Does building mass matter for rugby players?

Have you ever been told by coaches that you are too small or you need to be bigger? Or perhaps you wished you were bigger? When I was a smaller rugby player, I could only imagine how much I would smash people if I were as big as some guys. 

I would look at guys bigger than me with all the physical attributes and wonder why he was so soft or so ineffective at the breakdown. Is being bigger and delivering some severe hurt something all Rugby players imagine?

Have your coaches said things like “just hit the gym,” “You need to be a few kgs bigger” and “You’re not being picked this time as x (the other player) has done the work in the gym.” Rob Penney told me this when I was at Canterbury.

At the time I didn’t understand what he meant. He was honest about my game and where I needed to improve. It wasn’t that he thought I wasn’t good enough. It was that I needed that extra size and leg power to step up into the next level and at that point, I did not have it in my game. To step up another level, the simple truth is you need to be conditioned for it so you can compete.

Common mistakes we make when developing mass for Rugby

Thinking we are never going to get big so why try. Or say no matter how hard I train I just can’t put the weight on. Or we blame our metabolism for being too fast? Or we are afraid of doing too many weights, and not enough speed work? The reality is if you are training the wrong way you will lose that speed and agility. If you are training like a bodybuilder, that extra size will look nice, but on the rugby field, it will be a hindrance when you need to be mobile. It’s finding that balance based on your body type and being big enough to be dominant, strong and fast.

Guys like Ben Tumifuna are born with the ability to be big and powerful, but guys like Welsh winger Shane Williams have different genetics. If you google Shane Williams, you will see he played for his country 87 times and represented the British and Irish Lions 4 times. He was also named IRB player of the year in 2008. I bet he was told he was too small at one point but look what he has achieved.

Trends

  1. Professional teams are slowly changing their strength and conditioning programs to focus on the individual athlete and not just building big guys. 
  2. There is an increase in muscle-bound players that have been working out like a bodybuilder for far too long.
  3. There has been an increase in shoulder injuries in amateur rugby due to poor gym routines
  4. Inexperienced players are being fed shit information from a variety of sources.

Myths

  1. If you have a heavy bench press and squat, you are good at rugby. A load of shit.
  2. It is difficult to build muscle and the right physique for Rugby
  3. You have to be big to be a professional player. (This one could be seen by ignorant coaches as a fact. 

My word to them is to have an open mind. You will get more out of your smaller player willing to learn and put the work in. He will have a far bigger drive than the big guy who got it all his way.

Getting into the gym to develop mass

Now getting into the gym is all good and well but when you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing it’s a bit of a mind f*&$. Some boys get into the gym and hit any machine that is available. To help you get there quicker, we recommend you be honest with yourself. Be brutally honest with yourself. What is your current physique like and how does it compare to those playing at the highest level of rugby? (Be position specific).

What are your findings? It may surprise you that some of the elite are not necessarily the biggest. What you will find is they are conditioned. Dane Coles is an excellent example of being conditioned and not the biggest but performs at the highest level. Also, identify the excuses you make for not getting the work done. I don’t have time for the gym is a big one.

If you have no idea ask your coach if your coach has no idea seek advice from someone who has done what you want. If you are looking to get bigger, please note I am not talking about the muscle-bound guys in the gym that are there splitting muscle groups for each day. We train for the Rugby pitch and would like you not to have shoulder injuries and not to skip leg day.

Becoming bulletproof

What we want to focus on is building a bulletproof, powerful athletic machine that can cope with bigger, faster, physical collisions and play more rugby. The by-products of this are you will still get niggles during tough games but decrease the risk of severe injuries and chicks love an athlete. You are not reading this for us to help with your dating, but we believe if you train the right way as the current professional athletes do, that will take care of itself. You can thank us later.

Does a functional, powerful athlete appeal to you? Train like you are a pro and measure yourself against those currently in the game. What’s the point in increasing your muscle mass if you can’t smash someone on the pitch or clean someone effectively out of a ruck? Are you continually sitting in the Physio room getting grief from your club teammates for being soft or being called Mr. Glass? Nobody likes this. We want you fit and training often so you are playing and improving your skills with each game.

You have probably looked in to building muscle already and brought magazines like muscle fit or men’s health. I tried these programs and did admit some of the stuff works, but everyone trains differently depending on their goals. Sometimes you will get a program written by a dude that has never hit the rugby field.

Finding good information

Before I was a pro, I found a book called The New Rules of Lifting by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove. It was a great book to learn how to be in the gym and perform the exercises. The book was an excellent introduction to the gym habitat.

I continue to read books throughout my career and wish I had have found this one earlier. Its an excellent book written by Tim Ferriss called the Four Hour Body. The chapter, in particular, was “Geek to Freak” and How to Gained 2.4st (15.4kg) in 28 days. Note it is not specific to Rugby but has some got tips about the science and tempo.

What are some common mistakes we make as rugby players?

A common mistake we make is that we think it is going to be easy. Everything requires hard work and consistency. Now getting into the gym is all good and well but when you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing it’s a bit of a mind f*&$. I had a player recently come to me asking why he couldn’t bulk up.

I asked him a simple question:

ME: Why do you think this is?

HIM: I don’t know, I have tried everything, I eat loads and smash the supplements, but nothing happens.

ME: What are you doing? How much are loads? What supplements are you taking? Have you measured your results?

HIM: Ummm I take protein, creatine and go to the gym.

