In my opinion, developing strength capabilities is one of the most important traits that a rugby player must do in the early part of his career. Strength provides you not only with the capacity to produce high levels of force, but it also improves your ability to adapt to power training
Strength training will not only improve your power capabilities since for most players, more power beggeth more force, not more velocity, but also help you to adapt to power better once you move to a power-based program
Strength underpins several other physical abilities that are deemed important in rugby like size, power, strength, and power endurance. That means that you can run faster, smash harder, and jump higher and sustain it. The great thing is, if you know what you are doing, strength is very trainable and one can improve this ability significantly.
Getting stronger is not that difficult, but there are some principles you have to follow to get there. Most rugby players tent to copy programs from friends or use something that they have seen on the internet. This often leads to the negative effect of “strength training” namely; muscle imbalances, high injury risk, accumulation of fatigue, stagnation, and poor transfer to the field.
I like what Nick Tumminello says about training principles:
“When we embrace the reality that a good training program isn’t determined by the exercises it incorporates, but how training principles are used, we see that unless you’re competing in powerlifting or a weightlifting-oriented sport, there’s no particular exercise that any athlete or gym-goer must do in order to improve. There are only training principles that must be followed, and there’s a wide variety of applications and variations they can use to achieve their goals.”
Below is 10 essential “principles” I use to write all my strength programs, whether it’s for an international player or someone preparing for an old boys game.
1.Technique before load
This is probably the most annoying thing to hear in the gym. Most rugby players want too “feel” they are working and there is no better way than pushing heavy weights. Unfortunately, feeling like your working and actually improving are not the same thing and proper movement patterns and technique is the foundation for progression in strength. Here’s the reason why:
Minimize energy leak. Energy leaks are basically movement where there should not be during a lift. A typical example of this is knee caving in during the squat. If this happens, energy applied to the bar is lost and a portion of the force you exert again the bar is lost. Good technique will allow you to effectively utilize muscle force into the bar. Not only will you be able to lift heavier weight, but also use less energy when lifting the same weight with poor technique.
When you have poor technique, the unpreceded movement in other joints will often lead to injuries in those areas (knee, lower back, shoulder, and wrist the most common). Picking up an injury in the gym because of poor technique is a nightmare. Not only will your progression stagnate, but you will be unable to fully participate on the field.
Good technique will also ensure that you are targeting the correct movement pattern and muscles involved in that movement. When you have a bad technique, you tend to compensate for the movement by using or overusing other muscle groups to execute the lift. Have you ever felt your hamstrings tightening up during bench press? If you, like many others, have, you are probably overextending your hips and arching your back so much that your hamstrings are starting to work. While you are targeting your chest and upper body pushing strength, your technique is so bad that a completely opposite muscle group (lower body pulling) is doing some of the work.
The weight you use in the gym should completely be dictated by your technique. If you are not able to perform the movement with sound technique without compensation and energy leaks, reduce the load and do some additional reps with no load until you have control.
2. Train the Movement NOT the muscle, Train the athlete NOT aesthetics
I still see a lot of players (even a pro-level) that if left on their own will do a classic body part spit program (chest, shoulders, arms, back, legs). These programs, although effective in making you stronger and bigger, was designed for building muscle in isolation, not for improvement in sporting movement.
To have any transfer from the gym to the field, we have to start by training the big compound movement with a free weight. This will improve the force we can produce in those movements while also developing some balance, control, stability, and mobility. If we train the muscle in isolation, we will not necessarily get any better at performing a primary movement (leg extension for the quads will help you nothing in improving your squat). But if we train all the
primary movement patterns, we do not have to worry about training individual muscles as they will all get recruited by the body in a natural fashion.
To help you with this, you can start by categorizing movements and then place exercise in those categories. There are several ways to categorize. Here is a couple of examples:
Loaded carries e.g. farmers walk
Squat e.g. Back squat
Hinge e.g BB RDL
Pull e.g Chin-ups
Push e.g. Bench Press
You can further categories the movement patterns on the following three principles:
- The movement direction of the exercise (e.g. flat bench press is a horizontal press).
- The primary joint lever (e.g. during the knee extension, the knee joint is the primary lever).
