Tune into an episode of WWE Raw or NXT, and you'll find some of the greatest athletes on the planet showcasing their talents.
Many modern superstars have backgrounds as collegiate football players or wrestlers, while others boast experience in gymnastics or MMA. The result is a brand of sports entertainment that's more athletically impressive than it's ever been.
As the abilities of the superstars inside the squared circle have evolved, so has their training. "We're not bodybuilders, we're athletes. We're functional athletes," says Sean Hayes, strength and conditioning coach at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida.
Hayes, who previously worked for the Houston Texans and Penn State football, strives to make the workouts inside the WWE Performance Center team-oriented. While many of the superstars are gunning for the same belts, they push one another to reach their full potential inside the weight room.
"Everything that we do is together. Yes, it's an individual sport. Yes, everyone is going for the belt. But this is a team. (On Day 1, I let them know) that 'Guys, girls, we train as a team.' We're working out together, we're talking, we're pushing each other, we're spotting each other, we're doing sled races," Hayes says.
But the similarities between the workouts of high-level sports teams and WWE/NXT superstars don't end there. Many of the concepts and strategies Hayes employs inside the Performance Center can be useful for any athlete, regardless of sport. With that in mind, here are five training tips you should steal from WWE and NXT superstars.
1. Create a Killer Warm-Up Plan and Stick To It
According to Hayes, half of every training session inside the WWE Performance Center is spent on the warm-up.
"The warm-up process is just as long as the weight training, and I think that's important," Hayes says. "We stick to that plan with our warm-up. I want them feeling better when they walk out that door than they did walking in."
The four steps superstars complete before each workout are, in order:
- Self-myofascial release
- Mobilizing the muscles you can see in the mirror
- Activating the muscles you can't see in the mirror
- Waking up your central nervous system with an aggressive movement
While the exact exercises and movements change from workout to workout, the superstars always follow that basic template. "I don't want them to ever go into a gym and just pick something up and starting lifting it," Hayes says. "The training session is only as good as the warm-up...That warm-up process is what I want them to take away (when they get called up to the main roster)."
One reason the warm-up process is so long is because WWE and NXT superstars have no offseason—they're expected to compete 52 weeks a year. While you may not need to spend half your time in the gym on your warm-up, creating a template that progresses from mobilization to activation to a high-intensity movement is an excellent idea for any athlete.
2. Minimize Machines, Maximize Free Weights
When it comes time for the strength training portion of the workout, you'll find superstars utilizing a lot of multi-joint compound movements with barbells or dumbbells. Machines tend to isolate one muscle group at a time, which might be great for bodybuilders, but it's not so great for athletic performance.
"We're going to start the training session with compound movements. Squat, Deadlift, multi-joint movements. Isolated joint movements aren't a whole lot of bang for your buck," Hayes says. "I don't want to sit on a machine and do a Leg Press, I'm not really engaging a lot of muscles or burning a lot of calories. I want to put a bar on our back or in our hands, we're going to burn a lot of calories and get our metabolic heart rate up, we're going to engage a lot of muscle and get a lot of bang for our buck. We're doing ground-based training. We're getting our core while training with the barbell and free weight exercises inside the workout."
While machines certainly have their place inside an athlete's programming, the majority of a healthy athlete's strength training should be performed with free weights. They activate more muscle, they translate better to the chaotic nature of athletic performance, and they're arguably safer than machines.
3. Learn How to Land
Nearly every sport requires its athletes to jump at one point or another. And according to the laws of physics, every one of those jumps is going to end with a landing. For WWE and NXT superstars, those landings often come from tremendous heights. According to Hayes, the WWE Performance Center's injury prevention protocol includes a huge emphasis on proper landing mechanics.
"The landing is more important than the jump. The mechanics right before you jump should be the same mechanics when you land. When I jump, I should have knees out. Then I land in an athletic position with my knees out. When I land, I should be able to go forward, backwards, side to side, wherever I want," Hayes says. "We're constantly throwing out the cues of 'knees out, stick the landing' when the talent is doing Box Jumps or Broad Jumps. I want it to become second nature."
