Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him, we have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first Bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster. – from the opening sequence of the television show The Six Million Dollar Man
Can we build a wrestler that is better, stronger, and faster?
What is the best type of conditioning for a wrestler? Even though I am no longer competitive, I still grapple with this question. The information I find seems confusing and contradictory at times.
Even though my competitive days are probably behind me, I have continued to be interested in wrestling technique and in wrestling conditioning. I still wondered during my adult life what conditioning could produce the ultimate wrestler. I did a lot of research on the internet and in books and began to piece things together.
What insights did I gain? Let’s explore.
I was somewhat familiar with the concept of periodization as far back as the 1980s. I believe that I first read about periodization in a bodybuilding/fitness magazine. I don’t remember the exact details of the article, but it left an impression on me.
I didn’t start using the internet regularly until around the turn of the new millennium. Through some researching I came upon two articles that were specifically about periodization for wrestling. I believe the first article was simply entitled Periodization and was written by Ethan Bosch.
The second article was entitled Year Long Periodization Schedule and was written by Richard Fergola. These articles fascinated me very much. The articles described what type of training to do at each stage of the calendar year. It was very exciting to find an actual blueprint of how to train year round to be in the best condition to wrestle.
Strength and conditioning coach Mark Ginther contends that peak condition is impossible to retain for more than a couple of weeks at the longest and, therefore, some form of periodization is essential to successful conditioning.
Basic linear periodization often involves three phases: preparatory, competition, and transition. However, there are many other kinds of periodization.
During high school I read an article explaining how different types of weight lifting could lead to strength. power, or muscular endurance. This confused me a bit, because I figured that a wrestler needed all three attributes. I’m not sure when I learned about the difference between aerobic and anaerobic sports. That concept was a bit confusing too, because I could remember breathing hard and feeling my heart pound after a wrestling match. And yet, wrestling wasn’t really like running a few miles. It involved strength and power. During the early part of the new millennium, I also learned bout the three energy systems and how to train them.
The ATP system provides enwergy for approximately 0-15 seconds. The glyco-lactic system provides energy for approximately 15 seconds to 2 minutes. The aerobic system provides energy for 2 minutes and beyond. I was still a little confused because a high school match lasts for six minutes. But, those aren’t six minutes of continuous steady state activity. A wrestling match is punctuated by many powerful bursts of activity. So, wrestling uses more energy from the first two systems and is definitely aerobic. And, knowing that allows you to train accordingly.
A very good article I came across by Mike Frey was Cardiovascular Training for Wrestlers. In part two of that article he writes, “The whistle has blown marking the end of the first period of your match. Your heart is racing and you can hardly breathe. You have been running 2 miles everyday just like your coach and dad told you to. So why are you tired after only 2 minutes?”
“Yes, why is that?” I thought.
The Frey writes, “Running long distance conditioning works the body’s aerobic energy system to use energy over a long period of time, where with wrestling we are required to sustain high levels of energy very quickly and recover in a short period of time.”
You see a wrestler needs not only aerobic endurance, but anaerobic endurance. Mike explains many ways to improve one’s wrestling endurance. It’s a very enlightening article and made quite an impression on me.
Mike concludes part two of the article by stating, “Cardiovascular training for wrestlers is more that just running 2 miles or riding your bike around the block. As you are starting to see, wrestling is about anaerobic conditioning. Aerobic conditioning plays a major role in providing a good solid foundation for cardiovascular training but it’s the anaerobic weight training and conditioning that will carry you to the top of the podium.”
GPP/Work Capacity/Strongman Training/Olympic Lifting/ DensityTraining/Kettlebells/Plyometrics/Miscellaneous
I grew up on a farm. I used to carry bales of hay and pails of corn every day. I lifted and carried bags of lime and feed. I dug fence post holes. In other words, I did plenty of physical labor. This was my way of building general physical preparedness (GPP). A concept closely related to GPP is work capacity.
