10 Questions with Blues S&C Coach Robin Sowden-Taylor

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Rugby Renegade founder, former Wales international and ION S&C gym owner Robin Sowden-Taylor. Robin left the team at Rugby Renegade last year, to concentrate on his gym ION Strength & Conditioning in Cardiff, along with his role as Senior Strength and Conditioning Coach at the Cardiff Blues.

Robin took the time out to talk to us about his S&C career to date…

  1. Robin thank you for taking the time to talk to us… It’s great to have our founder back to discuss all things S&C!! Can you start by giving us a bit of history about your background and your career to date? What inspired you to work in sport?

I have been involved in professional sport for over 15 years, experiencing both sides of the game. Initially as a Professional Rugby Player and now as a Professional Strength and Conditioning coach.

As a rugby player I had a 9-year career at the Cardiff Blues, gaining 8 International Caps for Wales and winning two Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008. In the early part of my professional career I represented Wales on the World 7s Series and in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia.

When I retired from professional rugby in 2010, I was eager to pursue a career in Strength and Conditioning, as it had always been a huge passion and interest of mine, as an athlete.

In 2010, large Health Clubs were the ‘go to’ venues for people to train at. There was a limited number of smaller specialist strength and conditioning (S&C) style gyms around. Towards the end of my rugby career, I started to consider the possibility of opening a facility for the general public that incorporated all aspects of strength and conditioning. I was keen to target semi professional and local amateur sporting individuals and teams to train and use the facility as well as the general public.

As a player, from a conditioning perspective, we spent large amount of time, during the playing season, working on Power Endurance Circuits that included movements that were varied and replicated similar situations that would happen during a match. The circuits were all about developing the ability to repeat powerful movements consistently throughout the sessions. These sessions were hugely taxing but enjoyable. Sessions like these, I judged, would be appealing to those members of the public who would enjoy tough and demanding workouts that also provided variety.

In 2010, CrossFit had a reasonably low profile in the UK, with only a handful of affiliated facilities across the country. As a player, I had always spent time researching various training methods and I watched many weightlifting / powerlifting videos online.

On one occasion I came across a video of U.S Military personnel who were taking part in what I can only describe as an intense workout, using barbells and bodyweight exercises. Intrigued and knowing I enjoyed testing myself from a conditioning perspective both physically and psychologically, I thought I would give the workout a try!! It was horrific, to say the least! This is was my introduction to the CrossFit pathway. I began researching further and I realised that CrossFit gyms successfully existed in the USA and thought that the training concept could also work well in the UK. This concept fitted in with my own idea of a Strength and Conditioning facility in Cardiff.

  1. Your move from professional rugby player into business owner must’ve been a difficult one. How did you go about making this transition, was there anything in particular you had to read / learn about so as to support this? What is your educational background and where have you worked through this time?

As a professional rugby player, your life is governed by short, fixed-length playing contracts, which can at times create uncertainty for your future. This dilemma occurs every few years and you go through the same process of not knowing whether you will remain at the same team or move to another. As a result, I was eager to have more control in the next stage of my life after rugby. I was keen to work for myself and run my own business, that would give me the same hunger to succeed as rugby had. When I retired from rugby, the first 12 months were tough, working long unsociable hours. I had the ideas but lacked the experience, certainly from a coaching perspective.

During these months my objectives were to obtain the necessary qualifications to enable me to coach within a commercial gym but also to develop my core skills as a Strength and Conditioning Coach. I started off by completing the standard Personal Training – Level 3 Reps qualification and from there then I obtained my British Weightlifting Level 1 & 2 Accreditation. I enjoyed attending seminars and workshops on all aspects of strength and conditioning from CrossFit to Powerlifting. At the same time I attended numerous business start up courses to help me with business planning and getting a better idea of the business world. As I stated, I had no previous experience but all the seminars and courses proved to be very helpful.

Early 2011, I joined with 2 individuals who had recently started operating CrossFit workouts within a commercial gym that one of them currently owned, and over a 6-month period I gained invaluable coaching experience with them both at a 1:1 level but also within a group environment. This cemented the foundations for my skills and for me as a Strength and Conditioning coach. Over a 12-month period CrossFit rapidly grew in popularity within the facility and the three of us agreed that we would take on the ownership and financial responsibility of developing the city centre commercial gym. Over the next 3 years the membership rapidly grew and in 2013 we decided to open a second facility in a suburb of Cardiff that has proven to be successful.

During 2011, I also spent a couple of months coaching a Rugby Team in the USA called the Frisco Griffins, based in Dallas, Texas. This was a great learning experience for myself as a coach. During my stay in Texas I had arranged to spend some time at one of the leading CrossFit Gyms in the USA, ‘Central Athlete’ formally known as CrossFit Central. A very professionally run gym both in the delivery of their Coaching, but also learning how they ran the facility as a business. This was very valuable in forming my vision for the facility that I was keen on developing in Cardiff.

