A radical, innovative training approach is producing the strongest, fastest men in Australian rugby.
Alex McClintock finds out how.
Walking into the Arena Sports Centre at Sydney University is kind of like entering the land of the giants. Outside, on the leafy avenue that faces historic No. 1 rugby oval, regular-sized people mill about. Yet as you walk into the building, the people begin to grow. You start to feel small in Ralph’s Cafe, where there’s always at least one person simultaneously eating two Al Pacinos (a bowl of tuna pasta with herb bread, the speciality). By the time you walk downstairs into the weights room, you feel positively tiny. The gym is where the real beasts roam.
Doing your squats next to Jerry Yanuyanutawa, probably the strongest front-rower in Australia, isn’t exactly encouraging. Nor is watching Tom Carter, 28, and Mitch Inman, 22, centres for the NSW Waratahs and Western Force respectively, hitting the bench press. Both guys are well over 100kg and ripped.
Sydney Uni’s rugby program, which The Arena plays host to, may be the best in Australia. Currently, 28 products of the program are playing Super Rugby – four are Wallabies. Not bad for a team that, in the ’90s, was close to being kicked out of Sydney’s Shute Shield for underperforming. They’ve won the last six premierships in a row.
And they’ve done it all with a radical, innovative training program. The big boys at Sydney Uni do almost no steady-state cardio. Their training consists of skills, agility and speed training – and lots of really heavy weights.
“We go away from your regular methods of conditioning and look to outmuscle and outrun our opponents through strength and speed,” said Tim Leahy, the program’s strength and conditioning manager. “Our point of difference is that we’re bigger, stronger and faster than our opposition, rather than fitter.”
The Uni boys aren’t just big either, they’re shredded. Carter and Inman, both more than 20kg heavier than the average centre of 20 years ago, are almost all muscle. Fijian-born Yanuyanutawa, 26, is not your typical chubby front-rower – he’s jacked.
Leahy says that as long as players are showing low body fat and high muscle mass, the staff are happy for them to do no cardio. It’s all strength work in the gym – and agility, speed and mobility out on the park.
Jerry Yanuyanutawa, a product of the Sydney Uni program, also plays prop for the Brumbies.
Paradoxically, one of the effects of the program has been that the students tend to dominate tired opponents late in the game. In the Shute Shield grand final last year against Randwick, Uni piled on 30 points in the second half to win 46-6.
“Traditionally, people have seen big forwards gasping with their hands on their knees 20 minutes into a game,” said Bruce Ross, president of Sydney Uni Sport and one of the men behind Uni’s dominance. “So coaches look at that and they say, ‘They’re obviously not fit enough’, then they run them more. But these players are probably out of breath because they’re not strong enough. You can work on your cardio fitness, but that doesn’t help you in rugby, the ultimate collision sport.”
Leahy and Ross are both proud of the success of their program. Leahy highlighted the case of Ben McCalman, 23, who, after three years with Uni, made both his Super Rugby and Wallabies debuts in 2010.
However, having so many players in representative rugby has its downside. The training is so good at Uni that even the professional teams sometimes don’t measure up. “We find that when players come back from Super Rugby, very frequently they have either been run down by too much grinding, repetitive training, or their strength base has been diminished,” said Ross.
“We’re bigger and stronger than other teams. We work towards having physical confrontation right through the game.”
The University style of play is as different as its training. Ross calls it “Physical Imposition Rugby”. “We’re bigger and stronger than other teams. We work towards having physical confrontation right through the game, in the belief that the smaller and less well-conditioned team won’t be able to sustain it for 80 minutes. It’s about big man against small man– eventually, the big man will win.”
People are paying attention too. Some have noted that this year, the NSW Waratahs, many of whom are University products, are starting to play a similar, physically confronting game. Ross is almost too modest about his role in Uni’s dominance, but people who’ve worked with him and those that still do, have nothing but praise for the man.
