20-1-20 - Total Preparation for Rugby

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We’ve designed the 20-1-20 Training Program as an antidote to all the pointless, dangerous, and unproductive workouts a lot of players are drawn toward. We’ve borrowed ideas from several different sources to come up with what we think is a great strength program for ruggers of all levels.

It’s suitable for Backs and Forwards and is now available on our rugby training app. Whether you are new to strength training for rugby or are an old hand, the Ruck Science 20-1-20 training system was written for you, and we hope you enjoy it.


There is no escaping it – rugby is a sport where only the strongest players thrive and survive. Strength in rugby is crucial for several reasons. If you aren’t hitting the gym regularly, building strength and power, it’s doubtful that you’ll ever reach your full rugby playing potential.

Does this mean you need to hit the gym six days a week and train like a bodybuilder? Absolutely not! In fact, ruggers should mostly avoid that type of training. For starters, while bodybuilding training will make your muscles bigger, it won’t do much for functional strength and power.

In the early days of sports conditioning, coaches used to be very anti-strength training. This was mainly because they believed it made athletes “muscle-bound,” meaning slow and clumsy. That point of view has merit if your training consist of nothing but bench presses, barbell curls, and leg presses.

However, a well-designed strength training program should enhance athletic performance and not just build “mirror muscles.”

Another reason that bodybuilding training is not ideal for ruggers is that, if you use this approach, you’ll probably need to hit the gym four or more times a week. That doesn’t leave you with a lot of time to the other types of training that ruggers need to do, such as cardio, team practices, and prehab.

A good rugby strength program should enhance your performance on the field, and also help reduce your risk of injury. There is no point in getting all “swole” if you can’t put that muscle to good use against the opposition. No rugger should be a hero in the gym but a zero on the field.

The good news is that such a program will also produce the muscle growth or hypertrophy that a lot of players value. As the saying goes, train for strength and hypertrophy will take care of itself. Unfortunately, the opposite is not true – bigger muscles are not always stronger or more powerful.

Ruggers need to balance strength training with the other demands of their sport, as well as commitments outside of rugby. That means they need to use a training approach designed specifically for rugby players.

We’ve designed the 20-1-20 Strength Training Program as an antidote all the pointless, dangerous, and unproductive workouts a lot of players are drawn toward. We’ve borrowed ideas from several different sources to come up with what we think is a great strength program for ruggers of all levels.

Whether you are new to strength training for rugby or are an old hand, the Ruck Science 20-1-20 training system was written for you, and we hope you enjoy it.


Strength training is an essential part of rugby training. All professional and a lot of amateur teams have specialized strength coaches whose only job is to make their players as strong and powerful as possible. This is something of a cause and effect situation – the game has changed, becoming faster and more explosive, and players are bigger and better conditioned than ever before.

If your team doesn’t have a strength coach, you have probably been left to your own devices and hit the gym without any specific guidance. It’s a good job that there are lots of websites (like Ruck Science!) to provide training advice and resources so that your workouts have at least a half-decent chance at being safe and effective.

The thing is, whichever strength training program you follow, whether you’ve designed it yourself or use a popular program like 5×5, 5/3/1, Starting Strength, or StrongLifts, they all share characteristics that mean they are not ideal for ruggers.

Most strength training programs follow the same basic structure – multiple sets of relatively few exercises. For example:

  1. Squats – 5 sets of 5 reps
  2. Romanian deadlifts – 3 sets of 8 reps
  3. Leg extensions – 3 sets of 10 reps
  4. Leg curls – 3 sets of 10 reps
  5. Lunges – 3 sets of 12 reps per leg

While such a program will undoubtedly increase muscle strength and size, it won’t necessarily transfer well to the rugby field. In addition, one of the aims of strength training should be injury prevention, but this type of program could actually cause injury. The main disadvantages of this type of strength program are:

1. Joint overload – every exercise in this workout involves the knees. In the same way, every exercise in an upper body exercise involves the elbows and shoulders. Most ruggers already have joint problems and doing multiple sets of similar exercises within the confines of a single workout will undoubtedly exacerbate the problem. This is especially true for experienced ruggers with a long history of playing and training.

