Here is a quote from John Jesse, in his “Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia”
stretch learning at Excelsior ADC
“The writer has consistently maintained over the years that very few, if any, athletes in the modern industrial culture, ever develop all -round body strength. Even those who accept the concept of progressive weight training overemphasize great strength development in the arms, shoulders and legs.
The majority of weight training programs designed for athletes emphasise lifting in the vertical plane with a straight back. Little emphasis is placed on a comparable level of strength development in the rotational muscles of the lower back, sides and abdomen.
Rotational, lateral and round-back vertical (upward) movements comprise the overwhelming majority of movements in the combative sports.”
This was written in 1974.
Unfortunately, these type of movements are often hard to quantify. This means that sometimes they are left out of programming because it is harder to show “progress” on a spreadsheet.
A good coaching and some athlete education will allow the athletes to realise progress in a more meaningful way: one that they can apply to their sport.
This is a current “Hot topic” in the UK and Australia. “How much strength training should I do?” is a question I am often asked, or more likely “Why should I lift weights?” But these questions have been around for some time as the following Old School strength gurus will tell you.
Our regular readers and athletes will know the approach we take working on all aspects of the Strength Spectrum, but in different degrees according to age, stage and sport.
I recently met Tony Caldwell, and ex Powerlifter on a Level 1 S&C courseI was running. He had some interesting thoughts and stories on his past and that of his peers. I thought it would be interesting to share some of his thoughts.
We have some shared history as we both trained at the Crystal Palace Weightlifting Centre in our careers (him some time before I was born!).
Tony Caldwell Training Background
My own career is fairly unremarkable really but here goes! I played rugby both union and league at school and local club level as I grew up in Yorkshire.
Around 1966 after moving to Surrey with my parents I started training at the Crystal Palace National Recreation Centre under the tutelage of Dave Prowse who at that time was British Heavyweight Olympic Lifting Champion.
He later went on to fame and fortune asDarth Vader. The objective was to gain some strength & size to aid me in rugby.
The workouts revolved around about 6 basic compound exercises including some Olympic lifting such as clean & press,power cleans & jerks.
At that time the overhead press was one the Olympic lifts but was dropped sometime around the late 60s as it became difficult to referee (a bit like the scrum now!)
In 9 months I gained from 9stone 7lbs to 11 stone using this routine 3 times per week and basically eating anything that didn’t bite back.
I would use this approach even now for someone who really needed to gain size and strength.
Over the years some of my best gym poundages were 330lb bench press, 400lb dead lift and 415lb squat. In competition these were somewhat less 285, 380 and 365 respectively at a body weight of just under 13 stone. I only competed at local level and also dabbled in some bodybuilding competition, although I never liked the extreme dieting and was not willing to take the steroid route.
Old School Strength Training Methods
As a Powerlifter, I used some of the methods advocated by these legends over the years.
Bill Pearl. A 4 time Mr. Universe winner who during the 1960s planned and delivered the fitness training for NASA astronauts and who also has a background in wrestling.
Pearl is 80 yrs old now but is still in great shape training every day. His website contains much information including a complete free course entitled 20 months to a championship physique.
His teaching is very much aimed at bodybuilders & people who just want to improve their appearance therefore is fairly high volume and time consuming. The routines are well explained however and are useful for the very good exercise illustrations.
Bill Starr. He was a USA national Olympic lifting champion in the 1960s and was probably the first S&C coach in the NFL when he joined Baltimore Colts around 1970. I believe he was also fitness coach for Washington State University football around this time.
He developed the 5×5 system whereby he utilised what he called the “Big 3” namely power clean, bench press and squat and had his athletes working with heavy weights on a 5 sets of 5 reps routine.
He would also change things around occasionally and use exercises such as rows and incline & overhead press. He also wrote a book called “The Strongest Shall Survive” Read Starr’s Starting Strength Article here
Reg Park. Park used a 5×5 system in the 1950s before Starr developed his own and I think you can still purchase his course. He was a 3 time Mr. Universe winner and one of the strongest bodybuilders ever with lifts such as 500lb bench press 600lb squat and incredibly 300lb press behind neck.
This was pure strength as Park had no background in Olympic lifting. There is a website but sadly Reg passed away about 3 years ago at the age of 79 as a result of skin cancer. (Old bodybuilders spent their whole lives in the sun!)
