By Nico de Villiers
Posted: Updated:

I want to start this article by given credit to a Greg Nuckols, Keir Wenham-Flatt & Travis Pollen on their writing on the topic that has inspired this article.

One of the most notable characteristics of rugby players is their superior size to the average person on the street. I’m a big guy and one of the questions I get the most when meeting new people is, “are you a rugby player”?  Being big is a synonym for playing rugby. The reason for this is that rugby is a collision sport and collisions are often dominated by the person that produces the most momentum. Momentum is the product of mass & velocity and although just half of the equation, being bigger or heavier could be to your advantage in collisions. I say only half of the equation since speed is crucial part dominating collisions. No matter the size of a train, if it’s not moving it’s not going to cause any damage to whatever is in its way.

For the purpose of this article I will only discuss the mass part of the equation and for rugby players, that means weighing more and getting bigger

Who needs to get bigger?

The first question we have to answer whether a player is big enough for his position. In some position, size will have more of an effect on performance than others. Normally a player who operates closer to the scrum or rucks relies a bit more on body mass to create momentum. Normally the forwards and some inside backs fall into this category. When I speak about body mass, it is important to note that I’m referring to lean muscle mass and not absolute body weight. Carrying extra body fat has absolutely no performance benefits and in fact, will hinder performance. There is no point in trying to add additional muscle mass if you are already overweight. For me personally, the first question you should ask yourself is not whether you are big enough for your position, but rather are you lean enough.

Below are the criteria I have for players to determine if the need to bulk up:

  1. Are you still growing (age 12-20)?
    1. Yes- don’t need to be in bulk program, rather get stronger first and will get bigger as a result of that
    2. No- Move to question 2
  2. Are your body fat percentage above 15%
    1. Yes- need to lose some body fat first. Rather stay on strength program and adjust your diet and metabolic program a bit
    2. No-Move to question 3
  3. Are you within 3-5kg of your ideal weight?
    1. Yes- I would suggest that you rather focus on getting as strong as possible and size will be by-product
    2. No- introduce bulking focus program.

Before I move on, it’s important to notice that getting bigger takes a lot of effort, dedication and energy in the gym. It would leave you feeling fatigued and would need additional recovery time. You have to ask yourself whether spending the time picking up a couple of kilos in the gym is not worth less than developing your positional and general skills to improve performance on the field.

What is hypertrophy?

Hypertrophy is an increase in size or cross-sectional area of skeletal muscle. This is the product of an increase in contractile protein (myofibril hypertrophy) and increases in cellular fluid (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy).

There are basically three mechanisms by which muscle size will increase namely:

  • Muscle tension – GO HEAVY. Mechanical tension is just going heavy between 80-90% of 1RM through a full range of motion in the large muscle movement. The optimal load will differ from person to person, but as long as you can keep form and let the muscle do the work. This will have a greater stimulus towards an increase in contractile protein and more of a myofibril hypertrophy.
  • Metabolic stress – GO FOR THE PUMP. The key is to maintain constant tension on the muscle by reversing direction just before the lockout or just before the bottom range of the movement. This will lead to significant metabolic stress to the muscle and produce by-products like lactate, hydrogen ions and creatine amongst others, which stimulate the release of muscle building hormones like testosterone and growth hormone. Additionally, there will be an increase in blood flow and be swelling of the muscle which can also lead to increase in muscle growth. This method will lean more towards an increase in cellular fluid (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy).
  • Muscle damage -FOCUS ON THE DECELERATION. Ouch! This one will hurt in the morning. By focusing on eccentric contraction (decelerating the movement when the muscle lengthens), there will be an increase in muscle damage. The damage will cause an inflammation response, triggering the release of chemicals that stimulate growth. Muscle damage is roughly related to soreness the next couple of days. If you are not used to this training, give yourself a couple of days to recover and try and keep away from it during the competition phase of the season.

It would appear that all three mechanisms are important for developing muscular size. The optimal method would differ from players to players and for different muscle groups and exercises. It would probably be best to use all three methods in your program initially and see how the players respond to it and fine tune from there.

Training variables for each mechanism

To optimise the training effect of each mechanism, we have to consider the training variables for each one and how you can manipulate each variable for desired training effect. The main variables that need to be considered are:

  • Minimum load
  • Repetition range
  • Rest periods
  • Total volume (weight x reps x sets)
  • Time under tension (repetition length)
  • Exercise selection


Minimum load

It would appear that the minimum load that required stimulating muscle growth is around 65%. But as mentioned, to stimulate proper muscular tension players would have to go closer to 80-90% of 1RM. This is the primary load I will use with my players since the training benefit outweighs that of a lighter load. Training heavy will not just create muscle tension to stimulate growth, but also make you stronger which are basically two birds with one stone.

