Wrestling Strength Training with the U.S. National Team

November 1, 2005 | Featured in the November 2005 Issue

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"Unless you're focusing strictly on technique and tactics, it's not even worth working out unless you push hard outside your comfort zone."

Young wrestlers often sacrifice strength training out of fear that lifting weights will increase their muscle mass and bump them into a higher weight class. Kevin Jackson, National Freestyle Coach for USA Wrestling, responds to that mindset, saying, "A wrestler should always be on a weight training program—if not to get stronger, then to maintain strength and health throughout the year."

Jackson, a 1992 Olympic gold medalist and 1991 and 1995 world champion, explains how the same weightlifting program can yield vastly different results by tweaking certain elements: "To gain weight, you have to increase your calories and lift heavy weights. But you can also use weightlifting to maintain and even lose weight. When you are not trying to get bigger, lift lighter weights and increase your repetitions."

Jackson's recommendations to maintain your current weight class are to keep the weight 20-50 pounds below your max, increase reps by 2-4 per set and add an additional set for each exercise. Another strategy he uses to keep his wrestlers strong without unwanted weight gains is 45 minutes of lifting performed 10 to 20 minutes after a tough wrestling workout or other rigorous training session. "When you work fatigued muscles, you continue to burn calories and lose weight while simultaneously getting stronger," he says. "Lifting after training hard also increases mental strength, because you learn to refocus on a weight workout after you're already spent."

Mental training is a huge element in Jackson's overall program. "To win at the highest level against the best guys, mental toughness helps you more than any other tool," he says. "Young athletes need to learn how to use their minds as a physical force through which they can tell their bodies what to do. No matter what pain the body feels, the mind can push through it and accomplish more."

Jackson helps his wrestlers build strong minds by consistently taking them out of their comfort zones during workouts. Then, when adversity hits on the mat, they can roll right through it. He goes as far as to say, "Unless you're focusing strictly on technique and tactics, it's not even worth working out unless you push hard outside your comfort zone."

Two of Jackson's protégés—2000 Olympic-gold medalist, Brandon Slay, and 2005 national champion and world team trials champion, Muhammed Lawal—benefited tremendously from his blend of wrestling mental and physical strength training. "These are two guys who let their training take over," Jackson says. "Because of the work they put in, they became confident and mentally tough, and this confidence removed any question or doubt when they were competing, making them much harder to defeat."

Wrestling Strength Training

Designed to increase strength, power and explosiveness, the U.S. team's workout program ensures daily departures from the comfort zone. The full-body system centers on explosive lifts like Hang Cleans and jumping exercises. Jackson says, "These are really efficient exercises for wrestlers of all ages to build the explosiveness and full body movements they will need on the mat."

Overhead Squat
Hold bar overhead with wide grip

Squat down with control, keeping knees behind toes until tops of thighs are below parallel with ground

Drive upward to starting position

Hang Shrug
Grip bar just outside athletic stance

Begin with bar just above knees, back locked, shoulders up and abs and chest flexed

Explode by forcefully shrugging and fully extending hips, knees and ankles

Squat
Begin with bar on back in athletic stance with toes pointing slightly out

Focus on a point high on wall in front of you

Squat down with control and good posture until thighs are just below parallel

Keep weight back on heels

Drive upward out of squat into starting position, keeping eyes up and chest out

Pull-Ups
Grasp bar with overhand grip

Pull body up until chin is over bar

Lower down with control until arms are straight

Leg Curl
Lie down on a leg curl machine with heels locked under pads

Bring heels to butt by contracting hamstrings

Lower with control until legs are straight

Dumbbell Incline Bench
Hold dumbbells at chest level slightly wider than shoulder width

Drive dumbbells up towards ceiling until arms are straight

Lower with control

Calf Raises
Stand with bar across back in hip-wide stance

Press into floor with toes until heels rise off ground

4-Way Neck
Position body on 4-way neck machine

Press head against pad in specified direction using only neck muscles

Move back to starting position with control

Repeat for all directions

Dumbbell Front Raise
Stand with light dumbbells in each hand at waist level

Raise arms forward to shoulder level, keeping arms straight

Lower down with control

Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Stand with light dumbbells in each hand at waist level

Raise arms to side to shoulder level, keeping arms straight

Lower down with control

Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise
Hold dumbbells and lean forward keeping back flat until torso is almost parallel to ground

Drive elbows out and up with arms bent

Raise elbows until even with shoulders

Lower down with control

Dumbbell Squat Jumps
Stand with dumbbells at waist in athletic stance

Squat down until thighs are parallel to ground

Drive up by extending hips, knees and ankles

Push through ground to achieve maximum height

Land with knees bent; do not let them extend over toes

Repeat immediately, spending as little time on ground as possible

Bench Press
Lie down with back on bench

Grasp bar slightly wider than shoulder-width

Lower bar with control until it touches base of sternum, with hands directly above elbows

Drive bar upward until arms are fully extended

Romanian Deadlift
Hold bar in upright position with slight flex in knees

Bend forward at hips and slide bar down front of legs keeping back flat

Drive hips backward and lower bar as far as possible without changing flex in knees or spine position

