Gymnastic strength training for rugby players

If you are serious about improving your performance for rugby, you had better be training like a rugby player! Specificity is the underlying principle that needs to govern your workout program design. 

Your body adapts to the stresses placed on it and, therefore, boosting rugby performance means training the fitness components that you need most for rugby. In no specific order, those components include:

  • Strength
  • Muscular endurance
  • Power
  • Speed
  • Agility
  • Aerobic fitness
  • Anaerobic fitness
  • Balance
  • Skill

Developing all of these fitness components requires cross training. That is to say, you need to incorporate lots of different training methods to develop the all-round conditioning required for successful rugby.

It’s not enough just to lift weights, or just run, or just sprint on the track; you need to do ALL these things. Even worse, you can’t train like a bodybuilder and hope to get better at rugby – a common gym sin we see all the time.

Not only does your training need to involve a lot of different fitness components, it also needs to follow a periodized plan. This will ensure you are fit and well-rested during the competitive season. However, in the off season, you need to work hard to increase fitness and strength, when you have more time and energy for recovery. This can be achieved in the gym but also at home.

For training plans designed for rugby, make sure you check out our training and diet programs page.

One way to make keep your training effective and enjoyable is to borrow methods from other sports. Bruce Lee said it best when he uttered the often-quoted words “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless.” Rugby is a very specialized and even unique sport, but that doesn’t mean ruggers can’t learn from other athletes.

In fact, in previous articles, we’ve outlined the benefits of boxing, wrestling, and Jiu Jitsu for ruggers. Another sport that offers a lot of benefits for ruggers is gymnastics.

At first look, rugby and gymnastics might seem to be at completely opposite ends of the fitness spectrum. After all, gymnastics is a non-contact sport, competitors are judged solely on their performance of very specialist skills, and gymnasts compete alone – even in team events. But, when you boil gymnastics down to its basic physical characteristics, the similarities with rugby become much more apparent.

Gymnasts are very:

  • Strong
  • Powerful
  • Fast
  • Agile
  • Flexible
  • Anaerobically fit
  • Courageous
  • Good at performing under pressure

Suddenly, gymnastics and rugby don’t seem so different after all!

One of the most amazing things about gymnasts is that they develop their incredible levels of strength and fitness using almost nothing but bodyweight exercises. And those bodyweight exercises are also great for developing functional hypertrophy. You only have to look at the upper body development of male adult gymnasts to see how effective these training methods are.

Gymnasts often perform very well in traditional strength tests like 1RM bench press and deadlift, despite not doing these exercises in training. However, the opposite is rarely true, and being strong in the gym doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do even the most basic gymnastic strength exercises.

Not convinced that gymnasts are strong? Check out this video:



Gymnastic strength exercises for ruggers

Here are TEN of our favorite gymnastic exercises for strength. Start at the top of the list and work your way through. They are listed in approximate order if difficulty, but don’t be surprised if you find some exercises harder than others.

Do these exercises as finishers after strength training, as preparatory exercises before strength training, or as a standalone workout instead of your normal gym-based strength workout.

Forget about traditional sets and reps and, instead, think practice rather than repetitions. Keep going until you feel your performance starting to drop off, and then change movement patterns. Focus more on movement quality than exercise quantity. And next time, just try and perform the exercises better.

1. Animal crawls

After learning to walk, most up us spend the majority of our time standing upright. Other than hitting the deck in rugby, sitting in a chair, and lying down to sleep, it’s quite uncommon to spend any meaningful amounts of time on anything but your feet. However, a lot of gymnastic moves start sitting, lying, or even balancing on your hands.

Animal crawls force you to move your body in a whole different way, and to use your deep stabilizers and core, as well as your main muscles, in ways that they are not used to. They also develop mobility and agility – two things all ruggers need plenty of.

Animal crawls are a great all-round conditioning tool that develops your ability to use your upper body as a source of locomotion. You can link animal crawls with forward rolls and cartwheels for the ultimate in gymnastic movement-based workouts; just a few minutes of crawling and rolling will leave you huffing and puffing.

Check out this video to see 15 different crawling variations in action:

2. Forward rolls, backward rolls, and cartwheels

Forward rolls, backward rolls, and cartwheels are the basics of gymnastic tumbling. These are useful skills for ruggers because they all involve regaining your feet after hitting the deck. Best practiced on soft grass or thick, gymnastic mats, these movements also develop balance, mobility, agility, and coordination.

If you have never tumbled before, expect to feel some soreness the following day; that’ll be your less-than-dainty landings. But, with practice, you should find that forward rolls, backward rolls, and cartwheels get much easier very quickly, and you start to develop much better and more fluid movement.

Learn how to do a forward roll here:

Learn how to do a backward roll here:

Learn how to do a cartwheel roll here:

20-1-20 PROGRAM


3. Frog stand

For many people, the frog stand is the first time they attempt any kind if hand balance. Because your feet are never too far from the floor, if you make a mistake you don’t have far to fall, making this the ideal hand balancing exercise for beginners. Despite this, frog stands still teach you how to balance while inverted, how to create and maintain tension throughout your body, and how a small shift in position can be the difference between success or failure.

