by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
A rugby player doesn’t require a big kit bag to carry his equipment. With a properly fitted mouthpiece, pair of boots, and jersey/shorts/rugby socks, you are ready to go. Outside of these fundamental pieces of kit, I would strongly recommend competitive and elite level rugby players to investigate and consider investing in a pair of weightlifting shoes.
It is not necessary for every rugby player to own a pair of weightlifting shoes. However, if your strength training program sees you performing Olympic lifts such as power cleans, snatches, or squats on a regular basis, you owe it to yourself to look into a pair of weightlifting shoes. Although weightlifting shoes are far from fashionable, they are a valuable piece of training equipment for any player looking to maximize their efforts to become stronger and more powerful.
Weightlifting shoes are purpose-specific shoes that are stiff in the heel and forefoot. The shoes are designed to allow athletes to achieve a low and stable position while performing multi-joint Olympic lift movements. Additionally, there is a marked heel shim, usually 3/4 “ or less. The heel shim in lifting shoes helps athletes create a more substantial positive shin angle while descending under the bar. Athletes create a positive shin angle each time they push their knees forward while their heels remain on the ground. The shim in the heels of weightlifting shoes allows rugby players to remain balanced while performing a front or back squat in full flexion and remain vertical (upright) with their upper body. Full flexion and extension while squatting allows for force to be applied to the bar over a greater distance, using the large muscles groups of the lower body and torso.
Many athletes train in running shoes, which are designed to absorb shock and cushion foot strikes while exercising. While these are valued features of running shoes, they are actually detrimental to Olympic lift strength training. A key component in Olympic lifting is to efficiently transfer force from your body to the Olympic bar. The rigid sole of weightlifting shoes ensures that the shoes absorb very little of the force produced by the muscles involved in executing the movement. For example, while ascending from a squat motion, weightlifting shoes help transfer force that the muscles generate into the object that is being moved.
In my experience, once an athlete wears weightlifting shoes while training Olympic lifts or squatting movements, it is hard to go back to squishy running shoes. Weightlifting shoes are not inexpensive, but if worn only while in a strength training environment, they will last for years and years. Alternatives to weightlifting shoes include work boots or hiking boots with a heel. A major disadvantage of wearing boots is reduced ankle mobility, which consequently decreases the ability to create positive shin angle while flexing at the hip, knee, and of course ankle.
Regardless of the footwear you choose to strength train in, athletes should strive to maximize ankle/hip mobility to achieve a full range of motion. Ankle and hip mobility activities are easily added into your strength training routines with minimal time and effort. Partner ankle flexion/extensions and hurdle walks are common examples of ankle and hip mobility enhancers.
In the 1990’s while Eagle great Dan Lyle was playing for Bath Rugby Club, I convinced him to train in a pair of weightlifting shoes for his workouts. In these early days of professional rugby, no one was wearing weightlifting shoes while strength training. Not surprisingly, Lyle’s English teammates scoffed at his use of these shoes until they realized that he was becoming bigger, stronger, and faster. It wasn’t long until I was fielding questions about where to purchase these shoes and how long would it take to get them.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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