Half way point chat with Billy Vunipola
Build your body like Billy Vunipola
If you followed the Six Nations this year, chances are you’ve noticed Billy Vunipola. Man of the match on three separate occasions, Vunipola quickly established himself as an international power player. But what does it take to go the distance on the rugby pitch? We grill the best in the biz for some trade secrets, as he hits his stride in the lead-up to the Autumn internationals.
Speed v. Strength
Rugby players walk a constant fitness tightrope. Strong and powerful enough to accelerate at a moment’s notice, but fit enough to last up to 80 minutes on the pitch. How does Vunipola marry aerobic fitness and fast-twitch power?
“A lot of my work is geared towards endurance, but the power stuff is more natural to me.” At 6ft 2 and an impressive 19 stone, Vunipola’s battering-ram build means he needs to keep fit to go the distance. “A lot of my stuff is aerobic based. I run. I run hard, and I use the exercise bike a lot.” You heard it here first – real rugger players hit the bikes, a cast-iron excuse to go spinning with your spouse.
When Vunipola’s not pedaling away, what does he do to build strength? “We’re put through a lot of bounding, jumping, and explosive movements like throwing med-balls and sled runs.” Bursts of power and speed – otherwise known as plyometrics – are proven to build up fast-twitch muscle fibres, allowing Vunipola to explode on the pitch.
Want to build Vunipola power? Run through three sets, 10 reps of each of these moves.
- Stand with your knees slightly bent holding a medicine ball above your head with your arms extended.
- Bend forward at the waist and use your core muscles to slam the ball against the floor about a foot in front of you.
- Let your arms follow through so you don't fall forward. Catch the ball on its way back up and repeat.
- Stand with your feet more than shoulder-width apart. Hold a barbell across your upper back with an overhand grip, avoiding resting it on your neck.
- Take the weight of the bar and slowly squat down – head up, back straight, buns out. Lower yourself until your hips are aligned with your knees, with legs at 90 degrees.
- Drive your heels into the floor to push yourself explosively back up.
- Set yourself a comfortable distance from the box with feet shoulder width apart.
- Drop quickly into a quarter squat, swing your arms and explode upwards to jump onto the box.
- Land as softly as possible. Now step backwards off the box under control.
Gone are the days where rugby clubs would neck 12 pints the night before a game (among ‘other’ traditions). For Vunipola, nutrition is rigid.
“It’s mostly clean,” he admits. Players need to be in peak condition, and relegated nutrition is vital when it comes to performance. “It’s about being aware of what you’re putting into your mouth, keeping track of it. Before, I used to snack a lot. I’ve stopped that and I’m eating consistently.” Keeping track of your food sounds basic, but it works. Research from Kaiser Permanente shows weight loss doubles with the addition of a food diary.
Post-game, however, is a very different story. “We get to eat dirty after the game. That’s the best window for it as it’s when you burn the most.” Vunipola’s right on the money.found post workout calorie burn, or EPOC (link), spikes when exercising at 70-80% max intensity – for example, after a game of international rugby. While hitting the burgers after every session is a nutritional no-no, for Vunipola and his team it’s a post-game release. “It’s kind of an unwritten rule in rugby, to demolish pizzas after a match.”
(Related: how to harness your EPOC to lose weight)
International rugby may be a physically demanding sport, but it also places huge emphasis on mental strength. If you’re not mentally up to the challenge, you’re going to get hurt.
“We build all these muscles to protect ourselves, and after that, it comes down to mindset. If you go half-hearted into tackles you’re more likely to get hurt. It’s all or nothing.”
It’s a zenlike state that sounds tough to master with props and hookers hurtling towards you, but Vunipola insists it helps. “It’s easier to switch on when you’re getting challenged by players. I’ve been there myself, when you want to be in a spot someone else is occupying… you can’t half-ass it. You just have to go all out all the time.
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