Archive for category Off season training for Rugby and League

Watering down strength

I have been thinking…

Today I watched a Division 1 Rugby squad having a training session. They were doing there max reps with their bodyweight on the bench press. What I saw was concerning but not surprising. Out of about 20 guys, only 2 managed to get 10 reps or more. Most got 1 or 2 and some got none. 10 reps on bodyweight is a pretty average measure of strength for a regular gym goer. These guys are athletes. They play Division 1 Rugby and 10 reps on their bodyweight should be a given. But it wasn’t.

What does it mean? It doesn’t mean that they are weak because they are not. It does mean that they lack any base of strength. It’s clear to me that they have not been training for strength.

This scenario got me thinking about the wider issue of strength. This particular group does spend a fair amount of time in the gym. Enough to do a lot better on the strength front. But the problem is that they do not use this time to train for strength. The emphasis is on circuit training using a mixture of weight training and other aerobic activity. This hybrid approach looks good and makes everyone feel good because it produces sweat but it doesn’t get you strong.

I don’t want to be negative. Circuit training is a lot better than nothing but it’s not going to get you strong. And the scenario did highlight for me that there is too much fancy stuff going on with strength. There seems to be this view that you can get strong from doing circuit training. This is what I term the watering down of strength. It seems extraordinary to me that anyone would actually believe that circuit training is going to build strength.

I believe that there is a need to get back to basics. Training with bands, one legged movements, swiss balls, box jumps, kettlebells should all be put away until you have built a base of strength. This should to apply to all sportspeople. And to anyone who goes to the gym and wants to get strong. There is a fixation with innovation and it just annoys me. Get back to basic core movements and build a base using barbells, dumbbells and plates.

I do believe that a lot of the watering down of strength is driven by PT’s who want to show a point of difference. Here’s a thought . Why not get back to basics and build some strong clients? That would be a big point of difference.

A basic foundation of strength needs to be the number one priority. I compare it to the foundations of a building. Guys talk to me about power, speed, explosiveness. These guys have no idea of what they actually do want. They might have seen a College Football player doing box jumps. What they didn’t see was the 16 weeks of squats, bench presses and deadlifts that the athlete had also performed. Start at the beginning. Do some hard work, get stronger and then think about some of the fancy stuff.

There’s my little rant. I’m not hating on guys and girls for being in the gym. Something is always going to be better than nothing. And I know that some guys and girls will still want to do CrossFit and other aerobic based classes. That’s great but don’t pretend that you are going to get strong doing these. Because you won’t. It’s really not that hard. You need to do a simple strength program with basic compound movements and consistent application. This will result in progress.

bigger stronger smarter


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Are Olympic lifts the only way to get explosive?

I get a lot of questions from guys who believe that they need to do Olympic movements to get explosive. When I ask them why they either shrug their shoulders (most have narrow shoulders and no traps so I have to look closely) or they site some BS about wanting to be faster and this will help them be a better player or help them lift more. In other words they don’t really know what they mean.

Lee Atrill is a good mate of mine and one of the best Olympic lifting coaches going around. He has been to World Champs and Commonwealth games and he has a good coaching eye. Lee and I have a good healthy debate about the merits of the Olympic lifts. We are both conflicted of course. I am a powerlifter who believes simple is best. But I do have common sense on my side.

What I do see with athletes who are convinced that the Olympic lifting is the way to go is a long road ahead. The movements are difficult to learn. They tend to spend a lot of time stretching and working with broom sticks. I like to get my guys working from day 1 with the goal of getting stronger. I want to see progressive increases in strength levels and changes in body composition. I don’t see this when guys to stuff with a broom stick or PVC pipe for weeks on end.

This argument needs balance of course. 12 year old kids are a good project for Olympic lifting. I believe that kids this age who should be limited to working with light loads are best suited to engaging with the Olympic lifts. Bu the average guy who is 18 who starts weights needs to carefully consider the value of spending all of that time learning the movements when they could be getting strong with the powerlifts.

As for becoming explosive, for me it’s about getting strong in the first instance at least. Once the base has been built we can consider explosiveness. But that comes down the track. My strategy in this case is to work in the range of 40-60% with the powerlifts. This is explosive. Doing a half arsed power clean which is more like a reverse curl. This is not explosive.

There you have my views. There will be some who disagree and that’s fine. But don’t tell me that you need to do Power Cleans because Ben and Owen Franks do them. There are hundreds of guys in the NFL and NRL who are just as explosive who don’t do power cleans.

