The man behind NXT’s muscle: Q&A with WWE Strength & Conditioning Coach Sean Hayes
Sean Hayes is more than just a Harvard grad with a Randy Savage impression so convincing it’ll make you reach for a Slim Jim.
The former Crimson linebacker has been entrusted with shaping NXT recruits inside the gym since May 2016, when he was named the WWE Performance Center’s Strength and Conditioning Coach. Prior to that, he was a member of the Houston Texans’ coaching staff, where his ode to “Macho Man” was famously captured by HBO’s “Hard Knocks” cameras.
The pairing of Hayes, a lifelong WWE fan, and the Performance Center has been a natural fit. And it’s not just recruits and the NXT roster that are taking advantage of his techniques and insight; Superstars like Finn Bálor, Alexa Bliss and American Alpha have all been spotted putting in reps in Florida. To find out what life is like inside sports-entertainment’s most inspiring weight room, WWE.com caught up with Hayes, who not only explained how recruits stack up to NFL players, but also identified the top-performing athletes in WWE's developmental system.
WWE.COM: How similar is what you’re doing in Orlando to what you did with the Houston Texans?
SEAN HAYES: The philosophy stays the same. They’re high-caliber, elite athletes who are on their two feet, whether it’s on a football field or in a 20-by-20 ring. They have tons of stressors in their lives. Instead of game days, Superstars have live events and pay-per-views. It’s very similar parallels. That’s the reason I wanted to attack this, because I knew it wasn’t going to be something foreign. It was going to be a very smooth transition.
WWE.COM: What’s a typical day like inside the Performance Center weight room?
HAYES: There are four groups — beginners, intermediates, advanced and the women’s group — and each session goes about an hour and fifteen minutes. The first thing I want the talent to do is get on a hard foam roller and roll their muscles out. It’s a regenerative process to help them feel better and open up their muscles — not only for the lift that’s about to happen that day, but because these guys are in seats all day. They’re in plane rides and car rides, in that crouched position, [so] I’ve got to break up those tight muscles that are glued down.
A lot of people say more is better. That's not necesssarily true. Better is better.
Then, I’ll do some mobilization techniques to get them opened up, and after that, we activate their muscles. If it’s a lower-body day, I’m going to activate their hips, quads and hamstrings. [For] an upper-body day, I’m going to activate their upper backs, shoulders, triceps. The last thing we do right before we lift is an explosive movement, whether it’s a box jump, a five-yard sprint, a med-ball throw or slam — something to wake us up. That whole proces can take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes, and that is the main part of our workout. We haven’t even touched a barbell.
If I can get them to do that on a day-to-day basis, I’m making them feel better. Despite all the hits they take in the ring, all the stresses they have outside, when they come in the gym, they’re feeling like a million bucks before they even touch a weight.
WWE.COM: What does the weightlifting involve?
HAYES: The lifts last 25 to 30 minutes. For a lower-body day, we’re going to do some sort of squat, a hip-hinge movement, a single-leg movement and a posterior chain movement, and that’s a wrap. If it’s an upper-body day, we’re going to hit a pressing movement, a horizontal row, either a vertical or horizontal pull, and we’re going to attack our rear deltoids in our shoulders. Hit some arms, and that’s about it. Fifty-five minutes, and they’re done and out of there. I want them feeling better when they leave than when they walk in. A lot of people say more is better. That’s not necessarily true. Better is better. I have them work smart, because there’s no offseason here. It’s 52 weeks, 300 or more days a year. That’s the big difference between the NFL and WWE — these guys go all year round.
WWE.COM: Let’s talk about injury prevention. Knowing the types of injuries that are common in wrestling, how does that affect the regimen?
HAYES: I don’t necessarily think there are certain injuries that are in wrestling but not in other sports. You’ll see a torn ACL, the high ankle sprains, things like that. What we’re trying to eliminate are the soft tissue injuries, the pulled hamstrings, that are avoidable. If I can get them strong and keep them strong, they have a lower risk of getting injured. If you take it completely easy on them and they don’t train for strength, then when they go in the ring and do all these physically demanding movements, they have a better chance of getting injured.
It’s just like in football: If you land on the ground hard and don’t have any protection on your shoulders, you’re going to bang an AC joint. Same thing with the knees. There’s nothing you can do that’s going to get a guy completely injury-free and make him bulletproof. The idea is to train for strength and to add body armor so they’re protected when they are in the ring. At the same time, you can’t just be big and stiff. I want strong, agile, explosive athletes, and there are certain things we do on a daily basis that will keep us in that ball game.