2. Infrequent workouts – high volume workouts like this take a long time to recover from. That means you can’t strength train often enough to really master your chosen exercises or get the best results from your gym time. If you only squat once per week, it’ll take a long time to become a good squatter and your progress will be slower than if you were to squat 2-3 times per week. But, if you are doing nearly 20 sets of leg training in a single session, you’ll need a week to recharge and recover before you can do it all again.

3. Lack of movement variety – every exercise in our example program occurs in the sagittal plane. In other words, it’s a forward/back movement. While some rugby plays do take place in the sagittal plane, the rest involve the lateral and transverse planes. You don’t just run forward in rugby, but also sideways and diagonally. Strength training should reflect this. Fewer sets of a wider variety of exercises would be advantageous.

4. Potential for muscle imbalances – if you do 3-5 sets of every exercise in your workout, you cannot include much exercise variety. That means, because of lack of energy or time, some crucial exercises have to be left out, such as hip abduction. This can cause muscle imbalances and weak links which increase your risk of injury.

5. Progression is harder – if you are already doing a high volume of strength training, you can’t increase the volume much more. That means one of the best methods of progression is off the table, and all your left with is increasing the load. More load WILL make you stronger, but that progression method will soon stall. Ultimately, chasing more and more weight on the bar will take its toll on your already hard-worked joints.

6. Not very time efficient – how long do you spend lifting weights? 60 minutes? 90 minutes? That’s a big commitment. Over half of that time is spent resting between sets. That is not an efficient use of your time. Remember, to be a successful rugger, you need to do more than hit the gym.

The traditional approach to strength training works, but it works best for people for whom that is their main form of exercise. If all you do is go to the gym, you should have no problem coping with this type of training.

However, if you are a rugger, you’ll also need to try and find the energy for and recover from cardio, rugby practice, and playing games too. The Ruck Science 20-1-20  Training Program is designed to overcome all of these problems.


The 20-1-20 Strength Training Program is designed to build strength and muscle size in minimal time and while reducing joint stress and preventing muscle imbalances. It uses a non-traditional approach both to volume and exercise selection to provide ruggers with a safe and effective way to train.

20-1-20 stands for:

  • 20 exercises per workout
  • 1 set of each exercise
  • 20 reps per set (although this changes from training phase to training phase)

This approach trumps traditional strength training workouts in several ways:

More exercise variety – each workout consists of several different exercises per muscle group. This will help avoid pattern overload and soft tissue stress. Exercise variety will also help improve coordination and mobility and also improve skill.

Fewer muscle imbalances – more exercise variety means less chance of developing muscle imbalances. It’s much easier to include prehab exercises if you have 20 exercise slots to fill.

More time-efficient – each set should take no more than 60 seconds to complete, and you should aim to take no more than 30 seconds to move from one exercise to the next. This means that the entire workout should take no more than 30 minutes to train your whole body. Three workouts per week add up to 90 minutes – about the length of time a lot of ruggers spend on a single session for 1-2 muscle groups.

Added cardio benefits – moving quickly from one exercise to the next means you’ll get added cardio benefits despite performing a pure strength training workout. This won’t replace your regular cardio workouts, but you should experience some additional fitness and fat loss benefits from this style of workout.

Increased work capacity – with less time spent sitting around resting, 20-1-20 strength training crams more work into a shorter time which will increase your work capacity. Work capacity is your ability to maintain a high workload and recover. Increased work capacity will enhance other aspects of your training, including practices and cardio.

Increased training frequency – 20-1-20 uses a whole-body approach to strength training. That means each muscle group is trained three times per week. Because the volume per muscle group is much lower, recovery is no longer an issue. Working each muscle group three times a week will produce superior increases in conditioning and performance than one, big session per week.

Less muscle soreness – if you spend an hour or more on a single muscle group, you will undoubtedly experience some muscle soreness. All that volume really adds up! That’s another reason that a lot of ruggers need a week to rest between similar strength training sessions. In contrast, a lower volume workout should produce much less muscle soreness, allowing for more frequent workouts. In simple terms, 20-1-20 spread your training volume and intensity out across three workouts instead of trying to cram it into a single session.

More quality reps – the exercises in 20-1-20 have been ordered specifically so you can give each one your best effort. When you do lots of sets of similar exercises, fatigue accumulates so that, for your last few exercises and sets, workout quality is much lower. With 20-1-20, you should be rested enough to give each and every exercise your best effort.

