Women's Rugby: Resistance training for rugby

A women's rugby trainer divulges her rugby conditioning secrets from the World Cup

Article at a glance:

In May 2002, England's women's rugby team came a close second in the Women's Rugby World Cup in Barcelona. I am one of the fitness trainers who helped some of the players from the team and this article describes the fitness and rugby conditioning training one of them (player A) undertook over the last nine months leading up to the tournament.

Phase One - pre-season

The preparations for the World Cup started last July. For two months before the start of the club season in September the players completed a 'general preparation' phase of training. During this period the coaching staff aimed to boost maximum strength, especially in the upper body, gaining muscle mass and improving VO2max.

During this period a typical week's training for Player A was as follows:
  • Monday: resistance workout
  • Tuesday: 30-minute steady state jog
  • Wednesday: interval session on rowing machine
  • Thursday: resistance workout
  • Friday: 30 min jog or rowing interval session
  • Saturday: 30 min jog and resistance workout
  • Sunday: Rest

As you can see, this microcycle focuses solely on endurance and strength, comprising four units of endurance training, of which one or two were high-quality interval workouts and three resistance workouts. Complete rest on the Sunday allowed the player to recover mentally and physically in order to maintain her effort during this demanding pre-season training phase.

The interval workout on the rowing machine was used because the player was suffering with a slight hamstring strain which prevented her from running fast: otherwise the interval session would have involved running. The rowing workout itself involved 8x500m row, with two minutes rest between efforts. The target time for each 500m row was under 2 minutes, which was tough and meant Player A was working close to her maximum heart rate. This session is similar to the Veronique Billat session (previously discussed in PP by Owen Anderson), in which the athlete completes 5x3 minutes of hard effort at maximum heart rate pace (vVO2max pace) and then rests for a equal time. These kinds of sessions are very effective at boosting VO2max fast, without requiring a high volume of steady state training. It is well documented in the sports science literature that strength and endurance training are incompatible in that too much endurance training inhibits gains in strength. The major benefit of using the high-intensity interval workouts with a games player is that the volume of endurance can be kept relatively low, enabling improvements in both endurance and strength.

The resistance workout during this pre-season phase was as follows:

Barbell squats 3 x 8
Barbell one-leg squats 3 x 8 each side
Bench press 3 x 8
Single arm row 3 x 8
Incline dumbbell press 3 x 8
Machine-assisted pull-ups 3 x 8

The weights were selected so that the first set was moderately heavy, followed by 3 minutes' rest. For the second set the weights were increased and Player A completed as many repetitions as she could, followed by 3 minutes' rest. If she completed 8 reps or fewer, the weight for the third set remained the same and she attempted as many repetitions as possible. If she achieved more than 8 reps on set 2, the weight was increased for the final set.

This intensity of work together with the length of the rest period ensured the effectiveness of the training for developing strength. From a psychological point of view, Player A was motivated by being able to see improvements in strength every week, as she was able to either push more weight or perform more repetitions.

Sets of 8 repetitions were selected to strike a balance between maximum strength gain and muscle hypertrophy. Ideally, sets of 5-6 RM are used for max strength development, whereas bodybuilders tend to favour sets of 12 RM with shorter recoveries; 8 RM is the happy medium.

In the final few weeks of the phase, some of the exercises in the resistance workout were varied to avoid staleness and maintain motivation. In addition, Player A completed a core stability and trunk strength routine 4-5 times a week.

The results from this phase of training were very favourable: at testing, Player A reached the squad VO2max and strength targets, her percentage body fat was reduced and she had gained 2 kg of lean body mass.

Phase Two - club season

The club league season ran from mid-September to January, with a match every Sunday. However, for England players the Six Nations did not start until February and so the coaching staff wanted the players to continue their strength development training, maintain endurance and gradually introduce power training. They reasoned that, since the main goal was to peak in May for the World Cup, some general training must be maintained, like an extended pre-season. This extension in the strength development phase seems to have had positive benefits, as the squad now looks very powerful compared with the other Six Nations' teams.

A typical week's training for Player A during the club season was as follows:

Day AM/ PM
Monday: rest /rest or 25-minute steady state jog
Tuesday: 20-minute jog /heavy resistance workout
Wednesday: rest /club training
Thursday: 20-minute jog /resistance workout
Friday: 20-minute jog/ speed/power workout
Saturday: rest /rest
Sunday: match

As explained above, this microcycle consists mostly of strength and endurance training, with some speed and power work. Because Player A had achieved a good VO2max at the beginning of this phase, we decided she could simply maintain her fitness with 20-minute steady-state jogs 3-4 times a week, which would not interfere greatly with her strength and speed development. The club training and weekly match now counted as the high-quality workouts in the microcycle.

The resistance training was designed so that the main workout with more volume was at the beginning of the week (Tuesday), allowing the player to recover and perform well at the weekend.

Tuesdays workout was as follows:

Exercises Reps: Oct to mid-Nov Reps: Mid-Nov to Jan
Barbell lunges (back) 3 x 8 3 x 6
Barbell one-leg squats 3 x 8 3 x 8
Barbell squat jumps 3 x 8 3 x 6
Dumbbell press 3 x 8 3 x 6
Seated row 3 x 8 3 x 6
Shoulder press 3 x 8 3 x 6
Lat pull-down 3 x 8 3 x 6

As in the pre-season phase, Player A aimed to achieve her 8-repetition max on the second and third sets, using the adjusted rep max system described above. This intensity was increased to 6 RM after mid-November to ensure the programme was progressive and the athlete achieved gains in maximum strength. A second progression was the use of more 'functional' exercises for the legs, including lunges, which require more stabilisation, and squat jumps, which require more power than the squat. By using these exercises, Player A should expect to see greater gains in match performance as well as strength.

