Strength training is, or should be, a big part of most rugby player’s training. We’re not talking about bodybuilding here, although some extra muscle mass is often useful. Instead, strength training is more about increasing performance than improving aesthetics. It doesn’t matter how big and ripped your arms are; you need to be able to put those muscles to good use when you face off against the opposition!
In many ways, strength training is a straightforward form of exercise. Just pick a handful of big, compound exercises, like squats, bench presses, and pull-ups, and then get to work trying to progressively lift more weight or do more reps during the coming weeks and months.
While this approach IS simplistic, for most ruggers, a linear strength training program will reliably increase performance, both in the gym and on the pitch.
However, if you’ve been training for a few years, you are probably closing in on your genetic potential for gaining strength. Where you used to be able to add a 5-10 pounds to the bar every week, you are now lucky if you add that many pounds per year. Progress is so slow that it’s all-but stalled.
When this happens, you need to shake up your training to get things moving again. New exercises, a different set/rep scheme, or maybe a new training split will help. You could also try an entirely new form of strength training, such as strength/power complexes for example.
One type of strength training that may be useful for ruggers is called Triphasic strength training. Triphasic strength training is certainly unique and could be precisely what you need to help you overcome your current strength training plateau.
All strength training is triphasic in nature. Every rep you do has three distinct phases. Those phases are:
Concentric – this is the phase of an exercise during which your muscles shorten under tension. Think of this as the lifting or acceleration phase. Examples include pulling yourself up in the chin-up, pressing the bar off your chest in the bench press, or driving up and out of the hole during squats.
Eccentric – during the eccentric part of a rep, your muscles lengthen under tension. This is the lowering or deceleration phase. Examples include descending into a squat, lowering the bar in biceps curls, or lowering your chest to the floor during push-ups.
Isometric – during the isometric phase, your muscles generate force but do not shorten or lengthen. Planks are an obvious isometric exercise, but most exercises also feature an isometric pause. This normally occurs midway through your rep, where you have to stop and transition from the eccentric to the concentric phase, or vice versa. For example, as you descend in a squat, there is a brief isometric pause before you extend your legs and stand back up.
In regular strength training, all these phases blend into one and just happen naturally as part of whatever exercise you are performing. It is possible to emphasize one phase over another, and many ruggers do this already.
Controlled eccentrics – lower the weight slower than you lift it.
Explosive concentrics – try to lift the weight as hard and fast as you can, e.g., power cleans.
Functional isometrics – add deliberate pauses during each rep to make the exercise harder, for example, pausing mid-squat with thighs parallel to the floor.
However, with Triphasic training, each of these phases is targeted in a unique and specific way with the view to maximizing strength and power development – which is exactly what most ruggers need.
Triphasic training is the brainchild of Cal Dietz, a strength coach from the University of Minnesota. Originally developed and designed for shot-putters, Dietz’s method has become popular with athletes from a variety of strength sports, including hockey, football, and rugby.
As noted above, regular strength training involves all three contraction phases already, Triphasic training emphasizes each one in relative isolation to erase any potential weak links. This should allow the athlete (or rugger) to demonstrate greater power and strength, not just in the gym but on the playing field too.
Triphasic training uses a periodic approach so that different strength characteristics are emphasized at different times. This usually follows an eccentric, isometric, concentric pattern with each phase lasting two weeks. Each phase is structurally more demand than the last, so this makes a lot of sense. During each phase, key exercises are selected and then trained in a very precise manner.
Eccentric phase – eccentric training involves a 5-8 second descent for every rep performed. The slow eccentric phase is always followed by an explosive concentric movement. Loads should be moderate to heavy – 60-80%+ of 1RM – and the number of reps depends on the weight being used, i.e., 1-3 reps with 80-85% 1RM to 6-8 reps with 60%1RM. The heavier the load, the fewer reps and sets are required.
With very heavy eccentrics, you should have a spotter on hand to help you in case you run into trouble. Being able to lower a weight under control is no guarantee you’ll be able to lift it!
Isometric phase – isometric work in Triphasic training is unique. The eccentric or lowering phase of the movement must be performed as fast as possible. Drop like a stone! The lifter then stops the load as quickly as possible at the mid-point of the rep. The weight is then held for 3-5 seconds before being lifted as fast as possible. For example, when doing squats, drop down to parallel as fast as you can, and then come to a dead stop. Hold that position for 3-5 seconds and then explode back up.
As before, loads from 60-60% of 1RM can be used, and reps vary from 1-2 reps per set to 5-6.
Concentric or reactive phase – for this phase, eccentric, isometric, and concentric contractions are performed as fast as possible. In other words, lower the weight as quickly as you can and then, in an instant, turn the eccentric contraction into a concentric contraction, all but bypassing the isometric stage in the process.
For example, when bench pressing, unrack the bar as usual but then use your back muscles to pull the bar down toward your chest. As it nears your chest, apply the brakes and attempt to stop and then turn the downward movement into upward movement as fast as you can. This is a lot like plyometric training, something that most ruggers should be familiar with.
This phase of training can use loads from 97.5% 1RM all the way down to 30% depending on experience. The aim of the concentric/reactive phase is to move the weight as fast as possible, and the load chosen should allow this. If you are unable to accelerate the load maximally, it’s too heavy. 1-4 reps per set are best.
Triphasic training makes a great deal of sense. It works not only your muscles but your nervous system too, and it’s your nervous system that is mostly responsible for maximal power output. Boost your nervous system performance with our brain performance stack.
If you want to try Triphasic training for yourself, wait until the off-season, stick to the lighter end of the load continuum, and limit each phase two no more than two weeks. If you are currently stuck in a strength training rut, this novel approach may be exactly what you need to start making progress again.
However, be aware that things like fast eccentrics and high-speed reps can be hard on your joints and may be too much for some already beaten-up ruggers. For more details on Triphasic training, please visit this link and download the free PDF.