Rugby Strength and Conditioning for Props

Last week I talked about the science behind reaching optimal levels of physical preparation for rugby, specifically the ideas of transfer and specificity. If you haven’t already checked this out, this is a good place to start. It will introduce you to the ideas that we’ll be exploring over the next few weeks and also the questions I hope to answer in this series, specifically:

rugby strength and conditioning

  • What do I mean when I refer to on-field activity?
  • How do I know if I am at the stage where I need to introduce more specific lifts (beyond simply raising 1RM strength) into my programme?
  • What exercises should I be performing?
  • How should I implement the exercises- sets, reps, load and so on?

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What is on-field activity?

Obviously the modern rugby player has to do a LOT of stuff on the field. Every player needs a basic development of all rugby skills including catching, passing, tackling, kicking, evading defenders, rucking, mauling and scrummaging in the case of forwards. I’ll take it as a given that if you’ve been playing the game long enough you have these bases covered. If you haven’t, back the drawing board!

In the context of this series when I talk about on-field activity I am talking about the activities which a player from a particular position must specialise in to reach the highest possible levels of the game. It is fair to say that elite players- whilst good at general rugby skills and activities- all have roles on the field that they excel in. The exercises we’ll explore in this series are about raising power output in those key activities so that you too can reach your physical potential as a rugby player.

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There is some room for philosophy in discussing what the key skills are for a particular player but personally I think that you need to account for both the demands of the position and the individual strengths and weaknesses of the player. Here’s my list of key activities by position:

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This is based on the values of myself and technical coaches that I’ve worked with where we have prioritised the set piece and the breakdown to our success, hence the prominence of these skills in the list. Note that I have limited the list to two key activities per position. Any more than this and it becomes too difficult to train each activity with the necessary intensity and volume, and the training becomes too general in nature. We want to specialise, not generalise.

You may of course disagree with me about what each position has to prioritise on the field, and you are welcome to, but this is my list and it will be from this angle that I’ll be presenting the series.

How do I know if I am ready?

Generally speaking I find that athletes who have been training with weights seriously for around 3 years and who are over the age of 18 are ready for introduction to position specific training. They will have experienced a slowing down of strength gains.

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You may also have slowed significantly in the transfer of gym work to their particular on-field activities. This can be difficult to quantify in an amateur environment so you have to be somewhat subjective in your assessment of this. Suffice to say though that unless you are becoming noticeably more powerful in your positional skills, you may want to look at implementing position specific training into your programme.

What exercises should I be performing and how?

Let’s begin with prop. Although I pooh poohed the importance of maximal strength to rugby in general last time, I should have included a big * because prop is one of those positions where you NEED to be strong to reach the top. You can have great technique in the scrum and at the lineout, but at the end of the day you have well in excess of 800kg of force to oppose and a 120ish kg man to throw up in the air- you can’t do that on technique alone.

The big focus of the exercises here is strength, particularly the scrum as this a movement where opposing players have to exert maximal force against one another. If you don’t you get pushed backward, end of story.

In the lineout lift, power plays more of a role given that the weight of a second row player is pretty consistent and rarely exceeds 125kg. If we assume this load is divided between two lifters that gives us between 60-70kg to lift as fast as possible, because a fast lift gives the opposition less time to react and steal posession.

Let’s break the skills down using the same criteria for specificity that were introduced last week:

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The goal here is to utilise exercises which share a lot of similar movement characteristics with the activity itself but still allow for a degree of overload to occur (I won’t get into the science of this because it is a long one!). You should hopefully see this in the exercises below…

Scrummaging

I came up with the incredibly creative name of “scrum engage isometric” for this exercise. To set up, you need to set the supports of your squat rack at approximately the same height as the engage of the scrum. Load the bar HEAVY and adopt the scrum position. Your goal is to accelerate the load into the uprights and squeeze as hard as you can against the uprights for around 6s (this gives us enough time to generate maximal isometric force and also peak power in the relevant energy system).

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With this exercise more load really is better. The only limit to load here is really the speed of the engage. If you start to slow excessively moving into the uprights, or you fail to move the bar at all, you’ve gone too heavy and you need to dial it back a bit. Otherwise, load it up and shoot for 4-8 sets  of 1 rep (the engage and a 6s isometric) each.

In the video below you can see Rotherham Titans (at the time) prop Jamie Kilbane performing the scrum engage isometric with approximately 220kg of bar weight during a particularly raucous Sunday training session we had last season:

Lineout lifting

For line out specialisation I like the walking push press. The reason I favour this exercise more than a standard push press is:

  1. You are forced to take the force you are generating horizontally and turn it into vertical force, just like you would in a genuine lineout.
  2. You aren’t afforded much opportunity to bend at the hip, knee and ankle and take your time before exploding upwards, again just like a real lineout where speed is of the essence.

In terms of load I tend to stick with 60-70kg of bar weight and aim to accelerate the load with maximum speed on every single rep. There are no prizes for who can lift the heaviest second row, only who can lift their second row the fastest, so the same principle applies here. Shoot for 4-8 sets of 3-5 reps here. In the video below you can see Rotherham Titans prop Marshall Gadd performing the walking push press with 60kg:

Come back next time when I’ll be discussing my favourite exercise for training hookers to increase throwing power in the lineout, and also some alternatives to the scrum engage isometric that you can use if you don’t have the equipment or training environment that allows you to perform this exercise. Please feel free to leave your comments and feedback below.

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2 comments

  1. as always, some excellent ideas here, Keir. Can’t say I’ll be able to do the scrum engage set up in my home garage, but it does provide for some interesting ideas about training. Keep these articles coming!

    • Thanks for the feedback Mark. I’m finishing up writing the series today so I’ll be doing a lot of filming in the next week or so. I’m not sure how much the Roosters player will like filming videos for rugby union though!!!

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