- The joints seemed to experience the largest ‘relative’ forces
Here are some examples:
- Romanian Deadlift (RDL) and its variations (e.g. single-leg)
- Kettlebell Swing
- Glute Bridges
- Kettlebell Swing
- Single-Leg Squats
- Lunge (Forward, Backward, Lateral)
- Leg Press
- Military Press
- Overhead Dumbbell Press
- Lat Pull-Downs
- Bench Press
- Bench Row
- Kneeling Single-Arm Row
Rotational and Diagonal
- Russian Twist
- Barbell Torque
- Horizontal Palov Press
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Chest Press
- The Plank and its variations
- Imbalance Lunges
- Suitcase deadlift
3. Get Bang for Bucks
We are often limited for time in a rugby program. It is very seldom that you will get more than 60min for a session and often only 45min (during in-season). For this reason, exercise choice should be the most bang for your bucks. Free weights, compound, multi-joint movements that can be loaded, programmed, measured, and progressed should be considered when you add exercise to your movement/exercise chart.
Here is a couple of benefits why compound movements far outweigh isolated exercises:
- Recruits more muscle. This is no surprise, but compound, multi-joint movements recruit more muscle and thus can lift more load. A simple example is squat vs leg extension. If you are able to, always select the exercise that allows you to lift the heavies weight through the greater range.
- Greater transfer to the field. Compound movement requires a much more complex neurological organization than isolated movements. This will improve the coordination of the firing of the motor unit that is responsible for powerful contraction. Not only will it improve strength, but balance, coordination, and movement efficiency. This will have a much more positive transfer to tackling, jumping, and breaking tackles than isolated movement.
- Save time. A Multi-joint compound movement like the deadlift or cleans can recruit anything from 4-8 muscles in a single exercise. The signal for adaptation is very strong and often don’t have to do as much work to get the training effect. If you are limited to 30min in the gym, try and do 8min of work on 3 big lifts at appropriate load and you should be much better of that 50min of isolated work at sub max loads.
- Improve mobility. There is some research that shows eccentric muscle contraction will lengthen muscle fibers and chronically lengthen the muscle. Increase muscle length will have a positive effect on your mobility, especially if you are moving through the maximal range that you can.
Lastly, spending to much time in the gym could be detrimental to your strength gains. Research has shown that at about 20-30min into the session you should reach peak testosterone levels. Unfortunately, as the session goes longer cortisol levels will also increase. That means the longer the exercise bout, the more unfavorable the Testosterone:Cortisol ratio (T:C). A better T:C ratio promotes muscle growth and tissue repair, while a higher proportion of cortisol leads to muscle and tissue loss. In a nutshell, cortisol burns muscle (catabolic), and testosterone builds muscle (anabolic). I would suggest that the training time should be <75min with appropriate rest periods and sufficient volume and intensity.
4. Moving with Intent
I first came across this concept when I was writing my master thesis (Optimal training loads for the hang clean and squat jump in Under-21 rugby union players)
Sale DG wrote about neural muscular adaptation during resistance training and mentioned the importance of lifting a load with maximal intent. The actual bar speed does not matter, only the intent to move it as fast as possible. This is very similar to maximal contraction during isometric holds.
Even when you try and move the weight as fast as possible, it’s still moving slowly, but it is still at maximal speed for that weight. This is key for producing adaptations that lead to improved maximal strength because it simultaneously recruits all motor units while also allowing a maximal number of actin-myosin bindings inside the individual muscle fibers.
In order to build muscle & strength you have to first recruit muscle fibers, and then fatigue them in order to stimulate them to adapt. The optimal way to recruit fast-twitch fibers (which are our most powerful and responsive muscle fibers) is through applying high force & speed. Accelerating heavy loads as hard as possible on each rep allows you to tap into the greatest amount of muscle possible, then fatigue it, which leads to you to make bigger increases in strength and size.
5. Contraction type
The utilization of all concentration type has been made popular again by the work of Cal Dietz in his methods of Triphasic Training.
So what is Triphasic training? Nearly all dynamic movement is triphasic in nature and makes use of all three contraction types namely eccentric, isometric, and concentric.
The eccentric phases– the yielding phase where the muscles are lengthening whilst under tension, for example, the downward phase the bench press.
The isometric phase– this is the phase that immediately follows the eccentric phase, also known as the amortization phase, this is where the bar is motionless, but there is still a high amount of tension within the muscle, for example, the bottom position of the bench press.
The concentric phase– this is the lifting phase, also known as the overcoming phase, which
immediately follows the isometric phase. During this phase, the muscle fibers are shortening
under tension, for example, the upward phase of the bench press.
