How to lean-out for rugby season
Rugby players have become significantly bigger over the past 25 years. That goes for both height and weight across the field.
If you look at the size of players at the 1987 World Cup (before professionalism) and compare this with the guys running around at RWC2015, you’ll see an average increase of some 17lbs amongst the forwards and almost 20lbs in the backs.
But this study by the BBC and Opta Sports shows that while players are still getting bigger, the rate of increase is beginning to plateau.
Physical demands of modern rugby
According to Dr Grant Trewartha, a Bath University bio-mechanics expert who specializes in rugby – the main reason for the slow down is that the game has become faster and ‘more active’ over that same period. From the article:
…there were 94 tackles and 164 passes in the average World Cup game in 1991. But 20 years later the figures had roughly doubled. In 2011 there were an average of 197 tackles and 253 passes.
Having a stack of extra weight isn’t necessarily the best thing to be carrying as rugby becomes a faster sport. And it is getting a lot faster. The study also showed that the average rugby player is being asked to make more runs, tackles and rucks than ever before. Seasons are also getting longer, with the professional / international calendar now taking up a solid 10 months of the year.
What does all this mean for players and their physical characteristics? You’ll notice that the Opta Sports study doesn’t say players are getting smaller to cope with extra game time. If rugby players are getting heavier AND doing more, the only mechanism must be a dramatic change in body composition. In short, rugby players are getting leaner.
Pro Vs Amateur rugby fitness goals
Its probably unreasonable for the average player to use the All Blacks or the Springboks as a fitness benchmark. Those guys have a huge amount of support, endless resources and frankly talent that helps them achieve peak physical performance. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.
The following table shows the fitness objectives that the Springboks used back in 2007. Its probably a little dated for them, but it’ll do nicely for most amateur players nowadays. We suggest benchmarking against this table on a percentage basis. If you’re playing D1 rugby, take off 10% from each objective total. If you’re playing D2 rugby, take off 20% and if you’re playing D3/4, take off 30%.
Based on that scale, if you’re a D3 Pro, your Beep Test target is more like an 8 than an 11. And your max bench should be about your body weight, not 1.5x what you put on the scales.
|Test||Inside backs||Outside backs||Loose forwards||Locks||Hookers||Props|
|Body fat sum of 7 Skinfolds (mm)||< 56||< 56||< 72||< 90||< 72||< 96|
|Vertical Jump (cm)||65||68||62||65||60||55|
|Sprint 10m (sec) conducted on grass||1.65||1.68||1.72||1.75||1.75||1.80|
|Sprint 40m (sec) conducted on grass||5.25||5.10||5.30||5.50||5.50||5.65|
|Max Bench (kg lifted/kg of body weight)||1.3||1.3||1.3||1.5||1.5||1.5|
|Max Squat (kg/kg.bw)||1.3||1.6||1.6||1.6||1.8||1.8|
|Repeat Sprint Ability (m) conducted on grass||780||780||760||750||750||720|
|Beep Test (Level)||13.5||13.5||13.0||12.5||13.0||11.5|
|3km run (min/sec) on track or similar||11.15||11.15||11.45||12.15||12.00||12.45|
THE LEAN-OUT FORMULA
Amateur players, like our professional counterparts, can benefit from maintaining or even increasing size at the expense of body fat. That means getting leaner and stronger at the same time. If you’ve read up on periodization for rugby, you’ll understand that this is the phase usually known as ‘pre-season’.
Depending on your scores in the fitness testing table above, you might need to either lean-out or bulk-up during pre-season. If you’re under-size and running 12s on a beep test, stop reading now. Go grab some whey protein and sleep more to get bigger.
If however you’ve killed the max bench and squat, but you can’t vertical jump for peanuts, keep reading and we’ll give you the formula to get lean for rugby season without spending 4 hours a day in the gym. The formula involves making small changes to your diet, training and sleep.
About a dozen members of our product testing team in the US, Canada and Australia have adopted this lean-out formula during pre-season training. The result? Weight is largely maintained while body composition, strength and cardiovascular fitness improved significantly. To become part of the next testing group – email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
CHANGING YOUR DIET
Your primary energy source
We mentioned above that cutting out carbohydrates is one of the ways people usually go about getting lean for rugby season. And it usually fails. Not because the theory is wrong, but because the execution is lacking. For the majority of amateur athletes, carbohydrates are your #1 source of energy. This energy comes in the form of foods like fruit, pasta, rice, potatoes etc.
How your body processes carbohydrate into energy
Why do you want to eat fewer carbohydrates? Mainly because your body can’t store more than about 2 days worth of energy from carbs. If you consume more carbs than you can store, your liver turns these into fat for future conversion back into energy when needed. If you’re not doing enough exercise during those two days to burn up your intake, you’ll continue building up useless stores of fat. Unless you’re an ultra-marathoner in your space time, stores of fat are not a good thing.
