The Physio Room

January 18 2006

Rugby is a game involving lateral and rotational movements and by addressing strength in these planes, you’ll really be on your way to decreasing injuries while improving your game

by Physiotherapist Chris May
posted Jan 18 2006

Article with photo examples in PDF format

Muscle balance in your training programs is an important factor in helping to prevent injuries. A lot of programs are set up to make sure you’re getting the right balance of quadriceps to hamstring strength, chest to back and hip extensors to flexors. You may be doing a split routine or perhaps super setting opposing muscle groups (like chest and back, bi’s and tri’s), but generally you want to make sure you’re not too dominant in one muscle group as this might set you up for an injury. This is a great idea, but too often the only muscle balance that is trained for is in one plane of movement; forward and backward/flexion and extension. The problem is that rugby is a game involving lateral and rotational movements as well and by also addressing strength in these planes, you’ll really be on your way to decreasing injuries while improving your game.

I’m going to focus on the lower extremity, because lateral strength and stability around the hips is such an important factor in transferring all that gym work and running to the rugby field. Your strength and power for lateral movements comes from your glutes. Gluteus maximus has a couple of lesser known siblings (medius and minimus) that work to stabilize the hip and lift the leg out to the side. When you’re running in a straight line, these muscles are working hard to dynamically stabilize your pelvis and knee, but they really kick in when you start changing directions as in cutting or swerving. Weakness in your glutes can make you vulnerable to knee, pelvic and lower back injuries, while also impacting your performance in defensive and attacking situations on the pitch.

In attack, you need these muscles to accelerate out of a side step or take an arcing run to get outside a defender. In defense, lateral strength and power allows you to come forward quickly, but then turn and run with a defender without all you energy going into slowing down. In the tackle situation, when an attacker shifts at the last moment from what would have been a front on tackle, strong glutes will allow you to transfer all that forward energy into a powerful side on tackle.

Here are a couple of ways to add some lateral strength and stability to your training programs.

The “Punisher” (Glute med.):
Lie on your side with your heels, buttocks, back and head against the wall. Bend your bottom leg so that the flat of your foot is against the wall. The top leg remains straight with only the heel touching the wall. Your goal is to slide your leg as high up the wall as you can take it (maintaining wall contact with your heel) and holding the top position for a slow count of five before sliding the leg back down the wall. Repeat. Make sure that you do not allow your body to come away from the wall. The most common mistake with this exercise is that people allow their upper torso to come away from the wall. Also, be sure that the heel stays in contact with the wall at all times.

For those of you out there that think it looks too much like a Jane Fonda special, give it a try. There’s a reason we call it the ‘punisher’ at the clinic. Once you’ve given it a shot, you can move on to a bit more integrated glute work. I know that with all the focus on core work, there are a lot of people already doing side plank exercises. To increase the difficulty of a basic side plank, try these progressions;

Side Plank with Reverse Fly:
Lying on your side, support yourself up on your bottom elbow. Make sure the elbow is directly under the shoulder and that your feet and hips are perfectly stacked. Hold a dumbbell in your other hand. Now activate your core and lift your hips up off of the ground. Keep your body in line. Try not to allow yourself to tip forward or back. While holding this position, attempt to perform a modified fly with the arm holding the dumbbell. The finish position is when the dumbbell is directly above the body in line with the side of the chest. Slowly lower the arm back down toward the ground in an arc-like movement. Perform 3 sets 10 repetitions of the fly on each side. To make it harder try keeping your top leg off the bottom one.

Side Plank with Leg Lift:
In a normal side plank position, lift your top leg out to the side (like the punisher). Hold for a second at the top of the movement. Lower the top leg back down, so that it is resting on the bottom leg again, but don’t lower from the plank position. Repeat 15 times. Perform 3 set on each side.

Now that you’ve got your hips fired up in the gym, you’ve got to transfer it into functional movements. Side shuffling and carioca movements are great for warming up, but really don’t offer the punch needed to challenge your glutes. Side to side hopping is a great way to integrate lateral power from your glutes and push off from your quads.

Lateral Hopping:
Start on one foot and jump sideways to land balanced on the other foot, pause for a second, then jump back to the other. Start with a short distance between the two feet, say a meter, and either do a set number of repetitions or go continuously for 20-30 seconds. As you’re able to generate more lateral power, increase the distance and shorten the pause on each foot. Just keep your center of gravity low and absorb the landing by bending your knee and hip.

