Rethinking conditioning for contact sports

Conditioning for team sports and contact sports has evolved a lot in recent years, but when you look around there are still some big misconceptions that many coaches cling on to. There are two points that always stand out to me: that conditioning is only about energy systems and that conditioning only comes through volume. In this article I take a look at how we can rethink these areas and share what I have implemented in rugby training sessions to address both topics.

Rethinking energy systems

If we think about conditioning as being the strongest team in the final minutes of the game, only part of that relates to energy systems training. Clearly, the athlete needs to have the right motor to keep pushing until the final whistle. But the athlete also needs to not break along the way. The athlete needs a robust frame.

As Andy Stone and Martin Bingisser discussed in their recent member video on wrestling, you also have to condition the body to withstand contact. James de Lacey wrote last year about how rugby players experience 800-1200 impacts per game. If athletes are not conditioned for contact, it may break them before they even get to the end of the game.

» Related content: Learn more about contact conditioning from Romania Rugby’s James de Lacey.

Rethinking volume

Micro dosing is a concept that has gained traction in the athletic development world. Bill Knowles gave a great overview of his approach on HMMR Podcast Episode 124. For some reason this approach is being applied to speed, power, and strength, but not endurance. We still think building work capacity in terms of huge volumes of load.

Try to imagine a conditioning session for a football team. Or rugby. Or soccer. The first thing that comes to mind is surely a long and grueling session of repeat sprint efforts until an athlete falls over. This doesn’t have to be the case. I drip feed contact conditioning and standard conditioning throughout the week and include it in both the main training sessions, and the pre-match work. Small doses of conditioning throughout the week can combine to have a powerful effect.

Starting with the warm up

How can we rethink these two areas? For me it starts with the warm up. It’s very well known, and researched, the importance of warming up. This effect is magnified when the players will be doing contact in training as the risk of a potential injury goes up. The warm up is also a perfect area for microdosing as it is present in every training session. Vern Gambetta and Nick Garcia have both put together videos on their approach to warm up, and their approach has heavily influenced my own warmups. Crawling, core, and gymnastics work are all key elements in my warm up and whole-body movements that get the body moving. If done with the right density can improve work capacity already in the warmup. Here are a few key movements we like to include:

  • Crawling:
    • Forward inch worms and backwards inch worms are a favorite. Keep your arms and legs straight, as it works hip mobility and should stability,
    • Sideways plank left and right with straight arms above the head helps work the core from toenails to fingernails.
    • Spiderman forward works hip mobility in particular and spiderman backwards works the shoulder strength well.
  • Core:
    • Walking rotations can be done either close, i.e. arms bent, or wide, i.e. arms straight.
    • Walking chops are aggressive diagonal chops up and down keeping the arms straight, with the aim of keeping the torso facing forwards, i.e. you prevent rotation of the torso so in essence an anti-rotation exercise. As players lunge in different directions, they will raise the jug above their head keeping their arms straight and then raise the jug back down as they return to the starting position.
  • Gymnastics:
    • Forwards and backwards rolls.
    • Commando rolls over the left and right shoulders.
    • Handstands and cartwheels on the left and right hands.

» Related content: Vern Gambetta walks through his multi-stage warmup in this member video.

Notice all of these movements are nearly the whole body is under tension for the duration of the exercise. This is not the type of warm up you can breeze through. It is a warm up that will also condition athletes.

Moving to contact

Later in training we move towards contact. Rather than full-on tacking, we start with wrestling and similar types of contact. These types of exercises would be done after the gymnastics stage of the warm up, and can also be used between games in training to provide a whole-part-whole approach to conditioning.

Andy Stone’s recent webinar on wrestling gives coaches a good place to start. We have played around with many ideas and now use some of the following as go to contact conditioning exercises which progress from simple to complex:

  • Wrestling 1-on-1 on the floor, where the objective is for the player on top to stop the bottom player getting up to their feet (in essence a Pushing movement).
  • Wrestling 1-on-1 on the floor where the objective is for the player lying on their back on the floor to prevent the player on top getting fully up on their feet (in essence a Pulling movement).
  • A pushing contest where you face each other, starting on your knees or split stance on your feet, with both of your hands on their shoulders/collarbones and push as hard as you can and see who can push who backwards.
  • A pulling contest where you face each other on your feet and grab each others wrists and pull as hard as you can and see who can pull their partner backwards.
  • Kneeling facing each other, who can pin the other player down on their backs WWE style.
  • Hitting tackle pad shields, a couple of yards away, from different starting positions, e.g. lying face down, lying on their backs, kneeling, standing with a split stance.

  • In pairs with a tackle pad shield, hit the shield with your left shoulder, fall over and roll, get up and hit the shield with your right shoulder, and vice versa (i.e. tackle, get up off the ground, then counter ruck).
  • One player is in a ‘Tower of Power’ Bear crawl position, and the other does a push-up with one hand on their partner’s head and the other hand on a part of their back. Then the player swaps the hand on the head with the other hand and does a push up from a slightly different angle each time. This helps to prepare and strengthen the neck area.
  • Groups of 3 players, with each player lying on their backs parallel with each other and a yard apart from each other, the middle player has a ball. That player presents the ball one way or the other, and then one player becomes the counter rucker and the other player the rucker/ball protector.
  • Groups of 4 players, with each player lying on their backs parallel with each other and a ball in the middle. Then on the command of “go”, the two middle players compete and wrestle for the ball. The winner of the mini battle then presents the ball to his teammate. So then one player is the rucker/ball protector and the other is the counter rucker.

Raising the intensity

How much you condition the athlete is very dependent on the intensity. Low intensity training provide enough stimulus in high volumes, but when using microdosing, the intensity becomes critical. To help with this, we do as much as possible in a competitive manner. We will pair athletes up and make as much of training as possible a competition. First and foremost this has an added physical impact as players give more effort when something is on the line. Additionally it makes every training session fun, engaging and challenging and not monotonous and boring where the players just go through the motions each time and don’t actually warm-up properly. It also has psychological benefits as it keeps players on their toes and tests their ability to perform under pressure.

Here are some examples using pairs to amp up the intensity:

  • Press-up position facing each other and the challenge is to get the other player to fall flat on the floor. You can change the difficulty of this exercise by changing the distance their feet are apart or not.
  • While standing facing each other, or kneeling, each player grabs one wrist and the object is to slap your partner on the face with your free palm and using your other hand to stop your partner slapping your face.
  • What I call ‘Round-the-World’: one player stands, and the other player jumps on their back. The challenge is for the player on the back to move around the standing player without touching the floor and finishing back in the same position. The players work together to accomplish the task. To increase the difficulty of the challenge, and add time under tension, the player on the back can go around in both directions before they swap over.
  • Piggy Back races over 10m, 15m, or 20m there and back where you swap roles at the distance marker.
  • Fireman’s Lift (with a partner of the same size) races over 10m, 15m, or 20m there and back where you swap roles or shoulders at the distance marker.
  • Wheelbarrow races where you grab your partner’s shins and they crawl forwards on their hands over 10m, 15m, or 20m there and back where you swap roles at the distance marker.
  • Wheelbarrow crawling in a circle clockwise and anti-clockwise and then swap over with your partner. See which pairs can complete the circles the fastest.
  • Wheelbarrow crawling sideways races left and right over 10m, 15m, or 20m there and back where you swap roles or direction at the distance marker.