I believe it was articles written by Matt Wiggins that first brought my attention to the concept of work capacity.
With greater work capacity, one can do a greater volume of conditioning. Having greater work capacity is like having a bigger”gas tank.” If you have great work capacity, then you won’t gas out toward the end of a wrestling match.
A wrestler will absolutely benefit from improved work capacity. He will be prepared for intense work and will be able to recover more quickly.
Strength and conditioning specialist Ross Enimait states, “All athletes can benefit from improved work capacity. This is particularly true for combat athletes.” In addition he writes, “Improving work capacity is one important step to enabling the body to train harder and more often.”
Strongman training involving pulling weighted sleds, swinging sledge hammers, and flipping tires has become quite popular among combat athletes. Look into it.
Some trainers believe that Olympic lifting (e.g. power cleans) is beneficial for a combat athlete while others don’t. The same can be said of plyometrics.
I’ve heard good things about kettlebells, clubbells, and Indian clubs.
Density training often involves trying to do more work in the same amount of time or the same amount of work in less time. How many push ups can you do in ten minutes? Try to double the number of push ups you can do in ten minutes. Think you won’t be in better condition? Or, you could keep doing the same number of push ups but reduce the amount of time you rest between sets.
You should read up about density training.
I guess the bottom line is that there are many ways to condition your body and a variety of tools and techniques one can use.
Aerobic base training has been a principal ingredient of training programs (including those for wrestling) for decades. This type of training (think long slow bouts of jogging) is purported to increase mitochondrial size and density as well as muscular capillarization, which results in increased blood flow to the muscles and improved muscular endurance.
Sounds good, right? However, a growing number of conditioning experts are claiming aerobics (traditional cardio) is useless and perhaps even dangerous.
For instance, some claim that aerobic training can make you slower, cause adrenal stress, and worsen one’s testosterone/cortisol ratio.
Interval training is recommended as an alternative. Interval training involves alternating bouts of high-intensity exercise with that of low to moderate-intensity exercise. For instance, one might sprint for 40 seconds and then jog for two minutes and repeat this for several sets.
On the other hand, in his article A Basic Primer on Endurance Training Charles Staley writes, “Note: Many conditioning specialists eschew the concept of developing an aerobic base, feeling that a highly developed aerobic capacity is counter-productive to the attainment of speed and strength. However the anaerobic system is based on the aerobic system, so at least in principle, it seems logical to develop the system which will promote lactic acid clearance during high intensity training efforts later in the cycle. As in all things, it really is an issue of how much aerobic work is done, and where it is placed in the training cycle.”
Several conditioning experts are advocates of sprinting (including hill sprints).
In the journal article Physiological and Performance Changes from the Addition of a Sprint Interval Program to Wrestling Training, Farzad et al. (2011) state, “Our results indicate that repeated sprint-interval runs with short passive recovery periods, over a 4-week period are useful in increasing both aerobic and anaerobic performances. The training period also significantly influenced serum hormone concentrations.”
The total testosterone of the participants performing the sprint protocol increased significantly. Pretty cool, huh?
Lactic Acid Training
Wrestling is considered to be primarily an anaerobic sport. Earlier I mentioned the three energy systems. One of the energy systems that wrestling relies heavily upon is called the lactic acid or lactate system.
The lactate system can be linked with the burning sensations felt during high intensity activities. Therefore, if a wrestler can train his body to tolerate and effectively use lactate he will become less fatigued and will be able to wrestle at a higher intensity longer.
According to Strength and Conditioning Specialist Jonathan Siegel, “In terms of improving the use and re-use of lactate in our muscles, lactate threshold (LT) intervals encourage fast-twitch muscles to produce an enzyme (MCT-1) which is important to transport lactate into muscle cells where it is converted into pyruvic acid for further exercise. The more MCT-1 you have, the greater the rate of lactate conversion and the greater the muscle endurance. LT intervals also increase the number of mitochondria (cellular energy power plants) and capillaries (blood highways).”
