Let me tell you a secret about rugby strength and conditioning: 99% of rugby players and coaches have it dead wrong. Ask the average player or coach about what really matters in rugby strength and conditioning and you will inevitably get a reply about strength. To improve performance on the field you need to get strong. Increase your 1 rep max in big lifts like the squat, deadlift, bench press, maybe the Olympic lifts too, and you’ll perform better on the field, right? Wrong!
Over the next few weeks I am going to share with you the real stuff that is going to increase your power output on the field and put you one step ahead of your opponents. But first: the science. Bear with me for the next few paragraphs. It gets a little science-y but these principles are absolutely fundamental to developing elite levels of physical performance for rugby. If you can absorb and understand these, you will put yourself streets ahead of the average rugby player in your physical potential for improvement.
The big concept I am going to talk about today is transfer. Transfer is a phenomenon that describes how well a training exercise improves your performance in a particular sport or sporting action. If you increase your performance in the training exercise and you subsequently improve your performance in your sport, congratulations! This exercise is said to have transfer.
A major problem surrounding transfer is that it is always changing. In the earliest stages of your training career- maybe the first 3 years or so- EVERYTHING has transfer. You can do anything in the gym and your body will respond in a massive way, paying dividends on the field. This is why your typical teenager can make outrageous progress even on a shoddy routine of nothing but bench press and curls three times per week. Let’s be honest, we all trained like this in the early days, myself included!
If you cast your mind back to those bench and curl heavy teenage years, you’ll remember that the progress soon started to slow down after a few months of training. The reason? Your body became used to the training and the transfer from those exercises to the field became less and less. In truth, if you had persisted with that style of training indefinitely, the transfer to the field would eventually become zero- useless.
The decline in transfer is a problem that we all have to deal with as rugby players. Sooner or later, the programme we are training with will cease to increase power output on the field. So what do we do when it does happen? Well you need to switch to exercises which still have a high degree of transfer to on field activities. In a nutshell these are specific exercises and the longer you train, the more and more specific exercises need to feature in your training to keep improving your performance on the field.
Here are the criteria the Soviet sports professor Yuri Verkhoshanky determined made an exercise specific:
- Do the major muscles used match the on-field activity?
- Is the range of movement the same?
- Is the type of muscle contraction the same?
- Is the time available to apply force (the contact time) similar?
- Is the direction and the amount of force applied similar?
- Is the speed of movement similar?
Let’s look at this list and compare a typical gym exercise like the squat and an on-field activity like top speed sprinting to see the likely degree of transfer between the two:
As you can see, there is not a whole lot of transfer at all between the squat and top speed running. It’s easy to see that the squat will stop having a beneficial effect on top running speed quite early on in your lifting career. Now let’s compare plyometric bounding and sprinting:
Much better! And this is why exercises like the plyometric bound are mainstays in my more experienced athletes programmes- because they have a high degree of transfer to on-field activities This means players are able to keep improving throughout their career, and not hit the wall like so many other players do after only a few years of training when increasing their 1 rep max strength in the big lifts has stopped working.
By now you should be asking some important questions?
- You keep mentioning on-field performance, what are you talking about?!
- How do I know if I’m at the stage of my training career where increasing my 1 rep max strength isn’t going to have any more benefit to my on-field performance?
- If I’m wasting my time trying to increase my 1 rep max any further, what exercises should I be doing?
- How should I be performing these exercises? How much weight? How many reps? How many sets?
Well the answer to these questions are going to be revealed over the next few weeks. I’m going to tell you exactly what measures of on-field performance should matter to you and your playing position. I’ll tell you how to recognise if you’re ready for rugby specific exercises. And I’ll tell you exactly what exercises will work for you and your position, and how to implement these into your programme.
Watch this space for next week, when we’ll be talking all about the physical demands of playing prop and which exercises can help you to train specifically for this.
To claim your free copy of Keir’s report about the top 5 most common rugby training mistakes click right here.