Improving your upper body pulling strength is crucial if you want to maximize your physical potential for wrestling.
Specifically horizontal pulling strength is what’s needed most to finish takedowns, body locks, and apply tight rides on top.
Because I’ve written about it time and again, I won’t rehash any of it today.
Instead, I’d like to discuss a classic exercise that I’ve been using more and more in the programs I design for wrestlers.
Although the bodyweight row progression has been a mainstay in my programs for quite some time now, I’ve typically alternated 3 other rowing variations- the chest supported row, the dumbbell row, and today’s featured exercise, the cable row.
What has me liking the Cable Row more and more lately?
First, let me tell you why I’m drifting away from the chest supported row.
I get two common complaints with this piece of equipment. The first is that it’s sometimes hard to position yourself so that you get a good pull toward your chest (because the machine works in somewhat of a fixed path).
The second is that most of the guys I talk to feel their lats working a lot more during the cable row when compared to the chest supported row.
I know we’re not bodybuilders here, but getting good activation in the muscle(s) you’re trying to strengthen is still an important factor. It’s like performing a Decline Situp and not feeling it in your abs. Some kind of adjustment should to be made.
As far as the dumbbell row goes, I’m still a fan, but I feel like it needs constant coaching to ensure the lats are actually working and that momentum isn’t taking over (like I covered in this post).
So, by process of elimination, we’re left with the cable row.
First off, why the cable row?
In a nutshell, for the exact opposite reasons I detailed above.
The feedback I’ve gotten about this include increased activation and a better ability to control the line of pull.
Additionally, I’ve added a twist to this exercise to make it a little more wrestler-specific.
Cable Row + Hold
I actually got this idea from a research review I read a few months ago.
Here are some quick conclusions from it:
“Additionally, the seated row while recruiting the latissimus dorsi and biceps brachii more or equally effectively as the lat pulldown also recruits the middle trapezius/rhomboid muscle group to a greater extent.”
And here are 2 additional conclusions on the same research paper from biomechanic genius, Chris Beardsley:
“When performing seated rows, make sure to perform scapular retraction at the end of each repetition to improve muscle activity. It’s very likely good for your shoulder health to improve range-of-motion anyway.”
…Scapular retraction is simply pulling your shoulder blades together. Think about squeezing something between them.
“Whether you use chins or pull-ups is likely not going to make or break your training routine, so you should probably go with what you prefer or mix it up to prevent things getting stale. If pushed, the chin is probably slightly better because more weight can be used.”
…I know this post isn’t about chinups, but I wanted to throw in some of the conclusions above because they’re relevant to strength training for wrestling.
And here’s a nice graph Chris created that does a great job summarizing the results of the study:
As you can see, the muscle activation in the seated row with retraction is highest in all muscles measured.
In addition to the benefits above, the other thing I like about this study is that it measured muscle activity during a 10-second hold for each rep tested. While I don’t think a 10-second hold is necessary, I do like adding a hold for wrestlers because it improves their static strength.
Importance of Static Strength
Because of the dynamic and unpredictable nature of a wrestling match, a variety of athletic qualities and strengths are needed. One of these important qualities/strengths is static strength.
Static strength is seen all the time during leg attacks when you first get in on a shot but don’t immediately finish. It’s what helps you to hold on as you work toward getting the 2 points.
And, on the opposite side of the coin, it’s a breakdown in this quality that leads to you losing the takedown after getting in on a deep shot.
A lot of your ability to maintain a hold comes down to your overall strength. Think about it- do you think someone who rows 300 pounds for 5 reps can hold on to a leg a little longer than someone who rows 100 pounds for 5 reps?
But, adding in elements that build specific types of strength needed for wrestling is important as well.
In fact, here are a few relevant quotes from a paper entitled Special Considerations for Designing Wrestling-Specific Resistance-Training Programs:
“The importance of isometric muscle action must be emphasized in a wrestling-specific program. Besides the previously mentioned need for isometric grip strength, practically every wrestling move can have a static component, which may last for several seconds.”
“For example, pulling and pushing moves may develop into static actions during a wrestling match when an equal resistive force opposes a wrestler’s force.”
“Isometric action may be even more important in heavier weight classes because of differences in wrestling technique and strategy compared with lighter weight classes. The duration of each isometric contraction should be manipulated based on the wrestler’s need and on the particular training cycle.”
“Isometric training can be undertaken with simple partner exercises and manual resistance along with the previously mentioned rope and towel work. Partner exercises are also desireable, because they develop competitive attitude and specifically prepare the wrestler for the actual activation with nearly complete carryover to the sport.”
“Moreover, these exercises can be enjoyable for the athletes and can provide psychological recovery while developing important sport-specific traits.”
And here are some additional quotes from a paper authored by top sports scientist, William Kraemer:
“Therefore, specific isometric actions that will enhance hand-grip strength as well as upper-body isometric strength of the torso and arms need to be included in a wrestler’s training program.”
“The majority of sports scientists and practitioners now use 100% maximal voluntary muscle actions lasting 3 to 10 seconds for training purposes.”
“Joint-angle specificity must also be considered when designing an isometric training program. Strength will be developed only at the specific joint angle that the exercise is performed. Although not every joint angle can be trained (it would require too much time), carefully selecting key positions will ensure proper development.”
So if you are currently performing cable rows in your strength training program, play around with adding holds for a couple sets and see what you think.
As far as how I work these into programs, I will typically place this as the first pulling exercise on a bench day/upper body day (since I’ve been having them perform weighted chin variations on another day).
Because guys are starting to get a better idea of what weight class they to wrestle this year, I’ve reduced the volume of most of the programs I’ve been designing. Therefore, I’ve been programming this exercise for 3-4 sets of around 5-8 reps.
Over the course of a 6 week training program I’ll usually start with 8 reps for 2-3 weeks, then reduce it to 5-6 for the 2nd half of the program.
As far as the hold goes- I usually suggest around 3 seconds; but you’re more than welcome to add/subtract as you see fit.
Anyway, I know research isn’t needed all the time, but I like to substantiate the claims I make on this site.
The fact of the matter is you can’t neglect your horizontal pulling strength if you want to improve your pulling strength for wrestling; and, in my opinion, the Cable Row with a hold is the best way to do this.