Having a strong and powerful upper body is extremely important for wrestling. Much of grappling is done with the upper body and wrestlers need to be strong, have sound muscular endurance and be able to brace through their core to express upper body power.
Comprehensive upper-body strength training will also help wrestlers be more resilient to injury. Shoulders in particular can experience extreme wear and tear through wrestling season and being able to stay healthy is the ultimate key to success.
Strength training for wrestling is not about getting jacked up like a bodybuilder. Training the upper body for wrestling should be about functionality that will directly carry over to the wrestling mat.
To be clear, functionality doesn’t mean standing on one leg on a balance ball doing a single-arm cable press while juggling tennis balls. What it does mean is utilizing compound exercises to develop strength and power to improve movement patterns seen in the sport.
In this article, I will be sharing my 10 favorite upper body exercises for wrestling, why I like each one and instructions on how to do them.
Wrestling Upper Body Exercises
Pull-ups might be the exercise that I use the most often when training wrestlers. The back and in particular the lats are so important for wrestling and no exercise develops back strength the way Pull-ups do.
I use Pull-ups at least once a week in my wrestling programming including all types of variations like Mountain Climber Pull-ups, Windshield Wiper Pull-ups, Towel Pull-ups and Rope Climbs (which are basically pull-ups).
Pro Tip: Use a towel draped over the pull-up bar to turn regular pull-ups into towel pull-ups. Jason Elkin, owner of Elkin Sports Performance, has trained multiple State Champions and NCAA All-Americans and towel pull-ups are one of his favorite exercises:
Pulling and grip strength is a huge component for the success of a wrestler in a match. The towel pull up will 100% help with both back and grip strength. The towel pull up can be inserted into your workout instead of a regular pull up one day or in addition to. I like to program the towel pull up in a superset with an exercise that has a pressing motion pressing (like Front Press).
- Pull Up Bar (Either as part of a rack or a wall-mounted bar)
- Weight belt (For weighted variations)
- For modification purposes:
- Lifting Band (To assist in completing the pull-up or doing more repetitions with full range of motion).
- Lifting partner (To assist in getting your chin over the bar)
- Approach the pull-up bar and grab the bar with a pronated grip (palms facing away).
- Use a bench to get to the bar if it is too high.
- Later in the article, I will talk about variations, alternatives, and modifications where the supinated (palms facing in) grip will be discussed.
- Squeeze the bar and engage the core muscles and do not cross your legs.
- Engage the upper back and pull up until your chin is over the bar.
- Pause for 1 second with your chin over the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.
Take your time and master the pull-up. The benefits of doing sound pull-ups will pay dividends for your shoulder health and the potential to maximize your upper body strength.
Single Arm Snatch
I love explosive training with wrestlers and even though Single Arm Snatches are arguably a lower body hip extension movement, it’s close enough for me to sneak it in here.
Any exercise that you can train the hips through explosive triple extension is one that fits perfectly into a wrestling strength training program.
- Grab a dumbbell and stand with feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Put a slight bend in the knee, brace the core and set the back – shoulder blades pulled back, lats engaged, chest out.
- Hinge forward by pushing the hips back and let the dumbbell slide down right in between the knees, coming at a stop just below the knee.
- You are now in the ‘power position’.
- From here, drive the feet through the floor and aggressively extend the hips, driving the shoulders up and slightly back.
- As you reach triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles – use a quick, powerful shrug and allow the elbow to break and begin the pull with the arm.
- Keep the dumbbell close to the body as it travels up.
- Once the dumbbell reaches the highest point of the pull, rotate at the elbow to catch the dumbbell overhead while simultaneously dropping the hips into a quarter squat and shift the feet slightly out.
- Finish the rep by standing tall and lowering the dumbbell down to the shoulder first and then back to the starting position under control.
- Repeat until all reps are completed and then switch arms.
The dumbbell should travel close to the body all the up until it gets about head height, then rotate the elbow, drop the hips and catch. Don’t allow it to swing forward out away from the body.
The second technique flaw is not staying braced through the return of the dumbbell to the starting position, oftentimes from being in too big of a hurry to knock out reps. Letting the dumbbell, especially the heavier you get, yank the shoulder down at the bottom of the rep is asking for trouble.
Single Arm Dumbbell Bench
For the record, I will have wrestlers do regular Bench Press, but I like the one arm version a little more. Single Arm Dumbbell Bench is an anti-rotational movement which means the core has to work to stabilize the body to keep it from rotating (and falling off the bench) while you press.
This utilization of the core with Bench Press is why I really like this movement for wrestlers.
- Grab your dumbbell, sit on the edge of the bench, and sit the dumbbell on your thigh vertically.
- Take a deep breath, lie flat on your back on the bench, and get your dumbbell in position ready to press.
- Lay your free hand on your stomach. Placing your hand on your hip (as shown in the featured image above) will help balance you more is a more beginner-friendly hand placement.
- Keep your feet flat on the floor.
- Keep your butt on the bench.
- Pull your shoulder blades together and keep the back of your head on the bench. You will slightly arch your back. Keep your core tight and keep the shoulder blades pulled back tight.
