Strength Training for Rugby - 6 Key Mistakes and How to Fix Them!

By Andrew Levings
(May 2016)

Over the last decade or so, rugby has become increasingly physical. The collisions are now massive, and the physicality of top level players is unrecognisable from even the near past. A case in point, some time ago I recall Neil Back (legendary England international) stating he had just attained a 140kg bench. We now have players like Tuilagi putting up 200kg or more.

The message is simple: in order to play rugby at any level, you better be as strong, fast and powerful as possible. If you want to maximise your ability as a player, no matter what level you play at or in which position, you need to commit fully to a planned out strength and condition regime, and put immense effort into it. This can make the difference between being a second string player and a first string player; a division level schoolboy player to a county level player, and a county level player to an International level player.

Sam Peters writing in the Daily Mail, prior to this Year's Six Nations, encapsulated this:

"Collisions between centres Jamie Roberts and Luther Burrell alone will see a combined weight of almost 34 stone coming together with a force equivalent to a 60mph car crash. No quarter will be asked, and none will be given"

But how do you go about this? Maybe you're lucky and play in a professional setup with a strength and conditioning coach, but for the rest, many rugby players train in a sub-optimal way. Don't limit your progress and ensure you don't make the following mistakes (but don't fear as I will suggest some solutions to these problems).

Key Mistakes when training for Strength for Rugby (and how to fix them)

  1. Not starting on a dedicated strength and conditioning regime from an early enough age

    I played Rugby for 12 years, from the age of 6 to 18. I was a reasonable player in a successful school side who reached the quarter finals of the Daily Mail Cup. However, when we got beaten, we often got beaten due to the disparity in strength and size levels our opposition had on us. A stone a man in the forwards can make a massive difference, if skill levels are close.

    For school/junior level players, from the age of 12-14 players should be doing a well-structured and progressive bodyweight training regime. This will give them an excellent 'base' of fitness and strength, or to give it another name, good GPP (General Physical Preparedness). Young rugby players will get bigger and stronger by doing these, provided the routine is constantly progressive in terms of total work/volume done or reps on a given exercise. A few good bodyweight movements are listed below:

    • Press-ups of all varieties
    • Pullups/Chins
    • Dips
    • Regular sprint sessions
    • Exercises using a partner as resistance
    • Hindu squats

    Bodyweight circuits using these movements should be done on a frequent basis (3-5x/week both in-season and off-season). Recovery should not be an issue as the load is minimal, just bodyweight or minimal load.

    When to start lifting weights?
    This is a tricky question, as young men often develop at different ages. I suggest that when puberty begins, lifting weights can start, provided it is done in a controlled, progressive manner with correct form.

    I really think that players from 14-18 must have a proper strength and conditioning routine. However, the first thing to do is make sure their technique is good on the main lifts (squat, bench, deadlift; more on this later). The worst thing in the world is being a talented player who misses out on making any team due to a lack of strength or size- so hit the gym hard and make sure this doesn't happen!

  2. Not getting the balance right between strength training and rugby practice / matches

    The most important aspect of being a good rugby player is playing rugby, and developing excellent skills and playing ability on the pitch, both in practice and matches.

    "It's easier to take a talented, skilled guy and make him strong than take a strong guy and make him skilled" (Louie Simmons)

    The key when doing a strength and conditioning program is doing enough work to get results in the gym, but not train with weights so much that it hampers your rugby in any way. Trust me, playing a game of rugby with severe leg DOMS is not a good look!

    The ideal: a highly skilled player with a great rugby 'brain' who is also exceptionally strong, fast, powerful and doesn't get injured.

    Off season v In-season

    Key Mistake: Thinking that you have to make all your strength/hypertrophy gains in the off-season. Even worse; only starting a dedicated strength and conditioning regime in the off-season.

    Both of these are a huge mistake, as if you don't train regularly, both in the off-season and the in-season, there's only one direction you will go, and that is smaller, weaker and less powerful.

