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Preseason Strength Training for Rugby Union: The General and Specific Preparatory Phases

Corcoran, Glenn CSCS1,2; Bird, Stephen PhD, CSCS3

Strength and Conditioning Journal: December 2009 - Volume 31 - Issue 6 - p 66-74
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181c225d9
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THE FIELD OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING HAS SEEN THE RAPID DEVELOPMENT OF NEW TRAINING METHODS TO ENHANCE SPORT PERFORMANCE. WHILE THE TRAINING TECHNIQUES AND STRATEGIES MAY HAVE CHANGED, THE CORNERSTONE OF ATHLETIC DEVELOPMENT HAS NOT, IN THAT STRENGTH TRAINING DURING THE GENERAL PREPARATION PHASE REMAINS AN INTEGRAL COMPONENT IN ATHLETIC CONDITIONING FOR SPORT. IT IS THE PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE TO PRESENT PRESEASON STRENGTH TRAINING DURING THE PREPARATION PHASE IMPLEMENTED FOR THE 2009 RUGBY SEASON FOR SENIOR, AMATEUR, FIRST- AND SECOND-GRADE PLAYERS COMPETING IN THE DOMESTIC CENTRAL WEST RUGBY COMPETITION, NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA.

1Bathurst Bulldogs Rugby Club, Bathurst, Australia; 2Central West Rugby Union, Orange, Australia; and 3Exercise and Sports Science Laboratories, School of Human Movement Studies, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, Australia

Glenn Corcoranis the head strength and conditioning coach for Bathurst Bulldogs Rugby Club and Central West Rugby Union.

Figure

Figure

Stephen Birdis the senior advisor, Physical Preparation and Sports Science Department, Indonesian National Elite Athlete Program, a position he holds through the School of Human Movement Studies, Charles Sturt University,Bathurst, Australia.

Figure

Figure

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INTRODUCTION

Rugby union is a contact team sport that requires a variety of physiological requirements due to the high-intensity nature of the sport, which involves short repeated sprints to high degrees of strength expression through high frequency body contacts (15). Recently, Duthie et al. (10) have highlighted that vigorous body contact can result from one-on-one tackling, scrums (scrimmaging), rucks, and mauls, as well as attacking runs. As such, during a game, an athlete's body is under considerable stress, and at times placed in compromising body positions, with the tackle and ruck and maul phase associated with greater injury risk (28).

The influence of preseason training on injury risk is well documented, with training load suggested to be a critical factor (14,23). Therefore, appropriate program design is essential in developing strength qualities in conjunction with structural stability and mobility, which may assist in the reduction of fatigue-related injuries. Therefore, it is suggested that the strength and conditioning (S&C) coach should monitor training load during this time (24).

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PHYSICAL REQUIREMENTS: A STRENGTH PERSPECTIVE

To discuss the physical requirement of rugby union from a strength perspective, we shall highlight 3 central components: (a) muscular strength characteristics, position specific; (b) body mass; and (c) core (pillar) strength.

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MUSCULAR STRENGTH CHARACTERISTICS: POSITION SPECIFIC

The science of examining rugby and its participants has developed rapidly to meet the increased demand for knowledge on the requirements of the game and characteristics of the players (10,11). Rugby union players have a diverse range of physical attributes, and a distinct physique will naturally orient a player toward a particular position over others (29). The scrum is a critical part of rugby union, resulting in a set contest between opposition forward packs, with dominance in this area, a critical factor related to ball possession. The scrum organization is a 3-4-1 pattern, involving 3 players in the front row, the hooker bound between a tighthead and loosehead prop, 2 second rowers who bind together behind the front row, 2 breakaways who each bind onto the outside of a second rower, and finally the lock (or number 8) who binds behind the second row.

