5 Great Training Routines for Rugby
This article is for information only and nothing in it should be taken as any form of professional or medical advice. Consult with professionals before undertaking any form of training. The choice to use any of the information in this article is solely your responsibility.
Rugby requires all-around athleticism. Strength, speed, fitness, agility, skill, and the ability to execute under pressure, all play a part in the game at different stages.
Rugby training focuses on developing players in all of these areas, building versatile athletes who are mentally and physically prepared.
This article describes five different advanced exercises that each focus on a different area of the game. Some of these exercises are individual movements, others are compound, and others are specific training drills that will contribute to the development of abilities.
As mentioned above this isn't professional training advice and it has not been checked or approved by medical staff or professional coaches. The choice to use or integrate the exercises given in this article into your own training sessions is yours alone, but I hope they at least give you some new ideas.
1. Get Back Up With Burpee Variations
We start with a pretty simple part of the game yet one that is so often overlooked in training. Quite simply, getting up off the floor quickly.
During a game of rugby most players will end up on the deck multiple times, often needing to get back up and get in position, hit another ruck, or get back on side as quickly as possible. Being able to quickly and easily get back up off the floor, expending the minimum of effort as you do so while remaining aware of what is happening in the game around you, is invaluable.
So let's get to training this particular area.
Burpees - start with simple burpees. From a standing position drop to the floor into a pushup position, then bring your feet up to underneath your chest and jump in the air landing back on your feet. Try to throw your arms up above your head as you jump up. Simply repeat by dropping back down.
Basic burpees require you to get back up from the press up position multiple times in a set, imitating the same movement during a match.
Burpee pushups - this exercise is the same as a simple burpee but with the addition of a push-up while you are on the floor. This will give the arms more of a workout, while also training the muscles needed to get back up quickly and efficiently. Once able to do a single push-up the exercise can be enhanced by adding additional push-ups.
Burpee squat jumps - in this variation, after landing on your feet following the jump back up from the floor, bend down into a squat position and then add another jump back up from this. Focus on driving the body upwards with the quad muscles to add an extra dimension of leg workout to the exercise. This could even be combined with burpee push-ups in order to train the whole body.
Burpee rollovers - while the burpee variations mentioned above are great for the intense muscle training needed to get up quickly they are limited by only considering the movement to get back up from your hands and feet, in the push-up position. In a match situation players often find themselves lying on their back or side and need to get up from this position as quickly as possible too. We can train these movements through burpee rollovers.
This exercise is just a simple burpee, but when hitting the ground instead of remaining in the push-up position, the player instead needs to roll over before getting back up. Carry out these variations in sets of 3; first hit the ground then roll onto the right side before getting back up, then repeat for the left side, and then on to the back (changing which side you roll onto the back from). This will replicate match conditions more closely.
Rock forward burpees - the final variation involves again rolling onto the back, however, this time the player doesn't simply rotate the body over one shoulder but instead rolls all the way back from a seated position so that the head ends up at the opposite end to where it was when in the push up position. The player will then need to roll forwards or otherwise get back into the push-up position, with the head facing forwards, before jumping up to complete the burpee. This replicates situations in which players must get back to their feet without losing sight of the gameplay in front of them.
Be careful with this variation not to smash your head into the floor, or damage a knee or ankle when rolling backward.
Getting back up off the floor quickly, safely, and efficiently is key part of the game, and the burpee variations used to train are also really good all-around exercises for conditioning and mobility purposes.
2. Straight Line Sprint Variations
Once you are up you need to get running. Fundamentally rugby is all about running, there are opportunities for any kind of runner to do well at the sport, provided they can hold their own in terms of strength and skill at whatever level they play.
Long-distance runners will have the fitness to perform well for 80+ minutes, lightning-fast sprinters, even if they are relatively small or weaker physically, will be able to get themselves in better positions in attack and mark their opposite number off the pitch when defending, and those who can cover short distances efficiently will be able to attack hard and repeatedly defend well.
Rugby is also a game that requires players to run at different speeds, over different distances, at different times during play. So to train for rugby matches you need to be varying your runs. Here are some drills help you do just that.
