Rugby Strength and Conditioning
Rugby players require high levels of strength, speed, power, agility and endurance to cope with a variety of physical demands. One minute a rugby player could be accelerating past an opponent and needs to be agile enough to change direction in a flash, the next they are making a tackle and need to be strong enough to take their opponent to the ground.
The rigorous demands and combination of physical qualities required for rugby make it an interesting sport from a strength and conditioning perspective. Now more so than ever strength and conditioning is a crucial part of rugby performance at both the elite and amateur level with players adopting structured approaches to their physical training and recovery methods. Rugby players are continuing to become stronger, faster and fitter, and this is in no small part due to the advancement of rugby strength and conditioning and sports science methods.
What Physical Qualities are Required for Rugby?
To be forceful and effective in scrums, rucks and mauls and to produce and absorb force during contact situations (giving and receiving tackles, holding players off, scrums, rucks, mauls)
For accelerating, sprinting, jumping and producing force quickly when tackling, pushing, shoving.
To break away from and chase opponents over short and long distances.
To respond to an ever changing and chaotic environment — rugby players need to evade opponents when attacking and respond to opposition players movements when defending.
To maintain high levels of strength, speed and power output when faced with periods of high intensity action and short recovery periods.
To last the duration of the 80 minute match and be able to recover quickly from the short bursts of high intensity activity.
Some positions in rugby require higher levels of certain physical qualities than others. For example, a winger will need faster sprinting speed and a greater ability to change direction whilst running at full speed than a prop. Similarly, a prop will benefit from more body mass and having higher levels of maximum strength than a winger will.
With that said, both wingers and props will benefit from increasing their physical capacities across the board. It’s not uncommon for a prop to make a break through and need to sprint towards the try line and, in this instance, a relatively faster prop will be very useful. Just as a particularly strong winger is going to be more useful than a weaker one when called upon to make a try saving block or tackle. It’s therefore important for a rugby player, regardless of their position, to be as physically well rounded as possible.
The general aim of a rugby strength and conditioning program is to develop well rounded athleticism that will transfer to enhanced strength, speed and power on the field.
This has to be achieved in conjunction with maintaining a high level of conditioning (aerobic and anaerobic endurance) whilst also maintaining (and in some cases increasing) muscle mass.
As with any team sport, each player will have individual requirements. Thus, volume and intensity of training will vary from player to player depending on individual strengths/weaknesses, injury status and playing schedule. However, the training goal of increased functional strength, speed, power and endurance will be shared by most.
Training for Rugby… Not for Lifting Stats, Ego or Instagram
It’s important for rugby players to be ‘rugby strong’ and not get caught up on becoming ‘powerlifting strong’, ‘Olympic weightlifting strong’ or ‘bodybuilder strong.’
What do I mean by this? I simply mean that the end goal shouldn’t be forgotten: performance on the rugby field.
Capability in the physical qualities required for successful rugby performance should take precedence over planning training around attaining new one repetition maximums or isolating a specific body part, which is where many people go wrong.
Yes, strength training should, and will, increase a rugby player's absolute strength, but the strength needs to transfer over to — and be gained in concert with — power, speed and agility on the rugby pitch.
It’s common for well intentioned effort to be misplaced, often by following strength training programs that leave an athlete prone to injury or without any functional improvement in their sports performance. This is often the result of one of two things:
Weekly — or sometimes daily — use of maximum weights and the adoption of strength-sport (powerlifting and/or Olympic weightlifting) specific techniques and programming.
By following training programs that don’t entail any kind of functional similarity to rugby (neglecting basic movement patterns in favour of bodybuilder style isolation programs).
Enhanced athleticism and improved rugby performance is achieved by training the movement patterns that transfer to strength, speed and power on the rugby pitch.
Rugby is a collision based sport that involves acceleration, sprinting, jumping, throwing, pushing and pulling (tackling), all of which require the lower and upper body to work as a coordinated whole. Thus, a rugby strength and conditioning program will focus on compound movements. These work the body as a unit and improve the body’s ability to work as a coordinated whole. Rugby players will also benefit from building lean and functional muscle mass to protect them when receiving and initiating physical contact.
Looking further in to the sport of rugby we can see that players also need to be strong and powerful in both upright standing positions and in bent over ‘hinged’ positions such as those adopted during the scrum, rucks and mauls. Thus, it makes sense to consider these patterns and positions when designing a rugby strength and conditioning program.
Training in an upright position or an ‘everything engaged’ position (i.e. not lying or sitting down) is standard practice for most sports performance programs, but being strong and powerful in a hinged position is more specific to rugby and thus training can be made more ‘sport specific’ by using exercises that strengthen this position. (This is about as ‘sport specific’ as I believe rugby training needs to be — we don’t need to be using a special ‘rugby shaped medicine ball’ to perform ‘rotational power passes.’)
As with all strength and conditioning programs, mastery of the basics should be achieved before moving on to more advanced exercises; each movement pattern will have a number of different options.
Technique, speed of movement and consistency is always prioritised over the load being lifted. The amount of time you have to train, the time of the season and how often you’re playing will determine how much of your movement menu you can include in a program.
Before we get to exercise selection I’ve split rugby strength and conditioning up into four categories:
1. Fundamental Patterns
These should be included in all programs and are the main priority:
Sprint (acceleration, deceleration and top speed)
2. Power Training
These are the next in line to be added to a program, these should be included in pretty much all programs and include bodyweight, light weight and heavy power training.
3. Core and Carry
These are the icing on the cake and should be included if there is a time or a specific need for them.
