Max Effort Upper for Offensive and Defensive Linemen
The sport of football requires a tremendous level of athleticism to excel. Athletes must exhibit immense strength, speed, and durability to be successful. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lineman or skill position player; players must utilize weight training to improve athletic performance and realize genetic potential.
Playing offensive or defensive line places great demand on a player’s absolute strength, where the name of the game is overpowering your opponent every down. In order to achieve high levels of athletic performance, exercise programming must be designed to increase absolute strength and target specific muscle groups that play a significant role in the execution of sports skills.
Upper body strength is vital for offensive and defensive linemen. Every down, linemen use their arms and upper body to control and drive their opponents off of the ball.
It is common sense that these athletes benefit significantly from max effort upper training, with a specific emphasis on developing the arms, shoulders, and upper back. Below, I will discuss a few exercises we recommend for football players at Westside Barbell.
Axle / Fat Bar Bench Press
If you want to strengthen the triceps, you need to bench press. To increase the tricep emphasis while bench pressing, bench press with an axle or fat bar. Why? The increased diameter of the barbell places a greater demand on the arms, leading to accelerated improvements in bicep, tricep, and forearm strength.
We recommend working up to max effort singles and triples when first introducing this exercise. These rep ranges will allow you to train the athlete at the most optimal intensities to improve absolute strength, between 90 and 100%.
Execution is important. To complete this exercise safely and effectively, athletes must focus on applying as much grip pressure to the bar as possible. This leads to better control over the barbell, and it ensures you have each muscle group adequately engaged in the lift.
When training offensive and defensive linemen, it is recommended to keep bench press grip width similar to how the player would drive their arms into their opponent. This is not to say wide grip pressing should be eliminated altogether; however, it should be used as an accessory pressing movement.
Swiss Bar Floor Press
This exercise is one of the best for building arm, shoulder, and upper back absolute strength. The Swiss bar floor press forces an athlete to move in a controlled manner, causing the athlete to do more work as opposed to the conventional bench press, where athletes can accelerate on the eccentric part of the lift and bounce the weight off of their chest.
To control the Swiss bar, an athlete must develop the grip and forearm strength necessary to manage the barbell and maintain balance throughout the press. The eccentric portion of the lift places excellent focus on control, lowering the barbell down to a specific position that best allows you to complete the lift correctly.
This leads to the question, to what position should the barbell be lowered? Athletes should focus on allowing their triceps to lay parallel to the ground each rep, meaning from elbow to shoulder, the entire tricep is in contact with the ground. Once this is achieved, maximal amounts of force should be applied to the barbell to complete the concentric portion of the lift.
This exercise is typically performed for max effort singles and can be a great way to get an idea of where a lineman’s max bench press is without testing max bench specifically.
An exercise common in Strongman or CrossFit, the push press is one of the best compound movements to increase upper body strength and overall athleticism. This lift mimics the type of extension a lineman aims to achieve when driving off the ball, except the push press places them in a vertical position versus the angled position a lineman is in when making contact with their opponent.
Execution of this exercise is simple, assuming your players already understand the proper execution of the shoulder press. The only thing added is leg drive, which mimics the leg drive involved in power cleans. Having good leg drive is essential; the better the leg drive, the heavier the press will be.
Linemen can utilize a regular barbell or an axle barbell for this exercise. As far as rep ranges go, it is recommended to work up to a three, or five-rep max set most often while occasionally working up to a one-rep max.
Absolute Strength is Absolutely Necessary
Many coaches fear training at higher intensity due to the assumed risk of injury. If you are avoiding max effort work, you are placing your athletes at a greater risk of injury due to unpreparedness. With a sport as physical and violent as football, an athlete must have the absolute strength necessary to exert their will on the playing field.
When discussing the training of offensive and defensive linemen, it is a no-brainer; these athletes require high levels of absolute strength to succeed. One of the most outstanding linemen of all time, Larry Allen, was known for possessing a 700lb raw bench press. It is no coincidence that the strongest bench presser in the NFL was also known as possibly the best offensive lineman in football.
Safe execution of max effort training comes down to two factors; properly planned training and properly educated players. You want your programming to expose athletes to different levels of volume and intensity while teaching correct execution of the various exercises. As long as these bases are covered, max effort training is no more dangerous than any other training method.
Do not fear max effort training; fear having weak players who get embarrassed on the playing field.
Simmons, L. (2015) Special Strength Development for All Sports. Westside Barbell.
Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.
Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.