Increased focus – with the multiple set method, the training effect is mostly a product of the accumulated volume of exercise. If you do enough exercises and sets, eventually you’ll become fatigued and trigger some kind of training response. With 20-1-20, you have to treat each exercise and set as a standalone effort. You can’t just go through the motions and let fatigue drive your progress. Increased focus will be very beneficial on the rugby field as well as in the gym.

The novelty effect – in training, if you always do what you have always done, you’ll always get what you have always got. Even periodized programs are very similar and, as such, don’t trigger much in the way of adaptation. Because 20-1-20 is so different from what most ruggers are used to, it should trigger significant training adaptations that will see your strength and conditioning improving very quickly, and possibly for the first time in years.


While there is a cookie-cutter program (four of them actually!) to follow in the next section. However, in this chapter, we’re going to provide you with a 20-1-20 Strength Training Program template so you can see how the workouts fit together and so you can create your own. We’ll also cover all the information and guidelines you need to use this unique workout method.

Each 20-1-20 workout includes:

  • 7 leg exercises, including 2-3 single leg exercises
  • 3 chest exercises
  • 3 upper back exercises
  • 2 shoulder exercises
  • 3 core exercises
  • 1 biceps exercise
  • 1 triceps exercise

20 exercises may sound like a lot but, remember, you are only doing one work set of each. The exercises have been ordered in such a way that there are no overlaps. This means you can work hard without affecting your performance of the next exercise. This lack of overlap also means you should be able to move quickly from one exercise to the next, producing a beneficial cardiovascular training effect.

Exercise CategoryExample
1Compound Leg (bilateral - quads)Squats
2Compound ChestBench Press
3Compound BackPull-ups
4Compound Leg (bilateral - hamstrings)Romanian Deadlifts
5Compound chestIncline Dumbbell Press
6Compound BackCable Rows
7Compound Leg (unilateral - quads)Bulgarian Split Squats
8Compound ChestDips
9Compound BackBody Rows
10Compound Leg (unilateral - hamstrings)Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts
11Compound ShouldersSeated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
12Isolation Legs (hips)Hip Thrusts
13Core (flexion)Stability Ball Crunches
14Compound/Isolation ShouldersAlternating Dumbbell Shoulder Press
15Isolation Legs (hips)Lateral Band Walks
16Core (rotation)Cable Russian Twist
17Compound/Isolation Leg (Quads or Hamstrings)TRX Leg Curls
18Core (bracing)Stability Ball Planks
19TricepsEZ Bar Curls
20BicepsEZ Bar Skull Crushers


Compound – exercises that involve multiple muscle groups and joints at the same time e.g., bench press and not pec deck.

Isolation – exercises that involve movement at one joint only e.g., leg extensions and not squats.

Bilateral – exercises that use both limbs at once, e.g., leg presses and not lunges.

Unilateral – exercises that work one limb at a time or alternating, e.g., step-ups and not leg press.

Flexion – core exercises that involve bending forward, e.g., crunches.

Rotation – core exercises that involve twisting at the waist, e.g., cable wood chops.

Bracing – core exercises that involve no movement, e.g., planks.

What about warm-ups?

Precede each workout with a general warm-up, such as RAMP or some light cardio followed by a few dynamic stretches. Then do 1-3 progressively heavier sets of the first three exercises only. Because of the way the exercises are ordered, once you’ve warmed up for the first leg, upper body push, and upper body pull exercises, you should be adequately prepared for all the remaining exercises.

Movement speed

To make a single set of any exercise effective, each rep should be done with perfect technique. If you rush your reps, you’ll end up using too much momentum, which will take the stress off the target muscles and put it on your joints. Instead, use a controlled movement speed or tempo to eliminate all momentum and bouncing. For example, lower the weight in four seconds, and lift it in two seconds. Don’t get too hung up on the exact temp you use. Just make sure you lift and lower with control.

Weekly and monthly progression

20-1-20 uses RPE to regulate the difficulty of your workouts. Using four-week training blocks, each week you’ll work a little harder and then when you reach the end of your current training block, you’ll start over again.