Most strength programs you come across only focus on the concentric phase of the lift and neglect the other two. Eccentric and isometrics are very common in the rehab process, but not often seen as part of the strength training programs.
So why should you add all three phases in your program?
- Injury prevention. When we look and the mechanism of certain injuries in rugby and why they happen, it is often due to our lack of yielding and absorption abilities. Hamstring’s tears are a great example of this and the reason why nordic curls have become s popular over the last couple of years. The lack in development in these contractions or poor ability to switch from the one to the other could often lead to preventable injuries and therefore should form part of any strength training program
- Enhance power production. The major area in which triphasic training will help you is in power production. Well developed eccentric and isometric contraction allows you to store energy in your tendons and fascia, whilst strongly activating the stretch reflex and promoting stronger body positions (won’t break joint position during impact). This will result in you getting, more dominant during contact situations, better at a change of direction, jump higher, sprint faster.
- Improve movement skills. All contraction types are programmed differently by the brain, and as such are separate skills. Research has shown that during each of the contraction types, different areas of the brain stimulated. In other words, you can use the same muscle, but the different contractions are carried out by separate areas of the brain and are actually distinct skills.
If you have not been exposed to this type of training, it means there is still great scope of improvement due to a new stimulus. This method I would typically use during the preseason and let players go through a 2-3 phase of 2 weeks on each phase (without neglecting the other). Remember that dynamic movement in rugby is full of triphasic stimulus, so the closer you get to the season, the less you would use this method since the game gives us the stimulus. Triphasic is great for preparing the body for the dynamic strength demands of the game.
6. Adjust program for individual, not the other way around
Most rugby strength programs are littered with exercises from the weightlifting, powerlifting, or even CrossFit community. It stands to reason, for rugby we want to be strong and powerful and powerlifter and weight lifter are arguably the strongest and most powerful athletes. There is nothing wrong with learning from purest sports, but I like this quote from Grant Jenkins;
“Learn speed from sprinting, but don’t make your athletes run like a sprinter. Learn strength from powerlifting, but don’t make your athletes like powerlifters. Learn power from weightlifters, but don’t make your athletes train like weight lifters. LEARN. TWEAk. APPLY.”
We have to ask ourselves, what do we want to achieve with a strength & conditioning program? For me, its two things, prevent injuries and improve performance
Prevent injuries- rugby is collision sport with high impact, high collision rate, and running at high speed under fatigue. There are definitely bound to be some injuries playing the game. We can’t afford injuries in the gym. With some players being banged up during the season, traditional exercises could aggravate pain and should be avoided. Squat & deadlift could aggravate the knee and lower back pain, weightlifting various could be hard on the shoulder, wrist, and lower back, bench press, and overhead press could be really tough on the shoulder and wrist. There will always be some athletes that can’t perform certain exercises and doing them will lead to more pain or longer time out with injury and not getting performance on the pitch. Which brings me to my second goal.
Improve performance ON THE FIELD!- There are no trophies for the team that would power clean the most or players that could squat the heaviest. Although teams might have internal competition, in reality, coaches won’t pick you based on gym scores, but on performance on the field. Therefore whatever we do in the weight room is in an effort to improve on-field performance. It’s critical that trainers and players understand this. I’m not saying we should not gym, but that we should be clever in how we want to make our players stronger.
Do not get sucked into the notion that you HAVE to perform certain exercises to improve your performance on the field. If you are healthy and you can perform any exercise without pain, go ahead and use it. However, if you struggle with certain movements due to injury or pain, body structure, or technical reasons, do not be afraid to look for alternatives.
If you struggle with a particular exercise within a given movement pattern, try to find variations within
that movement pattern that eliminates the issue you are having. Here are some changes to an exercise you could consider:
- Switching apparatus e.g. from barbell to dumbbell
- Changing hand width or position e.g. from pronated grip to palms facing grip, or from wide grip
to narrow grip
- Change range of motion e.g board press instead of bench press
- A simpler variation in the lift e.g. switching from a power clean trap bar squat jumps
Remember our exercise selection should complement the movement and not the other way around. A good idea that you can do is to categorize within each movement pattern several exercises. Go from the gold standard that you can get the most out of and digress the exercises from there.
