Rugby training- how professional rugby players improve their strength and fitness

Peak Performance talks to Sean Lamont, Josh Lewsey and Mark Bitcom

Inside sport - rugby

Scotland’s Sean Lamont and England’s Josh Lewsey were key players in the Rugby World Cup. We take a look at their training regimes and talk to Mark Bitcom, Scotland’s fitness coach

Rugby is a tough sport, players are getting bigger and bigger and incredibly powerful. Looking at the past World Cup players it looked like they had all been inflated in pre-season training as they filled their jerseys like Michelin men

The rugby conditioning expert – Scotland’s Mark Bitcom

Do players train individually or in groups within the gym?

I assign players to small training groups of 3-4 players. They are usually made up of players who are going to get the best out of each other – often those competing for the same places in the team. This makes them that bit hungrier.

 How do you keep a record of a player’s performance?

I have a team of 5 fitness staff and each player is assigned an individual coach who closely monitors their performance. A record is kept of every lift and repetition during training.

 We have a number of different assessment methods, including the collection of data on strength, power output (force x velocity) and speed.

What do the players’ fitness tests consist of? How often do they complete these?

We measure force x velocity and speed once per week. We also have a range of other tests including endurance and the 100kg bench, as well as recording the speed of moving a certain weight.

 Do you have a specialist training approach for different player positions?

Yes, each is very different. The first two weeks of pre-season training are very general and then after that each player works to a very specific programme based on their position and individual needs. For example, some players may need to increase muscle mass while others need to focus on reducing body fat.

How regularly are players’ training schedules adjusted?

The training is periodised (planned) in 6-week blocks, give or take a week, depending on when matches fall or when the players take holidays.

Weights change weekly in pre-season but once matches begin they follow a more set routine, in which loads and intensities remain much more stable.

 Do players have much input into the development of their training plans?

Absolutely, we are working with international sportsmen who know their bodies better than anyone, so they are constantly asked for feedback. They are all very experienced, so it is essential that we, as fitness trainers, take into account how they feel. After each training block and round of fitness tests each player has a 1:1 with their assigned fitness coach and this is when the fine tuning of their programme takes place.

 Can you give me an idea of the support team behind the players?

Aside from my team of 5 fitness coaches, we have an additional staff of 12 which includes Pilates instructors, nutritionists, psychologists and medical back up. We also rely heavily on the Scottish Institute of Sport and have a very interdisciplinary approach to training.

 Could you give a sample programme of a typical day’s training?

(this is actually based on week 5 of Scotland’s 07 World Cup pre-season training)

  • Players needing to reduce their body fat levels will be in at 7am to do a pre-breakfast fat burning session on the cardiovascular equipment.
  • For the rest of the boys the morning usually begins with approximately 15 minutes of Pilates/stability work/pre-hab work. 
  • Having warmed up, the players then move into the gym where the focus is on plyometric (jumping ed.) work, general and specific strength and power work.
  • The players then move next door to the recovery area where they might do some light aerobic work and have a hot/cold treatment for recovery. 
  • Lunch is served and there is a chill-out area where the boys can rest or play games. They are also encouraged to get some sleep during training breaks in one of the 8 beds available in the dark area.
  • In the afternoon the boys usually do either a speed or a fitness session.
  • The speed sessions are led by the sprint coach and the boys undertake these sessions in three different groups, forwards, backs and half-backs.
  • We’re also just starting to get into endurance training now.
  • We’re also doing some individual ball skills work, which includes biomechanical analysis and feedback using live video playback on the side of the pitch.

 (There are two rest days per week – Wednesdays and Sundays.)

The players

Sean Lamont (Scotland)

What gives you the biggest buzz in rugby?

I love the physicality of it. I’ve never been the most skilful player, but I always try as hard as I can. My brother used to play football and I used to be garbage at it. So I was glad when rugby came along because it was about the only sport that I could do! I also enjoy the great social scene – there is a great camaraderie among the team and the banter with the boys is really good fun.’

How do you prepare mentally for a game?

I think mental preparation is very important. If your head’s not properly switched on, it’s never going to work. I basically try to take it easy before a match and try not to get too worked up. I think it’s key not to think too much. You can over analyse and if you do tip over the edge it can be quite hard to get back.

DOB:   15/01/81
Height:   1.88m
Weight:   102kg
Position:  Wing
Scotland caps:  30 (as at Sep 07)


Josh Lewsey (England)

How tough is rugby?

I would say that rugby, at the international level especially, is one of the most intense physical games there is. It tests all different facets of fitness. I don't think people realise just how tiring contact is. Wrestling with huge men just saps your energy.

How is your training planned?

Our whole fitness programme is based on trying to make it as game related as possible. In the last five years there has been a big shift to much more specific training. Ten years a go people used to go for 10-mile runs, but this is an ineffectual way of training for rugby. It gets rid of your fast twitch muscle fibres. What you need to do in rugby is sustain energy for 80 minutes, in the form of lots of maximal bursts with very short recovery. So our training is geared up to that.’

How important is the mental side to the game?

Personally, I think the mental aspect is more important than the physical aspect. Anyone can train to be powerful or strong. There are a lot of people out there who have got great physical attributes, but it is the mental aspect of, for example, being able to punch above your weight that counts.’

DOB:   30/11/76
Height:   1.77m
Weight:   88kg
Position:  Wing/full back
Caps:   51 (as at Sep 07)

Thanks to Maximuscle and LifeFitness ( in putting together this article.

Josh Lewsey MBE is an ambassador for Maximuscle and works closely with them for all his sports nutritional requirements.
 Go to: to find out more about Lewsey’s unique diet and training regime.

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