Rugby players are a different breed. The sport asks absolutely everything of them; endurance, speed, mobility, agility, and explosive power—just to top things off.
It goes without saying that these men and women are athletes who aren’t just performing at the top of their game but also performing at the top of their athletic ability. And whether or not you have plans to run out on the pitch any time soon, you can still learn a lot even if you’re not planning to join a rugby team.
Below we’ve shared a sport-specific workout plan to follow based on the many athletic factors that rugby requires you to excel at, followed by advice to give you that extra edge.
This sport is intense; there’s no arguing that. It’s also common to think or hear how similar rugby and American football seem to be, so we’ll address that right off the bat.
As we saw in our look at JJ Watts’ workout routine, football players tend to lean much more into their explosive power and size. Furthermore, each individual position is highly specialized and requires different skills and athletic nuances. While rugby also takes a significant amount of explosive power and strength, players usually require more cardiovascular endurance since it’s less of a stop-and-go sport (compared to football).
This leads us into the first factor of what it takes to be a rugby player: endurance.
Like we mentioned above, the endurance needs of your typical rugby player are relatively high, especially when compared to football players.
A stronger cardiovascular means a number of things. For one, you’ll be able to recover faster after a period of exertion, especially when it comes to getting your breath back. Having a good cardiovascular base to work off of means that you won’t be hitting any walls throughout the game, effectively being able to keep playing when the other team is already gassing out.
However, while this is an important aspect of the sport, it’s arguably more essential to be fast.
Unlike in the stories, slow and steady does not win the race. Rugby relies on moments of explosive play on the pitch in order for one team to come out ahead. These moments where explosive energy is required can last anywhere from a few seconds to a minute, so it’s important to train for these scenarios.
Any kind of start/stop method of cardio, like high-intensity interval training, for example, is a good way to develop the anaerobic needs that rugby requires.
But while how fast you run in a straight line is important, it’s just as important to be able to change direction quickly and turn on a dime. The faster you can make, process, and perform these movement decisions, the better you’ll be at evading. This can also be thought of as the mind-muscle connection.
This is one of those things that aren’t just helpful for rugby players, but for all lifters—yet it often goes ignored. Having a full range of motion won’t just help you prevent injuries when you’re on the pitch, but it’ll also do wonders for your lifts. You can’t get the most out of bench press or squat if your muscles and joints won’t let you go through the full range of motion.
While we’re not saying you go out and become a gymnast, having a good flexible base is a sure-fire way to up your game. And it’ll help keep you in the game for longer; a flexible muscle is less likely to tear than a flexible one.
And let’s not forget about the reason most people train in the first place: big guns and a powerful physique. While the former might not be as useful for rugby, the latter is definitely what we’re gunning for.
Power and strength go hand-in-hand but what’s of particular importance is the explosive kind of strength—otherwise known as power. You need to be able to exude a large amount of energy in a short time when the game hinges on one of your actions, and that’ll only happen if you properly train that explosive strength. However, bodybuilding is not what we’re shooting for here with a rugby specific workout.
Muscular endurance is also important so that you don’t get gassed out too early on in the game.
Taking the characteristics above, we can create a sort of model for what a successful rugby training session should look like. There are three main areas we can look at that can be incorporated into a regular lifting workout plan.
The first, most obvious type of activity, is weight training.
The benefits of weight training (for anyone, not just rugby players) are too long to list. They include things like improved speed, joint stability, and help to prevent injuries, coordination, and let’s not forget about improved self-confidence. We can break this down into two areas when focusing on rugby.
When it comes to the upper body, you want some size and strength to your muscles in order to prevent potential injuries. Not only will the extra padding help, but you’ll also look that much more intimidating (and maybe the other team won’t mess with you as much).
Much like with the upper body, strengthening the core area will aid in spinal stability and strength, helping you be more agile.
The lower body is going to be all about that explosive strength—especially when it comes to the hips. You want to be able to pounce and jump, and not get hurt while you’re doing that. Which is why plyometrics is an important ingredient as well.
Plyometrics is essentially jumping. It’s characterized by strong contractions in the lower body for explosive movements, such as box jumps, for example. Plyometrics as training is often used in sports such as basketball, gymnastics, or diving. All of these rely on some sort of strong, explosive contraction in the lower body—much like rugby.
This full-body training program is based on the one used by England Rugby, containing all of the above aspects of a proper rugby training plan and hitting all the muscle groups.
It’s meant to be done in training blocks, where the first one is done anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks, followed by the second and then the third. The third block is organized into two circuits which you do back to back, taking anywhere from 2 to 3 minutes rest in between. Each workout is meant to be done 2 to 3 times per week, and the amount of weight you use is dependent on the individual.
Along with working your core and basically your entire lower body, the barbell lunge will also increase the much-needed flexibility in your hips, aid in functional strength gains, and help you achieve better balance. When it comes to training for rugby, this is a juggernaut of an exercise.
You can’t have much of a strength training regime without the almighty bench press, can you? Tacking on the dumbbells might not allow you to lift as much weight, but dumbbells are great for keeping both sides of your body symmetrical when it comes to development.
