As part of this site I do a lot online coaching with individual players and consultations with strength and conditioning coaches who work with teams. One of the questions that comes up again and again is how to structure the training day- should you train in the gym first then do rugby, or do rugby then weight training?
In my experience 90% of professional rugby teams train heavy in the gym before doing any on-field training. The primary reason for this is usually a desire to train hard and heavy in the gym when players are freshest. Teams fear that if they perform weight training after an intense field session, the session might not be as productive (and obviously strength is the MOST important thing right?! Wrong, but let’s save this for another post).
Secondary reasons often include the desire to take advantage of any potentiation effect (a temporary boost in strength and power triggered by high force or speed exercise) during the field session. These reasons may be true and valid but I disagree wholeheartedly and I recommend to all my clients that training is scheduled as follows throughout the day:
- Team training
- Units (separated backs and forwards)
- High speed power work (medicine ball throws, plyometrics, jumps etc.)
- Lower speed power work (i.e. ballistic exercises and accommodating resistance)
- Main strength lifts
- Accessory strength lifts
Throughout the training day there should be a general flow from higher speed training elements to higher force elements, from more musculature to being recruited to less and from more technically demanding, higher risk activities to less demanding and less risky activities. Here is my reasoning and why I think the broken model of weights then field needs fixing:
Keep them healthy
The primary goal of any programme is to prevent injury (or at least minimise the risk). There can be no debate about this. It doesn’t matter how much you squat or bench press if you don’t line up on Saturday. The consistent evidence that teams who suffer the fewest injuries tend to perform better over the course of a season makes a decent case for this argument.
A second point about which there can be no argument is which training elements are most risky to athletes in terms of injury. Team rugby is the killer here due to the uncontrollable, technical nature of the sessions and the high force and speed involved. Most of your injuries occur here. A close second is sprint training, which although more controllable an environment than team training is maximal force and speed. This will usually rank either first or second for injuries sustained.
A distant third will be units and skills rugby, and last place will be anything S&C related for good reason. These activities can be tightly controlled with the level of force and speed carefully adjusted to the capacities of the athlete. There is no excuse for anyone to get hurt in the gym but occasionally it may happen, typically in the highest speed elements like plyometrics and Olympic lifting. Torn muscles in slower exercises like bicep curls almost never happen.
Now consider the role of inarguable role of fatigue in injury risk. The more tired you are, the more likely it is you will get hurt. Fatigue may result in dehydration, poor movement technique and joint positioning, improper sequencing, reduced braking force in deceleration, you name it, it all increases the risk of injury.
Considering all of the above, how can we advocate scheduling the riskiest activity of all (team rugby) when we are in a fatigued state from perhaps the least risky activity (weight training)? Is it possible that weight training might be a fraction less productive if we carry the fatigue of field training into the gym? Yes, possibly. But I would argue the increased risk of injury from performing heavy weight training prior to team training greatly outweighs the potential risk to performance suffered by doing weights after (negligible in my opinion, see below for why). Remember, the primary goal is to stay injury free. A couple of kg progress in the gym is a small price to pay.
Whilst we are criticising conventional training, let’s also put to bed the argument that the best players in every team are the biggest, strongest and most powerful. This very rarely true in the experience of my colleagues and I. The best players are the best players because they are the best players- they have the highest level of technical and tactical skill for their sport and position.
I can point to many international level players with average physical development (for rugby) but excellent technical and tactical awareness. The opposite does not exist- you will not find a top level international who is a physical beast but a garbage rugby player. If you are ever lucky enough to work with a player who has both, congratulations. They are very rare and usually receive the label “world class”.
Due to the relative importance of technical and tactical skill relative to physical development, these elements should be optimised and prioritised within the training. We should make every effort to maximise motor learning and the perfect execution of skills during rugby training. Practice makes permanent after all.
