Pre Season Rugby Training With Our Dubai based PT – Max Physick
The UAE Rugby season 2017/18 is fast approaching, and after a while off, due to work commitments, our resident personal trainer – Max Physick is chomping at the bit to get stuck in and back on the rugby pitch. This week saw his first pre-season session of the year, and it certainly opened his eyes to the amount of work needed to do before fixtures. Granted it was his first Dubai pre season rugby conditioning session in a while and in 40º heat was never going to be easy, but that’s no excuse to not choke down a teaspoon of concrete and get back in the trenches.
This year, he’s joined a new local rugby club and after one session he could see that he was going to have to put some effort in if he want to be competitive within the rugby squad and secure a starting position. If you’re anything like him however, this will motivate you to get your head down and graft to lay foundations for a successful rugby season ahead.
Max’s Pre Season Rugby Content Sections
- Training frequency
- What to expect
- Strength training & periodisation
- The Conjugate System
- Example program
- Rest times
- Energy Systems
- More About Max Physick
So, to business. Pre-season rugby training (also known as PST) is a must for any ambitious team. It’s a chance to blow off the cobwebs, strip the glue from your joints, build strength and conditioning and to start getting your head back on and in the right frame of mind for a busy rugby season. If you’re joining a new club or looking for options, it’s helpful to attend a training session, give it a good go and see what’s-what with the rugby club. Obviously there is the chance to meet new people as well, always a plus here in Dubai. If you gel with the coaches and players; excellent, you’ve found your team for the year.
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Social rugby aside, PST gives you a good opportunity to bring your fitness levels back up after a summer of hiding under a rock, the occasional brunch and holidaying. Most local rugby clubs will train twice per week, sometimes with a bonus gym session of a weekend, though if you really want to make good inroads into your match fitness, this should only be the foundation of your efforts.
Twice per week is a good start, however to make real progress you will likely need to hit around 4 or 5 sessions per week to cover all required aspects and skills of the game. If you can’t commit to 4-5, then 2 team run outs and your own gym session would be enough to start moving towards match fitness.
What to expect
What do you do? Good question. You’ll more than likely be flogged to within an inch of vomit during team sessions, which will deposit some good pennies towards your conditioning, though you will still need to work on your strength if you want to perform in the set piece, breakdown or contact.
My last article spoke about 7s rugby training, notably the 3 different energy systems and how best to mould your training to benefit them. 7s rugby in Dubai is very cardiovascularly based; here we will delve a little deeper into 15s and how you can also build your strength to compliment your game.
Strength Training & Periodisation
Periodisation is manipulation of training variables during a ‘period’ of training, in this case (if we assume that you have 4 weeks to train) a mesocycle of 4 weeks. Note – a macrocycle is a whole season or year of periodisation, a mesocycle is a number of months or weeks, and a microcycle is a week or days.
Competitive periodisation generally follows a ‘taper’ the closer you get to competition. Let’s say you had 4 weeks to get ready for 1 game; you would build fast, before tapering down to rest/maintain before the game so you were at full strength & condition to perform. In this context, you would build over your 4-week pre-season block, before a slight taper for warm-up games, moving to a maintenance phase during season. PST is the time to really push and set records, whereas in-season is where you maintain, not looking to set any records in the gym and risk injury or a decrease in performance.
Let’s look at an example periodisation block below:
- Week 1 – Maximal/absolute strength and hypertrophy
- Week 2 – Hypertrophy focus
- Week 3 – Hypertrophy and power
- Week 4 – Power & taper
Conditioning will be slotted around the strength block where appropriate, combined with team run-outs and skill based rugby training sessions.
Within your periodised blocks is where you can get creative. My influences with programming include Westside Barbell and Joe DeFranco amongst others, though these two have been prevalent in my career for a long time.
The Conjugate System
You simply cannot argue with Louie Simmons’ conjugate system (building some of the strongest powerlifters in the world), and Joe D continues to polish decorated NFL athletes during their off-season.
Let’s use the conjugate system as an example of how you would structure a 4 day strength program (in our Dubai context; Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday/Friday with team sessions Monday/Wednesday).
- Sunday – Max effort day – near maximal compound lifts, with a few accessories
- Monday – Team training, no lifting, conditioning
- Tuesday – Dynamic effort day – focussing on bar speed and power with a few accessories
- Wednesday – Team training, no lifting, conditioning
- Thursday – Same as day 1 with slight exercise rotations
- Friday – Same as day 2 with slight exercise rotations
- Saturday – Complete rest
Let’s take this above structure, applied to ‘week 1 – maximal strength & hypertrophy’. Here we want to drive up strength as much as possible using the conjugate system. In a simplified session outline, it could look like this:
Week 1 Maximal Strength Block
Session 1 Example (Max Effort Day)
- Back Squat at 85% 1RM – 5 x 5
- Bench Press at 85% 1RM – 5 x 5
- Seal Row / Bench Supported Barbell Row at 85% 1RM – 5 x 5
- DB Step Up – 3 x 10
- Prone Hamstring Curl – 3 x 8
- Weighted Push Up – 3 x 10
- DB Row – 3 x 10
You’d then move into;
Session 2 Example (Dynamic Day)
- Speed Box Squat at 50% 1RM – 6 x 2
- Banded Speed Bench at 50% 1RM – 6 x 2
- Pendlay Row at 50% 1RM – 6 x 2
- Box Jump (weighted where possible) – 3 x 6
- Reverse Hyper or Back Extension – 3 x 10
- Explosive Deficit Push Up – 3 x 6
- Speed Band Row – 3 x 10
The above rep ranges are appropriate for maximal strength AND hypertrophy. For purely hypertrophy I wouldn’t go any less than 6; 6-9/8-12 rep ranges are usually effective. If you wanted purely strength you could drop to 3 or below. If, for example, you were continuing the conjugate method and were in the power phase, you could change to singles or doubles to offset any central nervous system burnout and work more on moving the bar fast.