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Sport specific training

Hey Craig

I am getting ready for the Rugby season. My mums PT did me a program. He has not included bench press or deadlifts in my program. I’m worried about this because they are part of our testing. I asked him about this and he said that they are not “specific” to rugby. He wants me to focus on movements like power cleans, one legged squats and lunges. He says these are more explosive movements and will make me a better player.

I am keen to hear your thoughts.



Hey Aaron

I find it interesting that he would single out the bench press as not being “sport specific”. I don’t think there is any movement in the gym that is sport specific? Rugby specific would be on the rugby field. I often see trainers trying to replicate sports such as sprinting with some weird movements but even these are not specific. Why would you try to invent specific exercises in the gym? The gym is a place to become strong. Movements like the bench press and deadlifts are excellent for increasing strength. Also, as they are part of your testing battery, you need to learn how to do them properly and practice them. And of course become stronger in them.

In terms of developing explosion, you don’t need to perform Olympic lifts to become explosive. Any movement can be explosive. Olympic lifts are very technical and take a lot of time to learn so I tend to have my athletes stick to movements like squats, bench presses and deadlifts and perform these with less weight to make the movements more explosive.

I think you need to have a chat with the dude and share your concerns. I am not sure how experienced you are or whether you have even trained before. If you are a newbie then I suggest you focus on building a good base. Then your priority is to do well in your testing battery.

Let me know how things go. I am more than happy to help you out.



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Q&A- I want to be explosive and dynamic

Hi Craig

I like watching your footage. I am a rugby player and I want to be faster, more explosive and more dynamic. I have been watching the NFL guys on youtube and I love the stuff they do. Lots of band work, one legged stuff and really fast movements. This must be the key to being explosive and dynamic?

I have done a few weights in the past but nothing for the last couple of years. What do you suggest that I do? Do you have a program in mind to help me reach my goals.

Many thanks


Hey Robbie

I get quite a lot of emails like yours. I don’t know a lot about what these guys do when they train. But I suspect that they have a pretty big base that has been built up with years in the gym.

The best thing that you can do is to get into the gym and start building your base. You need to learn to squat, bench and deadlift. These movements are the fundamentals which will enable you to build the base you need.

I know nothing about speed. Other than my intuition telling me that you will be faster and more explosive if you are stronger? I’m out of my depth here as to why and no doubt the Sports Scientists will launch into me. They can stick to their one legged box squats with bands. I will continue to get my boys really strong.

In weight training terms you are a beginner. Forget about the fancy stuff and start with the basics. If you try to fast track the process you will risk injury. And I am certain you will not achieve your objectives.

If you want some more help then check out come of my posts under off season training for rugby. Or fire some questions at me. But get yourself into the gym and start lifting.

All the best.



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Q&A- Summer cut?

Hey Craig

I have been following your modified 5-3-1 since the season ended in August. At the end of November I had put on 6 kg of bodyweight. I feel leaner but haven’t had a test. I haven’t tested my maxes but they are well up. For example I recently did 160 kg for 9 on deadlifts. My original 1RM was only 150. So I think I’m close to 200 kg. That’s a 25% increase.

The real reason I am emailing is because my dad said I should. Since the start of December I have started a summer cut. I am heading to the Gold Coast for New Years and I want to be in the best possible shape. I have cut down my calories and I am doing cardio twice a day. I am feeling much leaner! The problem is I am losing weight as well as strength. I have parked 5-3-1 until mid January. I am doing lots of high rep sets and also super sets.

My Dad thinks I mad. He sees my gains “going down the toilet”. I don’t think 6 weeks is long and I know I can get back into in January and still be bigger and stronger for Rugby.

Am I mad? Thanks for your help.


Hi Thomas

Excellent email. I’m glad you asked the question. I won’t go as far as to agree with your dad but I can see where he is coming from.

It makes no sense to me to spend 4 months working so hard and then unravel it all in 6 weeks because you want to lean up for new years. There is no doubt that you will suffer and find it hard to get back to where you were. The progress you have made to date is right up there. The question is why not keep going?

I have a funny feeling that you may have made your mind up. Therefore let’s look at a compromise.

1. Stick to 5-3-1 until you head away for your vacation. This method has already shown that you can build lean muscle. Super sets and high reps don’t build lean muscle. Continue to break new ground with 5-3-1.

