Strength & Conditioning for Rugby - The Not So Basic Basics

This week at, we have a guest blogger. Jon Reid from Panthera Performance is here to talk a bit of sense about Strength & Conditioning for rugby. Whether you're going through pre-season, or coming back after injury,  there is no better time to heed some advice about what you are doing in the gym and how it applies to the rugby field. Over to Jon...

In my experience, rugby players have an excellent attitude towards their strength and conditioning.

They are dedicated; value the impact it has on their performance and are always looking to tweak their program to ensure it’s the best it can be.

However, sometimes the good intentions are not matched with good execution. I often assess rugby training programs on paper and everything looks great.

Then I’ll see the player performing an exercise…

All of a sudden the program becomes irrelevant and the initial discussion about sets and reps is replaced with ‘let’s talk about how you’re moving.’

Movement Quality

To dominate the rugby pitch you need strength, speed, power, agility, endurance – everyone knows that, they are the basics of high performance.

But, there are basics within these basics that are often overlooked.

The most important aspect of any physical training is the quality of movement.

Whether squatting, sprinting or changing direction, movement quality will have the biggest effect on whether your training is going to improve or inhibit your performance.

What’s the problem with poor movement?

Lift with poor mechanics and you won’t strengthen anything, you may even grind your joints into an eventual halt.

Run sprint drills without paying attention to your mechanics and you’ll embed inefficient movement – you’ll become better at sprinting badly.

This goes for any and all training.

Your body is hardwiring every move you make, best hardwire performance enhancing movement.

Your training should improve you, not solidify bad movement habits.

Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario 1: you need to change direction quickly to make a tackle, you change direction and leap into the tackle.

  1. Poor movement – you look up and see your opponent in the distance heading for your try line.
  2. Good movement – you’re looking at your opponent, who is on the ground, right in front of your face.

What happened?

  1. Poor agility and acceleration mechanics led to inefficient movement. You wasted a split second by taking an unnecessary step, you didn’t make the tackle.
  2. Your agility and acceleration mechanics allowed you to get there fast enough, no time/motion was wasted and you made the tackle.

Scenario 2: Manu Tuilagi is charging at you, you’re about to take a hit.

  1. You have spent years training but have paid more attention to whether you’re doing 5 x 5 or 4 x 10 than the way you are moving and why, i.e. you haven’t focussed on basic lifting mechanics. You crumble.
  2. Your strength training has focussed on creating a rigid, neutral torso whenever it is faced with external forces (compressive, flexion, extension, rotation) regardless of if you are lifting 50kg or 150kg. You stand strong and Manu bounces off you.

Point: Your capacity to generate/resit force and move efficiently is developed by your training, either in the gym or on the field. Too often these capacities are dampened due to poor prioritisation.

Weight on the bar; reps and task completion – these are the priorities for 99% of people in gyms. Load the bar and hit your reps… just get through the set. This approach leads to problems.

Beat up joints, achy backs, unusable strength, poor movement. As an athlete you cannot afford for this. The gym is a controlled environment. It’s the place to become more robust and resilient.

It’s not the place to take more ‘hits’.

Positioning; Range of Motion (ROM) and Control - These should be the priorities of every movement you perform in the gym.

Focus on these and you’ll build strong, athletic muscle all the while opening up your capacity to move freely and powerfully.

Let’s take stock: What physical qualities does the pitch care about?

  • You lift 152.5kg for 6 reps.
  • You can bench 1.75 x BW (bodyweight)
  • You can box jump 37 inches.
  • A one rep max deadlift of 195kg, with only a slight rounding of your back.

These stats hold no clout on the pitch, the pitch doesn’t care if your strength matches that of a powerlifter, a player from another team or what the internet says you should be lifting. The pitch values the following:

  • Speeding up and slowing down over a very short distance
  • Changing direction quickly.
  • Quick expression of strength i.e. power
  • Moving freely and powerfully.
  • The ability to give and take powerful hits (tackles).
  • Maintenance of a strong position from which to generate/resist force in game specific situations (e.g. scrum)

    What do the qualities in the second list have in common?

    They all require good movement mechanics and an understanding of positioning.

    When these are learned and practiced in the gym, they become your default on the field.

    In other words, you’ll adopt these strong positions unconsciously, when you’re under pressure, fatigue etc.

    To be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t focus on strength or lift heavy weights,

    I’m saying that you should prioritize movement quality first, then add strength to that.

    If you can lift heavy with good mechanics, you’ll dominate the field.

    Design Your Own Program

    In the gym

    Any gym program that is to have a positive impact on your rugby performance should focus on the key movement patterns: squat, hinge, press and pull.

    First, embed the movement pattern and then add strength and power. In gym terms, your program should aim to have you:

    • Front squatting heavy weights through a full ROM without losing any postural integrity (staying upright, feet straight, knees out etc.). If it’s not below parallel, it doesn’t count.
    • Deadlifting with a neutral spine – this neutral position should be strictly enforced. Deviation from neutral? Doesn’t count, shame on you.
    • Push pressing – the ultimate expression of transmitting force from your legs, through your trunk to your upper body. This should be your main pressing exercise.
    • Pulling - both vertically and horizontally. Chin ups, 1 arm rows and bent over rows should all be utilized.
    • Jumping, cleaning or an explosive movement. This comes once your squat and hinge patterns are perfected.

    Match Winners: Speed, Acceleration and Agility


    Where many go wrong…

    Many coaches implement ‘agility’ drills apparently using the following definition of agility:

    The ability to repeatedly move quickly towards multiple cones in a controlled environment.

    Last time I watched a rugby match I didn’t see any cones on the field, nor did I see one team letting the other know exactly where and when to change direction.

    A better approach…

    The definition from which agility drills should be designed:

    A rapid whole body movement that requires you to accelerate, decelerate and change direction in response to what you see or hear.

    How to do them yourself…

    Agility drills should require you to react in response to receiving instructions (hearing) and/or to visual cues (opponents and teammates moving, coach pointing etc.).

    Bear this in mind when designing your own drill. It’ll take an extra minute to design, but it will be infinitely more effective.

    Speed and Acceleration 

    Ever been taught how to sprint?

    Quickness is the game winner and has everything to do with mechanics. If you’re not fortunate enough to have access to a coach with an understanding of sprinting mechanics, film yourself sprinting and compare your mechanics to those of Usain Bolt.

    You don’t need to be a technical sprinter, but paying attention to improving your knee drive, heel recovery, arm swing and torso alignment will trim those crucial split seconds off your sprints and be the difference between breaking free and being taken to the deck.

    What about the ball…

    Embed good mechanics and you’ll unconsciously replicate these when performing sprints on the rugby pitch, whether holding the ball or chasing an opponent. Your body will figure it out. The aim is to have optimal sprinting mechanics without the ball so that your body will replicate these as closely as possible when carrying the ball.





    Prioritise movement quality over sets and reps.

    • Technique and movement pattern first, loading up the weight plates second.
    • Pay attention to how you are accelerating, decelerating and changing direction – these are the match winners.

    Jon Reid – owner of Panthera Performance - is an Edinburgh based personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach. He has extensive experience in helping athletes move better, become stronger and improve their sports performance. He is an accredited strength coach with the both the UK and USA governing bodies of strength and conditioning.

    Thanks for that Jon, a really interesting insight into strength and conditioning for rugby! 

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