- The dumbbells should be slightly angled at roughly a 45-degree angle to the torso. (representative of the path you are descending with your elbows).
- Press the dumbbell up.
- Control the dumbbell down during the eccentric movement and draw the dumbbell in, keeping the elbow at that 45-degree angle from the torso.
- The dumbbell will make contact with your torso right at the nipple line on the chest.
- Once contact is made, drive the dumbbell back up.
- Complete the designated number of reps and then switch sides.
- When your set is done, do not freely drop the dumbbell without checking your surroundings. You could drop the dumbbell and it might hit a person nearby. Or your could drop your dumbbell and crush your fingers on a dumbbell that was left next to your bench.
- The best way to finish a set is to bring the dumbbell back to your thigh and stand up with it. Or have a lifting partner take it from you.
If you’re familiar with Dumbbell Bench Press but are new to this single-arm variation, you’ll probably be pretty surprised by just how much you need to brace your core to keep from literally rotating off the bench. For this reason, start light and then work your way up in weight.
This is a very shoulder-friendly pressing movement. Because the implement is a dumbbell, the range of motion is increased, the shear force on the shoulder is decreased, and the shoulder stabilizing muscles are engaged.
I love Dumbbell Pullovers because of how closely they mimic the collar tie and snap down in wrestling. Being able to powerfully pull through with the Serratus Anterior and Lats is extremely important in being able to win these types of positions.
Pro Tip: The Cable Pulldown and Barbell Pullover are two other closely related exercises that can work well for this purpose.
- Serratus Anterior
- Chest (Pectoralis Major)
- Triceps Brachii (focus on the long head)
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Lay on a bench with the top of your head all the way to the edge of the bench.
- Make a diamond shape with your hands and place them on the inside of one of the heads of the dumbbell.
- Press the dumbbell to arm’s length straight up over the chest.
- Now, reach the dumbbell overhead (allow some bend in the elbow) until your hands are about even with the height of the bench.
- Finally, pull the dumbbell back to the starting position.
This exercise will give a deep stretch to the chest and triceps on the eccentric (lowering) phase of the lift. Stay slow and controlled and focus on the stretch followed by the strong contraction as you raise the dumbbell back to the start.
An exercise that emphasizes mobility, stability and strength from awkward angles and positions? That sounds like an ideal movement for a wrestler and that is exactly what a Turkish GetUp is.
They can also be extremely taxing both cardiovascularly and from a muscular endurance standpoint when done for volume. Perfect for a finisher at the end of a strength training session.
- Kettlebell or Dumbbell (Or a Barbell if you really want a challenge)
- Start by lying down flat on your back.
- Grab your kettlebell or dumbbell and bring it to a position ready to press it up.
- If you have the kettlebell in your right hand, bring your right leg to 90 degrees and keep your foot flat on the ground.
- Press the kettlebell up. Always look up during the Turkish get-up and keep the kettlebell locked out.
- Use your left hand and sit yourself up.
- Bridge your hips up like a glute bridge. Your left leg should be straight (5-10 degrees away from the midline) and your right leg should still be bent at 90 degrees.
- Sweep your left leg behind you and get onto your left knee.
- At this point, you should be in a half-kneeling position on your left knee, kettlebell pressed overhead, and torso upright. From here, stand straight up. You have completed the get-up.
- You will work your way back down to the lying position.
- Come back down to the left knee.
- Use your left hand to brace, untuck the left leg, and straighten it out.
- Now you should be in the bridge position with your left leg straight.
- Sit down on your butt, and use your left hand to ease your body back to the lying position.
- Bring the kettlebell back to the pre-pressing position.
- Complete all reps on one side before switching sides.
The most common mistake I see with the Turkish get-up is going too fast. To glean the full benefits of the movement, go slow, and take your time through each phase of the exercise.
Emphasize stabilization in the shoulder, glutes, and core. Keep the kettlebell locked out the entire time. If the elbow gets soft, you’re not stabilizing the shoulder, and maybe you’re going too heavy. In the bridge phase, pause, and squeeze the glutes and core. Emphasize locking in each phase.
Don’t get sloppy as you get back down to the starting position. Getting up and getting back down should be done at the same tempo.
Dumbbell Shrugs are on here because they are one of the most effective exercises for building strength and muscle mass to help protect the head and neck. This is an often overlooked, but very important part of any athlete’s strength training, especially wrestlers.
Depending on what equipment you have access to I would also include a 4-way neck machine and/or manual neck strengthening exercises as well.
- Grab a pair of dumbells, one in each hand
- Place feet hip-width apart, brace the core and stand tall
- Now shrug up, visualizing touching your traps to your ears.
- Do NOT ‘roll’ the shoulders. Shrug straight up and straight down.
- Keep good posture. Do not let the shoulders slouch forward during the set.
- Control the weight back down to the starting position and repeat.
