Improving a fighter’s core strength will have a direct impact on performance. This muscle group provides the foundation for staying tense during explosive maneuvers, postural balance, and agility, not to mention its important role in injury prevention. Unfortunately, most coaches and trainers overlook the importance of this muscle group and even have a distorted understanding of what it really is. 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 muscles), hips, and glutes. While the hips and glutes are often considered part of the lower body, the best performance benefit can be gained by training them with the abs and lower back.
On the mat, a fighter uses their core strength for many maneuvers and can expect better performance when gains in strength are made here. Picking up your opponent during a takedown or mat return relies heavily on a strong, explosive core. Lumbar erectors and super-strong glutes are what it takes to successfully arch and get off a pin when you get stuck at the bottom. Improving your core strength will also help you explode from the bottom position for a quicker lift or transition for an inversion. When pushing and pulling to control your opponent while fighting with your hands, it’s important to have a strong, tight core to set up your next move for a dominant position. The fact is that improving your core strength will improve almost every aspect of your game on the wrestling mat.
During the season, the best fighters constantly train to improve their conditioning and hone their technique. With such a busy training and competition schedule, there is very little room for anything other than wrestling training; When can you go the extra mile for core strength? The answer is all the time! During wrestling season, focus on maintaining the strength you have and only make small efforts to improve so as not to detract from your main training. Consider adding some exercises at the end of practice 2-3 days a week to maintain your core strength, tone and conditioning. During the off-season, focus 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 increase strength with exercises done specifically to build a stronger core.
With limited time, it’s important to make the most of your training sessions. Time and effort spent doing exercises that won’t make you noticeably stronger for wrestling is wasted. The fact is that not all exercises are created equal; Sit-ups are great for improving the overall tone of your stomach, but they do nothing for functional strength. To bring your best to the wrestling mat, train your core for strength, not tone or conditioning. To do this, always train your abs with weights, rarely just bodyweight. Always keep your reps in the 8-12 range, never more than 20 no matter what the exercise is. Use weights for lower rep sets and lighter weights for explosive reps, but never more than 12-15 and always use weights or training bands for added resistance. Isometric exercises are also valuable for training your abs and core for wrestling. This can be done with light resistance from a partner or light weights. Abdominal/core training for timed repetitions is also an effective type of isometric 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 end of each rep. Take a new breath between reps when you can no longer hold it only to hold it again for the rest of the set. For your stomach, choose exercises with your legs straight instead of bent. For example, leg lifts are far superior to bent-knee crunches. This is because when the knees are bent, the abdominal wall is secondary to the hip flexor; Bent-knee stomach exercises work the hip flexors more than the abdominals. The straight leg squat is preferred. When setting up your program, it is important to choose exercises that allow for balanced development. In other words, don’t just train the abdominal wall and never the lower back or you may lose your balance. Muscular imbalances can eventually lead to injury if they become pronounced or prolonged long enough or at the very least don’t allow you to realize the full potential power in your core.
During the season, choose exercises that can be done in the fight room and save the weights for the off-season. To add resistance to core exercises while on the wrestling mat, a set of elastic training bands will go a long way. Straight-legged crunches with a partner holding your legs are great, but even better against the resistance of a training band. Leg lifts are great, but leg throws (with your partner pulling your legs down and to the sides) are even better. If your gym is equipped with a pull-up bar, hanging leg raises (forward for the abdominal wall and sideways for the obliques) will strengthen your abs. Training bands of different resistances also allow you to work your lower back when placed around your neck to say good morning with high repetitions. Anchoring a band to a stationary object will allow resisted side bends or woodcutters to get incredible rotational power out of the obliques. Heavy chains can be purchased at a hardware store to use as resistance to train your core as well. Chains around the neck are great for adding resistance to the good morning movement or adding weight to leg raises.
Bands and chains should also be used in the off-season to strengthen the core, however there are many more exercises available in the weight room. With time off from competition and less time on the mat, the weight room is a great place to improve core strength with the right exercises. Using kettlebells is great for building explosive strength in the hips and glutes. Back raises and good mornings with weights, bands, and chains should definitely be used to strengthen your lower back and glutes. In the weight room, train your abs and/or obliques twice a week and your lower back at least once a week (and sometimes twice). Sit-ups with your legs straight while holding weights and using the lateral pull machine to train your abs with weight are excellent. Use one side of a cable crossover machine to perform explosive heavy woodcutters for obliques. Heavy dumbbell side bends with an offset barbell squat on your back are also great for oblique power.
Some of the best functional core strength can be developed simply by carrying heavy items a short distance. The farmer’s walk (carrying heavy weights in both hands) and the pannier carry (carrying weights in one hand) do wonders for developing your upper and lower back, as well as your obliques and abs. Carry heavy dumbbells (or a very heavy kettlebell) in front of you (about chest level) for distances of 50 to 100 feet. works amazing for building great core power. For the fastest and most complete development of core musculature and strength that will translate into better performance on the wrestling mat, your weightlifting program should have a special emphasis on the posterior chain. Dedicate an entire day to nothing but core exercises, additional hamstring work, and grip.