Gaining Muscle and Getting The “Hard Look” The Wrestling Way


“Gaining Muscle & Getting Big…The College Wrestling Way?”

When I was a teenager, I religiously read bodybuilding magazines. (Tell me if you’ve ever done this.) I bought Flex magazine every single month for…jeez…years.  All through high school.  Even into college. In fact, when my buddies wanted a new workout to try, they’d always come over to my dorm room because “Wiggy has all the muscle magazines”.

 I’d read each one from cover to cover – trying to absorb every last word on every page.  Learn as much as I could, and get as much information “from the pros” as possible.

(This was, of course, long before I learned that most of the articles were ghost-written, but that’s a whole other story. I’d especially get excited when one of my favorite bodybuilders had a training article featured – or better yet, a cover story.  Because then, it was just like getting a “sneak peak” into my favorite pro’s workout log. Hell, at one point, I think I’d collected articles/training routines on virtually every bodypart by Mike Matarazzo (one of my big favorites back in the day). I’ll admit that I would get confused sometimes, though.

Gaining muscle the wrestling way

I mean, I remember having two different Matarazzo articles about training shoulders, but they were different.  And not just a couple alternate exercises different.  We’re talking night-and-day different.

I knew guys would do different routines at different times, but c’mon now…why so MUCH variation? (There’s that whole ghost-written thing again.) Not only that, why was there always so much variation between the different pros? I wasn’t naive enough to think they weren’t on all kinds of PED (performance enhancing drugs), but it was crazy just how different some guys trained.

Lee Priest did a crazy number of sets.  Lee Haney used to follow a really scientific (and I thought complicated) periodization that rotated different types of workouts on different days.  Dorian Yates did his version of one-set-to-failure HIT training.  Vince Taylor did this crazy thing where he’d do a set, rest just as long as the set took, then do another set, then take a “normal” rest – calling each one a “half set”.

And that’s just what I remembered off the top of my head. Not only all that, but different types of training result in different types of physiques?

Gaining muscle the wrestling way

Was that why Priest could get so big?  Did Thierry Pastel *really* get those amazing abs from doing thousands of reps of ab work every workout?  And why did some guys always have that rock hard look while other guys always looked a little…soft?  (Even if they were on stage and in competition shape?)

Wiggy the wrestling coach?

 I spent all four years in college working in my school’s athletic department.  I did everything from check IDs at the weight room to be in charge of mowing and cutting the grass on the fields to setting up for baskeball games.

By the time I was a senior, I would basically run our wrestling meets. I’d worked in the department for a while, my bosses loved me, and I proved that I knew was I was doing.  So when our wrestling team had a home meet (they usually weren’t that big), I’d run the show.  Make sure everything was setup, get the mats laid out, have people working concessions, and all that. This, combined with knowing most of the wrestlers and my history working in the athletic department, and I ended up knowing the wrestling coaching staff pretty well.

Gaining muscle the wrestling way

Our school had gone through some staff turnover, and my senior year saw us having a new head coach. We didn’t really have much of a “strength & conditioning” department at the time (I went to a pretty small school), and while our wrestling coach was quite accomplished at wrestling, he didn’t know a whole lot about getting guys stronger, faster, improving conditioning, and the like. Plus, the team was being plagued by injuries – guys just weren’t strong enough.

So one day, the coach took me to one side.  Said he knew I had good work ethic and knew my way around the weight room.

He also knew I was into grappling on my own (I’d gotten into MMA as a fan the year before and was doing some BJJ on the side). He basically asked me if I’d be interested in being the wrestling team’s S&C coach for the rest of the year.I jumped at the chance.

A whole new world

I quickly started trying to expand my knowledge, and started to devour information from every source outside of the years of bodybuilding magazines I could get my hot little hands on.  (The internet was nowhere near the size it is today, so the information I found there was limited at best.) This was something I was insanely passionate about, and I didn’t want to screw this up.

Gaining Muscle the wrestling way

 I knew how bodybuilders got big – or at least knew of several methods bodybuilders used.  I also had a decent knowledge of some popular powerlifting routines.

But there was one thing that was *crucial* I learn – how to put on that dense, hard muscle. See, wrestling is a sport that is contested in weight classes.  Just like MMA is today. I knew that the guys needed to get stronger – that was evident.  It was obvious that too many guys were just getting physically dominated on the mat.  Many were also way too slow for their size – and I knew that getting faster was a function of strength. Get stronger and you can move more weight around.  Learn how to apply that strength quickly and you get fast. Apply both to your own bodyweight, and you have an athlete that can move on the mat.  There was a serious enemy here, though – putting on too much bodyweight.