Briefly, the front row position demands strength and power in the scrums. The second rowers have a larger body mass, optimal strength is essential, and added power is a distinct advantage. The loose forwards require optimal strength and power, as their position requires them to defend as well as retain and turn over possession. Strength is essential for the halfback as he is constantly in among his own and opposition forwards in physical situations and must have good acceleration, thus the development of speed strength is of major importance. The inside backs require speed strength and power due to the high intensity of contact with the opposition in defense and attack, whereas outside backs require speed strength in attacking situations and for cover defending (10).

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BODY MASS

Body mass of elite rugby union players has increased significantly over the past 3 decades with an increase of 2.6 kilograms per decade (27), which is well above those of the general population of young men. Therefore, it would be fair to assume that the natural progression is for subelite-grade players to improve at a comparable rate. If this is the case, it is vital that athletes progress through each level of rugby, for example, schoolboy, grade, state, and national and improve their strength base to allow for a successful transition to the next level of competition. While there are limited data on this transition in rugby union, Baker (2) suggests that, in rugby league players ranging from junior high school level to national level, as the athletes become bigger and stronger with age and training experience, they also become stronger per kilogram of body mass. The trained junior high school, senior high school, college, and elite professional rugby league players are capable of lifting 102, 115, 124, and 148% of their body mass in the 1-repetition maximum (1RM) bench press, respectively.

Given that both football codes in Australia (rugby and league) follow similar school age progressions, one may argue that a similar progression in strength capabilities may be found in rugby. The value of strength training in collision sport athletes can be drawn from a series of studies by Kraemer (22), which have shown that strength training increases levels of fat-free mass, strength expression, and power projection in athletes, underlying the importance of such a training modality for rugby athletes.

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CORE STRENGTH

Rugby union requires a strong body core to stabilize the trunk and help maintain correct posture while changing direction at speed, and this is essential to efficiently transfer force from the ground during contact phases. The core is defined as the link between the shoulders, trunk, and hips (33) and may be described as the pillar (or pelvic/spinal stability). A lack of pelvic/spinal stability is often a phenomenon created by lack of core strength in an attempt to stabilize the body during movement (33). Development of pelvic/spinal stability benefits the player in allowing efficient execution of rugby skills and reduces injury risk (8). This is achieved by selecting exercise that integrates core strength, which allows the athlete to stabilize the body in varying body positions that are encountered throughout a game. Exercises used for training the core can be varied to reflect the postural adjustment experienced in the game. In this context, we have extensively used variations of strongman and functional integration training adapted to optimize functional performance.

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PROGRAM DESIGN

Strength training is considered an essential component of preseason conditioning for rugby union (5), and it is well accepted that to maximize the benefits of strength training, periodization is the cornerstone training principle used for the long-term development of strength and power (12,32).

A rugby-specific general and specific preparation phase strength training program is presented in this article for the purposes of practically demonstrating the points and concepts put forward. The program was conducted over a 21-week preparatory period and broken into 9 weeks of general preparation and 12 weeks of specific preparation.

The general preparation phase included a total of 32 strength sessions concentrating on muscular hypertrophy. The specific preparation phase addressed optimal strength and power, which consisted of 18 optimal strength sessions and 12 power sessions. The primary goal was to develop optimal and functional strength, followed by power transition for the upcoming season. However, the reader should be aware that the application of such a program will depend on the specific individual characteristics of the athlete and should be tailored to meet their individual characteristics and goals. Additionally, it is imperative that S&C coaches address all specific components in the preparatory period, including strength, power, endurance, speed, acceleration, and agility. However, the interference principle, as related to concurrent training, suggests that heavy endurance training, long-interval work, and continuous running can limit strength gains (12). It is important that qualities previously trained are not diminished through the following phases, and this can be addressed by short retraining phases within current mesocycles.

