Rugby Union is a high contact, dynamic sport in which athletes require a combination of strength, power, speed, agility, endurance and sport-specific attributes (1). Rugby Union is one of the most popular team sports and is played all over the world. It became a professional sport in 1995. With more money at stake in the modern game, at elite level, a great deal of research has been carried out investigating improving the fitness of players in order to gain an advantage over the opposition.
A game of rugby consists of two halves of 40 minutes, with a maximum of 10 minutes break at half time. Two teams contest play, each with 15 players on the field at once, except when a player is dismissed for misconduct. Rugby Union players have a wide range of physical characteristics, which directs them to certain positions.
There are, generally, two positions; forwards and backs. Forwards are typically heavier, taller and have a greater proportion of body fat than backs (8). The forwards demonstrate superior absolute aerobic and anaerobic power and muscular strength (8). The total work over the duration of the game is less in the backs compared with the forwards and forwards spend greater time in physical contact, while the backs spend more time in free running, allowing them to cover greater distances. (17) showed that the average distances covered by elite level English players was 5408m and 5812m for the tight and loose forwards, whilst the inside backs covered 6055m and the outside backs 6190m respectively.
The players are numbered in terms of position, i.e. forward and backs and this depends on the physical characteristics. This assignment will look at an ‘outside back’ or in layman’s terms a winger. Wingers require considerable speed to out-manoeuver their opponents. They perform a large amount of support running, chasing down kicks and covering in defence (8).
Physical Requirements of Elite Level Rugby Union Players
As outlined, rugby is generally split into two positional areas; forwards and backs and they differ significantly in terms of physical characteristics. (15) shows that, in terms of anthropometric characteristics, forwards are generally taller, possess greater body mass, and are more endomorphic and less ectomorphic than backs. The backs tend to perform better on physical performance measures than forwards, being more aerobically fit, faster and more agile whilst possessing a higher degree of muscular endurance.
With regard to positional physiological demand, there are greater demands placed upon different positions when compared to others. According to (8), the front row has the greatest strength and power demands as it is their job to gain possession and they are continuously in contact with the opposition and have limited chance to run with the ball. Therefore, they are usually less mobile. The locks are generally tall, with a large body mass and power, they are known as the second row. The loose forwards require strength and power as their purpose is to gain and retain possession of the ball. It is a prerequisite of the loose forwards to be powerful and mobile in open play, have excellent speed, acceleration and endurance (8). The halfbacks usually need an excellent level of endurance as they receive the ball from the forwards and control possession. Speed is also an important factor for the halfbacks as they need to out manoeuvre the opposition and accelerate away from the approaching defenders. Furthermore, midfield backs require strength, speed and power as they have a high frequency of contact with the opposition. Outside backs require considerable speed to out manoeuvre their opponents. They perform a large amount of support running, chasing down kicks and covering in defence (8).
As stated, physiological demands vary with positional demands. However, it would be safe to assume that all players need a significant degree of strength, power, speed and endurance to compete at the highest level. High levels of strength and power appear to be important for successful participation in elite levels of rugby league (2). According to (19) strength can be defined as the ability to produce external force and has been previously shown to be crucial in rugby. As outlined earlier, all positions require an excellent amount of strength, particularly in the scrums. Studies have shown that the forwards need greater strength than the backs, while backs require a greater degree of speed (8). (16) showed that heavy body contact could result from one on one tackling, scrums (scrimmaging), rucks and mauls, as well as attacking runs. Therefore, power can be considered essential for all positions within the game of rugby union. Power is the product of force and velocity. Moreover, if strength is force, power can therefore be described as the ability to produce force at a high velocity. Power is considered a significant component as it is as it is required in rugby by the forwards to push the opposition back and by the backs to accelerate from the opposition. According to (19) power is the most important characteristic to develop for most sports. In its simplest form power is work. In most cases the athlete that gets the work done first wins (19). In addition, acceleration and speed are essential requirements, as players are often required to accelerate to make a position nearby or sprint over an extended distance (8). From the evidence shown, strength, power and speed are the main components required by rugby union players and therefore, it is most suitable to have a high strength/power training programme to develop this.
In rugby union, players accelerate over short distances or accelerate and sprint to make position (9). This form of sprinting is not usually performed in a straight line and can include ball carriage, change of direction and the avoidance of a tackle. As stated, rugby union backs have superior sprinting ability compared to forwards (8). In an elite rugby union match, backs have a greater amount of space to run into and therefore achieve greater speeds when compared to forwards. (7) found that outside backs engaged in more sprints than front row forwards and spent significantly more time sprinting and that maximal sprint time was also significantly longer. Furthermore, backs also spend two to three times more time in high-intensity running than forwards and may be required to perform up to 20 sprints in one match (7). Therefore, the ability to perform repeated bouts of maximal sprints may be beneficial in performance enhancement of the backs and repeated sprint sessions should be implemented. In addition, it has been suggested by (9) that forwards perform 41% of sprints from a standing start, while backs performed more from a striding start. This is of paramount importance when incorporating speed into a training programme, as previous research has shown that sport specific speed is based upon the positional demands of the sport. Therefore, it may be more beneficial for forwards to emphasise speed work from a standing start, while backs should focus on ‘flying starts’. Sprinting should be a greater focus for backs as they spend more time sprinting than forwards.
