We all know that having a strong core is essential to wrestling.
The various ab muscles not only help to stabilize our trunks in the weight room when squatting, deadlifting, performing explosive power movements, etc. but they also help perform a similar function on the mat during leg attacks, stand ups, and other situations (click here to read an old post that goes into more detail on this).
If you’re a frequent reader of my blog, you know I’ve started to incorporate some research studies into my posts to better describe and substantiate the suggestions I’m making (to see what I mean check out this post and this post).
So today I’m going to review 2 research studies that used MRI technology to produce a cross-sectional area of the core muscles of various wrestlers in Japan and discuss what their findings mean in terms of how you should be structuring the core training aspect of your program.
Here’s some quick info from the Kubo study from 2007 which was focused on determining whether a correlation between performance and core musculature existed.
84 male wrestlers broken up into the following groups:
20 competed in either the 2004 Olympic Games, 2001 World Championships, or 2002 Asian Games. These 20 wrestlers were categorized as the “elite” wrestlers and were on average the oldest.
25 wrestlers competed in the Japanese national championships sometime between 2001-2004. These 25 were placed in the “sub-elite” group and were on average “middle aged” for this study.
39 subjects were those who competed in the junior national championships between 2002-2004. They were categorized as the “elite junior” group and were on average the youngest.
Not a lot of detail was given to the training other than I was left with the impression that these wrestlers trained like any other wrestler in addition to performing exercises such as the Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift regularly.
But that was about it in terms of the discussion on the training these wrestlers underwent.
What They Found
While there were not many statistically significant differences in most of the musculature between the groups, the researchers did find significant differences in the cross sectional area (the thickness of the muscle, as measured by an MRI) of the rectus abdominis (the “6 pack”) and psoas major (a primary hip flexor I detail briefly in this post) between the “Elite” and “Elite junior” groups.
“In conclusion, compared with Elite junior wrestlers, it is conceivable that a greater cross-sectional area of trunk flexors of Elite wrestlers is one factor which supports increased performance.”
14 male college wrestlers and 14 Judo players (judokas). The average age was ~19 +- ~1 year. The average weight was ~152lbs +- ~10.5lbs. The average experience was 8.5 years +- 4.9 years.
They were further divided into good athletic performance (GAP) and poor athletic performance (PAP) groups. Those in the GAP group had participated in Olympic games and/or other international competitions. The PAP group had no such experience.
In the case of the wrestling group, this resulted in an even division of 7 GAP and 7 PAP.
All subjects spent approximately 3 hours a day training over the course of 2 sessions, 6 days a week. No mention was made of any specific resistance training going on so I was left with the impression that these wrestlers were only practicing in the room for these sessions.
What They Found
The muscles responsible for flexion (for flexion think Decline Situp) were both larger in wrestlers than in judokas. Additionally, flexor (rectus abdominis and psoas major) and extensor muscles (paraspinal muscles; for extension think 45-Degree Back Extension) were shown to be stronger and statistically significantly stronger (depending on the position) than in judokas.
The muscles responsible for rotation and lateral flexion (for rotation think Russian Twist and for lateral flexion think DB Side Bend) were both larger and stronger in judokas than in wrestlers.
No significant differences were observed between the GAP and PAP groups for both groups.
One speculation made by the researchers as to the greater development of the rectus in wrestlers was this- “While assuming this unique low posture and lifting an opponent, wrestlers are required to firmly stabilize their trunk region; because of this, wrestlers should require a larger rectus abdominis since these muscles are antagonistic to the trunk extensor muscles.”
“We cannot confirm that the cross-sectional areas of trunk muscles and trunk muscle strength significantly differ on athletic performance levels in this study.”
“Wrestlers should concentrate heavily on trunk flexion and extension exercises…From the obtained results, we believe that larger trunk cross-sectional areas are minimal requirements for elite athletes.”
My Thoughts (for what they’re worth)
I think there is a lot of value in both of these studies.
The first, and most important piece of information I think to be demonstrated is the fact that while statistically significant differences in core musculature do not exist between Elite and Sub-Elite (in the Kubo study) and that the size and strength of the core muscles don’t exist between elite wrestlers, there is a noticeable difference between the Elite and Elite Junior groups in the Kubo study.
