Rugby Strength and Conditioning for the Back 3

This week marks the final instalment of the rugby special strength training series. In this part we’ll be looking at the physical demands and special skills of wings and fullbacks, including some of my favourite strength training drills for raising power output in these skills.

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Wing and fullback demands 

For players in the back three there is little debate about which physical ability is most important. If you are wing or fullback you need gas and lots of it! Speed is without question the number one attribute a back three player can possess, and the roll-call of world rugby’s flyers reflects that: Bryan Habana, Zee Ngwenya, Julian Savea and (for the nostalgic), Jason Robinson; all back three players.

I think the second most important skill is a toss up between vertical jump to catch the high ball and evading defenders. The case can be made that the former is more important for fullbacks given that they will be fielding the majority of kicks into territory, though wingers will frequently be required to field kicks deep into their half and also high cross-field kicks.

A potential third candidate on the list is evasion of defenders aka side stepping and cutting. I think this will vary in importance based on how the individual player plays the game. Certain wingers and fullbacks can survive on pure speed alone without having to rely on world class change of direction to evade opposing players (think Bryan Habana and Zee Ngwenya). Others may lack pure top end speed and be forced to rely more heavily on footwork, for example Shane Williams and Jason Robinson. Check last week’s instalment of special strength drills on changing direction.

Which skills you choose to specialise in is up to you and your personal philosophy and individual strengths/weaknesses. I’ll be analysing all three in this weeks post and sharing with you my favourite exercises for increasing their power output.

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Top speed

A lot of people argue that speed is not trained by recruited, and they are almost right. Top end speed is without question the hardest physical ability to train, but not impossible. I know a high level coach who says that “Getting strong is like falling out of a boat and hitting water” so be in no doubt- getting fast is what separates the men from the boys in rugby strength and conditioning.

It should go without saying that sprinting is the most important exercise for speed development as the forces inherent in sprinting as sufficient to increase power by themselves. Thus I’ll assume that you are currently implementing sprint training in your own programme- if you aren’t head over to rugby strength coach and check out my new free 30 minute webinar on speed training for rugby players.

However there still needs to be a place within the programme for supplementary exercises designed to raise sprinting power, and plyometric drills should be the go to tool for this. As you’ll see below they share a great deal of specificity to the running action itself, whilst the additional stretch reflex component increases the stimulation of the central nervous system.

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My favoured plyometric drill for increasing top speed sprinting power is plyometric bounding. As with all other plyometrics your goal is to maximise height and distance of your stride whilst ensuring each ground contact remains short and sharp and your movement is clean and efficient. Shoot for 8-10 strides on each leg per set, 3-5 sets total and complete rest periods between sets.

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Vertical jumping

Typically rugby strength and conditioning coaches consider vertical jumping in rugby in isolation, and only train for the jump itself with exercises that are solely vertically orientated e.g. Olympic lifting. I tend to differ in this regard as if you look at the majority of vertical leaps in rugby are fed from a running base, and with a far higher degree of pre-stretch than the Olympic lifts entail, as you’ll see below: 

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Consequently I’m a big fan of hurdle bounds for developing vertical jumping power. They demand a lot of vertical force production with high reactivity as the game demands, but there is a horizontal component to the drill too. As with all my other preferred special strength training drills, the learning curve here is a short one. Just make sure you are keeping tall, tidy posture throughout the drill and you’re keeping contacts short- imagine the floor is red hot!

Perform 8-10 jumps per set (jog slowly into the first hurdle), for 3-5 sets total, resting 3-4 minutes between sets. If you want you can organise your hurdles in a zig zag fashion to increase the transfer to side stepping power too.

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In conclusion

This marks the end of the series on special strength training for rugby union. I hope by now that you’ve got some new ideas on how you can add exercises to your existing, traditional rugby strength and conditioning programme and increase your ability to thrive in your position on the field.

If this series has left you with more questions than answers, or you have any other rugby strength and conditioning questions or topics you’d like to discuss, visit me at www.rugbystrengthcoach.com. Looking forward to hearing from you all!

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