Strength, Speed, and Squatting for Soccer Players

I remember watching Ben Johnson destroy everyone in the 1988 Olympic Games as a young kid and thinking that running fast was pretty much the equivalent of being really cool. It was also the closest thing to seeing a real super hero at that point.  


Ben was on steroids, but he still had an amazing coach named Charlie Francis who is still considered the one of the greatest track and field coaches of all time.  Years later, I would dive into everything and anything related to getting faster.  If you have read this blog for awhile you have probably realized that I promote strength training as one of the most important ways to get faster for soccer players. One study that Ive mentioned before by Wisloff  2002, certainly supports it:

" Maximal strength in half squats determines sprint performance and jumping height in high level soccer players.  Elite soccer players should focus on maximal strength training, with emphasis on maximal mobilisation of concentric movements, which may improve their sprinting and jumping performance."

Many strength coaches in America come from powerlifting backgrounds and Olympic lifting backgrounds, so in this whole get strong to get fast movement, squats, aka the "King of all exercises", were promoted heavily. Not just squats, but DEEEEEEP squats. I began to think that anyone, anywhere, who wasn't shit staining the floor was a phony lifter and definitely not improving much of anything. That is one area where I was flat wrong. And here is a study to prove it: 

Twenty-eight college athletes participated in a 16-week study. They were separated into Full, Half and Quarter Squat groups and they would only squat to those depths. The athletes used greater absolute loads with the Half Squats because they were stronger in them. Loads were even greater in Quarter Squats because, again, athletes were stronger when squatting to a higher depth.  After 16 weeks, the Full Squat group led to the largest gains in Full Squat 1RM; Half Squat led to the largest gains in Half Squat 1RM; and Quarter Squat led to the largest gains in Quarter Squat 1RM. As for the markers of explosive athleticism, the Quarter Squat group showed the greatest training effect, greatest transfer, and strongest relationship to Vertical Jump and Sprint performance. The Half Squat group was second in these measures and the Full Squat group fell last.

"Taken collectively, these findings support the use of shortened ranges of motion during squat training for improvements in sprint and jump performance among highly trained athletes" the study concluded.

Apparently squatting ass to grass wasn't the magic for sprinting and jumping that I thought it was. 



So we covered the effectiveness part of squatting and the depth associated with greatest transfer to sprinting and jumping. But what about safety and logic?

4 years ago I was doing sets of 8 on the back squat with 245 pounds. Not even close to my max at the time, and on the 6th rep on the 3rd set I felt a pop in my spine. It felt like someone stabbed me. A few weeks later and I was back to training, but ever since my lower back has felt iffy on heavy bilateral (two legged lifts). Just recently I was doing trap-bar deadlifts, which are supposed to be safer for the lower back. My ego got in the way and I started loading the puppy up with plates. I go to pull 325 and immediately my back popped again.  I was fine for a couple days, but then I was in a ton of pain and very immobile for about 5 days. Using light exercise I have gotten myself pretty much back to normal again, but I have to ask myself whether heavy bilateral lifts are in the cards for me anymore.  Apparently, two very smart strength coaches by the names of Mike Boyle and Joe Defranco don't use heavy squats and deadlifts with their athletes any longer.  One reason is that as Mike Boyle said, the limiting factor in how much weight one can lift in those exercises always comes down to the lower back.  In a rear foot elevates split squat, he is able to load the his athletes' legs with much more weight and spare the spine. Makes sense to me. 

There are also major differences in human anatomy, specifically in the hip joint, which as you will see in the video below,  impacts how deep  someone can and should be squatting. When the spine goes into flexion and compression with heavy loads, that is where the danger zone is. 

Although the spine changes with training, the natural structure varies person to person. In other words, some people's spines are more stable, and others are more flexible.  As Dr. Mcgill says, the combination of yoga and powerlifting can be problematic. For powerlifting you want a a stiff spine to support heavy loads. For yoga, and many sports that require complex and varied  human movement (soccer perhaps), we want more range of motion from our spine.  I would venture to say that excessive heavy squatting and deadlifting creates stiff spines that has the potential to make some aspects of our movement just that, stiff.  

Finally, we must ask ourselves, how important is heavy lifting for speed and athleticism?  I will turn to Chis Beardsley, a master of reviewing research and making sense of it:  

"Strength gains are greater when training with heavy loads, even when hypertrophy or muscle growth is similar. This means that the ratio of strength-to-size (and possibly also specific tension) is increased more after heavy strength training, probably through multiple mechanisms, including:
  1. Increased neural drive
  2. Increased tendon stiffness
  3. Improvements in coordination
  4. Increased lateral force transmission
Although increased neural drive is believed to contribute to the greater gains in strength after training with heavy loads compared to after training with lighter loads, it is unlikely that this would benefit sprinting ability. 
This is because the changes in neural drive after explosive contraction and maximal (sustained) contraction strength training are very specific to the duration of the contraction performed (Tillin et al. 2012b; 2014; Balshaw et al. 2016). Thus, it is difficult to see how increases in neural drive achieved by heavy strength training could transfer effectively to high-velocity sprinting."

Heavy lifting will help with the first few steps of a sprint, and with jumping. After the first few steps and momentum is generated, the velocity is too high for the maximal strength to be utilized. However, the better the first few steps the greater the momentum, so it is not like we should just throw out all heavy lifting. 

To summarize all of this:

1. Speed is cool

2. We don't have to get really low on squats to get faster and jump higher. In fact, we probably shouldn't. 

3. Not everyone should squat low anyways, and be mindful that the lower back is a limiting factor in squatting strength. Single leg versions are likely a better choice for both safety and transfer (less spine risk, more stabilizers involved so injury prevention is getting trained,  plus we do play on one leg at a time). 

4. Heavy lifting is only part of the speed equation, and many other qualities need to be trained as well.

Here is a sample program that makes sense of this stuff:

Two Day a Week  

  • Workout A (day 1)
    • Trap bar deadlift jump or jump squat with dumbbells 
    • Flywheel leg curl or Nor1dic curl 
    • Heavy sled towing
    • Rear Foot Elevated Split squats 


  • Workout B (day 2)
  • Depth jumps or hurdle hops
    • Heavy kettlebell swing or box jumps 
    • Explosive hip thrust
    • Single-leg eccentric back extension1
    • Resisted hip flexion

Three-day example strength training program:

  • Workout A (day 1)
    • Hurdle hops or depth jumps 
    • Flywheel leg curl
    • Heavy sled towing
    • Rear foot elevated split squat 
  • Workout B (day 2)
    • Trap bar deadlift jump or jump squats 
    • Explosive hip thrust
    • Single-leg eccentric back extension
    • Resisted hip flexion
  • Workout C (day 3)
    • Jump squat or step up jumps with light weights 
    • Single leg RDLs 
    • Nordic curl
    • Very heavy sled towing