Students of the game know that in rugby, not all positions are not created equally. The positions of prop and wing are about as similar as a hippo and a gazelle- totally different animals! The characteristics of each position are very different in their demands, from the force and velocity associated with each, and the way in which the energy systems are stressed. So why is it nearly all rugby players train with a generic, cookie cutter programme cut out of a magazine or given to them by a coach?
It should stand to reason that issuing players from all positions with the same programme will yield sub par results. If you want to get maximum results from your programme, you have to specialise, and in this post I’m going to tell you how. We’ll look at all the different abilities that rugby players need in general, and according to their specific positions.
I will start this post by conceding that all good rugby programmes are built upon a base of general abilities. General abilities are those attributes which will not have a direct transfer to an athlete’s ability to perform in their position. Things like muscle hypertrophy, connective tissue strength, flexibility all fall under this bracket. Strength and aerobic endurance will also fall into general abilities for some positions, but not for others. The same is true of power and speed.
Broadly speaking the wider the base of general abilities, the more you can develop abilities specific to your position later on down the line. This means that the earlier you are in you training career or the further away you are from being in-season, the more relevant general preparation becomes. In the early years of training or early in pre-season, general training will almost always feature.
However sooner or later, training for rugby has to get specific. This typically occurs in two scenarios. Firstly an athlete may reach the point where the transfer from general exercises to on field performance becomes negligible. This happens in athletes who have been training for a long time and they have to work extremely hard to add even small percentages to their lifts in the gym. Alternatively you or your athletes might be at a stage where strength, size or flexibility in the gym ceases to be a priority and increasing power in their primary duties on the field.
In either scenario the solution is to implement exercises that are more specific to a player’s positional demands. These exercises will be more similar to on field activities in a number of criteria including range of movement, where in the range of movement the force is applied, the direction that force is applied the speed of movement, muscle contraction type, and the regime of muscular work. This is when positional needs really start to differ.
Specific preparation is where the positions start to differ. How much of each physical ability required by a rugby player will vary hugely according to his or her position, but also the style in which they or their team play the sport, their personal strengths and weaknesses, and the philosophy of the person in charge of their programming. There is no right answer, but what follows is the best answer I can come up with, and is the same thought process that I use to design programmes for my professional players.
Criteria for special exercise selection
Questions to ask yourself when writing rugby strength and conditioning programmes to target special physical preparation (note- there will be no mention of energy system development in this post. I will save that for another day):
- What movements or skills do world class performers in my particular position excel at?
- What are the physical abilities which most directly underpin performance in the above named skills?
- Which exercises will most stress the above physical abilities and movements according to the specificity criteria listed above?
Using this thought process I have come up with following needs analysis of special strength needs and key exercises for each position along with a summary for each:
Key movements skills: scrummaging
Key physical abilities: maximal strength, lean body mass, isometric strength
Key exercises: squat variations, horizontal pressing variations, isometric scrum engage, shock medicine ball throw (hookers only)
Summary: The front row is perhaps the only positional group on the field where strength is extremely important. Props and hookers have to be very big and very strong at slow speeds and in isometric contraction to ensure dominance in the scrum. For hookers, power output in the line out throwing pattern is also important for distance and accuracy of throwing at the set piece.
Key movements skills: line out jumping
Key physical abilities: speed strength, reactive strength
Key exercises: jump squat variations, vertically orientated medicine ball throws, other jump variations
Summary: Although second rows are sometimes big ball carriers within a team, the set piece takes priority over all other situations in the majority of teams. For this reason, second rowers priority is achieving the greatest possible speed and height of jump in the line out.
Key movements skills: rucking (primarily openside), ball carrying over short distances (primarily blindside and number 8)
Key physical abilities: strength speed, speed strength
Key exercises: horizontally orientated medicine ball throws, horizontally orientated jumps, resisted sprints over short distances
Summary: The back row are usually a teams primary means of breaking the gain line via the forwards. This is typically the work of the 6 and 8, and will occur over short distances. The 7 will usually be a ball carrier but typically be more concerned about securing ruck ball in attack and stealing ruck ball in defence. Conveniently both of these movement patterns are all about triple extension whilst applying force horizontally, so there is some overlap. If ball carrying is more a feature of your game, focus on jumps and sprints. If rucking, prioritise throws and jumps.
Key movements skills: attacking the gain line, kicking
Key physical abilities: speed strength, reactive strength
Key exercises: horizontally orientated medicine ball throws, horizontally orientated jumps, resisted sprints over short distances, resisted hip flexion, kicking with over and underweight balls
Summary: Like ball carrying back rowers, half backs do a lot of sprinting over shorter distances, which means more triple extension and horizontal application of force. In contrast to back rowers when half backs carry, it usually ends in a pass rather than attempting to break contact. For this reason less resistance may be appropriate if utilising med ball throws or resisted sprints. Power output in the kicking pattern is also important in these positions for distance and accuracy of kick placement.
Key movements skills: tackling, breaking the gain line, support running
Key physical abilities: strength speed, speed strength, reactive strength, speed
Key exercises: vertical and horizontally orientated medicine ball throws, vertically and horizontally orientated jumps, plyometrics, resisted sprints over shorter and longer distances.
Summary: Centres are a mixed bag. They have to defend in the line, so they require good speed and reactive strength to get into position, but good speed strength and strength speed to execute the tackle. When carrying the ball to the line they need the same attributes a back row forward needs, but if they eventually break the line or support another player on a break, reactive strength and pure speed become more important qualities. If you or your athletes are at centre, pick your special exercises based on what your athlete is best at, or what they are most required to do. For inside centres this is usually ball carrying into contact, for outside centres support running or line breaks.
Key movements skills: evasive running, defending high balls
Key physical abilities: speed, reactive strength
Key exercises: plyometrics, vertically orientated jumps and medicine ball throws, resisted sprints (vertical not horizontal overload) over longer distances
Summary: The back three are usually a teams primary means of scoring tries, running on or in support of line breaks and evading opposition players in attack. To that end they need speed and reactive strength in abundance to transfer to top speed running and evasion of defending players. Back three players are also often required to secure high ball in defence, for which their is a high need for power output in the vertical jumping pattern. Fortunately there is overlap between the training means which transfer to this and to maximal velocity running i.e. high force, high speed overload of the posterior chain in the vertical application of force and under short contact times.
I am sure that prior to reading this article, you were aware of the significant differences in the technical demands between positions, yet perhaps laboured under the misapprehension that it was possible to adequately prepare for rugby competition by utilising the same programme as every other member of the team. We cannot expect wingers to reach world class status by training like props or vice versa. Why should the same be true of strength and conditioning?
I hope to have made the case in this article that individualisation of the training programme (at least in part) according to position is not just desirable, but absolutely essential to sufficiently raise the special physical abilities that enables a player to reach their full potential and play at the highest levels of the game.