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Japanese sumo wrestlers undergo vigorous training to become professional rikishi. They work their way up from the lowest wrestling division, called jonokuchi, to top the top rank called makuuchi. Sumo wrestlers undertake extensive training on a regular basis in order to sculpt their bodies and minds to meet the requirements of this demanding art form and then go on to become renowned and respected professionals, but how?
To get a complete overview of how sumo wrestlers train, we need to look not just at the training sessions where they practice shiko, suri-ashi, teppo-oshi, and matawari, but also understand how they live, their eating habits, and the key disciplines they follow in their regular training.
The approach that is taken to train sumo wrestlers is very holistic, where the stable master, also known as the Oyakata, determines the daily routine of the sumo wrestler. The Oyakata decides the practice hours, the techniques, and even the eating habits of the aspiring sumo wrestler. In this article, we will look at all of these factors and see how each of them influence the training of a sumo wrestler.
The Discipline of Keiko
Japan prides itself on the discipline of unwavering focus that it lends to most of its art forms and work ethics. Sumo is no exception. The concept of Keiko in sumo wrestling is built on this very principle of unwavering focus towards one’s goals.
Keiko is the name given to the discipline of practicing an intense and rarely varied routine by sumo wrestlers, both aspiring as well as the established ones. Keiko is practiced in the early morning hours, where wrestlers are made to push their boundaries of physical and mental stamina. There are hardly any off days, and there are absolutely no excuses for not following the routine, no matter how redundant it may seem.
In the sport of sumo, participating in Keiko on a daily basis is the very foundation of the entire enterprise. This practice of mandatory and rigorous repetition of the fundamental movements and exercise routine is akin to that of soldiers drilling on a parade ground, or spiritual seekers sitting in Vipassana.
Early Morning Start
Sumo wrestlers must wake up early in the morning to begin their training. They have to undergo rigorous training in order to do well, and eventually move up in the ranks. The wrestlers who are in the lowest rank have an earlier start to their day when compared to the others who are of a higher rank. Their morning training sessions can begin as early as 5:00 am.
The wrestlers throw salt before they start their training. This is an ancient practice rooted in the Shinto tradition and is believed to purify the aura before the fight begins.
The wrestlers stand with their legs apart and their hands on their thighs and knees. With one foot bent and firmly planted firmly on the ground, they raise the other high in the air. They gradually extend the leg that is planted on the ground and bring in their other foot down. This not only helps in warming up but is also believed to ward off any evil from the wrestling ring.
The Stable – A Communal Living Space for the Wrestlers
Aspiring and professional sumo wrestlers stay in a communal living space called the stable or heya. They follow a strict regime while they stay there. It is a place where they live, train, and sleep under the same roof. This place is run by a stablemaster or oyakata, and also houses all those who are involved in the day to day activities and responsible for the logistics behind the upkeep of the sport. Coaches, as well as referees also live under this one roof.
The purpose of a heya is to help preserve the teaching of the various disciplines and traditions of sumo wrestling. Keiko is held every morning at these stables. Tokyo’s Ryōgoku District has several of these sumo schools. Arashio Beya is one such sumo stables that are located in the heart of the capital. It is also possible to attend a training session there if you are willing to wake up early.
The Sacred Ring – Dohyo
The actual fight takes place on a mat called the dohyo. A dohyo is circular in shape and made of rice straw bales and is mounted on a square platform of clay. The surface is covered with sand. Each bout of sumo wrestling must happen within the bounds of this dohyo. If a wrestler steps outside this boundary during a match, he is considered to have lost the round.
Behind this ring, there are a dozen sumo trainees who await their turn every morning. The thud of bodies colliding and heavy long-drawn breaths are the only sounds that you will hear during the practice sessions and the tournaments. After a few bouts, the wrestlers will exit the dohyo allowing other wrestlers to enter the ring to practice.
Pin-Drop Silence During the Training Sessions
The etiquettes observed during the training are just as much important as the training itself. It is encouraged that there is absolute silence during these training sessions. Any unnecessary talks or noise of any kind is looked down upon. The training happens without any word exchanged between the two contestants.
Only the coach is allowed to address them and give advice during these sessions. It is also very likely that the coach himself is a former professional sumo wrestler.
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The Importance of Building Muscle Density
Sumo wrestlers also place a great deal of importance on muscle density. Their exercise routines are designed in such a way that the density increases over time. They regularly engage in hand-to-hand combats. This helps to not only sharpen their wrestling techniques, but it reinforces muscle density as well.
One such routine in training requires the wrestler to squat and whack themselves with a large wooden pillar. This is a fortification training called teppo-oshi. Apparently, practicing this also helps increase muscle density in the wrestler’s body, and the same technique can further be used during tournaments to hit the opponent so that the opponent loses balance and falls over.
Leg Strengthening Exercises
The training begins every morning with some leg stomping exercises. This exercise is called the shiko. In this method, wrestlers are taught to maximize their balance and core strength, which helps them overcome their opponents. Building flexibility in the legs is as important as having strong legs muscles. With shiko training, this is attainable, and in fact, shiko is one of the first exercises that the wrestlers learn.
Everything in sumo starts with the leg stomps. Sumo wrestlers perform this ceremonial stomping technique of shiko to build their lower body strength. It is one of the fundamental and most important of all movements.
From a squatting position, the wrestler raises one of his legs and slams it back into the ground with a loud thud. Then he repeats the process with his other leg. This gets repeated on and on.
The forceful movements prepare the body to endure the violent collisions with their opponents. Shiko also adds stability to the wrestler’s posture, which is vital during a sumo match.
The number of times the shiko needs to be repeated in a single training session varies. Some stables practice it 300 times, which takes about an hour to complete. It becomes extremely strenuous on repetition, but aspiring wrestlers have to practice this every single day.
