This page looks at the fitness requirements for rugby. You link to more specific pages from here. This part of the site is based on the:

  • Speed, Agility and Quickness, SAQ(r) book & video.
  • Brian Mckenzie's Sports Coach website and newsletter.
  • John Kenbeek has added a strength training program.
  • Plyometrics work based on a video from Human Kinetics.
  • Fitness requirements for Rugby from Dave McLean, former Scottish Rugby Union fitness adviser.
  • Other material and lots of discussions with other people.

With all those books you read on the rugby and fitness topic it is difficult to digest a program that is suitable NOT for full time professionals but for rugby teams that train two - three times a week. I now use only the interval and speed work of McLean (you can download his paper for free - look at the Free Downloads page) what I combine with exercises from Pierre Villepreux. All within the SAQ framework.
saqbAgain, develop what works for you and for your team.....

I have used SAQ (r) for a couple of years now as the basis for not only my fitness work but as a basis for everything I do. I am very enthusiastic about it. Apart from everything else, if your team has fitter, faster, more mobile players you are earlier at the make-or-break situation than your opponents and you will win games. Increasing the potential of ALL your players is something you can achieve when implementing the SAQ ideas. Yes, SAQ is much more than dribbling across these ladders.

I will present the SAQ model (the SAQ Continuum) but also try to show how this is also a generic model for learning new skills. First, what is this SAQ stuff? It is about activating the nervous system using special exercises and equipment that helps providing feedback to the body. SAQ does not promote a warm-up of three laps around the pitch! It does not include any running of longer distance at all.

The SAQ Continuum structures a training session as follows:

Dynamic Flex (Warm-up+) Getting ready, physically AND mentally. No stretching whatsoever!
Mechanics learning the skill
Innervation Increase the tempo
Accumulation of potential Mixing in more elements
Explosion High intensity. Focus on the speed of execution
Expression of potential This is where it all should come together in a game like situation.
Warm-down This is cooling down - some stretching is done

The SAQ books and videos are all based around this idea and it is all focused on learning evasive running skills. I will try to describe how the learning of other rugby skills can be done in the same model.


On the mobility aspect: Co-ordination and programmed agility are instructed through light plyometrics, zigzagging through a row of markers, little shuttle runs, picking up the ball, head-roll and other similar exercises.
The emphasis here is on teaching bio-mechanically sound movements to develop the all the motor skills the body needs to make high frequency movements possible. For example starting with small steps keeping feet tot the ground.

Think about working on the team's contact skill using hit shields. Focus on the individual.

Innervation (Activation of the neural pathways)

This transition stage in the training session between warm-up and high-demand periods of work is characterized by footwork drills for co-ordination, such as the Fast foot ladder, dance-like foot patterns, or read-and-react tennis ball drills similar to the baseball infielder's drills. Key is increasing speed while keeping the mechanics sound.

More general: this is where you traditionally add more variables to the exercise.

In my contact skill training you can bring in several hit shields a bigger group.

Accumulation of potential

This is the "conditioning" time of practice and programmed agility, but in very controlled quantities. The potential for injury is high if you mix fatigue with high quantities of drills and prolonged elapsed time of direction change. Combination of different running styles in one exercise like an obstacle course run is great for varied stimuli movements.

Again, for the regular rugby stuff you can imagine that this is more the training in game like situation and speed.

In my contact skill training example: this is where I ditch the shields a go for a more realistic approach. Group - and grid size are important control parameters here.


In this stage, where programmable and random agility is trained, work is done with medicine ball throws, high-quality plyometrics jumping over tackle bags and contact shields, and short speed bursts. Tennis ball drop and recovery drills, and resistance running either by players holding each others shirts, sprint harnesses and downhill running. Or over speed running, downhill are all part of the Explosion phase.
Look at the intensity of this work-out: this is the place for fast action, but not tongue-hanging-out fatigue.

This is where you would do your game like rugby training. high intensity work. Interval training is a good format. On the Interval page you see how I combine ball and support running skill drills from Pierre Villepreux with the interval requirements as defined by David McLean. When defining a set of interval runs you can get a feeling about the players by measuring the drop off throughout the set.
Another good format is resistance training, this is the ability to overcome a resistance or hold against a force. Strength can be very static, like scrumming, or very dynamic like breaking out of a tackle. Therefore strength training can take various forms. This is why I have made plyometrics an integral part of training programs. Plyometrics is based on the principle that a contracted muscle can deliver more force. It also uses the body as the weight in the exercises so lots of exercises are easy to implement on the field. There are lots of plyometric and resistance running elements in standard SAQ anyway.

