One on One

Getting the most out of your wrestlers requires understanding not only the mechanics of the sport but also those of each athlete.

By Joe Williams

Joe Williams is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the University of Iowa wrestling team.

Training & Conditioning, 11.5, July/August 2001,

Wrestling is one of several sports that requires athletes to be as strong and quick as possible. But, unlike other sports where strength is crucial, wrestlers must be constantly aware of their weight as they strive to increase their strength. This demands that wrestlers work to strengthen specific muscle groups, rather than simply bulking up. This, in turn, places three distinct requirements on strength coaches working with wrestlers.

The first is to understand the sport of wrestling. For example, you should be able to answer questions such as: “What planes of motion are most important?”; “What muscle groups need to be focused on for optimum performance?”; and “What basic abilities are necessary for injury prevention, in the context of both strength and flexibility?”

Second is the ability to analyze each athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. Wrestling is an individual sport. Consequently, each athlete must be looked at individually and his or her strengths and style must become factors in your training program. What are the athlete’s strategies on the mat? What physical traits give him or her an edge over the competition? For example, is your athlete particularly tall? Does the athlete often use the legs to drive a particular move? And you must also consider whether the athlete is experiencing muscle strains or injuries that can be prevented or corrected through strengthening a particular muscle group.

Finally, the strength coach must apply this information and design a program that will remediate weaknesses while taking advantage of each athlete’s personal strengths. Given this athlete’s wrestling style, and considering his or her physical strengths and weaknesses, what exercises and drills will yield the greatest gains?

When a training program addresses these three areas, a wrestler’s strength and speed can be enhanced while taking full advantage of that individual’s wrestling style. Thus, you’ll see maximum results out on the mat, where it counts.

In order to illustrate the integration of these three key factors into an athlete’s training program, I will profile an individual wrestler and detail a typical training day. This article describes a session I would prescribe for the first strength-training session of the week early in the season.

The Athlete
Gabe McMahan is 5’9”, with a slender build, and weighs, on average, 180 pounds. From watching Gabe practice, I noticed that he uses his arm length to execute a lot of his moves. Therefore, on the first training day of the week, I will have him focus on his back and arms—specifically his biceps and triceps. Gabe also takes full advantage of his length and leverage, so I want to make sure that when doing the exercises he gets full extension and works the pulling-back motion, be it in his chest or upper arms. Therefore, I’ll make sure he performs the exercises in a controlled manner, at a fairly slow pace. Conversely, if Gabe were a really explosive wrestler who relies on his power, I would concentrate on a quicker pace and smaller range.

The only injury Gabe has had occurred during last year’s wrestling season, when he tore the MCL in his right knee. Therefore, for today’s upper-body workout, there isn’t anything to be cautious about or to focus on in terms of this injury. However, when working his lower body, it is extremely important that we focus on exercises that will not only strengthen the muscles around his knee but also increase his range of motion in that joint.

You’ll notice that many of the exercises are similar to ones that you might prescribe for any athlete. The biggest difference between the training of wrestlers and, say, football players is how they execute the exercises. In wrestling, we use circuit training extensively. This provides little to no rest, which gets the muscles fatigued and trains athletes to push through that feeling, simulating an actual wrestling match.

The Program
There are a couple of things that all athletes should do as part of every strength-training session. They should start each session by warming up and wrap up each session by cooling down. For the most part, a warm-up should run 10 to 15 minutes—just enough to get the heart-rate up.

I make working the legs, particularly the quads, a part of every warm-up, even if the legs are not the primary focus of that day’s training. So, for this workout I would have Gabe start out on the stationary bike for a few minutes, followed by a minute or two of jumping jacks. Then, I’d have him do a series of sit-ups, pull-ups, and perhaps another exercise or two where he is using his own bodyweight. The number of sets and reps of each isn’t as important as just warming up that muscle group.

Following the warm-up, the athlete should always stretch for five to 10 minutes or until he feels ready to pump some serious weight. These would include some hurdler—or butterfly position—stretches, hamstring stretches, and twists. Ensure that the athlete stays warm and maintains a sweat throughout this time. If you find that he is no longer sweating, add some jumping jacks, sit-ups, and push-ups. The final, very important, thing for all athletes is to drink plenty of water before, during, and after every workout.

I like to open each workout with exercises that give whatever muscle group we are working on a little burn. Don’t jump whole-hog into the heavy training—the athlete should be eased into the workout. Because this is our first workout with Gabe, we will start him off with three to four sets of pull-ups, with 12 to 15 repetitions in each.

Between each set, closely monitor the rest periods. I like to decrease the amount of rest time as the workout goes on. This gives the athlete just enough time to recover and get mentally ready for the next set while progressively fatiguing him. For example, the first rest set will be for two minutes, the second will be 90 seconds, the third 60 seconds, and the last rest set 30 seconds. It’s important that the longer the workout or exercise goes, the more the athlete should respond to being fatigued and push through the workout.

Barbell Curls
Our second exercise, barbell curls, focuses on the biceps and triceps. Because we are still in the early stage of our workout, we want to make sure the athlete doesn’t overdo it. Our workload here is four sets with 10 to 12 repetitions in each. Don’t forget to increase weight and decrease the rest time between sets.