See, a guy getting stronger, faster, and more athletic is a good thing.  But if he put on too much weight, it meant that he’d still have a hard time moving his body around on the mat.

Worse yet, if he put on too much weight, he’d have trouble making weight for his matches.  Or might even have to wrestle a class up. Not a good scenario.

 Two types of muscle

I knew from my years following the bodybuilding world (and being a fan of the “Golden Era” lifters) that different types of lifting must develop different types of muscle.

Gaining Muscle the wrestling way

I’d seen WAY too many guys that had the real soft, “puffy” looking muscle.  Whereas other guys had that real hard, “dense” look to them. That dense muscle was what we could use.


After a little bit of research, I soon realized there are two different types of hypertrophy (i.e. – building muscle):

Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy – This is when the sarcoplasm (basically the fluid in the muscle) is increased.  However, there’s usually little to no corresponding growth/increase in the actual muscle fibers themselves.  This means that the muscle actually gets bigger, but it’s mostly to due to more “fluid” in the muscle.  And because the muscle fibers themselves (which are what contract and are responsible for strength) don’t increase, the muscle itself generally won’t get stronger.

This type of muscle was built from very high-volume training – a lot of sets, a lot of reps, and not (always) much weight.  Think of a “pumping” style program.

Myofibrillar Hypertrophy – This is when the cross-sections of the muscle fibers themselves are actually increased.  The fibers get thicker, and are capable of producing more force.  When they can produce more force, the muscle contracts harder and when it contracts harder, it can move more weight.  (Meaning you’re stronger.)  Add to that the increase in muscle size is due to muscle fiber, and you get that “hard” look we’ve been discussing.

This type of muscle was built from causing the muscle fibers to increase – which was done via heavy lifting.  Moderate volume, not a lot of reps per set, and lifting heavy-ass weights.

It was immediately apparent that Myofibrillar Hypertrophy was going to have to be the way to go.

Results, MMA, & why it matters to you

The team didn’t have a whole lot of time to hit the weight room as the season was just about to get into full-swing. In fact, what I was trying to do with them (with my then pretty limited knowledge) was really pretty crazy.  It was the sorta thing that should be done in the off-season – not while actively competing.  Hell, not many guys even made it to the workouts each week. But the guys that did started to show immediate benefits.

Gaining Muscle the wrestling way

We used a real basic program – just a few exercises each workout.  Focus totally on big exercises that used a lot of muscle groups so we could be ultra-efficient.  Move the most weight we could. Looking back, volume for a big exercise was generally 25-30 total reps, spread across 4-6 sets.  (This is something I still stick with today.)

Guys were getting stronger and holding their own on the mat.  Because they had more strength, they also started getting faster and were able to do things like shoot in for takedowns and sprawl to avoid a takedown much more quickly and easily. There were also no more injuries the rest of the year. So in the end, it turned out to be quite the success for everyone.  And it became a huge stepping stone for me as much of the work and programs I’ve done, learned about, experimenting with, and more got their roots in that original style of training.

 This especially goes with the MMA-style workouts I put together for not only fighters, but military, law enforcement, and “regular guys”.  (Check the link at the end of this article to get yourself a sample.)

Now, most of my programs are rooted in something I’ve recently started to term “high-performance muscle”. It’s the sort of physique that not only looks good in the mirror or at the beach, but has the chops to back it up in the gym, on the field, or wherever else you like to play. It looks good and is “functional” (to use a popular term) as all hell. If “high-performance muscle” is the type of build you want, then stay away from the massive “pumping” programs.  Some now and then is cool.  Ending a workout with a pumping exercise or trying to get the ole’ biceps a little bigger that way is Ok.  But don’t root everything you do in it. Keep the volume moderate.  Reps not too high.  The weight heavy.  And lift the weight has hard & fast as you can. Eat right, and watch the dense, hard, athletic-looking muscle get built.

(And if you want to know how to build conditioning, explosive power, and other athletic traits to go along with the physique and muscle, be sure to hit that link I mentioned below.)

Author: Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins

Owner of, Matt “Wiggy” Wiggins is a self-taught, 20+ year veteran of the “Iron Game” that focuses on helping MMA fighters, military/law enforcement, and “regular guys” all over the world get in “fighting shape”. members can Click Here Now to get the workout he created for a Top-10 MMA fighter.