drawings of muscles and exercise apparatus

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Why do rugby players scrum and maul at such different body heights?

[Summary: The body height of rugby players in mauls tends to be very much higher than in scrums. High body positions are inefficient for generating forward momentum. There would be advantages in training players to pack at thigh height rather than waist height. Not only are they likely to gain dominance in the maul, but the practice of adopting biomechanically superior body positions is energy-conserving over the course of a game.]

Scrums and mauls are the two great dominance contests within the game of rugby. Marked superiority in either of these forms of engagement can affect the morale of both teams in a way that a corresponding supremacy at say the lineout does not.

Forward packs spend countless hours developing scrum technique but very much less attention is given to the maul, particularly in a defensive situation. Scrums are also elaborately structured whereas mauls tend to be chaotic. To a large extent this is due to the relative extent to which the two are regulated by the Laws of Rugby. Law 20, relating to the scrum, comprises three times as many pages as Law 17 pertaining to the maul.

Unlike the scrum, the Laws are largely silent on what players can do in the maul. Within the maul itself the most relevant clauses are that "Players joining a maul must have their heads and shoulders no lower than their hips" (17.2 (a)); they "must endeavour to stay on their feet" (17.2 (d)); and "A player must not intentionally collapse a maul" (17.2 (e)). Thus there remains considerable latitude for creativity.

One very marked difference between the two contests is that in the scrum either pack, whether having the feed or not, has the opportunity to establish dominance and drive the other pack back. By contrast it is very rare in the maul for the side not in possession to gain significant ground. This is largely due to the fact that the team with the ball is able to surreptitiously transfer the ball laterally from hand to hand so that the push from their opponents bypasses the ball-carrier, allowing him to be driven forward more or less unimpeded.

Players entering maul binding at waist height and above

I believe that players can be trained to maul much more effectively and the secret is body height. Note the photo reproduced from the International Rugby Board's online version of the Laws of Rugby. It is intended to show the player involvements necessary for a maul to be formed. But it is also very instructive in illustrating body heights typically adopted in the maul. The ball carrier is standing upright, making no attempt to crouch. His team mate in attempting to seal off the ball has his shoulder at chest height of the ball-carrier. Their opponent has bound on the ball-carrier at waist height. None of these players have their legs positioned to exert an effective forward shove.

The body height adopted by the first players engaging from each team usually defines the height of their side of the ensuing maul. Subsequent players typically bind against the buttocks of the players in front of them. Players arriving at a maul tend to simply bend at the waist when joining the contest.

Compare the likely height of this maul with the body height of the same players in a scrum situation. It can be confidently anticipated that body heights would be at least 300mm lower in a scrum than in a maul.

If the defending player in the photo were to bind around the thighs of his opponent rather than the waist, he would create a platform for his team mates to bind at something close to scrummaging height. Each of the players is then likely to have optimal hip and knee joint angles for generating forward momentum. It might even be advantageous for players to adopt the second-rower's technique of binding between the thighs of the player in front, whether team mate or foe. The one essential requirement is that players packing low secure a very firm grip to avoid being penalised for going to ground.

While front row players in the scrum are prohibited from "lifting or forcing an opponent up" (20.8 (i)), there is no corresponding restriction in relation to mauls. Although lifting is treated as "dangerous play" in the scrum, it does not have the same connotation in the maul where players are bound in an unstructured way and not confined or compressed as in the scrum. With his shoulder under his opponent's buttocks a player is ideally placed to drive up, forcing the opponent to give ground.

While mauls are often formed in an unstructured way, many of them emerge from static engagements such as the lineout or where the ball is being contested after a tackle. In such a situation a well-drilled team would have the opportunity to rapidly adopt a pseudo-scrum formation and drive forward. Not only are they likely to gain advantage in that particular maul, but the practice of adopting biomechanically superior body positions will undoubtedly be energy-conserving over the course of a game.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The benefits of explosive strength training for rugby football

[Summary: Rugby football involves prolonged physical engagements between players where they are subjected to loading substantially greater than their own body weight. An ability to very rapidly generate force is advantageous in these areas of physical engagement. In addition to basic strength training, players need to undertake activity-specific training for explosive strength.]

Rugby football involves prolonged physical engagements between players where they are subjected to loading substantially greater than their own body weight. An ability to very rapidly generate force is advantageous in these areas of physical engagement. In addition to basic strength training, players need to undertake activity-specific training for explosive strength.

Unlike other forms of football, rugby can be usefully viewed as a succession of prolonged physical engagements, either between individual players or between groups of players. Each of these engagements demands the exercise of substantial physical strength. While basic strength training should form the foundation for such engagements, there should also be a focus on developing explosive strength appropriate to the particular activity.

