Keir Wenham-Flatt: Speed and Strength Training for Rugby Union

Keir Wenham-Flatt

Keir Wenham-Flatt: Speed and Strength Training for Rugby Union

Interview by Declan Holt & Lindsay Sutton

Keir’s roll as strength and conditioning specialist with Los Pumas Argentina has made him very well known in the rugby world. As well as being an NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist, Keir also holds a Masters in strength and conditioning, and a Bachelor in Sport Science.

Keir’s vast knowledge, years of experience, and devotion and commitment to his coaching have lead him to work with some highly credited teams across the world, including Sydney Roosters, Rotherham Titans, Shandong Province 7’s, London Scottish and London Wasps. In this interview, Keir has given us an insight into some of his training methods and advice, specific to his time coaching with the London Wasps.

Due to the unpredictable nature of young developing athletes how long do you wait after their Peak Height Velocity is reached before focusing on aerobic and strength development in both females and males?

I am going to lend my answer to males athletes only because I have never actually trained female athletes. I am going to disappoint you with the answer I guess because the truth is that PHB did not really feature within our decision making process when I was head of academy S&C at London Wasps Rugby Club.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that when you are a high level young rugby athlete, within the system, the chances are that you’re not just a rugby athlete, you are a multiple sport athlete. You are probably at a private school and you’re probably going to be training not just with your academy, but also with your club, your school and your region. For that reason, the time that you have as a strength and conditioning coach is extremely limited, I am talking 1 – 2 hours a month.

So for that reason every minute is extremely valuable with those kind of athletes, and we didn’t want to use PHB because we thought measuring it would use up training time that we could be using more effectively. Also we didn’t use PHB because the chances are, we’re measuring the kids growing and we don’t see them, so it doesn’t actually change the decisions that we are going to make within training. I would also say that, although we’re not measuring it directly, we are taking into account, the development of the athlete, in terms of what training we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and the total work load that we’re placing on that athlete. I think once you work with athletes over a couple of years, before they hit PHB you understand what there movement capacities are like, you understand what they are like in terms of their energy levels.

If and when you do get to a period where they’ve hit a growth spurt, you will know instinctively whether they are fatigued, whether they are less co-ordinated than normal, and then you can just use that evaluation by looking at them, to trigger a conversation with your other coaches, with the parents, and with the athlete themselves to start making the necessary modifications to their training. It would be a reduction in load, slight emphasis on force and speed (although that wouldn’t figure massively in the training of a young athlete), and just generally making it less stressful to try and not detract from the physiological stress of growth that is going on.

You believe strongly in training speed for players both developing and professional, how do you educate your athletes on the importance of speed?

In response to this question I would say it depends on who you’re working with. When you’re working with top level professionals or international players, I think they understand intrinsically for themselves just how important speed is in terms of physical performance. People like to hold up the All Blacks as an example of the very best within our game and the number one thing that people remark about playing against the All Blacks is the speed at which they play the game. So that effectively sells it for itself, for those guys.

For guys who are a little lower down the tree, who might be full time professional or premiership or championship for example, I try to talk to them about my experiences of being fortunate enough to work at many different levels of the game from grass roots all the way up to test matches, and the truth is that there are big, strong players at every single level of the game, but what really seems to separate the top level guys from everyone else is the speed at which they play the game. Not only that but increasing speed will have a beneficial effect on how much weight you’re able to lift in the gym.

It’s also going to have beneficial effects in terms of reducing injury risk and having an indirect effect on improving endurance, and improving work capacity, and generally making the players less fatigued. If you can promise all of those things and then hopefully deliver on them, then normally you have a professional player’s ear.

For younger guys, I suppose it’s quite a lucky situation in that younger players don’t tend to question their coaches as much, but we would simply explain to the guys, that power equals force times velocity, and if we can increase the velocity in which they run and with which they execute their skills in the field, we’re going to increase power output, and all things being equal, that’s going to make them a better athlete, and that’s going to allow them to run faster, hit harder, jump higher, pass longer and further and more accurately, because for a given distance they’re going to be more accurate, if their maximal distance is increased – and that’s pretty much how we do it.

Do you use simple physics equations like ‘power = force x velocity’ to help players understand the various training principles?

