How to Maximise Lateral Speed on the Rugby Field

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Normally I don’t talk about individual studies on this page but today I want to talk about a particular study that was recently conducted at the University of Utah :

Change of Direction Speed in the Frontal Plane.

This is because I think it highlights nicely a lot of the concepts I talk about and implement with my teams and athletes, concepts I believe you need to put to work in your own training if you want to maximise your speed and power, particularly in lateral movements like ruck and goal line defence, and attacking lateral movements like cutting and sidestepping- all important stuff.

Here’s what the study wanted to investigate:

The researchers wanted to investigate the relationship between measures of strength and power in the saggital (forward and backwards) and frontal (side to side) planes of movement. At its heart the purpose of the study is to try to answer two main questions:

  1. If you are strong does this also make you powerful?
  2. If you are strong and/or powerful in one plane of movement, does this carry over to other planes of movement?

These are obviously massive questions to try and answer because they will tell us what we should be prioritising in our training programmes and also how expansive or economical we need to be with exercise selection in attempting to maximise rugby performance.

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Who they used:

The researchers used a group of recreational athletes from the university. All were in the middle of the college’s programme which required them to perform two 1 hour sessions of sport per week from a range of different activities including weight lifting, basketball, soccer and other sports.

Before the study the participants were tested for differences in their lateral speed, strength and power to ensure that they didn’t derive any prior benefit in movements that were specific to the activity they had been performing i.e. lateral movements in basketball, squatting in weightlifting or jumping in soccer. There were no differences between the participants

What they did:

All of the athletes went through the rests in a random order to remove any order effects. The saggital plane exercises performed were the counter movement vertical jump, depth jump from a 30cm box and 3 rep max back squat, designed to test saggital plane power, reactive ability and maximal strength respectively. In the frontal plane the two tests performed were a lateral hop/bound (left leg take off, right leg landing and vice versa) and a lateral shuffle test for maximal distance in 3 seconds. These two tests were designed to assess frontal plane power and speed respectively.

What did they find?

Here are the primary findings of the study:

  • There was no statistically significant relationship between the 3rm back squat and any other measure. Personally I found this quite surprising as the squat shares a lot of movement characteristics with the saggital plane jumps, namely joint actions, muscles used and direction of force.
  • There was a statistically significant correlation between the countermovement jump in the saggital plane and the lateral bound in the frontal plane. However there was not a significant relationship between the CMJ and performance in the lateral speed test.
  • The strongest significant relationship between any of the variables was between the lateral bound and the lateral shuffle test.

What does this mean for me and my training?

I think this study allows us to draw a few conclusions that have implications for you and your training if you want to maximise rugby performance:

Once again- strength isn’t everything

Although I’ve written before that I believe strength isn’t everything without more specific exercises and training means built upon that foundation, I was personally surprised to see a lack of significant relationship between the squat and the saggital jumps given their similarities.

What this reinforces for me is that if we want to maximise performance in movements where time is limited and power is most important (nearly everything on the rugby field) is that whilst a foundation of strength is vital to performance, clearly we need to be doing more to realise this in enhanced jumping, running, cutting etc. performance.

Take home: you need to be training not just strength, but also power movements with a range of different percentages of your max to increase power in rugby specific movements.

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Power movements may have some transfer from plane to plane

The relationship between the counter movement jump and the lateral bound was a little surprising to me  given the lack of relationship between the squat and the saggital plane jumps. Although the jump and the bound share similar movements speeds and musculature to an extent, I was expecting the completely different direction of force application to render that moot.

This suggests to me that getting the muscles and movement speeds of training exercises might be more important than direction of force applied in getting exercises to transfer to on field movement. Likewise it suggests to me that we will see a greater transfer from jumps and other power type movements to similar movements on field in both planes of movement. Pretty common sense really.

Take home point: you DEFINITELY need to be training power! Also, if you’re short on time and can’t train power exercises in more than one plane of movement in your session, you might be fine getting by on just one so long as you nail the muscles used and the movement velocity. 

Specificity matters, even if you are a low level athlete

If you’re a soviet training geek like me you’ll remember that Anatoli Bondarchuk said in “Transfer of Training in Sport” that we can expect transfer from general means to specific on-field movements only in novice athletes with a low training age. In plain English that means that once you get out of the initial stages of your training, your training exercises need to resemble more and more closely the patterns you are training to improve if you want to see continued progress.

I would have expected the same to be true of the subjects in the study given their relative inexperience with dedicated strength and power training. One would expect the best performers in the squat (a general strength movement) to be the best across the board in the jumps, hop and shuffle (for the argument of on-field movements, specific), yet this was not the case.

This suggests to me that even in these relatively inexperienced trainees, general means might not be sufficient to see improvements in specific movements, and that if we wanted to improve power and speed in both the frontal and saggital planes, simply raising the squat would not be enough. We would have to focus additionally on other exercises which shared a higher degree of dynamic correspondence with on field movements. A quick reminder of the criteria of dynamic correspondence i.e whether an exercise can be considered specific or not:

  • Direction and magnitude of force
  • Movement velocity
  • Contact time
  • Muscles used
  • Regime of muscular work (contraction type and degree of stretch)
  • Where in the ROM you produce peak force

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Take home: If you want to be fast and powerful on the field of play in all rugby movements, simply getting strong at slow speed in the saggital plane is probably not going to cut it. Strength is obviously massively important in itself and for laying a foundation for more specific abilities, but to fully realise maximum rugby performance you probably also need to be training other exercises which share more dynamic correspondence with what you’re doing on the field, and in multiple planes of movement at that.

Read more at Rugby Strength Coach.

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