7. INOL chart
I often get questions regarding what sets, reps, and weight should rugby players use in the gym. There is a multitude of methods and rep/sets schemes and it can get quite confusing to what is the best, and what scheme to use in an aspecific situation. To help me navigate through this I like to use a Prilepins chart.
Prilepin was a weightlifting coach for the Soviets during the 1970s and ’80s and helped to produce over 25 world
records, and 12 Olympic and world championships. During this time, he analyzed the training logs of many athletes and devised the Prilepin table which breaks out optimal rep ranges for Olympic athletes per set and across an entire workout according to his own research. He noticed a few things:
There appeared to be an optimal number of repetitions per set for a given percentage of 1RM. If the athlete did any less, there was not enough stimulus for an increase in strength, if he did more, there would be a drop in bar speed and would no longer get the desired effect, the technique would worsen and the athlete would become too fatigued.
There also seems to be a sweet spot in total volume at a given percentage that would give athletes the desire training effect without them losing form and breaking them due to fatigue.
Prilepin also discovered that with each intensity zone, there was a high, medium, and low volume zones and that depending on the athlete’s fatigue, they could work in these zones and still get adaptation based on their readiness to train.
These charts are immensely helpful when prescribing volume and intensity in all the big lifts and I like the fact that you have ranges to work in and not just fixed rep/set schemes.
However, there were a couple of problems from Prilepin’s chart that prevent it from being useful to the broader lifting community. For example, it does not accommodate sets with more than 6 reps and it does not apply to a session where your rep ranges change across sets like a wave loading. If you performed a few sets at 5 reps, and a few sets at a higher weight using only one or two reps, your workout spans multiple rows of the chart and thus has two different suggestions for the optimal rep ranges.
As a result of these challenges, a man named Hristo Hristov noticed these problems and took the work of Prilepin a step further by devising the INOL (Intensity x Number Of Lifts) formula which gives us a relative measure of intensity across sets of different rep ranges.
The formula is simply: Reps / (100 – intensity) where intensity is the weight lifted as a percentage of your one-rep max. For example, if your 1RM for Squat is 200kg, and you performed 150 x 5 during one set, your INOL value is 0.2 computed as follows: 5 reps / (100 – 75). We use the value 75 as your intensity because 150kg is 75% of your max of 200kg. Here is the full INOL chart for you to plan from:
The INOL formula is useful on its own as a relative measure of intensity across sets, but it’s real value lies when constructing new workout programs, or analyzing your efforts over time. Hristov provides very useful guidelines for your targeted INOL values per movement per workout and across an entire week:
I tend to use the yellow to redline during the preseason and move towards green lines for in-season training. For in-season I would use a progression from 0.4-0.8 over 4-6 weeks, depending on how the players are feeling.
The goal for the in-season is to see what the minimal dose is we can give players and without losing strength gains. I have had a world cup winning forward that kept his Lower Body strength levels after a 6-week block with INOL as low as 0.6 per session. I had another player in the same position who needed a higher stimulus to keep his strength and would train him at 0.8-0.9 per session.
This is a great way of tracking players’ responses to strength training and what intensities work for them. It is important to note that working at the same INOL value, does not mean you work at the same %load all the time.
8. Minimal dose
Training must strike a balance between the useful effects it stimulates & the price it cost the body in undergoing that training. More is not better. In strength training, there is a threshold where the load placed on the body and the adaptation in return meets. Anything more and the fatigue induced would outweigh the possible adaptation, anything less and you won’t stress body enough for optimal adaptation. The relationship between training load and strength gain is an inverted U relationship
It’s also important to note that this curve will move around based on your training history. More experienced athletes will require more load and less experienced athletes can get away with less training. I first came across this concept of minimal dose when I read Mark Rippetoe’s book “Practical Programming for Strength Training”. He categories athletes as either novice lifters, intermediate lifters, advance lifters, or elite lifters in the gym. This is related to the athletes with respect to the time it takes to recover from homeostatic disruption induce by strength training.
Novice doesn’t need to lift heavy loads and generally lift light weights relative to their genetic potential for strength & power development. The rate of recovery is thus quite quick. Novice athletes is an athlete whom the stress applied during a single workout and the recovery from that single stress is sufficient to cause an adaptation by the next workout. These athletes can train and adapted to these relative sub max load for anything between three to nine months.