Shorts and longs - place out two markers on the field, one around 15 m from a start point (use the try line or touchline for example) and the other around 40 m from the start point. The aim is to do repeat sets of sprinting to the first marker, running at about three-quarter pace to the second marker, then turning around and jogging back to the start point. This is a very simple exercise but when done with intensity it can help build the pace and stamina needed for rugby.
Ups and downs - this is an additional exercise that you can throw into many other drills in order to keep players (or yourself) on their toes and further replicate match conditions. During any of the exercises in this section, and indeed in many other sections, randomly shout out or signify via whistle for the players to hit the deck as quickly as possible.
In the previous section, we discussed the importance of being able to get up and get going as quickly as possible, and this exercise helps train that ability but also, helps ensure that players remain switched on by making it random. You can also add in a different shout or whistle that signifies jumping up in the air which will further help improve concentration as players will need to listen out and determine which call is correct.
Sides to sides - using cones, set up a course in a simple cross pattern. You'll need one cone in the middle and the other four at the 'points of the compass', each approximately 10 m from the centre. We use the compass point names as it is usually easier for players to understand. The player starts at the centre cone facing any one of the four others. The cone they are facing is “North” and the other four cones are East, South, and West as normal.
The aim of this drill is to train players in moving quickly across the ground in different directions, but always facing the same way. This replicates a number of common situations during matches in which players are required to change positions or retreat back on side, but cannot lose sight of the opposition while doing so.
The coach or another player randomly shouts out any of the four compass points each time the player returns to the centre cone. For North, the player simply sprints forward to the cone and runs backward to get back to the centre cone. For East and West, the player will need to side-stride to get to the relevant cone and back, while still facing North. For South, the player will run backward, still facing North, and then sprint forward to the centre cone.
Fatigue sprints - being able to perform while fatigued is a crucial part of the game, and is also something that needs to be trained. For this final straight line sprint exercise, the aim is to fatigue the player by carrying out a series of energy-sapping leg exercises, before running difficult sprint drills.
Using the same sort of course set up as the shorts and longs drill, the players begin by carrying out progressively more difficult sets of squats, lunges, squat thrusts, burpees and similar exercises before being made to sprint a short distance and jog back to the start. This could even be combined with one or more of the burpee variation exercises detailed above, as long as more focus is given to the legs by adding in a few leg-specific exercises.
The purpose of this drill is also to train decision-making and mental stamina, as well as leg muscle stamina, so we need to add an element of surprise or skill performance that tests players mentally. The aforementioned ups and downs drill can be used here to do this at a basic level, and we could also force players to make a decision during the sprint, such as requiring them to pick a certain side of a defending player to run past or shout out whether they need to pick up, leave, or drop down onto a stationary ball placed near the end of the sprint - shouting out a different command each time with no pattern.
If players can be trained not only to put off or physically better deal with the fatigue that rugby game brings, but also to mentally perform when in this state, and not just focus on how tired and in pain they are, you can build a team that is able to play hard for 80+ minutes every week.
3. Building Beasts With Foundational Weight Training
So you're up, and you're running. Sooner or later you are going to smash into something, or something is going to smash into you. To dominate these collisions you need to be strong and tough. You need to be a beast.
And to become a beast takes hard work in the weights room.
Rugby requires all over strength that can be applied in the right places. Single-action, one-directional fixed weights won't cut it. We need to take it old school with compound movements and heavyweights that will build functional strength.
In particular, there are 5 key foundational lifts or exercises that can turn players into beasts:
- Bench press - lie on a bench and push the bar away from the chest,
- Squat - put the bar across the back of the shoulders, keep the back straight, bend the legs and then straighten them - but don't fully lock the knees,
- Deadlift - place the bar on the floor and, with fixed but very slightly bent legs, bend over, grab it, then straighten back up to lift it (with straight arms),
- Pull up - with a wide grip on a bar, palms facing away from the body, pull yourself up so that the chin is level with the bar,
- Tricep dips - using bars perpendicular to the waist, take the weight of the body on the arms, bend them as low as comfortable and then straighten.
There are many more variations and exercises that could be added to these 5 movements, and different trainers will have widely different opinions, but this foundational weight training will give you an all-around workout to build strength for rugby.
Always warm up, stretch, warm down and stay adequately hydrated. Also, get expert advice on form and function for every exercise before starting to guard against injuries, and work up to heavier weights over time - gradually adding weight in small increments.
