Focus on clear training objectives
One of the realities of strength and conditioning for rugby is that you have to juggle a lot of balls in your training. Because the game of rugby relies on so many different physical and technical qualities, during the rugby season we are basically forced to train them all at once. If you neglect any of those abilities for any significant amount of time and inevitably you will start to lose it, and affect your performance on the field.
The problem with this approach is that once you surpass a basic level of weight room training, it becomes impossible to continue to gain speed, strength, power and size. By trying to train so many abilities at once, you spread yourself too thin and you can only expect to retain your gains, rather than progress them.
The great thing about rugby pre-season training is that this is the one time of the year that allows you to adopt a more focussed approach and make much faster progress than normal. For example, it isn’t uncommon to gain more strength in a dedicated 4-6 week block of strength training than in the rest of the entire season.
True, you might lose a little progress made in other areas. But the great thing about this approach is that you simply focus on them at a later date, and that the overall progress made is much greater than the “kitchen sink” approach taken during the season. What difference does it make if you are a little less fit or a tiny bit slower when you have no games to play? None. What counts is in-season, and this approach is the one to take if you want to make the biggest, fastest gains in strength, speed, size and fitness during pre-season.
Build intensity and volume gradually
Let me describe the typical first session of pre-season training for some of the less “sophisticated” rugby clubs out there: endless sprints, wrestling, full speed games, tug of wars, strongman exercises, you name it. Guys all over the shop throwing up, falling over, pulling hamstrings. Big mistake. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t effective. Here’s why:
Think of rugby fitness as like a pyramid. Just like any other pyramid, the wider you can build the base in the initial stages, the stronger it becomes and the higher you can eventually build the peak. All of the sexy, intensive training stuff I mentioned above is the peak. Try to build a high peak on top of no base and not only will you build a shorter pyramid, your pyramid is much likelier to topple over.
Essentially, you have to earn the right to perform intense training in high volumes by first performing lower intensity and volume training, which acts as the base of your rugby fitness pyramid. By focussing initially on lower intensity stuff like steady cardiovascular exercise, lower intensity circuits, and moderate intensity tempo work, not only will you properly prepare the body for intense training and reduce your risk of injury, you’ll actually make moreprogress and be fitter by the time the season rolls around.
Prioritise speed and explosive strength development
In a nutshell your goal during the season is to be as fresh as possible for games and to maximise your performance on the field each Saturday. Consequently any training which is very intense or fatiguing must either eliminated from the programme or reduced to a tiny volume. In either event the result is that gains are lost, and typically the two training means that are first to be crossed off the list are sprint work and plyometric work, owing to the very high forces involved in these activities and the large amount of fatigue they generate. This sucks for performance because two of the most important things a rugby player can be is fast and powerful, and sprints and plyos are the two most important tools a rugby player needs to develop these qualities.
Due to these enforced changes to the training programme, the average rugby player will lose speed and explosiveness throughout. Combined with the fact that these two qualities are some of the hardest to develop with training means that they must take centre stage during pre-season training. If you want to maximise your performance you should be training speed and plyometric work during all of pre-season (though still respecting the need for less volume and intensity in the earlier stages). If you can capitalise on this window of opportunity not only will you be a faster, more explosive player, you’ll also be at less risk of injury and insulate yourself against the inevitable losses in speed and power when you are in-season and game performance takes priority over all else.
Forget about the ball for a little while
This pains me as a strength coach to admit but…. rugby skills are the most important part of training. As much as I love seeing blistering speed and relentless power on the field, skills come first. Having been fortunate enough to work at the highest level of test rugby, I can tell you that international players who are weak but possess world class skills aren’t unheard of. However the international players with crap skills and world class strength and power don’t exist. That should give us all a clue about what is most important in becoming the best player possible.
However there should be a period at the beginning of pre-season where you put the ball down and focus on other things. The simple reason for this is that we don’t have an unlimited capacity to train. There are only so many hours in the day, and we can only train so much before we start to overtrain and get hurt. Once you reach this point, you can only add something into the programme by taking something else away.
Like I said, with all the travel, training, games and need for recovery during the season, strength and conditioning takes a serious back seat during the season. And rightly so. But once pre-season arrives our first objective should be to make up for and build upon all the fitness we lost as a consequence during the season, and as fast as possible. To achieve that, this means we need to perform the maximum amount of training possible, which means sacrificing ball-in-hand work for anywhere from 4-6 weeks.