Periodised strength training as defined by (10) is varying the training programme at regular time intervals in an attempt to bring about optimal gains in strength, power, motor performance, and/or muscle hypertrophy.
According to the NSCA Position stand, resistance programs for athletic performance should be periodised in order to optimise the adaptations over long-term training and also help reduce the potential of the athlete entering the overtraining phase. It is well accepted that in order to maximize the benefits of resistance training, periodisation is superior to other training methods for the development of strength and power sports (10). It is shown that in order to have the maximal benefits of resistance training, periodisation is better that non-periodisation for the development of strength and power sports. In addition other studies such as (18) and (20) showed that utilising periodised training methods have also demonstrated superior results when compared to lower volume protocols. Furthermore (13) showed that short and long term adaptations in strength, power and muscle endurance are greater with a periodised multiple set training program.
To develop power, it is suggested that the following cycle may be beneficial.
Strength Endurance-Strength-Power and Speed.
The Strength endurance phase is where the sport specific fitness is developed. The primary goal of this stage is to increase lean body mass and endurance base. This phase focuses on high volume exercise, at a relatively reduced intensity as not to induce overtraining.
Hypertrophy is the term we use to define muscle enlargement or muscle growth and is critical in collision sports where high contact occurs. This enlargement is valuable to athletes involved in sports that require strength and power, such as rugby union (3).
As discussed, strength can be defined as the ability to produce external force (19). Strength development should be a critical component for any athlete committed to improving performance and, therefore, it is important to develop an excellent strength base before speed and power training commences. (4) suggested that maximal strength is achieved by 3-5 sets, 1-5 repetitions at 90-100% of 1RM with rests between 2-5 minutes. In addition, (5) suggests that maximal strength can be converted to power in a relatively short time.
Therefore, upon conclusion of the strength phase, training shifts to a power phase in order to prepare the athlete for competition as the strength base is already established. As previously stated, power is essential in rugby as it is essential to drive opponents back. Power development comprises producing a large force at a high rate of speed, and can be divided into two areas of movement. Firstly, speed strength is where importance is on speed of movement against a relatively small resistance. A key example of this is in plyometric training i.e. bounding or counter movement jumps (CMJ). Secondly, Olympic lifts such as the power clean are also primary exercises used in power development. The power clean is a dynamic lift designed to increase power production (11). This is typically a fundamental exercise in high performance strength and conditioning environment such as elite rugby. (12) states that Olympic lifts are the most commonly recommended exercises in power and speed programs. Furthermore, athletes trained in Olympic style lifting techniques have an extremely high capacity to develop power, which is necessary for success in sport. The power phase is, thus, designed to optimise the gains in strength the athlete has made during the maximal strength phase.
The importance of strength and power in high intensity collision sports such as rugby union is paramount for athletes performing at the elite level. Therefore, resistance training plays a fundamental role in athletic development and is necessary for the demands of the game. From the literature presented, elite rugby players encompass various exceptional fitness requirements. However it is evident that strength, speed and power are the main components in the game of rugby and a periodised training programme designed to enhance these components, significantly, will enable the athletes to have a greater chance of success in the major competitions. It is also essential that the training stimulus is positional specific and should be varied throughout the periodised programme to consistently improve adaptation and to induce significant gains in the physiological components that are required by elite rugby union players.
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David Meechan MRes PSG ASCC is currently a Strength & Conditioning Coach at the Hong Kong Sports Institute and was previously a Strength & Conditioning Coach at the Scottish Institute of Sport. He holds a Masters of Research in Exercise Science & is an accredited Strength & Conditioning Coach with the UKSCA and ASCA Pro structure. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
An article recently came out with this title on sbnation.com and it has set off a fire storm amongst Strength & Conditioning Coaches. The article showed that most players ran slower 40 yard dash times at the NFL Combine than they did while in High School at “recruiting” camps. Every response that I have read on Social Media sites talk about the camps posting favorable times for High Schoolers because of the money that these camps stand to make by getting kids to attend. I am not here to defend the camps because I have never worked at one and I can assume that this in part may be true to some extent however I feel that Strength Coaches may be missing out on part of what might be going on.
I am not claiming to be a “football guy” so I will not pretend to have knowledge of the day to day training methods and in-coming testing numbers vs. outgoing testing numbers but I have worked in the college environment for 7 years prior to my time in the NBA as a Head Strength Coach. I have talked to numerous track athletes during my years as a college S&C Coach and it is amazing how many of them told me that they got slower during college with the same timing methods and distances. Couldn’t the same thing happen with football players? How could this be possible for athletes to get slower over the course of 4 or 5 years?