The goals selected for the preseason program are as follows:

  • Increasing structural stability and mobility
  • Reducing injury risk
  • Preparing the athlete for the higher training intensity of the following training period

Additionally, it is firmly established that the effectiveness of a strength training program to achieve a specific training outcome (i.e., muscular endurance, hypertrophy, maximal strength, or power) depends on manipulation of several key training variables and training principles (6,21), these include

  • frequency
  • intensity
  • volume
  • periodization

From a sport-specific perspective, we will use the term “optimal” strength rather than “maximal” strength throughout the article, as our goal is not development of maximal strength of players, but rather optimal strength given their playing positions.

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FREQUENCY

Frequency is the number of training sessions completed each week and will vary with the phase of training cycle the athlete is in. The frequency of training is critical if the athlete is to gain maximum benefits from the program but must take into account the athlete's other training commitments as the season nears such as conditioning phase requirements, skill, and team drills.

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INTENSITY

Intensity refers to the relative load or resistance that the muscle is required to work against. In the majority of strength training programs, intensity is expressed as a percentage of 1RM (6). However, intensity can also be prescribed using the repetition maximum range method, which is more routinely administered by practicing S&C professionals and is the protocol used in this article. This equates to the load lifted as a percentage of the maximum lift an athlete can lift once only. Intensity can also be measured by how many repetitions can be completed before failure. It should also be noted that the intensity can be increased by using a heavier resistance or increasing the speed when a given weight is moved. Increasing the intensity of an exercise by increasing velocity is important if the major goal is to increase the power output of the muscle and not just the ability to lift maximal loads.

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VOLUME LOAD

Volume load is the amount of work that is completed during a training session and is most often calculated in weight training as repetitions multiplied by sets (6). Larger volumes of training appear to be important when the main objective of the program includes a decrease in fat mass and an increase in lean body mass or hypertrophy.

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PERIODIZATION

The basic principle of periodization is a shift in emphasis from high-volume (exercise × sets × repetitions) to low-intensity (percent maximum effort) training to low-volume and high-intensity training (18). A good periodized plan is essential among conflicting demands. The conventional approach has been to design the program sequentially, for instance, off-season preparation with nonspecific strength training and after that changing to highly specific technique routines. Given that the training year is divided into distinct phases (mesocycles), each mesocycle relates to a specific change in volume and intensity of training and may last 6 to 12 weeks depending on the needs of the athlete.

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MESOCYCLE 1: HYPERTROPHY PHASE (8 WEEKS: START NOVEMBER TO END DECEMBER 2008)

The hypertrophy phase is devoted to increasing muscular size and strength. In rugby union, which is a high collision sport, any increase in optimal strength and size without compromising position-specific qualities such as speed, power, and flexibility is desirable. This phase, as with the entire program, may be varied dependent on the athletes' specific requirements or deficiencies they need to address for optimal functional improvement. Intensity is lower in this phase than in the maximal strength and power phases, and this allows for a higher volume workload by increasing variables such as total exercises performed, to target specific areas, as well as manipulating the sets and repetitions performed during the sessions. This can be achieved by using split routines such as upper- and lower-body workouts (Tables 1 and 2). During this phase, we also address any muscle imbalances (i.e., opposing muscle groups) as well as strength deficits (i.e., upper- and/or lower-body discrepancies).

Table 1

Table 1

Table 2

Table 2

The S&C coach must ensure that the muscle balance of the agonist and antagonist is maintained (31), and if an imbalance exists (Table 3), it must be rectified to avoid the athlete developing inefficient movement patterns. Therefore, the S&C coach must ensure that the athlete's weaknesses or imbalances are addressed at the outset of their program. This can be achieved by way of strength diagnosis testing (26) and/or the use of functional movement screening (9). During this phase, 2 to 3 sessions per week of 25 to 40 minutes of low-impact activities are included to develop general endurance without impeding gains in lean muscle mass. Activities such as swimming, cycling, and rowing are examples of activities that can be implemented as they have minimal impact on joints such as the hip, knees, and ankles that will be stressed during the season, and minimizing impact at this stage of preparation is desirable. No sport-specific training or plyometric sessions are implemented during this phase. At the conclusion of the first cycle is a 1-week unloading period of active rest, which includes unstructured training such as cycling, running, swimming, and recreational games. This allows a break from the core program to avoid accumulation of progressive fatigue from the training demands of the hypertrophy phase.

