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How to Build Muscle and Strength like a Rugby Player

Rugby is a physically demanding sport that requires players to have high levels of muscle mass and low body fat levels. Rugby players come in a variety of different shapes and sizes specific to their position, therefore training and nutritional requirements must be tailored to each player. Playing position, total body weight and body composition (muscle and fat mass), special dietary requirements, sleep quality, and appetite must all be considered.

Here we look at the training and nutrition requirements you need to build muscle and strength like a rugby player.

Get in the gym!

Resistance training is the most important stimulus for developing muscle size and strength. Well-structured strength & conditioning programmes contain exercises that resemble the movement patterns in rugby, to make you stronger and more powerful on the pitch. Organise your training programmes to focus on strength and power in separate sessions, allowing for sufficient recovery of 48-72 hours between them. It is also important to mix up training cycles with exercise variations and intensity/volume loads.

Key exercises for power & strength in rugby include:

  • Squat
  • Deadlift & Romanian deadlift
  • Bench press
  • Sled sprinting
  • Single leg movements (squat, lunges, step ups)
  • Cleans

Power = strength + speed

  • Loads of 75-95% of 1RM will result in increased maximum strength
  • Loads of 50-60% of 1RM, performed ballistically (e.g. jump squats), will result in increased maximum power.

Fuel your body

Professional rugby players may train multiple times per day, so their bodies need fuelling with the right foods to maximise performance and recovery. Certain things need to be considered when addressing your diet to help build muscle mass and strength:

Calorie requirements – A positive energy balance is essential for muscle hypertrophy. An energy surplus of approx. 300-500kcal per day is an ideal target, and can be achieved by including an extra meal, or by adding a bit more to the rest of your meals.

Increase protein intake – Protein is essential for the accumulation of new muscle. Eating more protein will result in a positive net balance, where protein synthesis outweighs protein breakdown. Rugby players will eat 2-2.5g per kg body weight of protein each day.

For example if you’re an 80kg scrum half:

2 x 80kg = 160g protein

If you’re a 115kg prop:

2 x 115 = 230g protein

Consuming protein across 5-6 meals (every 3-4 hours) is better than 3 meals per day (every 5-6 hours) for maximising protein synthesis. Try to have a good portion of protein sourced from high-quality foods with each meal, especially breakfast as this is often neglected! Eggs are a great option.

Support your training by having a source of protein in the hours before, and soon after your gym or field session. 25-40g or 0.25-0.3g per kg body weight of protein is sufficient after exercise.

Whey protein (fast absorbing) is also superior to casein (slow release) or soy proteins for maximising protein synthesis. Whey protein supplements are very popular for after training as they are very convenient and appetising. Nutrition X’s Big Whey is an excellent option as it contains the optimal amount of protein with additional essential amino acids.

Milk is 80% casein, 20% whey, making it a great option before bed. You can also get a casein protein supplement like Nutrition X’s Nighttime Protein.  

Post-training recovery – Your body needs the extra calories so this is an excellent time to get your calories in. Have some carbohydrate based foods with your protein to replenish energy stores, such as a banana, dried mixed fruit, milk or yoghurt. Alternatively if you cannot stomach food, Nutrition X’s all-in-one supplement, Ultimate, is designed for athletes looking to increase muscle mass.

Food first, supplement later – Your diet should obey a food first approach. Supplements should only be used to resolve nutrient deficiencies, if calorie/nutrient requirements cannot be met through food alone, or in the case of convenience or appetite e.g. post-training, anxiety.

Protein should be sourced by eating a variety of meat, fish, dairy, pulses, nuts and seeds. Vegetarians/vegans may not meet protein requirements solely through legume and grain sources like beans and quinoa, therefore protein supplements may be required.

Supplements that are recommended to promote hypertrophy and prevent common nutrient deficiencies include:

  • Protein
  • Creatine (+18 only)
  • Omega 3 fatty acids
  • Vitamin D3

Top tips

  • Regular resistance training that aims to enhance muscle strength and power
  • Focus on exercises that replicate in-game movements
  • Introduce variation into your training every 4-6 weeks to promote muscular development
  • Support your training with required energy demands
  • Calories in must exceed calories out
  • There is no “one-size fits all” approach
  • Eat a variety of high-quality foods to avoid nutrient deficiencies
  • Consume high quality protein with each meal including breakfast
  • Whey protein is best pre and post training
  • Casein protein e.g. milk before bed
  • Food first approach

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