Peak you: What the Crusaders' gym culture teaches the rest of us about fitness
- Published: 18 August 2020
Ever feel aimless in the gym or uncertain of the value of plodding around the block? What do the elite conditioning methods of a team like the Crusaders have to teach. JOHN McCRONE from Stuff.co.nz reports.
We are in the Crusaders gym and their fitness coach, Simon Thomas, is talking about differences in training personality. The dot system.
Pictured: Simon Thomas, Crusaders Strength & Conditioning Coach
Red dot people want their information in bullet point form, says Thomas. “No fluff and straight to the point. You write it, I’ll do it.”
Purple dots, by contrast, prefer creative involvement. “It’s important to engage with them, so they feel their ideas are going into the process.”
Yellow dots expect a hyper-detailed plan for the day, while blue dots are more about the mood or vibe.
“If I know a player likes a lot of detail, I’ll say I’ll meet you on that corner at 10.03am and we’ll do 15 minutes.
“Whereas with others, it’ll be like, when shall we meet? Aw, afternoonish? And that’s as good as you’re going to get. They’ll feel trapped if you put too much detail into it,” Thomas says.
The question on the table is what can the average gym-going Kiwi learn about fitness and exercise from the way that New Zealand’s elite athletes and trainers go about their jobs?
It is natural to be curious about how to wring whatever counts as peak performance from your body, even if you know your best possible is never going to trouble any Super Rugby or Premiership Netball selector.
And already we are into unexpected territory.
But Thomas is right. On the one hand, the principles of fitness training are fairly time-honoured and simple. On the other, as humans, we are all complex and individual.
Even our own learning styles come into it. So making the connection between the science and its application can be where it gets tricky.
Thomas is showing me around the Crusaders’ gym – a light and airy space, built five years ago, at their training ground in Christchurch’s St Albans.
Behind us, two of this year’s young breakout stars are working out on an off day – one doing reverse dumbbell flies on a bench, the other sprinting full pelt down the artificial grass mat tied to a bungee cord for resistance. The latest off a production line of conditioning excellence.
Thomas points to some of the gym’s more unusual bits of kits.
Here is Ben Franks’ personal scrum machine, which the All Black prop left behind when he headed overseas. A chunk of ironmongery as sturdy as a railway buffer.
Over there is a baffling hydraulic fire pole-like device. Something cooked up by a North Island inventor for practising lineout lifts, Thomas says.
However, other than having rather fewer mirrors than an ordinary commercial gym, it all looks familiar. And Thomas keeps assuring that the difference isn’t about the basics.
Achieving “peak you” – that elusive notion – is instead about having a clear “big picture” view as to why you are even in the gym, he says.
Know your goal. From there, the rest can follow.
STEP ONE: TRAIN WITH INTENT
Ah yes. A crucial point. Professional athletes are training for a definite outcome. Results on the field.
For the rest of us, the question can be does it even make sense to challenge ourselves – go hard out?
A few days earlier, I had watched a scene from childhood taking place in the park by my home, the local primary school turning out for a cross-country race.
About 40 8- and 9-year-old boys of decidedly mixed enthusiasm. At the front, a bobbing knot of keen ones. Trailing increasingly far behind, the ranks of the resigned, the forlorn, the walking dead.
And when as adults we do take up exercise – which, given modern life, we all need to – how many of us gravitate towards what is comfortable rather than serious?
If you are naturally flexible, head for the yoga and dance classes. If you are stocky and made for the barbell racks, that is where you will hang out.
But what is the motivating goal? Training for looks is superficial, even if a fringe benefit. Training for weight loss is legitimate, however only as an accessory to sorting out your diet.
Even training for strength or endurance becomes a nebulous thing on closer examination. How much is enough?
No point getting obsessively strong at lifting weights if your daily life doesn’t involve anything much more demanding than lifting bags of shopping or reaching for a TV remote.
Thomas agrees. You can only train with intent, he says – work towards some definition of “peak you” – if the resulting fitness has a clear application to your everyday needs.
That is one reason the idea of training for metabolic health has caught on. This involves maximal efforts for short durations – maybe blocks of 30 seconds – that act as a panting jolt to the system.
It is a level of working out most people would normally avoid, Thomas says. But it makes sense because of its proven physiological benefits.
