Most wrestlers desire to put on more muscle mass to either become stronger and more solid at their weight class or to get bigger so they can move up to the next class. To be a successful wrestler, technique, speed, flexibility and conditioning are at the top of every coach’s list for the most important attributes to develop. All things being equal, being stronger than your opponent can also be a definite advantage. There are positions and maneuvers wrestlers get into during a match where strength will be the deciding factor. Every wrestler has been overpowered by a bigger, stronger opponent at least once in their career. Many coaches for some of the best wrestling teams incorporate strength training both in and off season to help their athletes dominate in all areas on the mat. Most successful wrestlers do minimal strength training during the season so they can focus on improving in their sport. Body weight exercises and light weight lifting performed in short sessions once or twice a week is about all that’s necessary during the season.
In contrast, when the season is over, to get the strongest and put on the most muscle mass, the schedule should be reversed for at least 12 weeks. The off season wrestler should lift weights 3-4 days/week while continuing to wrestle 1-2 days/week. If you’re competing in spring tournaments, you may want to wait before devoting this much time to weight lifting. For the best muscular gains, you will need to prioritize weight lifting and proper nutrition designed to help gain weight and put on body size. If you’re still trying to make weight to compete in spring tournaments, it will be difficult and somewhat counterproductive to lift weights to get bigger but not be able to eat the calories you need to accomplish this. Rather than try to mix the two, it’s better to start your weight lifting/weight gaining regimen after tournament season is over.
When setting up your wrestling strength training program, be very specific with sets and rep schemes to make sure the outcome of your program captures the goals you want. For wrestling, prioritize strength over muscular size, however a correctly written training program will accomplish both. It’s important to recognize this distinction and know that exercise selection and sets/reps schemes are what will make the difference. Most bodybuilding programs will make muscles swell and athletes gain weight, however will do nothing for strength. The last thing you want is to be larger/heavier to wrestle the next weight class but not have the strength to keep up with the larger opponents! A common example of this is seen when comparing bodybuilders to competitive weight lifters. There are many extremely large bodybuilders who are not strong at all. In contrast, different methods of training produce many powerlifters who are extremely strong but not very big. A combination of these training methods with an emphasis on strength will produce a wrestler who is much stronger and bigger.
When it comes to weight lifting, the best training programs for gaining weight are performed 3 or 4 days/week. A three day split works best for wrestlers so they can still wrestle two days/week; for example, weights on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with wrestling on Tuesday and Thursday. Schedules like this also allow for a complete break with no training whatsoever on the weekend, leaving time to heal so you are fresh for more hard lifting again on Monday. Train the entire body only once in a 3-day split, but a 4-day will allow you to train the body twice in a week’s time. Four day workout routines are often Monday, Tuesday, off Wednesday and then Thursday, Friday lifting again with the weekend off. This schedule is more difficult however to fit in regular wrestling practices. Our wrestling team thrives off a 4-day weight training split performed on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Wrestling practice is offered Tuesdays and Thursdays; this schedule only allows one day off/week however our team makes terrific gains like this.
For a three day/week weight training program, make day one a lower body day, day two an upper body day and day three a posterior chain/core day. For a four day/week training program, make day one a heavy upper body day, day two a heavy lower body day, day three a light upper body day and day four a posterior chain/core day. For upper and lower body training days, make the first exercises some type of bench press or squat and make sure these are performed with perfect technique and as intensely as possible. Follow up with accessory exercises that will target muscles and motions that will support and build the large movement just performed. For example, after benching, perform dumbbell presses, floor presses, dips or triceps extensions to further exhaust the triceps (the main muscle group used in a properly executed bench press). Next, add exercises to target secondary muscle groups, such as the lats and delts. After performing the squat, add accessory exercises to target the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, glutes, lower back and/or abdominals.
The posterior chain day is also extremely important to the competitive wrestler who not only wants to be stronger but prevent injuries to the neck and lower back as well. This muscle group includes the hamstrings, glutes, lumbar erectors, mid and upper back, traps and posterior neck. Again start with a compound movement that’s multi-extension to tax the nervous system and challenge multiple posterior chain muscles at once. Dead lifts, Romanian deadlifts, stiff leg dead lifts, rack pulls (partial dead lifts), power cleans and good mornings are all excellent choices. As with all compound movements, beginner lifters should start light and slowly build up in weight with their technique being heavily scrutinized and corrected constantly. After the main lift, choose accessory exercises for repetition work that will target smaller posterior chain muscles or weak spots you’ve determined your athletes may have. These may include shrugs, more hamstring work, kettle bell swings (for the glutes), more upper back work (lat pulls, rows and rear delts) and heavy abdominal work.
For the main compound exercises, cycle repetitions over a three week wave with week one performing 3-5 sets of 5 reps, week two 3-5 sets of 3 reps and week three maxing out with sets of 1 or two reps. Week four would start the wave over again back at 5 reps. Repetitions for accessory exercises should be no more than 8-12. For the best results, high intensity should always be employed however avoid complete muscular failure for compound exercises except when maxing. Muscular failure should be accomplished on accessory lifts for most if not all sets. Even on 5 and 3 rep weeks, straining is a must and intensity should be at least up to 75% of a max strain. Add grip training at the end of either upper body day or posterior chain day with 1-2 exercises taken to exhaustion. Besides consistency and intensity during the sessions, the next most important aspect of a successful program is meticulous record keeping of the athlete’s strength gains. At the very minimum, record all maxes so you know what numbers must be beaten the next time they are performed.