Move upward in same fashion to standing position

Bentover Row
Bend over at hips holding bar with shoulder-wide grip

Pull bar toward chest

Keep back flat and do not raise torso

Lower down with control and repeat

Barbell Curl
Grip bar slightly wider than shoulder width

Curl bar up to chin level, keeping elbows locked in place

Lower bar with control

Tricep Extension
Lie down with back on bench and arms straight up in front of chest

Grip bar with only 6-8 inches between hands

Lower bar toward forehead bending only at elbows

Keep upper arms locked

Raise weight through same motion to starting point while keeping elbows narrow

Hang Clean
Grip bar just outside athletic stance

Begin with bar just above knees with back locked, shoulders up and abs and chest flexed

Explode by forcefully shrugging and fully extending hips, knees and ankles

Pull bar up, keeping it close to chest

Drop under bar and catch it along front of shoulders in athletic stance with knees bent

Front Squat
Hold bar across front of shoulders with elbows high

Begin in athletic stance with toes pointing slightly out

Focus on a high point on the wall in front of you

Squat down with control and good posture until thighs are just below parallel

Keep weight back on heels

Drive upward out of the squat into starting position, keeping eyes up and chest out

Lat Pulldown
Sit at pulldown machine with slight backward lean

Grasp bar with overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width

Pull bar down to below chin level without leaning back any more than from starting position

Control weight back to starting position

Goodmornings
Stand with bar resting on back and knees slightly bent

Bend forward at hips keeping back flat and tight

Drive hips back

Clap Push-Ups
Begin in push-up position

Lower down until sternum touches floor

Explode up by pushing down into floor

Clap as many times as you can while in air

Immediately repeat upon landing

Chin-Ups
Grasp bar with underhand grip

Pull body up until chin is above bar

Lower down with control until arms are straight

Alternate Dumbbell Military Press
Stand holding dumbbells at shoulder level with tight core

Drive one dumbbell toward ceiling until arm is straight, without leaning backward or to side

Lower back down and repeat with other dumbbell

Seasonal Changes
Jackson says, "During the off-season, preseason and early in the season, depending on your weight class goals for the year, you should be lifting heavy and trying to gain mass. As a young athlete, you should try to get as big and strong as you can through a healthy diet and heavy lifting, with numerous sets.

"Once you get to mid-year, look more toward maintaining your lean muscle mass, strength and conditioning levels. You are also lifting to prevent injury. You will be less susceptible to injury if your body remains strong. Do not expect your maxes to go up during this time; they will stay the same, or maybe dip, depending on how much training you're doing in the wrestling room.

"When you get into the late season, you're still lifting for maintenance and conditioning, because we want the muscles to fire hard and explosively. About three weeks before a competition, your weightlifting should get a lot lighter, with a few more reps, to work the cardio and maintain the conditioning, as opposed to getting bigger and stronger."

CLASS ACTION
Cutting weight to fit into a lower weight class perturbs Kevin Jackson. "Great technique determines success at any size," he says. "Young wrestlers should grow into a weight class and get bigger and stronger along the way. When they go on crash diets to cut weight, it is unnatural and ill advised. It also prevents a wrestler from expanding his technical knowledge of the sport, because he spends time trying to lose weight instead of getting stronger and improving his technical skills."

Dieting and cutting not only diminish energy levels, adversely affecting performance on the mat, they also reduce a young athlete's growth and motivation. The sport loses its fun factor.

On the other hand, Jackson realizes that losing weight may be inherent to the sport. He says, "You really have to consider what weight is too heavy for you. If you are wrestling an opponent, and you are in a position to win—where executing the proper technique should close out the match—but you end up getting muscled out, then it's possible you are in too heavy a weight class, where the athletes are too strong for you." If this is the case, Jackson hopes that coaches are knowledgeable enough to assist athletes in a healthy weight loss regimen that has no long-term, negative effects.

WHAT DO YOU SEE WHEN YOU CLOSE YOUR EYES? Kevin Jackson offers his thoughts.

I truly believe in visualization exercises. Visualize yourself in difficult situations and having success. Visualize yourself in training as well as in actual combat matches. Visualize your execution of perfect techniques. Visualize your hand being raised at the end of a match, or your celebration after winning the championship.

Many young athletes fail to mentally train this way. There are a couple ways to use visualization. First, you can do it at the end of practice when your body is totally exhausted. Try building yourself up to concentrate, relax and stay focused for four to six minutes, which is the duration of a typical match. Visualize your wrestling techniques, anything else dealing with wrestling and your success. Just relax, think about it and see it in your mind for that length of time. It's difficult to focus that long on anything without letting your mind drift to other thoughts. The longer you can do it, the better.

The second method is to visualize and lock in on wrestling for six to 20 minutes while you're lying in bed at night. This will aid you in your pursuit of success. Falling asleep while visualizing winning is a good thing. What you see in your mind will stick with you subconsciously and allow you to capture what you are trying to accomplish. When you're visualizing your technique over and over again, it makes it much easier when you have to execute it physically. If you can see yourself winning a world championship in your mind, it is stored in your subconscious. Your mind can draw upon this as if it were a real past experience.

Related Exercises

Josh Staph
- Josh Staph is the Senior Vice President, Content at STACK Media and joined the company shortly after it was founded in 2005. He graduated from...
Josh Staph
- Josh Staph is the Senior Vice President, Content at STACK Media and joined the company shortly after it was founded in 2005. He graduated from...
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