North American football is one of the most popular and exciting sports in the world, and while the term ‘football’ in North America will typically refer to the American game, north of the border, Canadians have their own unique version of football that overall has similar physiological demands. However, there are several noteworthy differences in rules and gameplay that will change an athlete’s approach to physical preparation. As a result, the purpose of this article is to compare and contrast how the differences in Canadian and American football might alter an athlete’s strength and conditioning program. Athletes who may benefit from this article will include:
- High school athletes (Canada/USA) transitioning to play 3-down football in the CIS.
- Collegiate athletes in the NCAA who are preparing to play professionally in the CFL.
- Professional athletes coming from the NFL who are preparing to play in the CFL.
In general, North American football is an intermittent, field-based contact sport that primarily stresses the phosphagen anaerobic pathway, which is responsible for explosive, high force/power movements such as sprinting, jumping, and cutting. This energy pathway powers high-intensity anaerobic activity lasting 0-10 seconds; as high intensity activity exceeds 10 seconds, energy production switches to the glycolytic system (lactic). However, because the average football play lasts only 5-7 seconds in duration, the glycolytic system will rarely be stressed in competition.
Despite the short-duration of each play and the corresponding importance of explosive movements, these short-duration, high-intensity movements are interspersed by long breaks in gameplay that may last anywhere from 40-seconds to several minutes. As a result, the oxidative system is also a primary contributor, as the ability to recover fully between plays will draw upon on an athlete’s aerobic fitness.
General Training Strategy
From the aforementioned needs analysis, it can be summarized that North American football is purely an alactic sport, which is where most of the training focus should lay. In terms of on-field work, this means that coaches should focus on a short-to-long linear sprint program that emphasizes technique and acceleration, particularly in the 5-20 yard range. Moreover, given the agility demands of the sport, a quality football strength program should also involve a sound progression of multi-directional running and jumping skills. In the weight room, exercises and their respective volumes and intensities should be structured in a way that supports the development of alactic qualities. Examples of this include Olympic weightlifting movements and squatting/pressing variations at high-intensities, in addition to medicine ball throws and plyometrics to develop explosive strength that will transfer to gameplay. Additionally, extensive tempo and accessory circuits can be implemented, which will elicit cardiovascular adaptations and aid in recovery. Of course, weight room activities should also place an emphasis on promoting both hypertrophy and mobility, which will transfer to performance as well as injury risk mitigation.
Major Differences in Gameplay
Despite the commonalities, there are several noteworthy differences between the Canadian and American games that warrant consideration when developing a football strength and conditioning program. The first major consideration is the field of play, as the Canadian football field is both longer and wider than its American counterpart. Additionally, the Canadian end zone is also 20-yards deep as opposed to 10-yards. Despite there being an extra player on both-sides of the ball (12-players total, versus 11-per-side in American football), this larger playing field offers receivers significantly more room to make a play, and consequently makes Canadian football a much more pass-oriented game.
Another big consideration is the difference in rules on offence. In Canadian football, the offence is allowed 3-downs to advance the ball 1o-yards. Moreover, all personnel in the backfield may be in motion (in any direction) prior to the ball being snapped; this is referred to as a ‘waggle’. In contrast, rules in American football allow for 4-downs to advance the ball, however, only one receiver may be in motion (parallel to, or away from, the line of scrimmage) before the ball is snapped. Again, these rules will typically favour a passing offence, as the waggle will afford receivers a ‘flying’ start as they enter their routes, while the shortage in downs will make the run game less viable. There will also be more emphasis on special teams, as there will be more opportunities to kick the ball.
Defensively, in Canadian football, the defensive line must line up 1-yard behind the line of scrimmage, whereas in American football, the defensive line lines up directly on the line of scrimmage. Tactically, this will make it more difficult for pass-rushers, as they will be less likely to beat offensive lineman purely off of quickness and athleticism.
Lastly, on special teams, in American football, the receiving team may call for a ‘fair catch’, which allows a returner protection from blindside hits. In contrast, in Canadian football, no ‘fair catch’ is allowed; however, the kicking team must allow the returner a 5-yard “halo” when the kick is initially caught. While the halo does offer much more protection from injury as it will prevent unexpected hits, returners should be cognizant that they will encounter more contact overall simply from being required to field the ball on every kick.
The major rule differences that may affect physical preparation are summarized in the table below.
Training Considerations for Canadian Football
While all North American football strength and conditioning programs should be very comparable given the demands of the sport, special consideration should be given when transitioning between the Canadian and American game.
1.) Overall, Canadian football players are comparatively smaller than their American counterparts. Of course this is partially due to long-established recruiting standards, but it is also reflective of the unique demands of Canadian football. The larger field requires athletes to cover more ground, while fewer downs and a shorter play clock collectively translate to shorter rest periods. Correspondingly, this tends to favour smaller athletes that are more mobile and better conditioned.
2.) Training considerations for offensive linemen in Canadian football remain relatively unchanged. However, since defensive linemen are forced to play 1-yard off the line of scrimmage, more emphasis can be placed on hand-skills and sport-specific technique, as the increased distance will make it more difficult to beat O-linemen cleanly via pure athleticism. Moreover, the smaller active roster size in Canadian football requires more athletes to play special teams, which increases the likelihood of D-linemen getting an additional tap on the shoulder for kick return/coverage. This will require greater levels of conditioning, and the ability to cover more ground during kickoffs and punts. As a result, while strength programs for Canadian D-linemen should still emphasize hypertrophy and the development of lean muscle mass, it may be less critical for athletes to gain mass simply to hit a number on the scale, and more utility might be found in developing a versatile set of athletic abilities instead.
3.) Skill players (wide receivers/defensive backs) and big-skill players (running backs/linebackers) in the Canadian game should place a greater emphasis on high-speed upright sprinting, as the larger playing surface will allow athletes to reach higher speeds during gameplay. Training strategies may include involving more flying starts to increase specificity to the waggle, as well as including sprint distances that approach 40+ yards in order to reach higher top-end speeds. Consequently, skill players should also focus more attention to eccentric strength, as change-of-direction tasks will require athletes to decelerate from higher velocities. Also, it is noteworthy that even if high relative velocities are not reached in gameplay in some cases, the development of a higher maximum velocity and the corresponding speed reserve would translate to increased stamina and recovery.
4.) Due to the absence of a fair catch rule, it may be advisable for kick return specialists to increase focus on injury prevention strategies due to the increased number of collisions they will face upon fielding the ball.
Due to the unique requirements, some athletes who might struggle finding their place in American football may in fact thrive in a Canadian football environment. While strength and conditioning programs for each should overall be quite analogous given the similar demands of the sport, careful examination should be made when transitioning between each version of the game. While the development of alactic qualities will be the cornerstone of any successful program, an increased emphasis will be placed on high-speed & upright running, conditioning, and mobility in the Canadian game.