High School Wrestling: John Jesse’s Wisdom on Strength and Conditioning
In 1974, a book entitled Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia was published. This book was written by a man named John Jesse.
Conditioning coach Vernon Gambetta writes, "You are probably asking who is John Jesse? John Jesse was an expert on strength training, injury prevention and rehabilitation from Southern California."
I never knew of this book’s existence until recently even though it’s obviously been around a long time. I came across it while surfing the internet and researching wrestling conditioning.
I borrowed a copy from the public library and found it really fascinating. John Jesse’s book doesn’t seem that outdated even though it was published 38 years ago. He really knew a lot about strength and conditioning.
So, what did he know?
Jesse emphasizes the importance of continuity in training. Continuous year-round physical training is imperative if a wrestler wishes to be successful. When discussing the importance of continuity he points out that, “Repeated efforts are required for the formation of conditioned-reflexes in the nervous system required for the development of great skill.”
A wrestler needs to train continuously the entire calendar year. However, Jesse recognizes the importance of breaking down the yearly training into cycles. Jesse divides the year-round training into four cycles.
The Four Cycles
- Transition (Active Rest) Cycle – a period of one month immediately following the competitive season
- Basic (Foundation) Cycle – a period of five months divided into three stages
- Principal (Specific Preparation) Cycle – a period of two months
- Competitive – generally a period of four months
Jesse advises to take one week totally off immediately following the season and then begin the transition cycle. However, you are not to engage in any wrestling or skills work during the transition cycle. During that cycle one should abstain from any wrestling, but you need to begin training for strength, endurance, and flexibly again. If you take too long of a break the physical attributes you’ve gained will begin to dissipate.
I’m sure that most of you have learned about the concept of periodization. Well, as you can see, that’s exactly what John Jesse is writing about.
In this current age, periodization is still used. Periodization is basically just planning your training. Dr. Fred Hatfield (a.k.a. Dr. Squat) is a big advocate of periodization. In an article entitled The Simplicity of Periodicity he writes of the “tremendous value of short-term periodization in your training.”
Moreover, he adds, “As your competition draws nearer and nearer, your training objectives change, and therefore your training methods change commensurably.”
Sports scientist Tudor Bompa has said, “We either have periodization or chaos.”
John Jesse writes something very similar in his book. He states, “Without a long-range training plan the athlete’s training can easily degenerate into chaos.”
Jesse knew what he was talking about.
Do you think champion wrestlers only work out during wrestling season? Do you think they train in some haphazard fashion? No! They train year-round with a well developed plan in mind just like John Jesse advocated and strength and conditioning experts still advocate.
Individuality and Specificity
Regarding individuality Jesses writes, “Training is an individual problem. All individuals react differently to the same training load.
Further, he states, that “No athlete should base his training plan on that used by some champion or outstanding athlete particularly as to the intensity of training loads.”
For instance, a high school wrestler may not be able to tolerate the training load that a college wrestler handles during a training year. You may not be able to train with the same load or intensity that Dan Gable or John Smith used while training.
According to Dr Fred Hatfield, there are seven laws of training that most sports scientists subscribe to. One of those laws is the law of individual differences. According to Hatfield, “We all have different abilities and weaknesses, and we all respond differently (to a degree) to any given system of training. These differences should be taken into consideration when designing your training program.”
Jesse knew the importance of individuality just as coaches do now and you should too.
Regarding specificity Jesse writes, “This principle maintains that training and its effects is specific to the muscle cells, organs and movements of the body in the development of either strength, endurance, flexibility or skill.”
Further, he states, “The specificity principle is of particular importance to the wrestler who requires various types of strength and endurance in order to excel in competition.”
Another of the seven laws of training is the specificity principle. According to Hatfield, “You’ll get stronger at squats by doing squats as opposed to leg presses, and you’ll get greater endurance for the marathon by running long distances than you will by (say) cycling long distances.”
A closely related law is the SAID principle: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.