For intermediate athletes, the stress required for adaptation is more than that of a novice athlete. The more stress we apply to these athletes, the more recovery they will require (normally close to a week). To allow for both sufficient stress and sufficient recovery, the training load in the gym must be varied within a week. The end of this training phase in athletes’ careers is marked by performance plateau following manipulation of the program that allowed more recovery or more stress. This normally happened between two to four years in an athlete’s career.
In my opinion, it is really not necessary for rugby players to go beyond this phase for strength performance. If you are considering a career in barbell sports like power or weight lifting, then moving to advance stimulus and cycles will be necessary, but remembers that rugby is not a strength specific sport, its a strength general sport and moving strength level and ability to tolerate heavy loads in the gym could be detrimental to your on-field performance.
So what does this mean for your training program? If you go back to the INOL chart you have to ask yourself what is the minimal INOL value players require to bring a strong enough stimulus to bring forth adaptation. In my experience working with novice athletes, you can use loads between 65-75% of 1Rm and work in the INOL range of 0.4-0.6, 3-4 times a week (total 1.6-1.8). For intermittent athletes, the load should be a bit higher (75-85% 1RM). Working around the INOL range of 0.8-1.2 per session once a week with lighter sessions during the week (total >2). There will be many individual differences between players. The key is to see what is the lowest intensity that works and working in that range until it stops and you need either more load or more volume.
Strength stagnation or plateaus will happen to everyone. This is when you will start to see very little or no improvement in your strength levels. This won’t happen to the novice athlete but once you’re more experienced (two to three years) you will hit sticking points. The need for a variance must increase as your training age does.
Change the primary movement exercise and assistance exercises every 3-4 weeks (could be every 1-2 weeks in more advanced players) to attain the best adaptations from the neural system. Use a variety of angles, bars (Thin, Thick, Trap, Swiss etc.), loading patters and equipment variation to sort out what best works for you and what transfers to your support. Changes should be dramatic but suttles. Changing the depth of the box squat or grip position on the bench press often is enough to bring a new stimulus and signal for adaptation.
It’s important to remember that stagnation does not equal boredom. Just because you are getting bored with the program does not mean you should change it.
“Our ability to train is governed by our ability to recover, so less is often more.”
Getting stronger does not t just depend on your training session in the gym, it also largely depends on how you recover from those sessions. Think of it this way, strength training causes stress and is the signal for the body to get stronger. For this adaptation to occur optimally, you have to recover from that stress. If you cant create an environment for the body to recover in, you will remain in a stressful state and will negatively affect how you adapt to training.
For me there are essentially five key factors when it comes to recovery for strength training.
- Sleep- for professional athletes sleep deprivation is sleeping <8h a night. The research on the effect that sleep deprivation has on injuries is quite clear. It could also have a significant impact on your muscular strength. Sleep releases growth hormone and inadequate sleep are associated with higher levels of stress and lower levels of testosterone. Simply missing one hour of sleep per night (than what’s optimal for you) prompts your brain to secrete cortisol and shift your body away from muscle building and toward fat storage.
- Nutrition- strength training causes micro-damage to the muscle tissue. This leads to a signal for the body to rebuild its self into a stronger unit than it was before. To achieve this, the body needs additional calories. Building muscles required more energy & protein. Think of this way, protein is the bricks that build the house while calories are the builder doing the work, you need more of both if you want your body adapted to the breakdown in muscles caused by training.
- Hydration- Insufficient hydration will have a negative effect on testosterone and growth hormone production. It will also thicken the blood and affect the work the muscle can do during training. You won’t be able to get the same output. Dehydration will also directly impair muscle building, as muscle requires some swelling to trigger protein synthesis
- Reduce stress- Life stresses like alcohol, arguing, fighting, deadlines, exams, and negative social situations will exert a stressful effect on the body and impair your ability to recover and get stronger following training. Some of these stresses you can eliminate through adjusting your lifestyle. The other you can try and accommodate through destressing activities like saunas, steam rooms, meditation, yoga, spending time with friends, reading, and hobbies are useful for recovery. To enhance your recovery pick an activity that calms you down and make it a part of your program.
- Training organization- A final method you should consider is to allow optimal recovery time between a session that stresses the central nervous system. Depending on how intense the session was and how used to them you are, most people need about 48-72h between any high output session to recover. Organizing your training days to alternate between high demand on CNS with a session that places low demand on CNS is a good way to allow enough recovery time from strength session.
If you follow this approach to recovery it would give you the best chance to adapt from your strength session and getting optional strength gains to from your program