Even if you are built like a tank and love charging through the opposition, the ability to sidestep is crucial in rugby. Sidestepping means avoiding a tackle, which is often better than just hoping you’ll be able to run through it.
An effective sidestep also means avoiding being on the receiving end of yet another big hit. Fewer hits per game, and even per career, will reduce your risk of injury.
Finally, consider how demoralizing it is to commit to a tackle only to be left in the dust by a successful evasive sidestep. Good sidesteppers can make even a veteran player look like a beginner. Wouldn’t you like to do that to the opposition?
Sidestepping is a skill that can be learned and practiced. A good sidestep is all about timing and selling a deception.
However, rapidly changing direction is also an intense physical activity. You need to be able to turn forward momentum into lateral momentum and may even need to sidestep in two different directions to shimmy past a tackle. Rapid changes of direction require lots of strength and power – especially when you are running at top speed.
Here are some useful exercises and training methods that will help develop your sidestepping muscles.
These exercises alone won’t make you a better sidestepper; you also need to practice sidestepping out on the field too. However, they will ensure that you are physically capable of making a good sidestep. Still, you’ll need to practice this maneuver to combine the physicality of sidestepping with the skills required.
Please note: the following exercises are listed in order of difficulty, so start at the top and work your way down.
This is a foundational exercise for better sidesteps. It works your main sidestepping muscles, namely the hip adductors. Use this exercise to fire up your sidestepping muscles before moving on to the more demanding moves. As an added benefit, this exercise is also good for developing knee and hip stability.
This is another fundamental exercise. It’s a convenient way to work your hip abductor muscles without resorting to a band or setting foot in a gym. If you know you have weak hips and need to train them more frequently, this is an excellent exercise to do.
An effective sidestep is more than just a hip abduction movement; it also involves a powerful knee and hip extension too, and that means squats. Band squats work your quads and glutes as well as your hip abductors. In addition to being a good way to strengthen your hips for sidestepping, this exercise is a great way to tidy up your squat and reinforce proper squat mechanics. It’ll cure any tendency you have to let your knees cave in.
This exercise can be done with just your body weight, or by doing barbell back squats, barbell front squats, kettlebell goblet squats, Zercher squats, or box squats.
Lateral lunges involve the same muscles as sidestepping. They also involve moving sideways, just like a “real” sidestep. As well as being a good rugby sidestep exercise, the lateral lunge will help increase hip stability and mobility.
How to do it:
This exercise provides you with an opportunity to work on your sidesteps in a controlled environment.
Set out ten marker cones, as shown in the diagram below. The cones should be around 2-3 meters apart. The closer the cones, the more agile you’ll need to be.
With a 5-meter rolling start, run through the cones staying as close to the markers as possible. Make a concerted effort to run in a straight line, pushing hard off your outside foot. At the end of the cones, “lean and go” and sprint out to a final marker 10-15 meters from the last cone.
Rest 2-3 minutes and then repeat. Remember, sidestepping is a test of strength and power, and not endurance or fitness. That means you need to put 100% effort into each one. This is not a drill to do to failure or while fatigued. Instead, focus on the quality of execution and not quantity.
Sidestepping is a plyometric movement. It involves a very rapid loading of the target muscles, followed by an even more rapid unloading. Lateral bounds are a plyometric exercise that works your muscles in the same way as sidestepping, making it a very sports-specific, functional exercise.
You can also do this exercise while holding a medicine ball to more closely replicate a rugby sidestep.
Lateral bounding is a great exercise, but it can be hard on your ankles and knees. Using angled plyo boxes puts your joints in a much more forgiving position and means that you can safely push off with maximum force. Get your club to invest in some angled plyo boxes or ask a teammate with the necessary wood or metalworking skills to make some for you. Make sure you wear shoes for this exercise – unlike the guy in the accompanying video.
Like most rugby skills, including scrummaging, lineout lifting and jumping, and tackling, you need to practice sidestepping to get better at it. But you can also increase your performance potential by preparing and developing the relevant muscles. For sidestepping, that means your lateral leg muscles.
You can work these muscles as part of your usual lower body workout – there is no real need to dedicate an entire training session to your hip adductors. That said, if you are weak laterally, spending extra time on things like lateral lunges and squats with minibands will pay huge dividends out on the field.
A snappy sidestep is a very useful skill for ruggers to have. Dedicate some extra time and energy to improving yours and start leaving opposing tacklers in the dust. Try not to smile too much when they can’t catch you!