Gaining Strength, Keeping Mass, Getting Fitter - Workout Plan & Nutrition Guide

Gaining Strength, Keeping Mass, Getting Fitter – Workout Plan & Nutrition Guide

Looking to build strength, improve your fitness, and maintain or increase muscle mass for rugby? 

You’ve come to the right place! 

In this article, we discuss the training strategies you need to use to achieve your goals and provide you with a program and nutrition guide to support your workouts. 

The Problem with Most Strength Programs 

Most strength training programs are aimed at general exercisers rather than rugby players. Those that are a bit more specific are often written for powerlifters. While both general and powerlifting strength programs will make you stronger, they may not be ideal for ruggers. 

Rugby has some very particular strength demands. For starters, you need to be strong in all directions. After all, rugby is a multidirectional sport. Ruggers also need explosive power as well as slow-speed maximal strength. You also need a high degree of cardiovascular (aerobic and anaerobic) fitness so you can keep up with the ebb and flow of play. 

Something like a powerlifting program will make you stronger in the “big three” of squats, bench presses, and deadlifts, but rugby involves a wider variety of movements than this. As such, a rugby strength training program needs to be more varied. The big three ARE useful, but there are other exercises and movements you need to do, too. 

Another issue with non-rugby strength programs is they tend to involve a high frequency of training. You may find yourself in the gym four, five, or even six days a week. As a hard-charging rugger, you also need to find time for team training and rugby-specific skill work. Fewer gym sessions per week will suit most ruggers better. 

Based on this information, you should be able to start putting your own rugby strength training program together. But, to save you time and effort, we’ve done the hard yards for you! 

Essential Training Principles 

Success leaves clues, and, as such, we know the mechanisms that drive increases in strength and fitness. For a training program to work, it must adhere to certain principles. Think of these as the laws of effective training. 

There are lots of training principles, but the most important are: 

Specificity – you are fit for what you do, and your body adapts to the type of workout you follow. If you train like a bodybuilder, you’ll start to look like a bodybuilder. As a rugby player, you need to train like a rugby player, and your workouts should mirror the demands of your chosen sport. 

So, when contemplating any workout or exercise, ask yourself, “how does this apply to rugby?” If it does not, your time and energy will probably be better spent doing something else. 

Progressive overload – you are only as fit and strong as your last workout. Your body adapts quickly to any training stimulus, and your fitness and strength will plateau once adaptation has occurred. 

Because of this, if you want to keep getting stronger and fitter, you must strive to work harder from one workout to the next. This may entail lifting heavier weights, doing more reps, running faster, or rowing further. 

Beginners tend to adapt (gain fitness and strength) faster than more advanced exercisers. However, even ruggers with years of training behind them should still do their utmost to increase the demands of their workouts, even if that’s just one extra rep or an extra five pounds on the bar per month. 

Recovery – it’s one of life’s ironies that training makes you weaker, albeit temporarily. An intense workout causes muscle breakdown and energy depletion. However, while these may seem like negative occurrences, they’re actually the triggers that increase strength and fitness. 

Given time, your body will “bounce back” fitter and stronger, so you can work a little harder in your next workout. However, recovery only happens when you are resting and if your diet supports your training. 

Because of this, what you do outside the gym is just as important as what you do in it. Paying attention to recovery will enhance your progress. Ignoring recovery could mean you end up going nowhere, fast. 

Reversibility – sadly, you cannot store fitness and strength. Miss a couple of workouts, and your progress will come to a grinding halt. Stop training altogether, and you’ll start to lose your hard-won gains. As such, if you want to get fitter and stronger, you need to commit to a long-term training plan. 

If you skip more workouts than you complete, take frequent breaks from training, or are forced to take time off for illness or injury, you’ll lose fitness and strength. As such, you should do everything you can to train consistently. 

Intensity – your body is inherently lazy. Given a chance, it would rather stay flabby and weak. Building muscle and getting fitter use a lot of energy, and your body is hardwired toward energy conservation. 

So, to improve your fitness and strength for rugby, you need to challenge your body with workouts that are sufficiently intense that it has no choice but to adapt. This means taking your sets close or right up to muscular failure and pushing yourself to discomfort during cardio. 

There is a time and a place for easy workouts – called deloading – but the rest of the time, you need to bully your body into getting fitter and stronger with high-intensity training. The good news is that by working at a high level of intensity, you don’t need to do a whole lot of volume. 

Compound vs. isolation exercises – all strength training exercises can be categorized as either compound or isolation. Compound exercises involve several muscle groups and joints working together. In contrast, isolation exercises involve just one joint and fewer muscles. 

While isolation exercises are helpful for localized muscle building (hypertrophy), they are not so good for building strength. For that reason, most ruggers should focus more on compound lifts. They make the best use of your training time and more closely replicate the demands of rugby. 

Any program that follows these principles should provide you with the strength and fitness improvements you want. But, if a workout neglects any of these principles, the chances of producing good results are much lower. 

Strength and Cardio Workouts for Rugby 

This training plan involves three strength and cardio workouts per week. That leaves four days for the three Rs; Rest, Recovery, and Rugby Training!

Because we’re compressing your training into three sessions, you will be doing modified whole-body workouts followed by short but intense cardio workouts, so expect to be in the gym for 90 minutes at a time. That said, if you want to train more often, you can move the cardio to a separate day. 

A lot of ruggers tend to gravitate toward split programs, where you train different muscles on different days. The problem with such an approach is that one missed workout will unbalance your entire training week, and workouts tend to focus more on volume than intensity. 

Plus, in rugby, you don’t use your arms for one period of play and your legs for the next. Instead, rugby is a full-body activity, and because of the principle of specificity, that’s probably the best way to train. 

So, train three times a week on non-consecutive days, e.g., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. This will provide adequate time for rest and recovery. 

Of course, before you begin any of these workouts, make sure you prepare your muscles and joints with an appropriate warm-up. 

Do 5-10 minutes of full-body cardio, such as rowing, air-bike, elliptical, or jump rope, and then do some dynamic mobility and flexibility exercises for your major joints. Next, do 50-100 band pull-aparts to activate your shoulder stabilizers. 

Finally, you may also want to do a few light reps of the exercises in your workout to practice the movement and finish your warm-up. 

Workout One

 Exercise SetsRepsRecovery
1Front squat See weekly progression3-4 minutes
2Good morning  36-82-3 minutes
3Barbell military pressSee weekly progression3-4 minutes
4aPull-up/chin-up  3AMRAP*90 seconds
4bDumbbell bench press 8-10
5Rollouts 310-1590 seconds 
6Dumbbell biceps curl 310-1590 seconds 

Cardio: 5 x 3-minutes hard, 1-minute recovery to total 20 minutes. Increase speed/intensity set by set, so the last one is an all-out effort. 

Use a rower, treadmill, air-bike, or elliptical as preferred. Alternatively, you can run outdoors. 

*AMRAP = As Many Reps as Possible. Just continue to within 1-2 reps of failure. 

Exercises 4a and 4b are to be done as a superset. Do your pull-ups/chin-ups, rest a few seconds, and then do a set of dumbbell bench presses. Rest 90 seconds and repeat the pairing twice more to make three supersets. 

Workout Two

 Exercise SetsRepsRecovery
1Deadlift  See weekly progression3-4 minutes
2Lunge   312-1560 seconds 
3Barbell bench pressSee weekly progression3-4 minutes
4aPendlay row  38-1090 seconds
4bDumbbell shoulder press8-10
5Pallof press310-1590 seconds 
6Triceps dips  3AMRAP*90 seconds 

Cardio: 15 x 20-seconds hard, 40-seconds recovery to total 15 minutes. Increase speed/intensity set by set, so the last 4-5 are all-out efforts. 

Use a rower, treadmill, air-bike, or elliptical as preferred. Alternatively, you can run outdoors. 

*AMRAP = As Many Reps as Possible. Just continue to within 1-2 reps of failure. 

Exercises 4a and 4b are to be done as a superset. Do your Pendlay rows, rest a few seconds, and then do a set of dumbbell shoulder presses. Rest 90 seconds and repeat the pairing twice more to make three supersets. 

Workout Three 

 Exercise SetsRepsRecovery
1Back squat  See weekly progression3-4 minutes
2Romanian deadlift   36-82-3 minutes
3Barbell push pressSee weekly progression3-4 minutes
4aSingle-arm dumbbell row   38-1090 seconds
4bIncline bench press 8-10
5Weighted plank 3ALAP90 seconds 
6Barbell biceps curl 310-1590 seconds 

Cardio: 20 minutes continuous at a brisk but steady pace. 

Use a rower, treadmill, air-bike, or elliptical as preferred. Alternatively, you can run outdoors. 

*ALAP = As Long as Possible. Just hold your plank for as long as you can. Rest for the allotted time and repeat.  

Exercises 4a and 4b are to be done as a superset. Do your single-arm rows, rest a few seconds, and then do a set of incline bench presses. Rest 90 seconds and repeat the pairing twice more to make three supersets. 

 

Weekly Progressions 

Each workout contains two essential strength exercises:

  • Workout 1 – front squat & barbell military press 
  • Workout 2 – deadlift & barbell bench press 
  • Workout 3 – back squat & barbell push press

These are your main strength builders, and this is how you are going to do them!

Week 1 – ramp-up in sets of eight to your eight-rep max for the day. So, load up the bar with a modest weight and do eight reps. Rest a moment, add more weight, and another set of eight. Continue in this fashion until you are no longer able to continue. Ideally, you should hit your daily max within 4-6 sets. 

Week 2 – ramp-up in sets of five reps to your five-rep max for the day. 

Week 3 – ramp-up in sets of three to your three-rep max for the day. 

On reaching your daily max, and if you have the time and energy for more work, reduce the weight by 20-30% and rep out to failure. 

Repeat this three-week cycle twice before enjoying a deload week. To deload, pick light to moderate weights and go through the workouts stopping each set well before failure. For the main strength builders, just do a couple of easy sets of 8-10 reps. For the cardio, reduce the volume by 50%. 

Repeat this six-week plus one-week deload cycle two or three more times and then look for a new program. Even the best workout plan will lose its effectiveness if you do it for too long. 

 

Nutrition Guide 

You are what you eat, or so the saying goes. Your diet should support your training, provide you with plenty of energy, enhance muscle recovery and growth, and be good for your health. 

The food you eat puts back into your body what hard training takes out. Neglecting the importance of nutrition could undermine your progress. 

Like effective training, there are several nutrition principles you need to observe:

Protein is king – your body uses protein for muscle growth and repair. Without sufficient protein, your progress will probably suffer. Getting enough protein is not always easy, as it’s not as abundant as the other food groups. You’ll need to track your protein intake to ensure you are consuming enough. 

Most ruggers should aim for about two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which is around 0.9 grams per pound. 

Carbs for energy – your body uses fat during low-intensity activities but switches to carbs during intense training. As such, you need to eat an abundance of carbs to power you through your workouts. 

Most ruggers should aim for 5-8 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight or 2.3-3.6 grams per pound. 

Fats for hormone regulation and health – contrary to popular opinion, fats are not unhealthy. In fact, some are actually essential. Your fat intake should be divided equally between mono, poly, and saturated fats. Your body uses fats for a host of functions, including anabolic hormone production, control of inflammation, and energy. 

You should consume about one gram of fat per kilogram of body weight, or 0.45 grams per pound. 

Be in a positive calorie balance – the energy in your food is measured in calories. Protein and carbs contain four calories per gram, while fat contains nine. To build strength and fitness without losing muscle mass, you need a positive calorie balance, meaning you need to consume more calories than you burn. This is also called a calorie surplus. 

For example, if your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE for short) is 2,800 calories, you should aim to eat around 3,100-3,300 per day. This will give you energy for training, recovery, and growth. 

While a negative calorie balance is necessary for fat loss, eating fewer calories than your TDEE will also lead to muscle and strength loss. 

Choose whole foods whenever possible – as well as protein, carbohydrates, fats, and calories, your body also needs vitamins, minerals, and fiber to function correctly. The best sources of all these nutrients are whole foods. 

Whole foods are foods that have undergone little if any processing. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts, seeds, and natural fats are all examples of whole foods. In contrast, foods like candy, potato chips, sugary breakfast cereals, and other processed and packaged foods provide calories but very few nutrients. 

Try to ensure most of what you eat and drink are whole foods. You can still have the occasional junk food snack, but “empty calories” should make up a very small percentage of your dietary intake. 

Hydrate – your body is made up of about 65% water. It’s in your muscles, spinal fluid, digestive system, and even your eyes; it’s everywhere! Intense workouts deplete your water in two ways: sweating and exhalations. As such, you must take care to avoid dehydration. 

Even a small degree of dehydration will affect your mental and physical performance, so make sure you drink at least 2-3 liters/68-102 fluid ounces of water per day. The more you sweat, the more water you need to drink. 

Supplement wisely – while nutritional supplements aren’t essential for your rugby success, they can be helpful. Using supplements can often make hitting your macros easier and may boost your training and playing performance. 

Good supplements for ruggers include: 

However, it’s important to stress that no supplement will make up for a poor diet, so make sure you put most of your nutritional effort (and money!) into eating correctly and healthily. If your diet sucks, no amount of supplements will help. 