Yes, we use power = force times velocity to illustrate the need for a moderate load and moderate speed when trying to maximise power output. We also use equations like momentum, so mass times velocity, just to illustrate the two ways that we can improve momentum during contact, so increasing body mass/maintaining speed, or maintaining mass/increasing speed. We also use the impulse equation, so force times time = impulse, we know that impulse is going to create the change in momentum, the change in speed that we want on the field, and we obviously know that time is limited and consistently limited no matter how good you are, so the only option we have based on that equation is to increase force production.

We’ll also occasionally use equations to illustrate endurance training, so obviously we can improve endurance by either reducing energy demand or increasing energy supply and utilisation. Going further into this, if we’re going to increase supply we can look at all the different factors which influence this. If we look at utilisation we can look at all the different factors which influence that, and obviously that is going to inform what kind of energy system training we do, what specific adductations we look to achieve, and then obviously making that part of a whole. I will say though, using things like equations, you have to be careful who you are dealing with. I think it varies according to the age of the athlete you’re dealing with, you’re probably not going to talk about this to a 10 or 12 year old, or an old pro who’s maybe got one or two years of their career left, because quite frankly they don’t care.

I would say that you need to be taking that kind of approach with young guys who are, (not to say other guys aren’t intelligent,) quite academic and intellectual, and I would say for other players, try and frame it in a way they might relate to more, that might interest them and make them click a little more – so I would say for this guys, more practical examples and less technical, but certainly, yes, within my own coaching I’d use those equations and when I think it’s appropriate I will try and convey those to the players.

What are some good examples of speed exercises that bridge training between the gym and the field?

I think the primary thing that you need to bear in mind when answering this question is what makes an exercise specific, because once an athlete gets out of the first couple years of training, the novel stages of training, the transfer from general exercises to specific movement patterns on the field is going to be limited or non-existent. Once you get to that stage of training you need to use progressively more specific exercises to see positive transfer.

The criteria for this is outlined by Professor Yuri Verkhoshansky in Special Strength Management for Coaches, and off the top of my head these criteria are the range of movement, where within that range of movement you produce peak force, the movement velocity, the magnitude and direction of force, the contact time, and the regime of muscular work, (how much stretch or activation of the stretch reflex is going on). If you look at the vast majority of what we are doing on the rugby pitch, just using running as an example, we know that during acceleration there is a large degree of movement at the hip, knee and ankle, going into triple extension/triple flection. The movement speed is much, much higher than we would generally see for most movements in the gym.

The magnitude of force is higher, the direction of force is horizontal. We have a limited contact time, but not as limited as it would be for speed, and there is a decent amount of muscular stretch going on within the first couple of steps. So if we compare those movement characteristics to what we generally see in a traditional gym based program, we see very slow movement speeds, we do see high force, but we don’t see force being applied horizontally – we see it applied vertically. We have an extremely long contact time, and the degree of muscular stretch is nowhere near what we see on the field of play. So it’s easy to see that traditional, slow and heavy programs are not going to have a great deal of transfer from the gym to the field of play beyond the first couple of years of training.

So what we have to do is try and utilise exercises which share a greater degree of movement characteristics with on field movements to hopefully see that transfer. For me, these movements are jump training, (both vertical and horizontal) medicine ball throws, which are particularly useful for developing power output in the transverse and frontal planes of movement, and plyometrics, because of their high force high speed, but also their high involvement of the stretch reflex. You can also include within these exercises things that are ballistic in nature, by that I mean the exercises where the deceleration of the bar is due to gravity rather than the inherent deceleration within the movement. So exercises like jump squats, bench press throws, push presses, trap bar dead lift jumps and the olympics lifts.

Personally, I don’t use the olympic lifts because of the learning curve but they are a good example of an exercise that has that characteristic. The issue that you face with those exercises though is that they are not as specific as jump biometrics and medicine balls can be because the movement speed is still fairly slow compared to on field movements, the contact time is very, very long and the force production is vertical in nature. However, they are better than the slow and fast stuff, you know the squat bench, dead lift, chin up, and so on, that most rugby players do, in my opinion, too much of.

What tips do you have for coaches wishing to utilise multiple planes of movement and make force demands unpredictable and complex in their training programmes?

So, a couple of things, one is that obviously a huge amount of what we do on the rugby field occurs in both the transverse and frontal plane of movement. It’s logical that if you’re not training in these planes of movement, you’re not going to be able to produce, transmit and absorb forces as well as you need to within those planes of movement, so one is absolutely yes, you need to train those planes of movement, both frontal and transverse plane. I would say that for the vast majority of rugby players, they’re not going to be highly specific planes of movement.

