Rugby training: in-season strength and conditioning work

A training programme for rugby players that will enable maximum benefits from limited training time

Rugby players

During a rugby season, players can play up to 30 full games, and if they’re elite they may well be playing many more. The demands of the game are becoming increasingly intense, extreme and challenging. You’ll now hear many people referring to rugby as a collision sport rather than just a contact sport. Watch a game and you’ll see why!

The rate at which players are gaining in strength, power and speed is huge and these physical attributes are becoming a pivotal part of any rugby player’s training programme. It’s no longer acceptable just to rely on getting fit from playing games. Although match time will help improve fitness, with the demands of the game as they are now, it’s simply not enough. As athletes, we need to be in the best possible condition for our sport. So, when analysing a rugby player’s needs, it’s clear that a well-implemented strength and conditioning programme will be of massive benefit.

By maintaining good levels of strength, power, speed, agility and endurance a player will:

•    improve post-match recovery time, allowing them to train more and play more

•    maintain performance, if not increase it, across the season

•    reduce the risk of injury

•    sustain high levels of performance during a game.

What would happen if we didn’t have such a programme in place during the season?

Players would most certainly lose some strength, size and power, all of which are crucial for backs and forwards alike. Most of all, the team would slowly deteriorate across the season, picking up knocks, sprains and tears, and ultimately lose performance or pick up a game-threatening injury that could perhaps have been avoided.

For any player or coach, there is nothing worse than having injured players, and this is where the importance of a good conditioning programme comes in. Pre-season is obviously very important in preparing a player so they hit game one in the best possible shape. But the in-season should be regarded as just as important, for the reasons I have mentioned.

What constitutes an in-season rugby training programme?

A well-thought-out training plan should keep the player in a state of perpetual development across the season. This plan should include peaks, troughs, overload, progression and recovery. Get the plan right and, at best, you’ll get that perpetual development – and at the very least, maintenance of condition – however, get it wrong and you could risk overtraining, fatigue injury and reduced performance.

So where should you start?

The first thing to do is analyse what training options you or the player actually has.

actors to take into account are:

•    schedule

•    time commitments

•    team training sessions

•    game schedule

•    player age.

Depending on the level of rugby, players will spend between 60% to 100% of their time doing game-specific training or fitness drills. Some players never actually set foot in the gym and may never pick up an Olympic bar. This is a recipe for poor condition and injury. I recommend that players should spend at least 20% of their time on conditioning work. So what should be factored into this 20%? The key components are:

•    overload

•    progression

•    exercise selection

•    recovery.

As with any good programme, we must include these factors to ensure we keep developing and maintaining what we already have.

Let’s look at an example of an overall weekly in-season training programme and what it might include (see Table 1, below).

Table 1: Weekly in-season training programme for a good-standard player

Weekly in-season training programme for a good-standard player

If this is your weekly in-season training programme, then you’ve got roughly two to three hours a week to spend on your strength and conditioning. Considering that’s all you’ve got, it’s essential to make the most of it. The important factor here is to look at the areas that really need working on and maintaining. The chances are, you won’t have time to train every area of fitness, so don’t waste your time trying. If you focus on the areas that you generally won’t be working in any of the field sessions, then you’ll have a better chance of establishing and maintaining a good all-round level of fitness.

To explain in more detail, consider what areas of fitness a player would be improving while playing, or in team training. I expect you’ll discover that it’s mostly endurance, cardiovascular training and a bit of speed and agility. So we should be focusing on other areas of fitness in the gym – the key areas being strength and power.

By breaking down the week in this way, a player should be able to get in a good couple of sessions working on strength and power, while the other sessions in the week take care of the rest. The danger of trying to do too much in a gym session and trying to focus on everything is that you will either overtrain or just not achieve anything. The key is to find the right balance of work versus rest across the week, to ensure that when Saturday comes round you’re fresh and ready to play at 100%. For example, if you’ve had a midweek game, there is no way you can do a full conditioning session on Thursday. Similarly, you may have to reduce the amount of work you do within the conditioning sessions to allow you sufficient recovery time before a game.

Key points for your rugby strength and conditioning

•    When you train, train at 100%, as that’s what you’ll be doing in the game;

•    To make a session easier, reduce the amount of sets and reps, not the intensity;

•    Ensure the sets and reps are conducive to the outcomes you’re training for – eg, don’t do three sets of 20 to achieve power (weight training loading and their effects are explained in Table 2, below).

Table 2: Basic weight training loadings and their physiological consequences

Basic weight training loadings and their physiological consequences

Training tips:

•    Focus on the whole body and not just single muscle groups, unless there is a specific weakness;

•    Exercise selection should consist of compound, multi-joint exercises, such as the Olympic bar snatch.

Although there are lots of different variables and no one player is the same, I have constructed an example of a two-day strength and conditioning programme following the guidelines that I have mentioned. Table 3 focuses on the strength and power areas of the in-season programme. It takes into account the Saturday match and lowers the sets compared to a pre-season session. The core lifts are followed by a plyometric drill. This works well to prime the neural system and recruit as many fast-twitch muscle fibres as possible. By doing this, players will produce more force and speed when performing the plyometric exercise. Around 30 seconds’ recovery should be taken between the resistance and the plyometric exercises.

Table 3: In-season strength and conditioning programme for rugby

In-season strength and conditioning programme for rugby

To get the best out of your rugby in-season strength and conditioning programme, you need to be realistic in terms of what can be physically managed. Don’t set yourself a plan that will run you into the ground and result in poor performance and injury. Instead, devise a well-structured, considerate programme that allows your body (and mind) to stay in a perpetual state of development/maintenance across the season.

Happy training!


About Tommy Matthews

Tommy is the managing director of The Optimal Life Fitness Group. He has six years of experience in the Fitness Industry, having started out as a personal trainer.

Optimal Life Fitness Ltd

Unit CW2,The Cranewell,2 Michael Road, Fulham, London SW6 2AD

National office: 0870 950 7315

London office: 020 7731 3133 Fax: 0870 950 7311

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