Meal prep like a boss – eating healthily can be time-consuming, which is why many people cannot do it. Grabbing a pizza is always easier than cooking something healthy. While the occasional takeout won’t ruin your progress, if you have a regular junk food habit, you could find your workouts aren’t as productive as they should be. 

Meal prepping means putting your meals together in advance, which saves time and makes eating healthily a whole lot easier. 

Examples of good meal prepping practices include: 

  • Make overnight oats for a grab-and-go breakfast 
  • Bulk buy snacks and package them up into individual servings 
  • Double up on dinners and save half for another meal 
  • Batch cook things like soups and stews
  • Pre-wash and chop your vegetables in bulk for faster meal prep 

Look for other ways to save time to make healthy eating less of a chore. 

 

Sample Eating Plan 

It’s beyond the scope of this article to provide you with a full-on eating plan to follow. After all, we don’t know your weight, calorie or macro needs, food preferences, allergies, grocery budget, cooking ability, or what time you have available for meal prep. 

To that end, here is a sample eating plan that adheres to all the principles outlined above. It’s just an example of how a day of eating could look and not meant to be followed exactly. Use it as guidance and inspiration rather than exactly what you should eat. 

Breakfast

Overnight oats – take one cup of rolled oats, one cup of milk, two ounces/50 grams of Greek yogurt, one tablespoon of chia seeds, and one tablespoon of maple syrup and put them in a resealable pot. Shake well to mix. Leave in a fridge overnight and enjoy cold straight from the pot the next day. Top with chopped fruit and nuts if you wish. 

1-2 scoops of protein powder – mix into your overnight oats or combine with water and drink as normal. 

Snack

Beef jerky – eat straight from the pack for a hit of on-the-go protein. 

1-2 pieces of fruit – for carbs, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. 

Lunch 

3-4 egg omelet – eggs are an excellent and easy-to-cook protein source and contain several essential vitamins and minerals. You can eat omelets hot or cold. 

Large mixed salad – full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. 

Cold, cooked quinoa – an excellent source of protein, carbs, and fiber. Pre-cook in large batches to save time. 

Olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing – olive oil is a superb source of monounsaturated fats. 

Afternoon snack

Low-fat Greek yogurt – high in protein and calcium, you can mix your yogurt with soft fruit or sweeten it with honey. Low-fat Greek yogurt (and Greek yogurt in general) contains more protein than most other types of yogurt. 

Dinner

Grilled chicken – a large chicken breast should provide about 40-50 grams of protein. Season well and drizzle in olive oil to avoid a dry texture. 

Baked potato – sweet and regular potatoes are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They’re also cheap and easy to cook. Cook a few so you can reheat them for another meal. 

Mixed vegetables – fresh or frozen, a big plate of mixed vegetables will round out your meal perfectly. Try and include different colored vegetables in your meals, e.g., orange carrots, green beans, and red peppers, to get a broad range of vitamins and minerals. 

Pre-bed snack 

Low-fat cottage cheese – high in protein caseinate, low-fat cottage cheese digests slowly to keep your muscles supplied with amino acids as you sleep. Top with a bit of soft fruit for sweetness, or add a teaspoon of low-sugar jam. 

 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Got a question about rugby strength training or nutrition? We’ve got the answers! 

1. What does training to failure mean? 

Training to failure involves performing an exercise until you are no longer able to continue with good form. If you cannot complete your next rep correctly, you have probably reached failure. Training to failure is the trigger that makes you stronger and builds muscle. 

2. Why such long rests between some exercises? 

A lot of ruggers are in a hurry to complete their workouts and, as such, do not rest long enough between sets. This is fine for building muscle or increasing endurance but not so good for building strength. 

If you want to get stronger, you need to lift heavy weights, and you can’t do that when you are tired. Longer rests mean heavier weights and more reps, which produces a better training response. 

Use the downtime to load up your bar for your next set, stretch, hydrate, and get psyched up so you can give it your best effort. 

3. Should I wear a belt for squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, etc.? 

Weightlifting belts increase intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize your spine during heavy strength training. Or, rather, they allow you to increase IAP more by giving you something to push your abs into. 

Wearing a belt may help you lift more weight, but it’s important to remember the law of specificity – you don’t wear a belt on the rugby field, so maybe you shouldn’t train with one, either. 

Wearing a weightlifting belt is a personal choice, but if you wear one, you should save it for your heaviest sets and not become over-reliant on it. Instead, you need to be able to stabilize your spine without one when you play rugby. 

4. Can use I use different exercises to those listed? 

If lack of equipment or personal preference means you need to change any of the exercises in the workouts, you are free to do so. For example, you might do rack pulls instead of deadlifts or weighted push-ups instead of dumbbell bench presses. 