A lot of what we do in rugby is sagittal, a lot of the force production is sagittal and during most skills the transverse and frontal plane components are more stabilising or force reduction, but they will determine, to an extent, force output in certain on field movements. For that reason I would say it’s a good idea to try and emphasise those planes of movement more in the earlier stages of the preparation and the athletes career, because closer to the competition and in the more important stages of the athletes career we need to be emphasising more specific exercises which have direct transfer to the field of play. That’s one reason, another reason is obviously the ability to safely position the body and produce, transmit and absorb force in all three planes of movement, should be the foundation upon which, more intense and more specific training is developed later on.

So absolutely I think you need to do it, and you need to do it quite early within the preparation of the athletes career or season, and then move on from it. In terms of making force demands unpredictable and complex, I think the place to do this is on the field. This is because if it occurs in the gym it’s probably not specific training so you don’t need to worry about starting to produce levels of force or reactivity that you would see on the field at play. I think what you do with the gym is you lay the foundation for more specific training to be conducted on the field. Do I try and introduce these elements into athlete training? Yes I do, but the goal that I’m looking for first, with any movement skills and when I talk about that I’m talking about things like sprinting, accelerating, stopping, changing direction in various movement patterns, jumping, hopping, and so on.

Yes I will try and make these demands unpredictable and complex, and increase the force and speed of what they’re doing but first of all we have to make sure they’re able to do all of these movement patterns in a slow controlled fashion, in a controlled and predictable environment. Once we’ve cemented that technique then we can look to increase the speed and force, still in a controlled environment.

Once we’ve done that we then start to take the athlete into an unpredictable environment, where they’re having to react to certain stimuli, first in a slow speed/low force environment, once they’ve mastered that then we increase force and speed, and once we’ve, for example, introduced one stimuli or one or two potential outcomes that they have, to factor into their decision making, then we can start to increase the complexity of the drill – multiple outcomes, multiple stimuli, and the final piece of the puzzle, I would say is putting that into match specific situations, and then lastly introducing fatigue to see if they can maintain that quality of movement and decision making under conditions of fatigue, because that is where injuries are most likely to occur.

Can hypertrophy begin to impede on speed? Have you found any research addressing the relationship between muscle size and speed?

Yes, hypertrophy can begin to impede on speed. Obviously when we are running fast we have a given body mass which we are trying to displace as fast as possible, using muscular force. If we increase body mass and do not increase force production relative to that body mass, that means that we’re probably going to run slower. Does more muscle mass always mean more force production?

If you’re an untrained or low level athlete it probably does mean more force production, however hypertrophy depends on body composition, how much of that new hypertrophy that you’ve developed is accompanied by fat loss. That can have a massive effect on your relative strength, and I think you’re going to see a stronger correlation between body composition, than in pure, lean body muscle mass in sprinting speed. I would say, if you’re dealing with higher level athletes, you’re probably not going to see that good of a relationship between lean mass, or absolute lean mass, and sprinting speed, and what you’re really going to see is a far stronger correlation between relative measures, so relative to body mass and sprinting speed, and much less muscle mass, more to do with force production characteristics, particularly horizontal force production.

The short time period in which movements need to be executed in Rugby presents a unique challenge for training, how did you develop effective training activities to address this issue?

I think we need to distinguish between physical characteristics and psycho-perceptual characteristics. So obviously the vast majority of what we do on the rugby field has a limited time frame in which we’re able to perceive our environment, make a decision and then create movement. In terms of the movement side of things, and actually producing force, I think you need to look at which abilities are most highly correlated with those situations, so obviously we are talking about the right hand side of the force/velocity curve we’re talking about speed, speed strength and maybe maximal power.

For that reason I think you need to prioritise those abilities much higher in your program than you do the left hand side of the force/velocity curve, with the exception of front row forwards, in rugby. If you look at most movements which we’re conducting on the field, so sprinting, jumping, maybe let’s say jumping with loads (to simulate a tackle), we’re going to see a much stronger correlation between development in the middle to right hand side of the force/velocity curve, and performance in those movements, than what we would the left hand side of the force/velocity curve, especially if we’re talking about athletes with a higher training age.

