Rugby is a sport where strength and power are undeniably king. Scrummaging, tackling, and sprinting for the line are all good examples of rugby-specific activities that require and demonstrate strength and power.
But, unlike most other strength and power sports, such as Olympic lifting, American football or even the shot put, rugby players don’t just tackle once, sprint once, or scrummage once per game; they must do it over, over, and over again.
Rugby matches are often won or lost in the last few minutes of play, and the ability to keep on attacking or defending is a test of muscular endurance, and that is something every rugby player needs irrespective of the position they play in. This is something the All Blacks are known for.
Current captain Kieran Read has been quoting as saying that the team trains for the last 10mins of each game. In short, everything in the first 70 mins is just leading up to the final showdown. But to have that kind of confidence, rugby players need to possess an exceptional amount of muscular endurance.
Muscular endurance is the ability to perform a high volume of intense activity without the benefit of adequate oxygen. In short, it’s when you’re working so hard that your heart and lungs cannot keep up with the demands of your muscles.
At low levels of exercise intensity, e.g. jogging, your muscles receive lots of oxygen which ensures they can keep working without undue fatigue. While lactic acid, the stuff that makes your muscles burn, IS produced, it is produced in tiny amounts and is quickly removed by all that oxygen.
However, if you pick up the pace and start to sprint, lactic acid accumulates faster than it can be cleared away which initially causes pain and will ultimately lead to a significant drop off in performance and probably necessitate that the activity stops so you can rest.
Once you stop, your heart and breathing rate, which were already elevated in an unsuccessful attempt to get enough oxygen to your working muscles, will remain elevated to repay what is often called “oxygen debt.” After a rest, lactic acid levels will fall, and you’ll be ready to sprint again.
However, in rugby, you don’t get to rest when you want – if the ball is in play, you have to keep on rucking, mauling, tackling and sprinting despite the obvious fatigue. Needless to say, the team who can continue to keep on playing with the most intensity is most likely to win.
For example, you might have possession of the ball on the five-meter line and, with only minutes of the match remaining, keep attacking the try line, pouring unrelenting pressure on the opposition to secure a final Try. Such sustained effort leaves your muscles burning, and your heart pounding, but you have to keep at it despite being exhausted.
Here is an example of the importance of endurance in an attack against very determined opposition. The attack lasts almost 4 mins involving 32 phases of play.
Cardiovascular fitness DOES play a part in muscular endurance as the fitter you are, the more oxygen you will be able to transport to your hard-working muscles to delay the inevitable rise in blood lactic acid. A good level of cardio fitness will also facilitate the efficient removal of lactic acid from your muscles so that you recover faster.
However, cardio training, e.g. cycling, running, rowing, and swimming, will not develop muscular endurance – at least not to the level required on the rugby field. In short, the amount of resistance you must overcome in those types of activities is not significant enough. For rugby players, muscular endurance means being able to produce near maximal efforts repeatedly. A central tenant of our cardio program for flankers, shared yesterday.
How to develop muscular endurance
Muscular endurance is developed best by performing multiple bouts of high-intensity training with very brief rests. This protocol trains your body to delay the onset of lactic acid, tolerate its effects, and then remove it faster. This type of training is tough – both mentally and physically. While training for strength and power is all about maximal effort but long rests and very little lactic acid (so no pain!), muscular endurance training is more about higher volumes of work and continuing despite the protestations of your muscles. In short, it’s gonna hurt!
Here are some good muscular endurance training methods.
This method is often publicized as a hypertrophy training system but, in truth, it is also an effective way to develop muscular endurance.
Choose a good quality compound exercise, such as the barbell bench press, squat, or deadlift, and load the bar with around 50-60% of your one-repetition maximum. Do one set of ten reps, rest for 60-120 seconds, and then do another set of ten. Your goal is to perform ten sets of ten reps while keeping to the same rest period. As the workout progresses, lactic acid will begin to accumulate making each subsequent set more demanding.
If you are unable to complete all ten sets of ten, keep the weight the same for your next workout. However, if you complete all ten sets of ten, increase the weight by 5-10%.
In this method of training, fatigue accumulates gradually until you are unable or unwilling to continue your set. You can easily modify this approach for bodyweight, barbell, or kettlebell exercises.
Start your stopwatch and do one rep of your chosen exercise. At the top of the next minute do two reps. Then, at the start of the next minute, do three reps. Keep adding one rep per minute until you are unable to continue. Rest for 2-3 minutes and then start over. Because of fatigue, you may find you fail to do as many reps second time around. Rest for another 2-3 minutes and repeat one last time.
For strenuous exercises, such as pull-ups or heavy squats or deadlifts, start your ladders with one rep. However, for easier exercises like push-ups, you can start with more reps and go up in larger steps e.g. four reps for the first set, eight reps for the second set, 16 for the third set and so on.
Popularized by Princeton strength and conditioning coach Matt Brzycki, this simple but effective training method involves doing three laps of three compound strength training exercises without rest, totaling nine sets. Workouts often include three such cycles hence the name 3x3x3.
Repetitions should be moderate to high, and while you can do the same number of reps per lap, it’s more customary for them to decline lap by lap e.g. 20, 15, 12 reps as fatigue sets in. However, as muscular endurance is the goal, you should try to reach muscular failure to elicit the maximum degree of overload.
While no supplement will magically improve your muscular endurance, there are several things you can use to enhance it so you can train harder, train longer, and recover quicker.
Strength and power are undeniably important, but if you are unable to sustain a high rate of work on the rugby pitch, that strength and power become much less useful. Under these circumstances, muscular endurance is key. It’s not enough to tackle hard at the first whistle; you need to be hitting just as hard at the end of the game too. Time spent developing your muscular endurance is time well spent but be prepare to embrace the suck because “easy” it ain’t!