Jan 29, 2015
A Perfect Match

An in-season strength program that blends intensity with flexibility has Wesleyan University wrestlers finding success on the mat.

By Drew Black

Drew Black, MA, CSCS, USAW, is starting his 17th year as the Strength and Conditioning Coach and Head Wrestling Coach at Wesleyan University, where he oversees training programs for 29 NCAA Division III sports. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Seven years ago, I attended a conference on periodization and planning that changed my approach to in-season strength and conditioning. During one of the presentations, I heard this analogy for training while competing: “If you are going to drive a racecar around the track one time, you better put the pedal to the metal.” I brought this philosophy back to Wesleyan University and immediately applied it to my wrestling team’s in-season work.

To be successful, wrestlers need to be strong, powerful, and explosive, while also having the anaerobic endurance to compete in multiple matches per day at tournaments. We put the pedal to the metal in the weightroom during the season by keeping intensities high and volumes low and incorporating full-body circuits to keep the athletes functioning in high gear.

The only reason we occasionally tap the brakes is time constraints. Wesleyan is one of the most prestigious colleges in the country, and the academic rigors can interfere with the time I have with my athletes. Does this mean I lower expectations? No. But it does mean I have to be very aware that studies come first.

I then try to use that to our advantage. I ask our athletes to bring the competitive drive they have for academics into the weightroom. And they do.

The philosophy for Wesleyan athletics is the pursuit of excellence in all that we do, and the administration, coaches, and I expect our wrestlers to win. The team has responded with many successes on the national stage. Over the past four seasons, Wesleyan wrestling has: won the 2012 New England Wrestling Association championship, sent four wrestlers to the NCAA Division III Championships, produced an All-American, finished the 2013 season ranked 10th in the nation, took sixth at the 2013 Division III National Duals, and had three top-eight finishers at the 2014 Northeast Regional.


Our in-season phase runs from the beginning of November to the NCAA Championships in March. Ideally during the season, my athletes would lift in the morning, then refuel, recover, and return for our afternoon wrestling practices energized. In reality, between studying, classes, and extracurriculars, I only have two hours each afternoon with the team. Therefore, we need to maximize our time when strength training.

My primary goal during the season is to maintain the gains made in the offseason and preseason phases. We accomplish this with a short, intense lift at the beginning of every Tuesday practice.

I hold lifts on Tuesday because this fits best into our weekly in-season plan. Typically, we have tournaments on Saturdays, which can include up to seven matches for each wrestler. They are still pretty banged up on Monday, so we devote that day’s practice to low-impact activities, bodyweight exercises, or work in the pool. By Tuesday, the athletes feel better, and it’s early enough in the week that we can get a quality lift in without hurting their performance the upcoming Saturday.

To give the guys a change of pace from the wrestling room, each Tuesday practice begins in the hallways of our athletic center. The athletes ditch their wrestling shoes for cross-trainers and complete an eight- to 10-minute warm-up that incorporates both linear and lateral movements, such as running, skipping, shuffling, and grapevines, followed by dynamic stretches like walking lunge variations, straight-leg bear-crawl walks, and side lunges. I use this warm-up because it gets a little sweat going and makes sure the wrestlers are loose, which helps reduce the opportunity for injury when lifting.

To fit a quality weightroom session in a short amount of time, we focus on only three movements: upper-body pull, lower-body lunge, and upper-body push. The wrestlers move quickly from one exercise to the next and lift heavy, so the circuit is an effective total body workout. The quick pace also helps get in residual cardio training.

On top of the pull-lunge-push program, I recently added strength walks to our in-season lifts after hearing about their benefits at a conference. We like to switch between farmer’s walks, suitcase carries, kettlebell bottom-up walks, plate-overhead walks, and dumbbell-overhead walks in each session.

I like using the strength walks to finish a workout because they combine several elements into one exercise. Strength walks utilize core work, grip training, and shoulder stabilization, and when performing a strength walk, every muscle in the wrestlers’ bodies is activated. In addition to the physical demands, there is the mental challenge of finishing the walk without dropping the weight.

The strength walk takes one minute to complete, but I encourage the athletes to take it slow, as if they are going for a stroll in the park on a Sunday afternoon. It’s difficult, but the team enjoys having strength walks in our workout because they add something new to the routine. Variety is a key ingredient to keeping the athletes motivated.

One challenge we have is that unlike most NCAA Division I and II schools, we don’t have an athletics-specific weightroom. Therefore, we lift in the athletic center alongside other varsity athletes, faculty members, and students.

We still manage to complete effective lifts because I teach my wrestlers a wide variety of movements. They choose which pull, lunge, and push exercises to do, based on their personal preference or the availability of machines and equipment.


We vary from the above workout at a few critical points in the season. Both during the fall preseason and as we head into the postseason, we complete our Tuesday lift in our wrestling room and exchange the pull-lunge-push series with a 5×5 circuit, which includes cleans, front squats, push jerks or presses, Romanian dead lifts, and bent-over rows.

We use the 5×5 in the preseason to kick-start the wrestlers’ metabolism so they burn more calories at rest. It’s beneficial for the postseason because it helps the athletes peak at the right time–it provides the interval and anaerobic work needed to be successful.