But, any changes you make should use similar exercises. For example, you should not replace something like squats with leg extensions. Nor should you change an exercise just because you find it hard. In most instances, the exercises we find difficult are the ones we need to do more. 

5. Is this a bulking or cutting program? 

Bulking means building muscle and gaining weight, while cutting refers to the practice of burning fat and getting lean. While a lot of people think that bulking and cutting are types of workouts, they actually have more to do with diet. 

If you create a big calorie surplus, this workout plan can help you bulk up. But, if you go into a calorie deficit, it could help you lean out and get cut. 

Rather than worry about cutting and bulking workouts, just adjust your diet to match your body composition goal. 

6. What are some good high-protein foods? 

Protein is such a critical nutrient for ruggers that every player needs to be able to identify protein-rich foods. Good options include: 

  1. Beans 
  2. Beef
  3. Cheese 
  4. Chicken 
  5. Chickpeas 
  6. Cod
  7. Cottage cheese 
  8. Eggs 
  9. Greek yogurt 
  10. Nuts 
  11. Peas 
  12. Pork loin 
  13. Protein caseinate 
  14. Quinoa 
  15. Salmon 
  16. Skim milk 
  17. Soy 
  18. Tuna 
  19. Turkey 
  20. Whey protein 

7. What about meal frequency 

Ruggers need to eat a lot of food. Depending on your weight, your TDEE could be as high as 3,000 calories or more. While you could eat all those calories in one sitting, that meal would have to be enormous! It’s easier to spread your calories over several meals. 

It’s really up to you how many meals you eat per day and when you eat them. Pick a meal frequency that works for you. That might be two large meals and two good-sized snacks, three big meals and three small snacks, or six equally-sized meals eaten every three hours. Go with whatever works best for you. 

8. What about smoothies? 

Smoothies are a great way to make healthy eating easier. Just throw some milk (dairy or otherwise), fruit, oats, yogurt, peanut butter powder, and protein powder in a blender, blitz for 30-60 seconds, and then enjoy a full meal in a glass. 

You can make a smoothie for breakfast, have one for lunch, or even drink one instead of eating dinner if you’re really in a rush. Just try to make them as nutritionally complete as possible by including good sources of protein, carbs, and healthy fats, plus fruits or veggies. 

9. What about keto? 

Keto, short for the ketogenic diet, is extremely popular right now. It’s a very low-carb diet that’s useful for weight loss. Cutting carbs from your diet forces your body to burn more fat for fuel, and the process of producing ketones (the aim of the ketogenic diet) uses a lot of energy which increases fat burning. 

But, while keto can be helpful for weight loss, it’s not so good for hard-training ruggers. Your body needs carbs to make glycogen, and glycogen is your primary fuel during high-intensity training. Too few carbohydrates could mean you lack the energy you need to work hard in the gym. 

If you need to drop a few pounds during the off-season, going keto could help. But, during the playing season and while trying to build muscle and get fitter, you will probably do better if you consume an abundance of carbs.  

10. Can I have a cheat meal? 

A lot of diets have cheat meals or even allow cheat days. This is when you are allowed to break your strict and healthy diet with some otherwise forbidden foods. 

While cheat meals can work, they also tend to encourage over-indulgence. After all, if you are only allowed one cheat meal or cheat day per week, you may feel the need to fill yourself up and go overboard. This turns what should be a psychological break from strict dieting into an unhealthy binge. 

A better way to look at things is to allow yourself 10% less healthy foods spread throughout each week. So, for example, if you consume three meals and three snacks a day, you eat 42 times. Using our 10% guideline, that means you can enjoy less healthy foods four times a week. 

Knowing you aren’t confined to a single cheat day or meal should help stop you from binge eating and undoing the benefits of a healthy diet.

 

Wrapping Up

Getting fitter and stronger for rugby is a holistic process involving strength and cardio training and a solid approach to nutrition. Doing any one of these things in isolation will undermine your progress. They’re like three sides of a triangle, with each one being equally important. 

Lift weights but neglect cardio, and you’ll be great in the scrum but probably too tired to play an entire game of rugby. Do too much cardio, and you’ll be unflagging on the field but easy to tackle and strip of the ball. Train hard but fail to eat properly, and whatever you do in the gym won’t be as productive as it could or should be. 

So, pay equal attention to strength, cardio, and nutrition to get the best possible results from your training. Use this plan to build muscle and get fit for rugby while leaving plenty of time for team practices and working on your rugby skills. 

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