Saturday, May 8, 2021

High Intensity Strength Training for Wrestlers - By RJ Hicks MS CSCS

I was fortunate enough to experience training at a high intensity “strength” training studio when I was wrestling in high school.  I add the word “strength” to high intensity training because everything was focused around training progressively, not just training to failure, rolling around puking on the floor. Both of my wrestling coaches doubled as strength coaches at the gym and were excited to get the team in there to train during the off season. The gym was tucked away on the back side of a several small businesses and had two large garage doors that would be lifted up every time we arrived.

The gym was filled with tons of high quality strength training equipment. Medx, nautilus and original hammer pieces flooded the gym floors. There were over 30 pieces of equipment of all different brands and colors packed away like a Swiss Army knife with plenty of motivational pictures and quotes covering the walls. What I like best about this high intensity training gym was the fact that they still had plenty of free weights, farmer carrying bars and sandbags to mix into the training. It was a completely different training atmosphere from the traditional bench press stations and squat racks that I was use to training with at the high school and we were all excited to training there.

We trained twice a week after school during the off-season. Each workout varied in exercises, but followed a similar format as a bases of training. We would do an upper body pull, upper body push, lower body movement followed by a different series of upper body pull, upper body push, and lower body movement. Isolation movements, manual resistance, bodyweight exercises and strongman implements would be sprinkled in throughout the workout to complement all of the compound movements. It was a simple way of devising routines and allowed for a ton of variety, but devastating to all of us. No one ever left wishing they had done more.

Every set was in your face coaching until you hit your best effort on each exercise. There were no do-over or repeated sets to make up for, it was a now or never mentality every exercise we approached. Technique for the first time ever was heavily enforced on every repetition. It was demanded that you allow the muscles being trained to lift and lower the weight through the fullest range of motion. It was also the first time I trained where there was no sitting around between exercises. All of us paired up in twos and would follow a “you go I go” format. One athlete would coach, while the second athlete would lift. Roles would reverse between moving on to the next exercise. We each carried a notebook and recorded the exercise sequence, weight used and the repetitions completed. This would allow us to always keep track of our progression and act as an accountability tool.

Each workout would start off with a dynamic warm up and six 60 yard relay sprints outside in the front parking lot. We would partner up and race down and back each sprint to get the most out of each bout. After the running was done we would grab water and move inside to complete three exercises in a row. We’d hit a vertical/horizontal upper body pull, vertical/ horizontal upper body push and a compound lower body movement  for one all-out set of the heaviest weight we could handle for the target repetition range. Then we would move to an abdominal movement or 4 way neck for some built in recovery, without truly resting. It would be back to another similar three/four exercises in a vertical/horizontal upper body pull, vertical/ horizontal upper body and an isolation lower body combo (i.e leg curl and a leg extension) to cover additional planes of motion. At any point after a compound exercise we could follow up with exercises like shrugs, curls or lateral raises. And on the rare occasion we would substitute the lower body isolation movements for the hammer one legged deadlift to really drive up the intensity of the workout. Just like the first series, we would follow up the second lower body exercise(s) with another ab/lower back movement and some sort of challenge/finisher. Some days we would finish with farmer carries/sand bags, and or wrist rollers for the hands and forearms, other times we would perform chin ups/dips and or pushups at an extreme slow cadence for added torture (30 seconds up/30 seconds down or a 10/10 cadence for push-ups).

The amount of flexibility in the training allowed us to train eight to ten athletes at a time with full supervision. Each pairing could start anywhere in the sequence and never overlap or wait on a piece of equipment to become available. Poundage progression and good form were able to be prioritized in our training, because of the sequencing of exercises. We always used a push/pull format and followed less taxing exercises i.e. calf raises, 4 way neck, mid-section exercises with more demanding exercises for the lower body (squats, leg presses, and deadlifts) to maximize the amount of quality work in the shortest amount of time. This allowed us to be at our strongest during each exercise and not force us to go down from too much metabolic demand all at once.

I think the most valuable thing we got from this training that every athlete could benefit from was the clear distinction between strength training to build are bodies stronger and more resilient then going to practice to take our stronger and more resilient bodies to become better wrestlers.  Never once did we try to mimic sports specific movements underload in the weight. Nor did we waste precious lifting time trying to build explosiveness and speed (something genetically inherited) by performing quick lifts or plyometrics. Strength training is a completely separate activity from wrestling and our coaches did a great job of making that clear. They strength trained our whole bodies hard and progressively and never tried to turn weight training into something it was not. My advice to athletes and non-athletes alike is to keep the fads/gimmicks out of your training like we did and just train for STRENGTH!

Example routines:

Pulldown                                                    military press

Chest press                                                chin up

Bicep curl                                                    shrug 

Leg press                                                     squat machine

4 way neck                                                  ab movement

Seated row                                                  dumbbell row

Military press                                              decline press

Leg curl/leg extension                               Add/abd

Lower back                                                  calf movement

60 second chin up/dip                               farmer carries

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