Pre-Season Rugby Fitness Training – Phase 1

MultipowerThe season may have only just finished, but some players’ thoughts are already turning to pre-season fitness, and how to make themselves bigger and better. Fitness trainer Matt Cross continues the Rugby Fitness series with the first part of his pre-season training programme, in association with Multipower.

Getting started

The common and costly mistake that many people make in pre-season is to start to train too early and too hard. Many people will neglect to full rest and recover at the end of a long season and will wonder why ¾ of the way through the year they start to ‘hit the wall’ and feel over-trained. Many studies with elite players have discovered a higher incidence of injuries at the back end of the season in comparison with the beginning, and enjoying a longer off-season will help. My players are starting the programme described below on Monday 27th June with the season beginning in September, and I’d advise against starting before this.

Pre-Season Rugby TrainingAlso many training programmes don’t seem to take into account strategies and exercises for injury prevention which is highly important. I always ask my players – what is your goal? Is it to be able to deadlift 250kg and bench press 150kg or is it to be on the pitch for a full 80 and to last a whole season without injury? Most players will choose the latter.

Yet when pre-season does start, it is a time when the majority of gains in strength, mass, power and conditioning will be made. It is very difficult for athletes to make gains during a long and busy season in the gym (especially in mass). This is primarily due to the fact that players are getting lots of metabolic work on the field within training sessions for their clubs. For the amateur player especially, it is difficult to sometimes fit in training commitments around work and therefore many training programs are often unrealistic and over ambitious in terms of training volume and time.

Functional exercises

Most good pre-season programs for rugby will – guess what – be specific to rugby. In my opinion, however, in recent years, trainers are trying to be specific and with that are forgetting the key lifts or neglecting to include them because they are not ‘functional’. Only the other day did I overhear a conversation in the gym about the functionality of a deadlift in rugby. Try telling a front row forward that they don’t have to be strong in a deadlift starting position or that they don’t need strength and hip drive when moving force from the floor in a game of rugby – trust me when I say, for a 1, 2 or 3, a deadlift is functional. If you were then to ask me if it’s functional for a full back, that would be a different story and a completely different viewpoint.

So herein lies the problem. People think functional exercises must look crazy and must be unusual. They are simply wrong. What is functional is matching the biomechanics and body position of a movement in the gym to a movement pattern on the field of play, not whether the exercise looks modern and cool and includes some upper body rotation and a split leg stance.

It also depends on what you want to achieve. For example if you are a scrum half who wants to put on 2 stone in weight, I would not recommend that you do 15 reps of a medicine ball scrum half pass against a wall because its ‘functional’ – I am probably going to be getting you to do heavy traditional lifts for 8 to 10 reps and I’d be spending time with you talking about your nutrition, because ultimately that is the training type that will help you put weight on – that is what is ‘functional’ to your goals.

So conclusion and common sense tells us that training is all about balance. A balance of what is functional and traditional, a balance of rest and recovery, and finally a balance of not over complicating things. Don’t get me wrong, your program should include some rugby specific exercises but absolutely must contain some traditional key lifts – bench press, deadlift and squats haven’t been around for so long because they don’t work have they! There is a clear and constant need to overcomplicate things in the fitness industry; it is one of my main gripes.

Pre-Season Fitness Training

Below is the basic version and first phase of my pre-season programme that I have given to the players I work with. Please bear in mind that I physically screen, fitness test and perform a comprehensive muscular assessment on all my players. Consequently their programmes get changed and individualised according to position and include changes for any muscle imbalance and weakness that may get picked up in their pre-season screening. It is also based on the equipment available in our studio – if you don’t have access to some of the equipment listed, let me know and I can modify it for you.

The main focus of this phase is to start getting the body back and used to some of the main lifts and to also bring in an element of conditioning to your workout (without too much on feet running and sprinting which isn’t necessary for MOST people at this stage). The days of rugby players using a body part split or training one aspect of the force spectrum at one time are gone (unless of course you specifically only need to work on power, strength or speed, etc) this programme below encompasses all aspects. Make sure you always warm up and cool down from a training session (see the earlier recovery article for the importance of a good cool down).

The first phase of the programme should last for 4 weeks and contains 3 sessions.

SESSION 1: The workout is based on 3 circuits of 3 exercises covering all the performance muscles.

