What it Takes to Build Premiership Rugby Players | An Interview with Northampton Saints head of athletic performance Tom Bullough

What do Crossfitters and Rugby players have in common? No, that’s not a trick question. Athletes at the top of their game require power, speed, agility, endurance and mental strength. Much of the training principles and conditioning work overlaps between the disciplines, as does the culture of camaraderie between teammates and affiliates and we reckon we could learn a thing or two from the experts - who’s job it is to get the Northampton Saints game ready. In this interview series, we bring you exclusive and candid conversations and insights from the coaches and health and fitness professionals who keep the Rugby elite in peak physical and mental condition.

First up, we sit down with Tom Bullough, Head of Athletic Performance at Northampton Saints and get the low down on what it takes to build a premiership team.

How long have you been at the Saints for and how did you get involved in Rugby?

12 years. I have always played rugby and when I realised that I wasn’t going to make it as a player, I chose the next best thing.

Have you always had a passion for fitness and training? Where did this come from?

I was always a player and was never really keen on the conditioning side of training. In my final year at university I opted to carry out my dissertation testing specific conditioning methods and my interest grew from there.

During the pre-season, what is a typical weeks training like for a Saint? 

We tend to train Monday to Friday and have earn the right Saturdays. Typically, we have 2 main sessions per day with Wednesday more recovery focussed. Around the main sessions there are skills sessions and other auxiliary work to try and prepare the lads to the highest standard. 

How much of it is weight/conditioning training?

We would lift 4 x per week, we don’t tend to do too much stand-alone running but put an emphasis on attaining specific levels and metrics during rugby sessions. We also include speed sessions and a hill power session. 

What is the most mentally and physically challenging workout you give the Saints to do during the Pre-Season, do you continue to give them these workouts during the season?

We introduced an event 2 years ago called the Blakiston Challenge which the lads will all look out for when the pre-season schedule is released. 

What are your top 5 workouts for strength gain?

We use lower rep schemes with more sets to hit our strength levels. Sometimes we’ll use cluster sets or heavy eccentrics. We don’t stray too far from the main lifts with those who are able: squat, deadlift, bench press, chins.  

What are your top 5 workouts for conditioning?

I like to use repeated bouts of high intensity running and we use the Watt bikes a lot with the lads that can’t run. Small power endurance sessions. I also like to box with lads adding extra sessions to their week. 

In your time coaching, which players have impressed you the most in terms of strength, conditioning and mental toughness?

I have had the privilege to witness some really gifted athletes in my time. When I started at Sale there were the likes of Jason White, Sebastian Chabal, Andrew Sheridan. Then at saints we’ve had Bruce Reihana, Chris Ashton, Samu Manoa, George North, Cobus Reinach. Dylan has to be one of the toughest characters I’ve worked with.