Archive for December, 2010

Why Rugby Players Shouldn’t Train Like Bodybuilders

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

It is no mystery that rugby players commonly seek to add as much muscle to their frame (hypertrophy) as possible. Muscle is not only for movement; it also helps protect internal organs, so it makes sense that players want hypertrophy considering that rugby has become more of a collision sport that a contact sport. Another reason that rugby players aim for whole body hypertrophy is the fact that in a contact scenario, the person who exerts the most force comes away the victor. The ideal situation would be to avoid contact and have a continual influx of tries; however, contact is almost unavoidable and a big part of what makes the game fun. With the inevitability of contact and the fact that force rules in a contact situation, players should be aiming to create and exert the maximal amount of force possible.  

Thanks to Newton (who, believe it or not, did not play rugby) the following equation exists:
Force = Mass x Acceleration (f= ma).

Traditionally in rugby there has been tradeoff between speed and size. When the sport was amateur the forwards were typically larger and slower than the backs. Of course, in the professional era there are certain instances where this is still the case (and always will be). For example, a prop will always need a certain amount of mass because of the specific skill required to play this position, whereas a wingers mass isn’t as important as running speed. That said; there are now back-row forwards that are as fast as wingers and wingers that are just as heavy as forwards.

Below is a classic example of what mass (body weight) and acceleration (or speed) can do. Needless to say Jonah Lomu has great genetics for athleticism; however, with training, each person can increase their fat free mass (muscle) and speed (acceleration) until they reach their genetic potential (which can only be achieved after years and years of consistent training).


As an ex-rugby player, I have always been interested in how rugby players train. Over the years I have made several observations, one of which being that rugby players who are not part of a professional strength and conditioning set up lean towards a bodybuilding style of training. It is understandable when you consider the aim of bodybuilding is to have as much muscle mass as possible coupled with the lowest levels of body fat. A bodybuilder has to look aesthetically pleasing to judges. In contrast, a rugby player aims to both avoid contact and score tries, or to produce as much force as possible during contact. In short, a bodybuilder purely wants muscles for ‘show’, but a rugby player needs muscle to ‘go’. Various different texts outline that bodybuilding training typically utilizes the sub maximal methods of weight lifting. (2), (7) This method involves using high reps with many texts recommending a five or six day split to gain muscle mass. (6), (8)  While I have the upmost respect for what competitive bodybuilders have to go through in order to be successful, there are two main reasons why a rugby player shouldn’t train like a bodybuilder.

1.       Acceleration is in the Equation
Research shows that a combination of training protocols is more effective for increasing athletic performance than a single method.(3), (5) Rugby players that choose to continually use loadings that allow eight to twelve repetitions will not be training for optimal force. A hypertrophy (or strength endurance) phase will have merit during the off-season; however, training in the competitive season should be different. Some form of strength-speed and speed-strength training should be carried out by players on the build up to the competitive season, and throughout the season. There are many different ways of planning an increase in power depending on what type of periodization is selected. For example, using the conjugate method of training will involve having an element of speed work all year round. In contrast, block periodization would perhaps have four weeks or more dedicated to speed with each exercise in every session geared toward increasing rate of force development.

Research has shown that most sprinting in a game is less than twenty meters.(1) Consider that a twenty meter sprint lasts a few seconds (give or take) and consider how long it takes to perform eight to twelve reps on a compound movement. Typically the bodybuilding repetition scheme will take more than thirty seconds. (TRY IT: Stand up and perform a squat and pretend you’ve got an appropriate training load. Perform ten repetitions. What was the duration?). Does it make sense to always train in the thirty seconds or above bracket if the majority of sprinting in rugby lasts less than a few seconds? Thus, players who are constantly training with the traditional bodybuilding repetition scheme are neglecting speed training and will not maximize performance.

2.       Different Types of Hypertrophy: To Show or To Go?
Muscle mass is important in rugby. All other factors being equal, it is more desirable to have a player that weighs ninety kilograms with eleven percent body fat than it is to have a player who weighs ninety kilograms with fourteen percent body fat. This is because the former will carry more muscle mass, which means there is more potential for the player to produce force. It is crucial to remember there is more than one kind of hypertrophy and that certain methods can favor a certain type of hypertrophy.

 For Show: Sacroplasmic hypertrophy is the term used to describe an increase in the volume of the non-contractile muscle cell fluid. The cross sectional area of the muscle increases; however, due to the increase in size without the increase of muscle myofibrills, the density of muscle fibers per unit area decreases. This is the kind of hypertrophy is typical in a traditional bodybuilding style of training. (9)

For Go: Myofibrillar hypertrophy occurs when the muscle cell is enlarged by an increase of myofibrils. Due to the increased area density of myofibrils (which are responsible for generating tension in the muscle) the ability to produce more strength occurs. In short, myofibrillar hypertrophy produces an increase in size and strength.

The picture below illustrates this point.


