By its nature, American football presents a number of distinct training challenges. It is a game in which every player is subject to intense, often sudden and violent physical contacts. For decades, American football coaches have preached a primal survival-of-the-fittest message concerning football training. Football also has distinct elements that require subtle, highly developed tactical and motor skills. In the execution of a single play, there may be large, powerful linemen colliding with one another, while the quarterback and a receiver engage in a duet in which the ball is delivered into a player's hands on the dead run from a distance of 50 yd (44 m).
Football is a game of positional play: each position is distinct, and each position player has responsibilities designed to contribute to overall team success. Unlike rugby or soccer, in which every player must have a reasonable level of skill in every one of the essential aspects of the game, with certain specialties built in, football rules limit what certain players are permitted to do on the field of play. These limits imposed on each position make skill development for these players similarly restricted. From the strength and training perspective, every position exposes the players to at least the potential for significant physical contact and injury, with some contact anticipated and some spontaneous.
There area broad range of physical capabilities that must be trained and developed to a basic degree in every football player. Some positions require that a particular training emphasis be directed to one or more of these areas. A prominent training area is that of muscular strength and endurance. Football is an often violent contact sport, and serious weight training is essential to performance and to protect the body. The related concept of physical power is also enhanced through specific physical development.
To both increase the athlete' range of motion, and to enhance the ability of the musculoskeletal system to both absorb and to recover from violent contact, flexibility training is employed, including calisthenics, stretching programs, yoga, and Pilates.
The aerobic fitness and endurance capabilities of the players are important, as improved endurance provides a physiological base for the player to support the significant intermittent exercise aspects of football, permitting the athlete to recover more readily between intervals. Tied to this training aspect is the development of the anaerobic lactic and alactic energy systems; the average play in football has a duration of less than 10 seconds; developing the capability to give a maximum effort in each interval is crucial to football success.
Every football position imposes an obligation on a player to move explosively, both on the line of scrimmage and in the open field; play at each position is enhanced by various plyometric training techniques. In particular, the successful running back, wide receiver or linebacker possesses the ability to generate a burst of speed.
Coupled with the emphasis upon distinct positional requirements of football, the strength and training regimens must take into account a number of other factors. The first is the notion of "periodization of training." Football training, as preparatory for a physically demanding sport, will take into account the phases of the competitive seasons. Football will generally have a preseason, a competitive season, and an off-season. Each of these seasons will have a unique training focus.
The off-season is the longest of the football training intervals. If the NFL were used as an example for the length of the periods, the competitive season is September to January, the off-season is January to June, and the preseason is July and August. In the six-month off-season, the player will first recover from any injuries and engage in rehabilitation. The player will then devote most of his training energies to building greater strength in each of the basic physical qualities required for the sport, with specific emphasis placed on the needs of his position. The modern, exceedingly well-paid football player is expected to maintain a high level of fitness through out the year. A wide receiver, who must be explosive and acrobatic in the pursuit of the football, might spend considerable time on a plyometrics and interval sprint running program. An offensive lineman, with responsibilities to protect the quarterback, might seek to obtain extra development of his upper arms and shoulders. Additional focus in training is in addition to the basic strength and fitness requirements.
The preseason represents a shift in training focus for all football players. While basic physical training programs are maintained, the preseason training camp is intended to introduce the individual player to broader team concepts. Virtually every offensive and defensive maneuver in football requires individual positions to function in a synchronized way; training camp drills are designed to advance team concepts that are built on individual performance.
The football season is a highly regimented series of training events that lead to a weekly game. Strength and other physical training continue, but at a reduced level. Recovery from the rigors of the preceding game, by way of therapy, is a significant part of the weekly preparation for the players. The training emphasis is as much on tactics and the execution of plays as with any other aspect. Aerobic training such as stationary bicycles is often employed as a recovery tool.
What is an appropriate training and strength development program for a physically mature professional football player is not likely to be appropriate for a 15-year-old high school sophomore. As with any strength program, careful attention must be paid to the fact that the growth plates and other development indicators must be respected. Lifting weights that place undue strain on the musculoskeletal system and its ability to grow, or exposing the body to contact for which it is not prepared has the potential to cause permanent injury.