When looking at a new athlete and their running, I try to assess whether we can improve speed through co-ordination training or strength training, or both.
I use the analogy of having two dials with the athletes: they both are necessary, but we adjust one at a time according to the athlete’s needs.
“Strength” coaches will always look at squats first with “maximal strength” being the answer to everything. However, it could be a relative strength issue, for example when trying to improve the speed of rugby players there is a trade off between size and function.
Studies at the Brisbane Broncos showed momentum to be a key feature of high performing players. Momentum is mass x velocity; if you increase your mass without concomitant improvement in relative strength (your ability to control your own body weight in all planes of movement) there is likely to be a reduction in velocity i.e. your momentum may go down.
Mindless hypertrophy work or two legged sagital plane work may indeed increase mass and strength in that plane, but you must be able to apply it on the field.
Most rugby players I see tend to work on mass at the expense of co-ordination: the “Get slower” programme.
I work hard on their co-ordination in running and change of direction drills. Props are very hard to tackle once they have learnt to run fast.
What about young athletes and females?
Posture for sprints
I am lucky to work with some fast young athletes from different sports at the ADC in Devon. None of them have great “maximal strength” but they do have high levels of muscular coordination.
In these athletes, and also with most females, strength training is required to allow them to withstand the rigours of training and playing. This starts with control of their own body weight, then progresses to challenging this in different planes, different directions, different speeds.
Then we increase volume, then we may add external loadwhen ready.
Some athletes are naturally strength athletes, some are naturally speed (co-ordination) athletes. Both types of training are necessary, but adjust the dial according to their needs.
“One size fits all” is a shortcut that rarely leads to success.
I am trying to make agility workouts more frequent, more specific and a lot shorter in duration than has previously been done for the athletes I work with.
I am starting with teaching them how to walk naturally (a recent report suggested that babies don’t spend enough waking time on their tummies, so don’t crawl as much and this leads to impaired physical coordination skills at primary school age), then faster movements, then with balls, then against opponents, then in small games.
It concerns me when players say they are doing agility drills for fitness– rapid, repeated movements, including jumping and bounding, without adequate landing ability and leg strength will lead to injury.
I would rather they work more specifically, with better quality, and then do more of those sessions each week. The warm up is a good place to work on it, see this video for an example (trainee strength and conditioning coaches).
I also find the day after competition is useful. The players are tired which means they are keen to learn new skills with good rest times, it is also a change from the usual routine and we end with some fun agility games.
Rugby agility drills
Here are some recent ideas on how I have developed this with Rugby players as an example:
Working with some rugby players on their agility I noticed how some of them do artificial movements in the hope that it makes them more agile. What I mean by artificial is a pre programmed series of steps\ head movements \ shoulder shimmies, rather than natural reactions.
Steve Morris pointed this out in my own movements, and I have used his underlying principles in going back to basic movement patterns and then training them. We will then work on putting in unplanned scenarios and small game situations to work on the patterns under pressure.
Today we worked on using skipping as a method of co ordinating hand and foot speed, specifically increasing the hand speed to make the feet move quicker. We then did some simple evading another person at walking speed with an acceleration to get past them.
We then added the hand\ shoulder speed of movement to make the feet go faster. The key point here was doing it with the hands in a ready position, and using the internal plyometric action of the shoulder joint to help generate foot speed. That way the players get used to keeping their hands up ready for catching\ passing \tackling.
The next thing was using head movement to generate change of directions- watch a baby crawl or move- the head always leads the body, not the other way round. As the players started to combine the head and fast hand actions, they started to lean forward into a better position to make a tackle, or to break a tackle.
These are natural movement patterns. the key is to enhance them, not to run the players through a series of non specific drills that don’t address these issues. By the end of the session all the players had some idea of what to do. The key is now to make this a little and often practice, not leave it for months and get it trained out of them.
Agility off the floor
There is much more to Rugby agility than using ladders! Here is a video on how to get more agile at getting up from the break down, or back into defence.
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?
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?
Written by RFU National Academy Fitness Advisor Simon Worsnop this book has over 115 training exercises for improving technique, tactics and fitness.
The book is split into 10 chapters:
Using Games and Drills
Small sided handling games
Small sided kicking games
Attacking and Defending drills
Bag and Shield drills
Non-specific rugby games
Small sided rugby games
Large sided rugby games
Fitness requirements for rugby
Planning for the season
Each chapter has a variety of different drills, enabling the coach to keep sessions fresh, as well as covering a range of different scenarios to test skills in game specific situations. Each exercise also comes with variations in complexity, physicality and specificity.
The drills are set out clearly with both written instructions and visual diagrams to make it easy to follow, with objectives and key coaching points highlighted to maintain focus of the exercises.
Each exercise also has a suitability rating at the top of the page e.g. 12+ or All ages, however they are not necessarily in age order so finding an appropriate drill requires searching (although this is only a minor point, searching won’t take long).
For coaches and players who may be short on time (this is the real world) and need to train multiple skills in on session, e.g. half backs passing/kicking and back row forwards tackling, there is a useful ‘Game and Drill Finder’ at the start of the book which cross references each of the drills with all the skills being worked.
What could be better
The Chapter that lets this book down is the fitness requirements for rugby. There is a lot of detail about the requirements for rugby, from strength and power values to work capacity and speed.
Despite this, there is no practical advice for coaching these components. Simon touches briefly on using small sided games and technical drills to also develop work capacity; however the inclusion of general fitness work is also vital.
I would recommend this book for any coach of junior or senior rugby players looking to improve delivery of technical coaching, as the variety of drills and simplicity of explanations make it a very useful tool.
The Season Planning section would be extremely useful to coaches with information on long term planning (different phases of season) and short term planning (individual sessions), as well as written examples of each.
To read more of Simon’s insights into conditioning for Rugby, see here
Do any of the following rugby-related comments sound familiar?
“There’s a gym culture in rugby that produces ‘gym monkeys’ and that’s what’s spoiling the game”
“Nowadays, players spend too much time in the gym and not enough time practicing skills”
“They’re supposed to be rugby players, not weight-lifters”
“Weight training is dangerous for young players”
All of these are gross oversimplifications and in the last case, plain wrong.
Elite players certainly spend more time in the gym now than they did in the past. But their training is more than simply about getting “bigger” (hypertrophy). An over-emphasis on size alone can result in players who are bigger, but often fatter and slower too; they’re not much use for a dynamic game like rugby.
It’s also true that a bigger guy moving fast will exert more force in a collision than a smaller one moving at the same speed, but better conditioning and specific strength training can help players of all shapes and sizes to protect themselves against injuries.
That being said, things can go wrong in the gym if players aren’t following well-designed programmes.
Generating a muscle imbalance through poor training is a one example. Muscles work in a complimentary fashion around joints; if there’s an imbalance in the way those muscles interact, one or more of the major muscles can exert extreme forces on a joint that is less able to protect itself.
For example, if a player does a lot of bench press work but not enough complimentary pulling and shoulder stability training, he can create instability in the shoulders that dramatically increases his predisposition to shoulder injuries.
So that’s definitely the sort of gym culture and gym monkey we don’t want to encourage. Information is also available about strength and conditioning coaching certificates, designed to provide accessible, practical training for sports coaches in the specifics of fitness development.