Rugby union traditionally was a sport played by amateurs who trained like amateurs. Since the advent of professionalism that has trickled down throughout the league structures, it is now common to see the majority of rugby players training in their own time. As is seen with many people in the gym, the newly found enthusiasm for fitness may not match the same level of knowledge about how to train.
Rugby produces some unique training requirements not seen in other sports. It is a sport that caters for all types of physiques and places demands on almost the entire body.
I will not go into an in depth discussion of the various requirements of rugby and variations for each position. However, I will briefly review the main requirements for success. The demands of rugby are varied, and I could almost list every physical ability and say it impacts upon performance. However, the main factors are:
- Aerobic Power – More specifically, a high aerobic power over a pure steady state aerobic base. For example, a good six minute run test score is more important than a good 10 km time. Obviously, these two are highly integrated but are still different.
- Lactate Tolerance – The key limiting factor during play, lactate tolerance affects both aerobic power and speed endurance.
- Speed – More specifically acceleration and repeated sprint speed endurance.
- Agility – The ability to decelerate and change direction or move in a non linear direction.
- Strength – Both maximum strength and speed strength, and as any sport, requires a strong core as a foundation.
To add to this, you could easily point out maximum speed is important in many situations (and you can never be called too fast), but in general, it is not too decisive. Muscle size is also not hugely important to success as it is your strength, absolute, relative and fast speed that is more important. Though one factor affecting maximum strength is of course muscle cross section area. I have not mentioned flexibility, but just like core strength, it is a fundamental that needs to be used to restore ideal posture and muscle length. How much flexibility is optimal past these ideal lengths is an issue of much debate and beyond the scope of this article.
To effectively cover all of the main attributes a rugby player needs to optimize performance, we must cover six main types of training methods:
- Aerobic Training – To develop lactate tolerance and aerobic power.
- Sprint Training – To enhance acceleration and repeated sprint speed endurance.
- Resistance Training – To build maximum and fast speed strength.
- Agility Training – To learn effective mutli-directional movements and changes of pace.
- Plyometric Training – To support speed strength in linear and multi directional movements.
- Core and Flexibility Training – To create the underlying foundations of all the above training.
These methods will develop all of the attributes that are stressed on the rugby field. These can be combined into three sessions: a track session (sprint training, agility and plyometrics), a gym session (strength and core training) and an aerobic session. This does not need to take up your whole life but just a few hours per week, if following an optimal training routine.
Ignoring the specific details of each training method, we can instead focus upon the underlying design of the training programs within each of the six methods above.
Most of us are aware of periodization, yet so few people integrate this fully into their training programs. I believe this is due to the complexity of the theory. The reason periodization was created was to:
- Maximize the response from the training stimulus
- Allow continuous gains to be made from week to week and year to year
- Avoid injury and overtraining
Periodization seems to suffer from an all or nothing approach. Either a scientifically designed program is used, or nothing is implemented. However, most trainers are using the theory without knowing it. Forget macro cycles, training variables and such. The most basic form of periodization is setting a new program every month. The next level up would be applying a certain type of training for a few weeks and then changing the focus (e.g., an endurance phase then strength phase). This is easy to implement. How far to advance the system up to the traditional theories of step load progression of intensity and macro, meso cycles, weekly load variation, etc. is dependent on many factors relating to the individual athlete you are training.
Here I've presented a method of using periodization that can be implemented by trainers or players alike. The key to using periodization is to determine the training phase and set appropriate training parameters. Using these, you can cycle the parameters over the duration of that training phase.
For example, say you are looking to increase the muscle size of the prime movers used in rugby. This is known as specific hypertrophy phase using traditional periodization terminology. The general guidelines for this would be six to 12 reps with around three minutes rest using the necessary exercises. A simple way to introduce periodization over a six week phase would be to vary the reps as below:
- Weeks 1 & 2 - 12 reps
- Weeks 3 & 4 - 9 reps
- Weeks 5 & 6 - 6 reps
This is using the foundation principles of program design. It is increasing the intensity while decreasing the volume, classic periodization! This method can and should be extended across all of the training phases within your resistance training routines.
Let’s take a look at a typical off season. To maximize the gains from resistance training, you would build a base early in the off season, followed by focusing on increasing muscle size, then developing maximum strength and converting this to power so you are physically at your biggest, strongest and most explosive by the start of the next in season. To do this, you could have four training phases during the off season: preparation, hypertrophy, strength and power.
With each phase, you can associate the traditional training parameters to achieve the goal of that phase’s training. For example, preparation uses sub maximal lifts for between five to 15 reps, hypertrophy uses six to 12 reps to failure, strength one to five reps max and power two to six reps with sub maximal loads (please note there are many methods for power development beside this).
Using these phases is already putting the science of program design into practise. This can be further enhanced by varying the reps within each phase. This will maximize the training response over the phase.
Through such simple variations of one training variable, you have introduced intensity and volume manipulation throughout the course of the off season and within the phases themselves. This will produce more optimal results. For each training phase, a different exercise routine would be followed to introduce specificity, and you could also vary the rest periods to further extrapolate the volume, specificity and intensity relationships.
If you now start introducing recovery weeks, you begin incorporating the other needs of periodization, which is avoiding overtraining and maximizing adaptation. This can be furthered enhanced by using specified variations in training intensity within the weekly micro cycles (e.g., heavy and light days), and before you know it, you are applying the main bulk of periodization and reaping its benefits on athletic performance.
The above serves to exemplify how to easily introduce periodization into resistance training. Of course, these principles need to be taken and applied to the other training methods as well (e.g., aerobic, agility, plyometrics, etc.). Again, the exercises within each phase and variation in training parameters need to be designed and altered to mediate the required changes across the off season or during the in season.
If this sounds too simple then remember that periodization is a relative rather than an absolute. It is about maximizing the response from training while ensuring the athlete does not suffer injury or over training. The benefits of using an undulating model versus a linear model or the fitness fatigue theory over classical are all well and good, but the crux of the matter is putting in place a periodized routine of some sort. This can be done by:
- Applying training phases during the year to achieve a certain training outcome.
- Varying the reps, rest, intensity over the training phase.
- Using recovery weeks, days and techniques to ensure the body is fresh.
The success of any good rugby program will rely more on how you as the coach manipulate the training variables within each training phase and change the training between the individual phases.
- Bompa, Tudor, O. Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. Human Kinetics.
- Chiu, L. Barnes, J L. The Fitness Fatigue Model Revisited: Implications for Planning Short and Long Term Training. Journal of Strength & Conditioning, Volume 25.
- Haff, G.G Phd. Roundtable Discussion: Periodization of Training Parts 1 & 2, Journal of Strength & Conditioning, Volume 26.
- Stone, M.H and H.S. O Bryant. Weight Training: A Scientific Approach. Burgess 1987.
- Wilson, Ben. Rugby Fitness Training: A 12 Month Conditioning Programme. Crowood Press.