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Strength Training for Injury Prevention
Soccer is a high-speed game of hard collisions and split-second direction changes. As a result, injuries to muscles and joint structures occur frequently due to the high demands placed on them to produce and absorb force in an instant. Some injuries are unavoidable due to contact, but non-contact injuries can be dramatically reduced by using smart strength training programs.
Muscle tears are often the result of nearby muscles not doing their job to assist or stabilize during movement. Lower back strains are often the result of weak abs and glutes, while hamstring strains are often caused by poor hip extension, particularly with glute weakness.
Injuries to joint structures, such as shoulder tendonitis and knee anterior cruciate ligament tears, are often the result of front-to-back muscle imbalances. Athletes who emphasize bench press but ignore upper back strengthening will often experience acute shoulder injury or chronic pain with pressing movements in the weight room and on the field. Quadriceps dominated training at the expense of the hamstrings can result in knee joint instability with deceleration and shear, thus the common cause of many anterior cruciate ligament and cartilage injuries.
A smart, balanced strength-training program can go a long way in preventing injuries on the soccer field. I’ll give examples for some of the major joints and muscles, but remember these key points.
The training volume for the back of the body should match that of the front.
Football doesn’t just happen in front of you. The workout should also include lateral and rotational movements. Plyometric and agility exercises should also address this problem.
Don’t forget to train your core. This is the weakest part of the body in most athletes, but perhaps the most crucial to success.
Neck: First contact in soccer is often with the head and shoulders, so a strong neck and top traps are key to preventing neck injuries and ‘stingers’. Neck strengthening should be done in all directions using a machine or resistance from a workout partner. The athlete should remember to maintain good posture at all times and not to cheat with their body. The upper traps should primarily be worked with cleans, deadlifts and farm’s walks. Shrugs and handstand rows are traditional exercises that only accentuate poor posture and can cause more neck and shoulder pain.
Shoulders: The shoulders have the most mobility of any joint, but also the least stability. The rotator cuff and scapular muscles of the upper back are responsible for joint stability, especially during overhead or pressing activities. The scapular muscles are critical in maintaining glenohumeral rhythm and joint space while preventing impingement. This then allows the rotator cuff muscles to do their job and stabilize the shoulder joint.
The scapular musculature is recruited during pull-ups and chin-ups, pull-downs, dumbbell or barbell rows, and deadlifts. Emphasize good posture all the while to work your muscles effectively, rather than shedding too much weight. The rotator cuff muscles can be worked by using bands or dumbbells to perform rotational movements and diagonal patterns. Using light dumbbells (3-5 lbs) to perform T, Y, L and W is a great way to warm up before the lift and will hit all the muscles in the shoulder girdle.
Lumbar: The lower back is another area quite susceptible to injury, but it can often be prevented with strengthening and attention to proper lifting technique. Keeping your lower back flat during exercises like squats, deadlifts, and cleans is essential for preventing injury. Holding that posture against the load being lifted is also a huge strengthening exercise for the muscles of the entire back, even as other muscle groups are targeted (e.g. leg squats). Exercises such as back hyperextensions and back stretches will engage these muscles more during increased range of motion.
Another key is abdominal strengthening to support the lumbar spine when under high stress. Strong abdominal muscles not only stabilize the spine, but also facilitate the transfer of power between the lower and upper body, making your athletes more punishing in blockers and tackles. Explosive medicine ball throws are an excellent way to train your core muscles to stabilize your spine and develop power at the same time.
Knees: As mentioned above, non-contact knee injuries are often the result of muscle imbalances, especially strong quadriceps and weak hamstrings. Performing parallel squats and spending the same amount of time working your hamstrings will go a long way towards improving knee stability. At some point that should include hamstring curls, glute raises, and Romanian deadlifts. Unilateral exercises such as lunges, single-leg squats, and single-leg deadlifts can also be used to guard against side-to-side imbalances. Lateral and rotational lunges can be used occasionally, along with agility and plios, to prepare the knee joint structures for shear and directional changes.
Ankles: Ankle injuries are very common in soccer and usually occur with cutting or landing from a jump. Paying attention to strengthening the hips and core muscles will actually reduce ankle injuries due to improved body control with deceleration-type movements. Another effective way to reduce non-contact ankle injuries is through agility and plyometric work. Stressing the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the ankles using soccer specific movements will strengthen these structures and prepare them to handle the forces placed on them in game situations. Start during the off-season and gradually build up the speed and increase the difficulty of the exercises.
As a physical therapist, the main causes of non-contact injuries I see are due to muscle imbalances, front to back and side to side, and lack of preparation for game-like conditions. The rehabilitation process addresses these shortcomings by targeting neglected support muscle groups and emphasizing muscle and joint structures by incorporating sport-specific movements. By applying these concepts to your training programs, many of these injuries will be avoided. That could mean fewer games lost and more wins in the fall.
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