Vitalstrength got the inside word on leg training for rugby league from the man himself, Johnathan Thurston.
Building strong, powerful legs is one of the most important areas a rugby league athlete needs to focus on. The game involves collisions, accelerations and decelerations which lead to large forces going through the hip, knee and ankle joints. For this reason, rugby league players need these joints to be strong, resilient from injury and be able to produce optimal power – and you need everything to be equally as good when you are fatigued. That’s a huge ask.
Luckily, the North Queensland Cowboys have an excellent group of coaches in their high performance unit who come up with multi-faceted and coordinated training programs for each of the players.
Because of the various types of training (e.g. skills, conditioning, speed, agility, resistance training) rugby league players need to undertake, there is limited opportunity to focus purely on leg strength training without having a fatigue effect on the other areas.
The Cowboys training schedule needs to be designed so that the best possible training adaptation can be reached. Typically, Johnathan Thurston will go through two leg strength sessions in the gym per week (4-6 exercises) during the pre-season. During the pre-season, there is more of an opportunity to program lower body exercises with higher volumes and intensity.
These sessions are usually designed so that the player has recovered from the previous training session and a minimal amount of high speed running is scheduled in the next 12-24 hours to avoid the risk of injury.
Other forms of lower body strength training, such as resistance running with bands and sleds, pre-activation sessions and pilates are performed throughout the training week.
The Cowboys NRL strength program uses the traditional back squat as a measure for maximum lower body strength.
Provided it’s performed correctly, it’s an excellent exercise to develop the glutes and quads.
However because of Johnathan Thurston’s long career, he has considerable “wear and tear” at his hip and knee joints and finds that he can get more benefit out of a trap bar deadlift exercise.
Johnathan’s accessory lifts are just as, or even more, important.
Cowboys strength and conditioning coach Mark Henry says,
“too often a players will place all their focus on the maximum strength exercise and ignore more functional exercises such as the single leg squat.”
There are many variations of this exercise (e.g. skater squat), but they involve maintaining correct knee alignment, square hips and usually depending on strength do not require a great deal of additional weight.
Everyone in the Cowboys NRL squad works hard on their single leg glute and hamstring strength with exercises including Bulgarian squats, Nordics, single leg RDL’s and glute ham raises.
Due to JT’s previous injuries, Mark says modifications need to be made at times using exercises such as a single leg box squat.
During the season, the North Queensland Cowboys avoid pure leg strength sessions due to the week-to-week fatigue caused by NRL games.
Depending on game-to-game turnarounds, 1-3 full body sessions will be performed including 1-3 leg strength exercises and 2-3 leg power exercises.
After most training sessions Johnathan uses Vitalstrength Rapid Protein and Creatine. He says, “Creatine is a big help to increase the intensity of my training and Rapid helps to maintain my size. I also take Glutamine daily to assist muscle recovery.”