Grappling with success – lessons to be learned from wrestling strength training
Examples of a wrestling periodisation plan and specific exercises
Freestyle wrestling is a demanding sport that requires careful attention to strength conditioning. But according to Andy Harrison, these techniques are equally applicable to other weight category sports, such as judo and boxing
With few exceptions, success as an athlete requires the development of an appropriate and effective resistance training strategy. The appropriate programme design requires a careful analysis of the demands of the activity or activities to be targeted (see box below) and to be effective, any programme must also follow a general periodisation model and incorporate training principles such as specificity and progression.
Demands of wrestling
A wrestling match is decided by either a fall, or if no fall occurs, by a scoring system that quantifies which wrestler is superior at controlling the opponent. Matches consist of three two-minute rounds separated by 30 seconds’ rest. Competition is characterised by short-duration, high-intensity, intermittent exercise followed by periods of constant pulling, pushing, lifting and gripping movements in preparation for the next explosive effort.
The movement patterns primarily consist of grappling in order to gain dominance, so that the subsequent short bursts of effort can exploit this advantageous position. Such sparring can occur either in standing or ground positions, depending on the situation, tactics or individual strengths of the athlete.
Both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems are taxed during wrestling competition. The anaerobic system provides the short, quick, all-out bursts of maximal power that characterise this sport, while the aerobic system contributes to the athlete’s ability to sustain effort for the duration of the match and to recover during the brief periods of rest or reduced effort(1). Therefore, in order to offset fatigue and maintain technique, high levels of physical fitness are necessary.
Unsurprisingly, absolute strength is typically greater in heavier wrestlers than their lightweight counterparts; however, the reverse is true for relative strength(2). When comparing successful with less successful wrestlers or the experienced to the novice, it appears that greater strength is advantageous.
The greatest differences have been observed in the tests for upper body strength. Following rule changes in the 1970s that placed the emphasis upon aggressive wrestling and scoring over holding and blocking, dynamic rather than isometric strength has become a more crucial performance measure.
As with most combat sports, the above demands need to be analysed in the context of the restrictions imposed by weight classifications within wrestling, and their implications upon strength training and conditioning.
Competitive events are organised by weight division; optimal body composition is therefore paramount as athletes are matched by body mass and must ‘make weight’ prior to each event. During the season, wrestlers will attempt to maximise their lean tissue while minimising body fat and total body mass. A possible exception is the open class heavy weight division, in which additional non-force-producing body mass may provide an advantage.
Programme design must be considered within a periodisation plan that prioritises and develops the physical and physiological adaptations of the athlete as they build towards their targeted competition/s. As with most sports there are several factors that must be considered when constructing a periodised plan specific for wrestling. For example, circuit training will not increase muscular power; however, it will enhance performance when fatigue sets in. That said, attention to absolute strength and power in a non-fatigued state should not be omitted during pre-and in-season training. Strength is a major component of power and therefore the blending of strength development with power-endurance development is a priority for wrestling success.
Wrestling programme variables
The following provides a brief overview of several types of programme variables that can be manipulated in order to best prepare the wrestler:
Circuit resistance training: The main purpose of this work is to enhance the endurance capacity of the body, and key to achieving this is the management of the work:rest ratio. Typically, rest periods between exercises can begin at 90 seconds and then progress down towards 60 seconds or lower. A timeframe of four to six weeks should be allowed to make this gradual reduction, while completion of six to eight further weeks of this type of work will be needed in order to optimise adaptation. The phase of the training and the development level of the athlete will dictate the number of circuits per session (from two to five) and sessions per week (two to three). The resistances required to create the appropriate physiological stress will range within the 10-15RM area – ie muscular failure should be reached somewhere between the 10th and 15th rep.
Strength training: The above demand analysis highlights the necessity for strength development in order to optimise both attacking and defensive technique. To do this multi-joint exercises should be employed, performed with multi-planar actions – eg bench presses, lat pulldowns etc – at different angles. Compared with circuit resistance training, the rest periods are longer (two to four minutes) and require heavier loading (6RM and lower).
Power training: The successful execution of wrestling technique requires the athlete to be explosive, which requires power. Again multi-joint exercises should be employed; however, now the intent is to move the mass as quickly as possible. Repetitions can range from one to six (average two to four repetitions) with loads from 30 to 40% of 1RM for higher mechanical loading to higher percentages (60-85% of 1RM) for improving power outputs at higher force levels. Adequate rest should be allowed (three minutes plus) to ensure that maximal effort can be attained. This type of resistance power training can also be supplemented by plyometric type work.
Inclusion of ‘Olympic lifts’ is a key component generally when aiming to develop strength and power capabilities. Their inclusion within a wrestling conditioning programme is crucial. These lifts require high levels of coordination and are very similar to throws and several other movement patterns completed during competition. The technical competency necessary to complete this type of work will also positively impact upon wrestling skills such as balance and proprioception. The inclusion of single-leg exercises can also be used to improve an athlete’s ability to maintain and regain balance during competition.
