Conditioning Considerations for Combat Sports Such as Wrestling

A wrestler since the eighth grade, I can still remember the feeling I had walking off of the mat after my first match in high school. I felt like I had gotten run over by a truck (which was ironic because I think I actually won by decision) and someone had set my lungs on fire.


A wrestler since the eighth grade, I can still remember the feeling I had walking off of the mat after my first match in high school. I felt like I had gotten run over by a truck (which was ironic because I think I actually won by decision) and someone had set my lungs on fire. That burning in my lungs that I remember is very specific to the sport of wrestling. This is the standard I use to rate the difficulty of conditioning sessions to this day. I will admit that dragging a sled or pushing a prowler can get the lungs burning a bit and it does make me feel a bit of nostalgia bringing me back to my wrestling days but it is certainly not the same animal. This is the reason why when I hear people tell me how hard their workout was the other day or how they had nothing left when they were done, I have to laugh and think to myself that they really have no idea what hard physical exertion really is. In the past I have joked that wrestling should be a requirement for one year in high school. Simply stated, once you have wrestled everything else is easy.

Combat sports, such as wrestling, require a great deal of preparation with regards to strength and conditioning. A number of qualities are essential to be competitive. Multiple aspects of strength, power, anaerobic endurance, and flexibility all must be addressed in order to compete at the highest level. With that being said, I would like to discuss some effective protocols that I have used to develop combat-like conditioning for athletes, fitness training clients and myself.


Intense activities lasting 1-3 minutes have been shown to stress the lactate system, which is crucial to develop in any type of combat sport. In research done by Dr. William Kraemer at the University of Wyoming, collegiate wrestlers participated in three two minute periods of wrestling. “Significant increases in blood lactate levels were observed from rest, between periods and up to five minutes post workout.”

In addition, in his article The Physiological Basis for Wrestling: Implications for Conditioning Programs, Dr. William Kraemer, et al states that “as a combative sport, wrestling imposes unique stresses on the body (8, 9). From a metabolic perspective, the acid-base balance is severely disrupted. For example, a college or freestyle match lasts between 6 and 8 minutes (including overtime) and can elevate blood lactate concentrations in excess of 15 mmol/L and sometimes reach nearly 20 mmol/L (5, 6)(Figure 1). In comparison, maximal treadmill tests may raise lactate levels to around 10 mmol/L (1)”.

Practical Application

It is clear from these findings that long, slow jogging is clearly not optimal for developing, dare I say, sport-specific conditioning with regards to wrestling or any other type of combat type endeavor. An understanding of human physiology and the physiological demands of different bouts of activity are crucial in order to develop effective programs. Marathon runners do not require the same qualities as combat athletes and the old school (and outdated) idea of jogging does not make sense for these types of athletes. I am astonished at the amount of athletes who will run cross country in the fall to “get in shape” for their winter sport. Think about it. Why would you perform hours of long, slow running for a sport that requires short, explosive bouts of activity followed by incomplete rest periods? The hours spent jogging are a waste of precious training time that could be utilized much more effectively.

Total body conditioning circuits can be an effective way to develop the appropriate metabolic pathways for combat type endeavors. Sleds, medicine balls, sledgehammers, battling ropes, various strongman implements as well as an athletes own bodyweight are useful pieces of equipment when it comes to conditioning for wrestling. These types of circuits use the entire body in a way similar to the way it is used in competition…as an integrated unit. Although not wrestling itself, which would be the most specific form of conditioning, these types of activities can be beneficial in the development of functional conditioning.

While it is important to select appropriate training methods and implements, special attention must also be paid to the manipulation of work to rest ratios to truly make it specific to the sport. Work to rest ratios of 1:1 or less are the most appropriate in order to prepare for the unpredictable and grueling nature of the sport. Here are a couple of examples of circuits I have used. Remember, the rest periods are as important as the prescribed exercises. For instance, if a period of wrestling is 2 minutes followed by approximately 1 minute of rest between periods than it would be wise to use incomplete rest periods in training that are similar to those seen in competition.

Circuit #1

A1 Prowler Push (100 ft)
A2 Battling Rope Snap Downs in wrestling stance (20x)
A3 Med Ball Rotational Throw (12x each side)

Circuit #2

A1 Backward Sled Drag (100 ft)
A2 Overhead Sledgehammer Smash on tire (12x each side)
A3 Arm Over Arm Sled Pull w/ battling rope attached to sled straps
A4 Bodyweight Walking Lunge (100ft)

Circuit #3

A1 Forward Sled Drag (100ft)
A2 Rotational Sledgehammer Chops on tire (12x each side)
A3 Kettlebell Swing (20x)
A4 Med Ball Shot Put (12x each side)

Remember that just like strength training, conditioning must be progressive to become more challenging over time. Decreasing the rest periods and/or increasing the number of rounds are easy ways to improve week to week and month to month. Have fun and work hard.

Dave Coffin is a strength and conditioning specialist in the Greater Boston area. Feel free to contact him at

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