HIT Training. At the other end of the spectrum is High Intensity Training or HIT. Basically this is the complete polar opposite of what Pearl recommends and refers to the performance of 1 or at the most 2 sets taken to complete failure. This after warm ups.
Generally the exercises used are heavy multi joint exercises such as squats, leg presses for legs benches & inclines for chest overhead presses for shoulders etc etc.
Rest periods are short and for this reason most advocates of this type of training do not include any aerobic training as they feel that this makes inroads into the recovery system when the workouts themselves are extremely taxing on thecentral nervous system. Workouts are brief (usually less than 30 minutes) and infrequent (2 per week average)
Proponents of this are people such as Arthur Jones (Nautilus)Mike Mentzer, Ellington Darden and Dorian Yates. The system first surfaced in the 1970s, is quite controversial and does generate a lot of discussion.
(Strength training tips from Strongman Glenn Ross here)
This is often the thought of players who are forced to undergo various fitness tests and long slow runs as part of a pre-season training and fitness programme.
Doing repeated doggies, shuttle runs and various circuits, with barely a ball in sight is enough to put most players off.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
As a Coach, you can make pre-season training interesting, relevant and more fun. Your players will be fitter, faster and stronger. More importantly, if they are willing, engaged and able to play, they will put more effort in.
Why Pre-Season Training Needs to be Turned on its Head
Do you start your pre season with an endurance fitness test? Your players turn up and do either the bleep test or the yo-yo test.
You then train them for a few weeks doing lots of endurance running and re test them before the season starts.
Is this interesting, relevant or fun?
Or are you just gathering random numbers?
I used to do exactly this. When I started working with London Welsh RFC 10 years ago. My plan was this:
Test the players
Develop an aerobic base.
Build up into intermittent endurance work with strength training.
Finish the last 2 weeks with speed training.
Re test the players
I checked this plan with some “expert physiologists at Brunel University” they thought it was a good plan.
Of course they did: in a laboratory situation this would look good as I was training to the test.
Over the last 10 years, working with hundreds of athletes I now realise that the situation should be reversed.
As an athlete I hated getting tested if I didn’t get the feedback, if I didn’t think it would help me fight better, or if there was no follow up training plan to help me improve.
Get Fitter, Faster and Stronger in Pre-season
As a coach you want your team to be Fitter, Faster and Stronger. But fit for what? You want them on the pitch ready to train and ready to thrive in competition when the season starts.
So, I look at developing 3 qualities:
Efficiency: Get them moving well and with control
Robustness: Get them able to do that under load, faster, further or heavier.
Resilience Get them able to sustain that quality of movement or load for longer.
Who wants to practice bad running, bad lifting, slow agility and irrelevant skill patterns?
It is demotivating as a player, and a waste of your precious Coaching time as a Coach.
How to Start Pre-season Training
Testing and evaluation are an important part of pre-season. But just telling players to run further or run faster to improve their test scores may only reinforce their bad technique, and could lead to injury.
My overriding consideration as a Coach is to give the players the tools to do the job.
Choose your tests carefully. If you are in a team field or court sport like Football, Hockey, Rugby or Basketball then the bleep test or yo-yo tests are relevant to the demands of the game. More so than a 1500m or 5km running (or even worse rowing) test to assess your endurance (more test detail here).
But, understand that these tests measure more than endurance. They measure your ability to: accelerate, brake and change direction. All of which are needed in your sports.
So, in conjunction with one of those tests, your first week would be well spent assessing the players’ ability to control their own body.
My motto is “Little things, done well, consistently.” If the players are given the tools to do the job, they gain in confidence and progress accordingly. You have 6-12 weeks to get players fit, you have to ask yourself
Easy to get players tired
Are you making them better, or just making them tired?
Over the next few weeks we will be looking in detail at a different quality that is needed in pre-season training:
I was working with a group of young players this week- pretty new to physical training.
I outlined the plan over the next 10-12 weeks. We are going to work on efficiency of movement, becoming more robust and develop your athleticism.
I then asked what did they think that involved… getting bigger was the immediate response.
Getting bigger without having a solid foundation of movement (or the 4 pillars) will result in an immediate short term (about 12 weeks) improvement.
In other words the hypertrophy will take about 12 weeks to take effect and then another 12 weeks can be improved upon as well. So, at the end of nearly 6 months training you will be bigger.