I have Gabe start off with light weights and increase each set by 20 pounds. As he grips the bar, his hands should be barely shoulder-width apart and his feet should be on the inside of his grip. Gabe will pick the bar up and rest it on his thighs, then curl the bar up to his chin. As he does so, I make sure he is not using his back. To maintain the correct form, I have Gabe concentrate on keeping his elbows close to his body.

During the exercise, Gabe should be paying attention to his breathing. While curling, he should be exhaling, and when returning to the rest position, he should inhale. During this exercise, the athlete should never lock his arms when in the rest position, but rather always keep weight on the muscle group being worked.

As mentioned, make sure the athlete drinks plenty of water during the training session. For example, without slowing things down too much, now would be a great time for him to get a quick drink of water.

Weighted Pull-Ups
Following the barbell curls, I like to return to our initial exercise, pull-ups. Only this time we want to do something a little different: weighted pull-ups. With a weight belt, start with five pounds and increase each set by five pounds. The muscles are a little fatigued already from having opened the session with pull-ups, so you don’t have to add a lot of weight.

The workload will be three sets, with eight to 10 repetitions each. The first rest set will be for two minutes, the second will be 90 seconds, and the third 60 seconds.

Preacher’s Curls
Our next exercise is called preacher’s curls, which focus on biceps and triceps again. For this particular exercise you will need a preacher’s bench. The athlete begins by placing his arms across the bench so that his triceps are flat against the top of the bench. He then leans over the bench and grips the curl bar with a palms-up grip and curls the weight up, all the while keeping his triceps against the bench. Have him repeat the exercise, paying attention to breathing.

I start Gabe off with about 125 pounds and increase each set by 10 pounds on each side (20 pounds total). I’ll have him do three to four sets and decrease the reps in each from 15 to 12 to 10, and then eight if there’s a fourth set. And, as before, graduate the rest from 90 seconds after the first set to 60 and then 30 seconds.

Wide-Grip Pull-Downs
The next exercise focuses on the back, while working the triceps as well. Wide-grip pull-downs are terrific because they develop quality and shape in the target muscles and the athlete can feel the muscles working during the exercise.

With wide-grip pull-downs, the athlete can either lift the weights to the front or the back. Have the athlete sit in the pulldown machine and, using a wide grip when holding the bar, pull the weight down behind his neck or to his chest, then return to the starting position.

For this exercise, you want to get the athlete lifting a weight as close as possible to the weight he’ll be wrestling. Because Gabe is in the 174-pound class, I’ll have him start out lifting 135 pounds and then increase by 20 pounds each set so that by the third set he’s lifting 175 pounds.

My program for Gabe has him doing three sets, again gradually reducing the reps in each from 12 to 10 and finishing on eight. Also gradually decrease the rest between each, as before.

Incline Dumbbell Curls
We want to top things off with a good muscle burner. For this, Gabe will do some incline dumbbell curls. Set the incline bench to where the athlete feels the most comfortable and have him grip the dumbbell with palms facing up. I like to work on both arms at the same time, so I have Gabe curl the weight up to his chest, hold and squeeze the biceps, then repeat the exercise.

I’ll have Gabe start out at 45 pounds and increase each set by five pounds on each dumbbell. He’ll do three sets total, with 10 reps for each, and because this is his final exercise for the day, I keep him at 30 seconds rest between each.

That concludes the main part of the workout for the day. We focused on two major body groups: the biceps/triceps and the back. The athlete should always end each workout by cooling down. This allows the athlete to gradually get his heart-rate down, gives the muscles a chance to recover, and gets rid of excess lactic acid in the muscles.

I like to end things with a conditioner and stretching. For the conditioner, I’ll change the initial exercise from what we did in the warm-up. So, for example, since I had Gabe start out on the stationary bike, I’ll now have him jog for a few minutes. The pace and intensity are a little different from the warm-up—you’re not trying to get the athlete to break a sweat but rather to just get some blood back to the muscles and slowly get his heart rate down.

This is topped off with 15 to 20 minutes of stretching. I’ll have Gabe do the same stretches as before, emphasizing the muscles we worked on. Since there’s no good stretch that targets the biceps or triceps, I’ll have him do some self-massage for those areas. If the athlete has access to a steam room or sauna, spending a few minutes there after stretching will greatly speed his recovery.

At this stage in the season, Gabe will strength train three days a week—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On Wednesday, I’ll have him focus on the legs. Because of his previous injury, I’ll have him do a lot of plyos and include series of squats and other exercises such as running stairs that help develop proprioception.

On his third training day, I’ll have Gabe combine the legs with the back, neck, and shoulders. Hit each muscle group once each week, and go back to the muscle group you’re focusing on—in Gabe’s case, the back, triceps, and biceps.

We’ve looked at the specific considerations I make when training wrestlers, using one athlete as an example. But by including considerations of the athlete’s sport, his or her personal strengths, and building an exercise program based around these needs, you’ll see results in whatever sport your athletes perform in.