“You’re training the capacity of your heart and lungs to look after your body.” So the carry-over in terms of your quality of life is obvious.
Likewise, he says, the idea of “animal exercises” – bear crawls, frog hops and alligator drags.
This style of training is as undignified as a metabolic workout is taxing. That is why you hardly ever see people doing animal movements in the gym.
But especially as you get older, don’t you wish you could still move with the floor-scampering flexibility of a child, Thomas asks? It is a functional everyday goal to aim for.
So thinking about the whole fitness question, it starts with figuring out what the end result is even about.
STEP TWO: PLUG THE GAPS
Time to get into the mechanics of it. What is the actual way the Crusaders go about constructing their famously effective conditioning regime?
Thomas is young for a head trainer. Only 35. And nothing like the taciturn drill sergeant you might have expected.
He went straight into high level rugby from an exercise science qualification in Nelson.
Four years as the fitness coach for the Tasman provincial rugby team. Four years doubling as Canterbury provincial team and assistant Crusaders fitness coach. Now four years in charge of the Crusaders themselves.
“Yeah, strangely linear,” he laughs. “Not too many people would have stepped up the ladder like that.”
I was wondering how he starts off with the new recruits.
Thomas says modern rugby is so organised that even at the schoolboy level, the conditioning is well advanced.
Rugby is a demanding sport because it combines equal extremes of strength and endurance – two often opposing forms of fitness. And everyone is going to be naturally more favoured in terms of the one or the other.
So his first focus is on spotting and plugging weaknesses, Thomas says. And a big tip for gymgoers is that flexibility is one of the most common flaws he finds.
works on that as a priority. In the gym, it looks too much like lounging around on the floor.
But think about it and it is foundational, says Thomas. If you haven’t got a full range of motion, you can’t even train the body properly. Besides, what else does hard exercise do except shorten and tighten your muscles?
“It’s the key that unlocks everything else. Coming into the pre-season, players will have yoga and mobility sessions as much they will have speed sessions and strength sessions,” he says.
Another rookie error that applies to gymgoers or weekend warriors is balancing training and recovery.
Thomas says recruits coming into the Crusader academy – the wider squad of future players – have to be educated in the habits of good nutrition and adequate sleep.
In his book, Health Your Self, All Blacks conditioning coach Nic Gill notes how the All Blacks were put on a low carb or ketogenic-style diet after he found just how much it helps not to be overloaded with the usual sugar and starch meals.
Gill also reveals the All Blacks are advised to get at least nine hours, and better 10, of sleep each night.
Thomas says the right food and rest are essential aspects of modern elite training. It is all part of the recovery, which is as much about peak performance as the working out.
Exercise has to be strenuous enough to damage muscles and their fibres. The damage is the stimulus that makes them sore and forces them to grow back stronger.
But the actual increase in performance – this growth – happens in the day or two following the training session. And thus the trick of any conditioning programme is to build exactly the right amount of rest into the schedule.
So it is coming into focus. Train with intent. Pay equal attention to all the components of fitness. That include bedtimes, resting and stretching.
Then if, like a professional rugby player, you can build your whole week around that, you are on your way too.
STEP THREE: INDIVIDUALISE
What modern professional training really means becomes still clearer as Thomas describes how every player now has a highly individualised schedule.
Again, the principles of fitness are simple, he says. Build endurance by running. Build strength by lifting something heavy.
A total workout in the weight room only has to tick off the five fundamental patterns, or natural functional movements, of a push, a pull, a hip hinge, a squat, and a pillar.
Thomas says you can push and pull with the arms in many directions. You just have to get pushing and pulling.
A proper hip hinge exercise like a deadlift is essential. And a squat is the many ways of thrusting with your legs.
Pillar exercises are working the trunk – the core – in a way that strengthens it to resist the wild flailing of the limbs which result from those four other movement patterns.
Uncomplicated enough. Endurance work is much the same. So training boils down to prescribing sufficient doses of both weightlifting and cardio. Set the targets and let the squad hit them.
Not so fast. New Zealand sports training has gone through a general philosophical shift towards a fine-tuned individualisation of every person’s conditioning routine, Thomas says. The baseline prescription is just the starting place for a process of endlessly more refined tweaks.
