Strength Training & Conditioning For the Rugby World Cup 2011 by Pulling a 12 Ton Truck Or Plane

Ethel Gonzales

Have you seen the strongman competition? Won by Zydr┼źnas Savickas in 2009, it is held annually and often involves giant men such as Bill Kazmaier, Mariusz Pudzianowski and Magnus Ver Magnusson performing feats of strength that are unimaginable and awe inspiring. Performing stunts like lifting atlas balls, the ‘Hercules hold’, keg toss, flipping over giant tyres, ‘duck walk’ and car carry, against both the clock and competitors; the strong man competition is the ultimate strength event in the world. The strength and conditioning of these athletes is phenomenal. There strength conditioning not only involves the ability to lift massive weights but to carry them over distances which takes into consideration the cardio vascular aspect of their training. When you see the strongman events you cannot help but notice that some of these athletes push themselves to the point of bleeding through their noses. The effort and dedication put into the event is out of sacrificial love to be the best no matter the cost. I would not want to tread lightly into the gym workout or training program of any of these Incredible Hulks let alone compete in Strongman.

One of the strongman events is the pulling of a truck or airplane with a rope. Vehicles such as transport trucks, trams, buses or airplanes are pulled across a 30 metre course by hand as fast as possible. In 2007 a fire engine truck was pulled and in 2008 a coal truck. The truck itself sometimes weighs over 12 tonnes. How is a human being able to pull a truck that heavy? What kind of weight training, strength training exercise, strength conditioning or gym workout would one follow to attain such monster proportions of strength? Some of these athletes are able to pull the truck past 30 metres in approximately 30-40 seconds. This demonstrates raw strength together with endurance and speed. How is a human being able to perform such a feat? Does science hold an answer to this? Is this all geometry and physics? Or is this something to do with the strength training anatomy of the individual concerned i.e. is he a superman?

Yes it takes phenomenal strength to do this. But is there more to it? Examining the truck or airplane pull in detail – when you look at the stance of the athlete in the event, you notice his stance is somewhat similar to a 100m sprinter in the blocks. Have a close look at Dwain Chambers, Usain Bolt or Assafa Powel in their blocks before their sprint off in the 100m. The strongman stance is similar. They all tend to lean forward at a 45 degree angle.

A ball thrown into the air at a 45 degree angle travels the furthest. A cricket batsman like Vivian Richards from the West Indies or Aravinda De Silva from Sri Lanka are able to hit the leather cricket ball out of the cricket ground, past the spectators, over the sea gulls and into the nearby housing complexes by targeting their hits at a 45 degree angle. This is pure physics. A projectile fired at 45 degrees travels the furthest as at this angle most distance is covered at maximum force. This theory is implemented in firing missiles and rockets. Therefore by maintaining a 45 degree angle to the ground, the strength training anatomy of a strongman is able to drive the most force against the truck / plane he is pulling. A higher angle exerts less force and possibly causes difficulties in balancing as his centre of mass / gravity is thrown off course. A lower angle reduces the frictional pull the strongman has on the ground. The strength exertion at a 45 degree angle is the greatest.

Having a look at the truck / plane pull reveals that a strongman does not perform one single pull (or thrust forward), but instead exerts a sustained set of continuous repetitive pulls. His strength conditioning involves momentum. He does not explode with one pull alone but uses the speed from each pull to drive the next pull. Bodybuilders often avoid this sort of training as momentum uses physics rather than muscle fibre to make the weights move in their training motion. Each pull from the strongman slackens the rope before being pulled again. Friction causes the truck to slow down after each pull. This strongman event is likened to a strength training exercise of performing a 220 Kg squat for more than 40 repetitions in less than 30-40 seconds.  Does that sound doable to you?

What does all this have to do with Rugby? The World Cup is not too far away and a lot needs to be done in preparation. Strength training and more so – functional strength training, is likely to be the decisive factor in the Rugby World Cup 2011. The Tri Nations 2009 revealed that strength, force and endurance crowned South Africa the victors. There is just about time for teams across the world to tap into functional strength training and drink the spoils of warrior grade training. Who better does one learn from than the kings of strength and endurance? The strongman.     

