Speed is a massive part of playing rugby. Being quick on your feet can be the difference between scoring, making a timely tackle, or reaching a loose ball first, or failing to be in the right place at the right time.
In rugby a rugby footrace, there are no prizes for coming in second! Traditionally, backs and especially wingers are the fastest players on the field, but that doesn’t mean that forwards won’t benefit from getting faster. Of all the forwards, props are usually considered the slowest.
Props are often big, strong, lumbering units, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still have a decent turn of speed. A little extra get up and go will be very beneficial and could mean you join that rarified club of props that have run in a try.
Here are five strategies for becoming a faster prop.
Whatever position you play, squats should be part of your rugby strength training program. Squats are arguably the best sports-specific exercise for building rugby strength. While squat depth is a hotly-debated topic, there is no escaping the need for squatting hard and heavy.
Squats aren’t just good for strength in the scrum, research suggests that if your squat performance increases, so too will you speed.
Increases in 1RM squat strength have been shown to coincide with increased sprinting speed over a range of distances. While this study was conducted on soccer players, it stands to reason that increasing your squat could have a beneficial effect on sprinting speed for rugby too.
Squats and sprints involve similar muscles and the same energy pathways, so these seemingly dissimilar activities are actually well matched.
Speed the next 8-12 weeks working on increasing your 1RM in the squat, and you could also see your sprint speed improve. To do this, gradually increases your weights while decreasing your reps per set, for example:
Week one – 3 sets of 10 reps
Week two – 3 sets of 8 reps
Week three – 4 sets of 6 reps
Week four – 4 sets of 5 reps
Week five – 5 sets of 4 reps
Week six – 5 sets of 3 reps
Week seven – 4 sets of 2 reps
Week eight – 3 sets of 1 rep
Week nine – test squat 1RM
While some props, especially at the elite level of rugby, are lean, many recreational players are not. Props are often, well, a little on the large side!
While extra body mass in any form can make you a more imposing, immovable, unstoppable player, body fat is dead weight that will slow you down when it’s time to sprint. Not convinced? Try strapping on a 20kg/45 lbs. weighted vest and timing yourself over 5, 10, and 20 meters. We bet you a beer you’ll be faster without the extra weight.
Losing fat is a relatively straightforward process that involves eating fewer and expending more calories. This calorie deficit forces your body to start using more fat for fuel. While simple, losing weight is not always easy, and requires a measured approach to both diet and training.
Looking for some simple weight management ideas? Check out our article Is it possible to lose weight and still be a Prop?
Sprinting is as much a skill as it is a feat of strength and power. If you usually just duck your head and “go for it” without much thought to what you are doing with your arms and legs, you might be sabotaging your speed.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to provide you with a step by step guide to proper sprint mechanics, so talk to your coach for advice. But, that said, here are a few bulleted tips you can start working on right away.
The stretch reflex is a built-in function of the nervous system. When you rapidly stretch a muscle, it contracts in opposition to the stretch to protect itself from injury. The bigger and faster the stretch, the more powerful the counter-contraction will be.
Because of this, you can generate much more force in movements that are preceded by a rapid stretch. That’s why you can jump higher after squatting rapidly beforehand or kick harder and further after a big rearward leg swing.
The good news is that the stretch reflex is highly trainable, and your nervous system can be taught to synchronize force production with the stretch reflex to produce more powerful counteractions on demand.
Sprinting involves a whole lot of muscular stretch and subsequent stimulation of the stretch reflex. Plyometric training is one of the best ways to target the stretch reflex and increase power output for faster sprinting.
Plyometric exercises feature a rapid loading followed by an equally rapid unloading of the target muscles. Most plyometric exercises involve some form of jumping, although some medicine ball throws are plyometric in nature too.
With plyometric jumping exercises, as you land, you must decelerate and then rapidly accelerate your bodyweight. For example, stepping off a platform and turning your descent into a jump.
There are dozens of plyometric exercises to choose from, many of which require nothing more than some space and your body weight for resistance.
In addition to plyometrics, there are a few additional methods you can use to develop your stretch reflex, including medicine ball throws and Olympic lifting. You can read about these methods in our article Power exercises for rugby players to master.
Hill sprints are a very useful method for increasing sprint speed. Unfortunately, a lot of ruggers abuse this training method and turn a what should be a speed workout into a conditioning workout.
There are two types of sprint workout that can help make you faster – slight incline and slight decline. With both methods, the aim is to sprint as fast as you can. Studies have shown that combining uphill and downhill sprints are more effective for speed than horizontal only sprints.
Uphill sprints are great for overloading your sprinting muscles and increasing power output. They also teach you to sprint properly by putting you into the perfect posture for maximal speed.
In contrast, downhill sprints can help increase leg speed. This is often called over-speed training.
With both hill sprint training methods, steeper hills are not better for increasing speed. In fact, a 4-5% incline is sufficient to trigger the adaptations that result in increased sprint performance. Steeper slopes will change your sprinting technique and won’t transfer well to running on the rugby pitch.
Keep your distances short, and your rests long so you can generate maximum force during your workout. 10-30 meters is plenty.
Remember, this is not a conditioning workout, and you are not trying to increase your fitness or burn fat. Instead, focus on quality and not just wearing yourself out with another HIIT training session.
While speed is something some players naturally have more of than others, it’s also very trainable. You may never graduate from carthorse to racehorse, but you can always improve your sprinting speed for rugby – even if you are a prop.
Put these strategies into practice, especially in the off-season, and you’ll soon be turning heads and leaving the opposition staring at your back!