You are a wrestler. Therefore, you must wrestle to improve at wrestling. You must also train for the demands of wrestling. You are not a marathoner so do not train like one. Wrestling is an anaerobic sport requiring strength, power, endurance, and many other abilities. So, train accordingly.
John Jesse knew the importance of specificity. Now you do too.
Supremacy of Strength
Jesse states, “The importance of strength in wrestling competition as the primary source of human power is frequently underestimated by coaches and wrestler alike. Strength underlies all other factors when one considers the total functioning of the body. Without sufficient strength other factors such as endurance, flexibility, agility, and skill cannot be used effectively.”
Similarly, performance coach Kelly Baggett states, "Maximum strength is the backbone upon which all other strength qualities lie. You’ll hear me talk a lot about being fast and the importance of speed, power, reactive ability etc. All of these qualities of strength are very important, but truthfully, unless you have enough raw horsepower in your engine you won’t be going anywhere or doing anything in a hurry!"
You may be interested in plyometrics, circuit training, and other modes of conditioning. However, one of your first priorities should be building a good strength base.
In Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, all-round strength or total body strength is discussed. A wrestler wants his total body to work in a harmonious manner as a well-coordinated whole unit.
Some exercises recommended for the development of all-round strength include the one arm get-up, two arm get-up, dumbbell clean and jerk, barbell clean and jerk, barbell push press, barbell jerk press, deadlift, one hand swing, two hand swing, high pull to chest, and dead hang clean.
It’s interesting to note that the one arm and two arm get-ups and the one hand and two hand swings are illustrated using dumbbells. These exercises are popular choices now for athletes using kettlebells. The get-up is usually called the Turkish get-up. The Turkish get-up is hailed as a fantastic all-round strength and conditioning exercise. In addition, the Turkish get-up is endorsed because it requires all the muscles
of the body to work together in order to accomplish the labor.
Kettlebell swings are considered the foundation kettlebell exercise and are said to burn fat, build strength, and enhance cardiovascular fitness.
His book doesn’t mention kettlebells, but John Jesse knew the importance of all-round strength.
John writes, “The type of endurance that is in general overlooked in the conditioning of wrestlers is strength endurance. It is perhaps the most important basic physical quality a wrestler should develop.”
He suggests that one way of building strength endurance is to pick two exercises and do 4 sets of each. You do one set with 30, 50, 70, and 80 percent of your 1RM respectively. You would do this during the Principal (Specific Preparation) Cycle.
Some current strength and conditioning coaches may argue that Jesse’s routine is more suited to building muscular endurance than strength endurance.
The point is that John Jesse knew that after acquiring strength a wrestler needed to convert that strength into strength that he could use repeatedly over the duration of a match.
Trainer and coach Ross Enamait states, "Strength endurance is defined as the ability to effectively maintain muscular functioning under work conditions of long duration. Strength endurance is a vital strength quality for any combat athlete. Power and speed are useless without the stamina necessary to apply these physical attributes throughout the contest."
Similarly, strength and conditioning specialist Matt Wiggins writes about strength often being the most beneficial when you can take advantage of that strength over an extended period of time. He prefers to build strength endurance by using heavy weights and shortened rest periods.
Others prefer to do circuits using dumbbells or kettlebells combined with bodyweight exercises.
The bottom line is that you want to be as strong as possible for as long as possible. Jesse really emphasized strength endurance in the strength and conditioning training plan of a wrestler.
John believed that athletes placed too much emphasis on developing the muscles of the arms, shoulders and legs, while overlooking the importance of strength in the muscles of the lower back, sides, and abdomen.
He states, “No athlete engaged in activities that involve rotational and lateral movements against resistance such as wrestling, can truly project the concept of total body strength in movement if he is relatively weak in the muscles surrounding the lower trunk.”
When writing of John Jesse, conditioning coach Vernon Gambetta states, "He was preaching tri-plane work in the late 1940’s. Big emphasis on rotary work, a surprise to the gurus of today who think they invented rotary work." He also adds, "His ideas are very contemporary; he was a man ahead of his time."
