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Lifting Weights to Lift People: Strength Considerations For Wrestlers

I was in the gym training athletes from my Semi-Private group when one of the gym members looked at one of the wrestlers in my group and exclaimed:

"He's rowing what I farmer's carry!"

For reference, the individual making the statement is a college baseball player who was watching an 150lb wrestler do Chest Supported Rows with 62lb Kettlebells. While to row ~85-90% of your bodyweight for reps is very strong, I had to point out the fact of how the baseball player needs to be able to throw a 5oz ball at high speeds, while the wrestler in question has to throw people his weight around a mat. Both things require strength, but the overall demand for each is vastly different.

If you've ever hung out around wrestlers or the combat sport community, you've probably noticed they tend to be physical outliers. They have wildly high capacities for suffering, and pound for pound can be some of the strongest athletes out there. I remember the comment made to me by a local powerlifter when he watched one the college wrestler I train deadlift 100lbs more than her weight for a set of 3 reps with at least 1 rep left in the tank.

"She has no idea how strong that is, does she?"

Nope, for wrestlers this level of strength isn't just normal, it's necessary. But how we train for it and how it needs to be expressed in their sport starts to vary when you get into the weeds of training and application for a sport which has weight classes and classifications in styles of training.

For the purposes of this article, being most of its readers will be in the US, I won't get into any potential changes which might occur in training someone for Freestyle/Greco Roman (though those changes would be miniscule). But there is some things to consider for weight classes and how training may be altered for individuals across different weight classes.

When we look at strength demands, a lot of times we need to consider the aspect of "Mass moves mass" and how the higher weight classes will already have a predisposition to maximum strength. For men's weight classes, the 106-145lb weight classes (or light weights) will be low in maximum strength and high in relative strength, the 195-285lb weight classes (heavy weights) will be high in maximum strength and low in relative strength, and the 152-182lb weight classes (middle weights) will be fairly equal in the two. This would also be similar for the women's weight classes of 100-126lbs, 132-152lbs, and 165-235lbs corresponding with the qualities on the Men's weight classes. The trick then, is to raise the weaker aspects of these athletes to give them a competitive advantage.

When we look at the light weight classes (106-145lbs; 100-126lbs), they have a high predisposition to being fast and relatively strong. After all, they don't have a lot of mass to move and can perform bodyweight movements with ease. But if this is the norm, a major differentiating factor for light weight wrestlers is their ability to produce maximal force and power. They're also often the most likely to struggle with weight maintenance during season. With this in mind, we want to build maximal strength and minimize hypertrophy with this group. On major movements, we tend to stick around 2-4 sets of 1-3 reps on exercises, with percentages being between 85-95% of a 1RM (technical 1RM for new lifters). On accessory based movements we tend to stick with 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps, and adding external load to any traditional bodyweight movements like chinups, pushups, or dips.

When we look at the middle weight classes, they need a big combination of all things. This is where assessment of qualities like Peak and Mean Force, Peak and Mean Power, or other tests differentiating between maximal and relative strength and power outputs becomes key. For the stronger middle weights (152-182lbs; 132-152lbs), we tend to do a bit more volume on the main lifts with 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps of 75-90% of 1RM (technical 1RM for new lifters), then add more power work and unloaded bodyweight movements for higher volumes. For the more relatively strong middle weights, we revert back to the same approach we use for the light weights in regards to main and accessory lifts.

Then we have to look at the heavy weights, who are often maximal strength monsters and who are very good at moving weight (195-285lbs; 165-235lbs). These wrestlers also tend to come from football programs as lineman and linebackers, so they have a propensity for the heavy lifting. But the big separator in heavy weights is going to rely on power, relative strength, and conditioning. When we look at main lifts, we're going to hit some higher volumes and at higher velocities by doing 3-6 sets of 3-5 reps at 65-80% with an emphasis on moving fast. We'll also progress the total volume of jumps and low level plyometrics we use as part of this. Accessory movements tend to be prescribed with 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps, and bodyweight movements tend to be performed to failure (or within 1 rep of failure).

Now, assessment does come into play with these things. We assess vertical jumps, broad jumps, ground contact times, and relative upper body strength via maximal weight and maximal rep chinup tests. The results we get from these assessments will determine how we prescribe certain progressions in their training towards a specific goal.

In conclusion, if you're a wrestler or a wrestling coach trying to improve the performance on the mat, look into the training aspects and current strengths of the individual. Wrestling is an interesting sport where raising the level of a weakness is a competitive advantage. Strong light weights who can out-muscle their opponents will be successful, just as the fast heavyweight who has great relative-strength and power can "out-athlete" their maximally strong opponent. Middle weights will do better by raising the weaker spots they may have. Once you know what the weak point in the strength game is, the better opportunity you have to train to perform on the mat.

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