According to Owen Anderson, author of Lactate Lift-Off, one method of increasing one’s lactate threshold and ability to clear lactate is to perform an exercise he refers to as lactate-dosers.
The lactate-doser involves alternating two minutes of close-to-max-speed running with 4 to 5 minutes of easy jogging until you have completed 5 to 6 of the 2 minute bursts.
The blasts bathe muscle cells in lactate, and the recovery jogs allow muscle fibers to clear the lactate which has been produced. Over time, this kind of workout should dramatically increase MCT concentrations, lactate clearance, lactate threshold, and performance capacity.
In an article at the Science Daily website entitled Lactic Acid Not Athlete’s Poison, But An Energy Source — If You Know How To Use It, exercise physiologist George Brooks and his UC Berkeley Exercise Physiology Laboratory colleagues Takeshi Hashimoto and Rajaa Hussien are mentioned and their research concerning lactic acid is discussed.
According to the article at Science Daily:
“The world’s best athletes stay competitive by interval training,” Brooks said, referring to repeated short, but intense, bouts of exercise. “The intense exercise generates big lactate loads, and the body adapts by building up mitochondria to clear lactic acid quickly. If you use it up, it doesn’t accumulate.”
In a journal article entitled The Physiological Basis for Wrestling: Implications for Conditioning Programs, Kraemer, Vescovi, & Dixon (2004) recommend circuit resistance training as one part of a wrestling conditioning program. They state, “The main purpose for circuit resistance training is to develop a toleration of high hydrogen ion and lactic acid concentrations, which will subsequently enhance the acid-buffering mechanisms within the body.”
Circuits are simply a series of exercises performed in a fashion in which one moves from one exercise to the next with little or no rest. A good description of circuit resistance training specific to wrestling can be found in the journal article mentioned above, in online articles, and in the book entitled Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science:Strength Training for Sport.
Pavel Tsatsouline, Master of Sports, is a former Soviet Special Forces physical training instructor and the author of Power to the People: Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American and several other books and articles.
Pavel believes in lifting heavy weights for low reps. Bodybuilding has no place in most athletes training in his opinion. He states, “The punch bag who came up with the light weights/high reps formula for martial artists did not have the slightest clue about either strength training or martial arts.”
He also says, “The best strength training formula for a fighting man is heavy, 80-95% 1RM, weights, and low, 1-5, repetitions.”
Any combat athlete, including wrestlers, can become tired and sore from following a high rep weight training program. If you have no energy left for practice, what’s the point? Pavel concludes, “If they go to low rep, heavy, non-exhaustive training–three sets of three or five sets of five–they would not get sore.”
Strength training should never interfere with your wrestling practice. If practice itself makes you tired and fatigued that’s okay. You can’t practice your wrestling skills well if you’re sore from weight training. You can’t shoot good takedowns if you’re tired and sore.
If wrestling practice itself makes you tired and fatigued that’s okay. However, your strength training shouldn’t. Strength training is not for conditioning. You should get plenty of conditioning during wrestling practice from drilling, live wrestling, calisthenics, etc.
Strength training is also not a way for you to prove how tough you are. Save it for the mat. Nobody cares how much you can bench press if you walk out and get pinned. Lift heavy weights, but keep the overall volume of strength training low.
Strength training is merely there to give you a possible advantage over an equally skilled opponent.
Barry Ross/Strength and Speed
Strength and conditioning coach Barry Ross is mainly known for his work in the area of track and field, especially sprinting. Ross helped train sprinter Allyson Felix in high school. Allyson Felix has gone on to become an Olympic silver medalist and world champion sprinter. You may wonder what this has to do with wrestling.
Well, the interesting thing about Ross is that he came across a study by research physiologist Peter Weyand. According to Ross, “Weyand and his associates proved that simply gaining strength is not enough. Their study showed that the key to faster running was mass-specific force. ‘Mass-specific force’ is just another way to say that it isn’t merely the amount of force applied to the ground that increases stride length; it’s the amount of force in relation to bodyweight.”
