This is always a hotly debated topic and rightfully so. When kids love playing a sport it is crucial that they have the skills and mental preparation, but without a body working at its optimal athletic ability, success wanes. You just can get away from the topic of conditioning and rugby strength training for kids.
Even though that is the case, it is crucially important how you approach it. There are two exceptionally crucial factors to take into account regarding age:
- What is the kid’s physical age – literally are they 7 years old, 14 or 16
- What is the kid’s training age – this is often the confusing one. How long have they been used to any form of strength and conditioning training
I would like to start briefly on the 2nd point. A child that is 10 years old and one that is 16 years old who has never done any strength and conditioning training, would both sit on zero years as their training age.
Even though you might feel it is then even more crucial to fast track the training of the young rugby player, this is not the case. It is important to work on training them with a focus on progression as it takes time for a body to adapt to strength and conditioning, especially with kids.
To help guide you on what can be done in terms of training I have broken down the training according to the age group and will touch on training age afterward.
Rugby strength training for kids under the age of 8
This might sound strange, but is definitely still something to be taken into account in the long term development of your kid as a rugby player. At this young age, rugby strength training for kids should not be overdone. It should be more focused on staying active regularly.
As society has evolved and time has become a near-impossible commodity to hold on to, it has become even more critical to make time to train. We sit behind desks (like I am now typing this…) for many hours every day. Our kids spend hours at school and then on a device when they get home (tv, pc, tablet, phone, console…).
The first thing therefore that you have to do is to find time and find it as often as possible. If you can manage it 3 times per week, even if just for 30 minutes, you are winning.
At this age strength and conditioning is down to participation, becoming aware of your body and getting comfortable with running.
Any games that you can think of, not necessarily rugby-related, that involves as many of the muscle groups as possible, is a win.
Here are a couple of the simple examples:
- Playing on a jungle gym (coordination, grip strength, full-body workout, balance)
- Walking on a balance beam or something similar (dexterity in the lower extremities, ankle and knee ligament strength, core strength)
- Playing tag/touchers (speed, agility, decision making, lower body and core workout)
You get the idea…
Conditioning and rugby strength training for kids between 8 and 14
Players start becoming gradually more aware of their bodies during this time. Keeping them active is absolutely crucial and the more often you can facilitate that, the better.
You can start to bring in bodyweight strength training exercises at these ages. Rugby strength training for kids at this age should still be done in moderation.
For players between the ages of 8 and 11, this should however still be the smaller part of the time that they spent playing. You can, however, add it for about 20% of the time. The goal is to get them used to the exercises, help them to slowly start strengthening the shoulder, knee, hip and ankle joints, but not to try and gain any muscle tone specifically. If there is a little muscle gain that is fine, but that should not be the goal
For players between the ages of 11 and 14, you can increase the volume of bodyweight training to around 50% of the activities. Players go through many changes in their bodies during this time and it is an exceptionally challenging time for them. If they are exercising regularly they are getting stuck in healthy habits that would serve them for the rest of their lives. One big benefit of exercise during these formative years is also the positive effect it has on managing anxiety and depression.
The types of exercises that they can do at this time are not exciting in any way, but they are definitely still of great relevance.
You can focus on the following exercises: air squats, lunges, 10m sprints, push-ups, pike push-ups, hip thrusts, sit-ups, leg raises and pull-up varieties.
You will notice that there are no jumps (plyometric exercises) mentioned. It is because their bodies can not yet generate the force as efficiently as needed. More crucially their bodies can’t absorb the forces as well yet.
If you want to add a bit more of a challenge for 13 or 14-year-olds, you can start using resistance bands when training.
Strength and conditioning training for players between 14 and 18
This age group is one of the most challenging ones to work with. Not to try and find the right exercises to do, but trying to manage the players so that they don’t go overboard. Rugby strength training for kids start to look like something more familiar at this age.
No player becomes more body-conscious than a teenager in this age group. The players look at each other, judge each other, want to look like each other and want to impress a girl or a boy if possible…
Strength and conditioning often go off the rails when the focus shifts to the aesthetics instead of improved athleticism. If they look better, they feel better about themselves. That is rarely the best option to achieve your potential as an athlete.
Taking into account what players want from it, there is however a way to balance it out and ensure that they both get the athletic benefit, but also the aesthetic benefits. The key here is nutrition, but we have a separate page on that you can look at after reading this.
When they just want to start lifting weights
At the age of 14, every kid wants to start lifting weights and lift as heavy as they possibly can. Here you need to help reign them in and help them understand that it needs to happen progressively over the next few months and years.
Training with resistance bands at the age of 14 and very light weights, an empty bar or medicine balls are ideal.
This can gradually shift more towards heavier lifting with a focus on Olympic type lifting (clean and jerk as well as snatch) as they get to the age of 18.
As the teams they compete to get more competitive, it is important to start looking at periodization. Simply put it is specific training at specific parts of the season to manage the strain on the athlete’s body. The end goal remains to improve athleticism in a safe and progressive manner.
Our aim is only to lay out the principle, but you can read up about it in more depth on a number of different sites.
Periodization works as follows:
Off-season – the focus would be on hypertrophy. That means that the focus would be on strengthening the body and trying to gain some muscle mass and tone.
Pre-season – focus would start to shift to strength training and fitness. The extra muscle mass gained in the off-seasons will help to drive these types of training. It will consist of more explosive types of exercises where the newly gained muscles would adapt to being used effectively
In-season – during the season the focus would be on trying to maintain strength as well as muscle mass. Typically only a single day is spent in the gym during this time where the whole body is targeted. The focus dramatically shifts in training sessions with the team to build a better skills base and improve team cohesion. Therefore all the work needs to be taken care of during the one session per week
Strength and conditioning for my kid over 18
As your child reaches this age they have, in the majority of cases, grown into their adult bodies. Over the next few years, the best thing they can do in their training regime is to be consistent.
For about the first 3 or 4 years after school, they are likely to increase muscle mass and strength. After this, the focus should be on maintaining those levels year in and year out for as long as possible.
This is where periodization (discussed above) becomes absolutely crucial. Sticking to the off-season, pre-season and in-season training schedules will offer the following benefits.
Benefits of periodization
- Peak performance well into their 30s
- Minimizing of injuries
- Gaining and maintaining lean muscle mass
- Good overall physical health that helps to stimulate mental health
There are countless approaches to each of these periods of training. If you search for articles related to rugby, football or soccer training, you are likely to find relevant training regimes.
Just make sure to focus on the following:
Off-season: hypertrophy/muscle gain
Pre-season: strength training & HIIT (high-intensity interval training)
In-season: maintaining strength in season (just Google variations of that. There are loads of options)
The weird topic of training age
When I did my World Rugby Level 2 Strength and Conditioning course our facilitator was the S&C coach of Kenya’s 7s team. He was also training several of their athletes as well.
One example he used was for one of his athletes who was a 400m male athlete aged 22. The athlete always had a natural talent, but only started training with the S&C coach at the age of 20.
The athlete had regularly been one of the top 10 male athletes in Africa and was gradually improving. Despite his age, the athlete was only starting to look at plyometric exercises.
This was because his training age was not 22, but only 2. He had to first build a strong base that would allow his body to safely manage the toll of these explosive exercises.