A Strong Hold

Lehigh University uses a five-phase program to get its wrestlers ready for national competition.

By Pat Santoro & Tom Koch

Pat Santoro is Assistant Wrestling Coach and Tom Koch, MA, CFT, is Volunteer Strength and Conditioning Coach for Lehigh University wrestling, which finished 4th at last year’s NCAA Division I championships. Santoro was awarded the National Wrestling Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year for the 2002-03 season.

Training & Conditioning, 13.6, September 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1306/stronghold.htm

Wrestlers are unique athletes. They require strength, endurance, and flexibility that must be maintained at a high percentage throughout a match. Yet, they also need extremely lean body mass to keep their weight at a minimum.

Wrestling is one of the few sports in which every muscle is utilized during competition. Therefore, multi-group exercises are essential to maximize training efficiency in the weight room. We also require strict form during exercise execution to maximize strength and range of motion.

Although every muscle is important, our main focus is on legs/hips, back, and abs. Abs are one of the most ignored and improperly trained groups of muscles. Abdominal muscles are a key component to power and therefore must be trained with explosive movements rather than as slow-twitch fibers.

We also believe that training must be individualized. For example, athletes who come to us with great leg strength but a weak upper body may do a lot of remedial core work. And new wrestlers to our program who have not weight-trained before will receive more instruction and sometimes remain longer in earlier phases. We are very careful not to overload athletes with weights that are too heavy or give them exercises that they cannot execute properly.

Periodization is the key to any training program for optimum performance throughout the season. Strength training that is not properly planned will retard the peaking process and may cause injury. Our program is split into five different phases, which are detailed in the next sections.

Phase One:
Circuit Training
This phase is designed as an adaptation phase for experienced lifters as well as beginners. It prepares the muscles for the heavier loads that will be applied in the advanced phases.

The program includes 2-3 sets with loads between 40 and 70 percent of 1RM, 6-9 exercises, and 8-10 reps. The rest duration is 1-2 minutes between circuits. We do this routine 3-4 days a week for 3-8 weeks. Less experienced athletes will remain in this phase longer.

Here is a sample circuit:

Leg press/squat
Leg curl/straight-leg dead lift
Bench press/DB incline
Pull-ups/lat pull-down
Dips/cable flys
Bent-over/seated cable row
Shoulder press/lateral raise
Back extension
Incline sit-ups

Phase Two:
Hypertrophy is a very important phase in the progression of our program. However, because hypertrophy increases muscle mass, we must be very careful when implementing it. Weight management is an essential part of wrestling, and a bulked-up wrestler simply won’t make his weight. Therefore, we keep this phase as short as possible, usually 3-4 weeks.

The phase includes 3-4 sets with loads between 70 and 80 percent of 1RM, 8-12 exercises, 3-4 days/week.

Here is a sample:

Hang cleans/box jumps/dead lifts
Squats/leg press
Leg curls/straight-leg dead lifts
Incline bench
Towel pull-ups
Weighted dips
Dumbbell row
Shoulder press
Rear shoulder raise
Twisted abdominal/incline sit-ups
Forearms-rice bucket

It is important to mention here that Phases One and Two must be completed in their entirety before moving to Phase Three. Skipping any part of the first two phases could result in injury and body breakdown during the next part of the training cycle.

In addition, wrestlers must master proper technique before moving to Phase Three. Individual instruction and adequate spotters are important.

Phase Three
Maximum Muscle Strength
During this part of the program our wrestlers develop significant gains in strength. This phase includes 4-5 sets with loads between 80 and 100 percent of 1RM, 5-7 exercises, 2-5 reps, 2-3 days a week. Rest intervals during this phase are 2-4 minutes. The duration is 8-12 weeks.

Here is a sample of the exercises:

Power cleans/dead lifts
Squats/walking lunges
Weighted pull-ups/seated lat pull-down
Dumbbell bench press/incline
Squat shoulder push press
Hanging V-Ups

Phase Four
At this point, we have added significant gains in strength, and it is time to transfer that into power on the mat. Therefore, this phase deals with lighter weight and targets the neuromuscular system. The goal is to perform routines as quickly and explosively as possible.

This phase includes 3-5 sets with loads between 50 and 80 percent of 1RM, 3-6 exercises, 5-10 reps, 2-3 days a week. Duration is 3-5 weeks.

Here is a sample:

Squat jumps/box jumps
Hang cleans
Medicine-ball side throw/overhead medicine-ball throw
Shoulder push press/medicine-ball push press
Two-handed chest throw with partner
Hanging V-Ups

Phase Five
This phase is accomplished during our season. We have found, with proper weight management, some of our wrestles had slight increases in strength throughout the season. We train just two days a week in the weight room and vary our program from a moderate heavy day to a muscle endurance day. These programs are very individualized and we are constantly playing with the numbers from week to week.

On our moderate heavy day, athletes do 2-3 sets with loads varying from 50-85 percent of 1RM, 5-7 exercises, 5-7 reps. Rest interval is 1-2 minutes.

Here is a sample:

Squat/leg press
Straight-leg dead lift
Weighted pull-ups
Bent-over row
Incline sit-ups

On our muscle endurance day, we include 2-3 sets with loads varying from 50-85 percent of 1RM, 5-7 exercises, 5-10 reps. There is no rest interval, and all exercises are done very quickly, but in a controlled manner.

Here is a sample:

Leg press
Seated pull-downs
Dips (max)
Shoulder press
Pummel curls (exaggerated hammer curls)
Hanging V-Ups

Aerobic Work
Many wrestlers run long distances for weight management, but this can be very counterproductive when trying to keep up strength throughout the season. Doing too much aerobic work can hinder the explosiveness we work so hard to develop in the weightroom. Therefore, we modify our aerobic training and structure it to complement our weight training.

All of our runs are low mileage, with the bulk of them being interval training. Early stages of our interval training will have a 1:3 ratio of output to rest (run for one minute, rest for three). As we approach our peaks the ratio will lower to 1:2, then 1:1.

All workouts start with 10-15 minutes of warmup and a 220-meter sprint. Here is a sample of our aerobic work:

4 x 800
2 x 400
2 x 220
6 x 400
8 x 200
4 x 100
2 x 60-second uphill sprints
4 x 45-second uphill sprints
4 x 30-second uphill sprints
4 x 20-second uphill sprints

The Variables
By implementing a carefully planned training program, which works toward peak performance at the end of the season, we have been able to achieve positive results. However, we also pay a lot of attention to the variables that arise, such as sickness, injury, and class schedules, and adjust the plan accordingly. For example, if an athlete is looking rundown or has a week of exams, we’ll eliminate one practice or do light lifting, usually at 50 percent.

While we have detailed some of our training methods we use throughout the year, it is important to realize that the best training for wrestling is wrestling. Much of our conditioning, plyometrics, and reaction time drills are done during our practices. Tactical intelligence is done through videotape scouting and match analysis with the athlete. Wrestling practices must be creative, challenging, and fun in order to have athletes achieve their best come match time.