Repetition range

Traditionally rep range of 6-15 is described as the optimal zone for size training. While there is nothing wrong with this assumption; lower reps at higher load could be equally effective. Just because you are doing sets of 3-5 reps, doesn’t mean you won’t get bigger, in fact, research has shown that training at low reps range could be as effective as moderate rep range. If muscle tension is your goal, the stimulus is more determined by load than reps and training at the right load would always dictate the number of reps. I would suggest the following:

80% = 8 reps

85% = 6 reps

90% = 4 reps

Rest periods

For muscles tension, I would suggest 60-90sec. Your ability to finish the set should be an indication of how much rest you should take. If you can do all your reps with 90sec rest between sets, cut the rest to 75sec next time until you can reach all reps with just 60sec rest.

 Total volume

Volume seems to be the biggest variable that influences muscle hypertrophy. It should, however, be remembered that with high volume comes a high physical cost and if you are a rugby player, the physical cost of getting bigger could far outweigh the cost of getting better. If you are training at load above 80%, stick to the basics of 4-6 set max. I would also suggest progressively increasing total volume and not try and hit 6 sets in the first couple of weeks. Also, bear in mind that your legs take a lot of traffic so rather stay in the lower volume range when working your legs.

Time under tension (repetition length)

A lot has been said about time under tension and how it affects muscle growth. It would appear that if you get the other variables right, TUT is not such an important factor. When it comes to creating muscle tension, moving the bar explosive or as fast as possible during the concentric phase would have the biggest impact on muscle stimulus and growth by tapping into a bigger pool of muscle fibres.


Minimum load

As mention before, 65% 1RM seems to be the lightest you should go if you want worthwhile training stimulus. There are some exceptions like when using hypoxic training when you can go down to 30-50% 1RM or even just bodyweight.

Repetition range

This is where you will get the more traditional rep ranges (6-15). If the goal is muscles tension, you would increase the load and decrease the reps each week, but if metabolic stress is the goal, I like to do it the other way around. Keep the load the same but increasing the reps each week until you can reach a certain amount of reps, then increase the load. For example:

Week 1: 3 x 8 @ 70%,   Week 2: 3 x 10 @ 70%,   Week 3: 4 x 12 @ 70%

Then week 4 you up the load to 75% and start the process again.

Just a quick word on reps to failure. “Failure” can be defined in two ways; firstly you get an absolute failure when you can not do another rep. This is more suitable for low-risk isolated exercises like curls or lateral raises. The second type of failure is the technical failure. This is when a set is terminated because technique breaks down. This is done in more high-risk compound exercises like squats and deadlifts.

Working to failure should be avoided since it can have a huge metabolic cost and places lots of stress on CNS. I would suggest using it every other week in low-risk exercises towards the end of a session.

Rest periods

The shorter the rest, the higher the metabolic stress will. Rest periods of between 30-60 sec would be ideal for this training effect, but as in the case with mechanical stress, start with the longer rest period and gradually reduce it form 60 to 45 to 30sec.  Again let your reps be your guide, if you can get through the rep, you can reduce the rest.

Total volume

As was the case with mechanical stress, 4-6 working sets will do the trick, starting with lower volume and gradually building it up.

Time under tension (repetition length)

When you try to achieve metabolic stress, time under tension plays a bigger role.  Moving the weight slow (3-4 sec) during the eccentric phase and fast (explosive) during the concentric phase would be the ideal protocol for stimulating mechanical tension as well as metabolic stress. You can also incorporate some tempo training where there is a constant speed of 3-4 sec down and up without pausing. This will lead to increase in blood flow and by-product. This method can be done with light weights or even bodyweight exercises and can be done close to failure.


When incorporating eccentric training into your program, you should use similar guideline as to the one prescribed for muscle tension. You should, however, keep a couple of things in mind. Eccentric contractions have the potential to generate greater muscle force than isometric and concentric ones. This will allow you to train with a higher load (85-95% 1RM). For this reason, the general consensus is that eccentric exercise may have the potential to promote larger increases in muscle size and strength compared to concentric and isometric training, but one needs to be caused when adding this to your program. Besides the possible increase in muscle soreness, increase in load will also lead to increase in fatigue. I would slowly progress this type of training into your program with maybe one session per week doing 1-2 exercise for 3-4 reps.

Minimum load = 85%-95% 1RM

Repetition range = 2-5 Reps per set

Rest periods = 90-120sec (more rest needed)

Total volume = 2-5 Reps for 4-6 Sets

Time under tension (repetition length) = 4 sec down and explosive up.

As mentioned before, one cannot rely on only one of the three mechanisms if you want to bulk, but rather incorporating all three into the program. As you move closer to the competition phase I would drop the eccentric training load first and increase the mechanical tension work since this is the method that you would get more bangs for your bucks. Remember that if you can only train one aspect in the gym, I would stick with heavy strength training and let the size be a by-product of strength and not the other way around.

There will follow additional articles on some nutrition/supplementation and recovery guidelines for getting bigger and some sample program and exercise selection.




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