21 May Exercises to Warm Up Soccer Players
Growing up as a fiery little soccer kid, I remember how excited I was for practice to begin. Just like any other kid starting a sport, I was a stubborn bundle of energy, wanting to skip the warm up, the static stretching that no one ever did, and get right to playing. That’s what I was there for – to be cleated up, ready to play, and run around freely in my baggy little Umbro shorts. Looking back, I never knew why we would start practice running in a crooked line and kicking our heels against our butts. Once I progressed to the travel and collegiate level, I still couldn’t grasp the point of some moves in our warm up repertoire. My muscles never truly felt fired up, causing my first sprint in every game to be a half-assed effort like ‘Oh shit. I have to RUN now.’ Certainly back then I had little knowledge of anatomy and physiology, so I just continued to go through the old motions.
Fast forward to 2015 (holy fuck, it’s 2015!) where we no longer have oranges at half time or wear old school brands like Umbro and Kappa, I’m finally coaching the game, seeing everything from the outside in. And when you are aware of what is really going on and what you are doing to your players, you second guess….A LOT. As a coach, you want to put your best foot forward to foster the best playing environment for your team. And to me, all of my players are like having over 70 daughters. I’m worried. I’m cautious. I’m protective. OMG, I’m totally turning into a soccer mom…
Yes. That’s Britney bitch.
And I’m sure I can speak for most soccer coaches when it comes to building a team. We teach the game tactics, we enhance technical skills, we run pattern plays, we deal with parents, we research the best drills, we formulate player lineups, and did I mention…..we deal with parents?
While these are all critical pieces to our players’ development pie, sometimes we overlook the smaller things, especially the warm up, what it is actually doing, and if we are truly being productive with our time pre training. At the end of the day, we are coaches simply trying to get our players better in all levels of the game – tactical, technical, and physical. Even though some of us aren’t all exercise physiologists, physical therapists, certified strength and conditioning coaches, or doctors, we still must utilize a few basic tools to develop well-rounded players and ensure a healthy, smooth journey on the athletic continuum. Because if the players aren’t healthy, what’s the point in planning extensive sessions, drills, and switching lineups when you don’t have the numbers due to team injuries? Though we can’t completely avoid injuries because, well, shit happens, we can still do our best as coaches to reduce that chance. Taking small precautionary steps within every training, walk through, or pre game warm up will certainly compound in the long-run player piggy bank.
And sometimes the super cute ladder drills, high knee runs, A skips, butt kicks, side shuffles, and karaoke runs just don’t prepare our players properly for an intensive practice or game. And they also take away valuable practice time when we can get this crap done in 5 minutes or less. Yes, we are warming up connective tissue by jogging and skipping, but are we really prepping for game-like movements? Are we firing the primary muscles needed for soccer? Are we prioritizing stability, mobility, and flexibility? Particularly in youth athletes, all of these things are critical to producing a stronger, faster, and more durable squad.
Below is a sample (less than 5 min) warm up that you can use with your soccer players before a training session or game. Of course, if you’re on Manchester United the warm up will be much more extensive. However, these are major components that should be prioritized and used routinely for our youth players:
1) Ankle Mobility
Why It’s Important: When my strength coach and mentor used to have me start with ankle mobility drills, I rolled my eyes. It. Was. Tedious. But being the credible man that he is, I knew he was onto something. The joint-by-joint school of thought actually makes sense. And physical therapist Gray Cook deserves a fist pound on this one.
Good ankle mobility provides for proper dorsiflexion when sprinting at maximum speed. The players that run with their toes down? Well, they’ll be the slowest kids of the group.
Most importantly, when we talk about injury prevention, if there is little mobility in the ankles, our body will call on the next joint for range of motion: the knee (which should be stable). Research has shown that lack of mobility in the ankle increases rotational torque in the knee aka…let’s all drop our jaw and gasp: an ACL tear. And while we can moan and groan over the plight of female soccer players and their increased risk of ACL tears, let’s start being proactive and incorporate this simple exercise into our warm up:
Cues: The key here is the heel must be down at all times. The further away from the wall, the harder it will be to keep that heel from lifting. Typically I have my players do 10 reps for each angle (straight, inward, outward).
2.) Hip Mobility – Lunge Matrix
Why It’s Important: Almost every sport is multiplanar. Well, except curling. Unless the woman brushing the ice trips and does a complete 360 before landing on her ass. I love me some Olympic curling.
All jokes aside, the lunge matrix consists of warming up the hip joint in all planes of motion. We start with split squats to get work in the saggital plane, then move onto lateral lunges for frontal plane work, and finally rotational lunges with the toe pointing up for transverse plane.
Cues: Do not rush and do not be lazy. Most kids will just stand there swaying side to side like WHY. AM. I. DOING. THIS. This is not a nonchalant movement. Make sure their feet are a bit wider than hips and shoulders so that they can get full ROM. Do 10 reps for each.
3.) Glute Activation – Band Walks
Why It’s Important: I think I could write an entire novel on how much I love strong butts and the many reasons they are beneficial for athletes. I would title it 50 Shades of Ass.
I always begin a session with some sort of glute activation. This is useful for soccer players but also general fitness clients as well (to protect from low back pain). Firing the glutes prepares us for the multitude of movements we do in soccer – turning quickly, shooting for power, accelerating, sprinting at maximum speed, and stabilizing the knee. Yes, the stronger the glutes the reduced chance of knee injury.
Cues: Bands around ankles are my go-to but if my players are having any sort of valgus collapse (knees caving inward), we will go above the knees. I like for them to stay in a quarter/deep squat position and work their knees outward against the band. Place cones 10 yards apart and have them do 4-6 round trips.
4.) Hip Flexor Activation via Plank
Why It’s Important: Any hip flexor activation is better than none. And a lot of our athletes seriously get NONE. The psoas is a major muscle in the hip flexor group that plays a vital role in sprinting. It brings the knee to the chest at greater than 90 degrees, working alongside the spine. If your psoas is weak, you’re in BIG trouble.
Cues: Go in push up plank position and maintain a flat, stable back as you flex your hip. The knee should come at or a little above 90 degrees. There should be no spinal movement as the hip is flexing. The better job we can do to separate our hips from our back, the less we will be calling on our lumbar spine to do the work. Actually, it should never be doing the work. Do 8-10 reps for each side with a 1-2 second isometric hold.
5.) Dead Bug
Why It’s Important: Besides the core component and engagement of the lumo-pelvic-hip stabilizers, the dead bug is a great way to work on motor control and coordination. This movement preps the core through simultaneous opposite arm and opposite leg work, which translates to how we run on the field.
Cues: I like to have my players hold up a soccer ball for this exercise so they can get the coordination aspect down. The key here is to obviously keep the ball up, but also to keep left arm up and right leg straight up, as the right arm and left leg move down *slowly* at the same time. Do not allow the leg to touch down to the ground. Do 10-12 reps each side for 1-2 sets.
So here is the warm up breakdown:
1.) Ankle Mobility: 10 reps straight, internal, external angle
2.) Hip Mobility: 10 reps split squat, lateral lunge, lateral lunge with toe up
3.) Glute Activation: 4-6 round trips, set cones 10 yards apart (lateral)
4.) Hip Flexor Activation: 8-10 reps with isometric hold each side
5.) Dead Bug: 8-12 reps each side