Interestingly, certified strength and conditioning specialist Bret Contreres states that many sport movements include either large or subtle rotational elements. For example, imagine a wrestler attempting to take down an opponent. Does a double leg or single leg take down only involve strength in the vertical plane? I don’t believe so. You don’t lift your opponent straight up. One is usually lifting, moving laterally, and rotating.
Throws certainly occur in the transverse plane. What’s the transverse plane? Or, for that matter, what are the sagittal and frontal planes?
According to functional training expert Fraser Quelch, "As the body moves through space, it uses any combination of three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal and transverse." He adds, "Most traditional strengthening programs heavily favor sagittal-plane movement in a training environment that promotes one-dimensional motor patterns. These factors can undermine the body’s ability to move effectively in any given direction, and, in many cases, may lead to joint dysfunction."
Strength and conditioning coach Chad Waterbury states, "Rotational strength is probably the most important strength movement quality for MMA fighters. Sure, deadlifts, cleans, squats, chins, etc. are great strength building exercises, but they only establish a base of strength: that strength base must be further enhanced with rotational movements."
So, you see, John Jesse knew the importance of rotational strength for combative athletes. He mentions various rotational exercises in his book involving barbells, swingbells, and sandbags. You may have no idea what a swingbell is. That’s fine. There are many things an athlete can do with medicine balls or simply his bodyweight to exercise in the frontal and transverse planes.
Jesse states, “No other athletic activity requires the combined strength and endurance of the grip as that required in the sport of wrestling.”
Similarly, Zach Even-Esh states, "Having strong hands and a powerful grip is misunderstood and undervalued by most wrestlers. Remember, everything passes through your hands in wrestling. The stronger your hands, the stronger your holds will be. The stronger your hands, the less likely your grip is to be a limiting factor in holding an opponent or finishing a move."
Joe Makovec, strength and conditioning coach for the nationally ranked Hofstra wrestling team, discussed some grip exercises with STACK Magazine (2007). He states, "We do a lot of wrist rollers and fat bar exercises, like rows and curls. We do a farmer’s carry, too, with a fat bar and with regular dumbbells. We also do a lot of pulling motions where you have to grip a rope."
Strength coach Charles Poliquin advocates thick bar training for grip. In an article about thick bar training he tells an anecdote about a Russian wrestler who displayed his grip strength at a press conference during the 1970s by producing two pairs of pliers and proceeding to squeeze them so hard that they snapped. After this Russian wrestler defeated an American wrestler, the defeated US wrestler commented that when the Russian grabbed his arms, he felt as if they were locked in a vise grip.
Can you maintain wrist and hand control on your opponents throughout a match? It is essential to have a strong grip. Good grip strength will greatly add to your ability to control or take down an opponent.
Hamstrings and Hips
Every wrestler has heard how important the hips are in wrestling whether it be properly using your own hip strength and power or the need to control your opponent’s hips.
Jesse discusses the fact that most of the holds used by a wrestler employ the hamstring, leg adductor, and hip flexor muscles to a much greater extent than leg extensor muscles. He believed that the strength of the hamstring muscles also played an important role in the prevention of injury to the knee.
According to STACK Magazine (2005), Gary Calcagno, head strength and conditioning coach for Oklahoma State University, says that lower body strength training is as simple as doing squats, glute ham raises, and lunges.
According to Coach Dave Tate, "We have known for years that the Glute Ham Raise (GHR) was regarded as one the best movements for the posterior chain (lower back, glutes, hamstrings and calves)."
And, Testosterone Magazine says of glute ham raises, "In addition to building up those hammies, it can also make an athlete virtually invulnerable to hamstring injuries as the movement lengthens the sarcomeres to an unparalleled degree."
You may not have access to a glute ham machine. Doesn’t matter. You can do them without a machine. I’m simply pointing out that current strength coaches realize the importance of strong hamstrings.
According to Coach John Gaglione, "The strength of a wrestler’s posterior chain is extremely important for optimal performance on the mat. Most athletes only focus on the muscles they can see in the mirror; often times neglecting the muscles they can’t see such as the glutes, hamstrings, and low back. This is a HUGE mistake, especially when these muscles play a paramount role in many movements you see in competition."
