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GET STRONGER with Michael Deasy

Deasy, originally from Cork, Ireland, has travelled the world sharing his skills and experience as a Strength and Conditioning Coach. With Rugby Canada’s Mens 15s team since 2016, Deasy knows fitness; he knows what it takes to condition an athlete’s body, and he knows what’s necessary to nurture both the vessel and the psyche of the athletes he works with. He has a lot to say about training, but it is undoubtedly valuable as it comes from years of experience and expertise in his field. Keep reading for a perspective on gaining and maintaining strength that you won’t see anywhere else:

Most important exercise for a rugby player?

MD: This is a really hard question to answer. I would have to say, it depends.

All compound exercises (e.g. squats, bench, deadlift, cleans) are crucial to develop strength and power but depending on the makeup of a player and if they have injuries, then that might not be the best path to go down. For example, a player might have back issues so alternatives such as belt squat, single leg work, and variations which take the load off the spine will lead to a healthier athlete. My job involves getting the athletes onto the field in the best possible condition and this means not harming them through inappropriate training selection for them. When we evaluate a player, we fit the exercises for that athlete and go from there.

If I had to say one answer, then the hex bar is a really versatile piece of equipment which is a little bit lower back friendly and allows for good lower body and power training e.g. hex bar deadlift, hex bar jumps, hex bar clean pulls, hex bar farmer walks etc.

How important is a solid warm up and cool down to training?

MD: A warm up is massively important as its primary aim is to increase core body temperature. There is a lot of research which points towards a good increase in body temperature leads to increases in power output. On the flip side, baseline or lower body temperature leads to reductions in power output. With rugby being a contact sport, then the ability to express power (force) well is critical so getting a good warm up in is of huge significance. On a match day, from a psychological point of view, it is also important to get the players into a routine and provide that last bit of confidence around team play while getting the athlete ready to perform. The athlete is prepared for training days from the weekly hard work at gym sessions, rugby sessions, fitness sessions, study/work etc. For some players, getting the body (or telling it) to get ready for the session to follow through a structured warm up prepares the athlete and also reduces chances of injury.

Cool down can mean a few things (and I will provide options immediately post training for a 30-40 min window) from active work such as light jogging or biking, to passive cool downs such as ice baths or hot tubs. There is contrasting science around a lot of recovery methodologies (e.g. ice baths), but it is proven over and over that some form of cool down is better than nothing. I would initially always look at what the athlete prefers as well as what works for them individually. Obviously, this requires some compromise such as having an athlete who hates cold tubs coming to the middle ground of completing hot/cold contrasts in order to achieve a similar beneficial cool down method.

How do you manage training a large group of players?

MD: Luckily enough, with high performance athletes, they are extremely motivated and committed so it becomes a two way street in terms of managing each player. Every player will have their own workload, gym, and extras planned for a certain block. In terms of managing the larger group together, I just have to be really organized and make sure I check all monitoring done via app for that day. I check in with medical staff around players and have 1 on 1 conversations with athletes before the day starts (this really gives a good feel for how guys are e.g. energy in the room). Little things that have really benefitted me are having the players’ faces on white board magnets, then each day I can go through each one individually and have any modifications ready. It also helps the players as they know things such as which rack they are working on or who their training partner for the day is.

What is the difference between training 7s and 15s?

MD: Looking at international level 7s and 15s there isn’t a whole lot of difference. Each player needs to be very aerobically fit, fast, and have good repeat speed qualities. The biggest piece is that for 7’s players, although time is short (14 min game), they have to warm up 3 times a day which actually turns a day into a roughly 10km day. The warm up and cool down in itself is hard work notwithstanding the fact that there are two days in a row of it. Preparing the players for this and worst case scenarios is really important so when they come to tournaments, it isn’t a massive shock to their system. Speed is crucial across the board in 7s as you may have some slow runners in 15s who can manage depending on a position, but in 7s with 7 v 7 it would not be a nice place to be. Vice versa the body type seen in 7s wouldn’t do very well pushing in the front row of a scrum.

Obviously across 7s and 15s there are some massive differences in weight, with the average 7’s forward being about 99-105kg and a 15’s forwards tipping up to 150kg in international rugby. Given that front row is such a demanding position, you have to make sure these players have no body leaks and everything is as strong as possible; they have close to a 1000kg force pushing behind them and 1000kg coming at them. Despite that, the theory that front rows are just there to push and then walk around the park couldn’t be further from truth with guys now having massive engines and high running targets.

Within the gym, guys will always have areas they need to work on whether it is increasing power or becoming stronger, so between 7s and 15s, this is no different. It’s important to ensure we have an individual approach to improve each player.

