General Principles of Strength Training for Rugby

By Reggie Johal of
August 2009

Rugby is a sport which has improved immeasurably since the dark days of Gareth Chilcott and overweight players, who whilst technically proficient, did not compare in strength compared to sportsmen from similar sports such as athletics or American football. All this began to change in the 90s as the professional revolution in rugby union and increasing adoption of full time professionalism in rugby league led to the advent of advanced sports nutrition and training regimes, designed to enhance athletic performance beyond what was available in the past.

With its demands on the player for strength, speed, endurance, strength endurance (particularly the forwards), not to mention all the technical and tactical aspects involved, strength training for rugby union has to be considered carefully within the framework of an overall model of training, which ensures that physical performance is optimised and takes into account the time of year when constructing a long term training plan.

Exercise Selection
Depending on the position of the player, some type of strength and power based work similar to the training of powerlifters or Olympic lifters can be employed. Multi-jointed exercises such as back squats, deadlifts, bench presses, standing presses and rows should be prioritised. These will allow for the build-up of muscle and strength without the joint stress that heavy loading via single joint exercises can cause (such as heavy leg extensions or similar exercises favoured by some bodybuilders). The athlete should also avoid the use of fixed plane machines such as the Smith machine as they do not work stabiliser muscles to the same extent as free weights, nor do they work balance as well. This is to say nothing of the stress on joints being fixed into a single plane of motion, which is unnatural to the body.

Although speed strength based exercises such as power cleans, or snatches are often advocated it is the opinion of this writer that rugby players usually use horrific technique on these exercises. Instead, rather than work on speed-strength in this way, something such as lower rep, lower weight work can be employed such as 6 x 2 with 80% of a one rep max 1RM). If following a period of time devoted to strength work, the unloading effect of employing power and speed work after strength work, often leads to rapid improvements in athletic performance as the dissipation of fatigue built up during the strength phase allows for improved fitness in the period thereafter.

By intensity we need to first distinguish between the ideas of training hard as popularised by bodybuilders versus training as a percentage of 1RM. In strength training circles, training intensity is a function of the 1RM with a heavier weight exercise being classed as more intense than a lower weight, regardless of how difficult the perceived exertion experienced by the user.

In rugby, it is appropriate for most athletes to be working in a range of 60-80% when training for hypertrophy. If training for strength the intensity range adopted could be anywhere between around 75-90% of the athlete's 1RM, with on rare occasions going up to a full 1RM, although the value of doing so, beyond psychologically pushing the athlete's barriers is debatable for rugby players. The extra stress imposed on the central nervous system and increased risk of injury pushing maximal weights makes this approach frowned by most strength and conditioning coaches in sports.

Those rugby players for whom neither mass nor strength is the main goal, but rather the enhancement of speed, could work in a lower intensity range emphasising acceleration of the weight. A typical example might be the way Olympic lifters do repeat singles and doubles with sub-maximal weights or the use of the speed-strength approach by powerlifting coach Louie Simmons whose approach to lifting features a full day focused on dynamic lifting. A typical example of this would be box squats at 10 sets of 2 reps with 60% of 1RM. This low weight really allows for improvements in the rate of force development to be made. His approach has been widely adopted by many in the strength coaching community, especially in the NFL, whose athletes can be considered to have somewhat similar requirements as rugby players.

Volume or the sum total of sets and reps is something which needs to be carefully controlled for any athlete but especially rugby players whose other sporting requirements will demand so much training time. It is recommended that the off-season is the time for when improvements in strength and mass can be most readily acquired, as realistically, this is the only time these athletes will have the time and recovery ability to be able to make gains in strength and mass. Pre-season the emphasis should shift towards maintaining strength and mass while trying to increase other sport specific motor skills such as speed endurance and speed. These will usually require the implementation of strenuous interval training as well as a switch in emphasis in the gym towards lower weight work stressing rate of force development and power, with strength and hypertrophy work conducted at a minimum level only. Given all this volume should be dropped in the pre-season, lowered even further during the in-season when maintenance of all physical motor skills is the best that can be accomplished in advanced athletes. The emphasis in-season should very much be on the acquisition and enhancement of technical skills. This tends to be overlooked by younger athletes who try to do everything at once and whose physical and technical performance inevitably erodes due to overtraining.