2. Have a guilt free break from training for 2 weeks in January. This will freshen you up for your return.

3. I am okay with once daily cardio. Once a day for 30 minutes. This will speed up your metabolism and help your recovery. And of course help to burn fat. If you are playing touch then do no other cardio on these days.

4. Eat clean for the next 3 weeks. I don’t want you to limit calories. But you will find that avoiding junk food and simple carbs will lean you up without impacting on your energy levels or strength. Continue to eat every 2-3 hours. Just be smart about what you eat.

Run this by your dad who sounds astute. Starvation diets, excessive cardio and dramatically changing your training are not the way to go!

I hope this helps. Enjoy your new year. I have a funny feeling that most people will be more impressed with your increased bulk than they would be by a guy who had starved himself for a month.

Let me know how it goes.



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Q&A- Extra workout for shoulders

Hey Craig

I have been following your revised 5-3-1 methodology and hitting it 3 times per week for squats, bench and deadlift. I have added 25% to my big lifts since the end of the rugby season. I feel bigger and faster also.

I now have some more time and want to add an extra day for shoulders as you suggest. Can you help me with selecting exercises?

Thanks again.


Hi Sean

Glad to hear you are making good progress. If you can manage a fourth day then you will benefit. I would recommend that you train some shoulders and upper back on this day. Send me through what your week looks like and I will advise.

In the meantime, shoulders. I keep things pretty simple. For the rugby guys we stick to basic compound movements although I do like to add variety. Building a solid foundation is still the key.

Liam plays First XV rugby and is also on a 5-3-1 adventure. We trained shoulders yesterday:

1. Standing press with the fat bar- 2×10,2×8,2×6,2×8,2×10
2. Upright rows- 12,10,8,6
3. Power shrugs- 12,10,8,6

18 sets is a pretty big workload in the eyes of some. I tend to look at more tangible indicators like whether the big 3 lifts continue to rise. Rugby players have a big work capacity in my opinion. Far bigger than they are given credit for.

I filmed the last set of each exercise. The workout should last about 40-45 minutes.

I hope this helps. Keep things simple.




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Raw novice competition

Today was testing day It was an official powerlifting competition but we treated it more as a chance to test 1 rep maxes (1RM). Jackson had a great day and took second overall in only his second competition. He has a massive future. His deadlift of 255 kg was a PB by 55 kg in a competition. I saw him miss 210 kg in the gym only 6 months ago.

I take a lot of satisfaction out of the performance of the rugby boys. They lifted with great technique and composure. As a lifter I always sail pretty close to the wind with my squats but these guys left the referees in no doubt!

Levi surprised himself I think. His 160 kg deadlift was pretty easy. Unfortunately Luke had to go to Auckland early so missed the competition but we managed to test his bench and squat first. Again some massive gains.

Here’s a summary. These are all raw remember.

Squat 200 kg
Bench 135 kg
Deadlift 255 kg

He missed his third squat by a small margin. This would have given him 600 kg. I expect his deadlift will continue to grow and his squat will close in on this. This and some natural movement in the bench press will see a 700 kg total in the next 2 years. This is world class raw lifting. The kid is 19 and has 3 plus years as a junior. He realistically could medal as a junior at the worlds. How cool is that.

Liam went 7 out of 9:

Squat- 135 kg
Bench- 90 kg
Deadlift- 180 kg

Liam missed a 150 kg squat and a 95 kg bench narrowly. Great progress. Similar to Jackson with his deadlift and squat progression. He has a 200 kg squat and a 230 kg deadlift. I can tell! He is only 16!

Squat- 120 kg
Bench- 80 kg
Deadlift- 160 kg

Levi is also 16. He only started with me 3 months ago. Since then he has gained 12 kg and is starting to get strong. Levi is over 6 foot 3 tall. So the power movements have their own challenges. I was so pleased that he went 3 out 3 in the squats. Great technique. It’s only been in the last month that I was confident that Levi could squat below parallel. We have spent the last 3 months on the bar and slowly working up to 60 kg. Now he has the technique to move on. We will take it slowly but again he will be squatting 200 kg in the next year. And that deadlift will rocket.

We tested Luke on the squat and bench and he hit 130 and 80 kg respectively. Thrilled with this also.

A good day all around. It gives me confidence to know we are on track. There is no tougher environment than an official powerlifting comp to test you 1RM.

Well done boys.

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