In 2012 I attained my UKSCA accreditation, which I felt was a priority for myself as an aspiring Strength and Conditioning Coach. The UKSCA Accreditation is the key recognisable ‘Coaching’ qualification to have on the CV if you are planning on working within professional sport. Every employer nowadays is looking for UKSCA accreditation alongside a MSc in the relevant area and without it you are unlikely to meet the required criteria when applying for S&C roles within professional organizations.

From an experience point of view, after a couple of years of developing my technical coaching, I was keen to find a pathway back into professional sport and in my case into rugby. In the 2013-14 season I was offered my first S&C role at semi professional team, Neath RFC. The experiences I gained were incredibly valuable and it was a great learning curve for me, as a coach. After a period of time at Neath RFC, an opportunity arose at the Cardiff Blues and I was appointed as the assistant S&C coach for the senior team. I spent 18 months in this role before recently moving into the joint head role that I currently fulfil with my colleague Ryan Whitley.

  1. Crossfit has become a huge movement across the world, with the Crossfit Games now being shown on ESPN and other competitions taking place all the time. How do you see it’s progression into being a sport? What are the challenges this brings to athletes and coaches?

CrossFit has grown at a phenomenal rate over the past 5 years, with there being now 500+ gyms in the UK. As CrossFit has developed there has become, what I believe, to be 2 distinct different aspects of CrossFit. The first and foremost being CrossFit the training method aimed at improving individuals General Physical Preparedness, and the second being the Sport of CrossFit.

The majority of individuals that train in CrossFit facilities do so to improve their general physical preparedness that will allow them to live a healthy, active lifestyle whilst also performing better in their chosen sports like rugby, football, netball, skiing etc. In my gyms, we are always looking for our members to progress in their training, and have some healthy competition within the gym, either with themselves or friends. However I always encourage it to be light hearted and fun!

With a growing number of CrossFit competitions now running throughout the year, we have a small proportion of our members looking to pursue CrossFit as a sport and as a result we offer additional classes on Saturday mornings for those members to train in a team and competitive environment, to be exposed to the demands that is expected at CrossFit competitions.

ION Strength and Conditining Gym Cardiff

As a Gym owner, I take great pride in how our facility is run and know the level of service we offer as a strength and conditioning facility is very professional. The coaches we have available are highly qualified and experienced so that we can ensure our members receive the best level of service that can be provided. I have frustrations with the stigma that is attached to CrossFit within the UK, as I feel it is more often than not, quite unjustified. Of course, when you see videos posted online of horrendous lifting techniques in the middle of a CrossFit workout, its hard to defend but this occurs in non CrossFit affiliated gyms also. You have good gyms, you have bad gyms, you have good coaches, you have poor coaches and with that you have good CrossFit facilities and you have poor CrossFit facilities. That’s just the way the fitness industry works.

All I know is that my gym along with the majority of other CrossFit gyms across the UK are doing an excellent job and running a very professional S&C program and service for the general public to excel within and improve their all round fitness and lead a healthier and happier life! As coaches, most are aware of the difference between encouraging their members to work hard but not in a reckless disregard for biomechanics! Despite what people may think of CrossFit, we focus primarily on the quality of movement and encouraging individuals to work through correct movement patterns that will transfer heavily into everyday life activities leading to healthier and more active lifestyles.

Unfortunately due to some poor publicity at times and individuals lack of knowledge there is a negative stigma attached to CrossFit training. CrossFit, whether you are a fan of it or not has done volumes for individuals looking to improve their general health and fitness, it has also had an incredible impact in popularising barbell sports like Olympic Lifting and Powerlifting for both men and women over the past 5 years.

  1. When training for the sport of Crossfit how strategic are you in the planning and programming of the year. Are different periods devoted to training different physical characteristics? How do you go about building a typical training week for a Crossfit athlete?

The Sport of CrossFit is growing rapidly in popularity. How coaches programme for the Sport of CrossFit is similar to other sports in a way you will have an Off Season, Preseason and Competition period. How coaches within these training periods programme and periodize comes down to their believes and own philosophies. For CrossFit athletes, their season tends to run from mid February until the end of July and this will be geared around The CrossFit Open (Feb/March), CrossFit Regionals (May) and then on into the CrossFit Games (July).

ION Gym Image

In my gym, we run CrossFit, Olympic Weightlifting, Powerlifting, Gymnastics, Mobility and High Intensity Interval Classes. An example of how we run our Daily CrossFit classes, will consist of a specific warm up leading into a Strength/Skill development element. This is where a large proportion of our Coaching will take place and this then will be followed by a Conditioning component and finished off with a cool down. Our Strength/Skill component is simple and structured with progression throughout. Simplicity being the key word.