CIRCUIT 1 (Strength-endurance)
1.1 Incline chest press 5 reps
1.2 Wide Grip chin ups sets of 5 reps
1.3 Dumbell shoulder press sets of 5 reps

CIRCUIT 2 (Muscle-endurance)
2.1 Jump squat with 30% of your bodyweight x 10 reps
2.2 Single arm Dumbell snatch sets of 15 reps
2.3 Dumbell Bent over row sets of 15 reps

CIRCUIT 3 (Reactive force-endurance)
3.1 Vertical jump sets of 10 reps
3.2 Broad jump sets of 10 reps
3.3 Plyometric depth push-up sets of 10 reps

– For the first couple of weeks – work at 75% so that the body can get used to performing the big lifts if you have had some time off.
– All lifts are on their own apart from 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3 that are performed as a superset

1.1 Deadlift 4 x 10 Rest 2 mins
2.1 Bench press 3 x 10, 1 x Max Rest 2 mins
3.1 Reverse lunges 4 x 12 each leg Rest 90 seconds

4.1 Weighted Press ups x 10 (superset, no rest)
4.2 Hanging knee raises x Max (superset, no rest)
4.3 Weighted Dips x 10 Rest 60 seconds

This tri-set above is performed for 3 sets in total

SESSION 3 MMA Barbell Circuit / Barbell Complexes

Around 30 – 40 kilos total weight, each exercise is performed for 10 reps and there are 6 exercises. There is no rest between the exercises.

1. Military press
2. Front squat
3. Front loaded lunges (10 each leg)
4. Bent over row
5. Speed Deadlift
6. Power Clean

x6 sets, rest 2-3 minutes

Barbell roll outs x10, superset x 3 sets, rest 90 seconds
Weighted plank x 1 minute

Rugby Nutrition

Writing and advising on nutrition chould take many articles in itself, and it is also hard to advise on specific supplements as most people will agree that nutrition is even more specific and individualised than training. However there are three main products that I believe should not be called supplements and should be a staple part of any rugby player’s daily nutrition, these are;
Whey Protein
Whey protein
This is simply the building blocks of muscle. Getting 3g/kilo (the maximum amount that is thought the body can store) food alone with a busy schedule isn’t easy and can be very expensive. Simple whey concentrate does the job better than any other product.

Fish oil (high in omega 3)
You only need to type in fish oils into an internet search engine to find out the benefits that these have been reported to have within the human body and for training. If I could only recommend one supplement to everybody I work with – fish oil would be it. You want the oil to be high particularly in omega 3 as this is the anti-inflammatory portion of fish oil. Fish oils will help you get lean and will aid recovery and joint health plus much more.

Multivitamin and mineral tablet
In a varied and perfect diet we would get everything we needed, unfortunately 99% of us (even those who think they do any a perfect diet) will be deficient in some vitamins and minerals. With the quality of food constantly being reduced to save people money and soil degradation nutrient levels in food aren’t what they used to be. See this as a cheap way to fight against vitamin & mineral deficiency. Also if you are deficient on something it may lead to deficiency in something else more important.

Multipower are the nutritional sponsors of Mark Cueto, RC Toulon and Leeds Carnegie. For Sports nutrition tailored to your individual needs visit Follow Multipower on Facebook at www.facebook/multipowersportsfooduk

Matt Cross is currently Head of Strength and Conditioning at Bond Fitness and is based in their bespoke performance centre in Hertfordshire. Matt works with elite athletes from many sporting disciplines that include rugby, football, golf and triathlon. He specialises in sport specific training, functional movement training and injury rehabilitation.

After playing rugby to a high standard himself Matt started his journey into the fitness industry by completing his BSc in sport & exercise science from Loughborough University and followed this by completing his MSc in sport & exercise medicine and rehabilitation from Exeter University. Matt has previous experience as an assistant strength and conditioning coach for premiership side Harlequins and also as fitness and nutritional consultant to teams within the RFU national league structure and invitational sevens teams on the global playing circuit. At only 24 Matt is considered well respected within the fitness industry and can be contacted personally at with regards to any queries, questions or training opportunities.

7 thoughts on “Pre-Season Rugby Fitness Training – Phase 1

  1. Looks like a well thought out program,

    I look forward to starting it on the 27th and carrying the series through until the start of the season,

    Will all the phases published up on this site?

      1. I’ve found this article really interesting but as a female rugby player – currently playing loose head but hoping to play scrum half – I was wondering hoe I adapt this programme to fit a more feminine frame? i was also wondering if a diet high in protein is beneficial for a training for pre season. I know it’s layr but it is the best information I have found on this subject.

  2. hey thanks a lot for that! Been looking for a good rugby based program for a while now. One question tho, the 3 different circuits are meant to be done separately right? Meaning for example circuit 1 on Monday, circuit 2 Wednesday and circuit 3 on Friday right?

    I’ll start doing this program today and try to see it thru for a month and then carry on with Phase 2

    ta mate!

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