Should a non-rugger train like a rugby player?

If you play rugby, you need to train for rugby. The demands of our sport are very specific, and because of that, you must ensure your body is up to it. Tackling, scrummaging, lineouts, and sprinting in to score a try all require a combination of muscle strength and power, aerobic and anaerobic fitness, speed and agility, and a whole lot of skill too.

In the world of sport, ruggers are fitness all-rounders. They need to be fast like track athletes, strong like powerlifters, explosive like Olympic weightlifters, agile like gymnasts, and cardiovascularly-conditioned like distance runners. 

This mixed bag of fitness components means that “training like a rugger” covers a whole range of different types of workouts.

It’s this training variety that suggests that, yes, non-ruggers could benefit training like a rugby player.


Because the alternative will, for a lot of people, be far less productive!

The problem with a lot of workouts

Go to any gym, and you’ll see people doing workouts that, quite simply, aren’t very productive. They show up and lift weights, do group exercise classes, or run on a treadmill, but make no progress toward their fitness goals.

In most cases, this is because they are following workouts that are too specialized, or, worse still, don’t even match their training goals.

Take muscle hypertrophy training, for example. A lot of people want bigger muscles, so they follow a bodybuilding plan, often inspired or even designed by the type of program the pros follow. The same pros who take steroids by the armful, eat 10,000 calories per day, and are so genetically gifted that just looking at a heavy dumbbell adds an inch to their arms!

Following what is basically a very advanced training program is, for many, muscle-building suicide.

Then there is the weight-loss crowd. They pound along on a treadmill or do hour after hour of aerobic classes to burn fat but often end up gaining weight. Cardio DOES burn calories, but it does so at depressingly slow speed. It can also cause muscle atrophy, which will lower your resting metabolic rate, making fat loss and weight control even harder.

The reality is that both of these groups of exercisers, and most of the inbetweeners to, would benefit from a less specialized approach to training, and following something more akin to cross-training, like a rugby fitness training program.

When you look at the components that make up a rugby fitness training schedule, it’s easy to see how training like a rugger could be beneficial to a non-rugby player.



Real hypertrophy training

Traditional hypertrophy training usually involves multiple sets of multiple exercises per muscle group. This means following a split routine and training four or more times a week. Some budding bodybuilders spend an hour or more just training their arms!

While such an approach can work, especially if you are a genetically blessed mesomorph, for the average lifter, it’s simply too much volume per session and too much rest between workouts. Muscles grow bigger, faster, when trained with less volume, several times per week.

This means full-body workouts may be better for muscle growth than the traditional body part split routine that bodybuilders favor.

Because ruggers also have to find time to train for conditioning, speed, agility, etc., they don’t usually follow such time-consuming split routines. They’re forced to adopt whole-body workouts. And yet, many ruggers are actually more muscular than their bodybuilding gym buddies!

Also, ruggers have more functional physiques, meaning they aren’t just big, they’re strong and powerful too. Their muscles aren’t just for show. So, if you want to not only look strong, but you want to be strong, training like a rugger could be the answer.

Rugby cardio

When it comes to cardio, most people are plodders. They run, cycle, swim, or step at a moderate pace for an extended period of time. Hour-long cardio workouts are not uncommon. While this type of workout will improve low-level aerobic fitness, and also burns fat for fuel, it’s not very time efficient. Also, it won’t do much for your high-end cardiovascular fitness.

While playing rugby does involve slower-paced running, it’s usually as a form of active recovery. The rest of the time, ruggers are sprinting.

Does this mean ruggers aren’t very fit? Absolutely not! In fact, ruggers are very fit athletes, despite their obvious muscle size and body weight. And most players manage to achieve this high level of fitness without doing hours of long-duration cardio.

Instead, they focus on things like circuit training, interval training, and met-con workouts. As well as being great for conditioning, these workouts are also superb calorie and fat burners. They’re often much better than workouts marketed for weight loss.

This doesn’t mean that long-duration cardio is in any way bad. It’s just that there are more efficient ways to develop fitness and burn calories. If you are a long-distance runner, you need to run long distances. But, if you want to develop all-round fitness, training like a rugger could be a more effective and time-efficient option.

Speed and agility

Speed and agility are critical for ruggers but are something that seldom features in non-rugby player’s workouts. That’s a shame because these seemingly very sports-specific fitness components are actually beneficial to non-ruggers too.

Take agility, for example. In rugby, it’s agility that allows you to dodge the opposition, respond quickly to stimuli, maintain your balance and spatial awareness during a tackle, and ensure you are in the right place at the right time to perform at your best.

Out in the real world, agility will ensure that you can roll instead of fall flat on your face if you trip up. Agility means that, when faced with an obstacle, you can move around it instead of blunder into it. With increased agility, you’ll be able to move your body better.

