Power exercises for rugby players to master
Strength is crucial for successful rugby. Rucking, mauling, scrummaging, and fighting for possession of the ball all require strength, and lots of it. In many instances, especially in player-on-player situations, the stronger you are, the better. However, rugby is not just about strength alone.
A lot of rugby players hit the weights to improve their performance, and while that commitment and effort should be applauded, many mistakenly follow programs that are not rugby-specific, training like bodybuilders rather than the athletes they are.
It’s one thing to be big and strong, but rugby players also need lots of muscular endurance and another muscular fitness component – power.
Power is your ability to generate force quickly, and is properly expressed as force times distance divided by time. In other words, you not only generate force, you do so at a blistering speed.
In gym terms, strength is can be thought as your ability to do a heavy squat, whereas power is your ability to get some big air and perform a high squat jump. The movement is essentially the same, but the rate of force development (RFD) is very different.
Power is crucial in rugby. The more power you can produce, the faster you’ll be able to sprint, the harder you’ll be able to tackle, the faster you’ll be able to change direction, and the higher you’ll be able to jump.
If strength is like a tank, power gives that tank a Formula One engine, and if you have two players with similar levels of strength and skill, the one with greater power will be the more effective player.
What power training is not
The first thing to know about power training is to understand what it is not. Power training is not doing loads of squat jumps until you can barely get your feet off the floor, and nor is it doing dozens of reps of power cleans with a light weight.
Because of the law of specificity, if you repeatedly generate low amounts of force for extended periods of time, you will improve your ability to generate low amounts of force for extended periods of time. We have a name for that: endurance.
In other words, if you do lots and lots of low squat jumps, you train yourself to jump lower, and not higher.
In contrast, proper power training is all about generating maximum force, and not coughing up a lung at the end of a long set of indoor conditioning work. That means high quality, low volume training, rather than low quality, high volume training.
As a rule, power training should be limited to 1-10 high-quality reps per set, followed by near-maximal rests of 3-5 minutes. It emphasizes the creatine-phosphate energy system which lasts around ten seconds.
Sets should be terminated the instant you notice your performance starting to drop off. If you continue your set beyond this point, you are training yourself to become slower and less powerful – the exact opposite of what this type training is all about.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with doing high-rep power exercises for conditioning, that’s not how to develop “real” power, and the two very different approaches should not be confused.
Guidelines for effective power training
No matter what power exercises you include in your workout program, follow these guidelines to make them as effective as possible.
- Warm up – power exercises expose your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints to a lot of force. To maximize performance and minimize your risk of injury, make sure you warm up sufficiently and specifically. Rather than static stretching, you may be better off with a mobilization routine.
- Explode – the aim of every power exercise is to move at maximum speed. Put everything you can into each and every rep, ending your set when you cannot do so. That means ending at 3 reps if your 4th could be slower than the others.
- Follow through – if you have to put the brakes on at the end of a power exercise, you train yourself to slow down. Imagine doing squat jumps under a low ceiling and having to stop yourself hitting your head. Do that often enough, and you’ll train yourself to jump lower, and not higher. Instead, make sure you finish each rep as you started it; at maximal speed.
- Minimize ground contact – in jumping exercises, you should imagine the ground is red hot to minimize ground contact time. This develops reactive or elastic strength which is your ability to turn an eccentric contraction into a concentric contraction. Depth jumps are one great movement that focuses on reducing contact with the ground. You can find them in our strength program.
- Establish a base level of strength – power training is the peak of the training intensity pyramid. The loads might be lighter, but the velocity is much higher. Power training should only be attempted after a successful period of basic strength and core training.
- Think quality, and not quantity – unlike bodybuilding training, which is all about training volume, power training is all about intensity and quality. Workouts should be relatively short, and terminated as soon as you begin to feel tired and unable to perform at your best.
- Don’t forget recovery – power training is deceptively tiring, and takes a lot out of your body and nervous system. Make sure you allow adequate rest for recovery and adaptation. Enhance recovery with proper nutrition, and by using Post-Rugby, our new after-training recovery supplement. Or to build mass at the same time, try our Ruck Recovery (Pro) stack - which is on sale this month.
