Regardless of which team jersey you wear or what player you barrack for, watching New Zealand’s All Blacks play is an honour. Rugby has long produced many a great player or dominant team, but few have come to be so synonymous with success as that of the All Blacks. As New York Times reports, the team is, without question, the most successful rugby team of all time, with a win rate of nearly 80 per cent. “They held the No. 1 world ranking for almost a decade, losing it briefly for a few weeks in August before reclaiming it for a week, then dropping to No. 2 again. They won the last two World Cups, and the players wear the expectation of a third championship the way they wear the expectation that they will win every time they walk onto the field,” writes the publication. “And they nearly always do.”
And while you might be inclined to believe there’s something in that New Zealand water, the truth is that such longstanding talent and success can’t be chalked up to chance. This is a team that trains intensely year-round, one that understands that with expectation comes greater pressure and to rise to the occasion is to put one’s body through rigorous strength and conditioning training. Now, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Nic Gill, is revealing the secrets behind the team’s success. Gill, who is also an associate professor in human performance at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, explains that the underlying training approach employed by the rugby team is a simple one that most anyone can apply to their own training.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Gill explained that the team’s primary philosophy is one called ‘Big Rocks’, which follows the belief that if you stack your glass with small grains of sand – i.e. fad workouts or new health trends and of-the-moment diets – you won’t have the space for the big rocks or your strength work, functional movement and cardio fitness. Essentially, you need to build your routine and strategy around the big rocks first.
“Big Rocks is really about doing the basics really well,” says Gill. “What I mean by that is most of the general population can achieve huge things in health and happiness by doing the basics well, like flexibility, stretching and energy system development across the spectrum – short, hard stuff, moderate duration and long and slow stuff – and a mix of strength and bodyweight conditioning. If we have little snippets of that throughout our week, and we eat well, we’re going to look great, we’re going to feel great and we’re going to be happy people.”
As Gill adds, “When we try to complicate things, we get lost. So filter out all that complexity, and put a basic plan in place. That is what we do.”
With that in mind, here are the key exercises behind the All Blacks’ strength program.
Given the physicality of rugby, players need to be well-rounded with good full-body strength that utilises various joints. As Gill explains, “We have big strong men running hard at one another and colliding, so if your muscles, bones, and tendons are not strong, you will come off second best.” To ensure players are at their peak physically, Gill puts them through compound lifts. “We need to be strong through our hips and shoulders and if we can string them together with some exercises where we develop a strong spine or trunk, then we’re laughing.”
The key exercises to focus on are a bilateral hip movement, such as a squat or deadlift, as well as a push or pull movement (be it above the head or out in front) like a bench press, a military press or some chin-ups.
As Gill notes, compound lifts are also excellent for core strength which is a crucial component for the All Blacks. “If we squat with good form and good weight, then your trunk has no choice but to get strong,” he explains. “But we sprinkle in lots of different challenging tasks, whether that’s planking, flexion of the trunk, or whether that is stability or anti-rotation work with medicine balls.” He also gets players to do exercises like barbell rollouts, V-sits, and Swiss ball holds.
To complement the big compound lifts and ensure there are no muscle imbalances, Gill puts players through single-limb work such as weighted step-ups, split squats, Bosu ball balance stands and Turkish get-ups with kettlebells, as well as single-leg hops, skips and bounds. “Sprinkled among all that is lots of single-leg or single-limb work and lots of injury-prevention exercises,” he says.
“We do a lot of wrestling and a lot of crawling, mainly for mobility and preparation for rugby,” says Gill. “This is all about getting ready to practise but it is also part of the injury prevention-theme. Let’s crawl, let’s get our hips moving, let’s get our shoulders loaded, and let’s work on our range of motion and mobility. Or let’s wrestle and make sure we’re ready for combat.”
Wattbikes are used not only as a cardio session, but for recovery, rehab and competition too. “We use it for recovery (a spin helps to remove lactate from aching muscles after games). We use it for rehab because we can address any imbalances in the legs. And we use it for competition because young athletes love competition and trying to beat each other.”
Gill adds, “When you’re 130kg, there’s only so much running you can do before you increase your risk of injury. But with wattbikes we can improve the condition and physical qualities off-feet, with no risk to joints or Achilles tendonitis or ankles. We can actually sidestep all the things players really suffer from and achieve the same metabolic stress and conditioning on a Wattbike.”
To help prevent injuries and strains, the All Blacks do stretching and yoga sessions with a focus on increasing mobility. “We do small touches of that daily, before or after training, or in the gym. Sometimes twice a day they will be doing soft tissue work, myofascial release, mobility, band stretching and partner-assisted stretching,” explains Gill.
Due to the size of some players, Gill says that some are only suited to doing bodyweight chin-ups. As a result, the team often does bodyweight circuits with some Wattbike sessions being super-setted with a bodyweight circuit. “We might do a crawl, a pull, a press and a Wattbike sprint. The bodyweight (exercise) provides functional conditioning. The Wattbike is replacing the sprint on the field. And the crawl and press are replacing getting up and down from a tackle. So burpees and all of these things are really important.”
Grains of Sands
Although Gill stressed the importance of focusing on the Big Rocks when it comes to training, there is still room for some work on the small grains of sand. With this in mind, players are regularly encouraged to try new things and learn new skills when it comes to their health and wellbeing. “We’re constantly trying new things and getting a balance between fads and real new methods that might help us long-term,” explains Gill. “We don’t look for quick fixes or silver bullets, but we will try things. Ever week you’re thinking: can I learn something different? From athletes to staff, we are chasing perfection – but we will never get there. So long as we are actually trying to get there, that is the main thing.”