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Buying guide for Best football shoulder pads

Finding the best football shoulder pads is a far different experience now than it was a couple of decades ago. Older shoulder pads were large and bulky. Today’s have a tighter fit and come in multiple designs that work well for players in different positions. They’re also smaller to allow maximum movement.

However, when purchasing football shoulder pads, fit and freedom of movement aren’t the only considerations. After all, their primary purpose is to protect the player’s upper body while blocking and tackling. These shoulder pads combine hard plastic, buckles, and padding to protect the chest, upper back, and shoulders.

Because the player’s jersey covers the pads, color and style aren’t as important as they would be for other types of athletic gear. Instead, you want to focus on the fit and protective features when shopping for football shoulder pads. Whether you're choosing a set of pads for yourself or helping your child get started playing football for the first time, we have the information you need to choose the right pads.

football player
Football shoulder pads can last for two or more years of use, so most youth players will outgrow their shoulder pads before the pads wear out.

How to buy the best football shoulder pads

Body measurements

Measure your upper chest and shoulders to get an idea of what size shoulder pads you need. It’s easier if you have someone to help you take these measurements.

Wrap a flexible tape measure around your chest just under the armpits. Then measure the width of your shoulders across the back of the neck. Use these guidelines to find the best size for you. There are even larger sizes available for larger players.

Child XS/S: Chest diameter 22 to 28 inches; shoulder width 10 to 13 inches

Child M/L: Chest diameter 28 to 34 inches; shoulder width 13 to 15 inches

Child XL: Chest diameter 34 to 38 inches; shoulder width 15 to 17 inches

Adult S/M: Chest diameter 38 to 44 inches; shoulder width 17 to 19 inches

Adult L/XL: Chest diameter 44 to 50 inches; shoulder width 19 to 21 inches

Adult XXL/XXXL: Chest diameter 50 to 56 inches; shoulder width 21 to 23 inches

Shoulder pads for player positions

Football players who collide with players on every play need bulkier shoulder pads for maximum protection. Players who rely on quickness and the ability to move their arms freely need smaller, more flexible pads.

Quarterbacks, kickers, receivers: Players who throw, kick, and catch the ball but rarely block at the line of scrimmage can wear lightweight shoulder pads with a flexible shell.

Running backs, linebackers, and defensive backs: These players need both flexibility and protection. Extra padding is common on these shoulder pads to protect against more powerful collisions.

Linemen: These players endure collisions on every play, so they need the maximum level of protection and padding from heavy-duty shoulder pads that cover more of the body.

No organization currently sets safety standards for shoulder pads. However, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) is considering issuing standards like it does for football helmets.


Features to look for in football shoulder pads


Different types of padding are available in these shoulder pads. Some are more flexible than others. Some manufacturers use thermoplastic urethane (TPU) to provide the greatest durability, flexibility and cushioning. Less expensive football shoulder pads might use a simple open-cell or closed-cell foam. This foam will break down more quickly, however.


The exterior of the football shoulder pads is a hard plastic shell. This plastic is made to stand up to repeated hits in practice and games, but it can eventually wear out and crack after a few years of use.

The thickness of the plastic affects the weight and bulkiness of the pads. For example, shoulder pads made for linemen have thicker plastic than pads made for quarterbacks because linemen experience many more collisions in practice and games.


Shoulder pads cover a large portion of the upper body. Players need to wear a T-shirt under the pads and a football jersey over them, which restricts airflow to the shoulders and chest. Some shoulder pads have ventilation holes in the plastic shell to help keep the player a little cooler than solid plastic pads. These holes are small so they don’t affect the integrity of the shell.


Football shoulder pads have laces in the front and straps and buckles along the sides so the player can tighten or loosen the fit of the pads as desired.

football pad
In the 1930s, Spalding made the first shoulder pads that closely resemble today’s designs. They were made of leather.

What accessories can I add to shoulder pads?

Neck roll

Some shoulder pads have a section that allows the connection of a neck roll. This extra piece of hard plastic and padding fits at the top of the pads on the back and supports the neck. It prevents the head from snapping back in collisions with other players or the ground.

Back plate

If you have concerns about hits to the lower back, you can connect this plate to the bottom of the back of the shoulder pads. This pad made of plastic and padding fits under the jersey and helps absorb impact during collisions.

Rib pads

Rib pads (or guards), like back plates, hang from the bottom of the shoulder pads and protect the ribs and abdomen.

Flak jacket

Some players, especially quarterbacks (or players who have a rib injury), wear a flak jacket, or core guard, that connects to the shoulder pads and wraps around the abdomen and lower back. It provides maximum protection for this area but limits movement.

How much do football shoulder pads cost?


The least expensive shoulder pads cost $25 to $100. These are primarily for youth and don’t protect against significant force when tackling and blocking.


These shoulder pads cost $100 to $250. They have a little less padding, a simpler shell design, and are less flexible than more expensive models, but they provide a high level of protection.


The most expensive football shoulder pads cost $250 to $500. These have the latest designs to give players as much flexibility as possible. These designs also have the most effective padding, so they’re lightweight and provide excellent protection.

Bike, Douglas, Gear Pro-Tec, Riddell, Schutt, Xenith, and XTech are the primary manufacturers of football shoulder pads.



  • Adjust the fit. Football shoulder pads should fit snugly, but not so tightly that they pinch the skin. The pads shouldn’t be so loose that they bounce around as you run. Put on the pads and adjust the straps and buckles to achieve the desired fit. You might find after a few practice hits that you need to readjust the fasteners.
  • Inspect the shoulder pads regularly. Every few weeks, look closely at the pads for any signs of damage. Chipped or cracked plastic, worn buckles or straps, sharp exposed edges, and torn padding are all signs that you need to replace the pads.
  • Hang up the shoulder pads after each use. Don’t keep your shoulder pads in a gym bag. Hang them up so air can reach all areas and they can dry properly. This should help minimize bacteria and odors.
  • Read the product description carefully. This is especially important for very inexpensive football shoulder pads. Make certain they are suitable for playing tackle football rather than just for use with costumes.
football pad
Players should wear a T-shirt under the shoulder pads to prevent skin abrasions and absorb sweat.


Q. Do I have to wear football shoulder pads?

A. If you’re playing tackle football in an official league, the rules require that players wear official shoulder pads. However, shoulder pads aren’t necessary for pickup games in the local park or flag football leagues.

Q. Do I need to clean football shoulder pads?

A. Dirt and sweat will accumulate in the foam and nylon in the pads. You can wipe off sweat and grime with a microfiber cloth a couple of times a week. On some pads, you can disconnect the foam from the plastic and wash the pads separately.

Q. How do the shoulder pads protect me?

A. Football shoulder pads distribute the force of any collision. The hard plastic shell protects muscles from direct blows, preventing bruising and soft tissue injury. Players could even suffer broken bones without the protection of shoulder pads.

Q. Do I need separate football shoulder pads for practice and games?

A. No. Most players can wear the same shoulder pads for practice and games during the season. A set of football shoulder pads should last at least a couple of years.

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