Age Appropriate Strength Training

By Matt Krumrie | Sept. 26, 2018, 10:56 p.m. (ET)

To succeed in wrestling, one must master technique. The right form, positioning, and learning the basics at an early age is important.

To aid in becoming a complete wrestler, it’s important to add a variety of strength and conditioning exercises that help one become a complete wrestler.

While mastering technique is important in the development of a wrestler, it is also important when implementing strength and conditioning programs, especially at an early age.

“Younger athletes should be coached to focus on form,” says Mike Clayton, Manager of the National Coaches Education Program for USA Wrestling. “Rather than adding load (weight), start with a broomstick and teach proper mechanics for key lifts. Once the athlete develops the form, we can start to gradually increase the training load.”

Ridge Kiley, MS, CSCS, agrees. Kiley wrestled at Nebraska, was the strength and conditioning coach who worked with the wrestling team at DIII Wabash College and is currently a Performance Conditioning Specialist with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.

“I highly recommend wrestlers of all ages master body weight movements before progressing to more advanced strength and conditioning methods,” Kiley said. “Not only are the body weight movements safe, but the qualities developed from them translate very well onto the mat.”

Body movement exercises that can be implemented at any age include pull-ups, rope climbs, front squats or variations of squats (goblet squat, single leg squat, squat holds), stance and motion work, dips, lifting a heavy ball, and farmers’ carries, says Travis Rutt, assistant wrestling coach at Rochester Community and Technical College (Rochester, MN) who spent the last three seasons as Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Iowa.

“Body weight exercises or some variation of body weight exercises are always good for any age,” Rutt says. “If the exercises are too easy, it isn’t difficult to find a way to make the exercise harder. Long duration isometric holds for example, or other tempo work, are great ways to make a body weight exercise harder to perform while reinforcing the idea of maintaining good position and activating higher threshold motor units. This is a tremendous way to develop desired technique.”

All aspiring athletes should focus on developing their fundamental movement skills, foundational movement skills, and muscle strength, says Rick Howard, Director of Fitness at Wilmington Country Club (Wilmington, DE), where he trains youth in fitness and sports performance.

Foundational movement skills include cycling, bodyweight squats, lunging, and pushups. Within foundational movement, skills are the seven basic human movements: Hinge, squat, lunge, push, pull, brace, and rotate.

“These movements form the foundation of strength and conditioning programs,” Howard says. “Try to incorporate these seven movements into your strength and conditioning program. Carrying is also gaining momentum for inclusion so it is beneficial to include a carry exercise.”

Wrestling requires speed, power, maximum strength, endurance, and agility. Incorporating weights, under the supervision and guidance of a certified strength and conditioning coach, is a way to increase all of these elements, when done correctly. Unfortunately, when turning to weight training, many young athletes immediately focus on heavy weights and maxing out, or believe in strength training myths that are simply not true, says Dustin Myers, head strength and conditioning coach for the Ohio Regional Training Center and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) who works with the Ohio State University wrestling program.

The most common myth, Myers says, is that strength training is dangerous for young athletes.

“Strength training can be dangerous, for athletes of any age,” says Myers, who wrote the e-book Strength & Conditioning for Wrestling: Youth and Junior High Edition.

“The key, whether your athlete is 6 or 16, is teaching proper technique and utilizing exercises that are both age and sport appropriate. Young athletes must master the movements themselves and not focus on lifting heavy weights.”

Myers told a story of Soviet bloc weightlifting programs that dominated international competition in the 1960s and ’70s. The Soviet athletes seemed to have a perfect grasp of Olympic lifting technique at an early age. The reason? Before starting a strength and conditioning program that involved weights or Olympic-style movements, all Soviet youth athletes were required to practice the movement thousands of times with a broomstick. The focus was on developing a solid foundation and technique first, before incorporating, adding, or increasing weight.

“It’s not necessary to take that extreme approach, but the moral of the story is, it’s important to spend time developing a solid foundation of technique and your young athlete will excel at weightlifting,” Myers says. “The key is to bring the athlete along slowly and not allow their—or your own—ego to interfere with what can be a tedious process."

There are certain exercises—hang cleans, barbell back squat, any movement that loads the spine—that Myers does not recommend for most athletes until after puberty. But the idea that youth athletes cannot perform any weightlifting movements is not true, says Myers, who adds this:

“If a wrestler can grab and pull their opponent’s leg to them, shouldn’t they be able to execute a dumbbell row? If a strong lower back and posterior chain is required to finish a high crotch in good position, wouldn’t an athlete benefit from learning how to deadlift? The key is building a solid and symmetrical base of strength before learning how to lift weights.”

Below are several strength exercises that can be used by wrestlers of any age, as long as proper form is stressed over heavy weight, according to Myers. click the video links below for a demonstration of each one and pay attention to the positioning and movement patterns.

Sumo Deadlift

Get tight to the bar with a wide stance and squat down and grab the bar (arms inside of legs) with an over/under grip. Keep your back flat and abs engaged as you pull the weight off the ground, pushing your hips to the bar as you stand up. Lower the weight under control to the starting position, or on max effort single reps, then drop the weight after locking out at the top. Young athletes should start with a single kettle bell or a dumbbell turned on its side before graduating up to a barbell. If they cannot remain in perfect position as they hinge upright, then the weight is too heavy. Watch video

DB Front Squat

Grab a set of dumbbells in a front rack position. Keep your elbows up as you sit back into a full squat. Athletes with poor shoulder mobility may need to hold a single dumbbell, or a light medicine ball can be used for beginners. Watch video

Chin Ups

Grab the bar with a medium underhand grip. Pull until your chin is over the bar. Lower under control until your arms are almost straight, but not to a dead hang un-packed position. Watch video

Body Weight Skullcrushers

Place your hands on a rack, bench, or plyo box, with your thumbs rotated up slightly so your elbows point towards the floor as they bend. Touch your forehead to your hands, then extend your arms, locking out at the top keep your abs engaged and body straight the entire time. Watch video

Dumbbell Row

Bend over and grab a dumbbell with your other hand on a bench or rack for support. Keep your feet square rather than staggered and your spine straight, and head in a neutral position. Pull the weight up and back towards your hip as you retract the scapula and squeeze the muscles in the middle of your back. Do not twist; try to keep your shoulders level. Lower under control and allow the lat to stretch at the bottom. Watch video.

Finding balance is the key to any strength and conditioning program, no matter one's age or experience.

“If wrestlers focus too much on the strength side of the performance spectrum, they could lose speed and endurance in the process,” Kiley says. “Therefore, incorporating a variety of training methods and exercises throughout the year will allow continued progression and will also reduce burnout and injury risk.”

Additional Resources

Wrestling Strength and Conditioning Basics (Video) (Adapted from USA Wrestling Silver College Certification Program)

USA Wrestling Long Term Athlete Development Poster

Strength and Conditioning for Wrestling: Youth and Junior High Edition