Rugby players don’t need (many) carbohydrates during pre-season
During pre-season, when you’re trying to lean-out for rugby, you shouldn’t be using a huge amount of energy between training sessions. You’ll have rugby training twice a week, and probably 2-3 gym sessions during that time too. But none of these activities require thousands of excess calories from carbohydrates.
We’ve run several tests on caloric requirements of gym sessions using squats and deadlifts as our primary movements. The results are usually that you’ll burn anywhere from 400 to 800 calories during a session. But remember, if you weren’t exercising you’d be burning calories too. So realistically, your gym session has probably only helped you burn through 200-300 additional calories. If you go downing a 1000 calorie fruit-based smoothie after your session, you’re actually being counter-productive. More on caloric intake shortly.
Depending on your age and fitness level, you may need to eat some carbs prior to training. But don’t overdo it. A piece of fruit (banana, apple, orange) an hour before rugby training with a handful of Walnuts or Almonds is more than enough to get you through the session. If you combine this with drinking a pre-workout or nitric oxide booster while you’re exercising, even better.
Eat MORE fat
Sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it? How could you possibly get leaner by eating more fat? For years we’ve been told to choose the low-fat option at the grocery store. But the latest nutrition science suggests that athletes can see significant performance and body-composition improvements by using a low-carb healthy fat (LCHF) diet.
Cyclists and triathletes were some of the first athletes to experiment with what’s known as a ‘ketogenic’ diet. A strict ketogenic diet is composed of almost 85% fat with the remainder being protein or vegetables and absolutely no carbohydrate from grains or fruit. Eating strict-keto is a really difficult thing to do. Its generally reserved for epileptic kids trying to stop seizures. But the general principles have been widely adopted by elite sporting programs around the world. In the past 4 years, virtually every international rugby squad has shifted their diet away from carbs. While they haven’t gone so far as adopt strict-keto, they’re definitely in the LCHF category.
The All Blacks diet and healthy fats
Until 2011, the All Blacks’ diet looked pretty conventional. Players were encouraged to eat mostly grains with breakfast and vegetables with lean protein for major meals. They ate lots of fruit too. And were made to load up on carbohydrates the day before a game. That’s all changed since their strength and conditioning coach, Nic Gill, began experimenting with LCHF principles in his own training as an elite endurance racer. At the 2015 RWC, the All Blacks ate snacks that were much more balanced with plenty of coconut oil, nut butters, fatty proteins and choice supplements.
It’s important to note that this isn’t completely Ketogenic. And on game-day, the team would incorporate more carbohydrate in order to fuel up for a match. For rugby players, both amateur and professional, eating strict-keto is unrealistic and could possibly have adverse performance effects due to the way your body uses energy during a rugby game. But eating LCHF should be your goal during pre-season if you want to lean-out.
Foods to avoid
This isn’t the hard part of LCHF, but we’ll address it anyway. The #1 diet change you need to make in order to lean-out for rugby season is to avoid sugar. All sugar. Every kind of sugar. Even the thought of sugar. Get rid of it, it’s done. As of right now, you no longer eat any of the following:
- ice-cream, sweets or candy
- soft-drink, soda or fruit juice
- pasta, rice or bread
- fruit (except for tomatoes and avocado)
This last point is the most difficult to get your head around. Conventional wisdom suggests we need fruits in our diet for a healthy balance of vitamins and minerals. In reality, the fruit we eat is largely turned into useless fat because we’re not exercising enough to burn through it. As of right now, you no longer eat fruit.
EDIT: we realize this goes against the advice that you should eat a banana (with Walnuts) an hour before training sessions. We want to make it clear though that the piece of fruit you have before training is a special short-term tool designed to give your body enough fuel to train on. For the most part though, cutting fruit out of your diet will help you transition to using fat for energy.
“As of right now, you no longer eat fruit.” really means “As of right now, you no longer eat fruit unless its right before a 2 hour training session when you know you’re virtually guaranteed to burn through 1,200 calories.” – sorry for an confusion on this.
Eating LCHF is F*ing great!
Ok stop freaking out. No, you don’t get to have your coke or apple juice at lunch. BUT! You do get to eat a whole bunch of awesome foods that you have probably been avoiding for years. I’m talking Bacon, I’m talking Steak, I’m talking Chocolate! Eggs a plenty and as much heavy cream in your coffee as your stomach can handle. Do you own a deep fryer? Even better! Throw some coconut oil in there and get to cookin’.