Learn the frog stand here:

4. Handstand

The handstand might seem like nothing more than a playground trick, but it’s actually an excellent way to develop shoulder strength and stability. Even if you do a lot of overhead lifting and pressing, you’ll only ever hold the weight aloft for a second or two. In contrast, supporting your weight on your hands for up to several minutes at a time will challenge even the strongest deltoids, trapezius, triceps, deep rotator cuff muscles, and also develop balance and core strength.

Check out this video to learn how to do a handstand – both against a wall and free-standing:

5. Handstand push-up

If you can do a decent frog stand and have progressed to the handstand against a wall, you are ready to try the handstand push-up. This has all the same benefits of a handstand, but also adds a dynamic pressing element that will develop strength and even more balance. This exercise is ideal for lineout lifters.

If you have never tried this exercise before, or doubt your ability to complete even one repetition, have a spotter available to support your feet, and place a folded gym mat or cushion under your head. Think you are too big for handstand push-ups? Let heavyweight powerlifter Dan Green show you different!

6. L-sit

Planks are a popular core and abs exercise and with good reason – they train your midsection isometrically or statically, which is how it often has to work in nature. When your core contracts isometrically, it creates something called intra-abdominal pressure, or IAP for short. This provides your spine with support from within and is crucial for safe strength training and rugby, especially in contact situations.

Unfortunately, the humble plank ceases to be effective when you can hold it for 60 seconds or longer, as most rugby players should be able to do fairly easily. That’s where the L-sit comes in. Like the plank, it’s an isometric exercise, but it takes advantage of longer levers to really work your core hard. It’s also a good upper body strength and stability exercise that requires and develops balance too. It’s also common to feel this exercise in the quads, and you need decent hamstring flexibility.

Check out this video to learn how to do L-sits:

Nailed the L-sit? Good work! Now try the L-pull-up:

7. Hollow body hold and hollow body rock

Another fantastic gymnastic core exercise is the hollow body hold. This exercise is like an inside-out plank that will reveal and fix any core weakness. The key to this exercise is keeping your lower back flat to the floor at all times. If your lower back starts to arch, your abs have quit, and you are no longer doing the exercise properly.

Learn how to do the hollow body hold here:

Once you can do the hollow hold, you can try the hollow body rock:

8. Planche push-up

Think your 300-lb. bench press means you’re strong? Guess again! The planche push-up is one of the most humbling upper body pressing exercises you can try, and even big benchers will struggle to do even one rep. In part, this is because most ruggers have very big, muscular legs, which makes this exercise doubly hard. However, despite being a very tough exercise, just trying to master the planche push-up will increase upper body strength.

Watch this video to learn the basics of the planche push-up:

9. Ring dips

Dips are often referred to as the upper body squat. In fact, if you could only do one upper body pushing exercise, dips would be a good choice. They work your deltoids, pectorals, and triceps, and, as a bodyweight exercise, let you know when you are gaining a little too much weight too! Hint: if you want to get better at dips and chin-ups, the fastest way to do it is to drop fat.

Most ruggers are familiar with parallel bar dips, but dips are even better when you use gymnastic rings. And forget about bench dips which are designed to do nothing more than wreck your shoulders.

Gymnastic rings are cheap, portable, and can be used any place you can find a suitable anchor point. Just hang them from a pull-up bar for example.

Ring dips require and develop shoulder stability, and as you have to work hard to stop the rings from swinging, make this already great exercise even better for building muscle and strength.

See how to do ring dips in this video:

10. Rope climbing

Rope climbing used to be an Olympic sport, but was dropped back in the 1930s. It’s still a competitive sport, but it’s definitely on the fringes, and you probably won’t see it on NBC anytime soon!

Despite no longer being a popular sporting spectacle, rope climbing is still used in gymnastics as an upper body strength exercise, and it regularly features in military training. Some schools still include rope climbing in physical education classes, and it often appears in CrossFit workouts.

Rope climbing develops a powerful grip, and strong arms and lats, which makes it a lot like pull-ups and chin-ups. However, because of the hand over hand action, you have to use each arm independently so, even if you are the pull-up king, you might find rope climbing very demanding.

If you are new to rope climbing, start with a short 12 to 15-foot rope, and use your legs to assistance. However, as you get more accustomed to this exercise, make things more demanding by progressing to a longer 20 to 30-foot rope and using your arms only. Remember though; it’s not enough to climb up the rope, you also have to lower yourself down. It’s not a good idea to just let go and slide!

Check out this video for rope climbing progressions to get you started:

Gymnastic training is good for all ruggers, even if you only choose to perform just a couple of exercises from this list. Make sure you increase training volume and intensity gradually, and fuel workout recovery with Post Rugby and Rugby Whey.


Tim Howard

Tim Howard

Tim is one of the founders at Ruck Science who settled in Austin, TX after playing rugby all over the world for the past two decades. He's constantly used as a guinea pig for our most advanced or controversial diet and training experiments.