Thinking of trying football? Nail these 6 Lioness-approved strength exercises first

Inspired by England’s brilliant performance at the Euros? Former Lioness and Arsenal legend Kelly Smith shares her top exercises for excelling on the pitch. 

There can’t be many of us who’ve come away from watching one of England’s games in this Euros competition and not wondered about taking up football ourselves. Women like Beth Mead, Lucy Bronze and Ellen White have become icons of the game, proving that we all can have a place on the pitch.

But if you’ve never played football before, you’re probably wondering how to get involved with the game. 

“If you want to take up football in your 30s, there’s still time because it’s really fun,” Kelly Smith, former Arsenal forward and England player tells Stylist. “You get to meet new people and make friends – it’s a social event. It probably won’t lead to anything serious in your 30s… you’re not going to be a professional footballer, but playing football is about the feel-good factor.”

She encourages us to get out there and play one night after work to “de-stress, get the endorphins going, make friends and have a bit of a social life”. That sounds all well and good, but if you’ve never stepped foot on a pitch and don’t know if you’ve got the strength and endurance to last a 90-minute kickabout, the idea of rocking up to a grassroots training session might be intimidating.

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Fortunately, Smith swears by a few off-pitch strength exercises that’ll help you perform better on the grass (or astroturf). “There are six core exercises that I’ve done throughout my career to help me be physically strong, mentally focused and generally flexible. I did them all the way through playing for Arsenal and England,” she says. And she still does them now. “I still do them, but not to the level that I used to because I don’t need to. I’m a member of David Lloyd, and I do all my work in a brilliant state-of-the-art gym there.

“These exercises are good for my mind and my mental health because I know they got me to where I did in my playing career. And yeah, I still use the gym regularly because that’s important for my mental health and running or going on a bike ride helps to keep that ticking over.”

Kelly Smith played for Arsenal and made her first international appearance for England as a teenager.

Kelly Smith’s six exercises for aspiring footballers

Lateral band walk

“This activates your glutes, stabilises your hips and knees and gets them strong because these are the limbs you use when you’re running after the ball,” Smith says.

  1. Place a resistance band around your knees or ankles
  2. With a slight bend in the knees, take a step to your right, stretching the band
  3. Bring your left foot to meet the right
  4. Continue for 10 steps to the right, keeping the torso engaged
  5. Then take 10 steps to the left

She recommends doing a band walk for 10 steps on each side and repeating that three times.

Banded walks strengthen your side glutes – important if you’re moving laterally around the pitch

Back squats

This one is best done at the gym, where you have access to barbells.

  1. Set your bar up with weights and step under, so that the bar is resting on the lower part of your neck
  2. Bend your knees and squat as if you’re going to sit down
  3. Slowly come back up to standing
  4. Repeat

“This is activating your glutes, your hamstrings, your quads – all the muscles that you need to be strong when you’re twisting and turning in the game. If these muscles and joints aren’t protected, then you’ll get injuries.” 

Split squat

  1. Place a bench or chair just behind you
  2. Resting your right foot on the bench/chair, grab your dumbbells
  3. Squat as deeply as you can by bending your left knee
  4. Come back up to standing and repeat for 10 reps before swapping legs

“Here you’re really targeting your quad, hamstring and the glute. And it’s about stability and balance because again, when you’re on the football pitch, you’re twisting as you turn and you need your hips, back, ankles and joints to be strong,” Smith says. “If they’re not, you could pop your ACL or sprain your ankle.”

Bench press

“Even though football is about running, you still need to have a strong upper body and core. Bench presses will work your biceps, triceps and chest muscles.”

  1. If you don’t have a bench, lie with your back and feet on the floor
  2. Grab your dumbbells and push them up towards the ceiling, keeping your back neutral
  3. Slowly bring the dumbbells back to your chest
  4. Repeat

Kettlebell swing

“Football is also about holding off defenders, so when you’re in a tight area, you need arms and body strength to hold off and push away.” To hone that skill, Smith recommends kettlebell swings.

“It’s about hip control, but it’s a full body workout at the same time because you’re holding a strong posture,” she explains.

  1. Start with your feet about hip-width apart (but play with this positioning depending on how long your legs are and how wide your kettlebell is – you want to avoid hitting your legs during the swing)
  2. Standing in your upright position, hold the kettlebell between your legs with both hands, relax your shoulders.
  3. Push your hips back, allowing the weight to drop between your legs. Keep knees soft, so they’re not locked out
  4. Squeeze your glutes as hard as you can, and push your hips forwards to stand back up
  5. All of the power should come from the momentum in your glutes. The movement is a hinge, so you’re pushing your hips back, and then you’re pushing your hips forwards

Treadmill sprints

Smith says that she usually sets the treadmill at level 12, 13 or 14 and runs for 30 seconds. “You want to get your heart rate up as fast as you can, using whatever level you’re comfortable with,” she explains. After the 30-second sprint, bring the speed back down to level two or three (which should be a walk) for a 30-second recovery.

  1. Start off with five minutes of easy treadmill jogging
  2. Then increase the speed to a sprint level (start with level 10 and increase)
  3. Run hard for 30 seconds
  4. Decrease to a slow walking speed for 30 seconds
  5. Repeat 10 times

“If you feel good, try to do another 10 reps, but that’s going to really bust your lungs,” Smith warns. “You’re pushing your heart and lungs to a higher level to get you fitter.”

Kelly Smith MBE has teamed up with David Lloyd Clubs to share her footballing know-how, as well as tips and advice on how to train like a Lioness this Women’s Euros and beyond. For more information on classes and experiences on offer, please visit

Images: Getty

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