Knees that collapse inward during landing, which is commonly referred to as "knee valgus" or "valgus collapse," greatly increase the risk of knee pain and ACL injury in athletes. That's why focusing on landing with your knees out is so important. Have a coach watch your landing mechanics or a teammate video one of your landings to see if you suffer from this issue. If you find it extremely difficult to prevent your knees from collapsing inward upon landing, you'll want to work on strengthening your hip abductors with exercises like Lateral Band Walks or Side Planks with Leg Raises.
4. Ditch Crunches in Favor of More Functional Core Training
You may feel a burn in your midsection during a marathon set of Crunches, but they're not doing much for your athletic performance. Not only does the movement translate poorly to athletic performance, but it also repeatedly flexes your lumbar spine. This puts you at risk of suffering a number of debilitating injuries, such as a bulging disc. That's why Hayes swaps out Crunches in favor of more functional core training for his superstars.
"Are we doing a bunch of Crunches? No, we're not," says Hayes. "Everything we do in here needs to relate to that ring. I don't see anybody in that ring doing Crunches. I see people picking people up, pressing people, throwing people, so our core exercises need to reflect that."
That means a lot of moves like Dead Bugs, Farmer's Walks, Pallof Presses and Croc Walks. Hayes is also sure to include some type of core activation during the warm-up that mimics how it will need to function during the subsequent lift. "We're going to turn on that core, it's so important. If I'm asking the athletes to brace on the Squat and have good form, I need to do it during the warm-up. So when they get underneath the bar, it's not the first time they did it that day," Hayes says.
If you're struggling to find core moves you believe to be functional, hone in on anti-movements. The true function of the core is to resist movement, not create it. Anti-extension exercises (Dead Bugs, Ab Rollouts), anti-rotation exercises (Pallof Presses, Renegade Rows), and anti-lateral flexion exercises (Farmer's Walks, Side Planks) are always excellent choices. "If I can get anti-movement patterns into our routine, I'm hitting the core (in a functional way)," says Hayes.
Here's a list of 27 functional core exercises that are great for athletes.
5. Compete, Compete, Compete
The environment inside the WWE Performance Center is constantly energized by competition. That's no mistake. Coming from the Texans and Penn State, Hayes knew that a weight room ripe with competition is one that will get the most out of the people inside it.
"I would put our atmosphere up against anyone else's in the country—I don't care if it's college football, NFL or an Olympics training center. Our energy levels and our teamwork are through the roof," Hayes told WWE.com in 2017.
Superstars consistently gun to post more impressive numbers than the next athlete, creating an environment where it's easy to stay invested. "I've got guys in Group 3 asking who was the best on Squat today. 'Well, Big Dozer (Otis Dozovic) got 600, good luck beating that.' Then it's 'Ok, who was next?', and it's so-and-so got 405 for 5. All I did was make it a team concept, which is all I knew from Penn State and Houston, and they ate it up," Hayes says.
He also occasionally posts optional "challenges" on a wipe board and posts the results of those who chose to take it on for every superstar to see. "You don't have to do it. But a lot of them do it! A couple ones I think are pretty cool is a Farmer's Carry, half your body weight in each hand. How far can you go (before failure)? Or a Push-Up challenge with weight on your back. How many can you do in four minutes?," Hayes says. "You don't do it everyday, because it's 52 weeks a year. We want to consistently train, and then once or twice a week, we throw in a competition. It's the proper sauce, the right ingredients for having fun, getting better and them not burning out and hating me."
Hayes does iterate that these measures can only take the atmosphere so far—ultimately, it's the energy and passion that the superstars bring that makes the WWE Performance Center the electrifying environment it is today. "The athletes, it wouldn't work without them. I see them work everyday, and I just have all the respect in the world for them" Hayes says. "The type of people we recruit here, that are in this building, they make the energy go."
Photo Credit: WWE
- The Core Exercise WWE and NXT Superstars Swear By
- Machines vs. Free Weights: What's Best for Athletes?
- The 'Third World Squat': Can Holding This Position Daily Unlock Elite Athletic Performance?