When BJJ or MMA practitioners without wrestling background roll with a wrestler for the first time, they are amazed by how strong, and explosive wrestlers are. But why exactly is that? Why wrestlers are so strong and usually look so muscular?
Why are wrestlers so strong? There are four reasons for that:
- Unlike other combat sports, wrestlers spend a lot of time doing strength and conditioning training.
- The focus of wrestling is given to taking people down and controlling them which requires a lot of strength, explosiveness, and balance.
- Wrestling is a competitive sport. Unlike BJJ for example, where there are a lot of hobbyists, all the people in wrestling classes are competitors and they train much more often and more intense. People who aren’t dedicated enough usually quit.
- Wrestling matches are only 6 minutes long. That means explosiveness is much more valuable than stamina.
Wrestlers are not only strong, but they are also explosive. That means they are fast and can generate a lot of force in very short periods of time.
Strength and conditioning
There is a lot of technique in wrestling but it’s also a very physical sport. That’s why strength and conditioning is a far bigger element of wrestling training than in other grappling martial arts such as BJJ or Judo.
Wrestlers practice regimen is crazy. Some people compare it to the training of the spartans in Ancient Greece.
The average wrestling practice is 2-3 times harder than BJJ. BJJ practitioners will tell you that they hate wrestling practice or drilling takedowns. The main focus of BJJ is a technique, that is about 2/3 of the whole workout.
On the other hand, wrestlers often do 30 minutes long drills before the practice (or after, depends on the trainer). Those drills can include running in place, sprawls, rope climbing, mountain climbers, carrying partner and running with him/her on your back or just by holding him with a body lock, etc.
Where I wrestled, we did that at the end of the workout, and literally everyone was cheering and clapping when the trainer said the workout is over.
Wrestlers train their whole body, especially their necks, legs, and back muscles. They are doing both – intense exercises that require good conditioning (mountain climbing, sprawls) and exercises that require pure strength (rope climbing; carrying your training partners).
There aren’t many sports where athletes do both those things especially when it comes to combat sports.
In most combat sports practitioners are doing just sparring/technique when they go to practice and doing strength and conditioning in another day on their own.
Standard BJJ matches are 10 minutes long. But there are also 20 minutes matches on the higher levels and even matches with no time limit. Boxing bouts are up to 36 minutes long. MMA matches 15 or 25 minutes.
People who practice those sports need to focus on their stamina to be able to make it to the final bell. That’s why there are a lot of boxers or BJJ fighters on the higher levels who are skinny and still do pretty good.
But in wrestling, that’s not the case. Wrestling matches are just 6 minutes long, so wrestlers don’t worry that much about conserving energy. They can train for explosiveness and build a lot of muscle mass.
Have you ever grappled with someone skinny but it feels like you can do nothing to this guy? The good technique feels like strength.
People who perfected a technique are able to do it much more efficiently than you (using less strength to do more work). That’s why for example powerlifters are super strong when it comes to lifting weights but they can’t punch or kick hard or even grapple.
When doing different activities not only the technique (body mechanics) is different but also the muscles you are using are different as well and they work differently. For example, the muscles of a powerlifter are used to do quick and explosive movements while the muscles of a marathon runner are used to work non-stop for hours at a slower pace.
Wrestlers spent hundreds of hours drilling takedowns, defenses, and techniques on the ground. When it comes to taking people down or controlling them their technique is top-notch. They have strong leg, back and neck muscles, and grips but the majority of their strength comes from their knowledge on leverage and positioning which makes their job easier while making it harder for you.
So being strong in wrestling/grappling doesn’t mean you are necessarily strong everywhere. For example, a good powerlifter will always be able to lift more than a wrestler. Wrestlers usually lift the minimal weight and focus more on reps. That helps muscle endurance and doesn’t make them too bulky which is important when you need your muscles to be effective not just to look good.
Takedowns and Control
In BJJ guys or MMA fighters without good enough takedown defense, wrestlers are unstoppable in stand up. But they are also very good at scrambling – escaping when they are in a bottom position and keeping pressure when on top and not letting their opponent escape.
Taking people down and controlling them requires a ton of strength, speed, balance and positional awareness. It is much more exhausting to grapple standing and to always try to bridge when you are on your back to avoid getting pinned than to just do a standard BJJ roll where you focus on submissions and don’t really care if you are on your back or not.
Before started wrestling I was doing boxing and BJJ and I thought I had decent cardio. Then I did 3×3-minute rounds wrestling where we just reset the action when a takedown occurred and I have to tell you that was the most exhausting thing I did in my life.
You can train boxing, BJJ, muay Thai, MMA or pretty much every other combat sport no matter how old you are. But wrestling is a sport particularly for young people who want to compete.
Some kids start wrestling at an age of 5-6 and do it to their mid-30s. They wrestled pretty much their whole life when they were younger which builds athleticism that translates into other sports and activities. That’s another reason why wrestlers are so strong.
But also, the average wrestler trains much harder than the average person who practice other combat sports. There isn’t such a thing as a hobbyist wrestler. They all compete in high school and later in college (in case they don’t quit).
A casual boxer who started late can become decent if he puts enough work over the years. You can meet many boxers or other combat sports practitioners who are training casually so not every one of them is necessarily in his best shape.
But when you meet a wrestler you can be pretty much sure he trained regularly and his focus was to be in a perfect shape so he can be competitive in high school or college wrestling.
Another reason why the competitive nature of wrestling contributes to the physicality of the wrestlers in the way they train. Every day when wrestlers go to the gym their goal is to give everything improve.
The sparring sessions can be very competitive and the conditioning pretty tough. You can see the difference when you visit a BJJ gym and then a wrestling gym.
BJJ practitioners like to roll, then chill and have a good time with their training partners the roll again. Wrestlers, on the other hand, go hard all the time so the atmosphere in a wrestling gym may appear more hostile compared to a BJJ gym.
I am not saying wrestlers aren’t having fun too, just in most cases they are much more focused. That’s because they know they have a limited period of time to compete and accomplish great things while they are still young.
That’s why they are so focused and train so hard.
Here’s a video of Russian wrestlers training that will give you an idea of their physique and on how hard they train: