This Year’s Premiership Rugby Season Is Already Tougher Than The Last – So How Does The Pros’ Training Go Next Level?

Joe Marler is a Harlequin, England and Lions prop – he and the Quins’ strength and conditioning coach reveal to RISING how to build strength and speed for the bone-crunching tackles and fast-forward play of modern rugby

Less Is More Once You Ramp Up The Intensity
Marler’s skill and strength has been tested at the highest levels of rugby and he has seen the training ramping up each season as the game becomes ever more ferocious and challenging. ‘In terms of the training, it's certainly ramped up over the last couple of seasons – the intensity of it,’ Marler tells RISING. ‘I think gone are the days, if we look back at six or seven years ago – you'd be getting a two hour, two and a half hour training session, working on technical stuff, and also getting flogged a bit. These days it's like 30, 40 minutes, 50 minutes tops because coaches are looking for the intensity, trying to replicate as much game as you can.’ But what does it take to deliver this ‘next-level’ intensity in training? ‘I'm literally getting that feeling in my stomach thinking of it now – you’ve just got to brace yourself and dig deep, and see what happens. The boys that cope with that, they're the ones that go the furthest.’

‘Big compound movements are a great start whether you're a rugby player or a recreational trainer’

Maximise Moves With Bang For Your Buck
When it comes to selecting weight lifting moves you should be prioritising bang for your buck rather than focusing on individual muscle groups. ‘Big compound movements are a great start for any programme, whether you're a rugby player or just a recreational trainer,’ says Adam Bishop, Harlequins’ Strength and Conditioning Coach. ‘We're looking at squats, deadlifts, bench presses, military presses. We’d choose big rows over single-arm rows if we were looking to build some upper back mass, for example.’ Not only will these exercises create a massive muscle-building training stimulus, they are also time efficient. ‘We've only got a small amount of contact time with the players. They need to be out on the field doing all their rugby work so we're not trying to build gym rats here, we're trying to build athletes – we have to focus on what exercise gets the biggest bang for our buck.’ Bishop delivers the whole programme in just two and a half to three hours per week – core and glute work on Mondays, heavy lifting and speed work on Tuesdays and upper body work on Thursdays.

Make Your Workout Fit Your Schedule
Most of us have lots of demands on our time and professional athletes are no different, so Bishop has to find ways to condense the strength work into as little time as possible, while making sure no gaps in conditioning creep in. ‘We super-set quite a lot of things. We also separate all our low-level core work onto that Monday session because we've found that it was better to get the main lifting in and have the core work session on its own – it’s a very important aspect but if you just bolt it on the end of a session, it gets treated like that.’ He also introduces dynamic core moves into warmups to make the whole workout work harder.

‘Maximum strength does transfer to speed but you have the train the body in those fast velocities’

Get Used To Building Strength AND Power
If you’re building strength for a sport then the chances are you’ll need to convert that into usable power. ‘If you want someone to be fast, sprinting is one of the highest velocities our body can move at – it's got large amounts of force going through each leg so getting guys simply to sprint will make them faster,’ says Bishop. He also uses specific plyometric moves in the gym. ‘Maximum strength does transfer to speed but you also have to train the body in those fast velocities and that's why we have power movements – jumps, throws, where you're moving through a lot faster velocities.’ If you’re thinking that this sounds like additional volume then don’t sweat it – you can combine strength and power work in one session. ‘There's no set rules with it, you can do your power and a strength movement. It's not like you just have to focus on one and then the other – you can concurrently work both, it's just getting the balance right,’ says Bishop.

Aim To Make Small Incremental Gains
The pace and duration of the rugby season means that Bishop aims to make small strength increases throughout the year to avoid plateauing through picking up knocks and injuries. ‘We use what's called an undulating periodisation model, which means that the loads go up and down throughout the year – with a linear periodisation it just goes up and up. So linear is great for people who don't have any other stresses, who just need to train; you'll just get stronger and stronger until the point where you'll plateau. Undulating is for when the weightlifting is secondary to their primary sport,’ he says.

Get Into Healthy Habits And Listen In To How You Feel
Training with focus and intensity also requires you to get your R&R right in order for your body to adapt – but rather than getting super-scientific you should get good at listening to your body, says Bishop. ‘You can do anything as long as the person feels recovered – if the player is feeling better than that means he's ready to go.’ Getting the nutrition right is key but it’s vital to form good habits. ‘If you've got someone who's having one good meal and then going home and eating the wrong thing, not eating enough or eating too much then they're not going to get the steps you want in the gym. Some players will be up to 4,000-5,000 calories, so not as high as everyone expects. That's good quality food, so it's not like just having a pack of ice creams or whatever,’ reveals Bishop.

Set Goals But Get Used To Self-Motivating
Marler reveals that he sits down and sets goals in order to reach personal career aims but doesn’t share them with anyone – this forces him to generate his drive internally rather than relying on external pressure. ‘I've got goals, I've got ambitions that I want to achieve and my mindset is that I need to do X in order to get there. Me turning up to work and enjoying myself is what I do. I can't afford to turn up to work and be like, “I can't be fucked today,” do you know what I mean? I've got short, medium and long-term goals. I can't disclose them. That's what I keep in my garage up on my wall – not even my wife... well, sometimes she comes in but I'm like, “No, no, no, don't look at the wall!”’

‘It's easy to learn from knockbacks – the hard bit is learning when you're being successful’

Improve On Your Defeats But Also Your Victories
Harlequins have a team focus on ‘Next Job’ where disappointments are faced but not overly dwelled upon. ‘It's always the Next Job focus really – you learn from it. It's easy to learn from knockbacks and defeats. The hard bit is doing it when you're being successful and critiquing that,’ says Marler, who sees the biggest challenge in constantly refreshing your goals and reaching further. ‘You think everything's rosy on a five-game-win run, you're like “this is brilliant, the best thing since sliced bread.” Then the next minute you've lost the game because you haven't been focused on the areas that you still need to improve on, even though you've been successful. That also applies as an individual, you have this goal, “I want to play for England, I want to play for the Lions.” Then you achieve that – the hardest thing is then having that drive to continue: “Right, well, what next?”’

WHAT NEXT? Put some of the above advice to good use and then post-workout, refer to the Harlequins’ recovery guidelines to help you become fighting fit for your next session.

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.

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