Strength and Power Training
Professional Rugby League is a demanding sport, combining raw aggression and subtle playing skill in equal measure. League players are real battlers, and stories of superhuman effort abound - remember Shaun Edwards playing on for Wigan in the 1990 Challenge Cup final with multiple fractures of his eye socket and a depressed cheek fracture? However, beyond the raw courage, players have to be in peak physical condition - not an easy task when the game leaves real scars.
To find out how this peak condition is maintained, we talked to Glenn Workman, coach to the "Super League" outfit, The London Broncos. Workman is a typically gritty Australian; a hooker in his playing days, he has been on the Broncos' staff for six years and is now responsible for the physical conditioning of the team - a team that includes the likes of Martin Offiah, Edwards himself and Tony Mestrov.
We soon discovered that Workman has no unique formula, no "secret" conditioning drills and theories. He uses tried and tested methods, but what he does is wave his magic wand over them to produce a highly specific and effective training plan, which reflects the needs of the game and his players. As regards his pre-season conditioning methods, he explains: "It is pretty standard; we start on long endurance work and gradually build up, bringing in the shorter stuff with less recovery." The real difficulties, however, begin to be encountered in season, when the matches play havoc with the players' ability to undergo consistent training. It is a typical coach's nightmare. You have got team fitness and tactics to work on, yet at the same time you have got players with strains and knocks, and you have to worry about not burning the team out. As Workman explains: "Sometimes if you get a good enough break, you can try to improve fitness, but once the season starts and the players are into, say, their fifth or sixth game and they have got their match fitness, it is more about fitness maintenance." State of mind is also vital in achieving the required intensity. A lot depends on how the team is performing. "If you are winning all the time and competing all the time, then the intensity will stay in your training as well."
The Broncos' main in-season fitness workout usually takes place on a Tuesday. Enough time has passed after the last game for players to regain some freshness and the next game is a couple of days away, which allows them time to mentally and physically gearing up again. However, do not be fooled into thinking that the players have lots of days off - they can train up to six times a week in season and sometimes three times a day. What Workman does is to manipulate the intensity and contact aspects of training to allow for matches and players' needs. Because the season is so long, Workman says he is unable to go for too many playing peaks when structuring the players' training - a difficult task in a team game in any case - and only eases training intensity if a big game is approaching. This, he believes, will ensure minimum fitness drop-off throughout the season. I attended the Broncos' main weekly field workout and a gym session. The former was most impressive; Workman explained that it was designed to maintain players' fitness, strength, power, endurance and coordination. The session was structured as follows:
Warm-up and partner practices
The players start with a warm-up, consisting of a 500m jog and then a few basic stretches. Since the players had already completed a gym session in the morning, this was shorter than usual. Players then paired up. Working with a ball, they began to further mobilise their bodies in preparation for the more intense drills to come. Examples of such partner practices: using a cone placed about 5m away, one player would run around it, ball in hand, then pass to the next player who, on catching the pass, would repeat the drill. To add variety, Workman called for the players to throw passes at different heights, and even roll the ball along the ground to each other to speed up their reactions. Drinks were then taken. The players were then grouped into fours, where they carried out numerous line passing drills. Positions were altered continuously, together with the angle of running - speed was again emphasised. In the 10 minutes or so that I watched this drill, not a single pass was dropped.
The players were then split into two groups, one working with pads, the other with tackle bags. Standard practices followed, i.e. tackling the bags with a left shoulder lead, then with a right, and so on. What was interesting was the emphasis placed on teamwork by both players and coach. Each group was encouraged and indeed encouraged itself, to work together - for instance, to hit the tackle bags together in unison. Another drinks break was taken.
Touch and flag rugby. On an area roughly a third of the size of the pitch, the players carried out these standard League and Union drills. Again, teamwork and intensity were key. Offiah and Edwards, who one could be forgiven for thinking might go through the motions because they had done all these drills thousands of times before, participated as if they were out to impress the coach for the first time. Such was the professionalism of all the players. A further drinks break was taken.
Collective passing drills
The players were again grouped into fours, but this time the drill involved the inevitable breakdown of play that occurs in League with the tackle law. One practice required a player to "run" into another holding a tackle pad about 10m in front of him - the ball would then be put to the ground and the other three players who were already on the move would take the heel and then pass the ball along the line-up. The players who "collided" would reverse positions and the one with the pads would have to make up ground to receive a pass from the line going upfield.
