For wrestlers, strength is secondary on the list of important skills needed to improve their game. In wrestling and competitive fighting, training should be focused on technique and conditioning first, speed and agility next and finally strength. After skill training, drilling, sparring and conditioning, there is hardly time or energy left to even consider strength training in most programs. Some coaches feel their athletes will get as strong as they need from the skill training/conditioning they do and refuse pure strength training as they fear it will make their athletes bigger and therefore harder to keep them at a certain weight. Some coaches also feel weight training should be avoided as they fear it will make their athletes bulkier and slower. When done correctly however, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. There are many situations in wrestling when strength is the primary attribute used, where the stronger athlete definitely has the advantage.
As a beginner, just practicing and learning wrestling will significantly improve your overall strength and even more so for specific motions performed repetitively on the mat.
However improving the strength of certain muscle groups used in specific moves while wrestling will take your game one step further and allow you to dominate your opponents when you perform those moves. For example, training the lats, arms and grip will make you stronger for when you’re pulling your opponent’s head down performing a snap to the head. Strong lats and grip are also very helpful when you’ve shot in for a single leg takedown and your opponent has sprawled. If you still have his leg in your grasp and are strong enough, you can continue to pull his leg into you and complete the takedown for two points. On the reverse of this situation, if your shoulders and arms are strong enough, you will be able to successfully ward off your opponent’s take down attempt by pushing on his hips after sprawling despite his attempts to pull your leg in.
Strength training for wrestling is not only a great way to gain an edge in performance on the mat, but also an important aspect of injury prevention. There is much information written on the positive effects (in both performance and injury prevention) from the development of the posterior chain. This is the group of musculature that runs on both sides of the spine, from the base of the skull to the back of the knees (including trapezius/neck, mid-lower back musculature, glutes and hamstrings). Training the posterior chain does wonders for protecting athletes from spine and neck injuries, particularly in contact sports. There are many positions common to wrestling that can be compromising to the spine if the posterior chain is weak. The wrestler’s stance is bent forward in a crouch to stay low for both takedown offense and defense; this calls upon the athlete’s posterior chain to maintain this position. A wrestler with a super strong posterior chain can arch out of cradle attempts or maintain his arch longer to keep from being pinned. Along with the posterior chain emphasis, a wrestler will also greatly benefit by developing his core. Training the abdominals and obliques with weights, for time (sustained contractions/isometrically), and rotationally has a huge performance carry over when it comes to escapes or lifting/throwing your opponent.
If done properly, training with weights will also make a wrestler much faster. When weights are lifted using only the repetition method (for example 3 sets of 12) like bodybuilders do, greater size is the only result with no improvement in speed. However there are many other techniques to use when lifting weights that will make a tremendous improvement in both speed and explosiveness, no matter what the sport. One method for improving speed is by lifting sub maximal loads (<50% max) explosively for 1-3 reps/set. For the greatest benefit, this should only be done with compound exercises (double or triple extension type), like squats, power cleans, snatch, bench press and even overhead press/push press. Depending on the exercise, adding bands or chains are also helpful for a greater explosive output (however best for intermediate and advanced lifters). Mixing plyometric exercises in with a properly balanced strength training program is also very helpful for speed development and employed by many top level/professional athletes and fighters.
Weight training is also very beneficial to wrestlers when they have to cut weight. It’s true that building muscle will add pounds to a wrestler’s frame and may cause an upset with which weight class they compete in. However the benefits of building new muscle include more power and explosiveness that will directly impact mat performance. Greater lean body mass built from lifting weights will also increase the body’s metabolism, making it easier to burn bodyfat. While weight loss for wrestling often has more to do with reaching a certain bodyweight to fill a spot on the team, limits should be set based off of a current lean body mass measurement to make sure the weight loss remains healthy. Under no circumstances should an athlete choose a weight class below his LBM measurement, requiring him to lose muscle to reach the desired weight. That being said, it is advantageous for an athlete to shoot for a lesser weight class, barely make weight and then bulk up/re-hydrate back to normal to ultimately be the larger athlete in the class. Improved muscular development from weight training ensures greater strength no matter which weight class you enter providing the weight cut was healthy.
While most of the top high school and NCAA college wrestlers train as much as 6 or more days/week, it can be challenging to add weight training into an already full schedule. Fortunately, searching for a 2 hour time block 3 times/week to exhaust yourself with weights is not necessary to see great gains in strength for an edge on the wrestling mat. During your season, keep wrestling and conditioning as the primary training and only add strength building sessions as an afterthought. You can make significant gains by only adding a few strength exercises to the end of practice 2-3 days/week. Pick two exercises that target specific motions you perform on the mat for one day; pick two different exercises for another. Perform these same exercises after practice for no longer than 3 weeks and then switch to something different. Keep these sessions intense but no longer than 15-20 minutes max. Decide on the day if you have enough left in your tank after practice and skip weight training after particularly hard practices or when cutting weight. That being said, consistency is key to improving strength with weight lifting.
The playing field of today is very different from yesteryear; there has been much development and advancement in training systems and ideas of what it takes to become a champion. Evidence of this is the fact that athletes are bigger, faster and stronger than ever. With top level competition, no attributes can be ignored. Add weight lifting to your wrestling program and improve your confidence when you bully your opponents like never before. When done correctly, weight lifting will improve your strength, power, explosiveness and speed, translating into a much more well rounded athlete. Design a program that will strengthen specific movements on the mat so you can dominate and overpower your opponents when the opportunity arises.