My brother and I started wrestling when I was seven years old. I loved it from day one. Since my brothers and I were always fighting and breaking things around the house anyway, wrestling was a great way for us to safely use up all of our energy without killing each other. My dad even got us a little mat to roll out in the backyard so we could practice at home. While I enjoyed it very much and was making lots of new friends, there was one small problem. I got my butt kicked at every tournament. After my first season of freestyle wrestling ended, my grandparents decided to get us into gymnastics. While I was a little sad at first to leave wrestling, that turned out to be the most impactful decisions ever for my wrestling career. I did gymnastics for four years and was part of my gym’s first ever competitive boy’s gymnastics team. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the skills I was learning, and the strength I was developing were making me into a better overall athlete and ultimately a better wrestler. When I returned to wrestling at age 12, I picked it back up immediately and was somehow better at wrestling without having done any wrestling in the previous four years. It wasn’t magic. Training gymnastics made me stronger, more flexible, more balanced, and able to almost intuitively pick up new techniques. There are dozens of ways that gymnastics directly translated into wrestling, but below I will share my top six ways that gymnastics improved my wrestling game.
Gymnasts are generally short people, so they don’t stand out in a crowd as being huge, muscular monsters. But if you’ve ever watched the Olympics or a college gymnastics meet, you probably said to yourself “Holy sh*t! These people are not human.” Gymnasts are, pound for pound, some of the strongest people on the planet. Male gymnasts look like they’ve grown wings on their backs, and bowling balls for shoulders, and are simply ‘ripped’ all around. The most surprising part? Most of them have probably never picked up a barbell or dumbbell. Strength and conditioning in gymnastics comes from practicing the techniques themselves, and from complimentary bodyweight exercise. In this way, the muscles they develop are highly efficient, only building mass where it’s needed to perform the required movements and holds. The strength that comes from gymnastics training is much different that the kind you get from training with weights. Most weight training only builds muscle in very isolated movements, such as a bench press or bicep curl. Gymnastics requires strength throughout the entire body for complex movements, isometric holds, and explosive rebounding. I believe that training in gymnastics or gymnastic-inspired exercises translates very well to wrestling because the types of strength required are very similar.
Doing gymnastics helps develop a solid foundation for the core strength required for wrestling. You can have all the big show muscles you want, but if you have a weak core they are essentially useless. It’s not just about having a nice looking six pack; a strong core means you have control and stability in all of your movements. You use your core for literally everything in wrestling – throws, snapdowns, lifting a double leg, resisting a tight-waist, etc.
When I tell people I used to do gymnastics, I get one of two response: “oh so you can do flips and stuff?” or “can you still do the splits?”. No, I can’t do the splits anymore, unfortunately. Still, the flexibility I gained from gymnastics training gave me a big head start in wrestling. Many wrestlers, especially beginners, often move in a very stiff and inflexible way, and it can take them a long time to get comfortable in some of the awkward positions wrestling puts them in such as bridging, backstepping into a hip toss, defending a single leg, escaping armbars, and various other “scramble” positions. Because of this, many wrestlers give up way more takedowns than necessary, can’t get off their backs, or – even worse – get injured. It’s easy to control where your body goes when you’re drilling, but in a match your opponent will force you into positions you don’t want to be in. Having great flexibility will allow you to wrestle through more positions, adjust to the unexpected, and avoid injuries.
If you don’t know why power is important, just watch a few Jordan Burroughs matches and you’ll figure it out. Having the ability to explode into an attack and overpower your opponent is a huge advantage in wrestling. Pairing that with perfect technique and timing is even better. In gymnastics, the diagonal length of a floor is about 55 feet. That’s how much room they have to take a couple steps, round off, back handspring, and launch 10 feet in the air for a double back layout with a full twist. That is power, and it is much different than raw strength. Power and explosiveness come from the ability to instantaneously engage multiple muscle groups in perfect coordination for maximum output.
Generating powerful movements also requires great timing and the ability to alternate seamlessly between relaxing and flexing your muscles. Think about it: it quite simply is impossible to move if all of your muscles are flexing at the same time. Training gymnastic movements teaches your brain to know when to relax certain muscles to allow movement while tensing others to generate force. A great example of how this translates to wrestling is a hip toss. During the back-step part of a hip toss, your core and arms need to relax while you step into position. Once your hips are in position, everything switches from being relaxed to maximum output to throw your opponent on their back.
How do gymnasts always land on their feet? You’d think that after spinning around a high bar dozens of times, and then launching off with a double backflip might make them a little dizzy or cause them to lose their bearing. And yet, it doesn’t. That’s because gymnasts are trained to feel or sense where they are in “space” and have well-timed visual and sensory cues that help land right-side-up. Doing gymnastics gave me a great sense of where my body is, relative to the ground (or other objects), as well as what position various body parts are in at all times. The first part of that is called spatial awareness, and it’s a vital competency to have for wrestling. Having good spatial awareness will help you judge distances between you and your opponent, time your attacks, stay in bounds, know which way is up in a scramble, and even brace yourself for a fall more safely.
Body awareness goes hand in hand with spatial awareness, and it can be defined as one’s own awareness of their body parts, where they are located, how they feel, and how they can move. Improving body awareness leads to better balance, more efficient movement (less wasted energy), and the ability to learn new techniques either by experimentation or seeing a move demonstrated and mimicking it. When you have a good understanding of what your body can and cannot do physically, it opens up huge opportunities for your wrestling game. Knowing your physical limits can also help you take action to avoid positions that could cause injuries.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
– Bruce Lee
Whenever you are learning a new skill, sport, movement, etc., you can not expect to master it by simply learning it once and moving on. You need focused, intentional repetition to turn a new skill into second nature. This was especially true during my time as competitive gymnast, where performances were judged not only on my ability to complete a routine, but to also do it with perfect form (body alignment, pointed toes, no extra steps, etc.). As a gymnast, I learned the importance of repeating skills and routines over and over until I could do them without thinking. I took this same mentality into my wrestling career and was able to pick up new moves and strategy much faster than most of my teammates and opponents. That’s not because I was necessarily smarter or more gifted, I simply got more and higher quality repetitions in. That meant making the most of each practice, staying after to drill a specific technique or situation, and getting extra workouts and drilling sessions in outside of practice.
When it comes to repetition, it’s not enough to simply do more. You must be actively engaged mentally and focused on improving with every single rep. Too often, I see wrestlers just going through the motions, as if they’re just biding time until practice is over. Doing this will have a negative effect on your skill development because it will reinforce bad habits. It is much better to start out going extremely slow until you understand each movement and position, and then gradually pick up the pace, without sacrificing form for speed.
These are just a handful of ways that gymnastics gave me a big head-start when I got back into wrestling at a young age. It improved my strength, body awareness, power, flexibility, balance, and the ability to learn new and complex techniques. Fortunately for everyone reading this, you don’t have to do what I did and isolate yourself into just doing gymnastics for four years to see the same results. There are many ways to incorporate gymnastics-inspired exercises into your regular strength and conditioning program for wrestling. To help you get started, Bulgarian Muscle has created a Calisthenics eBook specifically for wrestlers and grapplers who want to build more functional strength and mobility. This eBook is loaded with tips, exercises, and techniques that Fil and Boris Novachkov have picked up over the years in their quest to infuse functionality and athleticism into their training.