My Visit to the Strongest Gym in the World: Lessons for Rugby Players

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I recently made a trip to the strongest gym in the world: Westside Barbell. If you’re serious about strength training the chances are you’ve heard of Westside or their mastermind coach Louie Simmons. If you haven’t, the chances are you’ve been influenced by training tools and methodologies that Louie has been personally responsible for introducing the mainstream like using bands and chains, box squats, sled dragging, the reverse hyper machine and the glute ham developer.

Over the course of a day I got to watch some of the strongest lifters in the world train and talk shop with Louie- not as a powerlifter, but as a strength and conditioning coach who is concerned with only one thing: improving performance on the rugby field. I was not disappointed; the day at Westside proved to be one of the most thought provoking I’ve had as a coach. Some of the ideas I picked up that day from Louie I’ve gone on to use with top professional teams like Los Pumas Argentina and the Sydney Roosters in the Australian NRL, and today I want to share them with you, so that you too can take your strength to the next level on the rugby field. Here is what Louie has to say:

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Louie on elite sports performance

  • Everyone can get better, but top level performance in any sport is still about talent. You can’t get a jackass to win the Kentucky Derby.
  • Strength matters- that’s why we have weight classes in a lot of sports, and that’s why we don’t have any women playing in the NFL. If strength didn’t matter, offensive linemen would weigh 130lbs.
  • Whenever you come to the gym, break a record of some kind. It can be a max effort lift, a jump for height, a special exercise for reps, or a carry for distance, but break a record. It keeps motivation high by giving you something to chase, and it gives you a simple method to check if your programme is working. When you stop breaking records of some kind, it’s time to change things up.
  • Technique is important- that’s why his guys train with an empty barbell the first time they walk into the gym. But sooner or later technique plateaus (both in the gym and on the field) and it’s time to get stronger, to put force behind technique. This is the only way to improve performance once technique reaches a certain level.
  • Training a lift doesn’t necessarily make you stronger at that lift if your technique is already sound. His analogy:

“If you beat me up, should I go to your house the very next day and fight you again? Of course not, because I’m going to get my ass kicked again. What I need to do is go away, find out why I lost, build up those areas in training, and only then go back to your house to fight you.”

Translated into strength training, Louie thinks that you get stronger by breaking down a lift or movement into its component parts, training the weakest link in the chain, then putting the pieces back together for improved performance. To raise your squat you shouldn’t be squatting, you should be hammering the special exercises for that lift, like glute ham raises, reverse hypers and heavy abdominals.

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I recently made a trip to the strongest gym in the world: Westside Barbell. If you’re serious about strength training the chances are you’ve heard of Westside or their mastermind coach Louie Simmons. If you haven’t, the chances are you’ve been influenced by training tools and methodologies that Louie has been personally responsible for introducing the mainstream like using bands and chains, box squats, sled dragging, the reverse hyper machine and the glute ham developer.

Over the course of a day I got to watch some of the strongest lifters in the world train and talk shop with Louie- not as a powerlifter, but as a strength and conditioning coach who is concerned with only one thing: improving performance on the rugby field. I was not disappointed; the day at Westside proved to be one of the most thought provoking I’ve had as a coach. Some of the ideas I picked up that day from Louie I’ve gone on to use with top professional teams like Los Pumas Argentina and the Sydney Roosters in the Australian NRL, and today I want to share them with you, so that you too can take your strength to the next level on the rugby field. Here is what Louie has to say:

Louie on elite sports performance

  • For the same reason he doesn’t recommend squatting or deadlifting in-season for field sport athletes like rugby players and football players. Putting a bar on your back in the middle of a gruelling season is just too stressful. If you just raise your performance in the special exercises and keep playing the sport, your power output on the field will go up.
  • For max effort work his guys use Prilepin’s chart to determine the optimum number of lifts for a given exercise. He finds that with the competition schedule and supplement regimes his athletes follow, they can train week in and week out with 90-100% of 1RM, which means about 7 reps per session divided into sets of 1-2 quality reps.

