I’ve competed in a lot of posterior chain dominant sports over the years. Weightlifting, Powerlifting, and CrossFit to name a few. But when we look at demands of a sport, the one which ranks as one of the more demanding on the posterior chain and musculature is the sport of wrestling. Now, I am biased as wrestling was the non-barbell sport I was the best at, but even after returning from six plus years of strength sports I found the demands of wrestling on the posterior chain (even coaching it) to be significant.
For those unfamiliar with the posterior chain, it’s essentially the collection of complimenting muscle groups on back side of the body. For purposes of this article, I want to hone in on the hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, and traps (though calves could be included if we really wanted to). Training these muscle groups to be strong and be able to control forces is key to success on the mat.
To start with, we have to look at the wrestling stance itself. For most wrestlers, it looks kind of like a gorilla with a staggered stance. Hips hinged back, knees bent, back flat, head up, and arms hanging down front of the legs a first line of defense. Some will have a more squared stance, and some a little looser or fluid (some levels of lumbar and thoracic flexion). In weight room terms, it could also be likened to the position of a staggered stance Trap Bar Deadlift.
The easiest way to score on an opponent, especially when starting from neutral, is to get them out of this stance and position. This often means being able to change/lower levels in relation to your opponent, or pulling and pushing them to alter your opponents stance. This is where you see a large disparity between good wrestlers and beginners, and then great wrestlers in relation to good wrestlers. Great wrestlers are phenomenal at staying in their stances and maintaining position.
This is where the posterior chain comes into play. Wrestlers often use collar ties and snapping motions to try to break their opponents out of position. They latch onto the neck and create movements where the pull the head to ground and release or push the head to the side. To resist this, wrestlers need to be able to maintain or resist these movements with a large amount of eccentric and isometric muscle contractions. This needs to be done with a range of means from slow eccentrics to yielding isometrics.
Here's a few suggestions for training this in the weight room, which can be modified based on experience and skill level:
Eccentric Trap Bar Deadlifts and RDLs: Get the body used to resisting high forces early, and in a slower manner. Personally, Trap Bar Deadlifts and Trap Bar RDL’s done with an eccentric tempo is a great place to start exposing the body to high eccentric forces, it’s also as close to position specific as possible. With most of the wrestlers I train, we start with a simple 3 sets of 5 reps with 3 second eccentric tempo and over time progress it up to 5 sets of 3 reps with a 5 second eccentric tempo. With these loading schemes, we’ll go as heavy as form allows, or usually within a perceived 8RPE (1 Rep in the tank).
Farmer’s and Front Rack Carries: Especially when we look at maintaining posture and not flexing the neck or spine, we usually carry 2-3x per week in the off season. With newer athletes, we start with a regular Farmer’s Carry and start at 2-3 sets of 30-40 yards, progressing to 4-5 sets of 40yds over time. For stronger athletes, we introduce a Dual KB Front Rack Carry and a One-Up-One Down Front Rack Suitcase Carry. Both of these we’ll start at 20 yards and progress up to 40 yards of distance, with set progressions starting at 2-3 sets and progressing up to 5 sets. If other implements such as heavy sandbags are available for use, we’ll use Bear Hug Carries as well.
Hip Extensions and Static Back Extensions: I know a lot of coaches who don’t like the GHD or Hip/Back extensions. I understand this, and the risks of creating lumbar hyperextension and flexion. But I am also aware of what happens when you don’t train the lower back to be able to handle some of these forces or maintain a stance for 1-8 minutes at a time (if overtime is included). We use Hip Extensions, and Static Back/Hip Extensions, as a huge part of our training. If doing Hip Extensions (or Reverse Hypers as well), we’ll often perform 2-4 sets of 12-20 reps, and emphasize movement initiation from the glutes and holding the spine in a locked position. For Static Holds and Isometrics, we usually start with 2-3 sets of 00:30 and progress them up to sets of 1:00. For more advanced athletes, we will progress them to single leg variations or load these patterns later down the road.
Now, I haven’t even gotten to the rapid eccentrics yet, or the shrugs or neck work. But I wanted to give a baseline of understanding of the posterior chain training for wrestlers and provide the big ticket items we use to train for these qualities. These implementations are also going to vary based on equipment available, space, time, and frequency. But these few things are ones we’ve identified to have the best likelihood of transfer to sport from a physiological and biomechanical perspective. We’ll dive into different methods of training the posterior chain, especially the neck, in other blog posts down the road.