Whether you are an amateur or professional player the following information is applicable to find out both the starting point of where your body is at and the work that needs to be done.
Firstly, one thing I have found working with rugby players over the years is the tendency to not let the body fully recover after the end of the season.
The season is long and brutal, with players often picking up injuries. Structural imbalances in the body may have been created as well as a loss of lean muscle mass because of the demands of the previous 9 months.
With that in mind I'd recommend a minimum of two weeks off from any training once the season is over. Let the body recover so you can hit pre season hard!
Ideally I would always want to do some testing on players to find out where they are in terms of body composition, strength levels, explosive power and their fitness levels.
I picked the following protocols because they use minimal equipment therefore players should be able to replicate them either at the club or in the gym easily.
1. Body composition (body fat, weight and height) testing with calipers
I like to use the 12-site Biosignature method as it gives an in depth reading of both the persons body fat and lean mass levels.
Having your body fat tested is a great indicator of if the player needs to make modifications to their nutrition intake. Staying lean and having high levels of lean mass year round is going to aid performance on the pitch and certainly make life in easier in pre season! I'd recommend forwards to try and stay under 15% body fat and backs under 12%. If possible try and have levels tested every 2 weeks.
2. Movement screening. Flexibility testing for both the lower and upper extremities of the body
This is to determine if there is a structural imbalance in any joint or some sort of soft tissue injury. This can be an excellent way of predicting any injuries.
Problems in the shoulder, hamstring and adductor muscle groups are very common within rugby. The results from this will allow me to write the persons program for the coming season, hopefully decreasing their chances of injury.
For example if someone has a much poorer range of motion in their left hamstring compared to their right I would recommend more unilateral work such as split squats over a conventional back squat.
I'd say being injury free throughout the season is the goal for pretty much every rugby player.
3. Standing long jump test
This is an easy to administer test for lower body explosive power. It is used as a fitness test within the NFL combine.
Here’s how to do it:
- Have a tape measure marked ideally on a non-slip floor.
- Have the subject stand just behind a marked line, feet slightly apart.
- A two-foot take off and landing is used with swinging of the arms and bending of the knees to provide forward drive.
- Take the measurement from the back of the heel.
Have the athlete do three attempts and record the longest distance. This can be repeated during pre season to see of any improvement.
Having high levels of power enables an athlete to apply their greatest amount of maximal strength in the shortest period of time.
This is crucial for rugby and can be a great indicator of starting speed and the force applied within a tackle.
An athlete can be exceptionally strong but lack significant explosive power if they are unable to apply their strength rapidly.
4. 150 metre shuttle test
This is an anaerobic fitness test. Cones are set out at 5,10,15,20 and 25m. Athletes have 30 seconds to complete as many shuttles as possible. Successful completion of all shuttles would score 150m.
This effort is followed by 30 seconds rest and this process is repeated 6 times.
The scores for each effort are then calculated to give a total distance covered. A maximum score is 900m. The athletes score for each run is recorded by the last cone touched before the 30 second time limit.
Ideally (if you are still alive) you would then rest 6 minutes and try to repeat this process once more.
This is an excellent test for determining a athletes ability to recover and deal with lactate acid. If this test is done at beginning of pre season and at the end there should be a marked increase in the distance covered which should raise the fitness off the pitch. Racing in pairs or more also will create the competitive environment.
5. 6 rep max strength testing
I prefer to use a functional Hypertrophy rep range to gather their rep max rather than a conventional 1RM as most people aren't conditioned to lifting for a max single rep.
Of all the elements of Hypertrophy, it's paramount that a rugby player has high levels of functional Hypertrophy which is generally trained between the 5-8 rep mark.
If you only train in a standard Hypertrophy rep range of say, 8-12, lean tissue will be built but it creates more of a "all show and no go" physique.
High levels of functional Hypertrophy will lead to great transferable strength gains on the pitch. Often waving training between the 2 phases can reap great results in the off-season.
Exercises I would recommend to test are a back squat, deadlift, chin up and a barbell bench or dip. These are big compound exercises that recruit a lot muscle fibres that should be transferable to increasing strength on the pitch. There should be no problem recreating these exercises in even a fairly poorly equipped gym.
I'd recommend doing around 3-4 warm up sets of each exercise, starting at around 50% of the intended weight for the 6RM and then building the percentage before aiming for the 6RM.
In the next article I will explain the benefits of a Hypertrophy weights routine to promote structural balance for both the upper and lower body.
The program will be written out in full so you can try it yourself. This will be the first full phase of training with the structure and goals changing for phase 2 and 3.