An Introduction to Rugby Strength and Conditioning

Let me tell you a secret about rugby strength and conditioning: 99% of rugby players and coaches have it dead wrong. Ask the average player or coach about what really matters in rugby strength and conditioning and you will inevitably get a reply about strength. To improve performance on the field you need to get strong. Increase your 1 rep max in big lifts like the squat, deadlift, bench press,  maybe the Olympic lifts too, and you’ll perform better on the field, right? Wrong!

rugby strength and conditioning

Over the next few weeks I am going to share with you the real stuff that is going to increase your power output on the field and put you one step ahead of your opponents. But first: the science. Bear with me for the next few paragraphs. It gets a little science-y but these principles are absolutely fundamental to developing elite levels of physical performance for rugby. If you can absorb and understand these, you will put yourself streets ahead of the average rugby player in your physical potential for improvement.


The big concept I am going to talk about today is transfer. Transfer is a phenomenon that describes how well a training exercise improves your performance in a particular sport or sporting action. If you increase your performance in the training exercise and you subsequently improve your performance in your sport, congratulations! This exercise is said to have transfer.

A major problem surrounding transfer is that it is always changing. In the earliest stages of your training career- maybe the first 3 years or so- EVERYTHING has transfer. You can do anything in the gym and your body will respond in a massive way, paying dividends on the field. This is why your typical teenager can make outrageous progress even on a shoddy routine of nothing but bench press and curls three times per week. Let’s be honest, we all trained like this in the early days, myself included!


If you cast your mind back to those bench and curl heavy teenage years, you’ll remember that the progress soon started to slow down after a few months of training. The reason? Your body became used to the training and the transfer from those exercises to the field became less and less. In truth, if you had persisted with that style of training indefinitely, the transfer to the field would eventually become zero- useless.

The decline in transfer is a problem that we all have to deal with as rugby players. Sooner or later, the programme we are training with will cease to increase power output on the field. So what do we do when it does happen? Well you need to switch to exercises which still have a high degree of transfer to on field activities. In a nutshell these are specific exercises and the longer you train, the more and more specific exercises need to feature in your training to keep improving your performance on the field.

Here are the criteria the Soviet sports professor Yuri Verkhoshanky determined made an exercise specific:

  • Do the major muscles used match the on-field activity?
  • Is the range of movement the same?
  • Is the type of muscle contraction the same?
  • Is the time available to apply force (the contact time) similar?
  • Is the direction and the amount of force applied similar?
  • Is the speed of movement similar?

Let’s look at this list and compare a typical gym exercise like the squat and an on-field activity like top speed sprinting to see the likely degree of transfer between the two:

keir 1

As you can see, there is not a whole lot of transfer at all between the squat and top speed running. It’s easy to see that the squat will stop having a beneficial effect on top running speed quite early on in your lifting career. Now let’s compare plyometric bounding and sprinting:

keir 2

Much better! And this is why exercises like the plyometric bound are mainstays in my more experienced athletes programmes- because they have a high degree of transfer to on-field activities This means players are able to keep improving throughout their career, and not hit the wall like so many other players do after only a few years of training when increasing their 1 rep max strength in the big lifts has stopped working.

By now you should be asking some important questions?

  • You keep mentioning on-field performance, what are you talking about?!
  • How do I know if I’m at the stage of my training career where increasing my 1 rep max strength isn’t going to have any more benefit to my on-field performance?
  • If I’m wasting my time trying to increase my 1 rep max any further, what exercises should I be doing?
  • How should I be performing these exercises? How much weight? How many reps? How many sets?


Well the answer to these questions are going to be revealed over the next few weeks. I’m going to tell you exactly what measures of on-field performance should matter to you and your playing position. I’ll tell you how to recognise if you’re ready for rugby specific exercises. And I’ll tell you exactly what exercises will work for you and your position, and how to implement these into your programme.

Watch this space for next week, when we’ll be talking all about the physical demands of playing prop and which exercises can help you to train specifically for this.

To claim your free copy of Keir’s report about the top 5 most common rugby training mistakes click right here.




  1. This makes sense if the entirety of rugby comprised of sprinting alone. Squats may not have as much carry over to sprinting than plyometric bounding (since its the same movement as running done with greater power). However you are disregarding fundamental aspects of rugby, namely scrummaging, rucking and the lineouts. There is no single exercise which will have the carry over to these parts of the game as back squats; especially when done with heavier weights (not necessarily max sets). The entire lower body, and more importantly, the player’s core is exercised in no better way. The problem with this article is that it is placing squats as inferior to plyometrics without putting the argument in context.

  2. Keir Wenham-Flatt

    Thanks for your comments. Apologies for not putting the arguments in their complete context. I didn’t want to bore people with something longer than war and peace. In reply:

    I’m not saying don’t squat. All of my guys squat. I’m saying
    that to fully realise your physical potential as a rugby player you
    need to do more than just develop strength. Strength is great for
    laying a foundation of power development, but eventually you need to
    build on that foundation, and that is what this series is going to
    be about.

    You’re spot on about the importance of the squat to front row
    play, specifically scrummaging. You read my mind on this and this is
    where I was going to take things next time: to me front row is one
    of the positions where you NEED to be strong. You’ll see that the
    exercises I’ll talk about are much closer to 1RMs lifts in nature.

    Let’s not get sucked into absolute statements. The squat is a
    great general lift, but it is not THE best way to train the lower
    body or the torso. The squat is a bilateral lift creating vertical
    force, with a nice predictable load, performed in the saggital
    plane. Our sport is largely played on one leg at a time (yes,
    scrummaging/rucking/mauling ignored), in three planes with
    unpredictable loading. It is good, but again you need a lot more to
    fully realise your potential.

    Sprinting is a lot more important than people think. I’ve
    been lucky enough to work all the way from amateur rugby up to test
    matches and it isn’t strength that really separates the ok players
    from the world class players. Speed is the decider for me. I can
    hang with a lot of elite level rugby players when it comes to 1RM
    strength but they blow me away when it comes to 2 things:

    Sprinting and Accelerating moderate loads for maximum SPEED

    Don’t forget also that speed increases strength development but
    not the other way around. Once you get above a certain level of

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