The frequency of training for rugby players is often dictated by injuries and fatigue during the season with no more than two weight training sessions per week being realistic. As such a whole body, or half body split can often make the most sense at this time. During the pre-season when power and speed is a priority the rugby player's training split could allow for up to three weight training sessions a week. Similar to the Charlie Francis theory of combining high intensity work for sprinters on one day to minimise stress by compacting it all on one day, rugby players need to carefully integrate their leg training days in particular with the rest of their training requirements. If they are running 3 to 4 times a week as well as playing the sport, the best that can probably be done is doing a small amount of maintenance work once a week. Otherwise, if physical demands are not so great they could train up to three times a week, possibly four if their other training demands are very low.

During the off-season a rugby player could, assuming they are doing at best a bare minimum of rugby or running, employ the type of training frequency employed by bodybuilders and powerlifters. Although this can vary greatly between athletes, typical examples include training upper and lower body twice weekly, whole body training three times a week, push-pull splits and so on.

A rugby player's sports nutrition needs are not the same as those of a bodybuilder. Instead a rugby player should consider his sport has a higher energy need, particularly for carbohydrates and put out of his mind any idea of low carbohydrate diets, except for maybe the off-season when losing body fat may be a concern. Otherwise carbohydrate intake should be kept high with an emphasis on low glycaemic index (GI) carbs except for the post workout period when fast acting carbohydrates such as those based around waxy maize starch should be considered essential for rapid refuelling of the body's glycogen stores. Otherwise, protein and fats should be at similar intakes to a typical athlete with protein around 1g per pound of bodyweight and fats reasonably low and emphasising the intake of essential fatty acids and unsaturated fats.

Recovery and Regeneration
For a sport where injuries and fatigue are considered part and parcel of the game rugby players should focus on ways they can not only minimise the risk of injuries, but also to improve the rate of recovery from injury and muscle fatigue. Given healthy, balanced diet key strategies to consider are the use of recovery methods such as sports massage, contrast showers, ice water immersion, saunas, stretching regimes and physiotherapy. At the same time, relaxation protocols such as meditation and visualisation can also be used to help to relax the mind and body to enhance recovery and attenuate the effects of CNS fatigue.

A number of supplements are of use to rugby players in their quest to improve their performance. These can range from protein powder and weight gainer supplements to add the calories needed to fuel performance, as well as meal replacement products such as the EAS Myoplex range which have a big following amongst rugby teams, for whom they make a convenient replacement for solid food meals.

Pre-workout / pre-game supplements such as BSN's NO-Xplode are used by many athletes to enhance focus, and aggression as well as enhancing storage of nutrient stores, whilst post-workout recovery drinks such as Volu-Gro by Nutrex, or Dark Matter by MHP, can aid recuperation by rapidly delivering nutrients to muscles that have just been worked, thereby enhancing recovery from training.

The list of ergogenics (performance enhancers) includes creatine based products such as Controlled Labs' Green Magnitude which increase energy stores, testosterone boosters such as Driven Sports Activate Xtreme, which by increasing testosterone naturally, provide a path to increased muscle mass, strength and aggression, as well as improved sex drive and recovery. Yet other supplements will include products designed to increase the body's utilisation of essential amino acids such as Scivation Xtend, and fat burners such as RPN Eviscerate, which promise not only to lower body fat, but by doing so, enhancing speed as less dead weight should lead to a faster athlete.

The list of supplements of possible benefit to a rugby player is endless really and each player should consider their own needs and requirements carefully before embarking upon any sports supplements program. At all times it is important to stress that supplements are meant only as an adjunct to a normal training program, and will not work optimally unless the key components of training, nutrition, and recovery are also carefully implemented. Once these other elements are in place though, the use of supplements can certainly provide rugby players with an additional edge over their competition.

  • Charlie Francis, The Charlie Francis Training System (1987)