How often do you change workouts?

MD: It depends on the training age of the athlete and how they respond to training. For example, with a 17 year old player who has had very little gym experience, we need to get the basics down well so there is a greater chance for increases in strength over the next period. If the player keeps adding 1kg to his squat each week, why would you change the exercise until it plateaus? Having some variety is crucial but the tried and trusted work. In contrast, getting the same gains out of an athlete with a higher training age requires a lot more work to progress to current levels so finding optimal programming through various testing and physical measurements are really important. As the player may have been around a while, you have to keep the training fresh since it is important to keep progression going without compromising the enjoyment of training.

How do you manage workouts during season vs off season?

MD: Everything we do is measured so it makes managing workouts, whether in gym or on field, a lot easier. Running players will wear a GPS unit which tracks everything they complete from sprinting, accelerations, top speed etc. This allows us to adjust workloads and also top guys up or pull back where necessary. An easy example of this is in preseason where you might have time to complete 2-4 speed sessions a week. On an international tour, or a really busy period where rugby is crucial, then we may have to drop this amount down. With the GPS units we can make sure guys have had enough high speed running or at least hit in excess of 90% of their max speed 1-2 times per week to make sure they have stimulated that max velocity running. If a player hasn’t met this goal, we can incorporate a drop in sprint that is equivalent on a rugby day.

Recovering from games is also massive during the season and takes every person different times, but averages around 48 hours to come back to the baseline. So in that 48 hours, a lot of recovery work goes into players e.g. massage, pool, physiotherapy work, and active work on bikes. On the second day post game, guys can usually do a bit of active work and get some lower grade core and upper body work in. No one has ever complained of pumping the guns and it also gives players a good boost. If a player hasn’t been involved, or has low game minutes, they will be topped up in accordance with their physical needs (might be strength, running, or speed).

The off season provides the opportunity to really develop physically what each player needs while the in season is about keeping these qualities and causing the least amount of stress on the player. As a rule, if something is important for a player then we will always keep some form of it within the program throughout the year (e.g. a player needs to increase upper body mass to be effective in collision).

How often do players train strength vs cardio?

MD: Horses for courses on this one!!! It ultimately comes down to each individual player and what they need to work on to be better players. Discussions with players & coaches are really vital. If a player has a massive engine and can run all day then we keep this quality through training conditioning minimally and focus on an area of weakness.

We have set workloads per week which we target players to reach, and if this is completed within rugby sessions then no additional running needs to be done. If not, we will top up appropriately. Ultimately depending on a person’s body type, they may always struggle with weight management or body composition so instead of running them to bits at the increased risk of injury, we will look at off-feet conditioning options such as boxing and biking to be placed within their programs throughout the week to keep them sharp.

Who was your favourite athlete to work with?

MD: Andrew Coe is a talented athlete, works hard, and has a good personality around training every day.

Maurie Fa’asavalu is a Samoan back rower who I worked with and he will always stand out to me as well. Extremely committed, hardworking, no nonsense player. Outstanding rugby player and great guy who played both league and union.

Special mention to Ray Barkwill whom I trained as a player and now since has retired and transitioned into coaching. He is often my roommate on tour so got to keep the roomie happy. Great example of someone who wasn’t blessed with all the physical goods, worked extremely hard to become a really top level international hooker, and brought all those physical qualities which at the age of 37 was getting some personal bests in fitness scores and acceleration scores.

How do you work with lazy athletes?

MD: At the international levels there are not many lazy athletes or they wouldn’t have found their way to the top. Some players “don’t know what they don’t know” so it’s my job with the rest of the management to educate them to what it takes around nutrition, recovery, physicality, and all personal standards to become a top level rugby player. At the end of the day our job is to lead a horse to water but we can’t make it drink.

As I mentioned above, with all the metrics of physical work being measured then it really is hard for someone to be lazy. If a player doesn’t get the work done in training then they will have to complete extra conditioning post rugby practice. Within weights programs, weights will be prescribed or else using hardware speed of bar will be prescribed so we know what we are looking for on a given day and players are held accountable.

How do you go about changing programs to accommodate injured athletes?

MD: It really depends on what the injury is. Having a great medical team gives great feedback to what we can and can’t do. If a player has a sprained ankle for example, we will design a program to first ensure that no further harm is done to the ankle and we give it the best opportunity to heal. Next step is how do we maintain qualities we can train? The athlete can’t run so pool sessions, boxing, and circuits would all be appropriate. As the player isn’t running yet then we might look at upping the overall number of gym and off feet sessions to make sure when they return, their muscle condition and body composition has been maintained well and they can adjust back into rugby without feeling a step behind physically.