Three Tips for In-season High Intensity Training

There is no getting away from it; rugby is a very high intensity game. Very few sports can match it – both in terms of unrelenting pace and hard physical contact. Of course, this means that training for rugby has to be equally high intensity too.

In exercise terms, this is called specificity. That means that workouts need to reflect the demands of the game. There is no point wasting your training time on lifting light weights! Ruggers need to follow a demanding, progressive, sport-specific training program – like one of our free ones, downloadable here.

The military have a saying: train hard, fight easy. That means the demands of your workouts must match the demands of whatever you are training for, and even exceed them. But what about when the playing season rolls around – what then?

You still need to train hard enough to maintain your current level of fitness, and maybe even improve it slightly as the season goes on, but you also need to make sure you don’t leave your best efforts in the gym, underperforming on the pitch as a result.

This is a tricky balance to achieve, especially if you have a full playing calendar, a demanding coach, and also love to train hard. Each match you play is like a double or even treble-tough workout. Plus, you’ll also have to deal with any knocks you pick up along the way. But, you also need to maintain speed, strength and power so that, for your next match, you are on top form.

You could take your foot off the gas and cruise through your in-season training sessions, or even just rely on matches to keep you rugby fit, but that’s a mistake. Your body works on a “use it or lose it” system, and if you start skipping workouts, or taking it easy during training, your rugby fitness will soon start to fall into decline.

Here are three tips for in-season training to ensure you maintain or even improve your fitness, but still allowing your body the time and energy needed to recover between matches.



1. Do the minimum

Ruggers like to take things to the max! They train hard, heavy, and long. That’s fine in the off-season, when recovery is relatively easy, but not such a good idea during the in-season, when playing rugby can seriously impede your ability to recover.

Interestingly, it’s not training volume that is responsible for building and maintaining rugby-specific fitness, but intensity. Providing there is sufficient overload, adaptations will occur or, at the very least, be maintained, even when training volume is low.

This means you can significantly reduce training volume during the in-season, while maintaining most of the intensity, and still preserve or even improve your fitness. Think training quality, and not quantity.

Examples of this principle in action include:

  • General – do one set per exercise instead of several
  • Speed training – limit yourself to 90% of maximum effort for any given distance
  • Strength training – stop all sets 2-3 reps shy of failure, using weights 15-20% lighter than usual
  • Hypertrophy training – use workout intensifiers such as blood flow restriction training, shorter rests, and supersets to get a good workout with lighter weights
  • Cardio – limit workouts to 20 minutes maximum

The trick is to see how little training you can get away with, and not how much you can tolerate. Doing more than is strictly necessary to maintain your fitness will dig into your already overstretched post rugby recovery reserves.

2. Limit the eccentric

In most gym exercises, there is a concentric and an eccentric phase. That means you lift a weight (concentric) and then lower it again (eccentric). Both phases are important for total strength development, but it’s the eccentric phase that tends to be the most demanding, and is also responsible for the majority of post-training muscle soreness.

As you are already likely to be dealing with muscle soreness from playing rugby, it makes no sense to add further insult to injury with lots of eccentric lifting.

Focusing on concentric training will allow you to maintain your strength and muscle size while avoiding the micro trauma and soreness associated with eccentric training. There are several ways you can do this:

Drop it like it’s hot

For exercises like power cleans and deadlifts, lift the weight, but then drop it, making no attempt to decelerate the load. You’ll need bumper plates and a decent lifting platform for this. Needless to say, do NOT use this strategy for bench presses!

Check out this video to see concentric-only deadlifts in action. 

2:1 lifting

To reduce the eccentric load, lift a weight with one limb, and then lower it with two. You can do this on several exercises including:

  • Single leg squats
  • Leg press
  • Single arm dumbbell shoulder and bench press
  • Seated cable rows
  • Leg extensions
  • Leg curls

Just remember: lift with one limb, lower with two, swap sides, and repeat.

Use a sled

Sled training involves very little in the way of concentric muscle action. You can use a sled for both upper and lower body training. Read more about sled training in this article.

Lower the load more quickly

Most strength training experts recommend that you lower weight more slowly than you lift it to exaggerate the eccentric phase. While that’s good for building muscle and strength, it’s very demanding and will increase muscle soreness and central nervous system fatigue. Instead, try doing the reverse – lift the weight slowly and then lower it quickly. While this IS the opposite of almost all strength training doctrine, it’s a good way to avoid muscle soreness.

3. Reduce the impact

Ruggers are, by and large, a bit on the heavy side. In most cases, this is because of greater-than average muscle mass but can also be attributed to fat mass too. Either way, that extra weight means that high impact activities like plyometrics (jumping) can be hard on your body – even if you are used to them. They can also take a lot out of your already over-stretched recovery reserves.

Impact implies there has been an eccentric loading phase, which is best avoided if you want to keep muscle soreness to a minimum, and impact puts a lot of strain on your joints, which are already overstressed and in need of some respite.

There are several ways you can reduce impact in your workouts:

  • When doing box jumps, jump up onto the box but then step down
  • Use training partners to catch and reset the load in barbell squat jumps
  • When doing dumbbell squat jumps, release the weights before landing
  • Do sprints on a slight incline or using a sled
  • For medicine ball throws, allow the ball to drop to the floor between reps rather than catch it as it rebounds
  • Do plyometric work in deep water

Check out this video to see how to do deep water squat jumps.

The in-season is not the time to train as hard or as long as you can, expecting to make big leaps in speed, strength, or power. The off-season is the best time for that. Instead, during the in-season, your focus should be on playing at your best, and training to maintain your fitness for the remaining season. Use these tips to modify your current workouts so that, come match day, you can give the game your all!


Patrick Dale

Patrick Dale

Pat is an ex-Royal Marine and owner at fitness qualifications company Solar Fitness Qualifications Ltd. Pat has authored three exercise books and thousands of articles. Pat has competed at a high level in several sports including rugby, triathlon, rock climbing and powerlifting.