Ross realized that increasing mass-specific force meant getting stronger without adding bulk. Don’t most wrestlers want to get stronger without gaining bulk? I think so. How does one do this? Ross had his sprinters lift heavy weights for low reps and focused primarily on the deadlift. In his article The Holy Grail in Speed Training Ross writes, “The deadlift wasn’t a favorite in our eyes either until we noticed an interesting and powerfully motivating fact: World and European powerlifting records show that the deadlift and the squat records are within 10% or less of each other across all weight classes, both for men and women. Yet the deadlift works a significantly greater percentage of the muscles and involves multiple joints; why waste time and energy on squats or leg press machines? Realizing the efficiency of the deadlift led to the complete restructuring of our strength workout.”
Ross never has his athletes train to failure (exhaustion). He simply gets his athletes very strong. He believes in the philosophy, “Do as little as needed, not as much as possible.” This is similar to the philosophy of strength and conditioning coach and trainer to boxers and UFC fighters Steve Baccari. Interstingly, Baccari is also a fan of deadlifts. Baccari says, “In my opinion, easy strength training is the only productive way a competitive fighter can strength train. But most people think if you don’t break a sweat it must not work. This used to bother me a lot, but not anymore, because I think it is one reason why my fighters win so much.” Baccari also says, “Low rep slow strength work is like putting money in the bank to collect on the fight night.”
I think the lesson for wrestlers is that you shouldn’t wear yourself out by lifting weights to the point of exhaustion. Lift heavy weights for low reps (never more than five) and get really strong. Lactic acid training and conditioning have their place, but don’t forget about the importance of pure strength.
Dan Gable and Rocky Marciano/Work Ethic and Conditioning
Dan Gable doesn’t really need an introduction. He was one of the greatest American wrestlers to ever set foot on the mat and perhaps the greatest collegiate coach in history. Gable’s work ethic and conditioning was legendary.
Gable enjoyed hard work from a young age. During his high school years he had the stamina to exhaust his teammates. He would then look for a fresh partner. Some would have called him a fanatic in terms of conditioning.
Gable had this to say, “The obvious goals were there- State Champion, NCAA Champion, Olympic Champion. To get there I had to set an everyday goal which was to push myself to exhaustion or, in other words, to work so hard in practice that someone would have to carry me off the mat.”
During his college years at ISU, Gable’s goal was to work so hard in practice that he wouldn’t be able to leave the room under his own power. He came close at times, but always managed to crawl to his feet.
According to the book A Season on the Mat: Dan Gable and the Pursuit of Perfection, after losing his final collegiate match (after 117 straight victories at ISU), “For the next two years, Gable worked out three times a day, eight hours of running and lifting and hard wrestling, striving for Olympic perfection.” What did Gable do after he won the gold medal in the 1972 Olympics in Munich? According to the book, “The day after winning a gold medal in Munich, he ran four miles.”
A year prior to that Gable had responded to winning in the same manner. The morning following the 1971 World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, Dan Gable was out running, already focusing on his next challenge.
Ben Peterson and his brother John were Olympic teammates of Dan in 1972. They often worked out with Dan. Ben writes of Dan, “His favorite after a run, was taking turns doing push-ups using a deck of cards. While John and I strained with big numbers we had picked, Dan would tell us we were lucky. When he got a small number he complained.” Dan used to do that deck-of-cards workout by himself at times, seeing how many times he could go through the deck.
When Gable coached at the University of Iowa, he was no less demanding when it came to his team’s conditioning. In fact, two-time NCAA champion Royce Alger said that he’d rather do prison time than ever again go through the workouts that Gable had them endure during the time he wrestled for Iowa. How did Gable do at Iowa? During Gable’s tenor, Iowa won 21 consecutive Big Ten championships and 15 NCAA team titles.