This tweaking is both macro and micro.
Thomas says in the good old days, players were trained to fit their positions on the field. They had to be big and strong enough, or sufficiently fast and nimble, to match the classical notions of a forward or back.
Now the training is tuned more to the particular genetic advantages a player may bring to their performance in that role, he says. You have forwards doing extra sprint work and backs doing extra strength.
And everything is checked against the resulting outcomes. That is why it is more like a science.
“If we’ve got somebody’s squat strength up by 20kg, but they’re not doing any better on the field, we haven’t really made them a better rugby player,” he says.
Old school training did treat the team as a “one-size-fits-all” proposition, says Thomas. These days, the Crusaders’ week starts off with its foundation of group-focused conditioning, but in the second half, it shifts more towards individualised needs.
STEP FOUR: TWEAK THE BASICS
This fine-tuning approach can be applied in great detail now that a fitness coach gets all the data, Thomas says.
For example, players wear a GPS tracking device sewn into the back of their jerseys, not just during matches, but during training sessions as well. “Any time they’re on the grass.”
It counts up the kilometres run, along with accelerometer-based measurements like the number of collisions or tackles suffered, or even kicks taken.
Thomas says because recovery is a precise balancing act, he wants to know when the team has actually had a hard running game, so he can scale back that week’s training mileage accordingly.
“You can look at the numbers and say, yep, it was a hard one.” The workload might then be cut to 90 per cent of the usual so as to build in the extra recovery time.
Thomas says the whole rugby year is laid out in these broad macro terms. Pre-season starts the squad off at a 50 per cent workload and steps it up by a calculated 10 per cent every fortnight.
It is all geared to arriving at peak fitness for the Super Rugby finals. Or for the All Blacks in the team, whatever the season holds after that.
Shades of Big Brother, the GPS tracker can deliver micro information too.
Thomas says it can be used to monitor the percentage of time each player spends running above a target speed. That way, training can be built around ensuring players get sufficient quality work in.
“It’s about the micro-adjustments. The technology gives you the accuracy. In training, we’ve got to check the players have been running just as fast every week – how much of every session is above 85 or 90 per cent of the fastest they can individually run.”
The same individualised tweaking is what makes Crusader gym sessions different as well.
Thomas says weights can be used to train for three variables – strength, speed or size. The emphasis is changed depending on how fast you move the bar, as well as how heavy the weight, or how many reps are performed.
So the Crusaders’ gym has accelerometers that can clip on to the bar. A string yanks off a reel to give a number.
The speed being set might be 1m per second to build fast explosive power. Or a slow, exhausting 0.3m/sec if the aim is to maximise pure strength. Then somewhere halfway in-between to create simple muscle bulk.
Thomas says the science behind this is that strength is largely a neurological thing – the ability of the brain to recruit enough muscle fibres to shift a high load. Nerve pathways have to be built.
Whereas size is about the actual muscle fibre tears – forcing them towards maximum growth – and speed work focuses on training the fibre contractions.
Again, all players will be sized up for the balance of what they need in terms of strength, size and speed, he says.
“When we’re doing squats, we might say right, we want you to make it three seconds down, pause for a second at the bottom, then come up explosively. Or instead, make it four seconds down, four seconds up, no pause at the bottom.”
Fine-tuning to turn out the players at their very best possible on game day.
STEP FIVE: NO, THAT’S IT!
Could an amateur ever find the time to mimic this level of detail? Thomas agrees, probably not.
You can tell being a professional is different because everything in their daily life can be geared towards that final goal of what happens in a stadium come the weekend.
Thomas says their training is such a cocoon that the big picture professional approach has to involve a player welfare manager these days.
“She looks after life outside rugby for the players, gives them guidance in terms of that.”
Yet the Crusaders approach illustrates the general principles – a checklist of how we all might frame our own quests for fitness.
Put thought into what is your over-arching goal. Tackle weaknesses as much as build strengths. Remember nutrition, recovery and stretching are all ingredients of achieving “peak you”.
And take the big picture view. Don’t get locked into what doesn’t produce results – that is, results on the field of life.
“It’s about understanding what fills your batteries and what drains them,” Thomas says. Which can be left as a fair enough summary.