Strength and Conditioning for Rugby: Must Haves

elitefts™ Sunday Edition

After recently being let go by the Australian Rugby Union, I’ve had time to contemplate what is important in rugby strength and conditioning—basically the “must haves” rather than the “nice to haves.” When I get my next position, these are nonnegotiable and will be included in the program to assist players at becoming physically dominant.

These then are my “must haves:”

  • Speed power combo
  • Combination fitness
  • Gym-based circuits

If you have the gym and field in close proximity to each other, the speed power combo is one of the best forms of anaerobic conditioning that I’ve found. It involves performing some speed related activities on the field and then immediately coming into the gym and lifting weights. Then, you return to the field for more speed work. You go back and forth like this until you’ve finished your maximal strength lifting session in the gym.

Option 1

  • Field: Warm up with patterns on ladders and mini-hurdles combined with dynamic flexibility options
  • Gym: Power snatch from blocks or hang, 8 X 3
  • Field: Sled marching, 4 X 22 meters with 22-meter sprint from a three-point stance in between
  • Gym: Kettlebell swings, 30 seconds supersetted with knees to feet jumps, 6 X 6
  • Field: Harness and release for 22 meters resist and then 28-meter sprint X 6
  • Gym: Band box squats supersetted with box jumps, 8 X 3 or two-stage step-ups and single leg box jumps, 4 X 6
  • Field: Sled sprints ladder (empty sled X 40 meters, sled and 20 kg X 30 meters, sled and 40 kg X 20 meters, sled and 60 kg X 10 meters, and then repeat going back up the ladder)

Option 2

  • Warm ups: Mobility circuit, full forward ladder series X 6 (exercise returns—i.e. skips, butt kicks)
  • Band box squats every 30 seconds, 12 X 2
  • Slow walk back recovery, 10 X 10 meters
  • Power snatch from floor every 60 seconds, 8 X 3
  • Block power cleans every 60 seconds, 6 X 4
  • Deadlifts variation every 60 seconds, 4 X 6
  • 6 X 22-meter parachute and 28-meter release every 3 minutes or 6 X 10-meter resisted harness and 20-meter release
  • Sled sprints, 4 X 20 meters every two 2 minutes

Combination fitness

I love the use of small sided competitive games as the major form of metabolic conditioning for rugby players. Players will go longer and often work harder in these games, but there are a few problems. Not all players work as hard as they should, and human nature being what it is, some may rest up at times or go missing completely. Also, depending on the skill levels of the players, the ball may not stay in play long enough to get a conditioning benefit. So by combining this excellent mode of conditioning with a variety of others, I feel we can ensure a more complete session.

I like to include blocks of training with the conditioning games so that players are moving from one activity to another and don’t get used to one singular mode. This could be any combination of the following:

  • Aerobic grid or block runs ideally based from your aerobic running test (i.e. yoyo test)
  • Repeated speed sessions of varying distance with varying recoveries from different starting positions and performed at different speeds
  • Boxing, wrestling, and grappling activities
  • Phase play for a maximum of three phases with either pad opposition or semi-opposed

So a session would look like this:

  • Warm up for 10–15 minutes with a range of active movement drills and graduated speeds
  • 12 minutes of off-side touch, 2 minutes drink break/recovery
  • 2 X 4-minute VO2 grids (4 minutes work, 2-minute walk recovery)
  • 6 X starter players (3 from lineout and 3 from scrum, alternating)
  • Wrestling for 6 minutes
  • 20 X 22 meters going every 15 seconds from different start positions (5 minutes work and then drink/rest 2 minutes)
  • Finish with 8 minutes of drop-off touch
  • Recovery

Off-side touch: The first pass must always go back and then attack to the furthest try line. The attacking team gets two touches. After the second touch turnover, the ball can be passed after the restart pass in any direction. To ensure that everyone is working all the time, the attacking team must be inside the 22-meter area before the try can be scored. The team that scores retains possession and the defending team must push inside the attacking halfway line. Otherwise, the try is worth two points. Another version is man-on-man where you can only tag your partner and vice versa. In addition, you can add a sweeper who can tag anyone as well.

Drop-off touch: Normal touch rules apply, except when a person makes a touch, he has to sprint around his own goal posts before being eligible to be on defense again. The attacking team gets six touches and no kicking is allowed.

Gym-based circuits

While most of the gym programs I write are based on a strength training bias, I believe that we are missing the point of specific conditioning for the game if we don’t include some circuit style training in the program. That isn’t to say that we should disregard strength and go entirely circuit-based (dare I say CrossFit). That would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Before you CrossFit disciples howl your protest, I’m not denigrating the mode of training. It’s just that strength underpins everything in my book, so take the time to get strong and learn correct technique before embarking on high rep sessions with complex motor skill exercises. As Westside has said, “Everything works, but nothing works forever.”

Here are my favorite circuits. For a warm up, do kettlebell swings/skipping/sledgehammer tire hits/rope waves (30 seconds of each for five sets).

