If you take a moment to analyze rugby, you’ll quickly notice that it is a sport of going that requires players to "go forward." In most cases, the team that spends the most time going forward will win. Even in defense, players try to go forward against the incoming tide of attackers or, at least, give ground slowly! All this forward movement comes predominately from the hips or, more specifically from the hip drive that a player can develop and utilize on the field. Hip drive is the action of pushing your legs backward or into extension which is why the terms hip drive and hip extension are interchangeable.
The stronger your hip drive, the more powerfully you will move forward, and that increased strength transfers positively to almost every facet of rugby – from pushing your opponents back to scrummaging, to tackling to leaping and lifting in the lineout. It's also essential for changing direction at pace and simply getting up off the ground. The bench press might well be the most popular gym exercise in the world, and a mainstay of our superset training programs, but if more people worked on their hip drive, the world would be a much stronger and more powerful place.
Exercises like leg extensions and leg curls are very popular, but they are not that valuable for most rugby players. These exercises isolate the knee joint from the hip joint so, while they strengthen the muscles of the quadriceps and hamstrings, they do so in a very non-sports specific way. In contrast, the best leg workouts for rugby involve more than just knee flexion and knee extension; they also involve hip extension too.
ANATOMY OF HIP DRIVE
A lot is going on during the hip drive, and it is the result of several muscles working together. Knowing a little anatomy will help reinforce why rugby players need more than leg extensions and leg curls and will make selecting appropriate exercises easier. Gluteus maximus, or glutes for short, is the largest muscle in your body and, right now, you are probably sat on it. This large and potentially powerful muscle is your primary hip extender. It’s a uniaxial muscle which means it only crosses your hip joint. (1) Unfortunately, sitting down all day can cause gluteus maximus to become inhibited and lazy. This means that hip drive strength may be limited. Don’t worry, though – you’ll soon learn some great exercises for waking up your glutes so you can maximize their potential. Your hamstrings are made up of three muscles; biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. These muscles cross both your hip and knee which makes them biaxial. Being biaxial, they have two significant roles to play – knee flexion and hip extension. Interestingly, hamstring curls only address one of these functions. (2)
The erector spinae group of muscles is the chain that runs from the bottom, rear of your pelvis, up to the base of your skull. While it is not directly involved in hip extension, it’s still an essential muscle during hip drive.
Your erector spinae connect your upper body to the engine that is your hips. If you want to make the most of the power your hip drive produces, you need strong erector spinae muscles too. For this reason, many of the best hip drive exercises use the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back all at the same time.
Strong hip drive combined with weak erector spinae is like trying to shoot a cannon out of a canoe, and a lot of the force generated will be lost as your spine collapses. Needless to say, that’s a recipe for poor performance and injury. However, a powerful hip drive combined with strong spinal erectors means that all that force will be efficiently transferred with less injury risk. More like firing a cannon off an aircraft carrier!
It’s important to note that the hamstrings and glutes are responsible for more than hip extension; they also play a significant role in the lateral and medial movements of the hip and knee joints too. (3) However, for this article, our primary focus is on their ability to drive you forward when you sprint, tackle, and scrummage.
THE HIP HINGE
The hip hinge movement is arguably the most important prerequisite of hip drive training. A good hip hinge will ensure you can perform all of the best hip drive exercises correctly. Inability to hip hinge can throw unwanted stress onto the lumbar spine or lower back. Many people, when they perform traditional hip drive exercises, not only flex and extend their hips, they also flex and extend their spines too. This is not only uneconomical because it introduces extraneous movement into the mix, but it also increases the risk of serious spinal injury.
When held in a “neutral position,” where all the natural curves of the spine are preserved, the lower back is remarkably stable. However, when rounded or overextended, the stress that was held by the muscles is not loaded onto the passive structures of the spine, namely the ligaments and the intervertebral disks.
Proper hip hinging ensures the target muscles of gluteus maximus and hamstrings are loaded effectively and safely while those passive and easily injured structures of the spine are protected.
