With the Rugby World Cup kicking off this month, Wales winger George North reveals how a smart diet and intelligent training helped him pack on a stone of lean muscle. By Mark Bailey
From school playing fields to professional stadiums, rugby wingers of old were skinny speed-machines who did one thing and one thing only: scored tries. But with his 193cm, 107kg frame, Wales winger George North shatters the mould. North represents a new generation of international try-hunters who combine dashing athleticism with brute strength. Armed with a bench press personal best of 160kg and a squat one-rep max of 255kg, North is impressively strong, but fuses force with lethal speed and agility.
At the age of 27, North has already scored 37 tries in 84 starts for his country, claimed three Six Nations titles, and is now bulldozing into his third World Cup tournament, with many fans believing he will eventually finish his career as Wales’s all-time leading try-scorer. Before going into battle, he shared the secrets behind his unique mix of strength and speed.
You need good cardio, as well as strength and power. I do a lot of compound lifts like cleans, high pulls, squats and presses to help build muscle mass.
Men’s Fitness Professional rugby players continue to get stronger and more powerful. How much muscle have you put on since turning professional?
George North “From turning professional aged 18 to now, I’ve put on a stone – so about 6.3kg. What I have noticed recently, though, is that my body has adapted, so I’m able to maintain that weight better – even while playing all the games. In my younger years, whenever I put muscle on, as soon as the games kicked in it would just drop off again. But my body has adapted after all the training and eating, so I’m better able to maintain that weight. It’s a bonus of getting a bit older, I think.”
MF What are the main physical qualities you aim to build in the gym?
GN “Rugby is quite a weird sport in one sense, because you need to be good at everything. You need good cardio, as well as strength and power. I do a lot of compound lifts like cleans, high pulls, squats and presses to help build muscle mass. When I was younger I was just trying to make sure my technique was right, so when I started chucking on the weights later on I had a good foundation to push off.
“In the last few years I’ve done things which will benefit me more specifically as an athlete, so a lot more power work and single-leg stuff as opposed to double-leg stuff. I’m just trying to think of the bigger picture of how I can improve my in-game performance, rather than just being big and strong. The single-leg work makes me much more dynamic and efficient.”
MF Which system of gym training has been most effective for you?
GN “Overload training (with a gradual increase in the frequency, intensity or size of lifts over time) worked best for me in terms of building muscle. It’s a hypertrophy session – not necessarily hitting certain numbers but just making sure you do more than you did before, with harder or heavier repetitions. And density training (pairing two exercises which use different muscle groups, such as squats and bench presses, and completing as many repetitions of each exercise as you can in 15 minutes) – that worked for me, too.
“I was quite – what’s the polite way to say it? – lanky when I was younger. My body just grew before my muscles came along, and it was hard to pack on muscle. It took a lot of hard work in the gym – pre-season has always been a pretty stinky time for me – and a lot of eating. I would often do 100-rep rounds, just trying to get all those reps in for the muscle adaptation.”
MF How do you structure your gym sessions throughout a typical training week?
GN “A lot of it is about those hypertrophy sessions – just lifting more than you’re used to. People often say you need to do 10-15 reps, but just trying to train smart by lifting more each time is better. We don’t often have enough time to do designated sessions for biceps and triceps, back and chest, so normally I split my sessions into three types: upper body, lower body and power sessions. For an upper-body day, I will do maybe 5-6 reps of push-pull exercises like a bench press into a prone row, followed by shoulder press into chin-ups. We then end the session with a ‘finisher’ – essentially a circuit where we do lighter weights but for 8-12 reps. The aim is to just get a bit more volume at the end to maximise the results for extra speed and power. Leg day might be things like squats and single-leg Bulgarian squats.”
MF What do you do to build power?
GN “I have to do a lot of running at top speed – it’s a big part of my game – so that means I do a lot of stuff around my core, hips, glutes, hamstrings and hip flexors so they all fire at the same time. They make me more efficient so I don’t waste energy flapping around. If your ankles aren’t stable, you lose speed, so I look at how I can generate power and work up from there.
“I also do a lot of sprints at speeds faster than 7.3m per second, as that is the kind of speed I work at consistently. It’s usually just sprinting hard with lots of repetitions. We also do a lot of stuff for power endurance and extreme circuit training, so tug-of-war exercises, tyre flips and sled work. Doing those in a big group really helps.”
MF What’s the big difference between how amateur and professional athletes train?
GN “I was speaking to (former Wales captain) Sam Warburton when he retired and he said the training we used to do, compared to the training he does now just to stay in shape, are worlds apart. We come off the paddock or gym blowing and screaming because in each session we are trying to get better. Pre-season is quite a grim part of my life. But it is a means to an end and you have to get through it.”