According to Patrick Dale, "Hip strength is vital in grappling sports such as wrestling and jiujitsu. Throwing your opponent to the ground and escaping from a pin attempt require power in your hip muscles. There are a variety of muscles that cross your hip joints, including the gluteus maximus or butt muscles, hamstrings, quadriceps and hip flexors."
Hip flexion brings the legs forward. Hip flexors are the muscles that bring the torso and leg closer together Think of how you lower your level before shooting a takedown.
Strength and conditioning coach Kevin O’Neill states, "Through my experience working with athletes in a variety of sports I have come to the belief that athletes and coaches do not train the hip flexors for strength gains nearly enough as they should."
He says the stronger the hip flexors, (along with the hamstrings and glutes), the faster the athlete is going to be.
It’s possible (even common) to have hip flexors that are too tight. It’s possible to overdevelop the strength in your hip flexors as well which is undesirable.
Hip extension is extremely important too. Don’t neglect the importance of hip flexion or extension.
Interestingly, Kelly Baggett claims that one of the main differences between average athletes and good athletes can be attributed to the strength, development, and function of the glute musculature. I had no idea the glutes were so important.
The anatomy and physiology stuff can be confusing. I think the main point I’m trying to make is that John Jesse knew the importance that the hamstrings and hips play in wrestling and so do current strength coaches. He knew the effect proper training of those muscles could have on performance and so do current strength coaches.
Jesse discusses the fact that during a match a wrestler will engage in many bouts of oxygen debt activity. Therefore, a wrestler requires a high degree of anaerobic metabolism efficiency and resistance to oxygen debt discomfort.
The author discusses the fact that a wrestler needs the capacity to continue at a high level of work in the interval between the "oxygen debt" periods of maximum exertion and still efficiently clear the waste products of the oxygen debt periods that produce fatigue in the muscles.
Have you ever seen your strength or speed drop in the third period because your muscles were burning with fatigue? It’s difficult to shoot a powerful takedown in the third period if you’re feeling fatigued.
The author discusses how a great capillary structure aids a runner in his efforts to clear waste products from his lower body. However, running cannot help a wrestler to develop endurance in the other muscles of his body such as the muscles of the back, chest, arms, and shoulders. A different form of training is required for that.
Jesse states, “Strength endurance training programs develop the wrestler’s ability to tolerate “oxygen debt” (anaerobic endurance) and vastly improve the all-important psychological quality that is called the “will-to-win.”
It’s interesting to note that strength and conditioning coach Alwyn Cosgrove has a similar view. He states, "Some conditioning coaches use sprint training as their sole method of energy system development (ESD). This is at best a short-sighted approach. It is not uncommon to see well-conditioned fighters who have used sprint based ESD fatigue rapidly in hard matches. This is because although their cardio system is well-conditioned, the effect of lactic acid on their localized muscle groups is devastating. If we do not condition the muscle groups themselves to handle high levels of lactate, the cardio system will feel fine, but that area will lock up and shut down."
Cosgrove recommends using barbell complexes. Barbell complexes involve doing a series of exercises one after the other without putting the bar down. Complexes may help condition your body to handle the high levels of lactate that will be produced during a wrestling match.
In their article The Physiological Basis of Wrestling: Implications for Conditioning Programs, Kraemer et al. (2004) state, "As a combative sport, wrestling imposes unique stresses on the body. 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."
In other words, a wrestling match can produce a lot of lactate. This disruption can cause fatigue. So, how can a wrestler train to tolerate this disruption? The authors recommend a circuit training format with brief rest periods. Circuit training is similar to complex training. Interestingly, the authors (much like John Jesse and Alwyn Cosgrove) note, "It is also vital that the upper body is trained in this manner to increase the capability of upper-body musculature to directly adapt to the dramatic acid-base shifts that occur with wrestling."
You may want to research anaerobic threshold training, lactate threshold training, complexes, and circuit training.
