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Serious back training for rugby players

Les Archer explains the possible reasons for lower back problems and provides advice as to how you can look after your back.

Too often conditioning coaches in rugby would hear the players complain about their lower backs. Why do I ask? Surely, they follow a carefully planned conditioning and strengthening program. The problem gets even bigger once they have to start running longer distances and thus build their aerobic base in the early season.

Lower back problems

There are a few reasons for this I would suggest:

  1. A weak lower back is a common problem in the modern day of many a man. Because modern men spend more and more time inside sitting at a desk and being less active, an honest day's hard work is done in a different form to what people did 20 to 30 years ago. People have become less active. Sitting with hips flexed for long periods places the lower back muscles in a lengthened position, and this does not help our problem. But we also have this problem with the more professional player that does not occupy a desk.
  2. Traditional strength training programs do not include many lower back exercises. The deadlift is the only back exercise that many players do. This is an advanced exercise, and many players do not have the essential skill and base in place to do this strenuous exercise. Performing the squad without the lower back, and being able to support the number of weights will further enhance this problem. An incorrect technique will also lead to lower back pain or injury. When bench pressing heavyweights, it is common to see a player arch his lower back (think of the heavy bench press). Not conducive to helping the problem. Once again, a technique problem or a weak lower back problem?
  3. Insufficient core stability and strength. With core stability, a new concept to rugby, not many players take to it quickly. Only after serious training over a period, do they start to understand it. Once it is proven that there are many benefits from this form of training, they take to it more easily. The modern rugby schedule also does not help with this regard. Players finish one season and start preparing for another soon after. As a well-planned core strength and stability program takes place over a long period, it seems that players do not have sufficient time to work on their core and thus lower backs. As protecting the spine (for obvious reasons) and controlling your balance is crucial in rugby (players should stay on their feet as long as possible during the contact situation, which is something that coaches demand of their players), a strong core would go a long way to helping this and thus help protect the lower back.
  4. Players struggle when running longer distances, especially the heavier bigger forwards. While at school, these players would run daily, either on the playgrounds or at sports practice (athletics, rugby, tennis ext.). Once they leave school, they bulk up with strengthening programs and tend to be less active (running less). With this less active lifestyle, extra kilograms start gathering on and around the TUMMY. This leads to a heavyweight bearing down on the hips, and an anterior tilt is a result. With this more stress is placed on the lower back as the muscles are in the shortened position or concentric contracted all the time.
  5. A contact sport, like rugby, will have a fair amount of lower back injuries. With minimal protection in this area, it is exposed to the 'hit' of the tackle or the impact on the 'engage' command when scrumming. The latest protective wear does help in this regard to a certain extent.

Corrective action

So, what is a player to do?

  1. Firstly, I think that a core stabilizing and strengthening program should be followed. Exercises like the prone cobra, superman, prone bridge, and other core stabilizing exercises should be done at least three times per week. A stronger core would help sustain the load placed on the lower back when training or playing.
  2. A sound base strengthening program should be followed before the more traditional exercises or explosive exercises.
  3. Functional strength training should be done. For example: Have your forwards do a T-Bar pull up or bend over row exercise as this trains the back in the position that it will be exposed to during the game. To help with the stabilizing and balance, have the players do this on one leg at a time and two legs in varying standing positions.
  4. If your job (that's to say you as a rugby player have one) requires you to sit at a desk, make sure you stand up and walk at least 5 minutes every 30 minutes.
  5. Make sure you have mastered the necessary techniques before attempting the heavier weights.
  6. Try to keep running at least once a week for longer distances in the general aerobic phase to help set up your base program, as running forms the basis of activities in rugby. When performing this make sure you strike the ground with your heel first as most shoes are designed to help with absorbing the impact from the heel strike


There are no shortcuts when it comes to your back. As you have to live with it for the rest of your life, make sure you train and take care of it properly.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • ARCHER, L. (2005) Serious back training for rugby players. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 20 / March), p. 7-8

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • ARCHER, L. (2005) Serious back training for rugby players [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Les Archer is a track and field coach in South Africa with experience from schools to the Olympics specialising in sprints and long jump. He is also the current strength and conditioning coach for the Golden Lions rugby union in South Africa.