Here’s how you hip hinge:
Stand with your feet around hip to shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Stand tall but naturally so – do not over-elevate your rib cage. Keeping your knees slightly bent, push your butt back towards an imaginary wall and lean forward from your hips only; do not round your lower back. If done correctly, you should feel your weight shift toward your heels and a stretch in your hamstrings. When viewed from the side, your lumbar curve should remain unchanged. Push your hips forward again and stand up.
Mastering the hip hinge will make almost all hip drive exercises more productive as well as safer. Learn more about the hip hinge in the video below.
WARM UP FOR HIP DRIVE
Before performing strenuous hip drive exercises, it is essential you warm up and wake up the target muscles. Failure to do so will limit force production – remember, your butt is half asleep – and could increase injury risk. Firing these muscles up takes no more than a few minutes but will improve your hip drive workout a lot.
Preparatory exercise 1 – supine hip lifts
This exercise is an excellent way to wake up your sleepy glues. Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Extend your arms, so they are vertical in the air and not resting on the floor. Push your feet down into the floor and lift your hips upward until your knees, hips, and shoulders form a straight line. Contract your glutes as hard as you can for two seconds. Lower your butt to the floor and repeat. Two to four sets of 10-20 reps are all you need to get your glutes firing properly.
Preparatory exercise 2 – band side steps
Standing, tie a resistance band around your knees. Step sideways to the left and the right while pushing your knees out against the resistance offered by the band. Do two to four sets of 20-40 seconds.
Preparatory exercise 3 – broomstick hip hinge
Raise and hold a broomstick across your upper back as though you were going to do some back squats. With your feet hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent, push your hips back and lean forward without rounding your lower back. Stand back up straight and repeat. Use this exercise to a) dynamically stretch your hamstrings and b) reinforce proper hip hinge technique.
BUILDING HIP DRIVE
There are lots of hip drive exercises to choose from, but these are, in our opinion, amongst the best. If any of these exercises are new to you, make sure you start light and only increase workout intensity once you are confident you have mastered the technique.
If you could only do one hip drive exercise, any variation of the deadlift would be your best choice. Deadlifts allow you to expose your glutes, hamstrings and lower back to plenty of muscle-building tension while also strengthening your quadriceps, upper back, and grip.Method
There are several deadlift variations you can use including:
- Barbell deadlift from the floor
- Deficit deadlifts standing on a low platform or using small diameter weight plates
- Romanian or stiff-legged deadlift. Note: do not do straight leg deadlifts – they’re not the same thing
- Deadlifts from blocks
- Single leg Romanian deadlifts
Whichever deadlift variation you use, make sure you do not allow your lower back to round, that lift the bar explosively, and alternate your hand position if you use a mixed grip. Sets of 3-6 reps are best. Check out these deadlift variations and more in the video below.
The good morning is a sort of hands-free stiff-legged deadlift. It’s a good way to reinforce the hip hinge and, because of the longer levers involved, does not allow you to use heavy weights. This makes it ideal for use during de-loads and recovery workouts.Method
With the barbell racked across your upper back as for squats, stand with your feet hip to shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly. Push your hips back and hinge forward as far as you can without rounding your lower back. Stand back up and repeat. Learn proper good morning performance below.
HANG HIGH PULLS
The hang high pull is an explosive dip drive exercise that transfers well to vertical jumps making it ideal for players in the lineout. Because it is a power exercise, you should terminate your set when you notice the bar speed is slowing down. This is not an exercise for grinding out reps slowly; leave that for deadlifts.Method
Grasp your bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Stand with your feet around hip-width apart. Push your butt back, bend your knees, and lower the bar to just below knee-height. Pause in this stretched position for 1-2 seconds. Then, and while keeping your arms straight, explosively stand up and, as the bar rises toward your waist, pull with your arms. Keep your elbows above the bar and heave it up to around chest height. Do not attempt to catch it. Lower the weight and repeat. As a power exercise, low rep sets are best – 3-6 being ideal. Think quantity and not quantity. See this move in action in the next clip.
