While speed, agility, conditioning and technique are the king attributes on the wrestling mat, when all of these are equal strength can be the deciding factor. Training with weights to strengthen certain muscle groups commonly used with the goals of making specific motions stronger should be the focus of every wrestling weight lifting program. Improvement of speed, core strength, weight gain and the overall development of the posterior chain muscle group are other important aspects that should also be included into an off season weight training program for wrestlers. With limited time (per session and per off season), your weight lifting and nutritional program must be meticulously scheduled so as to optimize muscular gains for the best carry over to your sport.
When programming your weight lifting schedule for the competitive wrestler, first make sure your program is balanced for both upper and lower body development. Then, fill in the program with exercises that will strengthen muscles with particular wrestling movements in mind. Stay away from machines (such as nautilus, hammer strength, etc.) as these tend to offer strength in only one plane of movement and have very little to no carryover of functional strength in sports. It’s better to choose free weight compound movements (such as squats, cleans and overhead presses) as they apply to your sport and as the main stay of your program, and accessory lifts to customize the program to your athlete’s needs. Also include body weight exercises such as pull ups and push ups, and graduating into doing these with added weight as strength progresses.
Compound exercises such as the squat, power clean, clean and press and deadlift will produce the greatest stimulus on the nervous system and therefore the greatest effect on muscular development. These exercises are also some of the best ways to build the posterior chain. Development of the posterior chain musculature is the key to preventing injuries to the neck and spine as well as directly impacting many positions common to wrestling. Use only one compound exercise per session, then follow up with 2-4 accessory exercises to compliment the already completed compound movement and focus on building strength for specific movements performed on the mat. Choose these to either enhance the overall repertoire of techniques the athlete knows or customize the exercises to help the athlete improve on certain moves he wants to get better at.
Developing the lats is important for providing a harder snap when pulling the head down, resulting in either pulling your opponent all the way down to the mat to secure a front headlock or as a distraction leading to a takedown. Strong lats can also make the difference when pulling the leg in when your opponent has sprawled after you attempted a single leg takedown. The lats also play a significant role in securing a tight hold on your opponent when lifting him up for a mat return. As your opponents tries to break your grip by stiffening/straightening his leg, if your lats, arms and grip are strong enough you will be able to complete the takedown by pulling his leg in. Train the lats with pull-ups, one arm rows, barbell rows and low cable rows. For the best carryover, pull ups should be performed with both slightly bent and completely extended arms as you will encounter both positions on the mat.
Strong shoulders are important in wrestling when defending a takedown. After you’ve sprawled and your opponent is trying to complete the takedown by pulling your leg in, strong shoulders will help you push him away as you press against his hips. An iron shoulder capsule is also important for preventing injuries common to this joint as arms frequently get extended and pulled past their normal range of motion when getting pinned or turned. The best exercises for strengthening the shoulders for wrestling are overhead/military presses (behind the neck) and push presses (in front of the neck) with a shortened range of motion. For the best shoulder health, overhead presses should only be performed to the top of the head (and not all the way down to the base of the neck). Train your shoulders for power using a short overhead pin press performed inside a power rack with standards set a couple of inches from the top of the head. Strengthen and tighten your shoulder capsule with internal and external rotational exercises (the same that’s performed for physical therapy when treating a rotator cuff tear).
Besides keeping an emphasis on the posterior chain musculature, training the core should also be a top priority. Mat returns, escapes, reversals, coming out of the bottom and takedowns of any type will all require a strong core. This muscle group includes the lumbar erectors, glutes, hips, abdominals and obliques. For the greatest performance edge and carryover of strength onto the wrestling mat, train the abdominals with weight at least once or twice/week. The most functional exercises are performed with straight legs rather than bent. Hanging leg raises, straight leg sit-ups (with weights), straight leg sumo sit-ups (with weights) and standing abdominals using a lat pull machine are excellent exercises for strengthening the abdominals. Weighted back raises, dead lifts (stiff leg, romainian and conventional), reverse hypers and good mornings using a safety squat bar are the best exercises for strengthening the lower back. Obliques are best trained with weighted side bends (as heavy as possible) and twisting motions with weights, such as wood choppers.
Strengthening the neck is also important for wrestlers to not only protect the cervical spine but also to defend against getting your head snapped down. When hand fighting, the neck is constantly getting pulled on; a strong neck is helpful to combat against this as well as being able to pull your head out of head locks and breaking your opponent’s grip when defending against a cradle. Train both the SCM and posterior neck in your sessions. Shrugs and a head harness are great for strengthening the posterior neck; lying neck flexion with a weight on your forehead works fine for training the SCM. End several of your weight lifting sessions with grip training. There are many occasions on the wrestling mat where a superior grip will help you prevail. Train the grip with for crushing strength using professional grippers and static hold strength by holding weight plates together for time. You can also build crushing grip strength by rolling up (and squeezing) a beach towel for several repetitions.
Add an off season strength program to your wrestling training and watch your performance soar on the mat. When setting up your program, study specific techniques you want to improve and try to strengthen muscle groups used in the execution of the move. Choose at least one compound movement per session, perform it first and fill the rest of the training session with accessory exercises to target muscles used for improving certain wrestling movements. Train your abdominals/core at least once or twice/week at the end of your session. Add 1-2 grip training exercises at the end of at least one or two training sessions/week.