Eat well. There is no point eating junk food, you will become obese. Instead eat a well balanced diet that contains lots of natural foods. There are many sources of protein and testosteronethat can be found in your normal diet. It is a lot cheaper than buying fat shakes too.
Sleep. It is when you sleep that your body recovers and repairs itself. Most teenage rugby players are not getting enough sleep.
If your focus is purely on getting bigger, then there are 2 potential downsides:
Injuries: if you are a rugby player you can look forward to shoulder and hamstring injuries because they are the 2 most common ones, and a season of rehab. Is it any wonder that the RFU injury audit shows an increase in rugby injuries?
Over the past few sessions I have been going through the strength section of James’s Athletic Development Manual with him. We went through strength and velocity and how a high velocity exercise means the strength aspect could be low, and vice versa.
For example, tuck jumps are a high velocity exercise with a lower strength needed. Where as a deadlift variation (1-3RM) would be high strength and low velocity as you couldn’t repeat many.
Exercises were also broken down into 4 categories of strength:
Also, there are many ways to overload that don’t include just increasing the weight. You can change direction or the plane of movement and you can change the speed or rest period too. Each way overloads the body and you have to make it adapt again.
The importance of reflection
During the last practical session I had with James and some of the athletes, he asked me what I have learnt. This really got me thinking. I have learnt a lot! I don’t tend to self reflect so I know I need to work on that. How can you improve as a coach if you don’t reflect on what you have done or learnt?
It’s made me look at my plans for the gymnasts and my personal training clients differently and I have re-thought a lot of their training. I think I had just got into a routine and needed that nudge to think about things a little more and reflect on my previous training and what James has taught me as well.
Self reflection, as I now understand, is an important part of coaching. It gives you the chance to think about how a session went, what you can do to improve it, what worked well or what did you learn. All these questions will help you develop and improve as a coach.
Keeping things fresh
It’s good to make regular changes to stop a program/session getting stale too. Plus, if you are training the younger athletes, it keeps them a lot more interested and more likely to work.
If you do the same thing day in day out, they will get bored and won’t progress. Repeating movements are important to get the technique right, but adding in a few changes will challenge them physically and mentally.
This has made me think of where exercises fit and I have been thinking about this a lot more when I train my clients at work or the gymnasts I work with too.
I have also learnt a little about myself too. I learnt that I need to be more confident and give myself more credit. For years my teachers and tutors have said this to me over and over again and I’m starting to see why now.
I have never been a deadlift fan, instead working on squats and using the snatch and clean to develop power.
However, I have recently been using it to create some variety in environments with no squat rack.
It is also useful with some athletes who find squatting tricky. One young hockey player with very long femurs, never looks good squatting. Her deadlift is immaculate. There is some similarity between the start of the deadlift and the positions that hockey players need to get into.
The deadlift works hamstrings more than the squat, which is obviously quadriceps dominant. Both exercises require a strong back and trunk. A football goalie I coach has a very sensitive back. For him, the deadlift is a definite No.
Ideally my deadlift should be nearly as heavy as my squat, but I am about 30kg short (Full analysis here: What is a good squat to deadlift ratio? ) Strength is exercise specific, and my squats are much more efficient.
A strength session using deadlift last week was unimpressive on my part, mainly due to inefficient deadlift technique. It was a reminder to myself to sometimes use variety in the gym, and to work on my weaknesses.
This video gives a guide to how to start the deadlift.
Assistant coach Fran Low was an experienced hockey player when she started working with Excelsior.
However, she had never done squats. Part of her role was to research the difference between front and back squats. Here are the results:
Unlike most males who spend many hours swanning around the weights in the gym, the squat was a relatively new and daunting exercise to me.
Having not spent much time strength training (reasons highlighted in this piece about females in the gym) I was unaware of the importance of the squatting movement and how it underpins most strength training exercises.
Body weight squat
I realised the true importance of squatting during the first few seconds of my first session with James. If you cannot squat correctly then don’t even think about lifting any weights!
I wanted to learn how to squat properly.This article aims to highlight details and techniques of the front and back squats as well as looking at the power ratios between the different exercises.
It is one of the only exercises that directly trains hip drive (the initial movement out of the bottom of a full squat is hip drive).
Hip drive is important for any sport that involves running, jumping or lunging (so most sports really!).
The squat uses the whole of the so called posterior chain, that is the calves, hamstrings and glutes working together. Due to the large range of movement, the squat is very effective at synchronising and enhancing this movement.