In his book Coaching Wrestling Successfully, Dan Gable informs the reader that conditioning is essential. He believes in maintaining a high fitness level year round. He writes, “Daily work adds up to a whole lot after a while. Five minutes a day doesn’t seem like much, but it equals close to 31 hours of extra work when added up for a whole year.”
Gable concludes, “A wrestler can develop from average to good or good to great with just a bit more time and effort each day.”
Another athlete known for his work ethic and conditioning was boxer Rocky Marciano.
In his book Wrestling Tough, Mike Chapman writes, “When he retired as the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion of the world in 1956, Marciano had a record of 49-0, with 43 knockouts. Most experts maintained that Rocky’s unmatched emphasis on conditioning, often considered extreme, was the key to his success.”
One of the ways that Rocky liked to improve his stamina was by running.
Charlie Piccento, Rocky’s uncle, had this to say, “He does it (runs) every morning even if he doesn’t have a fight…five or six miles. Been doing it for six years, every day. Even does six or seven miles on Christmas morning.”
Rocky himself said, “I’m in better condition than any of them. I can go as many rounds as I have to.”
Gable and Marciano are just two of many athletes who placed a great emphasis on work ethic and conditioning. Obviously, for them it paid off.
Dave Schultz/Mark Schultz/John Smith/Technique
Dave Schultz is regarded by many as one of the best technicians in the history of wrestling. Dave was a world and Olympic champion. But, those honors can only begin to give one an idea of just how incredible he was. Dave Schultz was phenomenal.
Evan as a high school senior, Dave competed at the world level. In 1977, he wrestled for the United States in the Tbilisi Tournament in the Soviet Union. Dave won a silver medal at the Tbilisi Tournament, considered by many at the time to be the most challenging tournament in the world. In fact, some considered it to be tougher than the world championships or the Olympics. So, what Dave Schultz accomplished at such a young age was quite impressive.
Mark Schultz said of his old brother Dave, “He taught me how to take notes too. Everything he learned, he’d write it down so when I started wrestling I did the same thing and I had my technique notebook.”
Mark Schultz too is known for his technique. In the article A Conversation with Mark Schultz, Marksays, “Anytime I learned anything, I’d write it down. I made my technique notebook and I divided my techniques by tie up. I’d make a page like front head lock on the top of the page and write down all of the different technique I could finish with. I’d have all the counters to the front headlock on the back page. I’d have another page and write high crotch and write all of the finishes from there, lift, trip, spin, go behind, run the pipe, switch to another move, backing down to hip, go out the back door, etc.”
John Smith, four time world champion and two time Olympic champion in freestyle wrestling, is known for his technique perhaps more than any other American wrestler. In his article Smith’s Six Titles Only Matched by His Perspective, Kyle Klingman writes, “Drilling was the backbone of Smith’s training regimen. Smith would drill techniques over and over and over again. The key was repetition.”
Klingman concludes, “Wrestling was a year-round process for Smith. After the World Championships he would take a week off and then start training again. Up until January, it was a combination of drilling and body-weight exercises for about one hour a day. But once January came around, the pace picked up…and Smith kicked it into high gear.”
Are you willing to drill a move 40 or 50 times a day?
Martial arts instructor and personal trainer Brian Copeland writes, “Researchers have discovered that the elite athletes of the world regardless of the sport have accumulated over 100,000 – 300,000 perfect reps over the course of their lives. This is also known as the 10,000 hour rule, the best have put over 10,000 hours of perfect practice in.”
In his article Strength and Conditioning for Wrestling, John Stucky (1988) discusses the Oklahoma State University wrestling strength and conditioning program. He writes, “At Oklahoma State University, our goal is to help each athlete be stronger and in better shape than any opponent they will face. The accomplishment of such a task will develop more physical and more confident individuals, which will subsequently yield wrestling champions.”
In the article, he discusses the importance of training the ATP-PC and lactic acid energy system as well as the effectiveness of interval training.
