Last Tuesday saw me up at the TigerDome once again, this time to run a gym session with the U16s. I have coached this group before and they are an immensely talented group. They are now reaching the age where some structured weights programming would be advantageous especially as some of the lads are starting to hit premiership academies where they will be expected to be lifting weights.
When I was their age there was very limited information out there in regard to weight training for rugby. It is amazing how quickly the sport has advanced in this area over the last 9 years. I was always interested in weights yet didn’t have the instruction so used workouts from magazines which were often machine based. Whilst these weren’t particularly damaging I wish I’d been able to start with the basics and develop a real foundation of strength with solid technique that would have meant I’d have been able to advance quicker with my lifting. It was therefore my aim of this session at Tigers to give the lads the information I wish I’d had when I was their age.
I started the lads with foam rolling and mobility. These are really important elements to drill early doors and develop good habits with. If the lads are sat all day at school or college then they need to be doing some rolling and mobility prior to any training and preferably before bed too. As very few had used a foam roller before we ran through how to do this, getting them to demo the various movements. We then moved on to a typical mobility circuit which included knee rolls, hip openers, lunges, banded pec & back stretches and some banded shoulder dislocates. There are many variations on mobility circuits around yet I often point people in the direction of Defranco’s ‘limber 11’. It’s a great circuit and the video makes it easy for anyone to copy. Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSSDLDhbacc There’s also the ‘simple 6’ which is more upper body based: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgxr6xAB5ZM
From here I introduced the ‘starting stance’ (I’m yet to come up with a catchy name for this), this is an idea borrowed from Kelly Starret and is a brilliant way of ensuring safety as well as strength when lifting. It’s a simple 3 point checklist to work through before starting any lift and is easily packaged as 3 cues: screw your feet in, hips under, shoulders in pockets. Starting from the bottom ‘screw your feet in’ is a cue to get you to restore your arches in your feet and stop them from splaying like a duck. When we do this we feel a stronger connection with the ground and notice tension through our whole lower body, this simple step has immediately given us a much stronger position to move from. Next ‘hips under’, tense your glutes – this stops us using our lower backs to compensate for a lack of glute activation, finally ‘shoulders in pockets’ – try and put your shoulder blades in your back pockets. This back & down setting of our scaps puts our shoulders in a much healthier position and sorts out our back. From this position we are ready to lift.
The first lift I introduced was the squat and there is good reason for this – think of every major movement in rugby – tackling, rucking, mauling, scrummaging, jumping, line outs – they are all based on a squat pattern. Proficiency in this lift therefore has huge carry over onto the field. It is always tempting to jump straight onto a bar and start trying to sort technique from there but I wanted to stress to this group that sensible progressions establishing correct technique at each point is vital – not only for preventing injury but also for building a foundation of strength and for not learning bad habits. I therefore introduced the movement and got the lads to practice air squats to become familiar with it. Straight away there were some issues – commonly knees collapsing in the hole of the lift, weight shifting onto toes and backs bending into a good morning style movement. Where knees were collapsing I introduced the knees out cue which is really important for squatting and this fixed most of the lads issues. For those that were shifting weight forward or bending I introduced a box for them to squat back onto. Having a box behind you gives increased confidence to ‘sit back’ into the movement and usually fixes a lot of problems. We drilled these a few more times and then moved onto goblet squats. These involve holding a DB or KB against your chest and then performing the squat and are great for progressing the movement as well as encouraging people to keep their chest up. I had the lads perform these individually in front of the group and asked the other lads to critique each other. I feel this is an important part of the learning process, rather than me just telling them what they need to do if they are able to work out the basics for themselves then it will stand them in much better stead. After this I then demonstrated a barbell squat but reinforced the fact that lads shouldn’t be progressing to this until they could comfortably knock out around 3 sets of 8-12 reps with perfect form on first air squats then goblet squats.
From squats we moved onto pulls. I stressed the importance of pulling lifts to build a big back which is the basis of everything for our upper body. The mirror muscles of chest and arms often get most attention when lads are first venturing into the gym so I tried to talk through the many mistakes involved in this. Having a big, strong back will not only help you perform better but you’ll actually look bigger too. The king of the pulling exercise is undoubtedly the pull up or chin. I introduced the proper technique for this and stressed that they needed to stay away from the heinous crossfit ‘kipping’ pull up. Instead the movement should be controlled with scaps set, pulling the elbows down. Some lads were able to perform a couple of these with perfect form which was great. For those that couldn’t I set up a band over the bar to give some assistance. I love banded pull ups as a progression into full pull ups and you could see the confidence that it gave the lads. We quickly ran through how we’d progress these – doing a few sets of as many pull ups as able then into band assisted pull ups and finishing with a few hangs in the bottom position.
The next movement to be covered was a hinge. This group of exercises are great for developing posterior chain strength which is vital to injury prevention as well as being the bed rock for all athletic movements. The exercise that I chose to demo was the kettlebell swing as this is an easy motion to pick up quickly. Again we had lads demo individually with group feedback. The progression demonstrated was onto an RDL (Romanian Deadlift).
Finally we moved on to a loaded carry. The farmer’s walk is perhaps my favourite exercise; it is so primal and applicable to real world demands (don’t say ‘functional’!). The main point to state here was the starting position, making sure are hips are under and shoulders in pockets. The move is fairly self-explanatory from there. I set the lads up either end of the corridor and had them walk relays to give everyone a go. This move is great for developing total body strength and excellent for core control. It particularly hits the, oft overlooked, forearms which tend to be the weak link in most peoples pulling lifts. Addressing this early on can help fast track strength gains further down the line.
From here we briefly discussed some assistance exercises such as band pull aparts and some plank variations. I wanted to stress to the lads how simple the gym can be, it’s not something to be scared of and if you start out right then you will be miles ahead of your peers in the future.
So given all the above what would a beginners workout look like for some of these lads?
- Mobility warm up
- Goblet squats – 3x12 (superset 1)
- Kettlebell swings – 3x12 (superset 2)
- Pull ups – 2xMax
- Banded pull ups – 3x8
- Farmers walk 3x30m
- Plank variations 3x30s