You may be aware that interval training, especially high intensity interval training (HIIT) is all the rage right now. The Tabata protocol is especially popular. Interval training involves alternating between bouts of high-intensity work and recovery periods of lower intensity work.
For instance, instead of running at a slow steady pace for 24 minutes a person may run hard for 2 minutes and jog for 4 minutes (6 minutes total) and repeat this protocol 4 times (a total of 24 minutes). Both workouts are 24 minutes in length, but the second workout may elicit a different training response. Or, a person may perform several 30 second sprints with each sprint followed by a recovery period and then run perhaps 10 sprints total.
The high intensity nature of the training is supposed to burn more fat, enhance one’s lactate threshold, and promote greater cardiovascular benefit than traditional slow, steady-state cardiovascular work. An athlete’s work to rest ratio could be 1:3, 1:2, 1:1, 2:1, and other combinations.
Did John Jesse know about interval work? Yes! Regarding interval work training Jesse writes, “This is physical work or activity of a given intensity, interspersed with pauses.” Further, he adds, “The steady work uptake and the repeated slowing down or stoppages of work (jogging, walking, lying down, etc.) stimulates the organism to much higher physiological adaptations, thereby forcing the organism to its optimal development, endurance wise.”
Of course, even in 1974 when Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia was published interval training was nothing new. Interval training was first developed by German physiologists Reindell and Gerschler in the 1930s. Roger Bannister, the first man to run the mile in under 4 minutes, used interval training.
The point is that John Jesse knew the benefits that this type of training could offer to athletes including wrestlers. He knew that it had many advantages over continuous steady-state types of training.
John discusses the fact that sandbags are awkward to handle. That is one of the main reasons that strength and conditioning coaches advocate sandbag training.
According to strength coach Brian Jones, "During a sandbag rep or set the load may shift substantially from one side to the other, sag in the middle, or otherwise try to escape your grasp. Such shifting forces your core and stabilizers to work overtime in an attempt to get the weight back under control. You will be forced to work considerably harder to control a given load."
John Jesse also believed that sandbag training mimicked the lifting and pulling movements encountered in wrestling. Also, he believed that sandbag training was good for developing rotational strength and power.
Certified strength and conditioning specialist Mark Roozen states, "Using sandbags in a training program can help develop power, quickness, agility, and conditioning components. This can all be accomplished with a piece of equipment that can simulate contact, throws, and be utilized in ways that solid resistance equipment could not be used."
Sandbags are becoming a very popular training tool. You can find many articles online about sandbag training.
Calisthenics and Running Combined
Jesse writes, “Athletic coaches in all sports use combined programs of running, calisthenics, rope skipping, stadium steps running, etc., for the development of strength, muscular and circulo-respiratory endurance and agility.”
Strength and conditioning coach Mike Mahler likes the benefits that can be derived from "roadwork." He states, "Here is how it works, go out for a jog and every 50 yards or so, drop down and do some bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and sit-ups. Crank out 25 reps and then get up immediately and start jogging again. After another 50 yards or so, drop down again and crank out some more bodyweight drills. This is an efficient way to build up cardio and muscular endurance that will carry over to the ring."
For anaerobic endurance training Mike Fry suggests visiting your local football field. He writes, "Starting at the goal line, sprint to the 10 yd line and walk back to the goal line and do 10 push-ups, continue by increasing your sprint by 10 yds each time and walking back to the goal line. Do pushups after each return to the goal line." Make sure to do a warm up before and a cool down afterwards.
Legendary wrestler and former Iowa Hawkeye coach Dan Gable used to enjoy utilizing the stadium steps of Carver-Hawkeye Arena to condition his wrestlers. Walking up those steps with a buddy on your back could be especially grueling.
Drilling and Technique
Jesse emphasizes the importance of “improving skill (technique, use of leverage, etc.) to eliminate unnecessary movements that waste energy and use up oxygen.”