Most of the universities known for their wrestling programs divide the training year into phases such as pre-season, in-season, tournament time, post-season, etc. Most programs have a wrestler lifting weights year round. Often, the wrestler moves from focusing on absolute strength developed by lifting heavy weights with low reps to focusing on power and explosiveness and endurance. Often circuit training is employed as well at some point in the training year.
At the 2011 FILA Wrestling World Championships, Russia won the men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling team titles. One may wonder what makes the Russians such great wrestlers. No one knows for sure.
Zach Even-Esh said in an interview, “I was talking about this with a former champion wrestler, coach and current Division 1 head strength coach, Ethan Reeve – he had investigated the same question, but, he went straight to the source and got a hold of world champion wrestlers from Russia. A huge part of their training was drilling, but this drilling was super intense and looked like an actual match, done at very high intensity.”
Olympic and world champion wrestler Sergei Beloglazov is considered perhaps the best technician the sport of wrestling has ever seen. He states, “I don’t believe in talent. I believe in a coaching program, attitude, and commitment. That is important in any sport, especially in wrestling. It takes a long time.”
- Periodization is essentially just planning your training. Even if you use a conventional linear model – hypertrophy phase, strength phase, power phase, longer runs in the off season and then sprints during the season – well, you could do worse. Periodization can be beneficial. It doesn’t have to be complicated. You could simply divide the year into pre-season, in-season, and off-season. Maybe you want to work on your strength over the summer. Perhaps you’re already strong and want to place more emphasis on your conditioning by doing circuits. The point is to have some sort of plan. In his book Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, John Jesse emphasizes the importance training year round. You can take a break from wrestling after the season, but don’t take a very long break from your strength and conditioning. You want to come back a little stronger and better than the year before.
- Always remember that wrestling is an anerobic sport. You’re not training for a marathon. Train accordingly.
- Remember the importance of work capacity. Build a bigger gas tank.
- Most conditioning specialists believe that long cardio sessions (e.g. going on long runs) is not beneficial for a combat athlete and may even be detrimental. On the other hand, some claim it’s good to build an aerobic base and that running at lower intensities for longer distances can aid in recovery. Going on some longer runs isn’t going to harm you. Dan Gable ran a lot and it didn’t hurt him. Of course, he also did sprints, strength training, and a lot of wrestling. Just don’t overdo the long running sessions. As I stated earlier, you’re not training for a marathon. You’re a wrestler.
- Interval training and sprints can be an important component in a wrestler’s conditioning. But, don’t overdo it. Intervals and sprints can be taxing. If you’re already doing a lot of anaerobic skills training (e.g. drilling and wrestling in practice) than adding too much extra anaerobic work (e.g. sprints) could lead to overtraining.
- Strength is extremely important. Lift heavy weights for low reps at least part of the year. It’s possible to gain strength without gaining too much mass. Circuit training can be great for a wrestler. However, circuits don’t do a wrestler much good if he isn’t fairly strong to begin with. He’ll simply create a lot of fatigue and still be weak. So, do basic heavy lifting and use circuits sparingly.
- Technique is probably the most important factor in wrestling. You can be very strong and well conditioned, but if have poor skills you are going to get beat a lot. Make sure you are practicing proper technique. Watch videos if you have to. A stand up is simple, right? But, do you really know how to do a proper stand up? How many ways can you set up and finish a single leg? Do you have a technique book like Mark Schultz? Will you drill as much as Olympian John Smith
This has gotten to be a long article. Let me leave you with a couple of quotes.
Strength and conditioning specialist Martin Rooney describes the best way for a combat athlete to train. He states, “Squats, deadlifts, bench presses, power cleans; the basics, combined with some sprinting and some stretching. It may not be glamorous, but it makes you stronger and faster.”
Alexander Karelin was a nine time world champion and three time Olympic champion in Greco-Roman wrestling. Some accuse Karelin of using performance enhancing drugs. He replied by stating, “The people who accuse me are those who have never trained once in their life like I train every day of my life. The real drug is to train like a madman, really like a madman.”
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