Rating of perceived exertionReps to failure
Week 1RPE 7 - establish weights3-4 reps to failure
Week 2RPE 82-3 reps to failure
Week 3RPE 91-2 reps to failure
Week 4RPE 10Failure plus optional intensifiers

The exercises and target reps change from one month to the next. This will prevent stagnation and also increase high-end strength.

WeekRep TargetApprox. % 1RM
17-10 etc.2050%

Using intensifying methods

On the last week of each four-week block, you can maximize your workout intensity by using intensifying methods such as drop sets, forced reps, rest-pause, or partials. Use any of these methods to extend your set and work beyond failure. You don’t have to use intensifiers for every exercise. Consider limiting yourself to just 2-3 leg exercises and an additional 3-4 upper body exercises.

Only change exercises every four weeks

Once you have selected your exercises for your program, repeat them three times per week for four weeks to total 12 training sessions. Try not to change exercises part way through a training block. Changing exercises too frequently will undermine and make it harder to monitor your progress.

Load allocation and workout intensity

While you may know your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for big lifts like squats and bench presses, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have numbers for the other exercises in your 20-1-20 workout. Instead, you’ll need to experiment over the course of the first couple of workouts to discover the right weights to use.

The easiest way to do this is to grab a weight and do a couple of reps of each exercise and try to judge if the load is right or not. You should be able to tell if it’s about right. Once you have decided on your weight, do your set and see how it goes.

If you can’t manage 20 reps, it was to heavy so lower it accordingly. But, if you can do a lot more than 20 reps, you need to increase the weight. Fine-tune the load during the next couple of workouts. That’s essentially what week one of each block is for.

By the second or third workout of the first week, you should have zeroed in on the right weight for your remaining workouts. Make sure you record your weights in a training journal, so you know what to use next time. In addition, record the number of reps performed.

If you like, you can use your first workout to calculate your estimated 1RM and then work out the weight you should be using for the rest of your training sessions. The easiest way to do this is with the following calculation:

Weight x reps x 0.0333 + weight = estimated 1RM.

So, if you use 40kg and do 16 reps, your estimated 1RM is 62.5kg.

40 x 16 = 640 x 0.0333 = 21.312 + 40 = 61.312kg (round to nearest weight increment)

Once you’ve got your estimated 1RM, simply apply the appropriate training percentage for the training block you are on, e.g., 50% for weeks 1-4.

Remember too that the workouts are designed to get progressively harder from one week to the next. In week one, you should stop your set 3-4 reps short of failure. This is usually where your rep speed starts to decrease noticeably. By week four, you should be hitting failure and can also use an intensifying method such as drop sets to increase workout intensity a little more. Increase your weights slightly week by week to facilitate this.

Understand that these are all goals and guidelines – it’s not a deal-breaker if you do 22 reps instead of 20. Do your best to hit the prescribed reps but also know that,  your performance will vary and may not exactly match the letter of the program.

You now have everything you need to create your own 20-1-20 Training Program workouts. But, to save you the bother, there is a 16-week program in the next section.

4. 16 WEEK 20-1-20 WORKOUT PLAN

Here is a complete 16-week 20-1-20 Strength Training Program to try. Try not to make any changes but, if you do, remain faithful to the spirit of the program. For example, while it’s okay to swap something like back squats for front squats, you should not replace squats with leg extensions.

Do each workout three times per week for four weeks. Over that period, workout intensity will increase gradually and then peak at the end of week four. Then, when you start your next training block, training intensity will fall again in preparation for the next gradual build up. These undulating levels of intensity will maintain your progress while still allowing adequate time and energy for recovery.