Eating LCHF is not the end of the world for your taste buds. In fact, as your body adjusts, you’ll come to genuinely dislike sweet foods and crave fats. Here are just a few meals you can now feel free to gauge on:
- Breakfast: egg with bacon – 28 g egg, 11 g bacon, 37 g of 36% heavy whipping cream, 23 g butter
- Snack: peanut butter ball – 6 g peanut butter and 9 g butter.
- Lunch: tuna salad – 28 g tuna fish, 30 g mayonnaise, 10 g celery, 36 g of 36% heavy whipping cream, half an avocado and 15 g lettuce.
- Snack: keto yogurt – 18 g of 36% heavy whipping cream, 17 g sour cream, 4 g strawberries and artificial sweetener
- Dinner: cheeseburger (no bun) – 22 g minced (ground) beef, 10 g American cheese, 26 g butter, 38 g cream, 10 g lettuce, half an avocado and 11 g green beans
- Snack: keto custard – 25 g of 36% heavy whipping cream, 9 g egg and pure vanilla flavoring.
Our favorite recipe right now is this awesome concoction of Jalapeno Poppers wrapped in bacon. We add cream-cheese too, because… why not?
When to drink more water
One of the classic `mistakes we make with our diets is to think we’re hungry, when we’re actually thirsty. For 20-30 years, you’ve probably been making this mistake, eating a meal when in fact, all you need is a glass of water.
At the same time, It’s standard operating procedure to tell someone who wants to lose weight that they need to drink more water. But more important than how much water you drink, is actually WHEN you drink it. Some people recommend having 8 glasses of water a day as the optimum for fat loss. In our experience, this is both hard to maintain and frankly annoying. The better way to use water in your fat loss diet is to simply drink 1 glass of water before each meal you have.
That it! Nothing complex. No running to the bathroom all day and making people look at you funny. Just have 350-500ml of water before every meal. You’ll eat less and your brain will actually function better too.
Use a Beta Hydroxybutarate supplement
Many rugby players reading this article have probably tried a low-carb diet in the past. And if you’re like the majority who did, it failed pretty quickly. Why? Its almost certainly because you reduced your carbohydrate intake without increasing the amount of energy you were getting from good fats. This has been the case with almost every rugby player we’ve talked to. Without additional energy getting to your brain, you become a horrible person to be around. Luckily, we have the answer, in the form of Beta Hydroxybutarate.
Transitioning to a LCHF diet will take about 2 weeks. During that time, you may become a more difficult version of yourself. Without sugar, your brain will be so busy performing basic functions that it won’t have much time for empathy. This is generally a bad thing for human relationships. But the guys at Keto Sports have developed a ketone powder that can help eliminate this adjustment phase: KetoSports KetoCaNa.
Keto CaNa is a white powder that contains one of the two primary ketone bodies, beta hydroxybutarate. It looks just like a white pre-workout powder and is used pretty much the same way. We suggest taking it in the morning with your breakfast and sipping it in a liter of water while working out. If you’ve tried Keto CaNa or you decide to after reading this article, please leave us a comment and tell us about your experience with it. (we may try to stock a similar product on ruckscience.com if we have enough interest)
CHANGING YOUR TRAINING
What’s the best way to train if you want to get lean for rugby season? Until recently, the accepted theory was that you needed to do a whole bunch of cardio. Run laps, woo! Burn calories, woo! Ok, now forget all that. Steady-state cardio training will help you burn calories while you’re exercising, but it doesn’t keep your metabolism elevated after you finish your training. This period is characterized by Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) which basically means the time that your metabolism remains elevated after training is over.
Some studies have suggested that lifting heavy weights can elevate your EPOC for up to 38 hours. In order to lean-out, we want to fill our pre-season rugby training schedule with exercises and programs that will help us burn additional calories for as long as possible. Here are some ways to do that.
Run, Bike, Row Intervals
There’s a lot of conjecture online about how to maximize EPOC. A simple Google search will give you a stack of stuff to read on the topic. One school of thought is that athletes looking to burn fat should engage in high-intensity interval training (HIIT) whereby you bust your gut for 1 minute rest for 2 minutes and go again trying to reach your Vo2 Max each time.
This kind of training is not only incredibly difficult, it also has almost no application in the game of rugby. If you read our cardio program for flankers (which includes a 40 min session of intervals at increasing intensity) you’ll see a link to this article which explains that rugby players only reach maximum intensity during a game for a few seconds at a time. So high-intensity interval training? It’s not where we want to focus our attention when we’re looking to lean-out during pre-season.
But just because HIIT isn’t optimal for rugby players, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do interval training. Running, cycling or rowing intervals are an essential part of pre-season training for rugby players. Why? Because rugby requires athletes to replicate many bouts of moderate-intensity effort during a game.