During the extended periods when players are physically contesting with their opposing counterparts they are continually subjected to loading substantially greater than their own body weight. And, because that added resistance is live, there is often the problem of overcoming not only inertia but also counter force triggered by an initiating movement

In modern rugby considerable attention is given to fitness and aerobic conditioning as well as basic weight training, but there is very limited focus on the development of activity-specific explosive strength. This is despite the fact that an ability to very rapidly generate force can yield a competitive advantage in each of the areas of physical engagement in rugby:

Scrum and maul In the scrum or maul situation it is very difficult to shunt the opposing pack backward unless there is synchronised explosive activity. If a pack begins to move forward slowly or if just one or a couple of players attempt to initiate a shove, they are unlikely to be able to overcome the inertia of the opposing pack's body mass. In addition, the attempted drive forward will almost certainly trigger an almost immediate counter-shove. On the other hand if a pack suddenly and explosively begins to drive forward as a synchronised, coordinated unit, they are likely to be able to generate momentum and place their opponents on the back foot.

The key elements are that each of the forwards possess basic strength and a capacity to rapidly generate force. However, it is essential that their movements be synchronized. If any of these elements of strength, explosiveness and synchronicity are lacking the attempt is likely to prove futile or even counterproductive.

Tackle In a tackle situation there is great advantage in forcing the opponent, whether ball-carrier or tackler, back from the line of engagement. In order to do this effectively, the action has to be both powerful and virtually instantaneous.

In addition, ball-carriers with explosive leg drive are often able to brush past attempted tackles, while tacklers with similar attributes can forcefully secure the ball-carrier and take him to ground.

Ruck At the breakdown of play following a tackle the ability to push back or "clean out" opposing players from the ruck offers opportunities to win the contest for the ball or at least put the opposing team in a disadvantageous situation. The only effective way to win the breakdown contest is to apply very considerable force in an explosive manner.

Lineout The outcome of the lineout contest is largely dependent on how high the jumper can ascend, but also on how rapidly he can reach that point. This requires not only a very good vertical leap by the jumper, but also the ability of his support players to forcefully elevate him. Both jumping and lifting require specific forms of explosive strength.

When forward packs are evenly matched in strength and technique, and defensive techniques are well-coordinated, a game of rugby can often become a war of attrition, with teams attempting to wear one another down over the course of the game. It is very difficult to maintain concentration and alertness throughout an 80-minute game, and a capacity for explosive action allows the exploitation of fatigue and inattention. It provides surprise and unpredictability, while limiting the possibility of appropriate reaction.

Strength training for rugby should always be grounded on a solid foundation of basic strength; but coaches who are seeking to gain a sustainable competitive edge would do well to incorporate a comprehensive program of activity-specific training for explosive strength.


Sunday, January 15, 2006

"All backs ... over 105kg" - is this the future of rugby?

In a comment on the post titled, "Rugby - the most strength-oriented code of football," Nick Tatalias writes:

all backs should weigh in over 105Kg and loose forwards 115kg and tight forwards at least 125 plus ... always capable of great speed of course.

Now there's a brave call, and one that should spark some controversy. Personally, I'm in broad agreement with him, as I indicate in my reply to Nick's comment. What do others think?


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Nick Tatalias on explosive strength training for rugby

[Summary: Nick Tatalias suggests that forwards who are exhausted after scrums and mauls may need greater strength and better anaerobic rather than aerobic conditioning. He argues that changes to the Laws of Rugby have increased the proportion of explosive actions in a game and consequently the need for explosive strength training.]

I have just come across a very interesting post by Nick Tatalias in the IRB Forums from March last year. This was a contribution to a long thread addressing the issue of why South African teams had been so unsuccessful in Super 12 competitions.

Nick Tatalias suggested that when conditioning coaches observe some of their forwards standing with hands on knees trying to catch their breath, they conclude that the players need more aerobic type conditioning; but he maintains that this "further exacerbates the problem. When in truth the issue is that greater levels of strength are needed, better anaerobic conditioning and lastly sprint endurance."

Tatalias's view is that the players are tired because they have to recruit a relatively high percentage of their muscular strength in each encounter. He contrasts a forward who can squat 120kg with another whose squat is 200kg. The first player may have to use all his strength to push the opposition while the other might be using only 60% of his strength.

The player with strength reserve will be stronger at the end of the game and still have energy to exert on physically over powering the opposition as well as energy to marshal troops maintain discipline and minimise mental errors.

He suggests that out-of-season there is a need for "multiple high intensity low volume work outs to improve muscular hypertrophy and strength gains," while in-season training should be "high intensity (90% of one rep max) low volume 45 minute heavy work-outs." He advocates the use of modified Olympic lifts for explosive workouts both in and out of season.

And when I say explosive, I don't believe that moving light weights fast is explosive, it needs to be heavy weight explosively. ... Gym work-outs are there to make you strong and explosive, they are not there to duplicate how you feel after a rugby game.