Research has shown that strength training (repetitions between one and six) should be utilized to produce myofibrillar hypertrophy. (4)  This is in contrast to what I have observed with many rugby players. In fact, last Thursday I was in the Scottish Institute of Sport gym in Dundee and observed three rugby players training. They performed a superset of bench press and arm curls starting with fifteen repetitions and working their way down to eight. When I asked them what they were training for they indicated they were trying to increase muscle size. Exercise selection aside, the problem was these guys were not using enough loading to produce any type of hypertrophy, never mind myofibrillar hypertrophy. As I have alluded to, it is a common observation I have made: rugby players training really hard (in terms of effort they put in) without training smart. That said; there is no wrong kind of muscle growth. Even if sacroplasmic hypertrophy occurs, a bigger muscle always has the potential to be a stronger muscle. In the rugby population (or athlete population) it makes more sense to train for size and strength when hypertrophy is the goal, rather than just bodybuiling type sacroplasmic hypertrophy.

Increasing muscle mass is only one part of the equation. To be as powerful as possible, players should aim to increase their fat free mass and rate of force development (acceleration). While there is a place for traditional hypertrophy programs within a year’s training cycle, it is not something that should be done for the entire year.  Unfortunately aiming to be as big and fast as Jonah Lomu is genetically impossible (unless you’re his cousin or brother); however, it is absolutely achievable to increase muscle mass and speed by training smart and hard. And who knows: maybe when your genetic potential is reached you’ll be bigger and faster than the famous All Black.

Moving forward, there are snapshots of a session in the Athletic Development Articles that offer examples of where bodybuilding methods should be used. Further, it is my intention to provide a full and accurate guide of strength and conditioning for the rugby player at a later date.


  1. Cunniffe, B., Proctor, W., Baker, J.S., & Davie, B. (2009). An evaluation of the physiological demands of elite rugby union using global positioning system tracking software. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 23(4), July 2009, pp 1195-1203.
  2. Giebing, J., Frohlich, M., Preuss, P. 2005. Current results of strength training research. Cuvillier Verlag: Gottingen.
  3. Harris, G.R., Stone, M.H., O’Bryant, H.S., Proulx, C.M. & Johnson, R.L. (2000). Unpublished.
  4. Kraemer, William J.; Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M. (2006). Science and practice of strength training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  5. Medvedev, A.S., V.I. Rodionov, V.N. Rogozyzn, and A.E. Gulyants. Training content of weightlifters in the preparatory period. Soviet Sports Rev. 17:90–93. 1982.
  6. Schwarzenegger, M., Dobbins, B. 1999. The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. Simon & Schuster; Re-issue edition.
  7. Siff, M. 2002. Supertraining. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  8. Sisco, P. 2000. Iron mans ultimate guide to building muscle mass. Contemporary Books: USA
  9. Tsatsouline, P. 2000.  Power to the People. Dragon Door Publications.
December: Exercise of the Month

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

The Overhead Squat

Before I even begin discussing the importance of this  exercise I must make this clear: a person must be able to perform a back squat properly before they overhead squat. As my regular readers will know, the exercise of the month series is not about giving coaching cues and describing technique. This is for two reasons:

 1. Most people think they know the technique already and skim past the description.
2. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what is written, people need one on one coaching to perfect technique.

 What the series is intended to do is to outline exercises that should be in your routine at some point or another because they give the ‘biggest bang for your buck’. With that said, the videos are a good indicator of how to perform the exercises you see and, of course, if anyone would like further explanations then simply leave a comment after reading the post.

The overhead squat is one of the most “functional” exercises out there.  Of course, it will train lower body coordination/ strength, and place a huge emphasis on core strength; however, the real value of this exercise comes from challenging the shoulder joint.  This movement activates the stabilizers of shoulder (infraspinatus, teres minor, rhomboid, lower and middle trapezuis) to control the decent. Therefore it is a great exercise for rehabilitating people with rotator cuff problems because research has shown that 100% of individuals with rotator cuff problems show scapular (shoulder blade) instability.[1] Not only will the muscles be working hard to stabilize the shoulder during the overhead squat, but they will be also encounter flexibility challenges.

In the video below I am coaching (a beginner to free squatting) how to overhead squat. This rugby player has predominately trained upper body before starting my programming and as a result his shoulder flexibility isn’t fantastic. Further, his ankle mobility needs work before he is able to squat below parallel without compromising his lumbar spine. That said; his already established strength will make it easy to progress this exercise and instead of using it as a filler exercise it will be a movement that we can progressively overload.

This exercise has just as much value for an elite sports person as it does for a beginner. Here is an example of where to start and where to work up to:

FMT Variations for Beginners

  • Perform correctly without anything in the hands
  • Add a band and keep tension on the band

FMT Variations for Intermediates

  • Use a wooden stick and utilize a wide hand placement
  • Use an empty barbell and utilize a wide hand placement

FMT Variations for Advanced Trainees

  • Follow progressive overload
  • Add in a behind-the-neck press at the bottom of the movement (which is another exercise)

 A Word of Warning
Needless to say, no one should undergo any exercises I recommend if they are injured. Likewise, if there is a case of previous injuries then a physiotherapist or medical professional should give the ‘go ahead’ before attempting certain movements.

The overhead squat is not an exercise to underestimate. To give an idea, I only use a band to perform this movement and usually complete 2 x 10 as part of my warm up. That said; it is something I highly recommend to add into your regime because it will help improve day-to-day posture and strengthen the core muscles.


[1] Voight, M., and B. Thompson. The role of the scapula in the rehabilitation of shoulder injuries J Athletic Train 2000 35(3):364–372.