Is It Possible For an Athlete to Get Slower?
Strength & Conditioning programs for football teams are often geared towards the group rather than the individual. Many schools have individualized position specific workouts and some have individualized corrective exercise programs but how many strength coaches are designing individualized training programs for every player on the team? This is not a criticism because the number of athletes in a football program is overwhelming. Writing an individualized plan for each athlete for each day is a full time job in itself. Often times the “general” program to improve one of the components of performance may miss the mark with some of the athletes on your team. Does a strength focused program fill the need of an athlete that already squats 2x’s+ his bodyweight? That particular athlete may need to focus predominately on speed and power exercises so that they are able to apply their strength at a faster rate. Detailed testing can provide you with the direction that is needed for that individual to continue to improve but is being done?
Another consideration that needs to be accounted for is weight gain. Football players gain a considerable amount of mass through weight training and improved nutrition during their college years and although most of the time it is an increase in lean body mass there can also be increases in body fat. Say what you want about improving muscle mass not decreasing a players’ speed but it most certainly can have a negative impact. Powerlifters and strongmen aren’t necessarily known for displaying great 40 yard times even though they display great strength and muscle mass. As their size and strength increase typically their speed will decrease unlike what you see with Weightlifters that are limited by weight classes and spend a vast majority of their time performing exercises that are focused on speed and power. Considerable increases in size and strength may also impact mobility which can cause improper length tension relationships not allowing for the proper firing patterns of the muscles. This is not always the case however if the program is adding strength to dysfunction mobility issues can be magnified.
The last consideration that cannot be overlooked is injuries. Over the duration of a college football career, athletes accumulate injuries ranging from acute trauma to chronic tendonopathies which can have a negative influence on sprinting speed. If we consider an athlete that has become a hamstring dominant sprinter because of a shortened hip flexor a hamstring tear could have a disastrous effect on performance. If tissue quality is neglected post injury and the underlying impairments that pre-disposed the athlete are not corrected the athlete will not be able to achieve the level of performance that they previously displayed.
It is an easy defense mechanism to blame the High School Combines for altering 40yd times but every variable must be considered if we are to continue to grow in our profession.
My good friend and strength coach at Wisconsin, Ray Eady, sent me this video yesterday and it got me thinking a lot about mobility and how training has changed over the years. Do yourself a favor and watch the video first before continuing to read on.
That was pretty impressive stuff and goes to show you what the human body is capable of doing in terms of mobility and stability. If you don’t know, mobility is the quality of moving freely…the key word is MOVING! It is not static flexibility (length of a muscle), but rather relies on the CNS to control how much movement is available at each joint. Stability is the ability to control movement…it does not mean, no movement, but rather controlling motion.
Breakdancing was extremely big in the late 70′s and throughout the 80′s and goes to show you what the human body can do….or could do at that time. You don’t see breakdancing as much as you used to back then and could it be attributed to the sedentary nature of our lives these days???
I’ve been a strength and conditioning coach at the Division I level for about 12 years now and know for a fact that my programming has changed over that time. Most of it has changed to structure in more mobility work and emphasize corrective exercise – not only because I’ve learned more about it over time, but because simply our athletes these days NEED it to handle the demands that are placed upon them by the requirements of their sport. They need it to play but also to be healthy even when they’re playing days are done.
What exactly is corrective exercise?
As some love it, and some frown upon it. Corrective exercise simply is exercise that is designed to restore and improve in-efficient movement patterns. It can be drill that you do in your warmup or between sets of your heavier movements. It can be things you do on a recovery day or things that you prescribe as “extra work”, but the goal is the same; we should be looking to improve movement and the quality of it.
How do we know if a movement pattern is in-efficient?
We assess and watch our athletes and clients move. We as fitness professionals should have an understanding of what ideal biomechanics are – not everybody is going to be the same, but we should have a fundamental understanding of what’s good vs. bad. Pain is another sign of somebody possibly having a movement dysfunction. Assessments such as the FMS, or drills from Assess & Correct, gives us a reference point to where somebody is initially before training them. If we don’t know where we are, how can we know where we are going or how we are going to get there? Assessing is part of the testing protocol along with performance based testing such as power, strength, and conditioning.
Mobility and adhering to the Joint By Joint approach has become a bigger part of my programs and every year I see new freshman come into our program, it re-affirms the changes that I have put into my programs. We emphasize it in our pre-work before our warmups, in our warmups, in between sets of speed and power work and in between sets of our strength work. There are a number of methods that we will use as well: soft tissue work using lacrosse balls, sticks, cobblestone mats and foam rollers, dynamic flexibility, band work, isolated mobility, integrated mobility, isometrics, PNF techniques, and full range of motion resistance training.
As our society has changed and the athletes we see may have different issues that impair their quality of movement, we as fitness professionals have to address these issues to help prepare them to be successful in sport and life.