Jan 29, 2015
Strong Holds

A college wrestling coach who is also a certified strength coach combines his knowledge and experience in both areas to help his wrestlers get a leg up on the competition.

By Drew Black

Drew Black, MA, CSCS, USAW, is in his 10th year as the Head Wrestling Coach and Strength and Conditioning Coach at Wesleyan University. A former collegiate wrestler at Syracuse University, he is responsible for training 29 varsity sports at Wesleyan and can be reached at: [email protected].

Wrestling is a demanding sport both physically and mentally, but as strength and conditioning coaches know, this hardly makes it unique. What differs about wrestling is the need to develop strength, speed, and stamina while keeping a close eye on the athlete’s weight. This poses many exciting training challenges for wrestling coaches and strength and conditioning coaches alike.

At Wesleyan, I am fortunate to fill both those roles. Even so, when I sit down to design a program that fits all of a wrestler’s training needs, the task is challenging and complex. I take the same approach with wrestling programs that I do for other sports–I reflect on what makes an athlete better in the particular sport and formulate the plan from there.

“Sport-specific training” is a buzz phrase that is thrown around quite a bit and can mean different things to different coaches. In my mind, our athletes will get their sport-specific training by performing the drills, skills, and movements of their sports in their specific arenas of play. Simply put, if you want to be a better wrestler, then you must wrestle.

However, the greatest supplement to sport-specific training is a strength and conditioning program that targets the needs of the sport. In wrestling, it is essential to develop pushing and pulling movements for the upper and lower body, total-body speed and power enhanced through Olympic lifts and variations, and a strong core. Building these components enables our wrestlers to succeed and achieve their individual and team goals during their four years at Wesleyan.


When designing a wrestling strength program, I try to make sure the training carries over to the mat by relying on closed chain, multi-joint, multi-plane movements. My approach to periodization is a little different than most, though. One of my favorite methods to train our wrestlers is integrating all of these essential components into an undulating or non-linear program.

Typically, periodization means starting with higher reps and lower weights and then reducing the reps and raising the weights stage-by-stage every few weeks through the training season. A non-linear program, by comparison, changes the focus from session to session. So in a three-day-a-week preseason schedule, I will have a speed-power day, a maximal-strength day, and a high-rep day. At the same time, we emphasize one of three areas each day, either upper-body pushing, upper-body pulling, or lower-body training. This way there’s always a change in training stimulus each day they train, and we’re hitting all the different muscle types each week. (See Non-Linear Schedule for a sample scheduling scheme.)

A staple of our workouts is pairs of a functional movement and strength-training lift. These functional activities include stability ball and medicine ball exercises, single-leg movements for balance and strength, and core strength exercises. Performing the two different exercises in pairs allows me to get a wide variety of work done in a limited amount of time, keeps the sessions interesting for the athletes, and helps provide the proper amount of rest between sets.

As many strength coaches know, a lot of male athletes love to train their arms, most notably the biceps and the triceps, even if that area is not a focus of the strength-training program. I have found that having our wrestlers perform tricep extensions and bicep curls while standing on one leg keeps everyone happy. The athletes get their arm work in, and I get some single-leg balance and stability work performed. Plus, as a wrestling coach, I’m pleased because this kind of work is important in defending single-leg attacks on the mat as well as contributing to numerous other wrestling skills.

There is one aspect of strength training for wrestlers that can trip up some strength coaches and that’s the issue of body weight. In most sports, it’s no big deal when an athlete adds five pounds while developing increased strength and power. It might even be preferable. But in wrestling this can be a problem.

As a wrestling coach, I would usually rather have a stronger wrestler competing at a higher weight class than an athlete who has to avoid strength training to stay in a lighter weight class. But the culture of wrestling is such that athletes may balk at activities they fear will cause them to bulk up. Also, coaches may be limited in their ability to shuffle their lineup to accommodate a weight class change.

As a result, it’s important to keep weight gain in mind when designing a program. As a general rule, I try to limit the hypertrophy work that is part of a typical strength-training program and avoid high-rep schemes as much as possible. Although it seems counter-intuitive, especially to the wrestlers, the biggest weight gains generally come when performing multiple sets of high-rep exercises. If weight is a major concern, I will have individual wrestlers skip high-rep schemes and instead focus on lifting for max strength with fewer reps.


During the off-season, I like to have our wrestlers lift three days a week for about an hour and 15 minutes each day. The non-lifting days typically include one day for mat work and another day for speed and agility training. I believe it’s extremely important that our wrestlers have at least one day off per week so the mind and body can regenerate to train again the following week.

