Lower-body conditioning for rugby - get a sled!

When it comes to effective training program design, specificity is king. In simple terms, your body adapts to the exercises you do. If you want to get stronger, you need to lift weights that are heavy enough to challenge your muscles and nervous system. If you want to get fitter, you need to do exercises that challenge your cardiovascular system.

To plan an effective rugby training program, you really need to start the design process with what it is you want to achieve and then work backward. Whatever your training goal, once you have identified it, you should then be able to work out how you can best reach it. To be a good rugby player, or even passable, your training goals should include strength, power, anaerobic and aerobic fitness and as rugby is a running game, your training should include plenty of time on your feet. Leg extensions and cycling are not a total waste of time and energy but there are more specific ways to condition your legs.

Barbell squats, deadlifts, lunges and pitch-based running drills also play a vital role in rugby training and should not be overlooked for their lower-body conditioning benefits. But one of the most specific and therefore beneficial training tools is a weighted sled. Sleds are used by many top-flight rugby teams including Harlequins and England (1).

EFFECTS & BENEFITS OF SLED WORK

Training with a sled allows you to do resisted locomotive exercises. That’s a fancy way of saying that you can walk, run, or sprint while dragging a weight. While squats, deadlifts and all those other gym-based leg exercises are excellent ways to develop general leg strength, working with a sled uses your lower body muscles as they work in rugby – to drive you forward – and that’s specificity in action.

Sprinting and running are single leg activities that involve an explosive and simultaneous ankle, knee and hip extension. Exercises like power cleans, snatches and box jumps involve this so-called triple extension but all use both legs at once. In contrast, sled training works one leg at a time which is much more sport-specific.

By using a sled you can train and condition virtually every muscle in your lower body and by moving in different directions you can emphasize different muscle groups…Facing forward and dragging the sled behind you will develop your posterior chain with comprises of your calves, hamstrings and gluteus maximus. A strong posterior chain plays an important role in injury prevention, driving in the scum and all other pushing plays e.g. sprinting for the line or driving forward into a tackle. It’s also a focus of our recent article on Jefferson Curls and their application to rugby training.

RUGBY-SPECIFIC SLED DRAGS

  1. Dragging the sled backward targets your quadriceps and hip flexors, providing a knee-friendly alternative to squats and power leg workouts. If traditional leg training leaves your knees feeling beat up, backward sled dragging could be a good alternative.
  2. Moving sideways targets your adductors and abductors – your inner outer hips and thighs. These muscles play an essential role in your ability to sidestep and also provide your knees and hips with essential stability which may help reduce injury.
  3. Short sled drags, 10-30 meters, with heavy loads will develop strength, power and speed. The initial start will be tough and then, as you gain momentum, the sled will move more smoothly and you’ll have to work hard to keep it moving.
  4. Longer drags, 30-50+ meters, with moderate to light weights will develop endurance and cardiovascular fitness and is also an excellent calorie burner for those looking to drop body fat while maintaining muscle mass.

TYPES OF WEIGHTED SLEDS

Weighted sleds come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are designed solely for pulling while others can also be pushed. In general, they are flat with an upturned edge to prevent them from digging into the ground during use and can be loaded with standard Olympic weight plates.

There are big heavy metal sleds that are ideal for outdoor use and that can be dragged on a variety of surfaces including tarmac and concrete.

Lightweight plastic sleds are designed to be used indoors although some are robust enough to be used on grass too. There are even sleds made from canvas that you can roll up and put in your gym bag – ideal for gym use but are not suitable for pushing.

Sleds designed for pushing are fitted with handles set at various height while for pulling there is usually an anchor point for attaching a towing rope or strap. If you only have access to a pulling-type sled, you can still push it by placing your hands on the stacked weights. This does put you in a very low position but if you don’t have a push-sled, this is better than nothing.

You don’t even have to buy a sled if you don’t want to; you can make one yourself for next to nothing out of an old SUV tire, a couple of eye-bolts, a length of rope and an off-cuts of wood.

  1. Drill two holes in the tread of your tire – about 24” apart
  2. Drill matching holes in a piece of wood e.g. a length of 2 x 4
  3. Put the eye bolts through the holes in the tire with the eyes outermost
  4. Thread the wood onto the bolts inside the tire
  5. Place washers on the ends of the bolts and tighten the nuts as hard as you can – this step will prevent the eye bolts being ripped through the tire which is important if you are going to drag heavy loads
  6. Fix the rope to the eye-bolts using your best sailor’s knots
  7. Load the inside of the tire with rocks or weight plates

make sled out of a tire

SLED TOWING OPTIONS

Whether you have a store-bought sled or have made your own, there are a couple of options for towing a sled. Each option offers advantages and disadvantages.

The simplest way to tow your sled is to simply grab the straps/ropes and hold them in your hands. This means that your sled training is now a full body-body workout. Facing forward and dragging the sled behind you will strongly work your arms, chest and shoulders as well as your core which has to work hard to stabilize your upper body. This replicates driving forward while opposing players grab your arms and try to pull you back. However, if you are looking to replicate running or sprinting, this option may not be ideal as you will be unable to use your arms.

In contrast, holding the straps while dragging the sled backward will give your lower back, upper back, forearms, and biceps a good workout and replicates the action of dragging opposing players off the ball.