What does this mean?
Although the size and strength of the RA (rectus aka “6 pack”) seems to reach a point of maximal development as you reach the high levels of collegiate wrestling and international/open wrestling, there is still room for improvement and development prior to that.
And based on my personal experience with training both high school and college wrestlers I’ve found there to be a lot of room for improvement at both levels.
One of the wrestlers I one worked with, Justin Lister (a Binghamton University wrestler who placed 4th at the 2010 NCAA National Championships), was sore for over a week after the first day he trained with me after doing only 3 sets of 15 Glute Ham Raise Situps.
Obviously, he wrestled successfully at the highest level you can in college and still showed signs that his core was far from its strength and stability potential.
Here’s a video of the Glute Ham Raise Situp so you can get a better understanding of what he was doing and after that is a video of him advancing to the Semi-Finals via pin.
I’ll be the first to admit- it’s a challenging exercise. But it’s not one that should produce that amount of post-workout soreness.
Another D1 wrestler I worked with this past summer had regular back pain. Upon “review” by me, I found him to be unable to perform a proper Ab Wheel and he couldn’t do more than a couple sets of 10 on the Reverse Hyper (with not more than 10lbs) without getting sore for many days.
What did I have him do?
In a nutshell, I basically had him hammer the shit out of these, and other exercises. His results over the 16 weeks of summer training he did with me resulted in a big squat, a big deadlift, no more back pain, and most important- a top 5 ranking for the last couple months.
Additionally, I’m glad that one of the conclusions drawn in the Iwai study was that the rectus in wrestlers was both more muscular and stronger was probably due to their need to stabilize their core when lifting an opponent (to finish a takedown or get a lift and throw…keep in mind they do wrestle only Freestyle and Greco in Japan).
I find this interesting because it’s something I’ve written about before (read this post) and am glad it’s something that is supported by research.
However, I don’t like that the researchers in this study then go on to suggest that more flexion exercises may be needed for wrestler (as opposed to stabilization exercises like the Ab Wheel, Ball Rollout, Blast Strap Supermans, etc.).
I find it a bit strange that in one statement the researchers suggest the higher level of strength and development is probably from using the rectus to stabilize the core and in another statement they’re suggesting to train these muscles in a non-specific way (with flexion/situp type exercises) rather than with stabilization exercises.
While it is suggested in the above studies that cross-sectional development in the core seems to peak once you reach the collegiate years, I would like to suggest that this doesn’t give you an excuse or reason to believe that core strengthening and development should no longer be a focus of your training.
Additionally, if you are a high school wrestler or the parent or coach of a high school wrestler, these results do suggest there to be noticeable differences between the development of the core muscles (namely the rectus abdominis in the case of the Kubo study) between higher level/more experienced wrestlers and lower level/less experienced wrestlers; so get training!
Listen, I’m far from an educated researcher. Like some of the people performing the study, I have a masters degree; only mine’s in business (not a sports science related field). So, like anything I say, take it with a grain of salt.
Here are some basic numbers to shoot for in terms of your flexion, extension, and stabilization core training based on the experiences I have training wrestlers:
1. Decline Situp for 10 reps with 25-30lbs behind your head. Not only do I train a number of wrestlers who can do at least this, I train a 40+ year old radio DJ who can do this; so make it happen.
2. Back Extension with a doubled up orange band for 8-10 controlled reps (light band if you order off Elitefts.com). I’m not sure what this equates to in pounds but it’s over 40 because after a wrestler I train can use a 40 pound dumbbell behind their head, I switch to bands because I find that they are easier to position and keep behind your head when compared to a much bigger dumbbell of similar resistance.
3. Decline Ab Wheel (with proper form) for 4 sets of 12-15 reps.
Here’s an awesome statement made in the Iwai study- “It is very important to note that information on the anatomy and function of the trunk muscles is available to these athletes and their strength and/or technical training coaches to enable them to understand the sport-specific trunk muscles involved in each sport.”
This is a pretty good summary as to why I blog about the topics I do and have recently decided to start working in the research aspect of it.
I hope I was able to effectively incorporate some valid research for wrestlers into this post without turning it into a piece of writing aimed specifically for sports science researchers. So please leave me feedback by commenting below and/or emailing me at [email protected]
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