By any measure, the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team are the most successful sports team in the world. Period. But how does a team achieve a win rate of 77 per cent (84 per cent since 2008) and how do the All Blacks players build the strength, agility, durability, fitness and power necessary to defeat all comers?
That's at least in part down to the team's strength and conditioning work, which is led by the team's strength and conditioning coach, Nic Gill, who is also an associate professor in human performance at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand.
As he explains, while the team does use the latest training methodologies to eke out every marginal gain, the overall strategy is simple and can be applied to anyone's training.
The All Blacks’ secret, Gill said in an interview with The Telegraph, is following the ‘Big Rocks’ philosophy, which is the belief that if you stack your glass with small grains of sand – faddish new workouts and of-the-moment diets – you won't have the space for the big rocks or your strength work, functional movement and cardio fitness. What you have to do then is build your strategy around those big rocks first.
"Big Rocks is really about doing the basics really well," explains 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."
"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."
Gill went on to expand on eight of the All Blacks 'Big Rocks', which you can see below.
Rugby's a physical sport, which requires well-rounded, physical athletes. That's why training programmes are built around compound lifts. "It’s a collision sport: 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," said Gill.
"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," he said. "The key exercises are a bilateral hip movement, such as a squat or a deadlift, and a push or a pull movement, whether that is above the head or out in front, like a bench press, a military press or some chin-ups. We are really trying to work on full-body strength, using multiple joints."
All those compound lifts are also good for core strength, which is also a crucial 'rock' for the All Blacks. "If we squat with good form and good weight, then your trunk has no choice but to get strong," explained Gill. "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." Players also do barbell rollouts, V-sits and Swiss ball holds.
In order to prevent muscle imbalances, Gill complements big compound lifts with single-limb work, including weighted step-ups, split squats, Bosu 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," explained Gill.
So far, Gill's discussed training methods, now here's an exact exercise to add to your programme: bear crawls. "We do a lot of wrestling and a lot of crawling, mainly for mobility and preparation for rugby,” Gill said. “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."
The All Blacks have been using Wattbikes for over a decade, utilising them for recovery, rehab and competition. "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," said Gill.
Specifically on the topic of recovery, Gill said: "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."
The perception is that these are big guys, throwing around big weights, but that's not always the case. "Some of our big boys can only do bodyweight chin-ups anyway because they are so big," said Gill.
"Some of our Wattbike sessions are super-setted with bodyweight circuits," added Gill. "So 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."
Like all athletes, the All Blacks need to make time for stretching and yoga sessions in order to help prevent injuries and strains. "We do a lot of stretching and 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."
Grains of Sand
While the All Blacks training is dominated by the Big Rocks there's still room for some small grains of sand to slip through, with Gill stressing the importance of trying new things and learning new skills. "We’re constantly trying new things and getting a balance between fads and real new methods that might help us long-term," explained Gill. "We don’t look for quick fixes or silver bullets, but we will try things. Every 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."
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