4. Ball Carrying and Handling Drills
Aside from specialist skills such as throwing into the lineout or making a turnover in a ruck, there are really only two types of ball handling that players need to master; catching and passing, and catching and taking into contact. We'll deal with these separately.
Catching and passing - all players need to be able to pass the ball safely, quickly, and sympathetically to the catcher in order to play rugby well. There are various different kinds of pass that players can learn, but in order to be match-ready, nothing really beats playing touch rugby at a fast pace while also ensuring that players are rotated so that everyone gets a chance to practice the passing skills.
To work up to a full game of touch rugby you can first run through three more technical drills:
1. Firstly, in a clearly marked out area run attacking drills (such as 2 vs 1 or 3 vs 2) but require the attacking players to carry, pass and catch the ball using two hands at all times. These drills can be carried out at full pace and with the ball starting at different sides (to practice passing both ways), and the players should be told to ensure that a different member of the attacking group needs to score the try each time, so that they get used to passing at different lengths and times.
2. After running the attacking drills a number of times, a game of touch rugby can then be played at three-quarter pace, but with a requirement for players to always catch, carry and pass the ball in two hands at all times. The aim is not to get the players to score tries during this match, the aim is to ensure they get as much practice with the ball in both hands as possible.
3. Once the touch rugby game with the ball in two hands is sufficiently well practiced, the next step is to change the rules so that the ball may only be passed, caught and carried in one hand at a time. Players should be allowed to switch the ball from hand to hand but may only use one hand at a time in any important aspect of the game. This will be challenging and may take some getting used to for some players, and it may also be necessary to reduce the size of the field on which touch is played (as passes will be shorter in length), but the ability of players to handle the ball at pace and in pressure conditions can dramatically improve.
4. The final step is to put it all together in a game of flat-out touch rugby. Players should be rotated, as they should throughout all drills, and other rules can be incorporated to keep players on their toes and encourage the use of high-quality passing and handling manoeuvres that, although you would not want players to use during a match, will help build handling skills.
For example, after each try you could change the type of handling available to each team, switching between the two-hand and one-hand only forms with either both teams playing the same way or mixing it up. You can also limit the ability of particularly fast players from dominating the match by simply removing a player from both sides every time a try is scored, starting with the fastest or best.
Always remember throughout all of these drills and their variations that the goal is not to replicate match conditions, score tries or run through moves that would be deployed during a game, the goal is simply to improve handling skills, getting your players more adept at catching, passing and running with the ball.
Catching and Taking Into Contact
Everyone gets tackled from time to time and needs to be able to manage the ball when they are. In order to practise the different handling skills involved with taking contact try using the following drills:
1. Protecting the ball during the hit. Firstly you want to make sure that players do not drop the ball when they initially get tackled. In order to train this skill run a drill with a small number of attacking players opposite the same number of defending players plus an extra defender on each end who are holding tackle pads. Position the players about 5 metres apart with cones to mark the positions.
Have the attacking players jog on the spot and pass the ball back and forth as quickly as possible. They'll need to step backward and forward a few paces in order to avoid forward passes.
At random intervals blow a whistle or shout "contact", at which point whichever player is holding the ball needs to jog forward in order to take the hit, and the 2 or 3 defending players opposite the attacker will charge forward and close in on them as quickly as possible.
The aim is not for the attacker to break through the line (as this is relatively easy when defenders have tackle pads instead of grasping hands) hence why they jog into contact, not sprint. The aim is to practice catching a ball and protecting it in the arms as quickly and securely as possible so it doesn't get dislodged.
Obviously be careful players aren't hit too hard, and try to make the indications for contact just as a different player is catching a ball so they are forced to protect it quickly.
2. Contact skills and decisions. Once a player can take a hit, they next need to decide what to do with the ball. There are only really 4 options:
- Offload it immediately to a supporting player,
- Drive it forwards,
- Hand it off to a supporting player to drive forwards, or
- Hit the deck and set up the ruck.
To train these skills you'll need a course marked out with small pods of defenders (half of whom have tackle pads) and an attacking group. Aim for 4 players to attack and defending pods of 5 (note that defending pods can run back and reset as a subsequent defence, so you don't need 25 players to do this 5 times!)
