We’ve designed the 20-1-20 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.
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.
2. CURRENT STATE OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING
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:
- Squats – 5 sets of 5 reps
- Romanian deadlifts – 3 sets of 8 reps
- Leg extensions – 3 sets of 10 reps
- Leg curls – 3 sets of 10 reps
- 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.
3. 20-1-20 TRAINING PROGRAM OVERVIEW
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.
4. 20-1-20 WORKOUT TEMPLATES AND GUIDELINES
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.
|1||Compound Leg (bilateral - quads)||Squats|
|2||Compound Chest||Bench Press|
|4||Compound Leg (bilateral - hamstrings)||Romanian Deadlifts|
|5||Compound chest||Incline Dumbbell Press|
|6||Compound Back||Cable Rows|
|7||Compound Leg (unilateral - quads)||Bulgarian Split Squats|
|9||Compound Back||Body Rows|
|10||Compound Leg (unilateral - hamstrings)||Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts|
|11||Compound Shoulders||Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press|
|12||Isolation Legs (hips)||Hip Thrusts|
|13||Core (flexion)||Stability Ball Crunches|
|14||Compound/Isolation Shoulders||Alternating Dumbbell Shoulder Press|
|15||Isolation Legs (hips)||Lateral Band Walks|
|16||Core (rotation)||Cable Russian Twist|
|17||Compound/Isolation Leg (Quads or Hamstrings)||TRX Leg Curls|
|18||Core (bracing)||Stability Ball Planks|
|19||Triceps||EZ Bar Curls|
|20||Biceps||EZ 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.
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 exertion||Reps to failure|
|Week 1||RPE 7 - establish weights||3-4 reps to failure|
|Week 2||RPE 8||2-3 reps to failure|
|Week 3||RPE 9||1-2 reps to failure|
|Week 4||RPE 10||Failure 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.
|Week||Rep Target||Approx. % 1RM|
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 1-4||Rep Target|
|5||Chest press machine||20|
|6||Chest supported rows||20|
|8||DB squeeze press||20|
|10||Stability ball leg curls||20|
|11||Shoulder press machine||20|
|12||Band side steps||20|
|14||DB lateral raises||20|
|20||Cable biceps curls||20|
|Weeks 5-8||Rep Target|
|2||Barbell bench press||16|
|5||Incline bench press||16|
|6||TRX body rows||16|
|10||TRX leg curls||16|
|11||Seated DB shoulder press||16|
|12||Cable hip abductions||16|
|13||Stability ball crunches||16|
|14||Cable lateral raises||16|
|15||Trap bar deadlifts||16|
|16||Cable Russian twists||16|
|18||Stability ball planks||16|
|19||DB skull crushers||16|
|20||DB biceps curls||16|
|Weeks 9-12||Rep Target|
|2||DB bench press||12|
|5||Dumbbell floor press||12|
|7||Bulgarian split squat||12|
|8||Incline alternating DB press||12|
|10||Single leg Romanian deadlifts||12|
|11||Alternating DB shoulder press||12|
|12||Hip abduction machine||12|
|15||DB box jumps||12|
|16||Medicine ball Russian twists||12|
|19||EZ bar skull crushers||12|
|20||Barbell biceps curls||12|
|Weeks 13-16||Rep Target|
|4||Nordic hamstring curls||8|
|6||Bent over barbell rows||8|
|7||Bulgarian split squat hops||8|
|8||Paused barbell bench press||8|
|9||Narrow grip lat pulldowns||8|
|10||Barbell hip thrusts||8|
|11||Barbell shoulder press||8|
|13||Hanging knee raises||8|
|14||DB Cuban press||8|
|15||DB squat jumps||8|
|19||Narrow grip bench press||8|
|20||Spider EZ bar curls||8|
* For bracing/isometric exercises, just do as long as possible.
6. 20-1-20 FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
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?
4. I don’t like/can’t do (X) exercise – what can I do instead?
5. Why only one biceps and triceps exercise?
6. Can you provide an example warm-up?
- 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?
8. What do you mean by training to failure?
9. Do I have to use intensifying methods during week four?
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.