1. Kettlebell circuit

  • Kettlebell cleans
  • Seesaw kettlebell presses
  • Alternating kettlebell upright rows
  • Kettlebell snatches
  • Alternating kettlebell floor presses
  • MMA kettlebell rows
  • Kettlebell squat jumps
  • Kettlebell two-handed swings

Do 30 seconds on each and rest for 90 seconds at the end of the circuit. Repeat for a total of six sets or do eight reps on either the Extermin8 or Termin8 circuit.

2. Steel log GPP circuit

  • Clean and push presses
  • Front squats
  • Bent over rows
  • Romanian deadlifts

Do eight reps on each and then go again for eight total sets.

3. Body weight GPP circuit

Perform 15 reps on each of this nonstop circuit:

  • Grasshoppers
  • Hindu push-ups
  • Knees to feet jumps
  • Scorpions
  • Mountain climbers
  • Alternate lunges
  • Rock and rolls
  • Push-ups
  • Prisoner jump squats
  • Sit-ups

(Information on these can be found in Combat Conditioning by Matt Furey.)

4. Beastly circuits

Do six sets of six reps and then three minutes of hard cardio (i.e. bike, box, row, versa, rope pull, treadmill incline run, grinder).

  • Option 1: Deadlift/Power clean from hang/Front squat/Push press/Bent over row/Romanian deadlift
  • Option 2: Power clean from floor/Split jerk/Front squat/Hang clean/Lunge/Bent over row
  • Option 3: Power snatch from floor/Push press/Back squat/Hang clean/Split jerk/Romanian deadlift
  • Option 4: Three-position clean/Push press/Jump squat/Hang snatch/Split jerk behind neck/Good morning
  • Option 5: Power snatch from floor/Overhead squat/Push jerk behind head/Combo good morning/Jump squat/Power clean from hang

5. Power fitness

Do power clean, pulls, or deadlifts at 70 percent for 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 (15 seconds rest between sets) and then three minutes hard on the bike or versa climber. Rest 90 seconds and repeat six times.

6. Power circuit

Perform five sets of five reps of a 500-meter row after each circuit.

  • Power snatch
  • Clean and push press from blocks
  • Jammer
  • Power tackler
  • Band box squat

Perform an abdominal circuit after each of the training options, alternating weighted and unweighted. Do weighted abs (five exercises for five sets of five reps) in a circuit:

  • Half Turkish get-up
  • Lateral side bend and pick up (windmill)
  • Zercher pick up
  • Suitcase deadlift
  • Combat twist unweighted abs

Do five exercises for three sets of fifteen reps in a circuit:

  • Hanging leg raises
  • Rollouts
  • Cyclone balls
  • Sprinters sit-ups
  • One-minute bridge

7. Borreginne super circuit

This was shared with me by Haydn Masters, the greatest weightlifting coach that Australia has produced and a man I’m proud to call my friend.

You can alternate 20-meter shuttle runs with 100 meters on the Concept 11 rower or the Prowler®:

  1. 10 X squat jumps (bar)
  2. 10 X bench presses (60 kg)
  3. 20 X medicine ball Russian twists (10 kg)
  4. 4 X shuttle runs (20 meters)
  5. 10 X hang cleans (40 kg)
  6. 10 X bent over rows (40 kg)
  7. 10 X hanging knees to chest
  8. 4 X shuttle runs (20 meters)
  9. 20 X barbell step-ups (bar)
  10. 10 X bench press (60 kg)
  11. 20 X medicine ball crunches (6 kg)
  12. 4 X shuttle runs (20 meters)
  13. 10 X snatch squats (bar)
  14. 10 X upright rows (30 kg)
  15. 20 X chinnies
  16. 4 X shuttle runs (20 meters)
  17. 10 X burpees with push-up
  18. 10 X barbell curl to press (16 kg)
  19. 20 X medicine ball Russian twists (10 kg)
  20. 4 X shuttle runs (20 meters)
  21. 10 X squat jumps (bar)
  22. 10 X bench presses (60 kg)
  23. 20 X chinnies
  24. 4 X shuttle runs (20 meters)
  25. 10 X hang cleans (40 kg)
  26. 10 X bent over rows (40 kg)
  27. 10 X hanging knees to chest
  28. 4 X shuttle runs (20 meters)
  29. 20 X barbell step-ups (bar)
  30. 10 X barbell shoulder presses (30 kg)
  31. 20 X medicine ball crunches (6 kg)
  32. 4 X shuttle runs (20 meters)
  33. 10 X burpees with push-up
  34. 10 X upright rows (40 kg)
  35. 20 X landmines (20 kg)
  36. 4 X shuttle runs (20 meters)

8. Strongman circuits

Strongman training differs from traditional weight training in that the objects that are pushed, pulled, lifted, dragged, or carried aren’t uniform in size, shape, or weight—but nor are the players we come across on a rugby field. I primarily use Strongman training as a strength endurance circuit where players are paired off and one player works for one minute while the other rests, motivates, and encourages his partner. When both players have worked for one minute, they move on to the next exercise. We usually have about ten exercises, but depending on the size of your squad and the availability of equipment, the choice is endless. Always be on the lookout for equipment that you might be able to use. Check out the local dump and see what others have thrown out such as truck tires, odd-shaped blocks, and other things that are gold to people like us looking for something a little different.