For each attack, the player with the ball should charge into the defenders with the tackle pads who will be placed in the centre of the pod. Just before they take contact, the coach will shout one of four commands representing the actions mentioned above such as:
- Drive it!
- Hand it over!
- Hit the deck!
The other attackers will need to position themselves ready to receive the ball following any of these commands, training their support abilities too. The job of the defenders is to slow the attack down and make it difficult to perform the skill - though they shouldn't replicate full match intensity.
The coach can yell 'Contact Over!' when the ball is free or defenders have been sufficiently driven back, and then the attackers can set up for the next manouver with a new ball carrier.
3. Improving offloads - although we trained offloads a little in the previous drill, this is a really important attacking skill that deserves a bit more time spent on it.
Offloads can set up some of the best attacking opportunities in both rugby league and union when performed well, and the skills can be built through the games of touch rugby mentioned in the previous section.
However, there is another touch variation that, while tricky initially, can really help players understand how to position themselves both with and without the ball in attack. We call it offloading touch.
The game is simply touch rugby on a slightly smaller field, but passes can only be made if the attacker has one hand on a defender. It can take players a little bit of time to adjust, but they'll quickly realise that to set up proper attacking opportunities they need to be reaching out with one arm to the defender (like they would if they were handing off) while keeping the ball away from them and being fully aware where the supporting player is so they can give an effective offload.
In this way, offloads take the place of tackles, and attacking sides should be given a certain number with which to try and score - start with 15 and adjust based on how easy teams find it to score a try.
Its tough, but trains offloads from both arms and in all areas of the pitch. Keeping the defence in a line a few paces off is important to give supporting players an opportunity to make yards after an effective offload. As soon as an attacking player touches a defender (or the other way around) the 'tackle' is made and the defending line must retreat a few yards. The ball-carrier must then immediately offload the ball.
The faster and more accurately that the ball-holder can get their offload away, the better the supporting player can exploit the space given up by the retreating defenders - ideal training for offloads in a match!
5. Stress Testing
The final training routine is more of a meta-programme. Players know that games appear to progress faster than training sessions of any kind - everything feels more rushed, hurried and full of chaos. And the higher the level (from grassroots right up to international rugby games) the faster and more chaotic things can seem.
So why not train this way too?
When you have five minutes to get set up, a clean and dry ball at the perfect spot at the scrum-half's feet, cones that mark where everyone in the back line should stand, and a defending line encumbered with tackle pads and orders not to hit the attackers too hard; it should be easy to execute any backs move! This never happens in a game.
Likewise, winning your own set piece ball is a bit simpler without the opposition shouting abuse and confusing calls, crabbing across the space between lines, and generally being as disruptive as possible.
You need to try and replicate the chaotic, imperfect conditions of a match in some of your training. If players can learn to execute plays and make decisions when under pressure and when everything is going wrong, they'll also be much better prepared when things are going right.
Here are some ways to add more chaos into your training:
1. Air horn - bring along an air horn and blast it at random intervals while players are training and making calls. It'll make people jumpy but hopefully help them concentrate too.
2. Switching positions - change around players at random, particularly when they get settled for a move or routine. Start with an expected line-up and run some simple matchplay drills, and then randomly switch players (such as swapping 9 and 10, or 4 and 7) while trying to get them to produce the same level of quality and speed.
3. Defending against mistakes - how many times have you seen attacking players drop a ball backwards or throw a pass to nobody only to then recover and score? A simple mistake like this can confuse defenders, so train against it when you are working on defensive skills by simply getting attackers to drop the ball or throw passes between two players at random intervals.
4. Reacting to the whistle - rugby is played in clearly defined territorial patterns - yards are hard won and need to need to be jealously guarded. But when you get penalised and compound the error by either mouthing off at the ref (and losing another 10 yards as they move up the mark) or don't react quickly to counter a quick tap by the opposition, these yards can be so easily lost. Train against this by having a clear protocol for when you concede a penalty, and then randomly penalise players, even when it is completely unfair to do so, to get them to enact it.
What's Your Best Rugby Drill?
The different training routines are only my suggestions for getting your team into tip-top shape to dominate matches (and again, none of this is professional advice).
If you have any suggestions on alternative rugby drills, exercises, or routines, then please add them in the comments below to help players and coaches everywhere raise the level of the sport.
© 2018 Lewis Churty