Although we emphasize either upper-body pushing, upper-body pulling, or lower-body training each lifting day, every session is really a full-body workout. We usually start with an Olympic lift, an Olympic lift variation, or a combination lift. These are followed by pairs of strength lifts and functional activities, such as a bench press followed by a stability leg curl or a bar dip followed by a medicine ball side throw. Sets and reps are determined by whether it’s a power-speed day, max strength day, or max reps day. (See Off-Season Program for a sample week.)

In the past year or so, I’ve started adding an interval training component to the end of weightroom sessions. After finishing their lifting program, our wrestlers will perform 10 to 12 minutes of interval work. They are free to choose the modality they prefer–stationary bike, stair-climber, short hill runs, stair runs, elliptical with arms, and so on. The important factor is completing the interval work. Wrestling matches are often decided in the closing moments and our wrestlers need to explode, finish, and win while fatigued. This is a nice way to get some short, quick, effective training in at the end of each session and has helped our wrestlers improve their late-match performance.

Our off-season schedule culminates in October with our strength and conditioning test day. At this time, we test vertical jump, hang clean or power clean, flat bench press, maximum number of overhand grip pull-ups, front squat, and 300-yard shuttle or basketball line sprint test. To save time on the lifts, we record a 1-to-10 repetition max, where the athletes do a set of no more than 10 reps to failure. Then based on the weight and number of reps they completed, I can calculate a one-rep max. This saves time and, in my mind, works just as well as having the athletes perform a true one-rep max.

These measures give me a great sense of the effectiveness of the strength-training program, where each person stands physically, and where our team is as a whole. It also provides the athletes a chance to showcase their work ethic over the past year before we get into the grind of competition.


Once our competitive schedule starts, the challenge becomes finding ways to help our wrestlers remain strong and confident during a long season that can include multiple competitions in one week. This requires a mixture of art and science and calls on my knowledge as both a strength coach and wrestling coach.

Typically we have matches on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and some weekend tournaments, which results in several matches for certain wrestlers, so I aim for two lifting days per week. We’ll mix up the intensity of the workouts depending on the schedule, usually having either two moderate days or one heavy day and one light or moderate day. I also keep the lifting sessions short, no more than 30 minutes.

The sessions generally start with three sets of four to six reps of an Olympic or combination lift using either a weighted bar or dumbbells. The wrestlers have a choice among nine or so exercises to do, including pulls, snatches, cleans, presses, and jerks. We’ll then do two or three sets of paired upper-body exercises, such as pull downs or rows, followed by lower-body work, such as lunges or squats. We’ll finish up with extensions and curls followed by a core circuit. (See In-season Program for a sample week.)

The art of in-season workouts comes in the adjustments I make from time to time. The first change is moving the Olympic lift to the end of the workout, when the wrestlers are fatigued. Although this goes against the tradition of doing Olympic lifts when the athletes are fresh, it provides another opportunity to help the wrestlers develop the stamina they need to perform explosive moves at the end of a match or in overtime, despite being fatigued.

The other change involves combining wrestling-specific skill work with our strength work. This way, the wrestlers are working on technique at the same time they’re doing their strength training. For example, instead of pairing a bench press with an upright row, I might combine it with a push, fake, snap, hi-C wrestling drill. Consultations with your wrestling coach may help you produce other combinations.

I have no set schedule for making these changes. It’s really just a matter of feel based on the demands of the schedule, how the wrestlers are responding, and the need to shake things up. Any strength coach looking to make these sorts of changes should work closely with the wrestling coach to make sure the timing is right and the wrestlers won’t be negatively affected.

A new change I began making last year was to work in some weeks with three days of shorter lifting sessions, usually about 20 minutes each instead of 30. These sessions consist of four or so sets of only two or three movements and heavy loads. An example would be four sets of five reps of a bench press and lat pull down followed by some core work on a stability ball. The idea is to go hard, but brief.

Once again, communication with the wrestling coach is vital in implementing this kind of change. The type of practices planned for the week, injuries, soreness, and the challenges of making weight all have a contributing effect on what lifting is best suited for a certain week. I am also a firm believer in using a variety of training schemes to help our wrestlers stay enthused and motivated to work hard both in the weightroom and the practice room.

I am biased, but I believe wrestling is a fantastic sport that presents many challenges to coaches and athletes. Generating effective, innovative, and enjoyable training sessions for wrestlers requires a mix of scientific knowledge and artistic flair as well as close communication with the wrestling coach. There is no one right way to train wrestlers, but here at Wesleyan, the undulating non-linear program has met my needs, both as a strength coach and a wrestling coach.

More information on Wesleyan University’s strength and conditioning program can be found on the Web at: www.wesleyan.edu/athletics/strength.

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