Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Soccer as play and exercise: Resistance and endurance training at the same time

Many sports combine three key elements that make them excellent fitness choices: play, resistance exercise, and endurance exercise; all at the same time. Soccer is one of those sports. Its popularity is growing, even in the US! The 2010 FIFA World Cup, currently under way in South Africa, is a testament to that. It helps that the US team qualified and did well in its first game against England.

Pelé is almost 70 years old in the photo below, from Wikipedia. He is widely regarded as the greatest soccer player of all time. But not by Argentineans, who will tell you that Pelé is probably the second greatest soccer player of all time, after Maradona.

Even though Brazil is not a monarchy, Pelé is known there as simply “The King”. How serious are Brazilians about this? Well, consider this. Fernando Henrique Cardoso was one of the most popular presidents of Brazil. He was very smart; he appointed Pelé to his cabinet. But when Cardoso had a disagreement with Pelé he was broadly chastised in Brazil for disrespecting “The King”, and was forced to publicly apologize or blow his political career!

Arguably soccer is a very good choice of play activity to be used in combination with resistance exercise. When used alone it is likely to lead to much more lower- than upper-body muscle development. Unlike before the 1970s, most soccer players today use whole body resistance exercise as part of their training. Still, you often see very developed leg muscles and relatively slim upper bodies.

What leads to leg muscle gain are the sprints. Interestingly, it is the eccentric part of the sprints that add the most muscle, by causing the most muscle damage. That is, it not the acceleration, but the deceleration phase that leads to the largest gains in leg muscle.

This eccentric phase effect is true for virtually all types of anaerobic exercise, and a well known fact among bodybuilders and exercise physiologists (see, e.g., Wilmore et al., 2007; full reference at the end of the post). For example, it is not the lifting, but the lowering of the bar in the chest press, which leads to the most muscle gain.

Like many sports practiced at high levels of competition, professional soccer can lead to serious injuries. So can non-professional, but highly competitive play. Common areas of injury are the ankles and the knees. See Mandelbaum & Putukian (1999) for a discussion of possible types of health problems associated with soccer; it focuses on females, but is broad enough to serve as a general reference. The full reference and link to the article are given below.


Mandelbaum, B.R., & Putukian, M. (1999). Medical concerns and specificities in female soccer players. Science & Sports, 14(5), 254-260.

Wilmore, J.H., Costill, D.L., & Kenney, W.L. (2007). Physiology of sport and exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.