The vast majority rugby strength coaches and players are dead wrong when it comes to rugby performance.
Let me qualify that statement: if you were to ask these guys the simple question “How do you know your programme is working?” 90% of them will respond about increasing strength in gym lifts like the squat, bench, deadlift, the Olympic lifts and maybe the vertical jump. Good answers, right? Wrong.
Here’s why: the only goal of any strength and conditioning programme is to increase the speed of movement in sporting skills. Speed increases performance in all skills on the pitch. A faster athlete runs faster, evades opponents more efficiently, hits harder, jumps higher and passes and kicks further. Even in the scrum, the prop who is able to engage and get the first push more quickly is the better athlete. If you are not improving your movement speed in sporting skills your programme is not working. It does matter how much more you squat or how much muscle you have gained.
Am I telling you not to lift heavy weights and train hard in the gym? Absolutely not. Heavy lifting is the foundation of all great programmes, because increased strength will improve running speed, jump height, momentum into the collision etc. most of the time. But note the italics: most of the time.
The speed improvements that come from increased strength are typical of an athlete who is toward the beginning or in the middle stages of their training career. Beyond this point increased strength generally doesn’t have a beneficial effect in increasing sport speed. The emphasis has to be switched to exercises which are more specific to the movements you are training to improve. The foundation of strength can come from heavy traditional lifts, but the ability to apply this force on the field has to come from elsewhere in the programme.
So how do you measure speed of movement in rugby? In simple sports like weightlifting and track and field it’s pretty easy. If you lifted heavier, ran faster or jumped higher/further, you’re faster. Rugby is slightly more complex; in my humble opinion you need to identify some key tests based on the general demands of the game and the specific demands of your position…
For example everyone has to run fast in rugby so I think all players should measure sprinting performance (both acceleration and top speed). From a more specific standpoint outside backs have to be able to jump high under the high ball, so perhaps the vertical leap from a running start can be a specific test for this position. These are the criteria against which the success or failure of the programme can be judged. Nothing else matters. If a better squat or deadlift achieves this for you, congratulations. But do not be fooled into thinking that this is the goal of the programme, it is just a means to achieving the goal- SPEED.