by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
In this offering we will delve deeper into elite rugby fitness and a few of the key components used to achieve it. As promised in my previous piece on team warm ups (February 9, 2010) we will speak more in depth on the importance of training muscle elasticity, or better said, the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC).
Due in part to the technical nature of sport science research many rugby players and coaches are not aware of the most current strength and conditioning strategies used to build elite fitness. Because of this, teams continue to strength train and condition as they traditionally have. This approach inhibits the potential gains athletes and rugby teams can experience by fully utilizing the latest scientific information available in this field.
To help explain the stretch shortening cycle (SSC) we called upon Phil Wagner, M.D. Director of Sparta Performance Science. “The SSC can be defined as an active stretch (loading down portion of the jump) followed by an immediate shortening of that same muscle to cause the body to extend upwards and leave the ground”. Dr. Wagner continues, “The SSC underlies every athletic movement and represents one of the prime determinants of distinguishing elite athletes.” This amazing process is what allows an athlete to jump higher with a running approach versus a standing jump.”
Rugby is an intermittent sprint sport so training SSC will produce more powerful performances. Although researchers are still debating exactly how this increase in power occurs, there is agreement in the research community SSC is beyond mere muscle contraction. Because additional structures, such as tendons and nerves, play a role in SSC, utilizing the SSC will also increase fitness because this process uses less energy than relying on muscle alone. Dr. Wagner encourages players to “Think about this movement efficiency like going to a store, only to find that everything is on sale, just like every sprint and each contact moment now requires less expenditure.”
An important distinction exists between power and high volume training and should be considered when including SSC into a rugby specific strength training and conditioning program.
Although rugby is played over two forty minutes halves, being able to access power is essential to each player. Often, athletes will confuse the lengthy nature of our sport with the need for high volume (endurance) training. High volume training is counterproductive to power athletes’ performance due to the reduction of testosterone levels and its lack of sport specificity due to the use of slower twitch muscle fibers. Additionally, players performing high volume training are at risk for overuse injuries such as shin splints and tendonitis. If you want to burn calories, go for a thirty-minute run. If you want to play more powerfully, train to increase you absolute speed and strength, the two crucial components of power.
Training for absolute speed includes repeated sprints with recovery intervals that vary throughout the training block, while absolute strength is gained by performing a low volume of repetitions at a high percentage of a one repetition maximum effort. Both absolute speed and strength, which are transferred into power, require increased recovery periods. It is not unusual for rugby players to feel like they “haven’t worked hard enough” when training for absolute speed and strength because they are used to prolonged period of high effort. Rugby players must resist the urge to do more as it will diminish the gains of training for absolute speed and strength. More is not better in this regard.
Elite rugby players increase their fitness levels through the use of sprint intervals, rugby specific drills, activities, and competitions. This sport specific conditioning is crucial, and explains how older athletes with less physicality are able to maintain performance at the same, if not higher level, than their peers. So take a look at what you and your teammates are currently doing to add power into your performances. The SSC is at the core to having more powerful moments in your upcoming matches.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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