A periodized approach to rugby fitness training.

Rugby union traditionally was a sport that was played by amateurs who trained like amateurs. Since the advent of professionalism which has trickled down throughout the league structures it is now common place to see the majority of rugby players training in their own time. As is seen with many people in the gym the new found enthusiasm for fitness may not paralleled by the same level of knowledge about how to train.

Rugby produces some unique training requirements not seen in other sports. It is a sport that caters for all types of physiques and places demands on almost all the bodies' physical characteristics.

I will not go into an in-depth discussion of the various requirements of rugby and variations for each position. However, I will briefly review the main requirements for success. The demands of rugby are varied and I could almost list every physical ability and say it impacts upon performance, however the main factors are:

• Aerobic power - more specifically a high aerobic power over a pure steady state aerobic base e.g. a good 6 minute run test score more important than good 10 km time. (Obviously these two are highly integrated but still are different).
• Lactate tolerance - The key limiting factor during play, affects both aerobic power and speed endurance.
• Speed - More specifically acceleration and repeated sprint speed endurance.
• Agility - The ability to decelerate and change direction or move in a non linear direction.
• Strength - Both maximum strength and speed strength and as any sport requires a strong core as a foundation.

To add to this you could easily point out maximum speed is important in many situations and you can never be called too fast, but in general it is not too decisive. Muscles size is also not hugely important to success as it is your strength, absolute, relative and fast speed that is more important. Though one factor affecting maximum strength is of course muscle cross section area. I have not mentioned above about flexibility but just like core strength it is a fundamental that needs to be used to restore ideal posture and muscle lengths. How much flexibility is optimal past these ideal lengths is an issue of much debate and beyond the scope of this article.

To effectively cover all the main attributes a rugby player needs to optimize performance he must cover six main types of training methods:

Aerobic training - To develop lactate tolerance and aerobic power.
Sprint training - To enhance acceleration and repeated sprint speed endurance.
Resistance training - To build maximum and fast speed strength.
Agility training - to learn effective mutli-directional movements and changes of pace.
Plyometric training - To support speed strength in linear and multi directional movements.
Core and flexibility training - To create the underlying foundations of all the above training.

These methods will develop all the attributes that are stressed on the rugby field. These can be combined into three sessions, a track session - Sprint training, agility and plyometrics, a gym session - Strength and core training and an aerobic session. This does not need to take up your whole life but just a few hours per week if following an optimal training routine.

To go through each training method is of course beyond the length of this article and is comprehensively covered in my book1. Ignoring the specific details of each training method we can instead focus upon the underlying design of the training programmes within each of the six methods above.

Periodization principles.

Most of us are aware of periodization, yet so few people integrate this fully into their training programmes. I believe this is due to the complexity of the theory. The reason periodization was created was to:

1) Maximise the response from the training stimulus.
2) Allow continuous gains to be made from week to week and year to year.
3) Avoid injury and overtraining.

Periodization seems to suffer from an all or nothing approach, either a scientifically designed programme is used or nothing is implemented. However most trainers are using the theory without knowing it. Forget macro cycles, training variables and such, if viewed on a sliding scale then the most basic form of periodization is setting a new programme every month. Which most people do, the next level up would be applying a certain type of training for a few weeks then changing the focus, e.g. an endurance phase then strength phase. This again is easy to implement. How far to advance the system up to the traditional theories of step load progression of intensity and macro, meso cycles, weekly load variation etc is dependent on many a factor including the athlete you are working with.

I present here a method of using periodization that can be implemented by trainers or players alike. The key to using periodization is to determine the training phase and setting appropriate training parameters. Then using these you can cycle the parameters over the duration of that training phase.

Let me explain, as an example, say you are looking to increase the muscle size of the prime movers used in rugby, this is known as specific hypertrophy phase using traditional periodization terminology2. The general guidelines for this would be 6 - 12 reps with around 3 minutes rest using the necessary exercises. A simple way to introduce periodization would be, over a 6 week phase to vary the reps as below:

Week 1 & 2 12 Reps
Week 3 & 4 9 reps
Week 5 & 6 6 reps

This is using the foundation principles of program design, it is increasing the intensity while decreasing the volume - Classic periodization!3. This method can and should be extended across all the training phases within your resistance training routines.