Table 3

Table 3

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MESOCYCLE 2: MAXIMAL STRENGTH PHASE (6 WEEKS: START JANUARY to MID FEBRUARY 2009)

Maximal strength is the ability to exert maximal force of the muscles that control particular body movements (6), with this strength quality as an integral component to determining success in rugby due to its requirement in contact situations (10). As such, the development of maximal strength should be a central component for any athlete committed to improving athletic performance (16). It is important to progress an athlete's strength base with a sport-specific regimen. Therefore, strength training exercises selected follow specific movement patterns and/or muscle actions involved in rugby union, as this will promote a greater transfer-of-training effect.

Appropriate exercise selection involves the relevant musculature for the sport, as well as the synergistic muscles critical for successful movement outcomes. When designing a maximal strength program, it is essential to use and evaluate many options and determine which will include the best exercise option to meet the objectives (e.g., weightlifts, powerlifting techniques, and strongman training or a combination of all these).

Maximal strength program design is based around multi-joint and structural compound exercises such as bench press, squat, and deadlift. However, exercises such as power cleans and many of the weightlifting variations have gained acceptance for strength and power athletes, as risk of injury is low when undertaken under the guidance of a qualified S&C coach (17). Such compound exercises are advantageous as they use recruitment patterns similar to specific positions within the game. An example would be the squat for the front rowers engage position and power cleans as specific to the second rower for lineout jumping.

Exercises such as the squat and lunge (and their variants) offer functional transfer in relation to scrimmaging, allow the body to work through similar muscle recruitment patterns and joint angles through the hips, knees, and ankles. Selecting exercises to assist the development of strength and power to produce functional sport-specific gains can be challenging, and awareness of the similarities between recognized lifts and their desired performance outcomes that can directly translate to the desired sport skill is critical. Finally, the last 2 weeks of the optimal strength phase incorporate some strongman-type exercises to further promote pillar strength such as tire flips (Figure 1), water pipe runs (Figure 2; PVC pipe, 2.5 m, filled with 75% water), and sledgehammer drills (Figure 3). The introduction of these exercises allows the body a short adaptation phase before progressing into the power phase.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

It is suggested that maximal strength can be converted to power in a relatively short time (7), as such the conclusion of the strength phase (Tables 4 and 5) is followed by a sport-specific transition into the power phase to prepare the athlete for competition. Other sessions included in this phase are conditioning work consisting of shorter running drills of <400 m to increase tolerance levels for higher intensity fartlek drills of 200 to 400 m, 2 times per week, preparing the athlete for more intense drills in the following phase. This is also an ideal phase to include some game-specific activities using the football and running lines/channels, which provide the maintenance component for cardiovascular fitness. The athlete again has a 1-week unloading period to assist in reducing the fatigue levels both physically and psychologically of an intensive strength phase and to assist in a rejuvenated approach for the following mesocycle.

Table 4

Table 4

Table 5

Table 5

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MESOCYCLE 3: SPORT-SPECIFIC TRANSITION TO POWER PHASE (6 WEEKS: MID FEBRUARY TO END MARCH 2009)

Power has been defined as the optimal combination of speed and strength (1) and is an essential strength characteristic for the rugby union players to break and execute tackles, get to breakdowns with speed and explosive force, and to commit to the general physical confrontations they face in their individual positions. However, it is important that prior to commencing a sport-specific power routine, the athlete has completed a specifically designed maximal strength phase to ensure his/her readiness for this phase. Tests that have a strong validity and proven reliability, such as the vertical jump and 1RM lifts, would be highly beneficial in the assessment of individual strength qualities (10). Such assessments are easy to use for monitoring maximal strength and power in rugby players. It is important to determine if the athlete possesses optimal strength, and once established, a power program can be implemented (13).