He believes they avoid overtraining and injury by rotating the max effort lifts so the same movement pattern isn’t continually stressed again and again. On the day we visited the guys were hitting a 2 board bench press against purple resistance bands. It was the first time in 7 or 8 weeks that they had performed that particular lift.

  • For dynamic effort (speed focussed) work he prefers 12 to 24 reps total (higher for the bench, lower for the deadlift, and the squat somewhere in the middle) split into sets of 1-3 reps per set. All dynamic effort work is performed with bands and/or chains because it increases power output through increased speed of movement.
  • He trains the repetition effort method (similar to traditional bodybuilding movements) with the special exercises. Based on where an athlete is weak in the big 3 movements of the squat, the bench, and the deadlift, he will select special exercises which are then performed for higher reps and volume. Nothing crazily heavy, just get a pump.
  • With straight bar weight you could normally expect bar speed to slow with increasing load, but Louie has found that bar speed remains fairly consistent even for high percentages of 1RM when using bands. He believes this is because with bands the only way you are going to move the bar is by moving it FAST.

He admits that dynamic effort work probably doesn’t have a direct transfer to powerlifting given that is a such a strength, rather than power dominated sport. But in a sport like rugby, where time DOES matter, the increases in power associated with dynamic effort training should correspond to a substantial improvement in on-field power. An additional benefit of DE work is is technique. If you are working at 60% of 1RM and below, technique should be perfect. DE training gives you an opportunity to to refine technique that max effort lifting does not.

  • Strength and technique have to be trained alongside one another year-round. Strength changes what kind of technique you are capable of executing, and technique changes how you can express strength. New strength is useless if you have to spend a month learning how to use it. Like the Russian Sport Scientist, Verkoshansky has written, speed of relaxation- not contraction- is the key ability to sport performance. Louie favours box squats because it teaches the athlete to switch between relaxation and contraction more than free squats. The box squat forces the athlete to relax before the concentric contraction and has the added benefit of forcing consistent squatting depth, whilst creating less soreness than free squats.
  • In his experiments with the Tendo Unit he discovered that maximal power output occurs at roughly 35% of maximal movement velocity. That is why he prefers loaded to unloaded jumps- they shift you closer to the point of maximal power output. For maximal power development in your own training, look to use a load of around 40-60% accelerated with maximum force on exercises like jump squats, bench press throws and speed deadlifts.

Maybe this is the reason why Olympic lifts are touted as the king of power development exercises. Perhaps there isn’t anything special about a snatch or clean and jerk per se, just the velocity that a heavy O-lift variation moves at?

Personally, this is something that I can definitely attest to with an athlete of mine from the Sydney Roosters. For 2 months he did no Olympic lifting whatsoever, but did perform banded speed deadlifts at 0.8 metres per second (textbook Olympic lifting bar speed). The end result was a 5kg personal best when he next performed a power clean- a massive improvement in an already experienced lifter.

  • Louie loves jump training because it forces you to keep accelerating throughout the whole movement, just like lifts which incorporate accommodating resistance like bands, chains and pneumatic equipment like Keiser pulleys and racks.

His guys perform 80 jumps per week split over 2 days per week, and he prefers jumps performed starting from a seated position because- again- it forces relaxation prior to concentric contraction: static overcome by dynamic contraction.

When does he schedule jumps in a training session or training day? “Whenever the f**k we want, so long as it gets done.” A lot of coaches may balk at performing jumps at the end of a session, but Louie feels that it teaches athletes to exert maximum force even when they are starting to become fatigued- a big issue in powerlifting towards the end of a meet and in the later stages of a competition in all sports.

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  • Louie believes the hips are the centre of human power development. Try to perform any skill on the rugby pitch: jumping, cutting, tackling, kicking, throwing, you name it. You can’t NOT use your hips. Louie’s latest way to develop the hips? Walking in a belt squat. Strap up and pace back and forth on the belt squat for 2 minutes straight. It will light you up. If you don’t have a belt squat, just load up a dip belt with as much weight as it will hold and walk with your legs semi flexed.
  • Louie loves loaded goblet carries because they train a ton of things at once: shoulder strength, torso stability and conditioning. What is more he thinks they expose weak links in your chain. If you do heavy carries and the next day your lower back is sore, guess what? It’s time to start training your lower back a lot more.
  • Louie is also a fan of sled pulls/pushes, the strongman yoke and heavy wheel barrow pulls/pushes, even for endurance athletes. It supports strength and size development, builds connective tissue strength and conditioning all at the same time- just pay attention to your heart rate to make sure you are training for the desired energy system or adaptation that you want. This is a great tool for pre-season training.