Holding the straps while moving sideways means you’ll need to hold the weight in one hand which can help develop grip strength and also places an emphasis on your obliques or waist muscles. If you prefer to keep your hands free during your sled workouts, you can also use a specially-designed towing harness. These harnesses usually have an attachment point around mid-back height. This means that dragging the sled forward really works your abs hard well as your legs.

For a cheaper, homemade hands-free option, simply attach the towing straps/ropes to an old weight training belt. With the belt around your waist rather than fixed at mid-back height, this option takes stress off your core and leaves you free to focus on dragging the sled. Ideal if you are using very heavy loads.

Using a belt or harness also allows you to train while holding a ball which makes your sled dragging workout even more specific to the game of rugby. You are also free to add other training elements such as handing off opposing players.

SLED WORKOUTS TO REPLICATE RUGBY

Sled training can be as simple as loading up your sled, pulling it until you get tired, resting and then repeating. While such an approach will burn lots of calories and undoubtedly leave you tired, it’s not exactly the specific approach to training that most rugby players need. Instead, here are some tried and tested sled drills designed to target specific elements of your rugby fitness and conditioning.

With regards to programming, sled training can be used in place of gym strength and conditioning 1-2 times a week, used as a “finisher” after team practices, or as a sports specific cardio workout in place of slower paced (and non-specific) aerobics. It is, however, a demanding form of training so make sure you get fired up with a pre-workout supplement before your workout and kick start recovery afterward with a good post-workout supplement stack.

1. Sled push suicides

Suicides are a common basketball drill that are designed to develop endurance and are equally good for rugby players. They’re tough but you can easily adjust your workload by adding or removing weight or doing more or less reps. You can also increase or decrease the recovery time to reflect your current fitness levels. You’ll need a pushing-type sled for this drill or be prepared to get really low using a regular sled. This is a great exercise for hard-scrummaging forwards!

Place cones on the floor 5 – 10 – 15 – 20 meters away from your start line. Push the sled out to the first marker and then back. Immediately push it out the second marker and back. Next, push it out to the third marker and back. Finally, push your sled all the way out to the fourth marker and back. Rest a moment and repeat.

 

Options: Shorten the distance between cones e.g. 3 – 6 – 9 – 12 meters to make this workout more power/strength orientated. Add an element of competition by performing the drill alongside another team member. Work in pairs and have one player push the sled out and the other push it back, the non-exercising player jogging alongside to offer encouragement. Push the sled out and drag it back to work both your front and rear musculature.

2. Get up and go

After being tackled, it’s essential that players get up quickly and rejoin the game as quickly as possible as a player on the floor is ineffective. This drill replicates that demands of getting up and chasing after the flow of play and, in doing so, develops starting power. You’ll need a waist belt or chest harness for this workout.

With the sled loaded and the towing straps fixed to your back, lie on your front in front of your sled. On the command “go”, get to your feet as fast as you can and accelerate away for around 10-20 meters. Quickly drop back down to the floor (making sure your sled has stopped moving and won’t slide into you!) and repeat. Do three to five reps and then take a 2-3 minute rest before repeating.

Options: Obstruct the chaser by placing players with tackle pads in his path to make this drill even more rugby-specific.

3. Drag and pull

Strong legs are undeniably important in rugby but in many instances, you also need to combine that leg strength with your arms, for example, when pulling an opposing player off the ball. You’ll need a heavily loaded sled and a single, thick, rope for this leg, back and arms conditioning drill.

Grab the rope with both hands and plant your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly and brace your abs. Pull your hands into your abdomen. Keeping your arms pulled in, drag the sled backward for 5-10 meters. Rest a few seconds, reset your starting position and repeat.

Options: Drag the sled using one hand only to increase the demanding on the upper body. The thicker the rope used, the more hand strength will be required and developed. Take small, staccato steps or big steps for variation.

4. Four-way sled drag

Rugby is a multi-directional sport so your training should be multi-directional too. Use your sled to develop forward, backward, and sideways locomotive strength by combining all four directions in one simple but challenging drill. For this workout, you need a sled with a towing rope/strap fitted with handles.

Mark out 40-100 meters, divided into four equal “zones” with marker cones. Drag the sled sideways holding the handles in your left hand to the first marker. Immediately switch hands and drag it sideways to the second marker. Drag the sled backward to the third marker and then, finally, turn and drag the sled forwards to the final marker. Rest a moment and then repeat in the opposite direction.

Options: Add an element of competition by doing this drill in pairs or as an out-and-back relay. Heavy weights and shorter distances (40 meters) will develop strength and power while longer distances (100 meters) and lighter loads will develop cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance. Choose the option that is right for your training goals.


CONCLUSION

Sled training could very well be the ingredient missing from your pre-season rugby workouts. As rugby training specific as it gets, using a sled can help you develop strength and power, get fit and lose fat. If your squad or gym doesn’t have one, why not club together with some mates and buy one or make one yourself? After you first workout you’ll quickly realize why professional rugby players all around the world use sleds for their lower body rugby-specific training.

References:

(1) The Telegraph: Five surprising gym secrets of pro rugby players
(2) Ruck Science: Pre-workout supplement 
(3) Ruck Science: Recovery supplement stack

Lower-body conditioning for rugby - get a sled!


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