The final transfer for this strength is into rugby specific situation, and that is up to you and your imagination to figure out. Be creative. After doing a few straight ahead sprints, try accelerating around a curve, like the 200 meter bend on the track. To make it competitive, run at a defender then do an arcing run to get outside of him or her. This will also work on the defender’s ability to turn and run with you. Work on your side step and your ability to accelerate out of one. You can also work on slalom course running. Start with small arcs, and gradually increase the degree of the curve. Try to run as quickly as you can through the course, and maintain your speed into and out of the curves.

New Column, The Physio Room, where Physiotherapist Chris May gives players tips on keeping their bodies healthy and fit for the grueling rugby season.

In this segment: FLEXIBILITY

Chris May has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Victoria and a degree in Physiotherapy from the University of British Columbia. He is also a NCCP level 3 coach for rugby, and has coaching experience at the club, super league, provincial and national team levels. He works in Victoria at McKenzie Physiotherapy

posted Nov 30 2005


The way rugby players are training these days has definitely come along way in the past few years. It used to be good enough to go out for a few runs a week, add some wind sprints at practice and hit the gym a time or two, and you were good to go for the weekend. Now, players are doing sport specific conditioning drills, doing separate agility and speed sessions, and transferring all that gym work into more power training with cleans, push presses and even sled drags. As a spectator it’s definitely exciting to see players getting bigger, faster and more powerful, but as a physiotherapist and coach I’m starting to see these training regimes catch up with a few players. With all their training time dedicated to getting bigger, fitter, stronger and faster, very few players are finding time in their week to staying limber. Flexibility training should be a critical component in the fitness routines of modern rugby players.

I know a lot of players are thinking that they stretch before and/or after practice and that’s enough. Some others have jumped on the band wagon of ‘dynamic flexibility’, thinking that some leg swings and lunges are keeping them flexible and that they’re a more sport specific way of stretching anyways. Although, both of these rationales have their merit in warm up and cool down, flexibility training to improve and/or maintain muscle and connective tissue length, should be done as a separate session and stretches need to be held for a prolonged period of time.

It gets hard to fit extra sessions into a training week, and stretching always seems to be the component of fitness that gets left out. So make it easier on yourself and fit a 15-30 minute session into your daily routine. While you’re getting your fill of Sunday football, or watching the Simpsons, get down on the floor in front of the TV and do some stretching. You may actually find it relaxing and it’s a great way to recover from a game the day before. Fit in another session while watching a show on Wednesday night, and you’re well on your way to staying limber for the season and decreasing your chance of injury.

Focus most of your session around your hips and shoulders. They take a beating with the contact of games and practices, and when combined with all that power and strength training, they can get pretty stiff. Adequate flexibility around your hips will take the stress off your low back, groin and lower abs, and may even make you faster. You should feel a comfortable stretch and hold for 30 seconds or longer. Repeat each stretch a couple of times on each side.

The following routine is an example of a stretching session for your hips. It is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a good start. Add your own variations and stretches to build up a routine.

1. Hip: Lie on your back, keep your left leg straight, bend the right leg and pull your knee toward your chest. Remember to keep the back flat on the ground.

2. Glute: Lie on your back with your right leg straight, and bend the left leg. Grasp the left leg (just above the knee) and pull toward the right shoulder. Keep your left hip on the ground, so that you feel the stretch on the outside of your left leg, not in your lower back.

3. Hip Flexor: Kneeling on your left knee, right foot flat on the floor, gently push the pelvis toward the heel of your right foot. Keep your abs tight on this one to keep your pelvis in a neutral, or even a posterior tilt position. This will ensure you don’t put the strain on your lower back.

4. Wall Quadriceps Stretch: This one is a variation of the above hip flexor stretch, the targets your rectus femoris. Begin on hands and knees. Place one leg against the wall so that the knee is pointing down toward the ground and the lower leg is flat against the wall. With your other leg, have your foot flat on the ground and your knee bent to ~90 degrees. Keep your body upright. You should feel the stretch through the quadriceps muscle group of the leg with the knee pointing toward the ground.

5. Key Hole: Lie on your back, left ankle resting on the right knee, grasp behind the right thigh, keeping that leg straight as you pull toward the chest. Try to put pressure with the left elbow into the left knee. To make this stretch easier to hold, try putting your right foot against a wall. Slide your butt closer towards the wall to increase the stretch on your left hip.

6. Hamstring: Lie on your back with your right leg up against a door frame, and your left leg is through the door. Slide through the doorway, while lifting your right leg up the door frame (right leg moving towards the perpendicular). You should feel a comfortable stretch in your hamstring, and should still be able to keep your right hip on the ground (pelvis in a neutral position).

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