Cross training for wrestlers – pile
âOnce you’ve struggled, everything else in life is easy. -Dan Gable
I have always admired the work ethic of wrestlers. My dad trained wrestling in high school for 20 years, but I preferred team sports and never wore a jersey. In early March 1997, I visited the University of Iowa campus. As a zero star football / baseball rookie, I was with a group of high school athletes touring the athletic facilities which led us to the Carver-Hawkeye Arena. An arena below, the basketball court is underground and out of sight from the main entrances.
My group was listening to the proud history of basketball and Hawkeye wrestling when we heard some creepy and loud noises coming from the arena pit which interrupted our ability to focus. The noises grew louder and louder; it looked like a pack of bloodthirsty, heavy-footed demons were coming closer and closer to our location! As I walked away from the group and peeked down the stairs to see what was going on below. I attended the Hawkeye Wrestling Team conditioning session, which consisted of climbing the steps of Carver-Hawkeye Stadium while carrying a teammate, piggyback style. This was right before the 1996-1997 Hawkeyes became both Big Ten and National Champions, under the direction of legendary Iowan / coach Dan Gable. As a skinny 17 year old girl, it felt like the toughest and most intimidating workout I have ever seen. These wrestlers were crazy!
In his later years, Gable, whose superhuman career ended at the age of 26 due to numerous injuries, would lament that he wished he had trained his wrestlers smarter instead of harder. The sport is demanding and brutal, as Gable trained 2-3 times a day, seven days a week.
As a practitioner of Brazilian judo and jiu-jitsu, I have found that a high amount of intensity and volume, without adequate rest and recovery, can destroy the body of even the most hardened competitor. While understanding this wrestling mentality, I wondered if there was a way to reap conditioning and skill-based improvement without the punishment of overtraining and physical pain? If the best ability is uptime, then how can we train our wrestlers to understand when to charge and when to reload?
Professionally, my next foray into wrestling was to train with youth phenomenon Max Schneider. From Lane Tech High School in Chicago, Max had two undefeated Illinois High School Association State Championship seasons (2010 and 2012), was a Cliff Keen All-American, and then wrestled collegially at Cal Poly and the State of San Francisco. Also a black belt in judo, Max was a gold medalist at the 2010 Summer Youth Olympics and a training partner for the United States team at the 2016 Olympics. Max was a top combat athlete in two sports and had the scars / miles on his body to prove it. While Max dominated both the judo and wrestling mats, his body never had an off season to heal. We have tried to keep him available by implementing corrective exercise strategies, training with concepts / skills from other sports, and not beat the crap out of him every day in the gym.
As a more experienced performance trainer, I partnered with Beat the Streets Chicago (btschicago.org) to incorporate more athletic movements into their high school wrestling program.
The inspiring story of BTS Executive Director Mike Powell has been well documented and his success at Oak Park-River Forest High School was the national gold standard. Watch here: https://www.espn.com/video/clip/_/id/8574528
Coach Powell had state champions, team champions and future Olympians on his roster throughout his career. In IHSA State tournaments, it seemed like Max was constantly fighting fiercely against these extremely talented and gritty Oak Park grapplers. No one accused Coach Powell’s wrestlers of being ill-prepared.
We know wrestling is a physically demanding sport and wrestlers are some of the toughest athletes. As all eras of wrestlers can attest, they will train as hard as they can for as long as they can. But, sometimes the routine of wrestling practice can inhibit the development of overall athletic ability. Many of these young men and women wrestle year-round and, like many monosport athletes, don’t have an off-season for:
- Heal their battered bodies.
- Corrects muscle imbalances.
- Introduce a safe and progressive strength and conditioning program.
Our goal was to step off the mat and work on clean athletic movements, better body control / coordination, dynamic stabilization, and overall performance efficiency. By creating more functional high school athletes, we have created more functional high school wrestlers.