Rest times and rep tempo will vary across the block, though for strength development combined with hypertrophy, controlled eccentric (lowering) followed by fast concentric (lifting) phases will ensure both adaptations are met. Rest times will again vary on what you are working towards; e.g. for maximum strength anywhere up to 5 minutes to allow the central nervous system to recover between sets, whereas hypertrophy can be from 60-180 seconds generally.
Training exercise selection will vary dependant on your goal or weaknesses, highlighted through testing. Understandably in a Dubai-based rugby team, setting it is difficult to go through specific performance analysis, so apply exercises that most apply to you and your rugby position specific needs. For example, I will throw in some overhead pulling at speed to help develop power for my lineout throws, whereas a prop could add in some heavy ‘good mornings’ to develop strength at the hip and through the back, ideal for supporting load in a scrum.
Note that there are many other exercises that can be applied here that are specific to max effort and dynamic movements, such as the deadlift, front squat, power clean etc., but for the purpose of this article and simplicity I’ve kept the program example simple. At the end of the day, being conditioned, fit and fast is the most important thing on the rugby pitch, but being strong like bull will make sure you run through contact when you get there.
By no means is the above example a strict Westside programme; rather a combination of influences in an easy to follow, adaptable structure following Westside principles. Invest in shifting some tin at this stage, it will undoubtedly pay off when you flatten the defensive line.
I will be brief here, as working energy systems isn’t as complicated as periodised strength training, though still just as important. You have 3 main systems at work on the field:
- ATP-PC System – <10s, explosive, fast & powerful max effort work
- Glycolytic/Anaerobic System – Up to about a minute before power declines
- Oxidative/Aerobic System – Low intensity/output, long duration
To put the above into context, imagine a high output scrum, before sprinting across the field to the breakdown and back to the other side for the next (being a forward can really suck sometimes), before a recovery jog back to the next set piece or stoppage. Those are the above energy systems in action in their respective order.
You can train all of these separately or together, or both in one rugby training session. Let’s take the latter for our example here:
Block 1 – 10 minutes – ATP-PC
Short distance, maximal sprint efforts with walk recovery. You could add a weighted sled or prowler push for resistance to really maximise effectiveness.
Block 2 – 15 mins – Glycolytic
Grappling / continuous overhead med ball throws, or slams / longer distance resisted sprint efforts / air bike – roughly a minute or so in duration with a minute rest (interval time will vary).
Block 3 – 15-20 mins – Oxidative
Long run efforts / sled walks / touch rugby
Get effective at your 3 energy system demands and you will be a strong contender on the rugby pitch. Obviously you have your team training to work on your skills, but putting in extra position-specific practice will hugely benefit your game. As soon as Michael Jordan lost the playoffs, he was straight back on the court the next day practicing his shots for the next season.
Skill execution and decision making when you are fatigued is a game-winning aspect. For example, if I was to goose a lineout ball on the 5m with 2 minutes on the clock, that could be the difference between the playoffs or not. So, during team training when you’re sucking wind, keep your head up and your mind sharp and develop your rugby game under pressure.
You can only train as hard as you can recover. This much-overlooked aspect of physical preparation is vitally important and should be programmed in just as regularly as strength training or conditioning. Joints, muscle, connective/soft tissue and the central nervous system all need time out of training, complemented with plenty of nourishing foods and calories to improve and develop. You don’t change in the gym or on the field; there you apply the stimulus. The development comes when you rest, recover, eat and sleep, so make sure you get enough of each to ensure continual progression.
Finally, a good way to attack your pre season rugby training is to do it with friends and other team members, grouping yourselves into small groups/sections depending on strength and skill (if you are in a gym setting). By grouping in strength you can push each other to hit higher numbers, and by grouping a less skillful or new player with a seasoned MoM, you can quickly bring them up.
What you won’t see from most pre season rugby training plans available, is the mindset aspect of your game. Coaches, especially for those that have joined new teams will be watching the players and their attitude towards training – heads down, walking around the pitch, not putting 100% in will all show when you look for that starting jersey. Show up and show off; you won’t be doing much rugby over the first few weeks of pre-season, but you have ample opportunity to show the coaches what kind of a man you are, whether you are willing to give it your best and whether you deserve to wear that  jersey on your first match day.
As we first discussed, get your head down and put the work in over the next coming weeks until
the rugby season kicks off in September, giving each pre season training session everything you’ve got, grafting in the gym in your own time and you will walk on the pitch for the first few games knowing your strength & conditioning are the best they can be. Confidence in yourself and your skills directly translates to performance, and high performing teams win games.