What a gym session tells us about a 22 year career
Brad Thorn needs no introduction but in case you’re new to Earth I’ll give you a brief run down. Brad started his professional rugby career in 1994 playing Rugby League. He won 4 NRL premierships and was capped routinely for State and Country, winning Origin Series’ and World Cups along the way. In 2008 he jumped code to Union but not before being awarded the Australian Sports Medal for his contribution to League. He won a Super Rugby Championship in his debut season with the Crusaders in 2008. He was capped for the All Blacks, and won a World Cup with them in 2011, despite being told he was too short to play test level Lock. He later played rugby in 2 more continents winning a Heineken Cup for Leinster in the process. His list of achievements by any sporting standards is astounding, but what may be his most impressive achievement is managing to play over 450 professional games almost injury free (a biceps rupture late in his career being the only notable blemish on an otherwise impeccable injury record). Some say this is luck but Brad is testament to the old adage that a man makes his own luck.
Brad has wasted no time in sharing his injury prevention pearls in his coaching role with the QLD Reds u20s. When Brad describes ‘injury’ he looks and gestures up as if it’s an unfamiliar entity existing in a different dimension. Or even a magpie during Spring, up in the tree protecting its young; ‘get close to me and I’m coming for ya!’ However you envisage it, it is consistent with general concepts around the topic.
Figure 1: Tissue load concept: Preventable injury should exist as an entity above and outside our optimal operating loads. Unloading strategies have the effect of increasing your injury buffer by increasing tissue tolerance. Loading conditions reduce it and are driving you closer to threshold.
1) UPPER BODY PREVENTION
Not the ‘big boys’ (delts, chest, traps) but the ‘little guys’, the Rotator Cuff. Hit them from every angle! Thumbs up, thumbs down, ‘L’ raises and rotations. Ask everything of your rotator cuff to control those movements. It’s the most mobile joint in your body and it’s already sitting on a moving platform (scapula). Makes good sense to train these hard for passing, pilfering, palming, throwing, catching and of course tackling.
Brad goes on to describe his injury prevention methodology in more detail. Apart from making him more robust, it allows him to make finer adjustments in collision areas. Appropriate decision making for preservation purposes is futile without a bodily response. He also talks about training later in his career and having a smaller ‘bubble’ for optimal training. He would remove himself or modify his involvement when overtraining was likely. Again, in his own way, Brad reinforces my feeling on that issue; If it’s not building you up, it’s tearing you down. Training in excess is no longer ‘training’, it’s ‘de-training’.
Figure 2: Optimal Training Zone. Pull the pin before the bubble bursts.
What is very interesting is that Brad has developed a self-management program derived largely from experience; that is a genuine understanding of his body, and how it needs to be conditioned for the job. The most valuable lesson learned here is not ‘what’ he does, but ‘how’ he goes about it. His program content is not revolutionary to Exercise Science and Injury Prevention paradigms but how it is executed provides us with a better insight in to its proven effectiveness. His attention to this aspect of his training is as clinical as his ‘on field’ involvements. It’s low load, high volume and high intensity, exactly what the doctor ordered for the body’s stabilising system, but more importantly, it’s routine and relentless.
2) TRUNK CONDITIONING
Forgotten all too often is the three-dimensionality of Rugby – lifting, being lifted, landing, being tackled, crunching to place, pivoting and twisting to pass. Brad’s Philosophy – build an abdominal ‘fortress’! In doing so, reinforce a state of ‘readiness’ around contact zones.
Supine scissors, mini cruches; straight and diagonal. DL pendulum swings. Candlesticks. Plate chops and plate swings
(Brad Thorn plate swings demonstrated)
The abdominals also play a vital role in stabilising and transmitting ground reaction forces appropriately to our upper extremities. A boxer has no sting without first pushing hard through his back foot. Try swinging a golf club standing on your lead leg only. Ineffective force generation and transmission from a dysfunctional midsection throws more load on the low back, hips and hammies below, and to the arms above, making these areas more prone to injury.
3) LOWER BODY
Quad / Hammy balance:
Pump up your inner quad, the VMO. Stick legs are for stick men. Pylons are for players. Mini step ups and drops and mini leg extensions help maintain that perfect fold of flesh at the bottom of the inner thigh. Not to neglect the strings, hit ‘em with some RDL’s. This is Brad’s preference over Nordics which is a functional ‘no brainer’. Throw these in as an addition to a couple of conventional lifts done well (squats, deads) and once again you’ve tackled the region from multiple angles; closed chain, open chain and through range. Click to view Brad’s tech (Brad’s Squat Tech)
Bent and straight knee calf raises are exercises which again typify the extent to which Brad tackles these areas; diligently, intently and consistently. A significant portion of your propulsion comes from this region and the nerds tell us anything less than 15 quality raises on a single leg is a functional fail.
A brief chat with Brad is a motivating experience. If you are involved in sport, ask yourself these questions:
1) How important is it for you to remain injury free?
2) Do you know your weaknesses or specific areas of ‘tightness’?
3) Do you know the injury profile of your sport / position?
4) Are you doing a specific, tailored injury prevention program to avoid injury?
5) What ‘attitude’ are you bringing to that aspect of your training?
If there is a mismatch between 1 & 5 it may explain why you’re so sore, and frustrated with your performance.
Remember, injury prevention and performance enhancement exist on the same training continuum. A solid foundation of injury resilience enables you to perform optimally. At a team meeting at Reds HQ, Brad spoke of some of his well-known AB teammates stating “…the masters of this game do the simple things, often”. Doing the simple things often is difficult, but often makes the difficult things appear simple; a common phrase I use in the clinic. It’s sometimes hard to do the simple things because they can be tedious and time consuming. It’s too easy to be distracted by the outcome and overlook the actions necessary to achieve that outcome. How many times have you told someone or even yourself, ‘I just want to play’, or ‘I just want to run’? ‘I’ve just got to race?’… No race was ever won without hard work and no trophy was ever lifted without diligent preparation.
Brad brings a dogged and tenacious approach to his injury prevention training. In exercise circles, there is a saying, ‘own the space’, meaning with every repetition, there is intention. In other words, train well, play well then reap the rewards. There is no better proponent of this ideal than Brad Thorn when applied to injury prevention training, and his injury incidence is justification of that. So too, is his trophy cabinet.
Chris Dillon, B.Phty, M.Phty, Sports Physiotherapist