In every sport in existence there are five athletic qualities you can improve on, they are:
Strength - Speed - size - conditioning - flexibility/mobility
No matter what your sport, all 5 qualities must be trained in some fashion for you to be a successful athlete. The priority, intensity and volume at which you train each quality is dependent on the sport. Rugby poses a tough challenge as it requires a high level in all of those athletic qualities! Before I go on to the actual physical demands placed on a rugby player during a match, I want to quickly go over strength and why it is the most important physical quality (off season, in season, all season!)
The improvement of performance in all sports has been phenomenal. For example, twenty years ago rugby forwards were 'hefty' men weighing god knows how much but it certainly wasn't all muscle! Backs were twigs that looked like they may snap in a tackle. Now backs are weighing the same as the forwards 20 years ago and run faster! While the forwards have become moving tanks. Strength training has made the single, most positive contribution to this type of improvement. Today strength training influences every single sport in the world- male or female. sportsmen and women now know its vital to improve their strength & conditioning in order to properly prepare for the trials and rigors of their sport.
Not too long ago many coaches and players believed strength training would be detrimental to a player's production, they thought they would become 'muscle bound' and that it would affect playing technique. Now it has been proven that athletic performance depends either directly or indirectly on qualities of muscular strength. The physical quality of strength provides the bases of ALLathletic feats, it is the bases for everything and every sport. For example, if you do not possess great relative body strength (strength in relation to your body weight), you will never be able to run fast. This is due to the fact that all aspects of proper running technique require high levels of muscular strength. In other words, if you can’t achieve the proper knee drive, arm swing, posture and push-off, you can’t be fast! And this is just one example. Many university studies have also found a high correlation between an athlete’s jumping ability and agility in relation to their relative body strength. What this means is that an athlete who is strong for his/her body weight will possess the ability to jump higher and move quicker, compared to their weaker counterparts. Even pure endurance type sportsmen like marathon runners will see improvement from strength training. it IS the foundation of your athletic capabilities.
All the training an athlete does (strength, power, speed, tactical, technical) is towards improving their play on game day. Strength training is so vital for the complete conditioning of an athlete. The body has 600+ muscles whose primary function is to contract (shorten in length) to move body parts. Only musclecan cause movement. The stronger an athlete's muscles the harder they will contract, which means running faster, jumping higher and hitting harder. That's all there is to it!
The other great benefit of strength training is the injury prevention. Those who strength train have less injuries. This is because strength training strengthens the ligaments, tendons and muscle attachments as well as increasing bone density. The recovery rate of an athlete who strength trains and is injured will be much faster as well.
But remember we are talking about strengthtraining not training directly for muscle size (although it is a side effect, and needed for all positions to some degree). Rugby players shouldn't be training like bodybuilders who only train to look good and care nothing for strength. We aren't interested in looking like Tarzan but performing like Jane! We want heavy weights, compound movements and power!
Now in terms of the demands placed on a player during a match, rugby is a aerobic-alactic sport. The need for a strong aerobic system is obvious in the length of a match and the constant movement by players, while the alactic system is needed for all the powerful tackles, jumps, sprints and 'bursts' of power.
I haven't included the lactic system in there because (while there is a lactic factor) the amount of time spent using the lactic system has been found to be so much lower than most thought. In fact the level of intensity you can maintain whilst still in the aerobic zone can be very high so you never get into the lactic zone. In a match a player will spend about 20% of the time engaging in short 'bursts' of power, these include sprints (about 20m being average), a tackle, pushing a ruck/scrum, jumping etc. The other 80% is spent in the intermediate and lower intensity zones. This shows why the aerobic system is so important in regaining all your energy and removing all the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. You must remember that in every 'big play' such as a tackle or line break the body is working in the alactic zone, even if high levels of lactic acid have built up into the muscles.
So most of your physical preparation should be done to improve the aerobic and alactic systems for several reasons
1.The more powerful the aerobic system, the greater thelactate buffer system!Without even training in a glycolytic environment, you’re improving your lactic capacity because of the creatine phosphate, adenosine triphosphate biogenesis, each 3 energy systems releasing chemicals to allow contraction. The more you can keep an athlete in an aerobic environment before they go into lactic, the less stress on their body to produce the work. Why make things harder for yourself? for example in the 400m the athletes who stay in the aerobic zone for the longest are running as fast as they need to while putting their body under far less stress.