Weeks 1-4Rep Target
1Goblet squats 20
3Lat pulldowns20
4Glute-ham raises20
5Chest press machine20
6Chest supported rows20
8DB squeeze press20
9Assisted pull-ups 20
10Stability ball leg curls 20
11Shoulder press machine20
12Band side steps 20
13Crunches 20
14DB lateral raises20
15Leg press20
16Twisting crunches 20
17Leg extensions 20
19Triceps pushdowns20
20Cable biceps curls 20
Weeks 5-8Rep Target
1Zercher squats 16
2Barbell bench press16
3Assisted pull-ups 16
4Romanian deadlifts16
5Incline bench press16
6TRX body rows 16
7Reverse lunges 16
8Weighted push-ups16
9Lat pulldowns 16
10TRX leg curls 16
11Seated DB shoulder press16
12Cable hip abductions 16
13Stability ball crunches 16
14Cable lateral raises16
15Trap bar deadlifts 16
16Cable Russian twists 16
17Leg curls 16
18Stability ball planks 16
19DB skull crushers 16
20DB biceps curls 16
Weeks 9-12Rep Target
1Back squat12
2DB bench press12
3Single-arm pull-downs12
5Dumbbell floor press12
6Renegade rows 12
7Bulgarian split squat12
8Incline alternating DB press12
10Single leg Romanian deadlifts 12
11Alternating DB shoulder press12
12Hip abduction machine 12
13Decline sit-ups 12
14Face pulls 12
15DB box jumps 12
16Medicine ball Russian twists 12
17Single-leg extensions 12
18Farmer’s walk 12
19EZ bar skull crushers 12
20Barbell biceps curls 12
Weeks 13-16Rep Target
1Front squat 8
2Weighted dips8
3Weighed pull-ups8
4Nordic hamstring curls8
5Plyo push-ups8
6Bent over barbell rows8
7Bulgarian split squat hops8
8Paused barbell bench press8
9Narrow grip lat pulldowns 8
10Barbell hip thrusts 8
11Barbell shoulder press8
12Hip thrusts8
13Hanging knee raises 8
14DB Cuban press8
15DB squat jumps 8
16Windshield wipers8
17Single-leg curls 8
18Pot stirrers 8
19Narrow grip bench press8
20Spider EZ bar curls 8

* For bracing/isometric exercises, just do as long as possible.


The best way to learn is by doing, so the sooner you start your 20-1-20 Strength Training Program, the sooner you’ll understand how it works. But we know that some of you want even more details and have burning questions you want answering before you commit. Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered! Here are 12 of the most common questions we’ve had so far about 20-1-20 and our answers…

1. Who is the 20-1-20 Training Program for?

This program was designed for all ruggers. But it’s maximally beneficial for:

  • Players with little or no strength training experience – frequent workouts and lots of exercise variety is the best way to learn how to perform strength training exercises.
  • Older, more experienced players who feel beaten up after traditional strength training workouts.
  • Players who can’t or don’t want to dedicate hours and hours to the gym. 20-1-20 workouts can be completed in about 30 minutes, so they’re short enough to squeeze into a lunch break.
  • Exercisers who are bored of doing the same old exercises every week, month, and year.
  • Anyone who wants a more sports specific, time-efficient, effective rugby strength training program than the usual 5×5, 4×8, or 3×10 that most ruggers gravitate toward.
  • Those who have plateaued on typical high-volume strength training programs.
  • Players returning from injury.
  • Those who have developed muscle imbalances following programs that focus on just a few exercises at a time.

2. How can just one set be effective?

While you are only doing one set of each exercise, there are several exercises per muscle group, and each muscle group is trained three times a week. This produces a similar training volume to the average split routine, but it’s spread over the entire week instead of crammed into a single workout.

For example, each workout contains seven sets for legs, which adds up to 21 sets per week. That’s actually quite a lot of volume. Also, remember, once you get into your third and fourth week, these sets will be taken close to or even exceed failure.

Studies show that single set training compares very favorably to multiple set training for both strength and hypertrophy. As an added benefit, doing fewer sets for the same muscle group per workout reduces joint and soft tissue stress.

Doing more sets may give you slightly better increases in strength, but for a small increase, you must double, triple, or even quadruple your training volume. That’s a massive investment of time and energy for a very small advantage. 20-1-20 spends your time and energy much more carefully to ensure that you have plenty left over for the rest of your rugby training.

3. How long should I rest between exercises?

There is no need to run from one exercise to the next, but don’t dawdle either. 30-60 seconds should be enough time to move from one exercise to the next. You should also find that, as you get used to this style of training, you will be able to move more quickly between exercises. Do not compromise exercise performance by rushing between exercises and understand you’ll need to rest longer after a set of squats compared to a set of machine chest presses.

