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Shoulder Training For Wrestlers

Wrestlers are a unique group of athletes to train. They compete in a contact sport, in confined spaces, with a high conditioning demand, and get more tangled up than a game of twister in the process. In my opinion, it's one of the most diverse sports to train and has a lot of considerations to consider when training those who choose to partake.

I've written previously on the demands on the posterior chain, grip strength, considerations for conditioning, and means of training rotational movements in past blogs. But if there's something which can present complexity in wrestling it's training and caring for the shoulders. From Half-Nelsons, to Chicken Wing's, to Front Headlocks, and even the occasional Bar-Arm, wrestlers' shoulders can be found in some very compromised positions. And if properly accounted for, we can help provide some resilience to (though not completely reduce the risk of) injury.

An example of a chicken wing being used for a pinning combination.

For example, while I was serving as the strength coach for a local high school team, one of our wrestlers found himself in a match where his opponents go to move was a guillotine. For those unfamiliar with the sport, it's a move where you effectively twist your opponents body in two separate directions by locking a leg in place and scooping the opposite arm behind them until they turn over on their back. In this instance, the wrestler from our team at point had his arm and shoulder so externally rotated you could see the bony prominences and bicipital groove of his humerous through his skin. The athletic trainer sat on the edge of their seat, waiting for his shoulder to dislocate. Yet the period ended, and our wrestler stood up, and shook out his shoulder, and later said it didn't bother him at all. Much of which he attributed to training.

When we look at training the upper body, and primarily the shoulders, of wrestlers, we have to acknowledge the compromised positions the shoulder may find itself in during a match. In order to combat shoulder injuries, wrestlers need to be both strong and mobile in multiple scapular positions.

The big key with training wrestlers, is understanding how scapular position can be manipulated during a match. For example, a chicken wing will pull the scapula into retraction, the humerous into extension, and then as if it gets as far as moving to a pin then the scapula will be shoved into elevation. In a different scenario such as a front headlock, the scapula gets pulled into elevation and protraction, while the humerous flexes overhead. In a pummeling or over-under tie in neutral, one's shoulder may get shoved into scapular protraction and humeral extension. It's diverse, high pace, and often high force.

So when we actually train the shoulder for these types of scenarios, three main things to focus on are as follows:

  1. Free the Scaps: find movements which allow the scapula to move freely and emphasize the controlling of said movement. When doing pressing work, this often looks like DB Variations of Bench Presses, Landmine Pressing for Overhead Pressing, and training tricep extension through variations shoulder blade positions. For pulling work, it looks like full Range of Motion Chinups and Pullups, doing single arm rowing movements which force scapular retraction and protraction, and training the biceps in multiple scapular positions and length-tension relationships.

  2. Emphasize Eccentrics and Isometrics: This is more closely related to reducing the risk for injury, as often times shoulder injuries will happen while resisting a movement rather than creating one. This said, most resistance to pinning combinations or takedowns is isometric or eccentric in nature. If you can slow down or resist your elbow getting taken to the opposite shoulder behind your head in a Half-Nelson, you're less likely to get pinned, and you're less likely to get injured. Heavy, overcoming or yielding, isometrics have a great role here, as well as fast or slow eccentrics.

  3. Train At End Range or Odd Positions: This may sound odd to some, but for those who are constantly saying "keep your shoulder's back and down," you may be doing the wrestlers a disservice. They need exposure to end ranges of motion or sometimes even "improper form" on some movements in order to build up some resilience. Some strength coaches may call me a heretic for this, but while most will coach an emphasis on pulling the shoulders back and down at the top of a Chinup I honestly don't care. We'll focus on it ~50% of the time, but the other half we roll with whatever positions come up, and then select a different pulling variation to get a different position later in the week. But to only stay in perfect positions with the shoulder doesn't expose wrestlers to the full demand of their sport.

Now, these three focal points can give us a baseline. I won't list specific exercises here, as many exercises can be modified to fit these considerations, and what each individual can perform (either as coach or athlete) is something which is based on their own expertise. But when we consider training the shoulder for this group of the population, we need to be able to take into the account the odd positions the shoulder will get into, how resisting the movement is the most likely moment for injury, and how the scapula needs to be able to move, we can train wrestlers to better meet the demands on the mat.

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