Each BTS Performance Camp station had a different purpose:
- Dynamic movements / corrective exercises
- Grappling / Tumbling / Ramping
As you would expect, the wrestlers were energized to train, so calming them down to prepare their minds was our first task.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, we had them lie on their backs (the position wrestlers passionately hate to be in), close their eyes, and be aware of their breathing for two minutes – the exact length of an IHSA wrestling period. .
We used the 4-2-6 technique with a four second nasal inspiration, two second wait, and six second mouth expiration. With a longer mouth exhale, the body can trigger its parasympathetic nervous system, remembering to relax. The parasympathetic nervous system counterpart, the sympathetic nervous system, cannot tell the difference between the stress of a fight, a first varsity game, the city championship, trying to find a Homecoming date, an ACT or the freezing temperatures of a Chicago polar vortex. All the body experiences is stress. So the better we can apply the breath to self-regulate our behavior, the better we can perform and use our energy efficiently.
1. Dynamic movement
Dynamic stretching begins more slowly before picking up speed, incorporating a range of triplanar, multi-directional warm-up movements and improving whole-body coordination. Each exercise had a goal and placement in the warm-up, and our goal was to improve the effectiveness of each repetition. Some of the exercises included: lunge with a lean frontside, straight kicks, side lunge with a reach, one-leg rotary hinges, and inchworms. We wanted to introduce new moves but keep them consistent so familiarity can improve execution. If athletes viewed dynamic stretching as their own pre-game warm-up, there was a higher level of ownership and responsibility.
We have incorporated mini-band corrective exercises for glute activation (to avoid quadriceps dominance) and rotator cuff / postural awareness strengthening for better shoulder stability and injury prevention.
2. SAQ (Speed, Agility and Rapidity)
Once we got their bodies better flexed, it was time to âcrank the engineâ with speed, agility and quickness. The sport of wrestling requires athletes to move quickly in a small space, against a tough opponent who also tries to do the same. The ability to go from A to B within this small area of ââchaos can be trained more effectively through action / reaction exercises and rapid acceleration / deceleration / change of direction.
The multi-directional speed scale, 10-meter agility bursts, and technical form running helped build full-body coordination and precise foot placement and movement efficiency.
Everyone loves big jump drills, but our athletes had to earn those reps by demonstrating a controlled ability to dynamically stabilize and decelerate. We can minimize the impact and protect their often damaged joints by focusing on landing and teaching joint stack spotting. While jumping is not usually a part of sport, it is necessary to explode during a teardown. Vertical jumps, wide jumps and multidirectional skate jumps were our basic movements.
4. Grappling / Tumbling / Ramping
Wrestling is one of the only sports where athletes regularly have all four limbs on the ground at the same time, so being able to move effectively from a four-legged position will improve overall body coordination. The crawling bear, the crab walk and various animal-themed movement patterns are programmed here. Additionally, adding Brazilian Judo and Jiu-Jitsu crossover patterns, such as front / back / side somersaults, cartwheels, backstops, kicks, and butt / hip scoots, helps to promote body awareness and maintain concentration in case of vertigo.
BTS has pull-up bars and climbing ropes all over their large wrestling hall, so wrestlers were quite familiar with vertical pull-up patterns and push-ups; they do a ton of push-ups. In the weight room, we introduced the bench press (which doesn’t help athletically but gives them an alternative to push-ups). This allows children to find their way around safely; TRX face pullovers and horizontal rowing; Bulgarian bag box step-ups; and partner of the Nordic hamstring curls.
Two stations for the upper body; two lower body stations. We wanted easy-to-follow workouts with two simple rules in the weight room:
- Nobody gets hurt
- No stupid bullshit
That way, regardless of their weight room experience, we’ve introduced a strong core of lifts suitable for school-aged wrestlers. They could repeat the program with confidence once our BTS performance camp is over.
Good luck to all of the BTS athletes as they start training for their next high school seasons! * Special thanks to former Iowa State University wrestler Ben Perna for his advice on this project and to Jake Fine for the video credits.