focusing to perform an honest ¾ squat, which generally gets the bottom of their thigh around parallel to the ground (of note many of them think this is a full squat).  A full squat is fine if it fits the athlete, but I don’t encourage coaches to force their athletes to always perform a full squat.  Many teens will simply start out performing half squats and then they will go lower as they build up their strength and comfort with the lift over time. 

Listed below are suggested strength standards for high school football players are various levels.  These are meant to sure as helpful guidelines and benchmarks.  It is possible that an athlete may not meet these standards and may still excel at the sport.  It is possible that an athlete will meet or exceed these guidelines and yet not perform very well.  However, I think you’ll find those individuals to be exceptions to the norm. 

If you know someone who plays high school football, or there is a person hoping to make it to the next level in their football progression, this chart will show them where to focus on their energy.  If they are already meet or exceed the guidelines given here, I would build up my specific football skills and knowledge as much as possible.  If they are far behind the suggested standards listed here, then I would spend some serious time in the weight room making myself a better, stronger athlete. 

If you would like to see a sample of a strength training program for a high school football player in the offseason let me know in the comments and if there is enough interest I will make one available.

Strength Standards for High School Football Players

(Click to Download)

PositionLiftFreshmanJVVarsityCollegeD1
OL/DL      
 Squat155275405425455
 Clean115185225250275
 Bench135225295315365
 Leg Press3005508009001000
RB/LB      
 Squat135250365405425
 Clean95165205225250
 Bench95185250275315
 Pull-ups36101010
 Power Curl5595135150165
 40 yd dash5.25.04.84.74.6
WR/DB      
 Squat115185250275315
 Clean75135185205225
 Bench75150185205250
 Pull-ups610151720
 40 yd dash5.04.94.74.64.5
 Vertical20”24”27”28.5”30”

My Experience with Football

If I am going to write an article about strength training for football you have the right to know a bit about my experience with it.  I love football.  No team sport (other than the strength sports themselves) requires a higher level of absolute strength than football, particularly for certain positions.  As a strength athlete I admire the combination of athleticism and strength that football players’ possess.  Throw in the required grit and fortitude the sport demands, marvel at just how complex a game of 11 vs 11 can be (as a comparison chess is 16 v 16 without subs, separate offensive and defensive players, or ‘special teams’), and sprinkle in some human drama, a bit of luck, and you have yourself a fascinating game.

My wife and I are blessed to have 3 healthy teenage boys.  I am further blessed that all 3 have followed in my footsteps and found their own passion for lifting, which I too discovered when I was a high schooler.  My oldest son is a junior and just finished his third season of high school football.  My middle son just completed his freshman season, and my youngest is in 7th grade.  Being the dad that enjoys supporting his kids and watching them compete, I have now watched a lot of high school football over the last 3 years.  And being a natural-born coach who is always analyzing what is working, what isn’t, and why; the power of training strength (or the lack thereof) is very apparent on the high school football field. 

When you grow up with your dad as a trainer and a strength coach, you are probably going to lift.  I told my sons that my one rule with me as their dad was they had to be fit (up until they were 18), but they didn’t have to play any sports or compete or anything like that.  Being fit meant they had to have at least decent strength, decent endurance, and maintain a healthy body composition.  After that I told them to tell me what they wanted to do with their fitness, if anything, and I would help them along the way.  I started doing some light weights with them when they were around 6.  When they were about 8 I held “fitness camps” with them and their friends from the neighborhood which generally lasted 8-12 weeks where we would do fitness and lifting stuff (and hopefully with some fun thrown in) for an hour at a time usually 2 times a week.  We would typically do 2 of those camps a year and they would play rec league sports (flag football, basketball, dive, track, etc).  When they were about 12 they had the option to come to the gym with me and their teammates 1 time a week and could lift on their own 2-3 other times a week if they desired.