The effects of fatigue on motor learning are fairly well documented and it should be of no surprise that fatigue does not lend itself well to skill execution or motor learning. Obviously one can make the argument that top athletes must be able to execute skills under fatigue, though my personal belief is that this type of activity teaches athletes to F up less, rather than become better. In any event it can and should comprise a rare addition to rugby training. Thus if you schedule intense, fatigue inducing weight training before technical and tactical field training, you have sacrificed performance in a decisive training area for one that is less so.
Can it be developed in a fatigued state?
Another factor that must be considered when developing physical qualities is how much fatigue can be tolerated during a training activity without it affecting productivity. How much is too much? Well, the top of the pile is speed training. If you are not running at maximum speed or close to it (around 95% or more), you simply will not provide your central nervous system with a strong enough stimulus to adapt.
Next up is high speed power work like plyometrics. When performed intensively these require a power output of 90% of ones best or more according to coaches like Henk Kraiienhof and Natalia Verkhoshansky. Lower speed ballistic power work is next on the ladder. Elite level Olympic lifters have shown us that it is quite possible to develop high levels of performance in these exercises whilst utilising between 75-85% of max for the vast majority of your reps.
Below power work lies strength. Even in trained lifters it is possible to develop maximal strength utilising as little as 70% of one rep max as long as the load is accelerated with maximal effort. Even smaller percentages may be used if tricks like occluded training are utilised.
Last on the list is hypertrophy and muscular endurance, which require as little as 60% or less (30% has been shown to be highly effective in occluded training) to trigger adaptation.
Based on these numbers you can clearly see a case being made for the scheduling of higher speed elements earliest, and more force based elements later in the training day. This ensures we are freshest and able to train with the most effort and intensity for those physical abilities which demand it most, and less for those which are less demanding. When the risk of field based training is factored into this thought process, we arrive at the schedule that I provided above.
The last stimulus is the one you adapt to most
One final aspect to consider is the hormonal response to exercise. It is generally agreed that endurance based exercise (like that seen for the majority of team rugby training) creates a hormonal environment conducive catabolism i.e. the breakdown of tissue. This makes perfect evolutionary sense. If you can break down tissue, reduce load and increase mechanical efficiency, the exercise stimulus will be less stressful the next time you are exposed to it. Common experience confirms this argument: elite runners are thin and light.
Conversely the hormonal response to heavy resistance training is conducive to anabolism. The body adapts to heavy weights by increasing muscle mass, to stop reduce the likelihood of the weight crushing you next time you step under the bar. Again, common sense: elite weight lifters are big and muscular.
Obviously as rugby players we want the second scenario. In a contact sport we want to be as muscular as possible (within reason). More muscular athletes are generally bigger, stronger, faster and more effective in contact than smaller athletes.
The problem with training for rugby is that you have to train for both endurance and speed, strength and power. You are essentially pulling the body in two different directions at once. When you perform endurance exercise, you create a stimulus for catabolism. After heavy weight training you create a stimulus for anabolism. But a key factor to think about is the time given to the body adapt to the stimulus…
If we theoretically perform weight training first, then perform team training either immediately or a few hours later, we have provided a relatively small window for adaptation before pulling the body in the direction of catabolism via team training. This is definitely not optimal as we know muscle protein synthesis can remain elevated for up to several days post training. The effect is unquestionably blunted by endurance based exercise.
However by scheduling resistance training after team training the athlete is exposed to the anabolic stimulus without interruption. It will be at least 16 hours in a professional setting before the athlete is exposed to a competing exercise stimulus, and even longer in an amateur setting. Though still not ideal, in this scenario the athlete is allowed far greater opportunity to adapt fully to the anabolic stimulus and increase lean mass, strength and power.
I believe this is one of the reasons why my athletes have experienced no noticeable decline in progress in strength and power compared to other teams, despite flipping the traditional schedule on its head. Another factor may also be the greater gains in speed we are able to make by prioritising speed training first in the day. Because speed acts as such a potent stimulus to the central nervous system, increasing speed will also increase strength but not the other way around (beyond a novice level of around 1-2 years of serious training).