In contrast, regular gym training can help you get fit or build muscle but won’t do much for your agility. Running on a treadmill or repping out on the leg press are very linear activities. They take place in the same plane of movement – the sagittal plane. The world outside the gym, like on the rugby field, is multidirectional. If you want to be able to use your fitness in the real world, you need to do more than run or lift in a straight line.

While a non-rugger doesn’t need to hone their agility to match that of a side-stepping flanker, doing at least some multidirectional and multiplanar training will be beneficial.

20-1-20 PROGRAM


How to train like a rugger when you don’t play rugby

While there are elements of rugby training that are very suitable for non-ruggers, some are much less so. It’s all about risk versus benefits. For example, Olympic lifting, high impact plyometrics, and full-contact conditioning are very beneficial for ruggers, so they are worth the risk of injury that accompanies these training methods. But, for non-players, the risks outweigh the benefits.

So, as the great Bruce Lee said, non-ruggers should absorb what is useful and discard what is not from rugby training. To that end, here’s an example rugby-style training program for non-ruggers to try.

Monday – strength training

Hit the gym and train your whole-body using compound exercises and moderate to heavy weights. This will build muscle size and strength simultaneously. Whole-body workouts are more time-efficient and train your body as it works in nature; as a single synergistic unit and not as a bunch of disparate parts. For example:

  1. Squats
  2. Romanian deadlifts
  3. Pull-ups
  4. Bench press
  5. Single-arm rows
  6. Shoulder presses
  7. Kneeling ab wheel rollouts
  8. Side planks

Tuesday – cardio

Head out to your local park and do a 30 to 45-minute Fartlek session. Fartlek is Swedish for speed play and involves a random mixture of walking, jogging, running, and sprinting. In many ways, this workout replicates the demands of a game of rugby. It’s also a fantastic way to develop all aspects of your fitness in one time-efficient workout.

Wednesday – rest, recover and stretch  

Rugby training takes a lot out of your body. Because of this, ruggers and non-ruggers need to pay as much attention to rest and recovery as they do working out. Enjoy a day off from intense exercise, but don’t be completely sedentary. Instead, do activities that will enhance recovery, such as stretching, walking, pre/rehab, or getting a massage.

Thursday – strength training

It’s time to hit the gym again! Use the same whole-body training approach from Monday but use different exercises to avoid overuse injuries and prevent boredom, for example:

  1. Deadlifts
  2. Goblet squats
  3. Inverted rows
  4. Incline dumbbell bench presses
  5. Lat pulldowns
  6. Push-press
  7. Planks
  8. Cable Russian twists

Friday – interval training medley

In rugby, you can find yourself sprinting anywhere from a few meters to the length of the field. This workout is designed to replicate those demands, building speed, and fitness at the same time.

Do each of the following, resting 2-3 minutes between each. You can run, row, bike, or step as preferred, but running outdoors is best.

  • Reverse Tabata intervals – work hard for 10 seconds, rest for 20 seconds, and repeat eight times
  • 30-30 intervals – work hard for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds, and repeat six times
  • 60-120 intervals – work hard for 60 seconds, rest for 120 seconds, and repeat four times
  • 120-180 intervals – work hard for 120 seconds, rest for 180 seconds, and repeat twice

Saturday – fitness play day

While you won’t be playing rugby today, you should still do something that matches at least some of the demands of the sport. You could play a pick-up game of basketball, play soccer, have a game of tennis, go kayaking, or do something like an obstacle course. Even a hike over rough terrain will do.

The aim of today is to take your fitness out of the gym and use it out in the “real” world. This will provide you with a way to test your body while further developing your fitness.

This is NOT a day off from training and, whatever you do, should provide you with a challenge.

Sunday – rest, recover and stretch

After three days in a row of demanding activity, you are due for a rest. Spend today putting back into your body what the last three days have taken out. Rest, stretch, recover, and get ready to do it all again next week.


If you want to develop a good level of all-round fitness, there are lots of worse ways to work out than training like a rugger. Rugby training incorporates some of the best exercise methods around, and they’ll do non-players a whole lot of good.

Unlike a lot of popular exercise methods, rugby training involves a multi-disciplinary approach to fitness. This type of cross-training means that you’ll be fit for whatever life throws at you, and not just running in a straight line on a treadmill or doing set after set of dumbbell kickbacks.

You don’t have to choose between being fit, being strong, or being agile. With rugby training, even if you are a non-rugger, you can have them all!


Tim Howard

Tim Howard

Tim is one of the founders at Ruck Science who settled in Austin, TX after playing rugby all over the world for the past two decades. He's constantly used as a guinea pig for our most advanced or controversial diet and training experiments.