In another post to the Supertraining group today, Tatalias drew attention to the effect of changes in the laws of rugby over the past decade. He maintained that while the number of scrums in a game had decreased dramatically, lineouts had become increasingly important with an emphasis on "good vertical jump for the catcher and excellent explosive lifting strength for the lifters (props and flanks)."

He also asserts that "the number of very fast explosive actions such as cleaning out opponents around the ruck have increased as well the emphasis on much more explosive tackling (to prevent the runner crossing the gain line)"; which he compares to run blocking by fullbacks and linebacker type hit tackling in American football. Finally he suggests that rolling mauls now allow for more obstruction and thus can last for more than 60 seconds.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I find Nick Tatalias's arguments quite compelling and further evidence of a groundswell that is slowly but inexorably moving rugby toward an emphasis on serious strength development, particularly in the direction of explosiveness.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

McKenzie says no to Wallabies job - for now

[Summary: Ewen McKenzie's decision not to contest the Wallaby coaching position highlights the need for the organizational structure of the coaching team to be decided by the head coach rather than the ARU bureaucrats.]

Ewen McKenzie's decision to withdraw his application for the Wallabies coaching position highlights a couple of interesting issues.

Firstly it draws attention to how unusual it is for the position to be filled by an ex-Wallaby player. To my knowledge there have been only three: Bryan Palmer, John Solomon and Dave Brockhoff. So it is 26 years since Australia has had an ex-international as coach. McKenzie, of course, had a very long and distinguished incumbency of the Wallaby tight-head position.

Although I am not really familiar with the rugby history of other nations, it would appear that the Australian situation is by no means unique. Most international coaches have not played at the top level. I would be grateful if someone can post details for any of the other rugby playing countries.

The other point of note is the suggestion that the Australian Rugby Union is attempting to specify and impose a particular structure on the new coach. It has been reported that McKenzie was concerned that the proposed structure involved "an armada of assistants" and queried whether it would be "an orthodox coaching job."

It is interesting that one member of the selection panel for the position is Rod McQueen who in his tenure as Wallaby coach pioneered the use of multiple specialist assistants. This approach reached its apotheosis - or more correctly its nadir - in the hordes of functionaries who accompanied Clive Woodward's Lions to New Zealand.

The Wallabies are just a single team, therefore requiring "an orthodox coaching job." In any event decisions about the organizational structure of the coaching team should be the province of the head coach, not the ARU bureaucrats or board. After all, he is the one whose head rolls if the team is not sufficiently successful.


Monday, January 02, 2006

Rugby - the most strength-oriented code of football

[Summary: Rugby players are more involved in physical contact and for longer periods than players in other forms of football. With the exception of American football, they tend to be significantly heavier than other footballers.

Strength training in rugby has tended to focus on hypertrophy or maintaining strength levels rather than achieving full potential strength, but in the future there is likely to be a concentration on heavy, very mobile players who possess very high-range explosive strength.

Rugby players spend considerably more playing time in physical contact and contest with opponents than players in other forms of football.

Much of this contact involves extended grappling and wrestling, but what is also characteristic of rugby is the amount of time spent attempting to drive forward under loads considerably heavier than bodyweight. Obviously this is so in the scrum and maul, but also at the tackle. Both ball-carrier and tackler may strive to drive one another backward for an extended time after engagement. American football and rugby league are also primarily collision sports, but their tackles tend to terminate much more quickly.

Recognition of the importance of physical strength has led to a tendency for rugby selectors to favour increasingly heavier players even for backline positions. A modern professional rugby team is likely to average over 100kg bodyweight, compared with less than 95kg and less than 90kg for rugby league and Australian football respectively. Increased bodyweight appears to confer no advantage in soccer.

No valid size comparison can be made with players in American football. Its use of specialist teams means that individual players are only on the field for limited periods and therefore really massive players can be employed for the more static areas of engagement.

For professional rugby, players are often chosen on the basis of their size and apparent strength but are then not really expected to work to become significantly stronger. Much strength training in rugby appears to have the aim of generating hypertrophy - increasing muscle size and thus body mass - or of maintaining strength levels rather than seriously exploring the potential for markedly increased power.

Soccer, Australian football and rugby league are continuous-flow type games, whereas rugby and, to a much greater extent, American football are characterised by frequent stoppages and thus require lower levels of aerobic fitness. But I see little evidence that rugby coaches have fully realised the potential this provides to gain a competitive edge by requiring their players, backs and forwards, to seriously train for strength.

I would suggest that, given the development of very well-drilled coordinated defensive lines, the next stage in the evolution of rugby is likely to involve a concentration on the identification of and development of heavy, very mobile players who possess very high-range explosive strength.