Rows come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re all terrific movements to do when training your back muscles. This, in turn, helps with posture and your core stability. As the name suggests, you’ll have more support in this variation than in others, which should allow you to move more weight.
An incredible bodyweight exercise, everyone is at least somewhat familiar with the humble pull-up. While it’s a great back and core workout, make sure you have the correct form. Improper form can lead to injuries and having a limited range of motion won’t do much in the way of gains. Chin-ups can be a good substitute if done correctly if you have mobility issues.
While you won’t be able to lift off, supermans are great for strengthening the lower and upper portions of your back. They also engage your hamstrings and glutes while increasing your abdominal strength.
This is a popular exercise with athletes, and if it’s not in your repertoire yet, then it’s high time to add it. This movement helps with all twisting motions, allowing you to change direction quickly while also developing core strength.
A bread-and-butter lift for many, the Romanian deadlift helps to develop the erector spinae, gluteus maximus, adductors, and hamstrings. Both your core and your entire lower body will feel the burn with this one.
The barbell will allow you to lift more, allowing you to get all the gains you possibly can. This is one of (if not the) best upper body weightlifting exercise out there. Remember to brace both your core and the glutes in order to get the most you can out of this exercise.
A move so good, it had to be included twice.
The frog jump is a terrific movement for athletes that are looking to increase their speed and explosive power. It’ll work essentially your entire lower body while improving mobility in the hips and also getting your heart pumping.
Another great plyometric exercise, box jumps are the way to go if you want to become faster, springier, and have a more powerful lower body. Expect to feel the burn in your glutes, quads, calves, and hamstrings—with your heart rate way up.
This move will train your strength, speed, and stability. It works as an effective way to develop core strength, but specifically the way in which the core resists rotations and lateral flexion—aka, side bending.
If you’re looking for an explosive jump, this is the exercise for you. Not only will you improve your vertical, but you’ll also run faster, kick harder, and have a better posture. All the muscles in your posterior chain will be thanking you.
Another great plyometric movement, broad jumps will be a boon for improving your lower body power output. Your leg strength will improve, along with your balance and acceleration on the pitch.
That’s right, more bench pressing. Not only will you have a powerful upper body, but you’ll also be jacked as hell.
An Olympic move that’s extensively used by athletes, the power clean is another juggernaut of a lift that helps to develop your explosive strength. It’ll make you run faster, jump higher and further, it’ll help with your other lifts, while also improving your coordination in the meantime. It’s also an excellent fat burner if you’re looking to tone down a little.
Once again, the barbell lunge will improve your core stability, lower body strength, and overall balance.
While plyometrics are most often utilized in the realm of the lower body, that doesn’t the upper body can’t have a piece of the action too. Not only enhancing core stability, plyometric push-ups also serve to improve shoulder mobility, reflexes, and upper body strength in general. Their uniqueness comes from their focus on the “fast-twitch” muscle fibers of the upper body, which not only maximizes explosiveness but also strength.
Like most rows, the dumbbell row places a key emphasis on strengthening both your back and your grip. Furthermore, your biceps can also see some gains. These also serve to improve posture. Since the dumbbell row has less support than the supported dumbbell row, your core will also need to be engaged in order to prevent you from tipping over to the side.
Similarly to the landmine rotation, the landmine press is a good way to develop shoulder stabilization, core stability, and increase overall strength—especially in the scapula and tricep. Furthermore, it’s a great substitute exercise for people who might have trouble doing overhead presses.
Conditioning is one of the key aspects of a good rugby training routine, and it should take center-stage in your program. There are three ways to split the conditioning aspect of the training.
The first type of conditioning you should be doing is sprinting. Getting your anaerobic conditioning up is essential for those explosive, fast sprints you’ll be doing on the pitch. This high-intensity aspect of the training can last anywhere from intervals of a few seconds to a few minutes, in order to simulate a real game.
At the same time, one shouldn’t forget about long-distance running. The aerobic aspect is just as essential in a game that can last for 90 minutes. Your cardiovascular health needs to be a focus, so you don’t get gassed out too early in the game.
Lastly, there is cardio specific training for rugby. Something like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) would be a fantastic strategy to follow. It simulates the more casual, steady-state running interspersed with high-intensity sprints, as is found in rugby games.
Your flexibility and mobility are essential for rugby games. They help you avoid injuries and they allow you to better control your body and its strength—not to mention helping you with your lifts.
While a good cooldown or warm-up stretch is a good start, it’s really important to incorporate a real stretching program into your regular fitness routine. Specifically for rugby, stretching the hamstrings and hip flexors is crucial for avoiding pulled or torn muscles.
Between working out and running on the pitch, your body is going to need a ton of fuel. And not just to keep you going, but also to keep building your rugby strength, endurance, and mobility.
While it might be tempting to indulge in junk food when you’re burning through so many calories and constantly active, your body will thank you if you stick to a whole food diet. Things like high-quality proteins, complex carbs, and healthy fats will help you feel good throughout the day while also being good for longevity—not to mention they’ll build muscle.
If you want to be at the top of your game, a diet plan you can stick to is absolutely key.
But along with diet is rest—and a lot of it. Putting your body through the rugby wringer, plus training, is going to be brutal. You want to consolidate the gains made in the gym and on the pitch? Get a good night’s rest.