Doing moderate-intensity intervals is also much easier on the body than HIIT training. Moderate-intensity interval programs like our cardio program for flankers don’t put you at high-risk of injury. So they are much easier to do multiple times during a week without tearing a hamstring.
Lift Heavy (fewer reps + more sets)
Studies including a 2003 review from Norway have found that lifting heavy weights (as opposed to moderate weights) creates a longer and more pronounced EPOC effect. Provided you have a base level of strength that can support lifting heavy without risking injury, going for heavier lifts provides for great EPOC after your session is over.
Some other research we’ve run into suggests that staggering your lifting and interval days is the best way to maximize fat burning. So consider lifting on Monday and Friday during pre-season with a tough interval session on Wednesday. That should give you a good balance and help to keep your EPOC elevated all week.
Checkout our rugby leg workout program to see how we recommend lifting heavy during pre-season. Our program combines heavy resistance training with dynamic plyometrics exercises to give you gains in both strength and speed, the two key components for creating power.
Learn to Sprint
This is perhaps the least-talked about technique for elevating your EPOC and burning fat. We suspect this is because very very few athletes have a track near their house, while you could bash a 6 iron in any direction right now and hit a gym roof. The barrier to entry is also a bit higher with sprinting. If you haven’t sprinted, getting a dedicated sprint coach is highly advisable. Without one, you’re likely to develop bad habits that can lead to injury and time away from your other exercises.
Now, why do we want to sprint? Because sprinting gives us many of the same benefits as heavy resistance training. You’re doing intervals for sure, but unlike HIIT, you’re not getting anywhere near your Vo2 Max which means you can replicate the effort over and over and over again. In HIIT, you’re trying to maximize your aerobic output. While in sprinting, you’re working the top-end of you anaerobic system which is actually better for burning fat. It also elevates your EPOC, which means that you’re burning fat for long after the sprint session ends.
For more resources on sprint training, checkout this piece on sprinting for fat loss by the guys at ShapeFit and this article on Sprinting as an Ab exercise from metaboliceffect.com. Or if you’re in the local Austin area, we highly recommend Bodyz by Dezign for their sprint training programs and coaching. Marco is a great guy too!
CHANGING YOUR REST
If you’ve done steps 1 and 2 right, this should be the easy part of the lean-out formula. But its also the one you’re most likely to get wrong. Setting aside time to rest should be exactly the same as setting aside time to train. Yet too often, we sit up past midnight after rugby training on Tuesdays and Thursdays to have a glass of wine with the Mrs or watch rugby videos on YouTube. Stop doing that! There’s no point having elevated EPOC if you’re not giving your body enough time to take advantage.
Regulate bedtime and waking time
A 2013 study led by Bruce Bailey, professor of exercise science at Brigham Young, found that waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day (particularly a consistent wake time) was most strongly linked with lower body fat. Even though creating a consistent waking time is the most crucial part of the sleep time formula, we find it most useful to focus on setting and sticking to the right bed time. Getting up takes care of itself, you know you need to get up to go to work or class. There’s stuff you’ve gotta do so you can’t sleep in past a certain time each day. But getting to bed? That’s where you can procrastinate.
Setting an alarm is helpful. But better than that is to remember:
Sleep between 7-8 hrs a night
The same study out of BYU showed a correlation between the length of sleep each night and a person’s prevalence to be overweight. Basically, if you’re sleeping < 6 hours or > 8 hours each night, you’re more likely to be carrying some extra fat. Now correlation doesn’t equal causation, but that kind of data suggests that we should be aiming to sleep for between 7 and 8 hours. Every. Single. Day. It’s not good enough to get 5 hours on Thursday and make it up with 9 on Saturday. In fact, the 9 hour day might be hurting you as much or more than the 5 hour day. Luckily, if you can regulate your bed time, this step should take care of itself.
Use Melatonin to get to sleep faster
In our opinion, melatonin is the most under-utilized recovery tool you can get your hands on. Not because it does anything amazing to your metabolism, but simply because it gets you to sleep faster and more consistently than any other sleep aid. You can get chewable melatonin like Sundown Naturals at any grocery store or pharmacy. We like this stuff because you won’t dread taking it.
How much should you take? Checkout this video from the national sleep foundation which gives a good overview. We take more than we should. Sometimes as many as 20mg each night. It’s probably best to start with 3-5mg and see how it works for you. Melatonin is a really excellent product to have on hand when you’re on a rugby trip too. Especially when you get stuck in a room with a couple of snoring props. If you’ve got 20mg of Melatonin on hand, they’re not going to bother you too much.