Anyone who trains athletes is well aware of the issues facing the female soccer athlete. If you have spent any time around female soccer players there is a good chance you know one that has torn their ACL at some point in their career, whether it was in college or previously in high school. It doesn’t matter if you are looking at scientific studies and/or anecdotal evidence, female athletes are at a much higher risk of tearing their ACL’s than male athletes, especially in sports that require twisting and pivoting (most sports), including soccer. Furthermore, female soccer players are at twice the risk than other female athletes and four times more likely to tear their ACL than their male counterparts.
So the question is, as a strength/sport performance coach, how do you help to minimize the chances of your female soccer athletes tearing their ACL’s?
In my opinion, the simple answer that is overlooked in too many training programs is improving single leg strength and power. Over the years, more and more strength/sport performance coaches are using single leg strength exercises in their programs, but are we choosing the best exercises and are we doing enough of them?
When designing a program for female soccer athletes, their strength program should be built around improving single leg strength, maybe going as far as using only single leg exercises in their program. Remember, improving single leg strength will not only help in minimizing potential ACL injuries, single leg strength will also enhance acceleration, power, and improve running economy, all things that are wanted in our female soccer athlete or many other sport for that matter.
When we look at single leg strength we have two different qualities to train, both quad dominant single leg strength as well as hip dominant single leg strength, both of which are very important. One without the other is missing the big picture.
For quad dominant single leg strength, exercises like split squats, (goblet split squat, barbell split squats, front split squat, rear foot elevated split squats) single leg squats to parallel, skater squats or slide board lunges (linear and/or lateral) are all effective and worthy of being included in the strength program.
RFE Split Squats
Slide Board Lunge
As for single leg hip dominant strength, two movements shoot directly to the forefront; single leg RDL and slide board leg curls. Single leg RDL’s are not new to the strength and conditioning community, but slide board leg curls are not as common. The slide board leg curl has a lot of bang for the buck – isometric glute activation coupled with eccentric/concentric hamstring strength – a combo that is critical for athletic performance and injury reduction. The glutes and hamstrings have to work together while the hamstrings flex the knee all while in hip extension. A movement that should be a no-brainer in every program.
Slide Board Leg Curl
All that said, single leg strength should only be a part of a great strength program for a soccer athlete. Don’t overlook other qualities like tissue quality (foam rolling and stretching) before every strength training session, practice and game. For every athlete, there may be no quality more important than tissue quality.
Other aspects of quality training like an activation period, a thorough dynamic warm up, and a well thought out progression based plyometric program need to be addressed, along with total body strength and a proper conditioning program. A great, simple example of some linear and lateral single leg plyometric’s progression is shown here by MBSC Coach Marco Sanchez.
At the end of the day, single leg strength rules all when it comes to minimizing ACL injuries with your female soccer athletes. I know bilateral lower body movements have been an essential part of these athletes strength programs for years, but the amount of ACL injuries are still on the rise, meaning our current training systems are not protecting these athletes from potential injury. Does that mean we shouldn’t be doing any bilateral lower body training with a female soccer athlete? No, but the majority of the strength training should be single leg based. It’s time we look at these programs and adapt for the health of our athletes.