Power development for rugby emphasizes force and speed (3,4,15), and this can be divided into 2 subqualities of speed strength, these being high-load and low-load speed strength (26). First, high-load speed strength emphasizes quick application of force against a large resistance (>30% of maximum), such as weightlifting movements (19). Weightlifting is extremely effective at building intermuscular coordination, as the lifts are multi-joint and must have precise timed contraction and relaxation of opposing muscle groups to provide smooth fluid movement and force application (25). The power clean and its variants are dynamic lifts designed to increase power production (20) and are commonly recommended in power programs. Furthermore, athletes trained in weightlifting techniques have an extremely high capacity to develop power, which is necessary for success in sport (19). Conversely, low-load speed strength is performed as rapidly as possible against relatively small resistance (<30% of maximum). An example of this is plyometric exercise such as unloaded jump squats (20). The sport-specific transition to power phase is presented in Tables 6 and 7.

Table 6

Table 6

Table 7

Table 7

As a supplement to traditional power training, strongman-based strength/power exercises are ideal for transferring the strength gains attained in the previous cycle (30). We have successfully incorporated strongman exercises into field training sessions, with the goal of adapting strength/power gains into more functional and open conditions. Examples of these exercises can be 1 and 2 man heavy tire flips, incorporating 4 consecutive flips with each tire set up in a small grid to emphasize approaching “through the gate” and encouraging the desired outcome of shoulders above the hips in clean-out situations.

Also, using heavy sledgehammers in a rail chain gang drill, with 2 players working alternately to powerfully drive onto a solid forklift tire in a downward and rotational action. This drill uses power to be driven off both sides, which closely simulates the action required to pull an opposition player forcefully to the ground. Weighted sleds pulled with an arm over arm action and medicine ball rope rotations are examples of routines that can be used to transfer gains to more functional actions.

Additional sessions included in this phase are plyometric work to compliment the power training component 2 times per week. Fartlek work is ongoing with the intervals being reduced and distances ranging from 50 to 200 m and position-specific distances also trained. Sport-specific drills and running patterns are ideal prior to team sessions with their rugby coaches, conducted 2 times per week. The end of the sport-specific transition culminates in a 1-week unloading period to assist in addressing the physiological and psychological well-being of the athlete preparing for the stressors of the upcoming season. It is important that the relationship between the athlete and the coach allows for individualized protocols during the recovery weeks based on the athletes' requirements.

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CONCLUSION

Preseason strength training is fundamental in the physical preparation for rugby players, in that the better prepared the athlete is physically to tolerate the sport-specific physical demands (i.e., run, tackle, and scrimmage), the greater the chance of sporting success and lower the chances of injury. To strengthen the musculoskeletal system, the training stimulus has to be constantly varied to optimize the development of strength qualities, specifically hypertrophy, maximal strength, and power, and this is best achieved through a systematic approach to strength training program design (1). For example, if the training stimulus remains constant, it will be ineffective in enhancing adaptations and the athlete will become stale.

Variation throughout the strength training program can be achieved by manipulating the acute training variables such as sets, repetitions, speed of movement, or rest intervals (6). This will ensure variety while remaining within the set criteria of the specific phase you are training. A periodized strength program is the most effective way of changing the training stimulus and this should be viewed as an essential component of effective strength training program design. As the competition phase approaches, greater demands are placed on the athletes for technical and tactical aspects of rugby union. Therefore, S&C coaches need to be mindful of time constraints and be able to implement programs that are both practical and time efficient while still being able to achieve the specific training outcome. Finally, we should strive to adapt training techniques to be as sport specific as possible, with the ultimate goal of maximizing the carryover of functional strength gains from the gym to the playing field (i.e., transfer-of-training effect), thereby optimizing athletic performance while reducing injury risk.

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Keywords:

strength training; rugby; periodization; general preparation

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