Completing exercises without wrist straps or using towels and ropes should be incorporated in order to develop grip strength, which is necessary for the successful execution of holds and throws. Body-weight exercises such as pull-ups and rope climbing are also excellent choices. However, most forearm exercises should be performed in an isometric manner in order to match the contraction type typical for wrestling.
The ability to maintain strength and power under anaerobic conditions is trainable by manipulating the order of exercises in a programme. Circuit training should be incorporated in order to develop muscular endurance, while prescribing ‘Olympic lifts’ or plyometric exercises at the end of a programme requires the athlete to exert high levels of power when already in a fatigued state (suggested for advanced athletes only). Longer duration (30-60 seconds) plyometric exercises or timed Olympic lifts can also help develop power endurance.
Core development and isometric strength
The ability to exert and withstand rotational forces is a key aspect of wrestling success. Therefore prescription of resistance exercises that target the core area (abdominals, lower back and gluteal muscles of the buttocks) is crucial to enable the efficient transfer of forces from the lower to the upper body. This type of work should generally be included in the off- and pre-season periods but may also be prescribed in technical sessions (with the coach’s agreement) during the in-season.
Practically every wrestling move can have a static component and pulling and pushing moves may develop into static actions. Therefore, besides the need for isometric grip strength, the importance of isometric muscle action must be emphasised in a wrestling-specific programme. This can be completed using simple partner exercises, manual resistance or the previously mentioned rope and towel work. Again, the duration of the activity (isometric contraction) should be manipulated based on the athlete’s need (greater in heavier weight categories) and on the phase of the training cycle.
Optimal gains in strength are the result of either a small number of long-duration muscle actions or a high number of shorter-duration muscle actions. Joint angle specificity must also be considered when designing an isometric training programme. Strength will be developed only at the specific joint angle at which the exercise is performed. This must be balanced with the fact that not every joint angle can be trained because it would simply require too much time!
Body mass management
The categorisation of athletes by weight demands high levels of strength relative to body weight. Wrestlers should therefore strive to improve maximal force and power production while retaining the ability to ‘make weight’. Manipulation of volume and rest periods in resistance training plus high volume/low-intensity aerobic conditioning can play a role in addressing the issues of both weight management and body composition. This may need to be completed in conjunction with professionally designed nutrition strategy.
With the exception of the heavier weight categories, excessive muscle bulk may be undesirable in the sport. However, all athletes will benefit from improvements in body composition (increased muscle mass alongside fat loss) without altered body mass. Relative strength can be targeted by incorporating body-weight exercises (pull ups, dips, rope climbing, partner exercises, etc). As time under tension is minimal and the eccentric component negligible, ‘Olympic lifts’ can also be utilised without a necessary increase in body weight.
Within wrestling, primary sites for upper body injuries are the shoulders, neck and elbows. For the lower body, knee-related problems are the most common. A resistance programme should aim to strengthen and stabilise the sites and structures of common injuries. In addition to muscular strength, increasing the range of motion around these joints may also help in injury prevention.
Muscular strength work with an injury prevention focus should generally be included as part of the off-season preparation phase but may also be prescribed as assistant movements during the pre-season and in-season periods. However, wrestlers should incorporate flexibility exercises throughout the year.
Research has highlighted the following parameters as influencing wrestling performance: body mass and composition, muscular strength, muscular endurance, muscular power, flexibility, anaerobic power and cardiovascular fitness.
These characteristics comprise the overall physiological profile of a successful wrestler. In fact it has been shown that physiological variables alone can account for up to 45% of the variance between successful and unsuccessful Olympic contenders(3). However, it must be remembered that wrestling is a technical sport and that these characteristics form only the platform upon which the athlete must base their technical skill and strategy. Clearly it is possible for an individual to possess excellent physiological capacities and lack the sport-specific components necessary to gain competitive success.
In order to maximise the transfer of training gains, exercises selected for a sports-specific resistance programme should match the recruitment patterns and muscle actions of the activity as identified by the demand analysis. Generally the ‘programme design’ considerations detailed within this article hold true for the majority of sports. The skill lies within blending these together to achieve the desired outcome.
Many of the examples provided here (see tables below) are valid for other weight category sports, most notably those involving an element of gripping and grappling such as judo and submission fighting. Some of these examples (single-leg Olympic lifts, isometric exercises, etc) may also transfer and provide benefit to other sports with similar activities such as rugby.
Andy Harrison BSc, MSc is a physiologist who works as athlete services manager for the English Institute of Sport
- J Strength Conditioning Res 2000; 14(2):162-9
- Sports Medicine 2002; 32(4):225-233)
- Physician Sports Med 1995; 3(12):31-4
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