Another bonus to carries, pulls and pushes is the minimal eccentric component. It reduces soreness which is important in-season for athletes and it means you can perform them more frequently and progress more frequently, even if you aren’t in season.

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So what do I think?

I think Louie Simmons is a mad genius. He talks a mile a minute and he stores every single one of his athletes’ meet and training records in his head, along with a library’s worth of training information and he has invented more training equipment than I care to mention.

If you look at what he is doing with his athletes, there is a ton of value to be had. He has trained 14 men to deadlift over 800lbs and yet none of his athletes ever deadlift more than once a week for small percentages of 1RM. When I visited,  I witnessed a 5 foot tall female lifter perform a standing box jump of 43 inches, and a high school linebacker bench press 225lbs for 29 reps. These are ridiculous numbers. Louie and Westside are clearly doing great things.

The difficulty in appraising his methods lies in the esoteric nature of the powerlifting world. He and his athletes are very open in their use of steroids. To them it is just a part of the sport. What happens if you choose not to juice? Certainly there are a ton of natural athletes who have anecdotally excelled by using a Westside approach. My guess is that they just have to be a little more judicious with intensity and volume than assisted lifters.

Likewise powerlifters only train for a few meets per year, at which they only have to perform up to 9 maximal efforts over the course of several hours. This is worlds apart from traditional field sports where athletes have to perform every explosive movement under the sun, for an hour or more, over a 30 to 40 week season. Is it possible to train using a Westside template when you account for everything else an athlete has to train like skill work, team practices and conditioning? Again, I think the answer is to apply the principles but keep an eye on the volume and intensity of what you are doing. Remember that you cannot add to a programme without first subtracting something else. But be in no doubt that the Westside principles make a great template for maximal strength development in the off-season and early pre-season phases.

Even with all that considered if you have a guy who back squats 600lbs raw and box jumps 50 inches at 110kg of bodyweight (a common feat at Westside), I think if you give him a year of intense training in rugby, you’ve got a hell of an athlete on your hands. Just look at the waves Carlin Isles has been making in Rugby sevens for the USA. Less than a year or two ago he was a fairly good national level sprinter. Now he is making some of the best sevens players on the planet look average. That is the value of strength and power- something Louie Simmons’ athletes have in abundance.

Should you be training like this?

I think they can be of great value to anyone wanting to increase their strength and power, but avoid using the massive volume and intensity that some of the Westside lifters use. They are elite powerlifters with much less on their plate than the average rugby player. Understand that if you’re a natural lifter or rugby player, implementing Westside methods verbatim is probably going to compromise your ability to recover. Start light, use the minimal volume and intensity that still gets your 1RM and the scale moving in the right direction, and then progress from there. Here is a sample off-season programme for you to try:

Monday: upper body, maximum effort focus

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Tuesday: lower body, dynamic effort focus

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Thursday: upper body, dynamic effort focus

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Saturday: lower body, maximum effort focus

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Keir Wenham-Flatt is a professional rugby strength coach with Los Pumas Argentina Rugby Union. His previous coaching experiences includes 2014 World Club Champions the Sydney Roosters, London Wasps in the English Premiership and Rotherham Titans.

Keir is the founder of Rugby Strength Coach, the web’s #1 provider of free strength and conditioning information to rugby players and coaches. Rugby Strength Coach has recently released a free 30 minute video webinar on the top 5 training secrets to developing rugby specific agility. To check out the webinar visit www.rugbystrengthcoach.com/agility-guide now. 

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2 comments

  1. Lets be honest though, it isn’t the worlds strongest gym is it?

    Jakabol Gym, otherwise known as the nest of giants probably is though, so i think you should pay a visit there…. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8A7woRoVwyM

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