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5 key fitness areas every rugby, GAA, and football player should focus on

Fitness trainer David Last takes you through the checklist you can’t afford to ignore.

Image: Shutterstock/George Rudy

OVER THE COURSE of my career, I have had the opportunity to train a handful of teams and athletes looking for some help with their fitness in relation to their sport.

Prior to starting with each team or athlete, I have always picked up on one thing from each individual: most people think they need a ‘sports-specific’ gym programme for their sport. My answer to this is always the same. While I would recommend specific training areas for certain sports, you need to be assessed correctly first while being able to master the basics.

The best first step before any program is to get a assessment done and figure out which areas need the most attention: mobility/flexibility, movement pattern, strength, power, and core strength. All of these areas are vital for a good well-rounded athlete and if you can tap into these and improve them, it can only lead to a better all-round performance in my opinion. I always recommend that, prior to starting any program, individuals get an assessment from a professional working in the field who knows what they are talking about with a proven track record of success working with teams or individuals.

As a fitness trainer who predominately works with people on the gym floor and, on the odd occasion, in the field, I may not be able to help you get that goal, try, or point, but all of the information below can only complement and improve your overall game.

After a basic assessment, a lot of sportspeople I train initially fall down in these areas:

  1. Very poor mobility or flexibility
  2. Weak core
  3. Little to no real structure throughout the course of the season and off-season

These are the areas below that I suggest sportspeople look into in relation to their gym work for either pre-, during, or off-season.

  • Mobility/flexibility work
  • Strength and power development
  • Speed and agility program
  • Develop core strength
  • Recovery protocols

It’s all well and good writing down almost every area in the book here but the trick is to know when and where is best to apply these different areas in your program. Over the course of the season, you should have a well mapped-out plan on what areas are the most important at a certain time of your season. Again,if you are unsure of this then you should seek out someone who can map this out for you. The benefits I have seen in the space of a full off- and on-season program with the right structure in place have been phenomenal.

Below is a checklist that might just be able to help you out a little further into developing your game for improved performance on the field.

Mobility/Flexibility

Your mobility is key. Whether you are a sportsperson, gym goer or just anybody who wants to look after their body, then you need to stay on top of your mobility. One big problem that I see in GAA, rugby or soccer players is a loss of range of motion, due to weak mobility/flexibility. This can result in injury to a certain area of the body.

Most athletes I have worked with at the start have never really done any specific mobility warm-up drill. These are most common areas that are generally weak: a loss of range and extremely tight shoulders, ankles, hamstrings and hip flexors along with weak and inactive glutes.

Generally speaking you are going to fall down in one or two areas here and if you don’t fix it now you will experience injury some part of your body as the season goes on. Things like stretching along with good activation drills is what is going to work best here. Make use of simple pieces of equipment like resistance, power and mini-bands along with foam rollers and lacrosse balls.

Ideally you are going to be working on your mobility game all year round and it is something to stay on top of almost every training session.

  • Strength work

Forget about doing bicep curls! If you are looking to get stronger for your sport then you need to be working with exercises that will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Generally speaking, you should be working on a strength program during the off-season. Big exercises like squats, deadlifts, overhead pressing, and pulling are something you really should have locked down. Ideally you should be working on your overall strength in the off-season, and could be working off a 6-8 week plan, testing and retesting where you are at.

Below are just some of the benchmarks and drills I would aim to work towards:

  • 10 full chin up
  • 20 full push up
  • 1.5 BW squat 1rm
  • 2 BW deadlift 1rm
  • 2 minute front plank hold
  • 1.2-1.4 BW bench press 1rm
  • Ability to perform a pistol squat
  • Good focus on posterior chain work. Drills like glute ham raises (GHRs) along with other exercises like Romanian deadlifts (RDLs), bridges and x-band walks are all areas I would suggest to have locked down in your program

Speed and power

A lot of athletes spend time developing muscles on the gym floor which can then slow them down. The reason for this is perhaps because it is an easier way to train during a gym session. There comes a point where you have to look at the relationship between gym sessions and the game and this is where you need to get a little specific for your game.

Rugby, GAA and soccer all involve a lot of acceleration and deceleration, but many gym programs don’t reflect the two patterns. Strength and hypertrophy work is important for your program, but speed and power work needs to be dialed down at a certain point of your season. Heavy strength sessions, weekend matches and long training sessions can make it hard to fit speed work into a training regime.

Ideally you need to prioritise a time in the week when you are at your freshest. Working on power and speed can be done after a strength cycle in the off season and it’s always good to be working on it throughout the season too. Most games will fall on your weekend so perhaps the middle of the week is OK for a speed session. Below you can read my article which covers 5 ways to increase your power.

Core and recovery

In a standard checklist above, I mentioned the two-minute plank. This is a good indication of how well your core muscles are functioning. Dr Stuart McGill recommends two minutes as a standard that we should all be able to reach – however, do your planks like you mean them! Not just down in the bottom position pose, but getting as tight and squeezed as possible insuring your braced and locked down in a strong position working towards those two minutes.

Other super drills I have mentioned are hollow holds and rocks, side plank rotations, Turkish get-ups and Russian twists.

Ideally I would be working on your core all year round and it should always feature in your gym program. Below you can read my article which covers seven of the best core exercises for your gym program.

Recovery

Your recovery is just as important.

In this column I have always talked about areas like listening to your body, slowing down, getting enough sleep and plenty of other protocols for your checklist. The bottom line is that your recovery is going to help you stay on top of you performance.

I have found using ice baths, sea swims, active recovery walking/cycling, drinking enough water, doing 15-minute daily body maintenance sessions along with deep tissue massages are all areas that will help you out here and should keep you on track.

Ideally you should always be working on your recovery in and around your training sessions throughout the on and off season

***

I hope you’ve found this information useful and if you need any more advice you can pop me a message from the links below.

David Last is a personal trainer based in Dublin. For more information you can follow him on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. Or you can send him a direct message here.

You can also see some of his previous articles here.

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