We  Squat once/twice a week, include weightlifting variations also. Added in are upper pushing and pulling exercises. with this format we utilize a small number of key compound exercises from training block to block in order to give members an opportunity to engrain good movements patterns and develop technically under load. The technical development of our members is a critical part of our business and an area we pride ourselves on. This area of our CrossFit program is most certainly not random and is very much planned and periodised. When it comes to our conditioning component of our daily classes we keep it intense to the individual, varied, intelligent and most importantly fun!

  1. You now work with Cardiff Blues Rugby as a Strength & Conditioning Coach. What lessons have you learned from your time as a player that carries over into your coaching now? Similarly is there anything you’ve learned from coaching Crossfit that helps you in this role?

The number one thing I have learnt over the years as an athlete that has had an influence on my coaching style, is the importance of having the ability to create a motivating environment and culture for your athletes to excel in. This applies to training professional athletes as well as the general public and it is a skill so many coaches fail to understand. You can have the best coaching cues and knowledge but without the ability to create an environment for your athletes to flourish in, you will never reach your full potential as a coach and more importantly the impact you have on your athletes. Environment and culture is the foundation to optimize performance. This is an area that has always been a priority of mine, whilst developing my technical skills as a coach. It takes years of experience and learning from other successful environments and individuals to help develop these skills and that is what I continually look to learn and develop.

Technical Coaching is a critical component of any Strength and Conditioning coaches’ armoury. Being a Coach isn’t about designing the sexiest looking programme or having the most over complicated warm up. Being a coach is having that ability to form a relationship with your athletes, where they trust you and listen to what you say in order for them to improve. I believe a coach needs to earn the respect from his athletes as opposed to demanding respect… which never works.

My route into professional strength and conditioning wasn’t through sitting in lecture theatres, but more from experience as an athlete and spending hours and hours of hands on coaching. With CrossFit, it gave me time to develop my coaching cues and build a real solid foundation and knowledge base for dealing with a wide range of abilities. When you are in a professional environment, you are coaching elite level athletes, when dealing with the general public you are faced with far more dysfunctional individuals when it comes to strength and conditioning which is an invaluable experience to have as a coach.

  1. Are there any mistakes you’ve made in your career that have made an impact on the way in which you work today, either as a player, Crossfit or coaching rugby?

Looking back at when I played, I was always someone that felt more was better from a training perspective… a very old school approach!! I focused far too much on the quantity of training I was doing week to week, as opposed to the quality of the training. More is most certainly not better.

At the same time I also have an understanding of what the player feels they may need to prepare themselves for game day. Sometimes it may not 100% coincide with what sports science suggests, but I am also aware of the power of a mind-set and that is a vital key to reaching optimal performance!

From a coaching perspective, of course you make mistakes along the way and these are key to making you a better coach. When you make a mistake, you learn from it, you improve! Over time I have developed as a coach, with my programming and planning becoming more scientific than they were in the past and that allows more accuracy in the application of our programmes. It’s not necessarily about making mistakes, but maybe more about improving practice as I have developed as a coach.

  1. What books have you read that have had a big influence on the way you programme or coach that you could recommend others to have in their library?

A few of the books I currently have and like to refer to from time to time would be the bible of S&C, Supertraining – Siff/Verkhoshansky, Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches – Verkhoshansky, Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning – Beachle & Earle, High Performance Training for Sports – Joyce/Lewindon and the Science of Rugby – Craig Twist. All great books and I guess they are probably prominent on most Strength and Conditioning Coaches shelves.

A big passion of mine is Powerlifting and as a result, I have spent considerable time reading and learning the methods of Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell (a method that produces some of the strongest athletes in the world). The Westside Book of Methods is a book that gives you a great understanding of Louie’s work and his knowledge and experience as both a coach and athlete is incredible.

Last summer, I spent some time in Columbus, Ohio with Louie learning how he trains his athletes that range from Powerlifters, American Football Players, MMA Fighters and CrossFit Athletes. Having the opportunity to watch and learn from world-class coaches like Louie and his team was invaluable.

  1. Who are the coaches that you think are producing great work and advancing the industry, that aspiring S&C coaches should be following and listening to?

Ryan Whitley, former S&C Coach at the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland and now, together, we lead Strength and Conditioning programme at the Cardiff Blues. He has had an incredible influence on me over the past 2 years as a Strength and Conditioning Coach. His technical coaching eye and academic background is important with regards the practices and theories we employ at the Blues. Ryan’s knowledge and experience of other sporting environments has been invaluable in helping us to develop our S&C philosophy at the Cardiff Blues. We certainly bring different qualities to the table, but our commitment and hunger to see our athletes succeed is a quality we both share. We don’t search for credit, we don’t need appraisal, and we do it to improve our athletes so that they can perform to their full potential. Our passion is our strength as coaches and strength and conditioning is something we both live and breathe!

