Sumo Wrestling’s Healthy Secrets

TOKYO, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 17: Wrestlers face off during the Tokyo Grand Sumo tournament at the Ryogoku Kokugikan on September 17, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. Japanese Sumo is an anciant sport dating back some 1500 years. The first sumo matches were part of a prayer ritual dedicated to the gods for a good harvest season. Original sumo matches combined crude boxing and wrestling techniques before rules were formed to shape it into its current form. Today there are six Grand Tournaments per year held across Japan, each tournament lasting 15 days. The Rikishi (wrestler) strive to move through the ranks to be eligible to win the grand prize, the Emperors Cup. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

FOR MANY OF US, sumo wrestling is a shoving match between two enormous men in diapers and top buns. They’re considered “athletes,” sure, but their only job is to be fat and to slam into each other. Yes, they’re burlier than an NFL linebacker. But top sumo wrestlers also have the speed off the block of a sprinter, the flexibility of a yogi, and the mental stamina of a Trappist monk. Professional sumo doesn’t have weight classes, meaning a 600-pound wrestler can face off against someone 200 pounds. Still, it’s not enough to be the heaviest guy in the ring.

“Most people don’t understand that sumo wrestlers are very athletic,” says two-time champion Byambajav Ulambayar, who goes by Byamba. He’s originally from Mongolia and is one of the most recognized wrestlers world- wide. “Pro sumo wrestlers are quick, flexible, strong, and quite tough,” he says.

A traditional sport of Japan is finally getting its due this side of the Pacific. USA Sumo, the sport’s biggest booster in the States, has seen an uptick in amateur participation, including among women. Recently, sumo was recognized by the International Olympic Committee—a crucial step in getting it included in future Games. There’s been a concerted effort to spur interest in the cloistered sport. Sumo’s governing body in Japan has occasionally sent its pro wrestlers on international tours, and sumo tournaments in Japan have more English translations than ever before.

Don’t mistake this for modernization. Part of sumo’s appeal is how little it has changed in 2,000 years. That starts with an athlete’s total devotion. Pros live in a heya, or stable, which houses anywhere from a few wrestlers to dozens. There are around 40 heya, mostly located in the Ryogoku neighborhood of Tokyo. They eat, sleep, and train under the supervision of a toshiyori, or stable master. Workouts span four to seven hours a day, six days a week, in preparation for matches that typically last less than 20 seconds.

The rules of sumo are simple. If any part of your body touches the ground except the soles of your feet, or you step or fall outside the straw perimeter of the dohyo (ring), you lose. The only off-limits moves are closed-fist punching, eye poking, and crotch grabbing. Everything else is fair game. Expect to see a lot of pushing, throws, slapping, force-outs, leg sweeps, and the occasional body slam.

To train for this, wrestlers start at dawn on an empty stomach, with an hour of side stomps, or shiko. Wrestlers squat, lift one leg to the side as high as they can, and stomp down—150 to 300 times. They train full splits as well as proper tumbling technique. “You have to be able to twist and move in a small space,” says Andrew Freund, director of USA Sumo. In major tournaments, the clay ring sits atop a platform, so getting shoved off ends with a two-foot drop to the floor. “If you’re stiff like a bodybuilder, you’ll get injured,” Freund says.

After that come calisthenics and speed work to build explosive power, and technique drills. The heart of the workouts is sparring. It’s quiet—no music, no chatter among the wrestlers, just grunting and the slapping sound of flesh on flesh. Finally comes butsu-kari. It’s similar to training with a blocking sled in football. One wrestler stands tall while another slams into him, pushing to the edge of the ring. This is done to exhaustion.

All that burns a lot of calories, which get replaced by a traditional meal of sumo stew called chanko-nabe (see recipe, right). It’s made in gigantic quantities by junior members of the heya. Every component is athletic fuel. The broth—which can be made from fish, pork, beef, or chicken—contains electrolytes, which help with hydration and cell function. There’s clean protein from things like chicken balls, prawns, and soft-boiled eggs, for building muscle. Noodles contain energy-replacing carbohydrates, and vegetables and spices offer vitamins, minerals, and anti-inflammatory compounds. Wrestlers have their own recipe. The pro athletes eat several big bowls of chanko, along with a ton of rice and beer. A long nap follows, then additional training and team meetings. Cap the day with more chanko and rice, then it’s time for bed.

No need to don a mawashi (belt) to adopt some sumo habits. If you’re in Japan, attend a tournament or head to a heya that allows visitors to observe morning practice. Closer to home, try grappling at a local martial arts school, or just eat a few bowls of sumo stew.

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