Notice that this player wants to get bigger but is finding every excuse not to do the required work. See phrases like “I take supplements.” Just because you take supplements doesn’t mean you are going to get bigger. It might help a bit but doesn’t give you a guarantee.

He also has said he has “tried everything.”

Talking to this player and asking him more questions about his situation I had a good idea on how I would be able to help. Identifying specifics and getting the player to be honest and upfront brought out the real story. Do you think he had tried everything?

The truth is NO. He was not training for mass, he did not have the right nutrition in place, and he did not measure his effort and desired outcome.

Hard to tell by the two photos of me. The left one is 2008 and right is 2011 after a few years of training as a pro. 79kg left – 86kg right.

Most of the gains were in the legs and the back. Never really trained for big guns as I didn’t want to limit my pass.

Results

My results in training have gone well beyond what I expected due to the high quality of trainers I was exposed and different levels. This included guys like Luke Thornley, Ashley Jones, Phil Healy, Murray Pederson and Simon Fathers. The training helped me set personal bests in the power clean of 115kg, bench press 135kg, weighted chin 50kg and 1RM squat 220kg. Now, these are not big weights in comparison to some of my teammates (for example Tristan Moran 220kg+ on the bench) but when you are in season at a playing weight of 84kg its not bad.

I ran a faster 40min sprint going from 4.20sec to set a personal best of 3.98sec with weight training. I only wish sometimes I had this exposure to these trainers and the specific training methods earlier in my career. Below is a simple program that helped me get results in PRE-SEASON.

Basic Programs for building mass as a Rugby player

Warm Up -1-2mins bike or rower, functional movement, dynamic stretching, any prehab or rehab exercises you have. For example clams, glute bridges some balancing work.

6-8 Week Off Season Block

Week 1 – 3 = Monday Wednesday Friday

Week 4 – 6 = Monday Thursday Sunday

Week 6 – 8= Tuesday and Friday

5 Keys to Success

  1. For this block, we want to be lifting heavy. 80-90% one rep maximum. Our focus after a small power component is mass. So we want to be failing on the 5th rep. A lot of people give up too early. Push as hard as you can for as long as you can as this is where you will get the growth. (don’t get a spot unless you are about to drop the bench on your face). 
  2. Sufficient amount of rest to grow.
  3. Proper Nutrition – Calories positive and do not avoid fats – See our Ultimate Rugby shake here or contact us if you need more help here.
  4. Write down your specific goals and weight gain and measure your progress as you go.
  5. Continue to work on your mobility, prehab, rehab and stretch after your workouts

Rugby Power component

Power Clean (can be substituted for a high pull if you have never cleaned)

1-2 warm-up sets of 2-3reps lower weight

WORK – 85% max weight -3Reps x 3 Sets 2 full minutes minimum rest in between sets.

FOCUS – Speed of movement and rest, so you are fully ready to explode

Rugby Mass component

Squat

(full range of movement- if you do not have full range go lighter in weight)

5 Reps – 3 sets However there is a difference. Use a 5-1-5 Tempo -which means down for 5 seconds, hold for 2 seconds and slow up for 5 seconds. You might think you feel a bit out of place but trust me you never felt a burn like this before.

Superset the Squat with Box Jumps or knees to feet jumps

Deadlift to Knees

(deadlift only from the ground to knee height and drop. Make sure you have something to cushion the sound as nobody likes that guy in the gym) Deadlift to knee height only will help protect your hamstrings and improve with your speed.

Make sure you push your chest out & keep a straight back to avoid injury

Rugby Bench, Incline Bench or Decline Bench

Changing the angle of the bench, so we are strong across all.

5 Reps -3 sets Tempo 5-1-5

Superset with explosive push-ups (claps or onto boxes) 3-6 reps do not compromise on speed.

Pull Ups

3 sets maximum reps at bodyweight

Start with wide grip then shoulder width overhand grip, then use an underhand grip then move into a neutral grip.

Changing your grip after failure at each will allow you to get out more reps.

Standing Split Stance One Arm Press

5reps 3 sets Tempo 5-1-5

Superset with

Standing Split Stance One Arm Row

5reps 3 sets Tempo 5-1-5

(Both exercises focus on core stability and balance through the legs)

Walking Lunges with Sprinter Knee Lift

Heavyweight, shoulders retracted and tight hand grip.

Ten reps each leg x 3 sets

Tempo 2 -1 -1

Finish with One – Two Core Exercises of your choice and Prehab/Rehab.

Here are a few you can use:

  • Quadraped exercises like the Superman
  • Torture Twist or Russian Twist so there is a level of stability.

Basic Rugby Prehab and Rehab Components

If you do not know what to do for prehab or you do not have a physio.

You can include the following in your warm-up:

  • Clams
  • Single Leg Glute bridges
  • Shoulder Halos with weight
  • Shoulder Mobility work
  • Band Pull Aparts

Finish your session with these exercises

  • Single leg deadlifts or Nordic Drops
  • Turkish Get-ups
  • Standing on one leg – Eyes closed for 30 seconds to a minute
  • Passing a medicine ball to your training partner standing on one leg.

Final Thoughts

  • Always stretch after your workout (Essential so we still have mobility) and reflect on exercise
  • Always focus on having good form
  • Always focus on your goals and let that drive you so you can train like an animal.

AUTHOR

Nick McCashin

Nick McCashin

Nick McCashin is a former Bay of Plenty representative who has played professionally in England, France and Spain. Nick is currently playing and coaching in Scotland where he is writing and developing content to help players excel on and off the field.

HAVE YOUR SAY...