The Fittest Men In Rugby
The southern hemisphere’s top athletes – Bismarck du Plessis, Jan Serfontein, Siyamthanda Kolisi and Willie le Roux – are heaving, bashing and sprinting through one of the toughest tournaments in sport. Boost your strength, power, speed and agility with help from the fittest men in rugby.
USE THE FORCE
Build brute strength and stamina to become a non-stop wrecking ball.
Bismarck du Plessis is forcing his wrath on a heavily weighted barbell – heaving it skywards in quick, gravity-defying bursts in the clammy Durban heat. It’s this force that leaves opponents shaking their heads after games, recounting how they have just been out-scrummed, out-driven and out-tackled.
One of the reasons why said wrath is so effective in putting opponents in a state of post-Bismarck stress disorder (notably Dan Carter, circa Boks vs All Blacks, Eden Park 2013) is because his signature physicality is converted into numbers by a forward-thinking fitness coaching staff where they can be assessed, projected and exceeded. The Sharks captain’s wrath: now available in kilowatts.
GET STAT SAVVY
The man crunching these numbers is Mark Steele, the strength and conditioning coach for the Sharks. “For us, training has become a lot more scientific,” he says.
Rugby is a numbers game for the Durban franchise, whose hopes lie in the figures and formulae squiggled on Steele’s notepad translating into ascending numbers on the scoreboard.
“I look at power in terms of how many watts per kilograms the athletes are able to kick out,” says Steele. The most revealing of these figures are the numbers spewed from the squat machines and the power cleans. “From a release velocity side, I also look at the starting strength that occurs in their legs.”
MAKE STAMINA A PRIORITY
These figures have changed how his players think about getting into shape and maintaining their physique. It’s made the hot-blooded Bok hooker Bismarck du Plessis train differently; he’s not training solely to become a bigger athlete, he’s doing it to become a better athlete. “A lot of people think that there is no real scientific approach within conditioning, and that it’s really just about traditional bodybuilding type of programmes,” Steele says.
PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS
It’s harnessing power from your strength reserves to use as an efficient use of this force that makes the difference between Bismarck or Arno Botha and, say, you. “You realise that your superior athletes are the ones that are able to generate more power,” Steele says.
“True athletes – the ones who are able to develop high-end power output – are those who have recognised that’s it’s not just about how much they weigh, it’s about how they can transfer that body-weight,” Steele explains.
Squats and lunges need to become your best friends when building up your strength foundations. And not just the traditional ones either. Do front, Zercher and overhead squats, as well as the original back-based version. This will build strength in different areas, as well as keep your muscles guessing. For lunges, mix up the direction of your step: step to each side, at angles and then behind you. In real life you don’t only move forwards, so your training should reflect that.
Ignite Your Muscles
Focus on dynamic moves instead of traditional stationary stretching to warm up your muscles for power-enhancing exercises like squats. Jacques du Toit of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa recommends skipping, box jumps, twisting lunges and broad jumps.
If you want Serfontein-like speed, you need strength and sprint work.
Visit a bulls training session, and you won’t find Jan Serfontein and the boys running laps around the Loftus B field. “Traditional cardio has little value for the pro rugby player,” McIntyre says. “It does not create an environment that will result in the specific adaptive responses needed to improve these specific capabilities.”
It’s the same in Durban, where for the Sharks it’s a case of exercise imitating life. “The functionality of what these chaps do in the gym has to match what they do outside,” Steele explains. He focuses on practical speed training after building the players’ strength and fitness base. “The last 20 minutes the athletes might be outside concentrating on speed development in more of a functional way.” But it’s not simply doing laps around the field like you used to in school. “The days of doing five-kilometre runs are gone,” says Steele.
GET STRONGER, RUN FASTER
McIntyre has a strategy like that of the Sharks: strength before speed. “Once adequate strength is built, the players need to be doing a planned progression of high intensity speed and anaerobic work via on-field running-based drills.”
“We work a lot on the anaerobic principles,” Steele says. “We’ve really steered away from aerobic training.”
The benefits of this training have been shown in the phenomenal rise of two-metre-tall lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, who, despite carrying a mass of 116kg, is exceptionally fast. “He’s got a very high anaerobic threshold,” Steele says. “He can run all day.”
GO HARDER, REST LESS
A high anaerobic capacity means an athlete can function at high intensities for longer periods of time. Steele explains that this also means having shorter rest breaks between performances: “It definitely shows an elite class of athlete.”
This focus on high intensity training that builds lean muscle mass reinforces Steele’s philosophy of function-driven training: if you’re not going to use it in the 80 minutes on the field, it’s not worth training.
If you want quicksilver speed on the field, like Jan Serfontein, then you need to add one crucial word to your training dictionary: plyometrics (also known as jump training). Add box jumps to your routine and focus on increasing the height slowly. You need to land softly on the box every single time.
Want to increase your leg speed and acceleration? Then focus on building up one area that’s normally forgotten: your hips. The pivot for all your speed, you need to build up all the important, speed-creating muscles supporting your hips. Our favourite: the hip bridge.
Combine strength and speed like an explosive loose forward.
Stormers battering ram Siya Kolisi is the embodiment of explosivity. “Siya is blessed with superior athleticism,” says Stormers strength and conditioning coach Stephan du Toit. The 22-year-old is a mesomorph, Du Toit explains, which means he has a lean body mass and can increase his muscle mass over a much shorter period than the average athlete. “His posterior complex is exceptionally strong, assisting him in being extremely powerful.”
Du Toit says that Kolisi’s ability to accelerate over a short distance is the key to him dominating collisions on attack.
Olympic lifts and jumps are the secrets to Kolisi’s explosivity. They complement his game, says Du Toit. “He loves the one-arm row. It’s his favourite exercise and it gives him confidence after completion.”
If you want to get explosive, you need to get strong – like Du Plessis. “Bismarck is incredibly strong,” says Steele. And it’s overall strength, he adds. “He has upper and lower body strength and this gives him the ability to convert that strength into power where it’s needed most.”
This is where training and principles become very important, says Steele. “If you’ve got athletes who neglect that and go towards bodybuilding types of exercises where they look for weight gain above than anything else, that’s when problems arise,” he warns.
SIMPLE TACTICS, BIG GAINS
“I coach principles, not movements,” says Du Toit. “Behind every movement there is a principle.” Athletes need to understand the basics of a training programme and once it’s been implemented, they can progress to more advanced training principles, says Du Toit.
New to training? Master your technique first. “I have started to see that the younger athletes are now able to latch onto the correct processes,” Steele says, adding that he’ll work on developing an athlete for two to five years. One such athlete is relative newcomer, Pieter-Steph du Toit. When he left Swartland High School after being discovered by Rudolf Straeuli, his fitness was still raw. “In a very short amount of time, he’s done surprisingly well,” Steele explains. “He’s only had one season of playing Super Rugby and he’s already managed to become a Springbok, so there’s a lot of room there for development.”
Bottom line? “Keep your training simple, safe, effective and principally sound, says Steve McIntyre, strength and conditioning coach of the 2007 World Cup-winning team and founder of rugbyiq.com.
BUILD MUSCLE, KEEP IT FOREVER
“We test our players regularly to make sure there’s not massive drop-offs in terms of strength,” says Steele. “Halfway through the season, some individuals might have lost some body mass because they haven’t been able to gym hard enough. Then those issues have to be looked at and met. And this really falls onto the specifics of the players.”
At the start of every off-season, Du Toit focuses on building his athletes’ muscle mass that is lost during the in-season. “Rugby players generally lose 10-14% of their strength during the in-season due to the decreased amount of gym sessions.” (Fortunately for the Stormers, Kolisi averages only 5%.)
At the end of the season, Du Toit prescribes a three-week hypertrophy/strength programme for the Sharks, followed by a three-week strength/power phase, repeated until the season starts. Here, keeping track of your stats will pull you back to your form. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” McIntyre insists.
Consistently evaluating and measuring yourself is crucial to maintaining fitness, Steele points out. “It’s definitely something that if you don’t train it, you lose it.”
CHANNEL YOUR FORCE
“If an athlete weighs 115 kilograms they have to generate a certain amount of power in a certain amount of time to propel that weight forwards,” Steele explains. “So if they’re only able to produce 50kg of force it might mean that they’ll cover five metres in two seconds. But if they’re able to produce 100kg, they are able to cover the distance in half the time.”
Knowing your potential energy helps you move about the field more efficiently – and it can be the difference between being in the starting 15 or sitting in the stands. A player’s power output plays a pivotal role in designing specific training programmes and being able to accurately assess whether a player is back to full fitness after returning from injury, says McIntyre. It also influences selection for coaches, he adds. “Very often when coaches have to make a 50/50 call on who to select between two players, the testing scores and measurement profiles are reviewed and the best conditioned player get will often get chosen,” he says.
To make sure you transfer all the strength from your muscles to powerful action on the field, you need a very strong pivot, like a transfer case on a 4×4. This is where your core comes in. If you have a weak core, it’s difficult to transfer your available strength into fast and powerful movement. The solution: add three core exercises to your weekly training plan.
Work out your legs’ explosive potential by measuring the difference between your standing height and jumping height with this Sports Science Institute-approved test. All you need is chalk, a wall and trainers. Stand with your right hip against the wall. With your right hand, mark the highest point possible with your heels flat on the ground. Then (without a run-up), bend at your hips and knees and use your arms for momentum to jump and mark your highest point.
Fine-tune your balance to slice through the opposition.
While agility is in the job descriptions of players like Cheetahs phenomenon Willie le Roux and Stormers sensation Cheslin Kolbe, it’s not only confined to them. “The modern game requires extreme athleticism from all players,” McIntyre explains. “Naturally, if you are a wing, speed will be your main focus, and if you are a prop, strength will be yours. However, due to the nature and demands of the game, quite simply each player needs to be trying to get as strong, powerful, fast and as agile as possible – regardless of their position.Props that can scrum as well as add value across the field become very valuable, so speed and agility work for them is also very important.”
Diminutive Stormers speedster Cheslin Kolbe makes turning corners at top speed look effortless, but it still requires hard work. “You often hear players are born with something and Cheslin is born with a special skill,” says his strength and conditioning coach, Stephan du Toit. This skill is called “SAQ” in the business – speed, agility and quickness. But if it isn’t stimulated often, it can be lost.
Kolbe, a former Sevens star, can thank his lucky genes – specifically, his high lean body mass and fast-twitch muscle fibres. “His strength-weight ratio, power-weight ratio, vertical and horizontal displacements are superior,” Du Toit explains. If your strength is agility, your conundrum is: SAQ versus skill. “The fine line for me is to ensure that Cheslin does not get too heavy for his frame (if we decide to add more lean body mass), and lose his skill,” Du Toit says.
GET FLEXIBLE, GET MOBILE
The Sharks focus on the bends in the lower body as the sources of the line-breaking sidestep. “We look at the hip, the knee and the ankle as being the primary joints with regards to movement,” says Steele.
The mobility and flexibility that comes with heightened agility levels must be worked on throughout the year via a combination of various mobility, dynamic and static stretching drills and exercises, advises McIntyre.
Want to have a quicker leg turnover and faster feet? Go old-school with your training. Look to boxers for inspiration and invest in a lightweight skipping rope. Not only is it a great tool to use in a warm-up, doing advanced skipping routines like double-unders, triple- unders and crossovers will improve your coordination, reflexes and foot speed.
TRAINING TIP: Agility is More Than Having Nimble Feet Use your arms as rudders, advises Jacques du Toit of the Sports Science Institute. Pump your arms like a 100-metre sprinter as you take off, and be sure to lower your centre of gravity as you take turns.