With the growing interest in combative sports it is no wonder that there is more confusion than ever on what is fact versus fiction in the area of strength and conditioning. Wrestling may have a deeper history of strength and conditioning training greater than almost any other sport. While much of the work done in this area is exceptional, wrestling suffers from the same problems many other sports do: TRADITION.

Tradition is not a bad thing inherently. However, tradition used at the expense of updated research and information is outdated thinking. In this article I will discuss the top three most highly controversial topics in wrestling training.

1. Too Much Focus on Endurance Training

Any time you challenge tradition or ideas that are mainstream you are often going to face not just opposition, but people that feel as though you are attacking the root of who they are. This is the very feeling I get when I discuss the issue of conditioning with coaches and athletes. Somehow we have bred the ideal that conditioning is where we create toughness and the two go hand in hand. This may be true to a degree, but everything has to have purpose and a quantitative means to measure the success.

It is critical to recognize the goal of conditioning is not to pound the body into complete oblivion. Although this is how many coaches view this aspect of athletic preparation, it can be the ultimate downfall of the athlete if this is the philosophy. Why? If the goal is solely to make the individual as tired as possible then there are numerous issues. The first, being that seeing an improvement in performance is directly related to one’s ability to recover from training. If the training is too much the athlete will begin to deteriate in speed, strength, and overall performance.

Secondly, making an athlete participate in training they are ill prepared to perform is the exact reason many will develop various types of injuries. When proper dynamic flexibility, tendon strength, muscle balance, and anaerobic training aren’t applied the body will ultimately compensate often resulting in an injury. The number one rule when training for a sport is if you are injured you can’t compete at your potential. This sounds like common sense, but there are plenty of coaches and athletes that ignore this principle.

Image of Dumbells from http://www.bdksports.com


2. Afraid to use Weights

Now this is a challenging area to discuss. The main reason being that identifying what is strength is tough! Is the iron cross in gymnastics a show of phenomenal strength, is not deadlifting 800 pounds also an amazing show of strength? The answer is yes to both! However, these are very different athletes and very different activities.

In truth I don’t think any one would argue with me that fighters need strength and they often feel as though that is what their training is providing. Still many fighters tend to shy away from weight training and the value of bodyweight exercises versus weights is hotly contested. Like most things in life the truth is somewhere in the middle. My argument has always been, “do we have to do one or the other?” Last time I checked weight rooms are pretty common and you are allowed to perform bodyweight exercises in the same area. Both have pros and cons and by combining both you hopefully minimize the negatives and maximize the benefits.

What are the pros of bodyweight exercises? Here are a few of them:

  • Can be done anywhere
  • Easy for group or team training
  • Can help create dynamic flexibility
  • Helps build relative strength
  • Can be done for conditioning
  • Has been suggested to help tendon strength
  • Can be explosive or done for maximal strength
  • Inexpensive
  • Little equipment is needed

Now let’s look at some of the benefits of weight training:

  • Can be done for maximal strength or explosive strength
  • Can be adapted easily for groups or teams
  • Helps build relative strength
  • Can be done for conditioning
  • Has been suggested to help tendon strength
  • Can help create dynamic flexibility
  • Can be done with limited equipment
  • Can be relatively inexpensive
  • Helps create muscle balance

Both lists could probably be expanded, but hopefully the point you see is that there are a lot of similarities to body weight training and weight training. I think many fighters have been disillusioned by weight training because of the popularity of bodybuilding. Because when most of the mainstream thinks of weight training they picture a bronzed bodybuilder on steroids that looks like his next step may be his last.

This is not accurate of many of the great iron athletes that exist in other realms. It has been said that Olympic lifters are second only to gymnasts as far as the most flexible Olympic caliber athletes. That is a pretty amazing feat! Not to mention such lifting would be a perfect compliment to traditional bodyweight drills.

In addition, whether or not people want to admit it fighters, wrestlers, and all combative athletes have used various forms of weights for many centuries. Whether it was lifting bails of hay, stones, chopping wood, kettlebells, padlocks, sandbags, dumbbells, you can find a lot of these exercises in many of these sports histories. There is not one athlete that I would train to be a bodybuilder and equally there is not one bodybuilder that should solely train as an athlete. It simply goes back to needs of the individual. Therefore, really the debate of bodyweight exercises or strength training is really mute. What really needs to be discussed is what is most appropriate for the particular athlete at any specific time in their training.

Image of runner from about.com


3. Relying on Long Distance Running

A conditioning program has to be specific to the needs of the sport and the individual. It has been a hot topic of debate recently whether or not fighters should perform long distance running. My view is not one of either or, rather when and how much is done? If it is used in very early off-season of training with a very modest volume it may have some physiological and psychological benefits.

However, as one progresses closer to a competition period they should move to more specific means of training such as interval training, sprints, etc. Since most rounds are not more than a few minutes at a time, performing an hour of straight running would not be very specific because the recovery and intensity are completely different from the demands of the sport.

A conditioning program should also only be emphasized if it is the weakness of the fighter. If it is the strength of the athlete then it should still be performed, but a lesser degree than the other components of preparation (skill, psychological preparation, speed, maximal strength, etc.). In most fighters’ programs the conditioning aspect seems to be the dominant training mode despite the strengths and weaknesses of the individual. This is why a proper analysis of both the sport and individual are so crucial in providing a truly successful training program.

In The End

Some of these ideas may anger you. GOOD! We need to think and constantly evaluate how and why we do things. We should all evolve as coaches and athletes and doing things purely because of tradition is turning a blind eye to new and innovative ideas. This is also a good way to be left behind because your athletes are getting beat by those implementing more thoughtful programs. Don’t get beat by being left in the dark ages!


Josh Henkin is one of the most sought after Strength Coaches in the industry. He has worked with professional, collegiate, and high school athletes. His athletes include wrestlers, MMA athletes, basketball, football, lacrosse, and baseball. Coach Henkin is the creator of the Ultimate Sandbag and Sandbag Fitness Systems