Why Football Players Should Wrestle: Part II

Why Football Players Should Wrestle: Part II

By Matthew Wernikoff and Dan Wernikoff

In Part I of “Why Football Players Should Wrestle’ I discussed physical, mental, and physiological attributes that benefit football players who participate in the sport of wrestling. In this section I will discuss some of these skills in greater detail.  The conditioning and strength requirements for wrestling greatly benefit football players in a variety of ways.  Wrestling’s emphasis on the development of anaerobic conditioning, core strength and explosiveness can only improve performance on the football field.

Energy System and how they relate to football and wrestling

There are three “energy systems” used by the human body: ATP/Anaerobic-alactic, Anaerobic-lactic and Aerobic.  First, the Aerobic System is an energy system which requires oxygen to be supplied to the muscles.  This system is used for exercise that lasts over one minute and is the hardest to exhaust.

Second, the Anaerobic-alactic system provides energy to the body during high-intensity short-burst activities lasting less than ten seconds.  This is sometimes referred to as the “start-up” energy that is stored in your muscles in the form of ATP.  Under most conditions, these energy stores are returned to normal levels after two to three minutes of rest.

Third, the Anaerobic-lactic system produces energy “without” oxygen and is used during periods of intense exercise or physical exertion.  This system produces lactic acid, which leads to muscle fatigue and decreased performance by athletes.  In an untrained athlete it can take more than one hour for lactic acid levels to return to normal.  Since the body uses Anaerobic-lactic energy system for activities lasting from ten seconds to two minutes it is beneficial for athletes who participate in a short burst sports to train this system.

According to a Wall Street Journal study and article written by David Biderman, the average amount of play time (time the ball is actually in play) in an NFL game was approximately eleven minutes and thirty seconds. [i]  Biderman sites a 1912 report by a University of Indiana professor in which the average amount of play time is recorded at thirteen minutes and sixteen seconds in a college game.  A Professional Football Researchers Association member recorded the average play time in an NFL game to be thirteen minutes and thirty seconds.  I unofficially recorded the playing time during five televised high school football games and found an average of ten minutes and forty-eight seconds in the shortened game lengths when compared to NFL games.  At an average of one hundred and twenty plays per game (offense and defense for both teams) I calculated that the average playing time is somewhere between 5.4 seconds and 6.75 seconds.  With rest between plays averaging a little more than thirty seconds, and plays averaging less than 10 seconds, it is clear that we can count aerobic conditioning out as the primary energy source.

A regulation wrestling match consists of three periods, each of which is two minutes.  In tournaments, matches are often shortened to a 1min-2min-2min format or even 1 ½, 1 ½, 1 ½,.  While it is nearly impossible to quantify the time it takes for a series of wrestling moves due to difference in weight classes, experience, and techniques, it is commonly accepted that the average “play” in wrestling takes place over ten to twenty seconds.  While “scrambles” can occur in lengths exceeding this, wrestling mostly occurs in small bursts of intense action with twenty to thirty seconds of less intense efforts.  Clearly, wrestling is an Anaerobic-alactic and Anaerobic-lactic sport.

If you managed not to fall asleep reading the technical information above, you may have arrived at a very obvious question: “So isn’t football a primarily Anaerobic-alactic energy system sport and wrestling primarily an Anaerobic-lactic sport?”  This is an argument that has certainly been made, and one I recently considered as I read an article written by a top trainer in the area.  The trainer states that during his own informal study of NFL football games the average time between plays was around thirty seconds.  In this trainers article he discusses how football is an anaerobic-alactic sport and that he primarily trains his football players this way.  Yet, according to NSCA-CSCS Chris Johnson, who holds also holds a Bachelors degree in Sports Science, a Specialist in Exercise Therapy certification from the International Sports Science Association and is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator for LaSalle College, thirty seconds cannot possibly be enough time to replenish ATP stores in our muscles to appropriate levels for competition.  Below is Chris’s chart on recovery time and ATP levels:

Average Amount of Time it Takes for   ATP Recovery[ii]

50 % 20-30 seconds
75% 40 seconds
85%-90% 60 seconds
100% 3 minutes


When the body has used its ATP stores it switches from the anaerobic-alactic energy system to the Anaerobic-lactic system.  If the average football games consists of ten seconds plays with less than sixty seconds of rest between plays, it makes sense to primarily train the anaerobic-lactic system not the anaerobic-alactic. However, much like the Aerobic energy system is trained by wrestlers and football players to help them prepare for two and three hour practices, the anaerobic-alactic system must also be trained.  It is an important part of training for the beginning of games and those situations where a player does receive sixty seconds or more of rest. In other words, football is primarily Anaerobic-alactic and Anaerobic-lactic just as wrestling is.

Wrestlers are known for their superior level of conditioning as they often train their aerobic system to help with weight management which is necessary for long 2 and 3 hours practices with limited rest time.  In addition, they train their Anaerobic-lactic system for intense drilling and matches.  Wrestling requires its athletes to push their whole bodies in order to execute moves on practice partners and opponents.  It is this dual approach to conditioning that benefits athletes whose primary sport is football;  they are better prepared for long practices and two a-days as well as the the short intense bursts in games.

Fitness and Strength Considerations

Football coaches often argue that their athletes benefit from participating exclusively in football-oriented strength training and agility sessions in the winter months rather than participating in a winter sport such as wrestling.  In a recent study published in the NSCA’s Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research it was shown that there was no significant difference in strength or agility levels between athletes who only participated in strength and agility training and athletes who participated in a winter sport AND  strength training.  In this study athletes participated in their choice of basketball or wrestling.

“…It appears that winter sports participation does not adversely affect body composition, strength, power, or agility of football players. In 6 of 7 measures of body composition, strength, power, and agility, winter sports athletes scored as well as those football players who participated solely in a strength program. Squats were the only exception: the [strength and agility only] group did show greater improvement than the [winter sport and strength/agility training] group.


There appeared to be little advantage to devoting time solely to a strength program…”[iii]


This article looked at agility, bench press, squats, overall power, body fat and body composition between the two groups.  The only test in which there was a statistically significant difference was squats.  Clearly, knowing this data, a coach who properly supervises their wrestler’s strength training program can make sure squat numbers increase more over the course of the season.


Conclusion (including part I)

Wrestling benefits football players in a variety of ways including conditioning, mental toughness, proprioception, agility and balance.  Wrestling unique energy demands, intense training methods and emphasis on athleticism and physical fitness are the perfect compliments to any football players training regimen.

[i] “Wall Street Journal”; 11 Minutes of Action; David Biderman; January 2010

[ii] http://www.improvewithchris.com/apps/blog; Chris Johnson; October 12th, 2011

[iii] “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, NSCA; The Effect of Winter Sports Participation on

High School Football Players: Strength, Power, Agility, and Body Composition; RANDALL R. WROBLE AND DONALD P. MOXLEY; 2001, 15(1), 132–135

About Matthew Wernikoff

Sports Performance Coach | Wrestling Coach | Personal Trainer
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