2.When doing skills training being in the lactic zone is of no help!During a skills session the object is to improve the motor habits and technique of the players, if they are in the lactic zone their form will go to shit pretty quickly this will lead to bad motor habits and not performing the skills in the way they were meant to be done.
3.Getting a more powerful alactic system increases all the others.If you increase the amount of work a player can do while still in the alactic zone the better he will be! the longer you stay away from lactic acid the better!
Now the lactic system does need to be trained but it shouldn't be the priority in the physical preparation! Once the season nears lactic training can be introduced, in fact training sessions and training matches will do all the work for you! The 'specific' fitness of rugby will be worked there so there is no need to focus on lactic training in your off season physical preparation.
One thing to note about off season training is to remember that strength training must be done ALL year round, while conditioning does not. To become 'strong enough' for your sport takes years, it cannot be gained in a few weeks. Conditioning on the other hand can be maximized relatively quickly, you can get match fit in a few months. (Note speed training which is a skillcan be done all year round).
A full off season overview will be written about in the future but for now onto some in season training!
During the season there are many things we must consider when designing a program. Pure conditioning training is not needed, the required level of fitness should have already been attained and the priority of structured team sessions is to prepare tactically for the upcoming game. These sessions take priority. In the gym the focus is on strength, we do not want very metabolically demanding weight sessions as there is already a lot of work being done in practice and on game day. The focus in the gym is on maintaining (even gaining) strength and preventing injuries, at the same time we do not want to sap into the recovery of the player for the game.
Taking these goals into account in season weight sessions should be based around large 'bang for your buck' exercises (to get more done in less time) the sessions should be lower in volume than off season sessions but still have a high intensity. Warm ups should be extensive and include lots of mobility to work to keep the joints/muscles happy and healthy.
There are many more little in season things to consider such as - not performing any knee flexion exercises for the hamstrings (that movement is being done enough with all the running you're doing!) instead opting for hip extension exercises (Romanian deadlifts, good mornings etc) Another thing to consider is the stress placed on the player during the season will mean some exercisers will not look so appealing in season! for example after a big game scrummaging the thought of putting a bar on your back and squatting may sound like torture. To combat this, the athlete could perform lower body movements where there is no compression of the spine i.e Bulgarian split squats. Another thing to consider in season is the punishment the joints (like the wrist) take. For this reason performing power cleans may not be smart, an alternative would be to do high pulls or other power movements.
These are just some examples of little changes that should be made during the season. The important thing is to listen to your body! if you had a blow out game and were taken out at half time, you can afford to go a little harder in the gym that week. If you feeling totally crushed then it wouldn't be wise to try and break some PB's in the gym that week!
Now, time for a sample in season program. Assuming match day is Saturday and team training sessions are twice a week (Tuesday and Thursday). Here is the set up -
Saturday - game
Sunday - Upper body
Monday -Lower body
Tuesday - team practice + neural charge session
Wednesday - Full body
Thursday - Team practice + neural charge session
Friday - light stretching/mobility work + neural charge
The order of the sessions can if desired be moved down a day (so upper on Monday, lower on Tuesday etc..) Neural charge sessions are very brief (<20 minutes) training sessions where the athlete performs a series of 'power' movements (jumps, Olympic lifts etc..) the weights are low and the focus is on SPEED. These sessions are designed to amp up the nervous system and help it recover better. The athlete should leave these sessions feeling amped up and 'wired' and not fatigued in any way! More on this later.
warm up -
Foam/med ball rolling, 30 seconds each muscle group
Rotator cuff Y-T-W circuit*10 each
Band pull aparts*25
Scapular pushups + pushups*15 each
1. Max effort lift- Pick any compound upper body pressing movement (bench press, overhead press, dips, bench with chains etc.) Performing sets of 5 reps, work up to a 5 rep max. next week work up to a 3rm. Stay with the same exercise for at least 2 weeks. You can rotate exercises as you like but stick to what you pick for a few weeks.
