Box your way to pre-season rugby fitness

When training for any sport, one of the most important program design considerations is specificity. Specificity refers to the fact that the benefits you get from training are specific to the type of training you do. In other words, if you lift heavy weights, your ability to lift heavy weights increases (strength) or if you run long distances, your ability to run a long way will improve (aerobic fitness).

The same rationale can be applied to any aspect of fitness from power to flexibility to speed to agility. If you want to improve any component of fitness, your training must include that component. Pretty logical, right? So, if specificity is the underlying principle of almost all successful training programs, if you want to improve your conditioning for rugby, you need to include rugby-specific training in your fitness plan.

But, does that mean ALL your workouts need to mirror the demands and include the skills of rugby? Not necessarily. In fact, many strength and conditioning experts pepper their rugby programs with activities outside the sphere of rugby in an approach called cross training.

Cross training recognizes that the benefits of one activity can have a positive influence on your ability to perform another. For example, swimming can develop cardiovascular fitness that can then help increase running performance and lifting weights can improve your strength for scrummaging. Many rugby players cross train already and include activities such as weight training, rowing, cycling, and running in their workouts. Doing so can help alleviate injuries and make training more enjoyable. This is especially important during pre-season when training volume and intensity tends are greatest.

One of the best cross training activities for rugby players is boxing. Check out this video so see rugby players using boxing as part of their pre-season training:

Why boxing?

Boxing and rugby might seem like very different sports – one is a team sport, and one is a solo sport for a start – but there are several noteworthy similarities, and it’s these that make boxing training so compatible with rugby.

1. Rugby and boxing are both anaerobic power sports: Boxing rounds last three minutes, and phases of play in rugby often last a similar length of time, although they can also be shorter. This type of high intensity but short duration activity challenges the anaerobic or lactate energy system.

2. Rugby and boxing require you to work past fatigue: It doesn’t matter if you are trying to knock out your opponent in the last round, or attack the opposition’s try-line in the dying minutes of a big game; you need to keep on working hard right to the end. There is no such thing as an easy round of boxing or an easy rugby match, and the opposition won’t show any mercy just because you are tired!

3. Rugby and boxing are both full-body activities: Boxing might look like it’s all about the upper body, but most punches start with the feet. A powerful punch, like a big tackle, begins with the feet, travels up the legs to the hips, and into the upper body before reaching your opponent. Trying to punch or tackle without a solid foot base is like trying to shoot a cannon out of a canoe.

4. Rugby and boxing require a strong core: A strong core, the collective term for the muscles that make up your midsection, is vital for supporting your spine and protecting your internal organs from impact. It doesn’t matter if you are on the receiving end of a gut punch or tackle, a strong core is crucial.

5. Rugby and boxing both involve deft footwork: Good footwork is critical for successful boxing and rugby. Whether you are trying to break contact with an opponent or position yourself to deliver a crunching tackle, good footwork will help you do it better.

6. Rugby and boxing both involve getting hit: Both are tough sports and developing the ability to “take a hit” is a crucial part of both sports.



Benefits of boxing training for rugby players

Boxing training offers many benefits to rugby players including:

Improved anaerobic fitness – Working hard for three-minute rounds and then taking it easy for a minute is a very effective form of interval training.

Increased muscular endurance – Prolonged work periods coupled with brief rests help develop tolerance to lactic acid, capillarization, and the general conditioning that leads to improved muscular endurance.

Improved power – Big punches, especially using a heavy bag, are a good way to develop lower body power.

Low impact cardiovascular conditioning – Running is an important part of rugby training but can take its toll on heavier players. Many boxing drills are low impact and are less likely to lead to lower body injuries.

Improved eye-hand coordination – The use of speedballs and pads can help develop coordination and reaction speed.

Increased training variety – Varied training can lead to an increased work rate and volume. Boredom can have a detrimental effect on motivation.

Improved aggression and mental toughness – Boxing training can help teach players to “switch on” aggression as needed and use it to work through fatigue.