Other leg strengthening exercises include squatting for an extended period of time. This strengthens their calf muscles, which are essential for sumo wrestlers as they constantly need to balance their entire body weight on them and control the movement of their bodies with the help of their strong legs. Shiko training also helps in developing this.
The Art of Suri-Ashi
Shiko is almost always followed by the practice of suri-ashi. Suri-ashi is the practice of moving around the dohyo without lifting the soles of your feet from the surface of the ring. Even though it might seem simple, this does require a lot of effort and is often used as a warm-up exercise before the fighting commences.
There are many variations on how to do the suri-ashi. Each individual stable has its own way of doing this warm-up exercise. In the Otake stable speed skating movements are used to perform this exercise.
On finishing this warm-up round, the actual fight starts with the lowest-ranked wrestlers and gradually progressing upward in order of their seniority in ranks. In some large stables, it has been seen that it can take up to two to three hours before the top-ranked wrestlers get a chance to fight.
Teppo training involves repeatedly striking a large wooden pole with an open hand. Some also practice it by striking their opponents or a cement wall. It is commonly seen in practice during a sumo wrestling match as a preferred method to engage an opponent.
The wrestler sits in a shallow squat while simultaneously extending his right arm and right foot forward to strike the object – a wooden beam or an opponent – with the palm of his hand. The wrestler needs to quickly retract the arm and slide the foot back in position and repeat this exercise with his left arm and foot.
The wrestlers spend hours mastering the teppo until it comes naturally to them, and they can execute the attack on their opponent with lightning-fast speed. You can see how teppo training is practiced in this video:
Balance and Flexibility
Wrestlers need to learn how to use the force of gravity to maximize their sense of balance and also to physically overtake their opponents. This match is considered to be over when either one of the contenders is pushed out of the ring or when he touches the dohyo with a part of his body other than the soles of his feet.
Sumo wrestlers train to gain this mix of balance and flexibility by engaging in hand and foot shuffling and all-over muscle stretching exercises.
Matawari: Sumo Traditional Stretching Technique
Sumo wrestlers use a traditional stretching technique to loosen up their body and maintain flexibility. This technique is called watawari. In this, the sumo wrestler sits on the floor with his legs apart and stretched out as far as possible.
Then, keeping his knees locked, the wrestler leans forward until his chest touches the ground and holds this position. It helps in stretching the entire lower body and primes the body for the fight that lies ahead.
Kawaigari: Tender Loving Care (Not Really)
Kawaigari is derived from two other words, which mean tender loving care, though, the practice of kawaigari in sumo wrestling is anything but that. Older wrestlers repeatedly throw a novice down on the ring. This is done to toughen up the new wrestler, and in some cases, it is also used to mete out punishment.
Already exhausted, the wrestlers have to force someone over and till they fall on the ring and continue with this practice until the one who is being forced down ultimately collapses. Yokozuna Harumafuji once compared this practice to the verge of death.
Even after collapsing, the wrestler will be pulled up and made to go again. This is repeated till the legs turn to jelly, and the sounds one hears around them gradually become indistinct. It is by far one of the toughest training routines that sumo wrestlers have to endure.
Butsukari-geiko: Pushing Practice
The final aim in a sumo wrestling match is to push your opponent out of the dohyo or make sure that the opponent’s body, apart from the soles of his feet, touches the ring. Wrestlers must put in the effort to gain the strength of this move. To achieve this, they must learn the technique of butsukari-geiko.
The drill is basically to gain the necessary leverage to successfully push an opponent from one end of the dohyo to the other. During training sessions, the wrestlers take turns pushing one another. The wrestler being pushed plants his feet as the other wrestler pushes him across the dohyo.
This practice is continued till the sand on the dohyo is pushed from the center of the ring to the extremities. Once that happens, the dirt is moved back towards the center of the ring and spread back out evenly.
Moshi-ai-geiko: Winner Keeps Practicing with new Contender
During the moshi-ai-geiko practice, the winner continues to remain in the ring until someone beats him. As soon as one round of fight is over, the other wrestlers at the practice session rush into the ring to engage the winner in a fresh bout. In this way, the winner continues to take on new challengers, even though he might have already exerted himself for the previous win, till he is defeated.
Sumo Wrestlers Gain Weight as Part of Their Training
There are no weight restrictions during the wrestling matches, nor do opponents get selected based on their weight. This means that someone with considerably more weight that their opponent will have an unfair advantage. To mitigate this, weight gain has also become an essential part of the training regimen.
This is mostly achieved by introducing a diet that helps with gaining excess weight, incorporating training routines that encourage weight gain, and taking a nap immediately after the mid-day meals.
Sumo wrestlers eat hearty meals that have a high-protein, high-starch, high-calorie diet component. This helps them with weight and maintain their large physique. The traditional meal that sumo wrestlers partake in is called the chanko.
Chanko generally consists of stews, sashimi, and deep-fried food. They have this meal twice a day. It helps them keep their metabolism low. This is followed by long naps, which helps wrestlers achieve a bigger physical presence.
At 8:00 am, the young wrestlers go to the kitchen to help in the preparation of the chanko. Stews are the most common chanko dishes that are had by the sumo wrestlers, but rice curry and even hamburgers have made it to the list of chanko meals in recent years. Sumo wrestlers eat two meals a day. After the morning meal, many of these wrestlers like to take naps as it helps them to get bigger.
To Sum it Up
The competitive art form of sumo wrestling has its roots in ancient traditions. Even today, the sport includes many ritual elements and training techniques that are reminiscent of those ancient practices. The life of a wrestler is highly regimented, where all aspects of their daily lives are dictated strictly by traditional practices.