Shrugs already have a short range of motion. Don’t shorten the range of motion even further by grabbing more weight than you can properly lift. (A mistake I see quite often)
Single Arm Farmer’s Walk
There are a couple of exercises on this list that are just as much a core exercise as an upper body exercise and there is a reason for that. Almost no movement is done in wrestling where the core isn’t an active participant and any upper body movement is only as strong as the core that can brace, stabilize and help transfer power.
Single Arm Farmer’s Walk, also known as a Suitcase Carry, is a unique core stability exercise that emphasizes stabilization in the frontal plane. As you walk, the core has to continuously work to stabilize an upright torso, not allowing the body to bend to one side.
As an added bonus, Single Arm Farmer’s Walks will also help develop grip strength – another important area of wrestling strength training.
- Dumbbell or Kettlebell
- Quadratus Laborum (QL
- Gluteus Medius
- Core Abdominals (Obliques Externus Abdominis, Rectus Femoris)
- Erector Spinae
- Secondarily: Forearms & Trapezius
- Grab a single kettlebell or dumbbell.
- Brace the core and begin walking in a slow, controlled manner.
- As you walk, focus on keeping the core braced and the shoulders and hips square and level.
- Once you cover the assigned distance (or time), switch hands and repeat on the opposite side.
You do not need to grab the heaviest kettlebell you can find. Find a weight that you can walk with and maintain proper form. Don’t rush through. Single Arm Farmer’s Walk can be done for time or for distance.
If going for distance, it should not be a speed walk to cover the ground as fast as possible. Stay under control and focus on form.
Push Ups get a bad wrap sometimes because they’re looked at as, well, too simple for advanced athletes. However, there are very few exercises that are as effective at building upper body strength as Push-ups.
Once you’re able to consistently crank out sets of 25 quality push-ups, there are multiple ways you can “advance” the push-up. Add a weight to the back or add a band for added resistance. Or, turn them into an explosive exercise with variations like clapping push-ups (pictured above). Finally, for a real challenge, you can also try handstand push-ups.
For modification purposes though:
- Med ball
- Bench or box
- Lie face down on the floor.
- Pull your toes in so that you’re on the tip of your shoes.
- Eyes should be focused straight down or slightly up.
- Pull your hands close to about the nipple line of the chest and bring them out about 2-3 inches away.
- Take a deep breath, engage the core and brace.
- Push yourself up in one unit. There should be no sagging of the waist. The entire body from head to toe should move up and then back down in unison.
- Feel your scapula upwardly rotate and make sure the antagonist muscles (Back and biceps) are fully engaging.
- Lock out your push-up and pause.
- Slowly lower yourself back down and get ready for the next repetition from just above the ground.
Take your time and master the push-up. The benefits of doing sound push-ups will pay dividends for your shoulder health and the potential to maximize your upper body strength.
Keep the elbows at a 45-degree angle. For maximal chest, shoulder, and rotator cuff engagement, do not let the elbows flare out away from the middle. Also, do not let the elbow hug right next to the torso.
Renegade Rows are the ultimate exercise for having to brace the core and then apply strength.
They’re also a sneaky good exercise for shoulder stability because the opposite arm has to stabilize while the rowing is taking place.
- Grab one dumbbell in each hand and assume a pushup position with feet about shoulder width apart.
- Make sure the core is braced and row one dumbbell up.
- Lower the dumbbell under control and return to the starting pushup position.
- Alternate rowing each arm until all reps are completed.
Try to limit rotating the torso as much as possible. It’s natural to want to open the torso toward the side of the arm you’re rowing with – try to fight against this and stay as square as possible.
The wider your feet, the easier it is to stay balanced while you perform the movement. Try to keep feet about shoulder-width apart.
Med Ball Side Throws
Like, Single Arm Farmer’s Walk, Med Ball Side Throws are as much a core exercise as an upper body one, but they’re just too important to leave off this list.
Rotational power is an important component of wrestling and Side Throws are as good of an exercise as there is for training rotational power.
- Medicine Ball
- Grab a medicine ball and stand perpendicular to a sturdy wall*.
- Distance away from the wall will vary based upon the type of medicine ball you have**.
- Stand in a good athletic position, feet shoulder width apart, hips and knees bent.
- Begin by rotating away from the wall, reaching the medicine ball toward the back hip.
- Now, aggressively rotate toward the wall, turning on the ball of the back foot, opening the hips toward the wall and releasing the ball into the wall.
- Catch the ball off the ball, reset and repeat. Once all reps are completed switch sides.
The biggest mistake I see athletes make is using their arms (and not their hips) way too much to throw the ball. Power for the throw should primarily come from rotating the hips and torso and the arms should be secondary.
*If you have a partner, you can throw to each other instead of into a wall.
**The distance away from the wall will vary depending on what type of medicine ball you have. If you have a hard rubber medicine ball then be prepared for the ball to bounce a good ways back off of the wall. If you have a soft Dynamax-type medicine ball then you can stand much closer as the bounce off the wall will be much less.
Obviously, these are not the only 10 upper body exercises that are effective for training wrestlers. There are dozens if not hundreds of exercises that can be used to develop upper body strength.
These are simply some of my favorites and ones that I use over and over again in my wrestling strength training programs.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like to check out my favorite core exercises for wrestling.