2.Supplemental lift - Pick an upper body pressing exercise (dumbbell press, dips, shoulder press etc) after warming up, perform 3 sets of max reps shooting for between 8-15 reps per set. You can rotate this exercise every week if you wish.
3.Upper back and lats superset - Pick a back exercise (dumbbell rows, pull ups, etc) and an upper back exercise (face pulls, rear delt raise, band pull a parts etc) and perform 2-3 supersets, going for 8-12 reps for the back exercise and 15-25 for the upper back exercise.
4. Traps/shoulders - Pick a trap or shoulder exercise (db/bb shrugs, side raises etc.. and perform 2-3 sets of 8-20 reps.
Warm up -
Foam roll, 30 seconds each muscle group
Roll overs into V-sits*10
Knee circles*10 each leg and each direction
Cossack squats*5 each side
Static hip flexor stretch*20 seconds Band TKE * 20 reps
1. Max effort lift - Pick any lower body compound movement (front/back squats, normal/sumo/trap bar deadlifts etc) and work up to a 5 rep max, next week work up to a 3 rep max. Rotate exercises every few weeks.
2.Unilateral movement - Pick a unilateral movement (Dumbbell bulgarian split squats, lunges, step ups, backward or forward sled drags, one leg, leg press etc) and perform 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps (go for 30-40 meters with a heavy weight if doing sled drags/pushes)
3.Posterior chain - pick a posterior chain exercise (hyperextensions, Romanian deadlits, good mornings etc) and perform 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps.
4.Abs - Pick a weighted or very challenging body weight abdominal exercise (kneeling cable crunches, dragon flags, leg raises, weighted situps) and perform 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps.
combine 3 upper and 3 lower body warm up exercises from previous days
1. Power exercise - Pick a power movement (weighted jumps, broad jumps, box jumps, hurdle jumps, power cleans, high pulls, power snatch etc) Work up in weight and perform 3-5 sets of 3 reps. Every rep should be fast and explosive.
2. Upper body exercise - Pick an upper body movement (overhead press, dumbbell press, dips etc) and perform 2-3 heavy sets of 6-8 reps
3. Lower body exercise - Pick a unilateral lower body exercise (Bulgarian split squats, lunges, cossack squats etc.) and perform 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps.
4.Back - Pick any back/posterior exercise (rows, hyperextensions, good mornings, pull downs etc) and perform 3-4 sets of 10 reps
5. Optional arms and abs - Pick a bicep, triceps and ab exercise and done in circuit fashion perform 2-3 sets of 8-15 reps.
warm up -
same as full body
Pick 2-3 'power' movements (vertical jumps, broad jumps, box jumps, power cleans, dumbbell snatches, jump squats, high pulls etc) and perform 5-8 sets for each movement. The weights should be light (40-60% of max) and if performing jumps only use body weight. The workout should not last more than 20 minutes. The goal here is to activate your nervous system and facilitate recovery. You should feel amped up and really good after the session. If you feel tired or worn out you went to heavy! b careful These sessions are optional and can be done as much as an athlete desires. In fact The more the better. A session the day before and day after a game would be great to amp the body up for a fight, and then get recovery back on track.
A quick reminder of what I said before about athletes not wanting to do certain exercises during the season. Most athletes love to squat - but if during the season they have taken a battering, loading a heavy barbell on their back isn't the best idea. If they still want to do a squatting motion a good alternate alternative is to do squats with a weight around your waist - set up two stacks of plates (or Olympic boxes if you have them) about 2 feet high. Grab a dipping belt and attach a dumbbell or plates to it just like you would if you were going to do dips. Then get on the plates (one leg on each stack - you may need a support like a rack to help pull you up to position -or just hold the DB) From this position you can squat freely (the DB or plates shouldn't hit the floor) without loading you back. You can go fairly heavy with this. Shoot for a few sets of 8-15 reps and make sure to maintain proper form and position just like a regular squat. BTW this is just mimicking a belt squat machine, but they are so rare I'm fairly certain you won't have access to one!
Well that's the In season covered! The next articles relating to rugby will be on injury rehab during the season, pre season training and off season training.