It works the whole body requiring stabilising muscles to be trained as well as the gross muscle groups.
It also replicates a movement used in everyday life and most sports.
Back squat: Barbell rests on back of the shoulder, more info below
Front Squat: Barbell rests on front of the shoulders, more info below.
Overhead squat: a squat performed with a weight/item (barbell, medicine ball, dumbbell, broomstick) above the head.
Hindu Squat: body weight exercise, squatting down onto toes, bringing heels to bum, and swinging arms down, straightening legs standing up and pushing from the toes.
bar too high
Back Squat Technique:
Approach bar in either power or squat rack.
Grasp bar using pronated grip (width dependant on placement on back).
Stand upright with bar resting across upper back (supported by 1 or 2 spotters, if required).
Feet width self selected, but no wider than shoulder width.
Elbows high and as far forward as possible, to support bar.
Prior to descent, take a breath and hold it.
Bend slowly at the knees and hips.
Maintain a flat back throughout descent.
Keep heels on the floor and do not allow the body to fall forward.
Try to keep the knee in line with the toe (don’t allow knees to buckle, this leads to injury!).
Stop descent at appropriate depth for athlete, ideally when legs are/past parallel to the floor.
Without bouncing raise bar by extending hips and knees.
Keep back flat and head up.
Keep hips under bar.
Hold breath through sticking point*.
At completion of set walk forward and replace bar in stands.
Back Squat – The good vs. bad
Total body workout
Cannot perform with back problems
Improve posture and balance
Trains the posterior chain
Can be dangerous if incorrect technique
Squats can be uncomfortable
Trains stabilizing muscles leading to reduced risk of injury
Build Muscle/gain strength
Used to exercise everything from endurance to power
This movement is more upright and so places a more direct workload on your quads. You won’t be able to lift as much weight as in the back version, though.
This key difference is highlighted in an image below and due to the greater hip angle, reduces the useof the hamstrings in the movement.
This means it does not activate the posterior chain and although good for working the quadriceps, can neglect the hamstrings. For this reason it is not advised to solely use the front squat in training.
Front Squat Technique:
Same as back squat although instead of having bar placed on back of shoulders it is placed on the front of the shoulders:
Keep elbows high (upper-arm, almost parallel to the floor) and chest up.
Your shoulders support the weight, not your hands. Open your hands, relax them. Two/Three fingers under the bar is suggested.
Perform same squatting action as the back squat; however you will find that your back will stay straight as you need to keep your chest out to balance.
Front Squat – The Good vs. the Bad
Max front squat will be lighter than max Back squat.
Harder to ‘cheat’
Does not target the hamstrings and glutes unlike the back squat.
Build Muscle/gain strength
Often Limited by stabiliser muscle flexibility rather than quadriceps fatigue (wrists, shoulders, ankles).
More emphasis on quadriceps
Does not train the posterior chain
Can improve other lifts
Considered safer than the back squat
How I Learnt how to squat properly
The best way to gain a true understanding of these two squats is to try them yourself! So that’s what I did….
Firstly I would say I felt more comfortable and stable during the front squat. I was able to squat lower. However my wrists did begin to ache suggesting I should work on wrist flexibility!
I could lift heavier with the back squat but I also felt more wobbly! The key coaching point I took from James was “Sit down”. Everything else is very technical, but to get started that simple cue was the best.
There are many differences between the two squatting techniques which this article has aimed to highlight. To sum it all up it is evident that the back squat should be an exercise in every athlete’s repertoire.
To help with the back squat technique you can use the front squat, however don’t rely solely on the front squat as you will be neglecting the hamstrings and it isn’t as possible to lift as much weight.
Good coaching is essential for both types of squat.
Learn how to coach the squat on one of our courses
That can be added to the list of sentences I will never say! At the recent RFU Strength and Power Conference I spent the morning in the company of 4 time UK Strongman champion Glenn Ross.
He and his two assistants, Eddie Hall and Johnny Kelay, went through a series of strongman training exercises aimed at getting stronger for rugby.
The aim was to show the training routines that Strongmen use, and then how to apply them for rugby. They concentrated on grip strength and getting low- staying strong.
Strongman Grip Training
Grip is a tough thing to train. “A shin bone takes 4 hours to cook” according to Glenn Ross, and the forearm is just as tough. Grip can be trained specifically 3 times a week, at the end of your normal workout.