MF What do you think is the secret to maintaining muscle mass?
GN “As well as smart training, it’s all about eating. And protein shakes. With Wales, we have a nutritionist there all the time who has useful tips on maintaining mass. But I did a lot of work in my earlier years, before I joined the Scarlets academy, with a guy called Steve Rickards who worked with the RAF and did a lot with North Wales rugby. His top tip for me was when you are trying to put mass on, you have to get as much as you can in to fuel the body and help it adapt and grow. Looking back, it was a great bit of advice.
“At that level, when I was 15 or 16, I could get away with eating anything. But you really want top-quality food. I like to mix up my carbs so I have things like sweet potato wedges or couscous to be a bit healthier too. But you just have to get the food in.”
MF Where do you get your protein from?
GN “As well as lots of protein shakes, I mix it up: so chicken, turkey, beef, lamb and venison. I’m a big fan of turkey burgers and turkey mince. We have to eat a lot of the same stuff so I try to keep it varied. Chicken wings and fish cakes are a good way to get protein in. If we’re lucky, the chef knocks us up some chicken wings as snacks. It’s a little ‘Brucie Bonus’ of being in camp. I’ve also been enjoying some Halo ice cream, which is a high-protein ice cream to cure the itch for something sweet. I like a good smoothie, too, with some fruit like banana and berries and some peanut butter and Promax.”
MF Are you any good in the kitchen?
GN “Absolutely not. I don’t starve obviously – you can tell by the size of me. But Becky (North’s wife, née James, the Rio 2016 double-silver-medal-winning track cyclist) is the cook in our house. My go-to is a spag bol. Another tip I learned in the early days when it comes to putting weight on is to make a big batch and have the rest for breakfast.”
MF Do you monitor and record all your training?
GN “Yeah, sports science comes into play and it has certainly helped for my muscle mass and my performance. We have so many different parameters, such as distance covered, how fast we run, the time you spend walking compared to jogging and sprinting. And a lot of that data gives you feedback in the gym as well, like how fast you lift. The sports science team at Wales get really arsey if you don’t fill your numbers in because for them it’s a big tool to see where you’re going. But I admit that I like to know my investment is giving me good returns – otherwise there’s no point doing it and I should change my training.”
MF Do you enjoy a healthy competitive spirit in the camp?
GN “The boys in that environment, at any level of rugby, are always comparing what each other are lifting. Who is the strongest? Who did well in this lift or that lift? You do keep an eye out for it.”
MF What music do you listen to in the gym?
GN “I prefer a bit of heavier rock but it doesn’t go down with the masses so you have to pick your audience. So long as it’s got a half-decent beat and some words, it works for me. The volume is key: if it’s loud, the boys are bouncing off it.”
MF Finally, how do you handle the pressure of the biggest matches?
GN “It’s about staying relaxed and calm before the game. I treat all games the same, so it becomes normal to deal with the pressure. Even for big matches, just following your normal routine helps you get in the right frame of mind. You need to get the details right about your food and your warm-up so your mind is clear. A big game is something to get excited about, not worry about.”
George North is an Adidas athlete and a Triumph Motorcycles ambassador – see triumphmotorcycles.co.uk
Eat Like a Pro
George North’s muscle-bulking meal plan
“In the morning I wake up and get some eggs on toast with some porridge for a bit of extra protein and a scoop of Promax. Or it could be scrambled egg on toast with bacon and curly kale. After a morning training session, I try to get a protein shake in to help replenish the body. Lunch could be big if it’s before an afternoon session, but luckily in camp we have a chef prepping food for us. It makes us sound posh, doesn’t it? Usually it’s chicken and veggies, or some chicken wraps with salad. And then before we go back out to the next session I have another shake. Dinner might be spag bol or chicken, rice and vegetables with some peanut butter or jam on toast before bed. I have to eat four to five meals a day, plus supplements, to maintain my muscle. We burn 5,000 calories per day, so you just need to eat and eat.”
As a pro athlete, North hunts functional strength, not beach muscles, but he still enjoys a few bicep-shredding workouts. “The old favourite is ‘21s’,” he suggests. That involves doing seven biceps curls, raising the dumbbells slowly from your thighs until your forearms are parallel to the floor; then seven more, this time starting with your forearms parallel to the floor and finishing with the dumbbells by your shoulders; then a final seven in which you lift the dumbbells through the full range of motion. “Also, have you ever run the rack? To do this, you pick the weight you feel you could do for 10 reps – say 10 biceps curls at 18kg. Do 10 reps of that, then do 16kg for 10 reps, then 14kg for 10, and continue to run the rack down until you can’t curl it any more. That’ll do it.”