Saying that rugby is a physical game is an understatement. It’s a high-octane collision sport (played with no helmets!) in which fast and powerful athletes regularly slam into each other at full-speed. With the strength and size requirements of American football and the metabolic demands of a soccer match, rugby demands its players possess high levels of strength and lean muscle mass with the stamina to run and sprint for 80 minutes. A well-designed strength training and conditioning program can go a long way toward ensuring rugby players are properly prepared for the demands of the game—and can help keep these tough athletes healthy and strong all season long.
Train for Strength
Rugby athletes need to be strong and powerful in order to win tackles, overpower opponents, and make big plays. A good strength training and conditioning program for rugby will help athletes develop strength to maximize their muscle force production on the field, both offensively and defensively.
“Rugby is a unique sport in regards to its athletic demands. If you want to develop as an elite rugby player, it’s not about program hopping—it’s about building a strength foundation,” says Chris Tombs, MSc, former strength and conditioning coach for the Cardiff Blues and High Performance Director at ATAVUS. “Don’t seek quick fixes. Develop greater force production, so that you’re physically prepared to play at a high-level.”
The best tools for developing greater force production include multi-joint, barbell-based, open- and closed-kinetic-chain resistance movements, structured properly in a year-long periodized resistance training program. Closed-chain movements like squats, deadlifts, and presses train athletes to produce higher levels of force into the ground while maintaining structural alignment. These movements also allow an athlete to move larger amounts of weight with their body as the base of support—translating to harder hits (with better, safer form) on the rugby pitch.
In order to convert weight room strength into athletic performance, rugby athletes must train to increase strength within dynamic movements like sprints and jumps. A high deadlift 1RM will not automatically make a player faster or more powerful—but incorporating targeted exercises like countermovement jumping movements and sprint acceleration technique drills will. A balanced strength and conditioning program for rugby players will aim to increase an athlete’s maximal strength levels, with a larger goal of improving on-field sprint and jump performance.
“Strength is the engine for power expression,” says Tombs. “Building an athlete's base of strength allows for greater potential power to be expressed on the pitch. A higher strength reserve gives athletes more currency to spend when it comes to improving speed, explosiveness, and even conditioning.”
Train for Lean Muscle Mass
In high-velocity collision sports, the size of an athlete is an important factor in tackling performance and overall athletic ability. An ideal training program will strategically incorporate hypertrophy blocks to prioritize increasing an athlete’s lean muscle tissue mass.
“Athletes need a functional abundance of lean muscle to body fat to maximize their strength to weight ratio,” says Tombs. “More muscle mass lends itself to greater strength development potential and lower body fat levels allow for less drag and unnecessary load to be moved around the field.”
In order to gain lean muscle, athletes should train at an intensity range equivalent to an 8 to 12 rep max, as this range produces the greatest interaction between mechanical and metabolic growth factors in the muscle tissue. Training multi-joint, closed-chain barbell movements at a range of 8 to 12 reps increases a muscle’s cross-sectional area while placing a higher level of fatigue on the athlete, challenging the muscle’s ability to metabolically recover. In other words, training on hypertrophy protocols helps athletes increase muscle size and work capacity (the ability to work at higher levels of fatigue for periods of longer duration), while improving the connective tissue strength to help protect against injuries sustained from contact. This results in bigger, stronger, and more resilient rugby players.
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Train for Stamina
While strength and muscle mass are important ingredients in elite-level rugby performance, they are not the only factors a good training program must address. The unique energy demands of the sport mean that athletes should also be properly conditioned to remain strong and explosive during repeated, fatiguing efforts. An effective strength and conditioning program will emphasize the development of an athlete’s anaerobic and aerobic pathways.
“It’s paramount that rugby athletes can manage fatigue effectively to express technical skills through the entire game,” says Tombs. “Having a high work rate and a capacity to maintain a high expression of strength late in the game is massive advantage.”
Because a rugby match lasts 80 minutes, players must possess enough aerobic fitness to continue producing energy over this lengthy duration. But due to the physical nature of gameplay, anaerobic training is also needed. The breakdown of metabolic conditioning demands of a rugby match might look something like: 50% aerobic, 25% lactic acid (anaerobic-glycolytic), and 25% ATP-CP (anaerobic-alactic). Athletes must be able to sprint maximally for up to 10 seconds, hold repeated submaximal sprint efforts for up to 2 minutes, and supply enough energy to last the full 80 minutes.
A periodized strength training and conditioning program should be supplemented with specific metabolic workouts in the off-season to create the greatest adaptations in player stamina. A phase of aerobic conditioning early in the off-season will help athletes develop an aerobic base, which will aid in recovery from harder bouts of exercise. An anaerobic phase should follow, comprising the longest phase of conditioning work. This phase should focus on glycolytic energy pathway development (in order to improve the repeat sprint ability of fatigued players) and include a shorter anaerobic-alactic phase designed to maximize the ATP-CP energy pathway (to improve acceleration and maximal sprint speed). By developing the athlete’s aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways in an ordered, sequential manner, a well-designed strength and conditioning program will facilitate maximum adaptation to the rugby field when the season starts.
Train to Prevent Injury
The final ingredient in an effective rugby training program will help athletes prevent injuries. While most rugby injuries result from player-to-player contact, these are difficult to predict (and thus prevent), so a strength and conditioning program should focus on preventing non-contact injuries. Comprising 28% of all in-game injuries and 57% of all training-related injuries, non-contact injuries can be mitigated through proper strength training methods.
A focus on posterior chain development will go a long way toward preventing lower-limb injuries like hamstring strains and knee ligament tears. Hamstrings are often injured during high-volume conditioning sessions, after inadequate warm-ups, or due to a strength imbalance between the hamstrings and quadriceps. Strength training measures should focus on increasing the contractile strength of the hamstrings in relation to the quads—which will, in turn, increase knee stability and reduce ACL injury risk as well.
Knee injuries resulting from any movement that excessively loads the knee, such as deceleration, acceleration, cutting movements, directional changes, and jump landings, can be mitigated with proper strength training protocols. Progressive plyometric training focused on both concentric and eccentric loading will improve the biomechanics of the knees (and hips and ankles, too) and reinforce neuromuscular control and joint stability. Unilateral strength progressions will help athletes develop better lower-body awareness, leading to increased coordination and confidence in performing high-skill tasks. Full-body strength training will also help promote reciprocal inhibition (proper function between agonist and antagonist muscles) and increase neurological adaptations that can lower an athlete’s risk of injury.
In a collision sport like rugby, it’s easy to see how increased strength and muscle mass can be a great advantage for players. But a good strength training and conditioning program will not stop at strength and size. Successful training will also incorporate periodized metabolic conditioning to help athletes translate weight room strength to on-field performance throughout an 80-minute match, and injury prevention methods focused on the most common non-contact injury sites in rugby. Designing a focused yet well-rounded training program isn’t easy—but the benefits to the players’ health, safety, and, ultimately, enjoyment of the game, are well worth the effort.
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Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye