Modern rugby players are bigger, hit harder, run faster, and can run for longer. This is in part due to improvements in performance since the introduction of formalised strength and conditioning to the sport. There is no question that after overload, specificity is the most important variable to consider when selecting exercises. Specificity will determine how much muscle you build, how strong you get, how much faster you become. Understanding specificity informs what you do and how you do it.
As coaches and athletes we have many different forms of training at our disposal:
- Speed work including linear and multidirectional
- Strength Training
- Ballistic Training
- Olympic Lifting
- Medicine Ball Training
- Mobility/Flexibility work
How do we decide which of these is specific and which is not? Put simply the most specific exercise for rugby will have the biggest impact on on-field performance in the short term.
Non specific exercises are those that have no direct transfer to the field of play. This does not mean that non-specific exercises are useless for rugby, merely that they lay the physical foundation for exercises that do.
Specificity can be summed up with the acronym SAID: Specific Adaptations of Imposed Demands (SAID). That is when the body is placed under stress and pushed out of its physiological status quo, it will respond in a manner specific to the stressor it experienced. Thus if you have a specific outcome that you wish to achieve from training, be very mindful of the stress you use to achieve it.
Yuri Verkhososhansky, the Godfather of plyometrics, expanded on specificity and its transfer of training with his principle of Dynamic Correspondence. How much an exercise transfers to a particular movement will differ according to the following criteria:
- The amplitude/direction of movement
- The accentuated region of force production
- The dynamics of effort
- The rate and time of maximum force production
- The regime of muscular force
What does this all this mean? If you training to have the most transfer to your chosen sport, then training exercises should have movement similarities, use similar muscles, have similar speed, power and force outputs, etc. to the skill or movement you are trying to improve.
However rugby is a team sport that involves many different skills, not one single movement. Throwing, catching, kicking, accelerating, maximal velocity, agility, tackling, wrestling and rucking/mauling (in rugby union) are all performed with high frequency on the field.
Each of these skills/movements will have exercises that are more or less specific to on-field performance. It is therefore vital to have an understanding of specificity, and intelligent progressions for each major movement pattern so that we can improve performance in specific skills.
When selecting exercises for my athletes at Newtown Jets, I prefer to use the system developed by Anatoliy Bondarchuk (regarded as the most accomplished hammer throw coach of all time). Bondarchuk created classifications for four types of training. Using this hierarchy one can separate general exercises to more specific exercises in order to optimise training. The classifications are:
General Preparatory Exercises (GE) – exercises that use different energy systems, muscles, or movement characteristics to the competition movement e.g. the bench press is extremely general to jumping.
Special Preparatory Exercise (SPE) – exercises that use the same muscles or energy systems but with movement characteristics to the competition movement e.g. continuing the example of jumping, the squat will act as a SPE for this movement.
Special Developmental Exercises (SDE) – exercises that share the same muscles, same systems, and multiple movement characteristics of the competitive movement e.g. the barbell half jump squat with low to moderate weights will have a very high degree of specificity to jumping.
Competitive Exercise (CE) – the competitive exercise itself, or variations thereof e.g. jumping!
All exercises we use in a rugby programme fit somewhere on this spectrum from general to competition exercise. Due to the sheer number of skills we have to train, some exercises will belong in multiple categories depending on the skill in question. For example, a bench press would be a general exercise for sprinting, but a special preparatory exercise for when palming and pushing an opposition player away.
Below I have placed different exercises into their classifications so that I can create a framework for developing programs for my rugby athletes:
General Preparatory Exercises
Push, pull, hinge, squat, loaded carry, single leg variations, rotations, brace. These are all general preparation exercises that will provide a great foundation of strength for rugby. Below is a great infographic that shows the importance of muscular strength in athletic performance (courtesy of Yann Le Meur):
Being strong in movements such as squat and deadlift variations, bench press, chin ups, rows, lunging and hip thrusts doesn't necessarily make a great rugby athlete (the strongest players are hardly ever the best players) but it provides a great strength base from which other abilities can be developed.
Many coaches have suggested athletes should be able to squat 2 x bodyweight. However, I believe it is unwise to chase these numbers at all costs. Athletes have different levers compared to powerlifters, and what makes them successful at running and jumping might mean they are not built to be super strong in the gym. Remember there is a competition of nervous system energy in everything we do, so make sure you are not destroying your athletes in the weight room when you can be stimulating the body with sprinting and actual rugby training. Get strong but don’t fry the body in the process.
GPP exercises make the athlete more robust and resilient to injury, build the muscles, build armour as well as increase core stability. Strengthening the body in many different planes and vectors can counteract all of the specific work we do at training and prevent overuse injures. The core should be strengthened using different movements such as hip flexion, anti-rotation, anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion.
Special Preparatory Exercises
SPP exercises use the same muscles and systems but different movements. I consider exercises that are traditionally labelled “power exercises” as SPP exercises. These are normally triple extension or multi-joint upper body exercises that are found on the strength-speed, power, and speed-strength portion of the force velocity curve: Olympic lifting variations, jump squats, bench press throws, trap bar jumps, kettle bell swings and snatches.
Various plyometric and medicine ball exercises can also be considered SPP exercises, though some could also be considered SDE exercises depending on their similarity to the sporting action. A depth jump which overloads the vertical jump may be considered a special developmental exercise for a line out jumper in rugby union. Conversely I wouldn’t consider the depth jump a SDE for a prop. Rather it would be considered SPE.
Below is a list of exercises that I have categorised as SPP for rugby:
- Ballistic training- squat jumps, trap bar jumps, box jump, bench press throw
- Olympic lifting derivatives - snatch and clean from floor/hang/blocks, snatch and clean pulls, split jerk, push press, hang high pull, shrug jumps
- Modified strength exercises using accommodating resistance - bench press and squats against bands, or add chains, speed pulls against bands
- Plyometrics: single leg and double leg jumps such as hops, bounds, repeated broad jumps and countermovement jumps hurdle hops, depth jumps, drop jumps etc.
- Explosive medicine ball training - overhead toss, medicine ball scoop, rotational shot put and discus throw, medicine ball push press.
Special Developmental Exercises
SDE are exercises that use the same muscles, same systems, and multiple aspects of the competitive movement. When we break down the movements and needs of a rugby league player I believe the most important elements other than skill and fitness are:
- Linear speed: acceleration and maximal speed
- Multidirectional speed: deceleration, shuffle, crossover step, any type of change of direction
- Tackling/wrestling ability
However, certain positions need specialised qualities that will allow them to excel in their position. A rugby union prop must be great in the scrum, while line out jumpers need to able to jump high in the air over opposition players. In rugby league front rowers need to be able to hit the defence with momentum and palm players away. Hookers and halves need lateral power to move around the ruck and pass the ball with power and precision. Which exercises you select for yourself or your athletes should be informed by your position and how you approach its demands.
Below is a table showing examples of the Bondarchuk classifications for common training exercises in relation to a variety of universal rugby skills (acceleration, changing direction, wrestling/tackling and passing):
When selecting position specialised developmental exercises, your imagination is your only limit as long as you adhere to the criteria of dynamic correspondence. However here are some examples:
This is self-explanatory. It is the actual game of rugby and serves to put the adaptations of the previous training exercises and phases into the context of the game for maximum effectiveness. Effectively: now you've developed it, learn how to use it on the pitch.
Periodising exercises throughout the season and your training age
For team sports such as rugby I like to use a Vertical Integration periodisation. This means everything will be trained throughout the year to retain a minimum level of development, but certain qualities will be emphasised at certain times throughout the year depending on the training phase. For example:
- Early pre-season - Focus on general exercises, with extensive use of specialised preparation exercises.
- Mid pre-season - Intensify general exercises (but use less of them), specialised preparation exercises should intensify
- Late pre-season - Less general exercises, intensive specialised preparation exercises (but use less of them), utilise specialised developmental exercises
- Competitive season - Throughout different parts of the season focus on a few qualities at once while keeping a thread on everything and periodise all of them. Phases where the most specific drills are emphasised should coincide with key periods throughout the season as these will have the greatest transfer to on-field performance.
There should be a focus on elements of SDE including linear speed, multidirectional speed and wrestling throughout the preseason and competitive season. This can be extensive or intensive during the pre-season and may need to be micro-dosed throughout the competitive season.
Training age will also dictate focus. The last thing I want is for a beginner to go add a bunch of special strength exercises to their training. Athletes should “slow cook” their athletic career by focussing on different categories of exercises depending on their training age. A beginner athlete will get a high transfer of training to their competition exercise by following a simple strength focussed program. However, there will be diminishing returns as the athlete progresses and more specific work will be needed.
I have laid out a general plan below:
- Beginner (less than 3 years of formalised weight training): There should be a focus on general exercises. Athletes should build up maximal strength and hypertrophy of the muscles. They could also begin to learn the technical elements of SPP exercises.
- Intermediates (up to 5-6 years of formalised weight training): Once athletes have an underpinning of strength in the GPP exercises, they should focus on building power in the SPP exercises.
- Advanced (more than 5-6 years of formalised weight training): Special strength exercises can be added to both GPP and SPP exercises so athletes get the most transfer to their sport and get closer to sport mastery.
Again, always continue to work on elements of linear speed, multidirectional speed and wrestling ability. These activities have the highest specificity to rugby for all positions and are extremely important no matter where you are on the pitch.
I hope you have enjoyed my interpretation and framework of exercise transfer and specificity. Remember, all models are incomplete and never perfect, and thus my system and views will continue to evolve. If you are interested in delving deeper into this topic, I suggest you seek out books/information and articles from Anatoliy Bondarchuk, Yuri Verkhososhansky, Martin Bingisser and Shawn Myszka.