The other new element of training in this phase was a weekly speed and power workout performed each Friday. This workout included the following elements:
dynamic flexibility warm-up

  1. The other new element of training in this phase was a weekly speed and power workout performed each Friday. This workout included the following elements:
  2. agility drills - focusing on side-step skills and acceleration technique
  3. resisted sprinting - power training using an elastic resistance rope attached to a belt to add resistance to the sprint running action
  4. 10 x 30m sprints.

The main aim of the workout was to improve Player A's ability to accelerate and cover short distances quickly. This is more important in a game like rugby than the development of maximum speed over 60-100m. The resisted sprints are very effective at improving running technique and leg power, as they add resistance to the running action, working the running muscles most specifically. The results of this phase were again successful, with Player A achieving further gains in strength, big improvements in leg power and a slight increase in VO2max.

Phase Three - the Six Nations season

At the time of writing the team is mid-way through the Six Nations season, which ends in April. The training aims now are much more competition-specific, with the emphasis on building leg power and speed while maintaining strength.

A typical week's training if there is no England game would involve:

Day AM/ PM
Monday: rest/ speed workout
Tuesday: 20-minute jog/ leg power + upper-body strength
Wednesday: rest /speed workout leg power light + upper-body strength
Thursday: rest /agility + speed workout
Friday: rest/ England training
Saturday: England training
Sunday: rest

In this microcycle, the player completes only one steady-state run per week to maintain endurance, but keeps training volume to a minimum, as the emphasis is now on high-quality and high-intensity training only. If there is an England match, a full day's rest is taken on either side.

The leg-power workouts in the gym combine power-oriented weights exercises with plyometric-type exercises. A typical workout is as follows:


Power cleans 4 x 6, 5 mins rest
Crouch-start single-bench hop 2 x 6 each leg, 3 mins rest
Bench-to-bench drop jumps 5 x 5, 3 mins rest
Tuck jumps 3 x 10, 3 mins rest

 

As you can see the volume is low, but intensity high. The rationale for using both weights and plyometric type exercises in one workout is to employ different speeds of movement. Some movements in rugby, such as driving in a ruck or trying to break a tackle, involve high forces and are performed at moderate speed; others, such as sprinting free with the ball, involve lower forces and maximum speed. I therefore chose some exercises with weights, such as the power clean, which requires maximum power to overcome a moderate resistance, together with body weight plyometric-type exercises, which involve maximum speed during the movements. The crouch-start single-bench hop was considered particularly rugby-specific, as it involves jumping on one leg over a bench from a low start position - an action similar to driving in a scrum or starting low from a ruck or maul.

Regardless of type of exercise, in order to develop power and avoid fatigue, the athlete must take long recoveries between sets, and each attempted repetition must be of maximum intensity. At the same time she must make a conscious effort to recruit the muscles as quickly as possible, accelerating the movement as fast as she can. Athletes who attempt to do this with each rep have the best chance of recruiting their biggest and fastest-twitch muscle fibres, thus developing more power.

The speed workouts comprised the following:
dynamic flexibility warm-up
6 x 10m starts, 1 minute's rest
8 x 40m, 3-min recovery

The aim of this workout was to practise sprinting at maximum effort, with adequate recovery. As with power training, high intensity of effort without fatigue is required for speed development; if the rest periods are too short, the workout turns into a speed endurance session, which is a different training goal.

The agility and speed workout was similar to the one above, including more rugby-specific movements. The aim is to improve the players' ability in a match situation, which does not always involve running in a straight line; therefore, each week Player A practises side-stepping at speed, sprinting with the ball, sprinting and catching, picking up the ball and sprinting, sprinting curves, sprint cutting movements etc, to develop as much rugby-specific skill as possible.

Phase Four - World Cup preparation

There will be a few weeks between the end of the Six Nations and beginning of the World Cup, when the goal will be to bring the players to a peak in terms of power, agility and speed. The training will be similar to that used in Phase 3, but progressing to even higher intensity. Players will want to work on some elements more than others in order to fine tune their performance; for Player A, this will consist mostly of speed and agility work, which is most important for her playing position.

From this case study of the training of a member of the England women's team, you can see how the training has been purposefully phased over nine months to optimise performance in the World Cup. Starting with a general base of strength and endurance training lays the foundations for greater power and speed later in the season. Players of other team sports, such as Premier League football, who have a long season and need to be at their peak more than 4-6 months after it starts may also benefit from retaining some general endurance and strength training for the first half of the season.

You should also see how the exercises and workouts in this case study have been chosen to be 'rugby-specific'. A message often repeated in PP is that for optimum results, athletes must be following targeted and functional training programmes. Strength and power exercises need to focus on the specific movements and, if possible, the speed of movements involved in the sport. Speed exercises for games players need to prioritise acceleration over max speed, and also emphasise agility and sport-specific skills while running at speed.

Raphael Brandon

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