Boasting an imposing physical aura, explosive power and pace, legendary talents and a ruthlessly competitive mindset, the All Blacks are the most iconic team in the history of rugby, and arguably in the history of sport.
The New Zealand rugby union side boast a win rate of over 80%, have won three Rugby World Cups, and are respected by athletes worldwide. The team’s success is built on raw talent, ambition and hard work, but it is also founded on what happens in the gym.
Nic Gill, the All Blacks’ strength and conditioning coach, has been helping the players to develop their strength, speed, power and durability for the last 16 years. An associate professor in human performance at the University of Waikato, Gill combines old-school training wisdom with bespoke scientific insights to maximise gym results.
And having also worked with amateur athletes, airline pilots and business professionals, Gill knows that the All Blacks’ legendary training secrets can help the rest of us train and perform at our best too. Here are his top ten insights so you can start training like an All Black.
1 Focus on the ‘big rocks’ of success
At the core of the All Blacks’ gym programme is their ‘Big Rocks’ philosophy. The players have access to every training innovation on the planet, but they focus every day on the basics. This ‘Big Rocks’ idea is simple: if you fill up your cup with granules of sand – which represent, say, a new training gadget or a new gym supplement – you won’t have enough room in your cup for the essential big rocks, such as strength work, functional movement and aerobic fitness. But if you place the big rocks – the proven performance-enhancers – in the cup first, there will always be space for some grains of sand – which represent those vital 1% marginal gains – at the end.
“We’ve always had a pretty big focus on just doing the small things really well,” reveals Gill. “Big rocks, basics, whatever you want to call it, you know you need to lift well, run well and eat well. Get those things sorted then you’re sort of ahead of the eight ball. So that’s pretty much it. Invest your time and energy into the things that make a difference, versus the things that might make a difference.”
For the All Blacks, that means a heavy focus on strength, power, flexibility, durability and a good mix of high-, moderate- and low-intensity cardio workouts, supported by savvy recovery strategies and simple, natural nutrition. But Gill insists that this strategy is one we can all learn from. Thanks to social media and influencers, it is easy to get knocked off track by fitness fads, distractions and complications. But by focusing on the ‘Big Rocks’, you will stay laser-focused on your training goals and achieve a more consistent progression, week after week, year after year.
“It’s absolutely the same,” says Gill. “Eat real whole food, exercise often, at the right intensity for your current level of fitness, and for where it fits within your week. Athletes are trying to perform on the park and the rest of us are probably trying to perform in our everyday life. But it’s all exactly the same stuff. It’s just maybe at a slightly more intense level.”
2 Stick to ‘bread and butter’ training sessions
For the All Blacks players, the biggest of those ‘Big Rocks’ is strength. Players must be able to tackle opponents and endure collisions, which means they need strong muscles, bones and tendons. That means the players focus on simple full-body lifts, which target multiple joints and fortify the legs, hips, back, trunk and shoulders. “Just the basic bread and butter,” says Gill. “Squats and deads, cleans, snatches, push and pulls and single-leg work. Obviously it differs between positions and between athletes but nothing too complicated. Lifting heavy often is probably the key.”
Other key exercises include bench presses, military presses, chin-ups and single-limb work, such as split squats, lunges with a kettlebell held overhead, single-leg Romanian deadlifts, single-arm dumbbell rows and single-arm overhead pulls.
Constant progression is essential, although players’ training goals are adapted to the phase of the season and the circumstances. “Like any programme or any team, there’s days or sessions where you can push the boat out a little bit, and you can put a bit of extra weight on the bar,” says Gill. “And there’s other days where you’re just into a bit of a maintenance cycle or you’re exhausted from the morning session.” When players are building strength or muscle, Gill wants them to focus on range, form, consistency and time under tension, rather than big numbers, describing his approach to strength development and muscle growth as “hurrying slowly.”
3 Develop raw explosive power
The All Blacks’ electrifying playing style is founded on explosive power. Players must be able to generate force as quickly as possible, so they can win tackles and exploit gaps on the pitch. And this on-field strength is built in the gym. “Power is all about moving stuff quickly,” says Gill. “And when I say stuff, that could be your body weight, it could be external resistance, it could be bands, it could be barbells. So we tend to use a lot of different objects that we move quickly. You know, simple clean movements, snatch movements, simple jumping, jumping horizontally, jumping vertically, throwing medicine balls. So lots of different things.”