Team building and bonding – Many boxing drills involve working with a partner or in small groups. Activities such as sparring and pad work can help players bond. This is critically important for maintaining morale.

A break from traditional rugby training – rugby players love to play rugby but, sometimes, change is as good as a rest and can reinvigorate stale, fatigued players.

Can be performed indoors during bad weather – very inclement weather can make outdoor training difficult, unpleasant, or even dangerous. Boxing training can often be performed indoors.

20-1-20 PROGRAM


Boxing workouts for rugby players

While you could just glove up and go to town on a heavy bag, there are better ways to incorporate boxing training into your rugby training. Here are FIVE boxing workouts that are ideal for developing rugby fitness.

1. Three-minute rounds

Boxers are supremely fit because three-minute rounds take them deep into lactic acid territory and the brief one minute breaks are not long enough for that lactic acid to dissipate. Honestly, you’d be hard-pushed to come up with a more challenging work to rest ratio if you tried!

For this workout, choose six exercise and perform each one for 30-seconds. Move quickly from one exercise to the next – no dilly-dallying. Avoid putting similar exercises together so that you can work as hard as possible at each station. On completion of the sixth exercise (three minutes), rest for one minute and repeat. Do five “rounds.”

Example workout:

  • Burpees
  • Jump rope
  • Lunges
  • Push-ups
  • Squats
  • Heavy bag

2. 180s

Rugby players need to be able to react quickly to instructions, such as line-out calls, even when tired. This drill is both mentally and physically demanding and can help develop your ability to respond under pressure. The player stands between two pad holders. You can use tackling shields or hook and jab pads. Each pad holder takes it in turns to call out a combination for the player to throw. The player must pivot through 180 degrees to deliver each combination.

Perform this drill for time – e.g. 90 seconds, or for a set number of combinations. Turn up the pressure by asking the player questions such as lineout calls the name of plays while he’s working.

3. Knockdowns

This workout is very specific to rugby, simulating the demands of being tackled and then getting back up and into the game.

Using either a heavy bag or a training partner holding pads, the player throws combinations until the partner shouts “drop.” The player must then quickly dive to the floor and get back up to resume punching. The partner can make this harder by increasing the frequency of the drops or specifying that the player should fall onto his front, back, left, or right side. Wearing a weighted vest will make this already tough workout brutal. Perform for a set interval, e.g. two minutes, interspersed with brief rests e.g. 60-seconds.

4. Punch and push

Punch and push is another very rugby-specific training drill that replicates driving into a maul and shoving it backward. It’s very demanding and can be made more so by working with a larger, stronger opponent.

For this workout, the player throws a combination of punches at a pad holder – say ten. He then pushes the pad holder backward five or so steps, before firing off another set of punches. Continue for 1-2 minutes and then swap roles. The pad holder should resist being pushed backward to make the player work harder. This workout is especially effective if the pad holder wears a torso shield to allow more natural punches to be thrown.

5. Punching pyramid

This workout will develop muscular endurance and anaerobic fitness. It’s a good way to finish a boxing workout, produces a lot of lactic acid, and can also help develop better breathing control. Players often “panic breathe” when fatigued which only makes matters worse. In this drill, you must control your breathing even though you are tired.

Using either a heavy bag, or a partner with a tackling shield or boxing pads, throw one punch, take a single breath, throw two punches, take another breath, throw three punches, breath again, and so on. Continue adding one punch per breath up to 20. You can finish there or come back down throwing one less punch per breath until you reach one again.


Rugby and boxing are a match made in heaven and will help make your pre-season training even more successful. Of course, if you are training hard, you need proper nutrition too. Supplement your healthy diet with Ruck Harder and Ruck Recovery to get the most from all of your workouts.

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Patrick Dale

Patrick Dale

Pat is an ex-Royal Marine and owner at fitness qualifications company Solar Fitness Qualifications Ltd. Pat has authored three exercise books and thousands of articles. Pat has competed at a high level in several sports including rugby, triathlon, rock climbing and powerlifting.