Personal fitness trainer Brian Copeland writes very similar words. He states, "It is always best to include skill practice before resistance or endurance training. The goal of skill training is not to just practice… it is to get better! It amazes me how often this simple principle is overlooked. It is my experience that people don’t really understand how to practice to make improvements, at least not beyond a basic level of skill. Skill practice is analyzing every single aspect of every movement you make and finding more efficiency, better leverage, etc."
If one desires to use sparring as a method of developing endurance for mixed martial arts, strength coach Charles Poliquin suggests, "The best way would be to pair up with 5 other fighters that each take turns to fight you. Since they are fresh, they will give you a run for your money. Depending on the system you want to develop you would manipulate the work /rest interval. For example 6-10 minutes work on fighter 1, 2 minutes off, 6-10 minutes work on fighter 2, 2 minutes off, etc. The permutations of that type of work are staggering. Twice a week should be plenty. What is good about it is that you will be forced to make decisions in conditions of fatigue, which is a determinant in MMA fighting."
Interestingly, in Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia, the author writes of a wrestling drill for building endurance that is a bit similar to the MMA routine above. He writes, "Wrestler remains on mat and wrestles for 9 minutes against a fresh opponent each minute, with 10-second rest intervals."
Cycling Work and Rest
Even though year-round training is encouraged, one is not expected to train with the same volume and intensity year-round. Jesse recognizes the need for varying volume and intensity in the training plan. Some days will be low intensity, some medium, and others high. Some days may involve total rest.
According to Dr. Owen Anderson, "Any periodization scheme must begin with one basic element – rest. This is intuitively and logically obvious: the human body simply needs ‘down’ (restoration) periods to recover from extended periods of stress; you must convalesce from the training you carried out in your just-completed mesocycle or macrocycle."
Proper Weight Reduction
John Jesse warns the reader about the dangers and foolishness of crash starvation diets and dehydration. He recognized that crash starvation diets can have devastating effects on a wrestler’s performance. He suggests that it’s better not to diet unless you actually have weight to lose. Many wrestlers are already lean to begin with and then starve and dehydrate themselves to make weight.
Professor William Kraemer points out that a wrestler will not be functioning optimally physiologically if he engages in dehydration practices for the purpose of weight reduction.
He also notes, "Adopting different weight-loss strategies that stabilize muscle mass and body mass to prepare for a match appears to be the best way to eliminate physiological breakdown and allow the wrestler to perform at a higher level of physiological readiness."
Improper weight loss techniques can be detrimental to a wrestler’s conditioning and to his performance in competition.
Craig Horswill, PhD suggests some possible options regarding weight loss in wrestlers. Describing one of these options, he writes, "Lift weights and grow into the weight class. Be stronger at the end of the season. How many wrestlers start strong but fade in the tournaments because they are burned out after weight cutting has taken its toll? If a wrestler can grow into the weight class to the point that he needs to begin cutting weight only by the end of the season, he spares himself three months of nutritional deprivation and improves his chances of not becoming over trained. He is fresh when it really counts."
Interestingly, John Jesse mentioned that some wrestling coaches had achieved success by letting wrestlers stay at their natural weight or perhaps even gain weight during the season.
Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia also covers topics such as flexibility, injury prevention, circuit training, gymnastic apparatus exercises, isometrics, proper nutrition, and more.
In his article Seven Keys to Athletic Success, strength and conditioning coach Alwyn Cosgrove discusses concepts of physical training such as the importance of strength, explosive power, endurance, flexibility, injury prevention, and core training.
John Jesse addressed all of those concepts in his book in 1974. You may want to borrow a copy of this book or buy it online. I think you’d learn a lot and enjoy reading it. If you don’t read the book it’s no big deal. The important thing is that John Jesse knew that proper training for wrestling based on science as well as years of experience had the potential to dramatically improve a wrestler’s performance.
The main reason I wrote this article is because I believe that John Jesse and his book deserve to be recognized and remembered.
But, as I said, you don’t need to read his book. So much incredible information regarding the training for wrestling and other combative sports can be found in books, magazines and journals, and online. Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge that is out there. Take advantage of science and let it help you become the best wrestler that you can be.