These are included on an individual basis and are usually used as part of warm ups/cool downs or placed in the session where appropriate. Mobility training (which should be carried out by all players) will fall under this umbrella. Those who are not injured or have no specific mobility issues should focus on hip, shoulder and thoracic mobility as part of warm ups and cool downs.
Each category contains numerous movements. The most appropriate movement(s) for an individual will depend on multiple factors including their capabilities, injury status and individual experience. The movements can also be cycled in and out depending on individual response, time of the season and training goal.
Not every movement will be used by each player nor should every movement be used at all times. Some movements will provide more ‘bang for their buck’ for different individuals and thus the individual’s needs and capabilities should always be taken in to account when selecting a movement.
A movement menu for rugby will look something like…
Squat to press
Dumbbell stiff leg deadlift
Weighted push ups
1 arm dumbbell overhead press
1 arm dumbbell bench press
Bent over rows
Chin-ups, both unloaded and weighted
1 arm rows
Rear foot elevated split squats
Speed and Agility
Accelerations (straight and multi-directional)
Top speed sprinting (straight and curved)
Both linear (straight) and multi-directional sprints that work on acceleration, deceleration and top speed mechanics should be included. Changes of direction can also be incorporated using closed (cone) and open (game-like) drills to work on applying sprinting mechanics in game situations which require the players to respond to rugby specific verbal and/or visual cues.
Prowler pushes, sled marches and hill sprints can also be used if there is access to this equipment. Prowler pushes are a great way to train acceleration mechanics and improve sprinting capabilities. Varying the body angle when performing prowler pushes can also very closely resemble the motion during scrums and mauls and is therefore an excellent way to effectively train strength and power in a match-specific position.
Jumps, hops and bounds (fast and slow plyometric exercises)
High pulls and other Olympic lift variations
Med ball throws
Plank variations including side planks and weighted planks.
Stir the pot
Med ball throw variations
Random perturbations (a non-essential extra)
Adding random perturbations to compound movements such as squats, presses and hex bar farmer walks can be a good way to train the core. Rugby players are exposed to random pushes and shoves throughout the game — including some ‘random perturbation’ exercises can be a good way to challenge the core whilst performing main lifts. To do this loop a band around a kettlebell or weight plate and attach it to a barbell so that when the barbell moves up or down it causes the weight to ‘bounce’ around. This shift in weight will require your core to contract hard to maintain its stability (so it doesn’t get pushed and pulled wherever the weight goes).
Broomstick pass throughs
Band pull aparts
Shoulder mobility exercises (incorporating the chest, lats and thoracic areas)
The shoulders are the point at which force is transmitted through when making contact during tackles, scrums, rucks and mauls and therefore bear the brunt of a lot of the contact and impact forces during a match. It’s smart to pay particular attention to warming up and taking care of your shoulders.
Performing broomstick pass throughs and band pull aparts before sessions is a quick way to keep the shoulders mobile and the upper back/scapular muscles strong. Aim for multiple sets of 15-20 reps.
Sets, Reps and Structure
The number of sets and reps will depend on the desired adaptation. As rugby strength and conditioning focuses on building strength, size and power, the rep ranges will usually be 3-12 depending on the type of exercise, load involved and adaptation sought. It’s important to find the balance between gaining strength and not beating up the body or compromising match day performance.
As a general guideline, use:
2-4 sets of 3-5 reps for strength and power (main lifts)
2-4 sets of 5-8 for a strength/size crossover (for main lifts)
3-5 sets of 8-10 for hypertrophy (for main lifts and assistance)
Structure of Strength and Conditioning Sessions
As mentioned previously, rugby players require high levels of conditioning. The nature of the game is also such that a player doesn’t produce one maximum effort and then get 20 minutes to rest — rugby players have to repeatedly produce short bursts of high effort with short recovery periods.
It’s therefore useful to structure strength training in a way that trains the body to produce high power outputs, multiple times, with not much rest.
‘Strength circuits’ are thus a popular choice. They allow a large amount of high intensity work in a shorter period of time, without having to compromise on the heavy loads required for strength gains. This (with smart exercise selection) will allow you to keep the weights reasonably heavy, do lots of work in a short period of time and train the whole body.
Depending on the facility you have access to you may also be able to pair heavy strength training with some form of power or plyometric exercise. This is often referred to as ‘contrast training’ and is becoming increasingly popular as a way to develop strength and power.
There are obviously numerous ways to structure a session, and throughout the course of a season rugby players should experiment with many different session structures, just as players should schedule variation in exercises, grip widths, stances etc. This is encouraged as it will provide variety in stimulus and prevent monotony.
A session template might look something like:
Warm up (including any prehab/rehab or hip and shoulder mobility)
In Season vs. Off Season
Team training sessions and playing schedule also need to be factored in and thus pre-season, in-season and off-season strength and conditioning programs will vary in terms of volume, intensity and goal.
Pre Season (and pre-pre-season)
Depending on your goal, 3-5 sessions p/wk working on hypertrophy, strength, power and conditioning.
2-3 session p/wk in season focussing on maintaining strength/power using sub-maximal loads.
Auto-regulation is important during the season. If you’ve had a tough game and are a little bruised and battered but have programmed heavy strength on the Monday, adapt your program accordingly.
Off Season (the first week or two at the end of the season)
Take a couple of weeks off and focus on general health and wellbeing. Partake in light activity and sports outside of rugby. Golf, tennis, swimming and cycling are common favourites.
Strength and conditioning is a huge part of rugby performance. Adding functional strength, speed and power can provide a huge performance benefit at all levels of the game. Hopefully this article has provided some insight and a starting point for those interested in how best to prepare physically for rugby. If you want Jon to create an individualised rugby strength and conditioning program for you, then get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
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