Sports entertainment has changed a lot in the last few decades.
The movesets have evolved well beyond your standard strikes and suplexes, as WWE and NXT superstars now display stunning amounts of athleticism inside the ring. You weren’t seeing the meatheads of the 1980s do stuff like this.
As the product has evolved into a more versatile showcase of dynamite athletic ability, so has the training. While stars of the past may have trained like bodybuilders, hammering away with isolation exercises for hours on end with the sole purpose of building monster muscles, modern day superstars train very similarly to professional athletes.
Sean Hayes would know. Prior to becoming the strength and conditioning coach at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, Hayes worked for the Houston Texans and Penn State football. “We’re not bodybuilders, we’re athletes,” Hayes told STACK in a recent interview. “Every exercise we do, it’s gotta be functional…Everything we do in here needs to relate to that ring.”
That means a lot of multi-joint compound exercises that recruit several different muscle groups and mimic the rigors superstars face inside the squared circle. But Hayes doesn’t allow his athletes to even think about moving heavy weight before they undergo an extensive warm-up. In fact, he says half of every session inside the Performance Center is solely dedicated to the warm-up.
A proper warm-up is key in any type of sports performance training, but it may be even more critical for WWE and NXT superstars than it is for other pro athletes. Why? Unlike the MLB, NHL, NFL or NBA, the WWE has no offseason. Superstars are expected to lay it on the line and entertain audiences 52 weeks a year. When competition never stops, small deficiencies can quickly become debilitating if left unaddressed, and a single botched landing or throw can sideline a superstar for months.
“The warm-up process is just as long as the weight training, and I think that’s important. If you’re looking at a workout and half of it is mobility and prep and injury prevention, then I’m doing my job as a strength and conditioning coach by preventing injury and keeping athletes healthy,” Hayes says. “I want them feeling better when they walk out that door than they did walking in.”
With that in mind, here are the four things the athletes who train at the WWE Performance Center complete before each and every workout.
1. Roll It Out (Self-Myofascial Release)
When a superstar steps into the WWE Performance Center, there’s a good chance they’re feeling significantly sore or stiff—not only due to the bumps they’ve taken inside the ring, but also because of the long hours they may have recently spent crammed into a plane or car while traveling to a live event.
That’s why Hayes makes self-myofascial release the first component in the superstar’s four-step warm-up process. Training and competition often creates adhesions and trigger points in the muscle and fascia, which can lead to discomfort and tightness, restricted joint range of motion, and muscular imbalance. This can cause faulty movement mechanics and an increased risk of injury. Self-myofascial release leverages an athlete’s own body weight and a tool such as a foam roller or lacrosse ball to reduce muscular tension, improve blood flow and increase range of motion.
“They come in and start off with self-myofascial release. We’re gonna use foam rollers, lacrosse balls, all these different type of tools for self-myofascial release. They’re gonna us that to roll out their bodies and get their muscles ready to go and open them up for the workout,” Hayes says. “It’s a 5 to 10-minute process.” Common areas athletes focus on during this time are their feet, ankles and glutes.
2. Mobilize the Muscles You Can See
After the self-myofascial release comes mobility work. Mobility work is designed to unlock the optimal range of motion and function for the muscles that surround each joint. If your mobility is limited, your biomechanics during training and competition will suffer, decreasing the effectiveness and explosiveness of whatever it is you may be doing.
Hayes likes for his athletes to focus on mobilizing the joints and muscles they can see in the mirror, such as their shoulders, hips, ankles and knees. He typically sets up three different stations, each featuring a different mobility movement, for the athletes to rotate through prior to each workout. The exact areas they focus on mobilizing depends on the focus of the strength workout. On an upper-body day, for example, they might perform Band Dislocates at one of the stations.
3. Activate the Muscles You Can’t See
After the three stations of mobility work, Hayes directs the assembled athletes through 3-4 stations that focus on activation.
While the mobility work focuses on the joints and muscles you can see in the mirror (meaning areas on the front or “anterior” of your body), the activation work largely focuses on the muscles you cannot see in the mirror (meaning areas on the back of “posterior” of your body). “I want to activate muscles I can’t see in the mirror. I want to active the hamstrings, I want to active the glutes, rear belts, upper back,” Hayes says. These activation stations often include moves like Hip Thrusts, Glute Bridges, Band Walks, Hamstring Curls and band-based rotator cuff exercises.
The activation circuit is also always going to include some type of move designed to activate the core. “There’s always going to be core in the activation circuit. If I’m asking the athletes to brace on the Squat and have good form, I need them 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. The mobility and activation stations typically take about 20 minutes to complete.
4. Get Violent to Wake Up the Central Nervous System
After the relatively deliberate pace of the first three steps in the warm-up, the final step sees the superstars wake up their central nervous system with an explosive, aggressive movement. It’s a move Hayes picked up from legendary strength and conditioning coach Joe DeFranco, who encourages his athletes to execute some high-intensity jumps on days where they’ll be performing Cleans.
“We’re going to do something explosive, something violent, aggressive and athletic to wake their bodies up. Whether that’s a Med Ball Slam, a jump, a sprint, a Power Clean—something fast, aggressive and athletic. Boom! I want to wake them up. A Box Jump or Power Clean requires a lot of motor units to be activated, so I need those motor units and I need that engagement for my main lift,” Hayes says. “In my opinion, I need that explosiveness and aggression and go-for-it mentality before we put heavy weight on our back or we press heavy weight or whatever (it may be).”
Since the athletes are training 52 weeks a year, Hayes looks to constantly vary this aggressive movement to keep them engaged.
After a few reps of these high-intensity movements, the strength workout begins nearly 30 minutes after the session began. To Hayes, the warm-up is by far the most important part of what goes on inside the weight room at the WWE Performance Center, and many superstars complete an abbreviated version of the process prior to their matches.
“The training session is only as good as the warm-up. If I skip any part of that process, my training session isn’t going to be as good as it could be. I need all those steps, in my opinion,” Hayes says. “A lot of our talent will carry, along with their ring gear, a lacrosse ball, a resistance band, maybe a foam roller. They’re going to have this stuff ready and available. Depending on the time of their match, where they are on the card, they’re going to do the same type of stuff we do before a training session before their match.”
Hayes mainly trains NXT superstars, as the WWE Performance Center is located very close to where they film their weekly shows. When one of his pupils does get the call to join the main roster, their travel schedule means it’s no longer feasible for them to consistently train under Hayes. That means they’ll be training on their own at gyms all across America. If they continue to follow the warm-up process they learned under Hayes, he believes he’s done his part in extending their careers and maximizing their ceiling.
“I want them to train for longevity. So I think the important thing is the warm-up,” Hayes says. “I don’t want them to ever go into a gym and just pick something up and start lifting it. I want them to understand, let’s rollout, let’s mobilize the muscles we can see in the mirror, let’s activate the muscles we can’t see in the mirror, let’s turn our core on, and let’s do something explosive. Then, let’s hit the weight. That process is what I want them to take away.”
Photo Credit: WWE