The difference their strength training made in their sports performance in my opinion really can’t be overstated.  It took them from likely top 1/3 in their age group to generally being one of/the best kid in their respective rec leagues.  My oldest son was not gifted with height – he’s 16 and 5’7” on a good day and was generally shorter than all of his peers growing up.  His natural build is very slim, to be frank if he didn’t lift weights I would not be comfortable with him playing varsity football at all.  Even after lifting pretty intensely for the last 3 years he is only 130 lbs, but as a junior he was considered one of the best players on his team and was named to the All-District team in the most competitive district of high school football in Virginia.  He is a wide receiver/kick returner and he squats 300+, benches 225, can do 20 pull-ups with ease, he cleans 185, and runs a 4.6 40 yd.  He is currently training for the high school national powerlifting championships.

Ryan running the football
Ryan running the ball

My middle son is 14, 5’8” and 145 lbs.  He just squatted (athletic style) 225×10, he benches 185, and can clean 165 and he set the American record in the Strict Curl.  The first 5 times he touched the ball on offense and defense as a freshman he scored 4 TDs, the shortest of which was 30 yards in length. 

My youngest son is 13, 5’11 and 140 lbs.  When he was 12, he set the VA state record for the clean and jerk with a lift of 165 lbs and he holds the American record in the strict curl.  He’s in the 7th grade and he can dunk a tennis ball. 

Of course it makes me proud to be able to brag a bit about my kids being strong, but I really didn’t list those things simply to boast.  Nor am I suggesting that my kids are automatically NFL material, I understand that the level of ability and simple physical stats required to make it to the NFL are truly elite.  I am simply trying to show you the power of lifting weights.  I believe one should practice what they preach.  Without strength training I don’t believe any of those feats I listed above would have been possible.  And now having intensely observed high school football for these past 3 years (plus playing it myself and training many others in the sport previous to that time), the power of resistance training cannot be overstated.  If you are a lineman and you clean 95 and squat 200 lbs and you go against an opponent squatting 400 lbs and cleaning 225, you are doomed.  When the game is over before it begins that is very likely a physical issue – either the other team simply has athletes that are vastly superior in speed and skill or, and most likely, their athletes are vastly stronger.  One of those variables is much more controllable than the other.  If the freshman team is competitive (when most kids really have not been strength training very much but likely have decent football skills) but then 3-4 years later the varsity team is outmatched – assuming the coach is adequate that is a clear strength issue.

Strength.  That is the point of this article.  To provide you with key strength standards for high school football players and also to present a little background and philosophy as to why that is the case.  Finally, my goal is to lay out some simple programming guidelines for high school football players to be aware of and implement in the off-season if they are unable to receive more individualized coaching.  And I’m arrogant enough to say if the individualized coaching contains very little of the exercises highlighted here, be wary of that.  There is a big difference between simply sweating and getting better. 

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46 thoughts on “Strength Training for High School Football Players

  1. Stephanie Fraser

    Hey Tim, I’m also a blessed parent to boys who lift (I’m a powerlifter, strength & conditioning coach as well) and since you mentioned if you got enough comments about a football program, I’m putting my name in hoping you will write about it. I’ve volunteered to help coach strength & conditioning for my sons football team in Sept and having never played or watched it growing up, I’d be grateful for an article you could put together. I grew up a musician and hockey fan but I’m really enjoying learning about football now. Thanks for putting out such great content for us powerlifters and coaches not to mention us parents who love to help our kids become strong and capable

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  11. Aaron Smith

    I would love a copy of the off-season program that you discussed possibly sending out. My son just finished his freshman year and is ready to commit to putting on some muscle and increasing speed.

  12. TIm Rose

    Great article, Tim. I coach my local Freshmen/JV line, and I am fascinated by the points you make here because I believe you are right- strength (power, size, speed) and pursuing it is the most control you have, because once the game starts, it’s too late. So, I am trying to upgrade the local effort here to get these kids lifting. I also have an 11 year old, 5’5″ 165lbs, and we are working on his natural size/strength, but also body composition. I would be interest in any program for these populations you could offer. Thank you for your time and effort.

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  15. Corey Austin

    I would like to see a sample of a strength training program. I have recently started working with a program that does not have a history of seasonal lifting and all assistance would be appreciated. I do have a background in strength and conditioning but would like to have more resources than just personal experiences for beginner and novice high school football players.
    thank you

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