Please don’t get me wrong. This type of training is excellent for strength endurance and for strengthening those support muscles that aren’t easily targeted, but they don’t replace the fact that maximal strength and strength-speed type training is best developed using weights in the gym.

Some of my favorites for training rugby players in this style of training are:

  • Fingals finger: Lift a post off the ground and then, with your hands above your head, walk it forward until it is vertical.
  • Conan’s wheel: Lift a bar, which is connected to a load, Zercher style in the crook of your elbows and proceed to walk in a circular path until you can no longer continue.
  • Farmer’s walk: Pick up two implements, one in each hand, and walk until the implements fall from your hands as your grip gives out.
  • Tire flip: Position yourself in a good deadlift position and lift the edge of the tire off the ground. Continue lifting and pushing with your knee until it flips over. Continue for time and/or distance.
  • Chain drag: Grab hold of a length of anchor chain and walk backward as you drag the chain. Our chain weighs 150 kg, and we picked it up at a fishing fleet store shed.
  • Yoke walk: Take a squat bar out of the rack or have a yoke make specifically for the purpose and walk as far as you can. This is a real challenge.
  • Lift and carry: Take a keg, stone, buoy, or any heavy, odd-shaped object and pick it up. Take it for a walk. The more awkward, the better because this will challenge your stabilizer muscles.
  • Lift and carry press: Do the same as the above, but instead of carrying for distance, press it above your head. A great use for the Swiss ball is to fill it with sand or water to the desired weight and then proceed to push this “live” weight overhead. This is a real challenge.
  • Steel log: Clean and press for reps or time. The log, being quite a wide diameter, makes it awkward to lift and also puts extra emphasis on lower back stabilization, which is a bonus.
  • Sled drag: Use a sprint sled. Load it up and proceed to walk, towing this behind you for time and/or distance.


Because I’m a strength coach first and foremost, it would be remiss of me to finish this article without giving you what I consider to be my most productive strength training tips.

Three-week strength training cycle:

I’ve used this many times with different levels of players, and I’ve always had success with it as an off-season training system incorporating wave loading, which I consider to be the best overloading method ever:

  • Week 1: 2 X (6/5/4)
  • Week 2: 2 X (5/4/3)
  • Week 3: 2 X (4/3/2)

I’ve also had success with it in-season when time is of the essence:

  • Week 1: 6/5/4/4
  • Week 2: 5/4/3/3
  • Week 3: 4/3/2/2

Both styles ensure that you’re hitting above 95 percent of your maximal load every three weeks and that you don’t drop below the strength threshold of 80 percent every three weeks a la Westside. You should change the program in some way (e.g., a simple exercise change or variation) to ensure continued gains.

For the more advanced, the system known as complexes has also worked very well in my training programs. It can be used with major compound movements:

  • Week 1: 4 X 6 straight sets plateau load 80 percent
  • Week 2: 4 X 3/3 complex with 15–20 seconds intra-set and 2–3 minutes inter-set rest
  • Week 3: 4 X 2/2/2 complex with 15–20 seconds intra-set and 2–3 minutes inter-set rest
  • Week 4: 4 X 1/1/1/1/1/1 or 4 x 3/2/1 complex with 15–20 seconds intra-set and 2–3 minutes inter-set rest

Finally, the Rule of 24 that I’ve written extensively about has provided great gains in size, strength, and power for all those who have tried it. Check back through the “Get Strength” article files to see them all. In the New Year, I’ll be compiling much of my material into an ebook form, which will examine in detail all my training programs for strength and conditioning.

So there you have it. I hope that I’ve added to your “training toolbox” and that you can glean what necessary information you require to aid in the development of your productive program. Remember, as said at Westside, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything else becomes a nail.”

Train hard and make a difference in someone’s life!

Related Articles:

Strongman Training for Rugby

Introduction to Preparing Athletes for the Challenging Sport of Rugby Unions

Ten Prowler Variations

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About the Author

Ashley Jones is a rugby strength and conditioning coach who has worked with the elite of the game, having been employed by the Crusaders (Super XV competition), New Zealand All Blacks, and the Australian Wallabies over the last decade. He has been awarded an honorary position at Bond University in Australia as an Adjunct Assistant Professor. Ashley has worked in the sports physical performance conditioning and fitness industries since 1978 and has worked in three professional sports (basketball, rugby league, and rugby union) across three countries (New Zealand, Australia, and Japan).