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Rugby Training Mistakes: Training Like A Bodybuilder

BY tjjankowski  ·  Tuesday Jun 14, 2016

Continuing our series of Rugby Training Mistakes, this week Rugbydump Academy Strength Coach TJ Jankowski discusses what is probably the most common mistake amongst amateur rugby players in the gym: Training like a bodybuilder.

It’s the traditional progression – you lift weights to get better at rugby, you start to see results, you want more results, so you ask the guys that have gotten the best results out of anyone else you’ve seen in the gym – the bodybuilders.

It makes sense right? These people are in the best shape so they can help you. You either consult a guy in person, or you choose from the infinite options of workouts online or in magazines such as Men’s Fitness and Flex.

The problem here is that somewhere along the way, the reason you started working out got lost.

Remember, the goal here isn’t to just look good, it’s to play good (and hopefull a side-benefit is, yes, looking good). Training like a bodybuilder in the following ways may be (but still probably isn’t, more on this later) well and good if you’re trying to get on stage and stuff, but for us rugby players – we have another reason to bend over in front of men in real short shorts.

Make no mistake, you will still look great from training like an athlete, you just can use that hotness on the pitch better.

1.    The Bodybuilding Bro Split 

The traditional bodybuilding split has most guys training each muscle group separately once a week i.e chest Monday, back Tuesday etc.

When you’re on a pitch do you think about really squeezing the chest when you press your arm in front of you to fend someone off? Do you focus on a nice hamstring contraction when hitting a ruck? No, you don’t, you think about simply using as much force as possible.

Thus, for rugby, you are much better off training movements instead of muscles.

These should be almost exclusively compound movements – using a bunch of muscles in combination to exert as much force as possible. It’s this unique combination that gets the body used to handling all the different movements and obstacles it has to navigate in a typical rugby game.

Yes, you’ll need to build muscle, but building muscles through big, compound lifts is going to really give you a benefit over doing your traditional “bro-split”.

This “bro-split” is really not beneficial at all and probably warrants it’s own article but for now I’ll just also touch on frequency and move on.

If you trained in a “bro-split” you would only stimulate/work your chest once a week, but if you trained using full-body workouts then your chest would get simulated up to 3 times a week! That’s around 8 extra times a month that the chest would get stimulated.

The counter argument the bros would give is that each muscle is that each muscle is trained so hard it needs to recover is incorrect. The recovery/growth process will never take more than 3 days (at the very most) to complete, so if you only hit each muscle once a week that’s at least half of the week wasted where the muscle is just sitting around waiting to be trained again.

It also is easier to train around your rugby sessions with this type of split as another effect of training this way is that you won’t have individual muscles being awkwardly sore and throwing everything off!

2.    Bodybuilding Tempo

Muscles are made up of two types of fibers:

– Type 1 (Slow Twitch)

– Type 2 (Fast Twitch)

Technically there’s a 3rd (“type 2x”), but for now let’s just stick with this.

Many bodybuilders train the slow twitch fibers by looking for “time under tension” and lifting the weights slowly. The problem this has for rugby players is twofold:

Firstly, lifting a weight in a slow, meticulously controlled manner means that the weight will have to be relatively light, this isn’t good for rugby players who want to get much stronger and destroy their opposition on the pitch.

Secondly, any muscle you do put on from this type of training will be useless on the pitch! Slow-twitch fibers aren’t used at all when you’re doing all the explosive movements that are needed in rugby.

This is why sometimes you’ll see guys become slow after putting on a good deal of muscle, they’ve not trained for rugby properly and built up only slow-twitch fibres.

(Caveat: on occasion, a slow tempo may be needed. Either for movement-rehab, or to build lactate metabolism… maybe that’s for another article)

3.    Isolation lifts

Isolation lifts involve training only one muscle in a movement. If you already read point one it’s pretty obvious why this is a negative. Think about when you would use “just one muscle” in a game?

Never, I hope!

Rather than training individual muscles, we need to train movements. As stated earlier, big, compound lifts have the best carryover to the rugby pitch.

What you can isolate (that you might not if you’re bodybuilding) is each side of the body. Working single-arm and single-leg variations of lifts is a great way to target anti-rotation core and help build a balanced player who is more injury-resistant.

(Caveat: there are some times that isolation lifts may be needed to prehab/rehab and address imbalances in the body. Of course can also do the odd bicep curl for the laydeez, just make sure the real work is one before working the beach-pump).

4.    Machines

Rugby is an incredibly dynamic sport, there are literally millions of movements that you may be needed to do in a game. No, you’re not going to be asked the impossible task of training every one of these, but you do need to be ready to be able to.

That means training every single little stabilizing muscle throughout the body. You need to be ready and explosive in a number of positions. 

A machine offers you one motion, one starting point and a specific movement to the finish point, this is done to try and isolate one single muscle – which you know by now is no good for rugby players.

This why you’re far better off training free-weights, with odd objects and other resistance implements thrown in as bonus.

Using bench pressing as an example, on a chest press machine it only works the chest to push the machine through it’s pre-programmed path, if you’re using dumbbells your stabilising muscles are being used to keep the dumbbells moving in the line that you want. 

It’s these same stabilising muscles that will come in handy when the oppositions last defender is coming to make the try-preventing tackle and you need to give him “the palm of justice”.

(Caveat: There are a small amount of machines that are valuable when trained properly, they can be particularly useful when training around injuries.)

Rounding Up

Now, this article was not made to bash bodybuilders. Each to their own. And yes, we all want to look good, there are just ways to do it that will really make you a better player on the pitch.

The key thing to note is that by training like an athlete you will build a quality physique, you’ll just be able to use it.

You don’t want to be known as the guy who looks like Tarzan and plays like Jane. 

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