Let's take a look at a typical off-season. To maximise the gains from resistance training you would build a base early in the off-season followed by focusing on increasing muscle size then developing maximum strength and converting this to power so your are physically at your biggest, strongest and most explosive by the start of the next in-season.

To do this you could have four training phases, preparation, hypertrophy, strength and power phase.

Preparation Hypertrophy Strength Power

With each phase you can associate the traditional training parameters to achieve the goal of that phase's training. For example, preparation4 uses sub maximal lifts for between 5 to 15 reps, hypertrophy uses 6 - 12 reps to failure, strength 1 - 5 rep max and power for sake of argument 2 - 6 reps with sub-maximal loads (please note there are many methods for power development beside this).

Using these phases is already putting the science of program design into practise. This can be further enhanced by varying the reps within each phase. This will maximise the training response over the phase:

Season Off-season
Phase Preparation Hypertrophy Strength Power
Reps 15 10 5 12 9 6 5 3 1 6 4 2

Through such simple variations of one training variable you have introduced intensity and volume manipulation throughout the course of the off-season and within the phases themselves. This will produce more optimal results. For each training phase a different exercise routine would be followed to introduce specificity and you could also vary the rest periods to further extrapolate the volume, specificity and intensity relationships.

If you now start introducing recovery weeks you begin to incorporating the other needs of periodization - avoiding overtraining and maximising adaptation. This can be furthered enhanced by using specified variations in training intensity within the weekly micro cycles, e.g. heavy and light days and before you know it you are applying the main bulk of periodization and reaping its benefits on athletic performance.

The above serves to exemplify how to easily introduce periodization into resistance training, of course these principles need to be taken and applied to the other training methods also, e.g. aerobic, agility, plyometrics etc. Again the exercises within each phase and variation in training parameters, e.g. volume, intensity need to be designed and altered to mediate the required changes across the off-season or during the in-season.

If this sounds too simple then just remember that periodization is a relative rather than an absolute. It is about maximising the response from training while ensuring the athletes does not suffer injury or over training. The benefits of using an undulating model versus a linear model5 or the fitness fatigue theory over classical6 are all well and good, but the crux of the matter is putting in place a periodized routine of some sorts. This can be done by:
• Applying training phases during the year to achieve a certain training outcome.
• Varying the reps, rest, intensity over the training phase.
• Using recovery weeks, days and techniques to ensure the body is fresh.

This is all covered in my book Rugby fitness training: A twelve month conditioning programme. Though it is a book designed for rugby players the principles outlined above are central to its theme. It will teach you how to take the general principles and apply them to you or your clients training routine.

In the programme section I have added three rugby programmes, these serve just to as an example of a possible routine, the success of the programme will rely more on how you as the coach manipulate the training variables within each training phase and change the training between the individual phases.

Ben Wilson BSc (Hons) CSCS NSCA - CPT CMTA Dip


1) Rugby fitness training: A twelve month conditioning programme, Crowood press
2) Periodization: Theory and methodology of training, Tudor O Bompa (Human kinetics, chapter 7 Page 165
3) Stone, M.H and H.S. O Bryant. Weight training: A scientific approach. Minneapolis MN, Burgess 1987
4) Sometimes called anatomical adaptation under traditional periodization nomenclature.
5) Haff, G.G Phd. Roundtable discussion: Periodization of training Part 1 & 2, Journal of strength & Conditioning Volume 26, Number 1 , Pages 50 -59, number 2 Pages 56 -70
6) Chiu L, Barnes J L, The fitness fatigue model revisited: Implications for planning short and long term training. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Volume 25, number 6, Pages 42-51.

Ben WIlson BSc (Hons) CSCS NSCA-CPT CMTA Dip
One2one nutrition
Rugby fitness training.com

Author's Bio: 

I possess a degree in chemistry and I am qualified to teach metabolic typing nutrition. I attained the Certified strength and conditioning certificate through the NSCA and their certified personal trainer certificate. To complement this I completed further study in personal training, athletic preparation, lifestyle coaching and Emotional freedom technique (EFT).
I am Author of the top selling book Rugby fitness training: A twelve month conditioning programme and run the websites http://www.one2onenutrition.co.uk and http://www.rugbyfitnesstraining.com