For all this talk about how “speed kills” in the game of football, I rarely see training programs address the actual issue of game speed. See, we all get geeked up about faster 40s, shuttles, and 20s, but does that always transfer to the field? Not even close. We all see the track stars who come out for football and stink up the field. They can cut but can’t move laterally, and unlike track, there’s some big guy trying to decapitate them while they run.
The biggest issue is that most football training programs focus on straight ahead speed. Little or no attention is paid to lateral speed. Unless you’re a wide out, the number of straight runs you’ll do in a football game is limited. Yes, we all move forward, but we do a hell of a lot of moving sideways and on angles. Wouldn’t it make sense to train for this? Why would we neglect the muscles responsible for moving our bodies down the line to make the big tackle? It makes no sense. We need to work the hips and legs while moving laterally in order to maximize game speed.
So with that in mind, here are six lateral strength exercises you can use in your training program to ensure that you’re building real world game speed.
1. Lateral lunges
So simple, so effective, so underused. If all you added to your football strength program was lateral lunges, you’d be a huge step ahead of everyone else. So why do so few people use them?
- They cause terrible soreness, especially if you’ve been neglecting those muscles.
- You can’t use much weight, so the ego takes a huge hit
Lateral lunges work the hamstrings, quads, and hips in a way that’s needed to be able to move quickly from side to side. This is invaluable for linebackers, defensive and offensive linemen, and running backs.
All you need to do is grab two dumbbells or load a barbell and lunge to the side. Use some force to push yourself back to the starting position. Also, try to keep your shin perpendicular to the floor to take the stress off the knee. This is a supplemental exercise so stick with 3–4 sets of 8–12 reps.
2. Angle lunges
These are similar to lateral lunges, but you step on a 45-degree angle forward. This is a great movement for football (and really all sports) because now you’re training in yet another angle of movement. This is another step we take about a million times in the course of a football game, so let’s be smart and train those muscles hard. This is a supplemental exercise so stick with 3–4 sets of 8–12 reps.
3. Lateral sled/Prowler pulls
I love lateral sled pulls. They truly train the lateral speed muscles in free space, and you can use them to add a ton of volume without an eccentric so soreness is greatly reduced. Plus, you can use them as part of a strength training day, speed day, or conditioning session.
You can use lateral pulls in a number of ways:
- Scissor walks
- Shuffle (butt down, chest up)
- Standing shuffle
- Pass slides (similar to a shuffle but done in the pass slide style done by offensive lineman)
- Alternating scissor walk
You can also go for speed, conditioning, or power by varying the load.
4. Asterisks lunges
I won’t lie. These suck. Your legs will feel a bit like you’re overdue on some loan payments to guys from North Jersey the day after, but it’s worth it. We started using this exercise in our program several years ago after reading Joe Kenn’s excellent book The Coach’s Strength Training Playbook. These are a perfect football speed movement. You work the hams and glutes from multiple angles in the same exercise.
To do the asterisk lunge, grab two dumbbells and lunge:
- On a 45-degree angle forward
- On a 45-degree angle backward
That’s one rep. Repeat the cycle 3–5 times for 15–20 “reps” and then repeat on the other leg.
5. Lateral box jumps
One of the movements that made an enormous difference in my early football career was lateral box jumps. As a freshman, I looked a lot like a walrus trying to hop sideways over a sandbar. By my sophomore season, I was doing lateral jumps on to a pretty high box (not sure the exact height) and the difference led to similar improvements on the field. I was able to actually get down the line and make plays from the backside.
This situation has repeated itself countless times. When a player can learn to apply enough force to the ground to propel himself sideways and 30 inches in the air, you have a player with some serious game speed.
There are two ways you can use lateral jumps—on a low box going side to side rapidly with minimal time on the ground or as a series of multiple jumps on to progressively larger boxes.
The rapid side-to-side seems to really help those with “slow” feet. It takes some effort, but when you can get a player, especially a bigger guy, to hit the box/ground/box/ground without almost any delay, you’ve developed a guy who can move laterally with the best of them.
6. Band abductions/adductions
I’ll admit. I used to think these exercises were pretty lame. That is until Bill Starr told me about their importance. When a guy like that recommends an exercise, you listen.
The abductor/adductor movements are great for:
- Building strength in the hips
- Building strength/rehabbing lower back injuries
- Keeping the knees from going inward during squatting (this is especially useful with young athletes)
These also build strength laterally, which we know helps build football speed. Doing them with bands is ideal because you don’t need any other equipment. Simply choke a band around the base of the rack and step into the other end. If you have them, ankle cuffs make the movement a bit more comfortable.
A few sets of 10 done every leg training day (can be done at the end) or on a restoration day is enough. Just get the volume up and watch yourself get stronger and faster in the hips and legs.
There you go—six lateral exercises to build real football game speed. They are easy to plug into any strength program, so you don’t have any excuses. Work them hard and you’ll be amazed with the improvements.