In terms of developing the psycho-perceptual and decision making part of that equation, I think you have to be really, really careful as a strength and conditioning coach to not try and get out of your domain, and start influencing the environment of stimuli that you present to rugby athletes, because there is an extremely high amount of specificity associated with the playing environment, in terms of which visual or auditory cues to scan for, timing, anticipation, and knowledge of previous situations.

I think if we’re talking about rugby, we need to make sure that we’re only presenting athletes with extremely relevant, and extremely specific stimuli, which means that they need to be developing this aspect of movement speed within rugby practice. Now by all means we can inform rugby coaches about the need to do this, but I think once you start to influence rugby training within itself, you’re probably outside of your area of expertise, and I would much rather assist a rugby coach in devising practices to improve that, rather than be in charge of that.

How common is it for training programmes to ignore the need for horizontal forces in Rugby and what ways can coaches implement changes to take the different direction into account?

So I’ve kind of touched on this a little bit already, if you look at the traditional gym based program that a lot of rugby players use, there is almost no horizontal force production. If you look at what Verkhoshansky talks about in terms of specificity, and if you look at more and more of the research which is coming out with regard to sprinting speed from JB Morin and other researchers, you’ll see that horizontal force appears to be much more of a limiting factor in sprinting speed, and much more of a predictor of sprinting speed than vertical speed, and obviously we need to train in this specific manner, we need to be training exercises which heavily attack the horizontal component of force production.

This is typically missing from a lot of rugby strength and conditioning programs, though there are some limited gym exercises which create horizontal displacement of the load which accounts for horizontal force production, so talking about things like step ups, walking lunges, hip thrusts, kettle bell swings and so on. However, I’ve already kind of touched on it, with the need for specific training, we can’t just think about the direction of force, we also have to think about things like contact time, movement velocity, regime of muscular work, range of movement and peak production of force within range of movement, so I would say the easiest way to develop these exercises is to start to implement things like jumps, medicine ball throws, plyometrics, (which are both horizontal and vertical in nature), and effectively treat the gym as general preparation in that it’s not going to have a direct effect on your ability to produce force on the field of play, but what it is going to do is lay a foundation to allow you to build more force down the line, with more specific training.

If a player feels they are receiving a one size fits all method of training from their strength coach how can they identify their own areas for improvement and develop them without being disruptive?

I think, there’s a couple of things here, one is that the player, coach and head coach relationship has to be extremely strong here because as coaches, everybody wants to have their say, and everyone wants to have their bit with the player. I think you are probably going to struggle to find a rugby player who is not doing enough. If they’re serious about being the best rugby player they can be, the chances are that they’re not going to be doing too little training, they’re going to be doing too much. So rather than look for other training activities or stuff to be doing within their program, for a lot of players the best thing you can do, is probably to do less, or rather than do less in general, is less at certain times based on state of readiness of the athlete.

To achieve that you need to have an integrated team of coaches who are really understanding of what one another is trying to achieve, and putting the performance of the player as the biggest priority than their own ego, and trying to run the show. So I would say, before making any decisions, I think, everyone needs to be on the same page, and player and coach education is a massive part of this, even within the Argentine set up, the first week of our camp each year, focuses on player and coach education so that everyone within the squad understands exactly what we want to achieve from the program, and we’re all understanding and coming from the same place when we try and make decisions about modifying the volume, intensity or content of a player’s training.

A second thing that you would need to consider about modifying a program for individualisation is – I’m not going to get into the actual detail of what you’re going to do because I could talk for a couple of hours on that – but I would say in terms of the structure though, you need to identify areas within the program where it might be appropriate to individualise the content, volume or intensity of what the guys are doing and you need to have contingencies in place to execute that whilst being as minimally disruptive as possible.

To give you an example to illustrate this, within the Argentina set up, we actually varied the volume and intensity of our training on a daily basis, for each player, based on their state of readiness that we measure on the morning of every training day. Based on their score, whether we classify them as high, low or medium readiness to train, we will then modify their training, primarily through volume and intensity modification but sometimes in terms of content.

What makes it so easy for us to try and do that, and try and juggle so many balls, is because everyone understands why we’re doing it, and everyone understands what is expected of them if they are high, medium or low readiness. I would say that’s definitely the first port of call for any coaches who are trying to make their program more individualised and more reactive and evolving. A second thing to do is actually talk about what specific changes you’re going to make, what specific exercises you’re going to add or take away, based on what you feel the athlete needs.

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