How To Get Bigger For Rugby
Rugby is a sport with massive physical demands, at the breakdown and in the tackle, the bigger you are the more you are going to make. That’s just the way it is. I’m sure players like Shane Williams and Dan Carter may argue that it’s the speed and skills that make a player over their sheer size, but more often than not, the bigger players are the more physical and the more dominant players in the game. At any point where there is physical competition, the bigger, heavier player is going to have an advantage. In this article, we will talk about how to get bigger for rugby.
Mass moves mass.
Its true that for skills like sprinting, jumping and cutting, a players strength in comparison to their body weight is key, the higher the strength to weight ratio the better the player can handle their own bodyweight, but as soon as there is an external load placed into the equation (ie. Another player) the smaller guys are going to be at a handicap due to their lower bodyweight. It’s a common saying in the weight room that “Mass moves mass” and this applies to the rugby field, the bigger and heavier you are the stronger you are likely to be.
When you are carrying the ball and accelerating, you are building momentum, the heavier you are the more momentum you will carry into an opposing tackle creating more force. Its like the difference between trying to break down a wall with a sledge hammer or your fist, the hammer is heavier therefore caries more momentum into the impact, creating more force. Jonah Lomu is a prime example of this, he was a huge player that could move quickly and carry a lot of momentum when he had the ball. At international rugby, players would literally bounce off of him when he was carrying the ball.
We don’t wear pads in rugby.
The higher your muscle mass, the better you can handle impacts on the rugby field. Your ability to brace for impact improves with a higher amount of muscle mass and the muscle acts as protection for your joints, bones and surrounding tissue. This is why the international athletes can take a huge impact, roll away and get straight back in for the next breakdown.
Being bigger then obviously has its advantages in rugby. But first lets look at how to gain size and build muscle regardless of the sport.
The word ‘Hypertrophy’ is a common word passed around the weights room by team athletes, bodybuilders and strength athletes alike. It is a term borrowed from medical science meaning ‘the addition of tissue from the increased size of its cells’. In a sport science or strength and conditioning setting this ‘addition of tissue’ is regarding muscle mass. The text-book training method for hypertrophy is the typical 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps, with 30-90 seconds rest between sets. This has been taught from your first PE lesion in high school to the last day of your bachelor’s degree and has been used by gym goers for decades. Although this may work at building muscle, as a rugby player this might not be the best method for you.
Lets have a look at the underpinning mechanisms of hypertrophy and how to elicit this adaption. There are three known mechanisms of hypertrophy, these are in no particular order;
- Mechanical tension – The amount of tension placed upon a muscle unit, this can be heightened by creating the highest amount of force. Either by increasing load or the speed of a contraction.(force = mass x acceleration).
- This recruits the most amount of motor units and muscle mass resulting in growth.
- Metabolic stress – The metabolic conditions within the muscle, a build up of metabolites and ischemic conditions during a set.
- The conditions within the muscle become sub-optimal, the muscle adapts and grows bigger to better handle the conditions.
- Muscle damage – The amount of damage within the muscle fibers caused by the intervention or set/session.
- The muscle tissue breaks down during the movement, with recovery the muscle repairs itself and over compensates, resulting in muscle growth.
During any muscle contraction there will be a contribution from each mechanism, as long as at least one of the three are emphasized at increased intensity you should experience hypertrophy. If we think about the mechanisms in play during the traditional hypertrophy training design, (Ie. 3 x 12 – 60 seconds rest) we are doing a high volume of reps at around 60-75% 1RM. This will create a high metabolic stress but has a relatively low mechanical tension and a moderate amount of muscle damage. The muscle cells will swell during the set and with time and consistency the tissue will adapt and grow. This is the mechanism behind the feeling and sensation of getting ‘the pump’ that the majority of bodybuilders are chasing. This has been the ‘go to’ programming design for athletes looking to add size for decades, but research suggests that this isn’t the only way to elicit hypertrophy.
Its not all about the pump!
Recent research has shown that if you are training for hypertrophy, overall work done is the biggest indicator of growth rather than the volume or the metabolic conditions created. The research suggests that the same amount of hypertrophy can be created from taking longer rest periods, which will reduce the metabolic stress but allow you to handle much higher loads, increasing the mechanical tension. The muscle damage will be similar between both methods but the overall work done will be higher in the heavier sets.
Volume load and Work done.
The overall work done can be calculated with a simple physics equation:
Work = Force x Distance
If we use the squat as an example, the distance covered is the distance that you descend from standing and ascend from a squat. Lets assume that this distance is going to be exactly the same every time you squat, your distance is going to be slightly different to the next person, but because it is the same for you each time we can calibrate this to 1-rep. This is what we call ‘Volume load’. For instance sake, lets assume you are squatting 100kg for 3 sets of 10 with 1-minute rest between sets; the equation will look like this.
(1oo kg x 10 reps) x 3 sets = 900 kg
Now, if you were to increase your rest intervals to 3 minutes so that you are fully recovered between sets, you may be able to handle up to 20% more weight during each set. The volume load is higher therefore the overall work done is much higher.
(120 kg x 10 reps) x 3 sets = 1080 kg
Take a breath
With more rest time, you will be better prepared for the set at hand, a higher load can be lifted, meaning a higher mechanical tension, your movement quality and speed is maintained also the integrity of the reps will remain high. If we compare this to the traditional hypertrophy training model with high reps and low rest, after each set the metabolic stress is high and the ischemic conditions within the muscle become heightened, rep quality is compromised, and mechanical tension is much lower. This means that the volume load and the overall work done are lower. If you were offered one of two training models, one will make you bigger and better conditioned to metabolic stress, then the second will induce the same amount of growth but also make you stronger, as a rugby player it is in your interest to be as strong as possible.
This is why typically bodybuilders are weaker than powerlifters at the same bodyweight (I’m obviously stereotyping here). If you take someone that trains for growth and compare them with a person with the same muscle mass that trains for strength, the person that trains for strength will have more efficient motor recruitment and rate coding than the person that trains for growth so therefore can produce more force than their bodybuilding counterpart. I’m not implying that bodybuilders are weak, not at all, but in comparison to athletes like powerlifters and weightlifters, they just aren’t as strong.
Sets and Reps.
It doesn’t end there, the research provides evidence that equal hypertrophy can be attained within much lower rep ranges, such as 3-5 reps at higher loads. However the number of sets needs to be increased to achieve the same amount of muscle damage to elicit growth. Here are two examples of sets and rep schemes which may elicit similar hypertrophy but when performed they are very different. The second method allows you to handle much higher loads and will improve your strength significantly more that the first method.
|Method||Total reps||Rest between sets||Intensity (1RM)||Metabolic stress.||Mechanical tension.||Muscle damage.|
Application to Rugby.
You might be thinking, “This is great, but I’m not a bodybuilder, or a powerlifter, how will this make me a better rugby player”. As mentioned before, it is in your best interest to be as big as possible and still be able to handle your own bodyweight, therefore you need to be strong. This method should be applied to your big compound movements to build muscle over the entire body as a system, you should be aiming to build strength within movements rather than size within muscles. Increasing your strength will in turn build muscle and training with big compound movements will pack on muscle throughout the entire body.
Attached is a six-week training programme that you can download for free which is focused on building strength and increasing volume within compound movements. Pay attention to the movement selection, the rest times, the sets, reps and the intensities. This programme will make you bigger and stronger so you can carry that extra bodymass onto the rugby field.