Rugby Strength & Conditioning for Hookers

In the last instalment of this series we looked at prop specific exercises for rugby, namely the scrum engage isometric and the walking push press. The idea behind these exercises is to raise power output in the scrum and lineout roles respectively of the prop. Although there are a lot of other activities a prop has to carry out on the field, these two are where a prop earns his money, so they must be emphasised within the programme in order to fully realise physical potential. In this part of the series, we’re going to be exploring specialisation for hookers:

rugby strength and conditioning

Hooker positional demands

The obvious similarity between props and hookers is the need for maximal power in the scrum. A successful team relies on a solid set piece, and in the scrum this means all front row players pushing with the greatest possible force. For that reason I’ve included scrummaging as a key on-field activity for hookers.

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As previously discussed my favourite drill to raise scrum specific strength is the scrum engage isometric. If you can do this exercise, this should be your first port of call. However on occasion I work with online clients who are unable to perform this drill due to either a lack of a suitable power rack, or complaints from the management at their gym (pencil necks!). Here are couple of substitute exercises you can use:

Back squat isometric

To perform the back squat isometric you need to set up the bottom set of safety bars of your squat rack to a level that allows you to get into a deep squat position but still keep your heels flat to the floor. Place the top set of safety bars about 12 inches above the bottom, and place the barbell in between the two.

Next, load the barbell and get underneath it in a back squat position. Your goal is to squat the bar up into the top set of safety bars and squeeze maximally for 6-10 seconds, then relax. Keep the heels flat to the floor, and keep your spine neutral with your torso braced throughout.

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A good load to select for this exercise is one that you can still accelerate quickly into and maintain contact with the safety bars throughout the set. If you find that the rep becomes a real grinder into the safety bars, or it is too heavy to maintain contact with the safety bars, lower the load. As with the scrum engage isometric, shoot for 4-8 sets of 6-10 seconds with 3-4 minutes rest between sets.

Although the force production here is vertical, the back squat isometric still shares a high degree of similarity with scrummaging, namely:

  • Range of movement
  • Muscles used
  • Time available to apply force
  • Amount of force produced
  • Movement speed
  • Muscle contraction type.

For that reason the back squat isometric is a great exercise to perform is you are a prop or hooker and you can’t perform the scrum engage isometric. But if you don’t have access to a power rack of any kind, there is another alternative exercise you can perform: paused back squats.

Paused back squat

Although the lift is slightly less specific in terms of direction of force and range of movement, it still provides a great opportunity to train scrum specific muscles and emphasise isometric strength in a deep squat position, at scrum specific speeds.

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To perform the paused back squat place the barbell on your back. Set your feet at a comfortable width (normally wider than hip width for the majority of front row players). Turn your feet to ten to two on the clock. Keep your chest up, take a big breath and hold it, then sit back and down into the hole. Stay tight and hold the bottom position for 5 seconds, then return to the start position.

As with the other scrummaging specific exercises you should shoot for 4-8 sets of one rep only. An appropriate load to use for the paused back squat is around 85-90% of your regular back squat one rep max. It should be heavy to lift but a load that is a true grinder or you cannot lift with good form is too heavy. Shoot for 3-4 minutes between sets.

Lineout throwing

Lineout throwing is perhaps the most specialised skill in rugby. Besides quick throw ins, all other lineout throws will be performed by the hooker and accuracy is the name of the game to securing good ball.

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The goal in the following exercise is to increase throwing speed and thus distance. A fringe benefit of this is a quicker throw gives the opposition less time to react and steal possession. However the primary benefit of enhanced throwing speed and distance is accuracy. The closer you are to your limit in any on-field activity, the less accurate it becomes. By extending range, throws at a given sub maximal distance should become more accurate. Referring again to the criteria of specificity, let’s now analyse the lineout throw movement pattern:

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My favourite exercise to develop power output in the lineout throw is the shock medicine ball throw. It has a ton of carry over to the lineout throw and shares a huge amount of movement characteristics. Although the torso is not involved in this particular exercise, most typical programmes cover spinal flexion in the form of sit ups and other core exercises, so your bases are covered here.

The term “shock” refers to the technique of dropping the ball into the hands before throwing for maximum effort. For very science-y reasons I won’t go into, this technique increases the stimulation of the central nervous system to produce faster increases in throwing strength and power. If however you don’t have a partner, you can still exploit this reflex to a degree by dropping the ball to yourself and catching it in the bottom postion. For this exercise I recommend a 3-5kg medicine ball for about 4-6 reps per set. Shoot for 3-5 sets total and rest for 3-4 minutes between sets.

Next week I’ll be discussing position specific drills for the second and back row positions.

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