Rugby League or Rugby Union; it really does not matter which version of the game you play. Driving forward with consistent force, sustained waves of attack with the hope of penetrating the opposition defences and forming thundering walls of defence are part and parcel of the game. The strongman truck pull immediately reminds me of the Rugby Union scrum. The body positioning, the stances and the goals i.e. moving forward against a force, (the force of the opposition scrum and the frictional force on the truck are in the same directions!) are strikingly similar. Following the strongman example, if a rugby player positions himself at a 45 degree angle when driving forward, he is likely to exert the most force and power. Thereby he is able to achieve the most from his strength training through the leverage of his angle of attack. When the whole scrum comes together in this formation they are a force to be reckoned with. Some scrum teams weigh over a tonne and I wonder how many 747 s they would be able to pull. The scrum also needs to move forward in repetitive bursts of thrusting forward. They all need to be synchronized to exert the most force. I immediately begin to envision the movie 300 where the Spartan Warriors came together to form a defensive shielded group that thrust forward in synchronized harmony. The maximum force is exerted in this manner.
Most crowd pleasing moments in the game of rugby are when a carrier or defender are pummelled to the grass in a tackle. The more ‘road runner cartoon type’ the tackle, the more reaction one gets from the crowd. We are like the ancient Romans during the gladiator battles. Most ‘victims’ of such tackles are those who stood tall in the tackle. We learned that if you position yourself above 45 degrees you may have issues with balance and you certainly cannot exert much force whilst you are not balanced. Your centre of gravity / mass is easily shifted from a point of balance and you could easily be tipped over no matter how strong, powerful or heavy you are. If you are below 45 degrees you are likely to fall forward or slip in wet grassy conditions. At 45 degrees any defender has a fair chance of using his utmost strength to floor an attacker. Any attacker is most effective when maintaining a 45 degree angle when charging forward. Any defenders caught above or below 45 degrees are vulnerable and open up a weak link in the 300 Spartan Warrior formation. They will also find it hard pressed to get down to position quick enough. As a carrier, keep your eyes always open for such opportunities. As a defender, always keep to formation.

Have you ever wondered why Power Lifters perform their movements rapidly? Whilst bodybuilders perform slower repetitions but much more of them. Power lifter movements such as the bench press, dead lift or squat are performed rapidly. Power lifters are the pinnacle; the top of strength conditioning individuals.  In fact, for bench pressing or squats, lowering the weight quickly and using that momentum to burst upwards is one way to trick your muscles to pushing heavier weights; although that would have bodybuilder Olympia gurus like Dorian Yates swear out at you. Momentum is critical. Physics dictates that F = MA i.e. Force = Mass multiplied by Acceleration. The faster a player is moving, the more force he is likely to exert on impact. In the scrum, charging, rolling mauls or defending, the more momentum the more force. The opposition needs to exert an equal force to stop you. Even if they tackle you by your ankles, their forearms, arms and shoulders will have to absorb the force of your impact and they are guaranteed never to forget about you. Strength and speed attribute to power. Power will decide who wins the Rugby World Cup 2011. Will it be the All Blacks?  Or the Springboks? England? Fiji? Functional strength training will reveal the new champions.

Olympic lifters (watch out for them in the London Olympics followed by Samba in Rio!) also capitalize on speed. In strength conditioning it is important to include repetition. That is, train your muscles repetitively for the movement you want to perform. There is a very good reason why Olympic athletes may not be able to bench press as much (I often find people on the internet criticize strongman competitors when they find out they cannot bench as much either).That is because of our strength training anatomy. Diving into human biology, our brains build neural pathways. A neural pathway tells the brain that a certain set of muscles need to be used in a certain sequence under a certain amount of force. Our bodies adapt to the strains imposed upon them and build the necessary strength training anatomy to handle the load. This adds strength to the statement – practice makes perfect. Determining one person’s strength over another is futile as it all depends on the function they have been training for. Sometimes the lanky looking guy is more dangerous down the dark alley than the big bench monster. Using momentum together with conditioning your body (by repeating the strength exercises) is what delivers the most power. As a part of your strength training, weights training, gym workout or training program, include speed and repetition to push or pull heavier weights.

There is still a lot be learned from the science of strongman competitions. Strongman competitors, Power Lifters and Olympic lifters all provide unique learning points for Rugby players. It is wisdom to learn battle plans from Spartan Warriors; it is wisdom to learn about combat from Gladiators and it is wisdom to learn from the professional strongmen of this world on how a physical game like Rugby could be mastered and taken to a whole new level.

There will be much more to come.

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