Improving the strength of a wrestler’s core will have a direct impact on performance. This muscle group provides the basis for staying tight during explosive maneuvers, postural balance and agility, not to mention its important role in preventing injuries. Unfortunately, most coaches and trainers miss the importance of this muscle group and even have a distorted understanding of what it actually consists of. It’s impossible to train it if you don’t know what it is. For the purposes of this article, the ‘core’ muscle group encompasses the abdominal wall, obliques, lumbar erectors (lower back musculature), hips and glutes. While the hips and glutes are often considered part of the lower body, the best performance benefit can be gained when training them with the abdominals and lower back.
On the mat, a wrestler uses his core strength for many maneuvers and can expect improved performance when gains in strength are achieved here. Picking up your opponent during a takedown or mat return relies heavily on a strong, explosive core. Super strong lumbar erectors and glutes are what’s needed to successfully arch your way out of a pin when stuck on the bottom. Improving the strength of your core will also help you explode up from the bottom position for a faster stand up or transition for a reversal. When pushing and pulling to control your opponent while hand fighting, a strong, tight core is important for setting up your next move for a dominant position. The fact is, improving the strength of your core will improve nearly every aspect of your game on the wrestling mat.
During the season, the best wrestlers train constantly to improve conditioning and perfect their technique. With such a busy competition and workout schedule, there is very little room for anything other than wrestling training; when can you fit in extra effort for core strength? The answer is all the time! During wrestling season, focus on keeping up the strength you have and only make small efforts to improve so as not to take away from your main skill training. Consider adding a few exercises to the end of practice 2-3 days/week to keep up your core strength, tone and conditioning. During the off season, focus extra effort on training your core for further development. This is best accomplished in an accessory lifting program but can still be done after off season wrestling practices. To ensure definite improvement, keep records and try to make strength gains with exercises specifically performed to build a stronger core.
With limited time, it’s important to get the most out of your training sessions. Time and effort spent doing exercises that will not make you noticeably stronger for wrestling are a waste. The fact is not all exercises are created equal; ab crunches are great for bringing up the general tone of your stomach however do nothing for functional strength. For the best carry over onto the wrestling mat, train your core for strength, not tone or conditioning. To do this, always train your abs with weights, rarely bodyweight only. Always keep repetitions in the 8-12 range, never 20+ no matter what the exercise is. Use heavier weights for lower rep sets and lighter weight for explosive reps, but still not more than 12-15 ever and always using weights or training bands for added resistance. Isometrics are also valuable in training your abs and core for wrestling. This can be done with light resistance from a partner or light weights. Ab/core training for timed reps is also an effective isometric type of conditioning.
When training your core to improve your strength for wrestling, it’s important to hold your breath when performing your sets; do not exhale at the completion of each rep. Take a new breath in between reps when you can’t hold it anymore only to hold it again for the rest of the set. For the stomach, choose exercises with straight legs rather than bent. For example leg raises are far superior to bent knee sit-ups. This is because when the knees are bent, the abdominal wall is secondary to the hip flexor; bent knee stomach exercises work more hip flexors than abs. The straight leg sit-up is preferred. When setting up your program, it’s important to choose exercises that will allow balanced development. In other words, don’t just train the ab wall and never the lower back or you can become unbalanced. Muscular imbalances can eventually lead to injury if they become pronounced or go on long enough or at the very minimum disallow you to ever realize the full potential power in your core.
During the season, choose exercises that can be done in the wrestling room and leave the weights for the off season. To add resistance to core exercises while on the wrestling mat, a set of training stretch bands will go a long way. Straight leg sit-ups with a partner holding your legs are excellent but even better against the resistance of a training band. Leg raises are great but leg throws (with your partner throwing your legs down and to the sides) are even better. If your gym is equipped with a pull-up bar, hanging leg raises (to the front for the abdominal wall and to the sides for obliques) will make your abs very strong. Training bands of different strengths also allow you to work your lower back when looped around your neck for high rep good mornings. Anchoring a band to a stationary object will allow resisted side bends or wood choppers for awesome rotational power out of the obliques. Heavy chains can be bought from a hardware store to be used as resistance for training your core as well. Chains around the neck are great for adding resistance to the good morning movement or adding weight to your leg raises.
Bands and chains should also be used in the off season to strengthen the core however many more exercises are available in the weight room. With time off from competing and less mat time, the weight room is a great place to improve core strength with the right exercises. The use of kettle bells are excellent for building explosive strength to the hips and glutes. Back raises and good mornings with weight, bands and chains should definitely be used to strengthen the lower back and glutes. In the weight room, train your abs and/or obliques twice/week and your lower back hard at least once/week (and sometimes twice). Straight leg sit-ups holding weights and using the lat pull machine to train your abs with weight are excellent. Use one side of a cable cross machine to perform heavy explosive wood choppers for the obliques. Side bends with heavy dumbbells and with an offset squat bar on your back are also great for oblique power.
Some of the best functional strength from the core can be developed from simply carrying heavy items for a short distance. Farmer’s walk (carrying heavy weights in both hands) and suitcase carry’s (carrying weights in only one hand) do wonders for building both the upper and lower back as well as obliques and abdominals. Carrying heavy dumbbells (or a very heavy kettle bell) in front of you (about chest level) for distances of 50-100 ft. work amazing for building huge power in the core. For the fastest and most complete development of core musculature and strength that will translate into better performance on the wrestling mat, your weight lifting program should have a special emphasis on the posterior chain. Devote one entire day to nothing but core exercises, extra hamstring work and grip.