Even-Esh: ‘Too strong’ is not possible in sport of wrestling

Updated: January 18, 2024

Photo: Hanging onto a basketball rim is an advanced version of a strength-training exercise suggested by Zach Even-Esh.

By Zach Even-Esh

There has been a big push by a lot of strength coaches who are actually demonizing strength. I keep seeing articles, videos and social-media posts about how athletes who are “too strong” experience a drop-off in performance. And so, the pendulum has swung towards testing sprint times, sprint speed and bar speed on exercises like squats, bench, deadlift and cleans. 

In slight defense of these statements, context is crucial. The times where I see wrestling performance drop off is when the wrestler does not truly love the sport and, instead, the wrestler spends most of the off-season at the gym with bodybuilding training … and begrudgingly goes to a wrestling club or tournament, if at all, in the off-season. 

Strength training should be combined with time wrestling. You can’t expect to make big jumps in progress unless you push yourself to wrestle more and train as a wrestler.

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Now, back to getting strong, I have trained thousands of wrestlers since 2002. Only once have I had a wrestler who was so strong that getting stronger was not going to help his wrestling. He needed more wrestling. That is one wrestler in Division I in 20+ years of coaching. 

Today, I am seeing a lot of wrestlers struggling to do one pull-up, let alone the minimum standard of 15 pull-ups if you weigh under 200 pounds, 10-rep minimum if you weigh over 200 pounds. 

That is the minimum standard in my opinion. Why? Because in middle school, all athletes, regardless of sports should be performing daily calisthenics; push-ups, pull-ups, jumping rope, lunges, step-ups, rope climbing and various crawls/hand-walking movements. 

This commitment to calisthenics will build a tremendous foundation of strength and boost the athlete’s confidence. I am extremely shocked at kids who show up for high school wrestling without being able to do push-ups and pull-ups. 

I believe a big reason we see wrestlers and athletes struggling with strength is because they are so used to being coached for everything that they have no clue how to think and do the work for themselves. Sure, some are doing this, but the majority are not and that must change.

Here are some other standards I want to see for high school wrestlers…and there is a little bit of wiggle room here: 

• Back Squat x 5 reps with 50 pounds over bodyweight;

• Front Squat x 5 reps with 25 pounds over bodyweight; 

• Bench Press x 5 reps with 25 pounds over bodyweight; 

• Trap Bar Deadlift x 5 reps with twice bodyweight;

• Hang Power Clean x 3 reps with 25 pounds over bodyweight. 

Push-ups should easily be 30 full-range reps with perfect technique in 30 seconds. Running a mile should be 6:30 minutes max for the wrestlers who weigh under 175. 

When wrestlers or a coach doesn’t take strength training seriously, these individuals/teams lose during hard-fought battles, especially in the Blood Round. I have yet to hear a coach tell me one of his wrestlers is “too strong”. 

Instead, I consistently hear how shocked coaches are that their wrestlers are weak. That being said, coaches must either learn how to properly coach others in strength training or they should partner with an experienced local strength coach who has a proven track record for success. 

There should be zero question as to whether a wrestler should be strong. They should be strong, powerful and conditioned like a racehorse! This takes year-round commitment, not just commitment in the off-season or only in-season. Being strong and training to win is an all-the-time thing, all-year round. 

Also, if you’re skipping meals and eating like a bird, you will be a bird. In-season wrestlers need to eat three, if not four, meals a day. Otherwise, you’re focused on losing weight when the real focus needs to be training to get better at wrestling. This requires high-level nutrition, sleep and overall lifestyle. 

(Zach Even-Esh is the founder of The Underground Strength Gym in New Jersey, author of “The Encyclopedia of Underground Strength” and serves as a consultant for individuals, teams and programs seeking elite performance. Connect with Zach at https://ZachEven-Esh.com and https://UndergroundStrengthCoach.com)