Discipline and fitness
Before the session began, Workman spelt out to the squad what was expected of them. He is a firm believer in the need for discipline and team unity to mould the players into a fighting force. During the training session described above, he instigated a crime-and-punishment regime, which bore more than a passing resemblance to mediaeval torture. If he believed that players were not performing or if they made errors, he would inflict a punishment - it might be 50 sit-ups or two-lengths sprint of the pitch. To make things worse, one mistake by a group member during a training practice meant that the rest of his group had to pay the penalty as well. During the session I watched, Workman meted out this instant justice on two or more occasions. Altogether, the training session I have just described lasted about an hour and a half, and the maximum break between practices was about five minutes. Fatigued players were not even allowed to drop to their haunches - if they did, Workman would exact a penalty. No wonder League players are a hardy breed. So, to be tough enough for League, what else does Workman advocate?
Strength work is crucial to a League player's conditioning. Weights are an integral part, but as with other training, the intensity is dictated by the nearness of the next match. When I asked which muscle groups players need to concentrate on when weight training, Workman replied "Pretty well all of them. You must have a strong stomach and lower-back muscles, then, for upper-body contact, strong shoulders and chest". Strong legs are also vital. Players squat, front and back, do leg extensions, leg press and hamstring curls. The power for a bone-crunching tackle comes from the legs and not the upper body, as you might think.
So how strong are the players? "In the off-season, they can lift some real good weights," said Workman enigmatically. Concerning in-season lifting, the coach was more forthcoming, indicating a half-squat of around 140kg as being a minimum target for the players. "We change the reps each session," says Workman. "We will try to do it on a three-week cycle concerning games. If you can put away a real heavy session once or twice a week with all the other running sessions, you are doing pretty well."
These play a less active role in Workman's conditioning script. "Plyometrics are great early in the training year but as soon as you start playing games you can throw in the odd plyometric session but you cannot do it regularly because it takes three or four days to get over it," he says, adding: "With the stress put on the players' knees and ankles day in day out and then to throw in a plyometric session...it would finish them off!"
Playing and field training requires a vast dynamic input - speed work is crucial and a less injury-inducing way of maintaining and developing power. The Broncos' weekly training routine will include one or two specific speed-work sessions. Players will work on running technique, employing drills similar to those used by sprinters - high knees, drive runs, back flicks, and so on. More specific practices will also be applied - for instance, running with the ball, which requires an adaptation to the sprinting action. Lateral speed is also worked on, using drills involving dynamic changes of direction. As Workman puts it, "We get the players to 'cut' and sprint...get into a hole and accelerate". Also, the outside backs like Offiah will put in an extra session of speed work a week, usually involving longer runs of 40m plus.
Included as well in the weekly training programs are various circuit, stretching and medicine ball sessions. Hyper-extensions and sit-up work are essential to the players' physical conditioning because a strong torso helps protect against injury. Not surprisingly, reducing injuries is a key theme in Workman's overall training plan. I have already mentioned his reluctance to include plyometrics in-season training routines, and for the same reason, he is not keen on players doing overly dynamic weights. Cleans, high pulls and snatches and free weights in general form only a small part of summer workouts. As Workman says, "We have enough body contact in places where you can get injured to do cleans, and high pulls add to injury risks. Once we get into games, we are better off doing machine weights, i.e. straight-up-and-down work."
Other conditioning points
I asked Workman whether the recent change from a winter to a summer season for British Rugby League had affected his approach to training. "Not really, because the only extra factor you have to consider is the heat. Back in Australia, we always have the water stations and water rests throughout the training sessions, so the guys' bodies get accustomed to accepting water when under duress." As already noted, the Broncos' training sessions include the requisite water breaks. Workman reckons that playing on "fast tracks", due to harder ground, has speeded up the British game, which in turn has had a physiological effect on the players. "Because the English guys have always played on heavy, wet grounds they have tended to be predominantly bigger in the legs, whereas the Australians to a degree have always been leaner. Some of the Brits in the first summer season found it difficult to cope and have trimmed down accordingly." Interestingly, the Broncos' body-fat levels appear at first rather high: forwards carry about 15-18%, backs 13%. Then, as Workman explains, the players, particularly power forwards such as Mestrov, have to be able to both dish out and absorb considerable punishment. "They have got to have the weight to absorb the punishment." Workman uses body-fat analysis and his professional eye to make changes to players' workout requirements. "If you see a guy who looks a bit slow, then you will put him on a fat burning programme, which he has to do before or after the main training sessions." Players, incidentally, have little time to cross-train because of the demands of their specific training. Swimming does play a recuperative role, along with stretching and massage sessions on days after games. The Broncos under Workman's guidance are a superbly conditioned bunch - training is tough, but so is the game.
Although his conditioning methods are standard, it is the way he orchestrates their implementation that is crucial.
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