    How to get the Balance right

    This really depends on how often you practice rugby. For many amateur players, this may mean one or two practices in the week and one match at the weekend. Note that over the span of a year, the actual time playing rugby competitively is very small. As a result, the amount of time and planning you put into your strength and conditioning is vital.

    In the in-season you must still get stronger! Progress may be slower if you can't dedicate enough time to it, or can't recover quickly enough for your rugby practices and matches, but you must get continually stronger if you're going to reach your goals.

  3. Not learning for other sports and activities

    "If you only study one planet, you will never understand the Universe"

    Key Mistake: Only learning and practising rugby, and not participating in other sports or activities, or at least not learning from them.

    James Haskell (current England player) regularly trains at a world-renowned MMA gym, using grappling and wrestling for physical fitness, strength and to improve his close quarter contact/tackling ability. This is an excellent idea. There's no better compliment to rugby to doing grappling, whether it be freestyle wrestling, judo or Brazilian ju-jitsu. If you can take down or throw a guy who is equally (if not more) skilled as you, when he is resisting the takedown, then your tackling skills will skyrocket.

    Have an open-mind, cross-train when you can, especially in the off-season. The following are good options:

    • Wrestling
    • Judo
    • MMA
    • BJJ
    • Boxing
    • Track and field

  4. Training for aesthetics

    Key Mistake: Training to look good.

    Looking pleasing may have benefits for high level professional players due to the fact it can make you more marketable, bringing in sponsorship deals and so on. However, it should be seen as a by-product of good old fashioned hard work, and you must focus on getting stronger on the following basic movements:

    • Squat
    • Bench press
    • Deadlift
    • Overhead press
    • Barbell rows
    • Pull-ups / chins
    • Power cleans (if you have a suitably qualified Olympic weightlifting coach to show you)

    It is being extremely strong and powerful that will win games, and not a set of abs or an impressive bicep peak. The old phrase 'KISS' (Keep it simple stupid) is apt here.

  5. Not learning from experts in their field

    Key Mistake: Not seeking out real world guidance and wisdom from experts in the fields which you should be learning from

    Need to get bigger? Go and speak to a top-level bodybuilder and learn the best methods for hypertrophy. They will teach you things you can't read or watch.

    Need to get stronger? Seek out a local powerlifting club, local powerlifters or a powerlifting coach. Train with them and learn. It is the best way.

    Want to learn the Olympic lifts? Spend time and money getting the correct technique guidance, you won't be able to learn off YouTube. View the Olympic lifts as an investment

  6. Improper structure of routine

    Key Mistake: Training exclusively as a bodybuilder, powerlifter or Olympic weightlifter

    To be successful in rugby, you need to be big enough for your position (taking into account age and level), as strong as possible and as explosive as possible. What's the best way to achieve this?

    The answer is to view yourself as a 'hybrid' athlete: someone who trains in a method borrowing from hypertrophy techniques, powerlifting programming and exercises and Olympic weightlifting movements for explosive power (particularly the 'triple extension').

How to best program your training to facilitate this:
You need to periodize your training. This means organising your training so you develop the required attributes and are ready at the right time. The classic approach to periodization is 'block' periodization: this is where you have dedicated cycles of specific training phases, such as hypertrophy, strength, power, power-endurance and so on. A different approach is 'conjugated' periodization (a method mostly known due to its connection to Westside Barbell training methods; however, it is actually inspired from Soviet training methods). This is where you train hypertrophy, strength and speed at the same time.

You need to find what works for you, but I prefer the conjugate system, both in and out of season, as it is highly flexible and allows you to focus on your weakness in addition to your strengths.

Conclusion
To be a success in today's modern game you must be a true athlete, so approach the game as one, dedicate yourself to being the strongest and most explosive player on the pitch, and I guarantee you will become a better player and you will thank yourself for it. Eat, sleep and dream it!