Wrestling can be a complicated sport. It takes hard work and practice to develop technique, perfect a new move, or improve weaknesses.
It’s truly a sport where one needs to learn how to crawl before they walk. In the end, setting goals and developing the little things over time can result in big gains. To achieve those gains, it’s important for wrestlers to focus on core exercises that can help a young wrestler develop.
“Wrestling is about controlling someone else’s body, and if you can’t control your own you will never control theirs,” says Travis Rutt, assistant wrestling coach at Rochester Community and Technical College (Rochester, MN). Prior to his role at RCTC, Rutt spent three seasons as the strength and conditioning coach at the University of Iowa and for the Hawkeye Wrestling Club.
Rutt and Mike Favre, M.Ed., RSCC*D, CSCS, Director of Olympic Sports Strength and Conditioning with the University of Michigan Athletic Department, breakdown five core exercises wrestlers can focus on to develop core strength.
1. Pull-ups: Pull-up variations where you need to control the drop provide a surprising amount of core activation, says Rutt. In other words, while most people focus on simply completing the traditional pull-up and doing 2–3 sets of 10 to 20, there is core value in focusing on the decline. For example, try completing an assisted pull-up (with spotter) using only one arm on the decline. Switch arms each time down. Your core and entire body will need to be used during the shift from one arm to two. As pointed out in this article and video, this is known as “the Bilateral Assisted Negative Accentuated (BANA) method, also known as the 2:1 Eccentric Accentuated Method.”
“This is thought of as an upper body exercise, but after you do a couple, your core will definitely feel it the next day,” Rutt says.
2. Push-ups (from various angles): These can literally be done anywhere. Changing arm width, angles, and reps/sets provides great variation for what seems like one exercise. Push-ups may seem like a “chest” exercise to some, but they work the entire body, including back, shoulders, core and leg muscles. You might feel it in the chest, but it’s working the entire body in one way or another. Incorporate slow, resistance-style sets, as well as more fast-paced sets—perhaps timing yourself (while ensuring proper form is followed) with a teammate to see who can do a certain amount the fastest.
3. Body weight squats (two- and one-leg varieties): Squats and pushups help develop that “explosive” strength that is crucial in wrestling. “Any body weight exercise can become an explosive exercise,” Rutt says. “As long as your concentric portion of the exercise doesn’t have any deceleration. The explosion can be pretty substantial, therefore the core development can be pretty high.”
4. Torso work (abdominals and low back): Torso exercises are essential for proper development for wrestling and for injury prevention, Favre says. The torso is what connects the strong force and power-producing areas of the body—the lower body (leg/hips) and upper body (chest, shoulders, arms). If this middle area is weak in comparison to the upper and lower body, not only will there be compromised transfer of force/power, but the spine can also be put in harm’s way. Technique on the mat will also be heavily reliant upon strong abs and low back. The torso would include the part of the body from the bottom of the chest to the top of hips, including your front, sides and back. All planes of movement would include front, side and back.
The movements should include dynamic (flexion and extension), isometric and rotation. Flexion exercises would be mostly abdominals and include crunches, sit-ups, leg raises, and hanging leg raises. Extension exercises would be mostly low back and include back extensions, hip extensions, and some bridge work. Isometric exercises include various planks. Rotational exercises include Russian twists, rocky sit-ups, and lying windshield wipers.
5. Neck strengthening (to include the neck and trapezius muscles): Neck workouts are paramount for wrestling, as so much contact involves the head and neck area, Favre says.
“By strengthening up these muscles and enhancing their endurance you can help avoid injuries,” he says.
Exercises that are beneficial for these areas can be as simple as manual resistance with a partner. Movements should include flexion (tucking the chin into the chest and trying to touch your ears to your shoulders) and extension (moving your head back as if looking to the sky). All repetitions should be done smoothly in a controlled fashion with proper technique. Manual resistance shrugs can be done to work the trapezius muscles. For those you should elevate your shoulder in a straight line, trying to touch your ears. No rolling of the shoulders should occur. Lastly, you can do bridging exercises for your neck strength.
“These should always be done under the guidance of an experienced, certified wrestling coach, so that they are executed safely,” Favre adds.
6. Partner lifts/carries: Partner carries are beneficial for two reasons, Favre says. First, they allow athletes to practice lifting a partner in a more isolated and controlled situation compared to what occurs in live wrestling. Second, partner lifts allow an avenue to strengthen the muscles involved with those specific movements in wrestling without the need for additional weight equipment.
Examples of partner lifts include: Fireman’s lift/carry, cradle lift/carry, gut lift/carry, buddy on your back lift/carry, to name a few. To mix it up, athletes can add different elements to a partner lift, such as a squat, Romanian deadlift/good morning, walk forward, walk backward, or any combination of these.
In addition, athletes can utilize lighter athletes to allow for more repetitions for strength endurance training, or utilize heavier athletes to increase their maximum strength.
“As with all training, technique should be first and foremost when it comes to the execution of these movements,” Favre says.
Don’t have a partner to workout with? You can use buckets or heavy objects Rutt says.
Through the repeated implementation of these exercises, wrestlers will make noticeable gains in functional strength and strength-endurance, Favre says. In addition, when executed with good technique, these exercises will also prepare the wrestler for similar movements in weight lifting later on. These same exercises will continue to aid in a wrestler’s development throughout their career.
“These areas, along with consistent cardiovascular conditioning, form the foundation of the physical requirements needed to develop as a wrestler,” says Favre, who works directly with members of the Michigan wrestling team. "Coupled with wrestling technique, they allow the wrestler to develop an awareness for and control of their own body and how it moves."