A growing trend at the minute is people taking time away from rugby to focus solely of strength and conditioning. Is this a good idea? Well this week we have Rugbydump Strength and Conditioning Coach TJ to answer that very question.
Will a season out of rugby focussing on the gym help you or hinder you?
This week’s article has been some time coming, but the more I put it off the more messages I’ll receive from guys who think that correct Strength and Conditioning is what is holding them back from improving as a player.
I’ve noticed a growing trend of guys emailing me telling me that they are taking time off from rugby in order to get bigger, faster, stronger and fitter. Because of the increasing popularity of this idea, I wanted to address in today’s article the notion of taking time off from rugby, to improve at rugby.
Is playing rugby holding you back?
In previous articles I have discussed how it is harder to make great progress in the gym whilst in season. This should come as no shock to you that if you’re getting hit hard, sprinting as fast as you can and generally fatiguing yourself once a week on game day (or more depending on how tough your practice sessions are), your progress in the gym is going to be somewhat hampered.
So if you look at this alone it would make sense that if you wanted to get become a better-conditioned athlete, taking some time off from rugby would help you.
What Is Conditioning?
This is where people go wrong. To figure out exactly what conditioning is we need context.
For bodybuilders, having great conditioning is of no relevance to how well they can run, it’s simply a case of having low body fat.
Good conditioning for a fighter means that he has enough capacity to work at his skills for the duration of the fight and not allow the speed or his movement quality to slow down.
Good conditioning for rugby means how well you can perform at your roles in the game.
If you take a prop who can score above 19 on the yo-yo test, but spends every scrum getting his head shoved up his arse then he is NOT well-conditioned.
Likewise if you take someone who looks like they would be more at home sitting on a park bench with a cheap can of cider than a rugby pitch, yet when it comes to games they consistently make line-breaks, score tries and do their position-specific skills well then yes, they are well-conditioned.
How Do You Get Better?
If someone tells you that they’ve taken up a new hobby, and they ask you for advice on how to improve, what would you say?
Practice… right? Practice is what brings improvement.
If you want to improve at playing the guitar what do you have to do? Practice playing the guitar. There is little improvement to be made by simply working on your hand and finger coordination without actually using that coordination on a guitar.
If you wanted to pass your driving test, you need to get the hours in practicing on the road. You could be the most skillful driver and have the best spatial awareness but if you do not know how to drive on the road you won’t pass your test.
You probably can see where this is going as far as rugby is concerned.
You can have the strongest deadlift, or the fastest 40m time, or the best score on the yo-yo test… but if you do not know how to use these skills and tools in a game of rugby you will NOT improve as a rugby player.
What Should We Do Then?
What you need to realize is that training is a means to an end, not an end itself. This is often misunderstood by players all over the world, who think that improving their stats in the gym will automatically make them a much better rugby player.
It doesn’t quite work like that.
Training gives you a greater potential to become a better player. In terms of my job as a strength and conditioning coach, a simple flow looks like this.
1. Learn to move well and create a good foundation of movement.
2. Use that movement foundation to grow muscle and build strength to prevent injuries that will stop you from playing. Use that movement to build up a solid base of aerobic fitness.
3. Use that muscle and strength to build power and speed that you can use on the pitch in contact situations.
Use the aerobic fitness base to allow you to consistently perform high intensity work in a game (by recovering from the high intensity work faster).
None of this is as relevant if you aren’t playing rugby. Yes, take advantage of times off from rugby and train more, but the longer you spend away from the field, the longer it will take to demonstrate any gains made in the gym on the pitch.
Rugby is not simply a physical sport – it is a tactical sport. You use your physicality to solve the problem of winning games, but simply having physicality won’t win you games, being a better player will.
Example: if you’re still in doubt, I was with you.
If you improved all levels of physicality because you’ve been training like a beast in the gym how could you not improve as a player? I recently had to take a year off from rugby due to work commitments. During this year I focused on Olympic lifting and improved all of my lifts, gained a good deal of lean body mass and improved my fitness. Despite of all of this when I came back to playing I was not the player I was, and I’ll only get better from playing more rugby.
So Should You Ever Take Time Off?
You could argue against the points I’ve made above and simply just say that there are many pros who take time off during their playing careers, and you’d be right. However these guys arent taking breaks from rugby to concentrate on the gym, thinking that will make them a better player. They are taking time off for other reasons.
If you are getting beat up every week, carrying a few knocks or just generally getting fatigued from a gruelling season of rugby, there is certainly a case to be made for taking time off to recover, maybe even get your mojo back.
This is different from what I was discussing above because playing through injuries and fatigue is actually making you a worse player, and the time off will help bring you back up to your potential again.
Don’t get me wrong, I love training, I owe my life and career to training. It’s an amazing tool to improve you as a rugby player and as a person.
But rugby is not just a game of getting bigger, stronger and faster. It’s a game that requires a huge amount of skill, tactics, decision making as well as a bunch of other factors that can only be improved by playing rugby. So, keep playing.
About TJ Jankowski
TJ Jankowski is a former international rugby player for Poland rugby, who achieved their highest world ranking of 23 whilst he was part of the team.