Every year the Six Nations rugby championship takes over terrestrial television for five action-packed weekends. And every year the players get stronger, the tempo gets quicker and the collisions become more bone-shuddering.
To contend with the physical demands of elite international rugby, the men's and women's teams of all six countries will spend hours sharpening their skills, and reinforcing their bodies in the gym and on the training field.
Now you can too. We’ve broken down the game into six key attributes – mobility, strength, power, speed, stamina and skill – and quizzed two elite-level rugby coaches on their go-to drills to build Six Nations-worthy fitness.
“Mobility is a vital and often overlooked element of rugby,” says Ben John, the former Ospreys centre turned coach (@therugbytrainer). “Big units need to have the ability to get in positions low to the floor, under control, and maintain their strength through big ranges of movement.”
Most professional teams, John says, will rely on yoga to keep their players mobile and also incorporate drills like this deep squat hold throughout the day to stay limber. Try it for yourself.
Deep squat hold
Sink into a deep squat, keeping your knees wide, weight on your heels and core engaged to protect your lower back. Gently rock from one side to the other, using your
elbows to push your knees apart and help release tight areas. Be careful as you drive back out of the squat to stand.
“Build up to holding it for three minutes at a time – ideally while listening to a podcast or watching the TV to keep your mind stimulated,” says John. “Rest for one minute, then repeat this drill three to five times in total.”
To build sheer strength, Sam Portland (@coach_sportland), who used to work with Wasps RFC and now trains athletes one-to-one, doesn’t advocate lifting heavy. “I don’t recommend players lift maximally because they don’t need to,” says Portland. “You can get the same strength benefits lifting at 60% of your one-rep max as you would at 90%. If you move the bar with intent you will get the same results.”
At this lesser weight, you’re able to recover quicker and repeat the exercise or workout more frequently so you improve faster. Portland points to the trap bar deadlift as a prime example of a sub-maximal lift that will stimulate the body enough to develop strength.
Once fully warmed up, perform a few reps with an empty bar. Stand inside the hexagon with your feet hip-width apart and bend down to grab the handles. Lower your hips and keep your chest up so your back is flat. Next, take a deep breath and brace your core, then drive your hips forwards powerfully as you stand tall to raise the bar with power. Reverse the move to touch the weights on the floor, then explode into the next rep.
“Build up to three sets of four to six reps, using a weight that feels like 5/10 rate of perceived exertion (RPE),” says Portland. “For example, if your 10/10 RPE for the trap bar deadlift was lifting around 100kg, use 50kg for this exercise. You can include this in a full-body workout, along with the bench press, chin-up and a single-leg exercise, such as a split squat. Just remember, the last set should always be the best set.”
To train for power, Portland says, you need stability. “Sprinting requires violent strength, violent effort. Without stability when running, you’re liable to go all over the place.” To address this, Portland gets his athletes to practise short sprinting drills using a prowler sled to push against as they accelerate from a static position. The prowler provides stability and a platform for his athletes to generate a “tremendous amount of intent”.
Set up an empty prowler on an artificial turf track – either in the gym or outside. Hold the handles with bent arms and place one knee on the ground in line with the ball of your front foot. When ready, bring your back leg through as you accelerate forwards, keeping your body low for six powerful strides. Just make sure nobody is in your path before you step on the gas.
“Focus on two to three sets of six steps – or roughly 10m,” says Portland. “Use this drill to develop power and acceleration from a standing start. You can also use it at the end of a warm-up to set up a running speed session.”
Once you’ve nailed the prowler sprints, they can be incorporated into a five-step framework devised by Portland to teach effective sprinting technique, before adding load with stability, then without stability, then without resistance.
“The biggest misconception I hear is that people think they have to run faster to be faster,” says Portland. “When learning a technical skill like sprinting, break it down and develop each stage methodically. Run slow to be the fastest you’ve ever been.”
Five-Step Sprint Progression
A. To start, use a wall to provide stability as you practise driving your knee high to replicate each stride when sprinting.
B. Next, use a heavy resistance band and a partner to practise the same drill with load.
C. Third is loading with locomotion. Use the prowler drill from above, but with added load behind (either a sprinting parachute or someone holding on to a thick resistance band around your waist).
D. The fourth step removes the prowler but retains the load. Without stability you might notice your leg cycle change but focus on accelerating and you’ll keep your balance.
E. The final step removes all resistance. Can you repeat all those actions in an open environment?
“If you want to develop speed, all you have to do is start,” says Portland. “Film yourself when practising these drills. Ask if there’s symmetry. Does your left side move the same as your right? If not, where does it go wrong? If you can achieve symmetry you’ll be a long way ahead of your competition.”
Like an enhanced version of the beep test from PE, the “bronco” has become the gold standard fitness test for elite rugby players. It involves running 0-20m and back, then 0-40m and back, then 0-60m and back, then repeating that sequence five times in total, as fast as you can. Anything under five minutes is lightning.
To build up to your first bronco, John recommends adding tempo runs to your weekly workouts. “Tempo runs help build up the load on your lower body while running at a good pace. It’s also easy to measure progress by increasing reps or reducing your time to complete reps each week.”
Using a rugby or football pitch, every minute on the minute for 10 minutes, run 100m at 7/10 RPE, resting the remainder of the minute. For example, if it takes 25 seconds, rest for the remaining 35, then repeat. Try to find a pace you can maintain throughout.
“When you repeat the drill – ideally a week later – add an extra minute or run slightly faster,” says John. “Usually I build up to a maximum of 16 reps and aim for 15-20 seconds per rep. Don’t go out too fast or slow.”
Then, when you feel ready, give the bronco test a crack and use John’s reference to compare your time with the luminaries of elite rugby.
All of the above would be redundant on a rugby field if it wasn’t tied together by an ability to catch and pass the ball under pressure. “Hand-eye coordination is a big part of rugby,” says John. “Having the confidence in your skillset buys you valuable time on the ball.”
To develop advanced hand-eye coordination with his players, John borrows drills from cricket, basketball and netball. “Get your hands behind the ball and create a ‘bucket’ away from your chest, then watch the ball straight into your hands,” he says.
Once you’ve mastered this, practise the same drill with added stimulus, either on the move or with an extra ball in play. John likes to use this as a warm-up drill before any session to sharpen the mind and get his players working as a team.
Juggling skill warm-up
Stand in a circle with your teammates and an equal number of rugby balls. If there are four players, you should start with four balls in total. As one player passes to the other, that player needs to ship the ball on to a teammate so they can catch the pass, and so on. Progress the drill by adding an extra ball or swapping out a rugby ball for a football or tennis ball.
“These drills are perfect for rugby,” says John, “but they’re also transferable to any discipline. Having the confidence and control to master any activity when fatigued and under pressure will take your game to another level.”
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Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix. Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.