Grip is important in grappling, grabbing and sheer rawness. Every ruck, maul and tackle should require grip strength. If you use straps when training to help you deadlift or power clean, then you are not working on your grip.
Instead try the Farmers Walk. Eddie and Johnny demonstrated the Farmers Walk with a 300kg frame (pictured).
Different size bars can be used to work on grip too. Glenn was big on getting into contact with local welders and builders merchants to get things built more cheaply.
Scaffold bars can be used instead of power bars as they are wider and more awkward. The total lift won’t be as great, but your grip will have to work harder.
Getting Low and Staying Strong
Thick ropes can be used for pulling and towing, sleds, cars (planes!) or even holding in isometric positions leaning back at a 45 degree angle.
Getting into a low position and being strong in that position is very important for scrummaging, tackling, driving with the ball, rucking and mauling. Glenn showed this with towing, pushing and log wrestling.
When towing, get a really heavy object behind you. This forces you to lean really far forward and have your nose nearly on the floor. It won’t make you move fast, but it will get your body angle in a new position that you will find to hard to replicate in the gym.
The log wrestle was interesting, it was like a sumo wrestler fight in a ring, with the 2 men holding each end of an 8 stone log and trying to force the other man out.
Eddie Hall is 4 stone heavier than Johnny Kelay, but got shoved out 3 times in a row because Johnny was lower and had better leverage.
Eddie was blowing hard at the end of this, even though it lasted for about 20 seconds (it was his first time doing this).
Carrying Heavy Objects to get Stronger
If you have seen Strongman competitions, you will have seen the competitors lift up Atlas Stones and carry them forward. “These are only 100kg stones” said Ross as Eddie and Johnny performed a short relay of pick up, carry and drop.
They also carried a home made yoke which puts a tremendous load through the back and shoulders with 325 kg moving around on your back. Carrying awkward objects forces the body to adapt and adjust which has some transfer to tackling and rucking.
Glenn’s tip for the yoke carry was to get underneath, then push the arms away at a 45 degree angle to create a natural table on the shoulders.
Getting Stronger for Rugby
I am a bit of a cynic on this, because it seems that every rugby club in the country goes through a tyre flipping phase, following the run through ladders phase, and now the small sided games phase.
The important thing is context. In order to get stronger and more powerful for rugby, a multi dimensional approach is needed. Some strongman training is beneficial, but it is the application of strength that is most useful.
With developing players, lighter loads and different objects could be used. Like all training, strongman training should follow principles of overload, progression and recovery. The training has a massive fatiguing effect (details here).
Glenn recommended doing a 2 hour training session every week, with 10 minutes rest between exercises. I don’t think many rugby coaches would appreciate that work: rest ratio.
Instead, why not do 1 or 2 of these exercises in each training session? The little and often approach will work in and around your technical/ tactical sessions. It might be useful to do in winter when morale is sapped due to rain and mud.
Glenn emphasised the fact that Strongman training is fun and that players enjoy it. It has to be put into context, or it will be an object in itself. I would do a Strongman competition type day at the end of each year, once the exercises have bee practiced and developed.
Flipping tyres will not help you run around people! But, I wouldn’t want to try and maul against Glenn Ross.
To learn how to apply the right techniques and exercises at the right time, why not come to one of our workshops here?
I first started strength training when I was 15 years old. My Dad had given me his old power bar and I started using that in my bedroom doing curls, presses and squats. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was doing something. I worked at my part time jobs for six months to save up for a set of plastic spinlock dumbbells and a flimsy bench with bar rack.
The Joe Weider dumbbells came with a training programme that was a split routine of bodybuilder type exercises. There was a heavy emphasis on curls and calf raises from what I can remember, all with pictures of a man in briefs looking like he had been dipped in creosote. I followed that three day a week programme for the next year or so.
My first official training programme had an effect, I was eating well and I got stronger. I was playing a lot of different sports at school before I left at 17 years old. That almost looks like an Athletic Development plan!
In the intervening 30 years I have been exposed to many different training environments including the Army, Martial Arts, health clubs and Weightlifting. Currently I am working with gymnasts and seeing a whole different side of strength development.
I have had good training, bad training, and downright ridiculous training. I have worked with many different strength and weightlifting coaches, as well as sports coaches who have helped shape my ideas. I have made a gazillion mistakes on the way, all of which have helped me improve.