Top 3 Exercises for Rugby Players
Saturday marks the end of a Six Nations campaign to forget for England fans, but with a reopening date for LED Leisure Centres just around the corner better days are coming.
I thought this would be a great opportunity to share with you my top 3 exercises every rugby player should add to their exercise programme when we reopen our gyms.
If you’d like any further training, nutrition or rehab advice you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or alternatively speak to a health and wellbeing coach at your local leisure centre upon reopening and ask for a FREE 30-minute session.
- Front Squat
“Legs are everything in rugby. You can have a strong upper body but if your legs are weak you’re wasting your time. If you can only work out twice a week, make sure you do some leg work.” Steve Walsh, Rugby Performance Director at Toulon
A set of big quads is not only essential for looking great in short shorts, they are essential for success in a sport that heavily relies on strong and powerful players. Rugby is a multifaceted sport that requires players to have great endurance, ability and technical skill but most importantly power. The most powerful players are more likely to win the physical battle in the tackle, scrum, or ruck. Increased power has huge carry over to all aspects of the game, including:
- Sprinting faster
- Jumping higher at the line out or when catching a high ball
- Exploding into the tackle
- Greater pushing power in the scrum, rucks and mauls
- Better absorption of the impact from a strong tackle, reducing the risk of injury
Unlike the traditional back squat, where the barbell is held across the trapezius and rear deltoid muscles in a high or low bar position, the barbell (or kettlebell/power bag) is supported across the front of the shoulders with the elbows high in an Olympic “rack” position.
A great example of front squat technique can be demonstrated by Olympic weightlifting icon Lu Xiaojun below.
The placement of the bar across the shoulders in the front squat and need to maintain extension of the thoracic spine places a greater demand on upper back muscles. Failure to maintain a front rack position will lead to the upper back rounding, the elbows lowering and ultimately the barbell dropping. This is not only very embarrassing but can be dangerous to both you, surrounding members and our equipment too.
The front squat also requires a greater range of motion compared with a low bar back squat. Players with the mobility and suppleness to complete a front squat to depth will reduce the risk of injury when they find themselves in an awkward, crumpled position at the breakdown.
The core strength required to maintain an upright torso position under load in the front squat has a clear carry over to scrummaging too.
Many beginners to the front squat may find the bent back position of the wrists uncomfortable or even painful. This can be overcome by:
Using a crossed-arm grip
I recommend performing 4 – 6 sets of 4 – 6 reps at 70 – 85% of your 1 repetition max (1RM) at the start of your lower body training session. These sets should be sufficiently heavy to test the legs but performed with sound technique and control after a thorough warm up.
- Push Press
Of course a strong upper body is just as important for rugby players. The key benefit of strong shoulders in particular is injury prevention. According to “Ruck Science” studies reveal that 60% of rugby players will suffer a shoulder injury at least once in their playing time, whilst 75% of those will experience recurrent shoulder injuries.
I myself am part of that unfortunate 75%, I even have a dull ache in my shoulder now sat writing this blog. From my own experience I know that my shoulder felt best in summer 2020 when training for strongman and my push press was at its best.
Strong and powerful shoulders have carry over to elements of the game such as:
- Increased power when lifting at the line out
- Better pushing power when handing off in the tackle
- A bigger shoulder for a decent “bosh”
The push press is a performed like a tradition barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell or power bag shoulder press. The lifter stands upright with the bar resting on the front of their shoulders whilst maintaining a neutral spine and tight core. The glutes and quads are engaged to form a stable base whilst the upper back muscles are active too.
Unlike a strict military press where the lower body remains tense throughout the lift, the push press allows the lifter to drop into a shallow squat before extending with the upper and lower body together to complete the rep. The transfer of power from the lower to the upper body in the push press closely mimics many movements on the rugby pitch such as tackling or lifting at the lineout.
A great example of push press power can be demonstrated by British strongman Laurence Shahlaei below
Once the lifter masters the technique and coordination of the push press (be careful to not drive the barbell into your chin on the way up, it really, really hurts) they can usually use more weight compared with their strict press. In my experience this was great for my confidence when I changed to strict pressing because I knew I had already pressed more weight above my head.
I recommend performing 3 – 5 sets of 3 - 5 reps at 70 – 80% 1RM after your main strength exercise (likely a flat or incline bench press) on your upper body training session.
- Rowing machine intervals
Sadly, aspiring rugby players cannot afford to spend all their time in the weight room and must dedicate time to developing cardiovascular fitness too. Slow and steady endurance training (5-10km jogs for example) has its place in the off-season, but no one wants to be the player aimlessly jogging around the pitch from one break down to another without contributing.
Players looking to improve their game need to include high intensity interval training to closely match the demands of the sport. The best players are those who can perform repeated high intensity sprints from one phase of play to the next.
The rowing machine offers a low impact alternative to running reducing the stress placed on the ankle, knee and hip joints throughout a busy season. This is especially important for amateur players who don’t have the luxury of playing at Sandy Park or Blackmore every week, instead playing on solid and unforgiving pitches throughout the winter months. Plus, the rowing machine allows you to train the whole body whilst sitting down, who would pass on that?
I recommend taking 5 – 10 minutes to warm up, gradually building to what feels like a 6 out of 10 intensity to you. You should feel warm and maybe break a light sweat but you should not feel “gassed” just yet. This is also a great opportunity to warm-up your mind by putting in your headphones and focusing on the workout ahead.
Once your warm-up is complete, start your first 20 second interval. Perform a 20 second high intensity sprint on the rowing machine whilst maintaining sound technique and control. After 20 seconds row slowly for a further 40 seconds and repeat. I recommend you repeat this interval a total of 8 – 12 times. If you are new to HIIT you may want to start at 6 - 8 intervals and add another each workout. Finish off with a further 5-minute cool down.
These are my top 3 exercises for any members who play rugby and are looking to up their game.
If you would like further advice on how to fit these exercises into your whole training plan or around training and match days you can email me on email@example.com.