Sam Tomkins portrait FS magazine ()Sam Tomkins portrait FS magazine () © Copyright

How to train for 20 car crashes in 80 minutes

When the going gets tough, the tough get going… at 15mph or so, head down, into the arms of other men. Rugby league isn’t your ordinary contact sport; players cover 10km in 80 minutes, use complex cognitive patterns under pressure, and take up to 20 hits a game, each one the equivalent of being in a car crash

Sam Tomkins is one of those tough men. Now 27, Tomkins has played professionally for Wigan Warriors since he was 17, and knows all too well how hard rugby league actually is. Tomkins embodies all the qualities of the modern-day rugby league player; he’s fast, agile and pretty bloody solid.

“I’ve got to be strong,” Tomkins explains to us, when we catch up with him at the Sky Sports studios, “but I can’t let it get in the way of my speed.

“Growing up, I don’t think my body was that of a rugby player… more of a plumber [laughs]. As a youngster – probably between 16 and 18 – I struggled to keep the muscle on at first.

“It’s something over the years, I’ve had to learn to build up and let my body adapt to. What I eat and what I put in my body has played a big part in that. It’s definitely taken me a while to grow into my body.”

Sam Tomkins NRL ()


It’s Sam’s grasp on the finer minutiae of the game that saw him crowned Super League young player of the year for the 2009 and 2010 seasons, as well as making the Dream Team for four years running. He transferred to the New Zealand Warriors in 2013 for an all-time record rugby league fee, before returning to the Warriors in 2015. He’s also represented England 25 times, scoring 20 tries.

Unlike the sport’s other code, the constant state of play means league players won’t rely so much on bulk to power them through to the try line, but strength and pace. It’s a fine mix, but the sport’s progressive attitude towards training means the lads are pushing the envelope when it comes to adopting new strength and conditioning methods.

Under the watchful eye of Wigan’s director of performance, Mark Bitcon, a system of functional strength training has been phased in over the past decade. This means exercise is more suited to the demands of the game and the movements a player will make, rather than basic S&C work that will put on protective mass.

“We’re always looking to learn new things and progress our fitness,” Tomkins says. “Wigan have led the way in that sense for a long time, as long as I can remember anyway.”

Training differs throughout the year for Sam. In the off-season, the team will do eight to ten sessions in the gym, splitting it down into two sessions a day. The heavy lifting is done for breakfast, while lighter conditioning work will be done in the afternoon. During the season, the gym work will be halved, with specific emphasis being placed on stamina and endurance work.

Sam Tomkins NRL ()


This is where the functional element comes in, says Sam. “It’s not all textbook stuff. Mark will constantly come up with new things, new ways of making our bodies work differently.

“For example, he’ll have us pushing a medicine ball against a wall or him as he holds it, while we have a resistance band tied around our upper arm.

“It replicates real-life movements and pressures we face in a game situation. The one with the medicine ball is like palming off against an opponent while someone tries grabbing you from behind.”

In recent months, Sam has suffered knee ligament damagee, ruling him out of the beginning of this year’s Super League. He’s still been in the gym, though, maintaining cardio and working on his upper body. Here’s a taster of what he gets up to in the gym.

Sam Tomkins’ Upper Body Beasting

Sam’s workouts build strength and power by splitting between heavy lifting work, and lighter, higher-rep conditioning work. Using the German Volume Training principle (GVT), particular exercises comprise ten sets of ten reps to fatigue muscles after heavier work done previously in the day.

Each move will focus on particular areas – in this case, the chest, back, core and shoulders. Functional movements build these areas as a whole, and also strengthen individual muscles, such as the triceps when the pecs are engaged in a lift. Give it a go, if you’re hard enough…

Sam Tomkins rope pulls

Rope Pulls

High-speed impacts are liable to contort areas of your body that would give your chiropractor sleepless nights. The spine, lumbar and thoracic regions can all be conditioned using a rope pulley system you’d find on functional strength apparatus, or with a prowler sled with a rope attached. Pulling the rope down or towards you will also improve flexibility in this core area, helping your torso resist some of the bigger challenges.

Technique: Using a pulley machine, continuously pull the length of rope towards you, one hand after the other. Keep your feet planted and back straight, slightly rotating at the waist with every pull. Complete as many reps as possible (AMRAP).

AMRAP // 30 secs rest // 3 sets


Sam Tomkins pull ups training ()


Pull ups

If there is one exercise you must incorporate for building upper-body mass, it’s this. Not only will it build bulk in the upper back and lats, but it will also strengthen connective tissue in the neck, shoulders and lower back – vital for absorbing big hits on the field. Sam will apply the GVT principle (10 reps, 10 sets) to this, or wear a 30kg vest and limit the reps and sets, depending on the stage of the season he is in.

Technique: Using a wide, overhand grip (palms facing forward), pull yourself up to the plane of the bar until your chin reaches the top of it. Lower yourself slowly for one rep.

10 reps // 30 secs rest // 10 sets


Sam Tomkins barbell hang pull training ()


Barbell hang pull

A great way to build your mid back muscles – such as your lower traps, rhomboids, and spine muscles – hang pulls will also strengthen your front delts simultaneously. These are muscles often neglected, but are important for dealing with contortion of the torso on impact.

Technique: Holding a moderately weighted barbell with an overhand grip (palms facing away), let it hang at thigh level. In one swift movement, pull the barbell upwards towards your chin, making sure your elbows flex outwards and go above your shoulders. Return the barbell to your waist for one rep.

AMRAP // 30 secs rest // 3 sets


Sam Tomkins dips training


Building your chest and arms is important in rugby league, as it will usually be the first point of contact when tackled. Bodyweight dips are a fantastic way of building lean, functional muscle, while simultaneously offering protective mass. Again, the GVT method will more than fatigue your muscles enough, without exerting supporting muscles such as the biceps or deltoids.

Technique: Take hold of a dip bar with both hands and raise yourself until your arms are fully extended. Slowly lower your body until your arms are bent at a 90-degree angle
at the elbows. Push yourself straight back up for one rep.

10 reps // 30 secs rest // 10 sets


Sam Tomkins Lateral db raises training ()


Lateral db raises

Shoulder injuries in both codes are one of the most common problems a rugby player will face. As league players like Sam can make anywhere upwards of 20 tackles a game, it’s important the entire neck and shoulder region is strong. Lateral dumbbell raises will build the lateral (side) deltoids, as well as the upper and lower traps  and connecting muscles such as the rotary cuff, too.

Technique: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart with a moderately weighted dumbbell in each hand, holding them in front of you at waist height. At the same time, quickly lift both dumbbells directly up to your sides, so your arms are outstretched. Keep your elbows high – shoulder height if possible – and twist your grip until your palms and inner forearm face outwards. Lower slowly to your waist for one rep.

10 reps // 30 secs rest // 10 sets

Photos // Gym: Tom Miles, Rugby: Getty 


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