The players do plyometric drills, like hurdle hops, box jumps, skips, bounds and knee tucks, but also old-school tyre flips and sled work. “Pushing sleds, running with sleds, towing sleds… it just depends on the space we have and the equipment we have at our disposal,” says Gill. “It’s the basic movements that you’ve just got to do better. There’s no icing on the cake: it’s getting the foundations and the basics done well. And so while the basic movements have been done for a long, long time, it doesn’t mean they’re old-fashioned.”
You’ve got to be fit and lean – the black jersey demands that you can go deep into a game, and you can finish over the top of the opposition. It’s something that we pride ourselves on.Nic Gill
4 Stay lean with real food
The All Blacks are an eclectic mix of athletes, from the 5ft 7in, 83kg scrum half Aaron Smith to the 6ft 4in, 140kg prop Tamaiti Williams. But all players must develop two key attributes. “You’ve got to be fit and lean – simple as that,” says Gill. “And I think that the black jersey sort of demands that of you: that you can go deep into a game, and you can finish over the top of the opposition. It’s something that we pride ourselves on. So I think the non-negotiable is being lean and fit.”
To build fitness, players do a mix of high-intensity 10m, 20m, 30m and 40m sprints; 300m speed endurance runs; or longer 4-minute power runs. But staying lean is also about quality nutrition. “Eat real food first,” says Gill. “Try to have fresh whole foods more often than powdered, canned, dried, processed food. That is probably the big rock.”
Nutrition has been a big area of progress for the All Blacks. “I remember, when I started, having lots of unfit fat players, and now we’ve got three – or probably two,” says Gill. “If you don’t eat well, you end up holding onto body fat, then you’re running around with excess baggage, and then you’re not as fit as you could be. So nutrition education has improved and the knowledge of the players has improved significantly. And even just how we structure our days: people fuel with the right stuff, they eat the right stuff, and they understand what happens if they don’t eat the right stuff.”
5 Develop talent, not just muscle
When Gill started working with the All Blacks, there was a heavy collective focus on muscle size and body mass. Gym goals were always focused on bodyweight targets and bench press numbers. But that’s all changed. Gill has swapped his quest for ‘muscle monsters’ for a more 360-degree view of athlete fitness: he wants every player to be “fit for their role,” whether that means working on their strength, agility, speed, endurance, power or durability. A scrum-half will need to build the fitness to run 10k during a match, but a forward might need to prioritise squats to develop enough raw strength to excel in scrums.
“I think early on, for me at least, rugby was about being the biggest human you could be,” he admits. “And I think where we’ve got to with the current group is that you want to be athletic. And athletic in your [specific] role. And every role’s a bit different. Or the position you play. So it’s not just about the numbers or the weight on the bar, but it’s actually about how you move, how you make decisions, how you basically can express yourself and the physical attributes that you possess.” This carries a simple warning: “Chasing numbers can get you into a bit of trouble.”
6 Move your body better
Power and strength mean nothing unless the players can pair those attributes with functional game-day mobility. The players now work hard to sharpen their biomechanical movements to ensure they are more agile and fluid on the pitch. That means plenty of plyometric work, yoga sessions, bear crawls, soft tissue work, myofascial release, band work, partner-assisted stretching and wrestling sessions to build functional movement, enhance hip rotation and improve range of motion.
“Younger athletes tend to not do a lot because they can just get out of bed and rip into things and be pretty robust,” says Gill. “And every year that an athlete matures, should I say, or that they age, they tend to have to put more and more time into mobility, flexibility, warming up, recovery, sleep and nutrition. So I think every year an athlete is a pro, they end up having to get a bit more serious about some of those big rocks. And recovery and looking after your body is a massive rock.”
The players do dedicated core work, including suspension trainer rows, planks, crunches and barbell rollouts, plus plenty of hip work, such as hip thrusts and kettlebell swings, and proprioception drills like Bosu balance stands and Turkish get-ups with kettlebells. But Gill believes heavy lifts remain the best tool for core strength. “I think when you’ve got 200 kilos on your back, you’re probably getting a reasonably strong core,” says Gill.
“First and foremost, we get a lot of work done through our lifting plans that we have in place. And then we obviously supplement other work around glute, hip and trunk strength, stability and power.” Where possible, core drills are designed to mimic on-field movements, such as medicine ball throws with a rotation, which mirror the throwing of a pass on the pitch.