Don’t worry about getting rusty during this time. Research shows that if you’ve built up your skills over years, it can take months- sometimes years- of no training for you to lose them. And if you do lose a little, skills can be re-trained far quicker than any physical ability like endurance, flexibility or muscle growth. Don’t be sucked into the typical rugby approach of thinking that you must have the ball in your hand every single day- you probably won’t be any better of a player for it, but you will make less and slower progress in the weight room.
Now is the time to achieve your body composition goals
Every rugby player on the planet wants to be big, strong and lean. The problem is that once you get out of your 15-years-old-bench-and-biceps-three-days-a-week routine, it becomes impossible to gain muscle without gaining some fat to go along with it. Likewise it is very tough to lose significant amounts of body fat whilst continuing to build strength or hold on to 100% of your muscle. This is an issue during the rugby season where carrying a little extra fat can slow you down and dent your fitness, and where dropping a little strength can wreak havoc on performance, particularly for forwards in the scrum and contact area.
For this reason it is vital that you pick the pre-season- the time when matches are as long away as possible- to chase your body composition goals of muscle gaining and cutting body fat. This way you can take the hit of gaining a little extra fat or losing a few kgs on your squat or deadlift, and just correct things before the season starts once you’ve achieved your goals.
For example: if you’re an amateur rugby player you’ll typically have about 14-16 weeks between the end of one rugby season and the start of another. If we assume that you’ll take 2-4 weeks off training completely, that means you’ve got a total of about 12-14 weeks of pre-season training. A good goal for gaining weight is to shoot for about a 0.5kg increase in scale weight every week for 8-12 weeks at a time. Let’s be conservative and say you gain weight for 9 weeks, and put on 4.5kg of scale weight- some of it muscle, some of it fat.
At the end of those 9 weeks you will definitely be more muscular and stronger but you might be a little fatter and slower, so you would then use the remaining 3-5 weeks of pre-season to shed the fat you gained and retain your new muscle. End result: by the first game of pre-season you are bigger and stronger, but just as lean as before, without suffering any ill effects to your performance on the field. Had you tried this approach during the season you could not expect the same results!
Target your injury weaknesses first
As rugby players we are never shy of hard work, and typically the temptation during pre-season is always to jump straight to the most intense training straight away. We want to get as big as possible, as strong as possible and as huge as possible… as fast as possible! The problem is that just like a chain, your body is only as strong as its weakest link. Even when we perform exercises with good form, the body will always try to cheat and shift the load away from where it is weakest in the movement, like rising hips first in a deadlift or allowing our knees to cave in during a squat.
Unless we target these weak points with specific exercises and movements, the body will always fall into this pattern of compensation, especially when we get excited at the beginning of pre-season and drastically increase the intensity of our training. Sure, you will get bigger, faster and stronger, but doing it in this way actually increases your risk of injury. It’s kind of like putting a big, turbo charged engine in a car with misaligned tires or worn down brake pads- a recipe for disaster!
Although it can tax your patience, a more successful approach for increasing speed, strength and power in the long term is to identify and correct your weak links as early as possible in the pre-season training, then move to the fun stuff. To do this I’d recommend performing a basic injury screening assessment like the Functional Movement Screen with a qualified coach who will be able to tell you where within the body you are most at risk of injury and what you need to do to correct this.
Stop trying to recover!
Yes, you read that correctly. Stop trying to recover after training! This may be a tough one to get your head around but trying to speed up your recovery can actually slow down your progress in the gym. This is because training is stressful to the body, and it is this stress that acts as a signal to the body to adapt. Without stress we can’t get bigger, stronger, faster, fitter and leaner. If you try to artificially reduce this stress in the form of recovery modalities like compression leggings, light aerobic exercise, contrast bathing and soft tissue work like foam rolling, you reduce this stress and turn down the signal to adapt.
The recovery tools I mentioned above can however be great additions to your training if you are in-season. This is because you experience much more stress in the form of matches and your recovery is against the clock every week. If you aren’t fully recovered from the previous week’s match and training by Saturday, your performance will suffer. So it is a smart idea to try and recover as fast as possible.
However during the pre-season phase your goal isn’t to play well every weekend. Your goal is to build as much strength, speed and power as possible for the forthcoming season, and you need stress to do that. Turn down the stress and you make less progress, not more. For this reason you want to eliminate the use of recovery modalities from your training during pre-season, and save them for once the season arrives. Train hard, eat well and recover at your body’s own pace if you want to make maximum progress in the gym.