Justin Dwyer, who worked with Ross as the General Manager of Rugby from 1997-2000, saw the beginning of the club’s rebirth. “Through those dark days, all of the time Bruce was taking the longer-term view – he felt he had to have a vehicle to get sport at Sydney Uni back to prominence again, and rugby was it.”
Ross, a skinny 73, is an old hand in the strength and conditioning business. He’s the inventor of the ScrumTruk, a hugely successful piece of training equipment. The ScrumTruk and its successor, the MyoTruk, mimic the action of scrummaging, yet are far safer and more efficient than barbell squats The MyoTruk mimics the action of scrummaging, yet is far safer and more efficient than barbell squats.
Ross came to rugby through weights, and not the other way around. At a time when almost nobody was doing strength training for rugby, Ross became a devotee and advocate. “I was living in Wollongong. Once a month, I’d catch a train up to Central Station, go to the railway bookstore, pick up whatever bodybuilding magazines they had and catch the next train back to Wollongong. I was basically self-taught.”
It’s hard to believe now when you see Ross among the giants at the Arena, but at 23, Ross started playing in the front row of his local surf club’s team. He found his work in the weights room paid off immediately. “Basically, people weren’t doing much strength work at all. People were just running laps of the field and things like that. It was very different in those days.”
Ross became a professor of economics and taught at the University for 30 years, before returning to his passion for weights and rugby, becoming the President of the Sports Union in 1990.
Then, in 2003, came the idea for the ScrumTruk. Within a year, the machines were in production and Ross had created a company, MyoQuip, to sell them. Today, it makes many types of equipment, including an alternative leg press, and hip and knee machines.
Ross, who is modest about his role in Uni’s resurgence, acknowledges that his machines might have had a little to do with it. “My machines have been important, because they allow people to have a much more intensive workload.”
Today, they can be found at every Super Rugby franchise in Australia (except Melbourne), in the Wallabies gym and across the world – a bit like the other products of the Sydney Uni rugby program.
Hip Extension and rugby
Hip extension is one of the most important movements in football. It’s involved in running, jumping, squatting, lunging and changing direction. These movements on different planes form the cornerstone of the strength program at SUFC.
“A strong gluteal region is what separates an average rugby player from an elite one,” says Leahy.
■ Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat provides the most torque on our glutes of any exercise. That means optimum strength activation. Watch out, though, it also means maximum soreness the next day. Leahy points to improved tackle-busting as one of its many on-field benefits.
■ Hip Thrust
The hip thrust allows for total glute activation, since your knees stay bent. Bent knees stop your hamstrings helping out too much, which leads to bigger, stronger glutes. It’s a key exercise for improving your sprinting and running speed.
■ Back extensions
In contrast with hip thrusts, your legs are straight during back extensions, which works the hamstrings and the tops of the glutes. It’s a great exercise for knocking out lots of reps and feeling the burn. As a bonus, it’ll help your squat, deadlift and Bulgarian numbers.
■ Glute Hamstring Raises
Long a favourite of sprinters, the GHR smashes your glutes and hams. It’s a pretty steep curve if you don’t have the strength to perform them, though, and you may need a buddy to help you out. It also forces your hamstrings to work with your knee and hip extensors, which is necessary for almost everything you do in footy.
The Dark Side of Cardio
“Steady-state, slow-plod conditioning has never been a priority at SUFC,” says conditioning expert Tim Leahy. Uni looks at what players actually do during the game, and designs their training for that. Studies have shown they cover only 7-10km during a game, so Uni’s guys do interval work to prepare for that, meaning wrestling, boxing, rowing or sprinting.
During the season, that work is almost all anaerobic, with a 1:3-4 ratio of work to rest. Old-fashioned cardio isn’t that effective at targeting fat, and can potentially strip muscle if done wrong, which isn’t good for your footy. Adding interval work into your training should be a no-brainer. Recent studies have shown that it’s more effective at burning fat than boring old track work, as it keeps your metabolism stoked for days.