It’s good to keep learning, but it’s also good to just keep seeing what’s out there that possibly reinforces what you’re already doingNic Gill
7 Sharpen your mind to get stronger
Never satisfied with the status quo, Gill is always seeking new inspiration. “I’m constantly reading and talking to people and watching,” he says. “I’ll be observing what our athletes are doing and how they’re responding to things. So I think a lot of the learning goes on within our environment. And then I suppose the stimulation for me is peers, other [training] programmes, science and the scientific community around research and publications.”
However, Gill never assumes that new is better. “I think it’s good to keep learning, but it’s also good to just keep seeing what’s out there that possibly reinforces what you’re already doing,” he says. “We don’t change too much, too often, unless there’s a really good reason for it to become a Big Rock.”
This desire for relentless self-education is now mirrored in the All Blacks players. “The professionalism, the knowledge, the training history or background of athletes, I suppose even the expectations of the athletes, all of that’s changed,” he says. “And that’s probably reflected by the athletes that are running around out there nowadays, as they’re definitely bigger, faster, stronger. And a lot of that’s because they’re becoming seasoned pros or becoming professionals earlier in their careers. So the athletes that we have in this group at the moment are pretty exceptional.”
8 Spice up training with science
Gill regularly dives into the latest scientific research, but he adopts a highly strategic approach, zeroing in on the tools and technologies which add value to the All Blacks’ training programme, and jettisoning innovations which over-complicate things. “We all like to learn and we all like to see or understand if we can do things different or better, and so science plays a big part, from my perspective at least, in the education of the athlete,” he says. “Whether it’s nutrition science and helping the athletes understand fuelling strategies or weight gain strategies. Whether it’s science that supports recovery modalities. Or even just new ways of stacking and periodising lifting patterns. So science plays a massive part.”
The All Blacks monitor their training loads, running speeds and heart rates using GPS devices, but they also use barbell velocity trackers to optimise their explosive lifts in the gym. “We track bar speed quite a bit,” says Gill. “Every training session the players have GPS in their shirts. We look at heart rate, lots of different things.”
9 Max out your fitness with Wattbikes
One training tool the All Blacks have been using for over a decade is the Wattbike. The team now has a formal partnership with the Nottingham-based indoor bike brand. “I love Wattbike,” says Gill. “It’s a machine that I love to hate, that’s for sure. And I’m sure if we asked the All Blacks, they’d say the same thing.”
The team use them for key fitness sessions, such as high-intensity sprint repeats to build anaerobic fitness, and longer threshold work to help players tolerate and process lactic acid. “You can absolutely smash yourself on a Wattbike,” says Gill. “And I suppose you come off second best because the bikes are so durable and robust.”
This is particularly important when coaching heavy rugby players. “We can get really big humans on a Wattbike, putting out huge amounts of power,” says Gill. “I’ve had lots of gear that I’ve used in previous lives where we break the gear. So Wattbike’s been massively important for us – and still is.”
Bigger players can work on their fitness without the accompanying joint and tendon stress, or the damaging physical loading, which comes with running. “We’ve got a couple of 140 kilo humans in our team who we need to keep fit,” explains Gill. “And we can’t always have them doing more running. The injury risk gets higher as the human gets bigger. So we do a lot of off-feet conditioning on the Wattbike, whether that’s aerobic work or anaerobic work or maximal power type stuff.” Players also use the bikes for recovery to get the blood flowing after a hard workout.
10 Foster a winning environment
Sports coaches and business leaders talk often about developing a winning environment, and the All Blacks demand a highly competitive, productive and motivated gym environment. Gill says this helps the players to get the most out of every session, every day, every week, and every month. “We definitely have some competition,” reveals Gill. “The boys love to compete against each other and like to get one up on one another. So it is definitely part of what we do. Whether that’s a number on a bar, a speed of a sprint or a speed of jump, there’s definitely competition throughout the programme.”
Gill works with some talented All Black players in the current squad, from Rieko Ioane, who can run at 38.5kph and sprint 40m in 4.7 secs, to Nepo Laulala, who can squat 250kg. But one player really stands out in the gym. “I reckon at the moment probably [prop] Fletcher Newell,” says Gill. “He’s probably one of the strongest lower-body players that we’ve had around. He’s young , he’s got pretty short levers that probably gives him a little bit of an advantage. But he squats in the 250-270kg range. He’s a strong, strong wee man.”
Wattbike are the official bike suppliers to the All Blacks, and an integral part of the All Blacks’ training programme. The Wattbike Atom is available for £2,399. Visit www.wattbike.com