Wrestlers need to be strong and explosive, but even a pound of additional muscle mass can keep them from making weight. The 5×5 circuit is a great way to spread the work over the entire body and avoid bulking up.

We build this total body power by using lightweight loads of 60 to 75 percent of an athlete’s bodyweight. To complete it, we split the team into groups of three. One wrestler starts on the barbell and does five reps of each movement while the second serves as the spotter. The third athlete performs a core exercise, jumps rope, or shadow wrestles as he waits. Each athlete rotates to each position five times.

While the pull-lunge-push or 5×5 schemes are our go-to workouts, I occasionally add different exercises due to time constraints, an overcrowded weightroom, or to infuse variety into the program. Being flexible with my routine means my wrestlers are always able to strength train, regardless of the circumstance. These extra exercise options include: – Combining conditioning intervals with core work

– Pairing dumbbell and bodyweight exercises in a superset and alternating between the two as many times as possible in 20 minutes – Completing a dumbbell, bodyweight, and kettlebell or stability ball exercise in a tri-set

– Combining bodyweight exercises with short-burst, explosive-style interval training methods

– Using a dumbbell circuit of four or five sets of six to eight reps of selected exercises, including shoulder presses, squats, rows, lunges, dead lifts, and bicep curls.


Another time frame when we alter our plans is during winter break when we can have two training sessions per day. We refer to this three-week, high-volume strength training block as our “Nationals Training Camp,” and we use it to start preparing our team for the postseason.

The squad starts every day over break with a 90-minute cross-training session at 10 a.m. that pairs an Olympic lift with our pull-lunge-push cycle. Since we have more time in the weightroom, I also add in tricep extensions and bicep curls. The second session is wrestling skills practice in the afternoon.

Besides extra strength work, I also like to incorporate more cross-training conditioning during winter break. The sessions alternate every morning between interval swimming, cardio equipment, and running on Wesleyan’s indoor track.

Swimming is a great way to train my athletes without subjecting their bodies to additional wear and tear. My wrestlers aren’t going to qualify as Olympic swimmers any time soon, but they go fast and hard for 25-yard intervals of whatever swim stroke they can complete, with a 1:2 or 1:3 work-to-rest ratio. In all, the athletes swim between 500 and 600 yards during each session. Pool workouts finish with the wrestlers treading water for seven minutes–the length of a match.

For a cardio workout, we do interval training on equipment in the athletic center. The wrestlers complete four 10-minute intervals on various machines, such as the stair stepper, stationary bike, elliptical, treadmill, or rowing ergometer. Switching the implements adds variety to the athletes’ workouts and challenges their bodies in different ways.

Typically, we break each 10-minute block into segments. For the first interval, the wrestlers go hard for 15 seconds and easy for 45 seconds until the time is up. They’ll go 20 hard, 40 easy in the second segment and 30 easy, 30 hard in the third and fourth intervals. This type of training mimics the explosive aspects of wrestling and trains our guys for the imposed demands of the sport.

Our third option for conditioning takes place on the indoor track. The athletes sprint the straights and jog the turns for 10 minutes. We’ll follow that with additional sprint work and wrap the session up with a game of Ultimate Frisbee to keep things fun and build team spirit.


The intense training my wrestlers endure makes it imperative that I incorporate sufficient recovery strategies. To make sure my athletes regenerate over the course of the in-season, I place a lot of emphasis on the cool-down periods at the end of practices. Our recovery sessions begin with static stretching, having the wrestlers hold several movements for 20 seconds each. We do this for about three to five minutes.

Then, we move on to working with foam rollers and tennis balls. The wrestlers roll the implements over any tense, tight, or sore areas on their bodies. I’m a big proponent of having them use the tennis ball on the bottoms of their feet for a regenerative foot massage. Everything the wrestlers do athletically comes from their feet, so it’s important to take care of them.

Despite some of the limitations and challenges we face during the in-season, I refuse to let strength training fall by the wayside. By focusing on quality over quantity, working the whole body, and emphasizing recovery, I’ve been able to reduce my wrestlers’ susceptibility to injury and keep their confidence at a high level. Even though we are a small Division III program, we make the most of what we have, and our wrestlers have reaped the benefits.


The wrestlers choose the specific pull, lunge, and push exercises they do during our in-season lifting circuit. Here is a three-week sample of what that might look like. We do five to eight reps of each exercise and complete the cycle four or five times, with 45 seconds to one minute of rest between each set.

Week One Upper-body pull: Pull-up with wide overhand grip or lat pull Lower-body lunge: Dumbbell walking forward lunges Upper-body push: Dumbbell flat bench Strength walk

Week Two Upper-body pull: Pull-up with underhand grip or bent-over row Lower-body lunge: Dumbbell walking backward lunges Upper-body push: Dumbbell incline bench Strength walk

Week Three Upper-body pull: Pull-up with alternate grip or upright row Lower-body lunge: Plate-overhead walking lunges Upper-body push: Dumbbell flat bench with alternate arms Strength walk


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