Mark Bennett, was my former Wales Strength and Conditioning Coach, who was previously at the Ospreys and now at Bristol RFC. He has always been someone that I have respected hugely as a Coach and individual, his coaching style certainly helped me massively as a player. He is a coach that practices what he preaches and something that always had me bought in from the start as a player. It’s recognising different qualities coaches have that make them respected and listened to by athletes.

Also, the work Stuart Yule is doing with the Glasgow Warriors has been impressive over the last few years and the impact his work has had on the squad and their style of play is noticeable. Part of the success Glasgow has had over the past few seasons I truly believe is down to the hard work of Stuart and his team.

Robin Westside BarbellAnd finally, when at Westside last summer, Louie put me in touch with Dan Di Pasqua, the lead Strength and Conditioning Coach of NRL team, Melbourne Storm. They are renowned in the NRL as running one of the best S&C programmes in Australia. I have had a number of conversations with him and he is always open and honest with his thoughts and his own philosophy that gives me an insight into how other top level S&C coaches run their programme.

As an S&C department at the Blues we believe our CPD model is critical to what we are building and ensuring we continue to develop as coaches, we regularly carry out presentations to one another keeping up to date with current literature as well as seeking to up-skill our staff within our department. We work closely with the WRU that allows us attend presentations and workshops with some leaders in certain areas of the industry. We have spent time with Franz Bosch, Tim Gabbett, Myers to name a few. Liam Kilduff, who we are lucky enough to have a stones throw away from us in Swansea, has been very supportive of our department over the past year and has regularly invited us to presentations. His knowledge and experience has been massively beneficial to us and allows us to really push on as a department.

  1. What do you think of where the S&C discipline in rugby is at present compared to when you were a player and where do you think things are progressing to in the next 5-10yrs?

S&C within rugby has certainly evolved a lot over the past 5 years and it’s exciting to think where we will be in a further 5-10 years!

There is a big emphasis on monitoring training loads with the aim of optimizing performance as well as reducing injury risk for the players. Players will go through daily well-being monitoring at the start of everyday, and this comprises of a series of tests that will indicate levels of fatigue. Also key to this is straightforward interaction between players, the medical team and our S&C department.

The ever-developing GPS systems that are now available are heavily used within most professional sporting environments. For us, the monitoring of players workloads is a lot more advanced now then it was a few years ago when I played. We use GPS on a daily basis to keep a track of the physiological demands on our players, fatigue during games and training sessions, as well as being used for rehabilitation and injury prevention.

Robin Sowden-Taylor Cardiff Blues S&C Coach

It is critical that we prepare the players with the correct dosage throughout the season, as well as, from week to week-in order for them to endure the demands they will face during a competitive match. If we train with too low a volume/intensity or over-cook these areas then the risk of injury will dramatically increase. Sudden increases or decreases in running volumes and intensities will most likely increase the probability of a player becoming prone to injury. With what’s at stake now throughout the season for clubs, regions and countries, it is critical we avoid unnecessary injuries to players and this is why GPS is an important tool in rugby.

Further developments in this area will be monitoring of actual collisions on the rugby pitch through the use of GPS. Currently there are systems beginning to address these areas but it is still very early doors, and I have no doubt that in the coming years this will be a vital part of all leading GPS devices. It is important however, to mention we use GPS only as a guide. Our philosophy at the Blues is to train the components that contribute to improved performance. Whether it’s a strength/power quality or energy system it doesn’t matter, we use monitoring systems to measure our effectiveness and help guide us towards optimal performance on game day.


  1. Any parting thoughts you’d like to get across that we might have missed here or final words for upcoming S&C coaches?

Coaching experience is invaluable!! You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you don’t have the ability to coach and form a relationship with your athlete then you will not succeed.

Coaching comes from hands on experience and certainly working in different environments and exposing yourself to different calibre of athletes helps to develop you as a coach, learning what cues work for some individuals and what cues don’t for others. Understanding when individuals have dysfunctions and how to correct them, are all things that you learn through actual hands on experience. I also believe aspiring coaches need to find the coaches that have the greatest impact on their athletes/team. Learn from them, ask questions, develop your skills, and learn from your mistakes. All things I have done and will carry on seeking to do.

We would like to thank Robin for giving up his time… Proving our members a great insight into the world of S&C and how to forge a career in rugby at the highest level.

Want to become the machine you were meant to be??

Join Team Renegade Now

Recommended Posts