Off-Season Weight Training for Fighters

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Most wrestlers want to build more muscle mass to get stronger and more solid in their weight class or to get bigger so they can move up to the next weight class. To be a successful wrestler, technique, speed, flexibility, and conditioning are at the top of every trainer’s list for developing the most important attributes. All things being equal, being stronger than your opponent can also be a definite advantage. There are positions and maneuvers that fighters engage in during a match where strength will be the deciding factor. All fighters have been beaten by a bigger, stronger opponent at least once in their career. Many coaches of some of the best wrestling teams incorporate strength training both in and out of season to help their athletes dominate on all areas of the mat. The most successful wrestlers do minimal strength training during the season so they can focus on getting better at their sport. Bodyweight exercises and light weight lifting done in short sessions once or twice a week is all that is needed during the season.

Instead, when the season is over, to get stronger and gain the most muscle mass, the program should be reversed for at least 12 weeks. The off-season fighter should lift weights 3-4 days a week while continuing to fight 1-2 days a week. If he’s competing in spring tournaments, he may want to wait before spending so much time lifting weights. For the best muscle gains, he’ll need to prioritize weight lifting and proper nutrition designed to help gain weight and increase body size. If he’s still trying to gain weight to compete in the spring tournaments, it will be difficult and somewhat counterproductive to lift weights to get bigger, but he won’t be able to eat the calories he needs to do so. Instead of trying to mix the two, it’s best to start his weightlifting/weight gaining regimen after he finishes tournament season.

When setting up your wrestling strength training program, be very specific with your sets and rep schemes to ensure the outcome of your program captures the goals you want. For wrestling prioritize strength over muscle size, however a properly written training program will achieve both. It’s important to recognize this distinction and know that exercise selection and set/rep schemes are what will make the difference. Most bodybuilding programs will make muscles bulge and athletes gain weight, however they will do nothing by force. The last thing you want is to be bigger/heavier to fight in the next weight class, but not have the strength to keep up with bigger opponents! A common example of this is seen when bodybuilders are compared to competitive weightlifters. There are many extremely large bodybuilders who are not strong at all. In contrast, different training methods produce many powerlifters who are extremely strong but not very big. A combination of these training methods with an emphasis on strength will produce a much stronger and larger fighter.

When it comes to weightlifting, the best training programs for weight gain are done 3-4 days a week. A three day split works best for wrestlers as they can still wrestle two days a week; for example, weights on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with wrestling on Tuesday and Thursday. Schedules like this also allow for complete rest without any training over the weekend, which leaves time to recover and be fresh to lift harder again on Monday. Train the whole body only once in a 3 day split, but 4 days will allow you to train the body twice in a week. The four-day training routines are usually Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday off and then Thursday, and on Friday they get up again with the weekend off. However, this schedule is more difficult to fit into regular wrestling practices. Our wrestling team thrives with a 4 day weight training split held on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Wrestling practice is offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays; this schedule only allows for one day off per week, yet our team makes great strides like this.

For a three-day-a-week weight training program, make day one a lower body day, day two an upper body day, and day three a posterior chain day /central. For a four-day-a-week training schedule, make day one a heavy upper body day, day two a heavy lower body day, day three a light upper body day. body and day four a day for the posterior/central chain. For both upper and lower body training days, perform some type of bench press or squat for the first few exercises and make sure these are performed with perfect technique and as intense as possible. Follow up with accessory exercises that will target the muscles and movements that will support and build the big movement you just did. For example, after the bench, perform dumbbell presses, floor presses, dips, or triceps extensions to further exhaust your triceps (the main muscle group used in a properly executed bench press). Next, add exercises for secondary muscle groups, such as the lats and delts. After performing the squat, add accessory exercises to target the hamstrings, quads, hip flexors, glutes, lower back, and/or abs.

Post chain day is also extremely important for the competitive wrestler who not only wants to get stronger but also prevent neck and lower back injuries. This muscle group includes the hamstrings, glutes, lumbar erectors, mid and upper back, trapezius, and the back of the neck. Again start with a compound movement that is multi-extension to tax the nervous system and challenge multiple posterior chain muscles at once. Deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, stiff-legged deadlifts, rack pulls (partial deadlifts), power cleans, and good mornings are all great options. As with all compound movements, beginning lifters should start light and build up slowly, and their technique should be under intense scrutiny and constant correction. After the main lift, choose supplemental exercises for rep work that will target smaller posterior chain muscles or weak spots you’ve determined your athletes may have. These can include shrugs, more hamstring work, kettlebell swings (for the glutes), more upper back work (lats pulls, rows, and rear delts), and heavy abdominal work.

For the main compound exercises, cycle reps in a three-week wave with week one doing 3-5 sets of 5 reps, week two 3-5 sets of 3 reps, and week three maxing out with sets of 1 or 2 reps . The fourth week I would start the wave again with 5 repetitions. Reps of accessory exercises should not be more than 8-12. For best results, a high intensity should always be used; however, avoid complete muscle failure for compound exercises except when maxed out. Muscular failure should be achieved with accessory lifts for most if not all sets. Even in 5 and 3 rep weeks, effort is a must and intensity should be at least up to 75% of maximal effort. Add grip training at the end of the upper body day or posterior chain day with 1-2 exercises to exhaustion. In addition to consistency and intensity during sessions, the next most important aspect of a successful program is careful tracking of the athlete’s strength gains. At a minimum, record all highs so you know which numbers need to be beaten the next time they are made.

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