mighty medicine balls

In Search of Footballer Fitness With a Premier League S&C Coach

We went through a strength and condition session with a Premier League coach to see just what is required of top-level players in the gym.

by Jim Weeks
09 November 2016, 3:35pm

All photos by Nathan Copelin

The archetypal view of a footballer's training routine has them out on the pitch darting through cones, or standing sadly with a ball at their feet while their manager barks instructions at them.

The reality is very different. Football coaching is highly developed, informed by considerable research and vast amounts of sports science. Yes, they do run through cones, and for so long as there are managers there will be barked instructions, but the bigger picture is far more complex.

As Premier League clubs have become increasingly professionalised, so their coaching staffs have grown and improved. Among their number is Sam Pepys, who assists the Under-21s strength and conditioning coaches at Crystal Palace. I spoke to Sam at Motus Strength Gym in West London, a stone's throw from Stamford Bridge. It happens to be the exact time that Chelsea are taking on – and dismantling – Manchester United, and each goal is audible.

Football is very much Sam's sport – he didn't arrive in his current role by accident. At one stage, he was on the path to a different career in the game: "I was playing for a county side and I got scouted by QPR, but, unfortunately, it didn't materialise," he explains.

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But while his chances of a career on the pitch faded, his passion for the sport certainly didn't. "As soon as I qualified as a trainer six years ago I knew it was conditioning I wanted to specialise in, and football was going to be the sport," says Sam. "I can definitely apply what I've learned from doing my masters in strength and conditioning, and the science behind it, and how the body responds to certain things. So [having played] definitely helps."

We're speaking in a gym because Sam is about to take me and my colleague Nathan through a strength and conditioning session. This is no big deal, of course, because like all journalists we are in fantastic physical shape, finely tuned athletes who spend roughly half our time in the gym and absolutely none of it in the pub.

In truth, we're not prepared for this and feel worryingly uncertain about how we'll cope. My preconceptions ahead of the session were pretty basic: I imagined being sent to a corner to lift a set of heavy weights for 10 minutes, before being shunted to another corner of the gym and instructed to lift another, heavier set of weights.

This turns out to be almost entirely inaccurate. There are some weights, as you can see below, but there is considerably more variation and an almost sporting aspect that makes it pretty fun.

As you can see, I lift weights all the time and am very good at looking chill whilst doing so.

The session begins with an assessment of our base fitness that Sam then uses to tailor the ensuing workout, because obviously there is no point in pushing us so hard that we literally keel over. Next, we're required to stand on one foot while Sam throws a ball at us, which we have to knock back to him with as much accuracy as we can manage (which is not much). This is what I mean about fun: kicking a football about is fun. Unsurprisingly, that's part of the plan.

"There are some things you can do to get a little more buy-in with players: incorporating football into pre-hab, for instance," Sam explains. "They kick a ball for a living, so it's quite handy occasionally to put a ball in there."

Some of the predicated weights follow, though they definitely form less of the session than I might have anticipated. This is where it's easy to imagine football players becoming a bit bored, but that's not been Sam's experience.

"Generally they are professionals – they've been given that contract, so they all work hard, otherwise they wouldn't be there," he says. "You need that sort of dedication to prove to management that you're worthy of a contract in the first place."

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I do not possess that sort of dedication, hence my Welsh national team shirt never having been in the same dressing room as Gareth Bale's. But it is easy to forget the amount of work that has gone into professional football careers, particularly in the Premier League but also for players down the divisions. If you're not arsed about doing the training that's been laid on specifically to make you a better player, you're probably not getting that far.

There follows a series of leaps on to a raised box, which if you overthink it is surprisingly more complex than expected. Again, it's good fun – kind of childlike in its simplicity and satisfaction. If you don't enjoy leaping from the ground on to a raised platform, you have clearly become entirely detached from your youth, and I'm a little sad for you.

And finally, my personal favourite: hurling a medicine ball at a wall with all your strength. This may sound like some kind of therapy for anger management, but like all of the exercises it's designed to improve strength and your general fitness. It's the competitive element of this that makes it fun: each time, you want to throw the ball that much harder, produce an even louder thwack against the wall of the gym. You can see how footballers might relish this kind of thing. Sam's a fan of the medicine ball, too.

"Have this in the chops, you idiot wall!" It has to be said that hurling a medicine ball around was a lot of fun.

"I do a lot of power med-ball work with clients," says Sam, who also takes on private jobs. "It's just the versatility of the damn thing – there's so much you can do with it! It's a great bit of kit."

Versatility is what makes this 45-minute session feel like no more than quarter of an hour. It's something Sam learned early on in his career as a strength and conditioning coach.

"When I was at Luton I was working very closely with one of the centre-backs, and I actually ended up doing my dissertation on him. Whenever I'd give a little bit of variety, or mix things up, or introduce new exercises, he'd come to me and say: 'I really enjoyed that, I got a lot out of it.' I see it in my private work with clients. When you give them that variety, some exercises just hit the spot."

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Come the end of proceedings, we are in a surprisingly good state. The session's success hinged on keeping the brain as active as the body – because each exercise seemed to include a certain amount of thinking, and not just repetitive action, it seemed to pass by a lot quicker.

Pitch-based work remains vital to footballers. As Sam explains: "We try to do gym in the afternoon, after [pitch] training. There's some scientific reasoning behind that: if you do strength and conditioning before pitch-based work, it's been known to cause reductions in strength; whereas if you do it afterwards, gains cane be made."

While cones and bibs and beetroot-red managers remain a big part of football coaching, there's no questioning the importance of strength and conditioning in honing today's players. If done properly it can be a lot of fun – whether you're a top-level pro or a wholly unprepared civilian.