Read about lactate thresholds and more complicated stuff below...

Fortify your team psychologically, with this I mean you team's ability to put in the hard work. Applaud and complement your team on their work ethic.

Expression of potential

With the last stage everything comes together, the practiced skills applied in a game like situation.

Speed is important in sprinting but also important in reaction time or speed of thought. Agile players can evade tacklers and quickness means explosiveness. With the special SAQ programs developed to improve the performance of athletes involved in team sports. It is very useful in rugby.

This is the where your sessions is nearly game like. You can control it by realizing the ball (I always carry several balls), how much you allow and focus on only those elements you did before.

In my contact training example I would have a 5v5 game in a 10x10 grid. Every stoppage I would release another ball.

Using your voice is very important here!

When you cross-over this SAQ Continuum theory to all your practices you will be surprised how your team will be geared up to the task.

Lactate threshold?

Working at a high intensity during the Explosion stage trains your players in game related and intense work. Their bodies learn to maintain it at minimum costs. This work is called running beyond a steady state. Intensity is related to your players lactate threshold above which lactic acid begins to increase appreciably in their blood. This is why strength endurance training always includes a drop off in performance: your muscles are getting filled with lactic acid. If you fill your players up with too much lactic acid you cannot do much more the rest of the training session. How do you monitor it?

Yes, I realize you do not have the fancy equipment but you can get an idea by simply observing your players: is their stride shortening? are their knees not lifted that high? Or during interval session: is there a drop-off between the first and last run? Do not be afraid of shortening the interval series (or adding a series for that matter).

How about aerobic endurance then?

You need an aerobic endurance base to do all the work. This used to be translated in running at a steady state. Meaning that a player runs a pace where the supply of oxygen can meet the demand of his muscle tissues for oxygen. We used to run for hours all summer to build a basic fitness level.

What has been proven is that doing the SAQ and interval work you also increase the aerobic base. SAQ tells you that running the longer distances even have an adverse affect: this will only train your muscles in the wrong way: remember you want the fast contracting twitchy kind to become Jason Robinson! Looking back in time I can recall some problems we had in the transition from summer training to competition.
I stopped running my players longer distances longer than 150 meters.....

Weight Training

Read more under Power for strength training programs and plyometrics. I am a strong believer in free(!) weight training based on the resistance training principle. The basic strength training program on this site is developed by Michel van Halderen on this principle. For this program the body mass and not the 1RM is the basis.

Strength of the core muscles are very important in rugby. Not only does Core Stability provide the stability for the quick and speedy movements but also think of it as protective harness against injuries. By using free weights and things like Swiss Balls, players improve their core stability. This is why I also do a lot wrestling exercises and 1 on 1 scrumming.

A third form of weight training focuses on building body mass. This is basically the body building training.

Learn how to rest

Although Zinzan's hard yakka seems necessary to get to the top, rest is equally important, but is all too often missing from a potentially great athlete's schedule. All competitive teams should have at least one annual six- to eight-week period in which little training is done, and should avoid the temptation to carry out too many high-intensity workouts during the training year. You the coach should learn to look at the signs of overtraining.

Become more efficient

At carrying out the exact activities required in rugby, so that less energy is wasted during competition and hard exertions feel less stressful. The key to improving your efficiency of movement is to recognise that each muscle in your body is composed of collections of individual muscle cells. If you make a particular muscle stronger, then fewer of the individual cells within that muscle will be required to sustain a certain level of effort. In other words, more muscle cells within the strengthened muscle are allowed to rest while you are engaging in your sport, and other muscles, which assist your power-boosted muscle, are less likely to be called into play.

Since you will need to activate fewer individual muscle cells to run near max speed, your overall energy demand will be lower and you will be more efficient! As a result, you will be able to step up to higher than expected intensities of exercise, or else conserve large quantities of precious muscle fuel if you prefer to remain at your traditional work rate.

To get more powerful, and therefore more efficient, you will need to carry out some training at levels of effort which are actually higher than your usual competitive intensities. This is called working at overspeed and you can use complicated tow-rope constructions or run down a low sloped hill.


Sprinting on a tartan track is proven successful in developing players speed, it has however also proven to be very dangerous if not done properly. Great care should be taken in the introduction to running on tartan. I am a victim of this myself: destroyed my Achilles Tendons....... Introductory sessions are essential if you are to avoid the risk of injury and should be repeated in a modified form even after a lapse of three weeks with no track running. Look at McLean's work for more information.

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