Power exercises for ruggers
There are hundreds of exercises that can help increase your power for rugby. Rather than provide you with a long list, in this section we’ll examine the most common power training methods, providing you with appropriate example exercises.
1. The Olympic lifts and variations
Olympic lifting should really be called powerlifting, and powerlifting could be called strength lifting. This is because the Olympic lifts involve lifting heavy weights very quickly, which is the very definition of power, whereas powerlifting involves lifting very heavy weights slowly – the definition of strength.
Semantics aside, the Olympic lifts are a proven method for developing power. After all, the most effective way to lift a weight from the floor to your shoulders or overhead is do it quickly.
The main disadvantage of the Olympic lifts is that they can be hard to learn. The best way to learn the Olympic lifts is under the tutelage of an experienced coach as improper form can soon lead to injury.
Luckily, there are some simple variations of the Olympic lifts that are easier to learn and more accessible.
The Olympic lifts and their variations include:
- Squat cleans
- Power cleans (from the floor or the hang position)
- Push press
- High pull (from the floor or the hang position)
Check out this video for an in-depth demonstration of the power clean:
Plyometric exercises involve a rapid loading or stretch phase, followed by a rapid contraction. This trains something called the stretch shortening cycle or myotatic reflex. In simple terms, the faster you load and stretch a muscle, the harder and faster it contracts, a bit like rapidly compressed spring. That’s why you can jump higher if you rapidly bend your knees first, but won’t be able to jump as high if you squat slowly and then hold it before jumping.
If you do this type of training often enough, you can increase the amount of power you can produce voluntarily. They're a central part of the power leg workout we outlined last year. Plyometric exercises often involve jumping, but can also include medicine ball exercises.
Good plyometric exercises include:
- Vertical jumps
- Box jumps
- Depth jumps (jumping off a raised platform to increase initial stretch)
- Hurdle jumps and hops
- Stair running
- Jumps and hops for distance
- Clap push-ups
- Medicine ball throws
With all plyometric exercises, the aim should always be to turn the eccentric or stretching/loading phase into the concentric/lifting phase as quickly as possible. For example, when doing squat jumps, you don’t squat down, pause, and then leap. Instead, on landing, you try and spring into your next jump as quickly as possible.
Check out this video of 23 different plyometric exercises:
3. The dynamic effort method
The dynamic effort or DE method is a good way to develop power in a regular gym environment. It uses the exercises that most ruggers are familiar with and turns them into power exercises.
For the DE method, load up your barbell with around 50-60% of your one repetition maximum. This will feel quite light. Then do two to three reps, lowering the weight under control, but lifting it as fast as you can. Rest 1-2 minutes and then repeat. Do six to ten sets in total.
The DE method works really well with squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and overhead presses, but could be applied to almost all free-weight exercises. As with all power exercises, your intention must be to move the weight as fast as possible, and you should terminate your set and workout when bar speed starts to decline.
Find out more about the DE method in this video:
4. Strength-power complexes
With this method, strength and power exercises are combined so that you can a) train multiple muscle fitness components at the same time and b) increase your performance in both types of training.
For strength and power complexes, you perform a heavy set of an exercise using around 90% of your 1RM. After a 3 to 5-minute rest, you then perform a power exercise using a similar movement pattern. Because of something called post-activation potentiation, or PAP for short, you’ll be able to generate more force in the power exercise than normal. The power exercise will further excite your nervous system so that you can then, after another 2-3 minutes rest, perform better in the strength exercise.
- 1a. Barbell back squats x 3 reps Rest 3-5 minutes
- 1b. Squat jumps x 8 reps
- Rest 2-3 minutes
- 2a. Barbell bench press x 3 reps
- Rest 3-5 minutes
- 2b. Clap push-ups x 8 reps
- Rest 2-3 minutes
- 3a. Weighted chins x 3 reps
- Rest 3-5 minutes
- 3b. Medicine ball floor slams x 8 reps
- Rest 2-3 minutes
- 4a. Deadlifts x 3
- Rest 3-5 minutes
- 4b. Power cleans x 8
- Rest 2-3 minutes
This is an excellent training method for ruggers who have limited time for training.
No matter what position you play, power training will improve your performance. Ideally done in the late in the off-season and early pre-season, and after establishing a solid base of general strength, power training will make you more complete and effective player.