In rugby, muscle size and strength count for a lot. As the saying goes, the good big player will usually beat the good small player. That means that serious ruggers need to pay their dues in the gym, pumping iron and getting buff!
Of course, it’s not how your muscles look but how they perform. That’s why most ruggers need to focus on developing a killer combination of size AND strength, what conditioning coaches call “functional hypertrophy.” This just means you have plenty of show and go.
In contrast, a lot of bodybuilder-types focus almost exclusively on the show aspect of muscular development. They’re built like tanks but aren’t as strong as they look.
While that might make you look impressive in the locker room, this type of development could actually be an independent on the rugby pitch. Like fat, this non-functional muscle mass ends up being nothing more than dead weight.
All that being said, hypertrophy is still useful for ruggers. After all, it takes mass to move mass. If you are super-strong but only weigh 140 lb., bigger players will be able to muscle you off the ball fairly easily. But, if you can increase your bodyweight by 20, 30, or even 40 lb. you’ll be much less of a pushover.
Back in the gym, this means most ruggers should include at least some hypertrophy-specific training in their workouts. That means doing a moderate to high volume of sets, using moderate to heavy weights (67-85% of 1RM), and working within the 6-12 rep range. Lower reps DO build muscle size, but not as effectively as that bodybuilder-approved 6-12 range.
Straight sets, things like 3 sets of 10 reps or 4 sets of 8 reps, can be effective – but only for so long. Your body is the master adapter which means it soon gets used to your workout. Once the novelty of your latest training program wears off, you’ll stop seeing much in the way of progress.
One way around this is to employ progressive resistance. That simply means you do your utmost to increase your weights from one workout to the next. You could also strive to increase your rep count, do more sets per workout, or decrease your rests between sets. This is called manipulating the training variables.
Another way to keep your workouts fresh and productive is to use training systems.
Training systems are recognized methods that involve strategically manipulating the training variables to produce more demanding workouts.
Common training systems include:
Each of these methods can work, but the focus of this article is drop sets.
Drop sets are simple but effective, and that’s why ruggers should use them. Unlike many training systems, you can use drop sets with almost any exercise in your workout, and usually without having to hog lots of different pieces of exercise equipment at the same time. You can use them with all your sets and exercises, or just when you feel like it, so they are ideal for slotting into your workouts intuitively.
Drop sets allow you to extend your work set beyond the point where you would normally stop. Usually, when performing an exercise, you reach a point where you are unable to do any more reps. However, your muscles are not completely exhausted; it’s just that they are tired enough that you cannot do more reps with that particular weight.
If you were doing sets with 100 kg, your set ends when you can no longer generate 100 kg of force. However, you could still generate 90 kg of force. Your muscles still have a lot to give and stopping your set when you initially reach failure means a lot of your motor units will go unchallenged.
With a drop set, on reaching failure, you quickly reduce the load so that you can pump out a few more reps. Then, if you are particularly masochistic, when you hit failure again, you reduce the weight once more and pump out even more reps. Each weight reduction or drop means you’ll dig deeper into your strength reserves, exhausting ever more motor units as you go.
Drop sets are popular and effective but, for ruggers, they might not be ideal. The two main criticisms of traditional-style drop sets are:
Thankfully, there is an alternative…
Mechanical drop sets work the same way as traditional drop sets in that they extend your set beyond failure to increase the overall intensity of your workout. However, the weight stays constant from one drop to the next.
Instead of reducing the weight, you modify your chosen exercise to make it easier. In simple terms, you move from a position of weakness to a position of strength as you start to tire. For this reason, mechanical drops sets are also known as mechanical advantage drop sets – MADS for short.
Here are some tried and tested MADS to try for yourself. If this is your first time doing this type of training, exercise some caution because things are about to get gnarly, bro!
This beastly leg thrasher will leave your quads and glutes deeply fatigued while also improving squat form and performance. Do as many reps as you can of the following sequence, moving quickly from one exercise to the next:
a) Overhead barbell squats
b) Front barbell squats
c) Back barbell squats
Ruggers need strong, powerful hamstrings and glutes. This mechanical drop set delivers in spades. Do as many reps as you can of the following sequence, moving quickly from one exercise to the next:
a) Snatch (very wide) grip deadlift
b) Romanian deadlift
c) Conventional deadlift
Want pecs? This is the mechanical drop set for you. Ask a training partner to adjust the exercise bench for you. Do as many reps as you can of the following sequence, moving quickly from one exercise to the next:
a) Steep incline dumbbell bench press (45 degrees)
b) Shallow incline dumbbell bench press (15 degrees)
c) Flat dumbbell bench press
d) Decline dumbbell bench press
Are you one of those annoying people who find pull-ups easy? This mechanical drop set should fix that! Do as many reps as you can of the following sequence, moving quickly from one exercise to the next:
a) Wide grip pull-ups
b) Parallel grip or shoulder-width pull-ups
c) Narrow, underhand grip pull-ups
If you can do so many push-ups that you time your sets using a calendar and not a stopwatch, this is the mechanical drop set for you. Do as many reps as you can of the following sequence, moving quickly from one exercise to the next:
a) Push-ups – handstand position
b) Push-ups – feet elevated on bench
c) Push-ups – feet on floor
d) Push-ups – knees on floor
Pushing strength is important in rugby, and that means triceps. Use this mechanical drop set to finish off your arm workout. Do as many reps as you can of the following sequence, moving quickly from one exercise to the next:
a) Barbell skull crushers
b) Close-grip bench press
Want to add mass to your upper arms (and who doesn’t?!)? This mechanical drop set is just for you. Do as many reps as you can of the following sequence, moving quickly from one exercise to the next:
a) Reverse (palms down) dumbbell curls
b) Hammer dumbbell curls
c) Regular curls
d) Cheat curls
If you are trying to break through a training plateau or prioritize a lagging muscle group, sprinkle some mechanical drop sets into your workouts. Ramping up the intensity to 11 will soon get your progress back on track. Be warned though, these mechanical drop sets may look innocent on paper but in reality they are real butt-kickers!