Heavy metal blasts out of the speakers as humidity fills all other space, making the room sticky to the touch. Like a drill sergeant, a spotter screams in the face of the person whose turn it is to lift as much weight as they possibly can.
After a number of repetitions in the dimly-lit room on a well-used piece of equipment, the clanking of metallic plates joins the scene as the cycle continues in a workout. Only when a person is to the point of near immobility from fatigue does the workout cease.
Little thought is placed into the purpose of the exercises being performed or the method in which each is performed, just that muscle will be the end result.
The following day, the athlete can barely move muscles that were the target of a grueling routine.
For most athletes that workout is a job well done and the correct way to train. However, to Ian Jones that is a mistake, a mistake that far too many people make in today’s training routines.
As the assistant strength training coach for the Women’s Eagles, the Irishman sees a drastically different approach to building an athlete.
“Coaches are always telling their players that ‘no one else in the country is doing this’ or ‘no one else in the country is working this hard’ and then forcing players to do something that they can’t do or isn’t good for them,” said Jones, who joined Pete Steinberg’s staff in 2013. “In reality, everyone in the country is working that hard and the better teams are just the ones that work out their players appropriately.”
Director of performance for the Eagles, Adam Russell, also feels that more factors need to be considered in order to build an athlete appropriately, not just focusing on building muscle.
“We have to create a balance of pushing the athletes to stretch themselves physically, but also have an integrated approach with high performance systems,” said Russell. “This means coordinating lifestyles, strength and conditioning, training, nutrition, psychology, skill work, self-analysis, et cetera, so that not only do they not work against each other, but they actually bolster each other.”
While most players that work out under Jones’ supervision attest to him pushing the players to their limits, the focus of the training isn’t to create soreness, but to enhance mobility and function – intending to grow the athlete as an athlete and not just in size.
“There are a lot of people out there that see a good workout as being so sore that you can barely walk,” sternly explained Jones as he paced around a brightly-lit, expansive gym. “That the only way you know you are putting on size is if you are sore after the workout, which is ridiculous.”
For Eagles Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Paul Cater, building muscle is an important piece, but building the athlete to endure the challenges ahead is the overall focus of the workouts.
“We’ve worked hard and the players have worked harder to build their fundamental strengths from the ground up and make sure that any weaknesses we can address we have,” said Cater of the Eagles’ progress. “Think of it as forging a steel hard enough to hold its shape through any stress it is put under.”
Further, a ‘body-building workout routine’ is not even an option for rugby athletes, according to the Eagles performance staff.
“That might work for some, but for the Women’s Eagles that is never a possibility. We need players to always be functional and able to play at all times,” Jones continued. “We have to see what works for the player so that can be avoided.”
Relying on his past experiences, the Cork native has been working extensively to overcome the various mentalities that have been created for player development.
Having spent time with football programs at the University of South Carolina, Eastern Michigan University, and Pennsylvania State University, Jones notes that most players in America have “a body-building mindset for how to improve their strength and conditioning.”
“With players lifting like [a body builder], only younger [college-aged] players are able to put on some muscle or size and perform on the field because they are young enough to do that,” said Jones. “Everyone sees some of these results and think it is right for them, even though it will just burn them out and not allow them to perform on the field in the long run.”
However, having worked with London Welsh and the Penn State wrestling team, Jones has come to realize that the mentality is not just a football issue.
“The body builder-mindset is big in America but other countries and other sports have the same issue as well, it just comes in different forms and results,” discussed Jones. “Sure we want players to put on size for contact sports, but it is frustrating to see the mentalities of how and when to lift that come from each sport.”
Cater, who has worked with the Baltimore Orioles in addition to spending time abroad with various rugby programs, notes the mentality spanning across sports and cultures.
“There are a lot of ‘meat-heads’ out there. It’s classic, old-school mentality with no flow to it,” said Cater. “People all over the world just want to be ‘jacked’, but don’t know what all plays into it and just over-train.”
To overcome the challenges of mentalities and training, the Eagles staff has workout routines and schedules planned down to the minute, which varies to the capabilities and availability of each athlete.
“The reason why we have it planned out that way is because we need to make sure that we don’t over-train players,” explained Jones, the Eagles assistant. “While multiple trainings a day are okay, when they are scheduled and how long they are training for can drastically change what an athlete is capable of the following day, week, or year.”
The focus behind the routines is to avoid soreness so that a player is becoming a better athlete, while still able to function at their peak each practice and game.
“While we want to put size on for rugby, we have to be smart about it,” commented Jones, who is also the head strength coach for the Penn State men’s and women’s rugby teams. “We can’t have them do four maximum lifting days and then expect them to do skills and practice and then play in a game. Their bodies can’t handle that.”
For the Women’s Eagles, optimizing training schedules proves to be rather difficult, factoring in those who are training full-time against those who have full-time jobs.
“Obviously, players with full-time jobs won’t be able to train on the schedule that we would like them too, but sometimes they will see better results because their workouts are shorter or fewer in number,” said Jones. “Those that train full time tend to over-train because they try to fill their entire day with only training. They are training all day as opposed to training and allowing time for maximum recovery.”
The expansive country also plays a factor into how the Eagles conduct their workouts.
“Given the enormous challenges of limited resources with seemingly unlimited geographical separation and distances, we do not have the luxury of being able to work directly with every player, in person, on a daily basis,” said Russell. “This means that we have to trust our athletes and they must trust our system in return.”
While over-training is an issue commonly seen by the performance staff, so too is the opposite mentality of not wanting to work out in the fear of putting on too much muscle.
Particularly with women’s teams, all members of the staff have encountered players saying they “don’t want to lift because they ‘don’t want to look like dudes.’”
As an assistant strength coach for the Ireland women’s field hockey team heading into the 2012 Olympic Games as well as currently heading the Penn State field hockey strength program, Jones has put his vast experience to use for the Eagles.
“With training women, you see a lot of them not want to work out because they don’t want to look like a man. That they think they’ll blow up just from touching a weight,” said Jones with a grin. “To me that’s fun because in order to do that you would have to train and live like a body builder, which we strictly avoid. And if you did get ‘jacked’ from touching a weight I think every guy on the planet would be giants.”
While it would seem challenging to overcome the mentality differences, the focus for the Eagles and its strength staff still remains with how each player performs the exercises in workouts and the recovery after.
“It’s not necessarily about how much weight the player is doing; it’s about how they do the exercise,” said Jones.
For the Eagles’ assistant strength coach, performing the exercise properly is a key component to getting better as an athlete.
“I can’t stand it when players go wide on bench,” mimicked Jones with his arms nearly in an iron cross-like placement. “You are just doing more damage to your shoulders than good there. Also, I really get after players if they don’t get full extension on pull-ups and push-ups.”
The gym that the players perform their routines in, however, is of little concern.
“I always tell the players ‘that while it’s nice to have brand new equipment and great pictures on the walls, if this place burned down tomorrow, we would still be able to lift because we still have the barbell and plates,’” stated Jones.
Most people associate bodybuilding with dingy, humid gyms with heavy metal blasting over the stereo. However, a great athlete can also emerge from the same environment. Working out in appropriate increments can develop an international rugby player as well as keep one in their prime.
With the Eagles just months away from the 2014 World Cup, working out in an appropriate manner is of the utmost importance. Too few workouts could mean that the team is ill-prepared for opponents, while over-training could lead to players not being able to perform certain skills.
See the results as the Women’s Eagles go for the goal of “Final in ‘14."