4. I don’t like/can’t do (X) exercise – what can I do instead?

Just choose any similar movement. It doesn’t matter if you borrow an exercise from a previous or upcoming workout either. For example, if you don’t have access to an assisted pull-up machine, there is nothing wrong with doing lat pulldowns instead. Avoid doing the same exercise twice within the same workout. If you must do that, change your grip or stance for variety, e.g., wide grip lat pulldowns and underhand grip lat pulldowns.

5. Why only one biceps and triceps exercise?

Direct arm training just isn’t that important for ruggers, especially when you remember that every back exercise involves your biceps and most chest and shoulder exercises use your triceps. You aren’t a bodybuilder so don’t be tempted to train like one. Saying that, you’ll still end up accumulating 12 sets of indirect and direct biceps work and closer to 15 sets of triceps work per week. Your arms won’t be undertrained!

6. Can you provide an example warm-up?

You bet!

  • 3-5 minutes light cardio, e.g., rowing machine, jumping rope, elliptical, etc.
  • 3-5 dynamic stretches, e.g., 10-15 shallow progressing to deeper squats, overhead reaches with step backs, high knee marching with opposite elbow to knee twists, prisoner good mornings.
  • 1-3 sets of the first three exercises of your chosen workout. Increase the weight a little from set to set, starting with an empty barbell or equivalent.

You should now be ready to work through your workout without additional warm-ups. For more warm-ups, check out our article Why Rugby Players Need to Ramp Up.

7. What if I can't do the exercises in the prescribed order?

If you can’t do the exercise in order, just move on to the next available exercise and then come back to it. If possible, try to avoid doing exercises that will hurt your performance of your next set. For example, don’t do bench press immediately before shoulder press.

8. What do you mean by training to failure?

Training to failure means doing as many reps as can without assistance or lots of cheating. You should only reach failure toward the end of the third week and during the fourth week of each training block. For the first two weeks, you should stop your set before reaching failure. Leave the prescribed number of reps “in the bank.”

9. Do I have to use intensifying methods during week four?

Absolutely not. They are entirely optional. If your sets are going really well, and you are hitting all your rep targets, it’s worth capitalizing on your extra energy by using intensifiers. If you are dragging ass and everything feels heavy, skip things like drop sets and rest-pause reps. Also, you don’t have to use intensifiers for all three workouts in week four, or all the exercises in each workout. Think of these methods as your “big guns” and only break them out if they are needed.

10. When is the best time to start this program?

Because 20-1-20 is less demanding than most other forms of strength training (but no less effective), you should be able to start this program at any time. The first few workouts are relatively easy, and the intensity increases gradually after that. It should not harm playing performance.

That said, if you have a game on Saturday, it makes sense to ease off a little if you are planning to strength train on Friday, especially during week four of each block. If you are really concerned as to how this workout will affect your performance, start it in the off-season but, really, there is no need to be so cautious.

11. I did more than the prescribed number of reps – is that a problem?

If you do more (or fewer) reps than prescribed, just make a note to adjust the weight for your next workout. As you move from one block to the next, you should find that you get better at selecting the right weight and will hit your rep target more consistently.

12. Can I wear knee sleeves, a belt, or use wrist straps for these workouts?

You could, but you probably don’t need them for the first three phases of training as the reps are high and the weights are less than 70% of your 1RM. You can’t use straps or wear a lifting belt on the field so you should try and train without them too. That said, knee sleeves are okay, as are elbow sleeves because they help keep your joints warm. If you need to wear lifting straps, chances are you need to work on your grip.

Got more questions? Drop as a line at get@ruckscience.com


The Ruck Science 20-1-20 Training Program is very different from what most ruggers do in the gym, and that’s precisely what makes it effective. Traditional strength training programs and methods do work, but there is also a real danger that they will take more out of your body than they put in. Some may even cause injuries – which is what a good strength training program should actually prevent.

Because it’s so different, some ruggers will be hesitant to try this program. We often fear new things. After all, no one else trains like this, right?! Remember that, until about 40 years ago, ruggers didn’t even strength train. They got fit for rugby by playing rugby. Strength training itself was new. Judging by the impact that strength training has had on rugby over the last few decades, it’s clear that change should be embraced, and not feared!

Whether you are new to strength training or are the king of the gym, we are confident that ruggers of all levels will get a lot of benefit from 20-1-20 training. Unlike most strength training programs, it’s been explicitly designed for hard-charging ruggers.