The humble kettlebell swing is one of the most accessible hip drive exercises around. It’s safe, simple, but very effective. Most gym goers mistakenly squat the weight up. Don’t copy them! This is definitely a hip hinge exercise.Method
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a kettlebell in your hands. Bend your knees slightly. Push your hips back and lower the kettlebell between your knees. Your hands should be close to your groin. Drive your hips forward, imagining you are doing a horizontal jump. Use this momentum to swing the weight forward and up to around shoulder-height. Let gravity do its thing and lower the weight. Follow it down and into another rep. This is an explosive exercise – really put your hips into it! However, do not allow your lower back to become rounded. See how to do kettlebell swings in this below.
BAND BROAD JUMPS
Jumping forward, as in a two-footed long jump – is a classic test of hip drive power. However, it’s not the best way to develop hip drive. But, with the addition of a band, the broad jump soon becomes an excellent hip drive developer.Method
Stand inside a large looped resistance band or use a waist belt attached to a resistance band. The band should be behind you. Push your hips back, bend your knees slightly, and swing your arms to the rear. Using your arms for extra momentum, jump forward against the resistance offered by the band. Stick your landing, step back to your start point and repeat. As soon as you notice your distance per jump beginning to decrease, stop your set. You can see this exercise in action below.
Band-resisted sprints allow you to do explosive sprint training indoors and provides a very activity-specific way to develop hip drive.Method
Stand inside a large looped resistance band or use a waist belt attached to a resistance band. Lean forward and adopt an athletic stance i.e. a crouched start position. Sprint forward for 2-5 steps (depending on the length of your band) against the resistance and then return to your starting position. Repeat making sure you lead off with your opposite leg. Check out this video to see how this exercise should look.
Another great exercise for lineout jumpers, jumping up and onto the box helps eliminate impact which is good news for heavier players or anyone with foot, ankle, knee, hip, or back pain.Method
Stand a couple of feet from your target box. While your jump should predominately upward, adding a little horizontal distance increases hip activation. Bend your knees slightly, push your hips back, and swing your arms to the rear. Swing your arms forward and jump up and onto the box. Land on both feet. Step back down, reset, and repeat.
A note on box height: if you have to tuck your knees up to your chest to stick your landing, the box is too high. Ideally, you land on the box with only slightly bent knees.
THE HIP DRIVE PROGRAM
Adding hip drive exercises to your workouts will do you nothing but good. However, if you are serious about maximizing your performance, you’ll get better results from dedicating an entire training session to this strength component. When constructing a performance-based workout, it’s important that you pay attention to the order of your exercises to ensure you can give each one your best effort.
In general, complex, demanding, high-skill exercises should appear early in your program when you are fresh. Easier, less complex exercises should be near the end when you are more tired. Load the beginning of your workout with the exercises that provide the most bang for your buck and then put less important exercises near the end.
- Barbell high pulls - 4 sets of 6 reps
- Band-resisted broad jumps - 3 sets of 5 reps
- Deadlifts from boxes - 3 sets of 4 reps
- Kettlebell swings - 2 sets of 12 reps
- Box jumps - 2 sets of 10 reps
Of course, there are an infinite number of ways to organize your hip drive training but, if you are stuck for ideas, this workout will get the job done.
Nutrition for hip drive training
While exercise selection is undoubtedly important, intense training and full recovery are every bit as crucial. Make sure you fuel your muscles with exactly what they need by utilizing the blends in our Ruck Harder stack before training and Ruck Recovery afterward. Strong legs are vital for optimum rugby performance, since lower leg power correlates strongly with tackling ability. If you want to hit hard and sprint fast, hip drive training is a must. You undoubtedly need strong quads for rugby but prioritizing your glutes and hamstrings will pay off even more.
Ref. 1 – Hamstring anatomy http://www.exrx.net/Muscles/Hamstrings.html
Ref. 2 – Gluteus maximus anatomy http://www.exrx.net/Muscles/GluteusMaximus.html
Ref. 3 – Erector spinae anatomy http://www.exrx.net/Muscles/ErectorSpinae.html
Photo Credit: Tobias4242