#MakeLittAthleticAgain: Returning A Lifter To Athleticism
For the last few years, I've worked as an Assistant Coach for my old high school's wrestling team. I was brought on board when there was a head coaching change in 2017, with the primary purpose of serving as the team strength coach. I was fresh out of college, so it was the first team that I had the opportunity to work with. Due to my schedule changes over the years, I have only ever been able to be the Strength Coach, even though I was working with the one team I might be capable of working with on a skill level. But due to having worked primarily with kids in after school training settings, I never got to be a part of in-season practices due to work.
Due to the impacts of COVID-19, which included the closing of the facility I managed and becoming my own boss, wrestling season got pushed back this year, which has finally allowed me the opportunity to be on the mat. There was a slight problem though. I wasn't nearly close to ready for that type of movement.
You see, in the past few years, it didn't matter what shape I was in. I lifted heavy and showed up to teach kids how to lift weights in prep for their season. But I didn't have to engage in the same style of training. I wasn't getting on the mat. But with experiences in the previous seasons of getting to make Winter Break morning practices, I knew that I would only last so long on the mat. In order for the coming (and now in progress) season to not completely destroy my body, I would have to get back to my more athletic days.
Now, most of my friends laughed at the hashtag when I threw it up on the interwebs the first time. I hang out with a bunch of Powerlifters, and so the weightlifter in the group being "unathletic" didn't really seem to make sense. I was strong, could produce a tremendous amount of power, and seemed pretty mobile. But there's a lot more to being successful in a sport that's more than just power, speed, and mobility. The ability to be able to move and recover is critical.
So my journey into making myself more athletic started with identifying the demands of the sport of wrestling and which capacities I lacked the most in. Wrestling is probably one of the most demanding sports in terms of general athleticism (second to gymnastics in my opinion). There's a tremendous amount of movement in all planes of motion, as well as some physiological demands in both anaerobic and aerobic states. In looking at my own capabilities, I realized pretty quickly that I lacked the ability to move well in the transverse and frontal planes (transverse was a rough one), and lacked in aerobic capacity. So I had to find a way to start transferring my raw power into those planes of motion.
The second step in this process, was identifying the different tools I had available to make the physiological changes I needed. I had barbells, medballs, dumbbells, and even some machines to work with. I then would have to figure out the methods I would have to use to approach the new style of training, especially since I wanted to keep my Weightlifting and Powerlifting abilities up so I could return to those at the end of the season.
So with tools identified, I set a plan that was going to work like an undulating periodization. Instead of creating a set program and linearly progressing it, I created a daily goal and programmed my sessions to fit within that goal. I classified these by both their Neurological and Physiological demands as either "High," "Medium," or "Low" days. On "High" days, the goal would be to utilize heavier or more powerful loads that place a greater demand on the nervous system, or do some form of anaerobic work to build anaerobic capacity. This often looked something like a full Olympic Lift Variation, a Squat Variation, or a Bench Variation (or some combo of those). Or if done as physiological output could be intervals on the Rower or Airdyne, which were chosen more often because of the low impact nature of the machines.
The next major thing to incorporate within the program would be plane specific or, dare I say it, sport specific movements. I had to start identifying the patterns which occur with greater frequency in wrestling. Pulling patterns often appear far more often than pushing patterns in the upper body. Laterally reactive movements and movements with short Ground Contact Times are commonplace. And movements in which there are rapid changes in compression or expansion strategies at the ribcage strewn about throughout matches.
Another final thing I noticed in surveying the sport of wrestling, and which I can now confirm having been in the season for several weeks at this point, is that there is a large amount of shoulder torque created in defensive positions. Wrestlers, it seems, should probably be trained more like overhead athletes like baseball players when it comes to upper body strength, as the amount of beating the shoulders take in a practice or match is far greater than many may realize.
With these things in consideration, I began to lay out an approach of training that would increase my capacities in these patterns. The breakdown in a five day training split looked pretty close to the following:
2-3 frontal plane exercises per week
2-3 overhead pulling variations per week
1-2 rotational power variations per week
1 implementation of each competition lift per week
1-2 occurrences of heels elevated work for tendon strength at the achilles
1-2 anaerobic conditioning pieces per week
1-2 aerobic conditioning pieces per week
In addition to the rough outline of the week, the goal was to not do two like variations in a row. So if I did an overhead pulling movement, I often did a horizontal pulling movement the next session. If I did a Frontal Plane movement on one day, the next I would do more sagittal plane movement. The same was applied to conditioning. If I did something anaerobic one day, I would do something aerobic the next.
Roughly, it took about 6 weeks to create a real transfer of strength and power into something more specific. Obviously, I have a greater baseline of training and can handle far more complexity and variance within my training than a new trainee. The great thing I continued to find true, throughout the whole process, is that force transfers quite nicely when you start to include a wide variety of movements and adapt to them. Especially when you've spent your life living in the sagittal plane, if you learn the frontal plane well enough you'll build the capacity to express that force in that plane of motion.