I always say if a guy was injured and is doing what we call rehab, why not do those same types of exercises on a day-to-day basis? A lot of people call them “pre-hab” exercises. We’re doing those in our activation stations. We take every precaution necessary. People ask me why these warmups take so long. The answer is, because I’m in charge of high-paid athletes. I don’t want anybody getting hurt. I don’t want to rush through anything. If I rush through, then the people who are investing in these athletes — the Vince McMahons, the Triple H’s, the Matt Blooms of the world— are going to wonder why I’m not taking care of their guys.
WWE.COM: The Performance Center held a combine last fall, which was the first of its kind in the history of WWE’s developmental system. What was the thought process behind that?
HAYES: Coach Bloom and I wanted to do something like the NFL combine, but make it specific to WWE so that when a new guy comes in, we can compare him to, say, a Riddick Moss. It gives us something measurable. That’s why every event in there had something specific to do with what a WWE Superstar goes through. The vertical jump measures lower-body power. The overhead med-ball toss measures overall explosiveness and total body power. Your bench press — 225 pounds for as many reps as possible — measures your strength and endurance. The 60-yard sled race measures straight-up toughness and endurance. It gives us a barometer to the NFL, too, and we stack up pretty damn good against them.
All of the coaches and athletes loved it. The thing I liked best was they were competing against each other, but they wanted the other guy or girl to do well, too. It was exactly what you wanted as far as a competitive aspect and from an energy standpoint. Everything Coach Bloom and I wanted, we got.
WWE.COM: You mention the sense of competition, but also the energy inside the Performance Center. What are your overall impressions of the roster, both athletically and in terms of character?
HAYES: I’ve been around some of the best athletes you can be around. [Houston Texans defensive end] JJ Watt is one of the best athletes in the world. NFL athletes are considered among the best on the planet. Well, I get to the PC, my first crack at training these athletes, and there’s no drop-off! Let’s just talk physical attributes: They’re big, strong, fast, they can jump, and if I show them an exercise, they pick it up like that. That’s a sign of a good athlete.
Patrick Clark could be the very best athlete I've ever trained.
Not to toot the horn of the PC, but 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. It’s very inspiring to be a part of it and it makes my job a lot easier. It’s a credit to the athletes because they’ve completely bought in to what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to teach them.
WWE.COM: From a sheer athleticism standpoint, who impresses you?
HAYES: Tino Sabbatelli and Riddick Moss do insane stuff. Otis Dozovic is incredibly, freaky strong. Montez Ford can jump through the roof. Babatunde [Aiyegbusi] is super strong, super tall. He might not beat you in a foot race, but I guarantee he’s moving better than other big guys. Wesley Blake is right up there with your Sabatellis and Mosses as far as the total package of strength, speed and power.
As far as pure athleticism, I need to mention Patrick Clark; he’s so young, but so ahead of his years. He could be the very best athlete I’ve ever trained, when it’s all said and done.
On the women’s side, Bianca Blair is one of the best athletes I’ve ever trained, male or female, in my career. She’s strong and fast and explosive. She’s so young. Part of the hard part of training her is that she still questions herself. That’s why I was happy for her in the combine, because a light bulb went off in her head — like, “Oh yeah, I’m pretty damn good.” She hasn’t even touched her ceiling yet, which is crazy.
WWE.COM: You also had a lot of good things to say about Tian Bing, the first Chinese signee in WWE history.
HAYES: Tian Bing can barely speak English, but he follows along so well and he’s picking up moves. He has the potential to be one of the best overall guys who comes through here, as far as having all the tools. He’s just got it.
The thing about the people I just named, they’re leaders, too. They help me out. They’re really professional, go about their business the right way and lead by example. They listen and encourage other people to follow along. Other people want to follow them because they want to get strong and fast like them. I consider us still to be a team, and our leaders lead really well, and that’s what makes the PC so special. It’s not the coach. It’s the talent.
WWE.COM: Viewers of “Hard Knocks” may remember your impressions of “Macho Man” Randy Savage and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Do you have any other Superstar impersonations up your sleeve?
HAYES: [Laughs] I don’t know, man. I’ve got my Austin and Macho Man, which sound good. I don’t want to ruin it. They’re the ones that are good. I’ve tried them all. I’m very much like the guys I train. I grew up a huge fan of WWE.
I’ve always sounded like Austin. It’s something I’ve always been able to get people to pop on. If [Houston Texans head coach] Bill O’Brien had to get the guys laughing, if the team had been doing the grind for weeks and needed a break, he’d ask me to show up to a meeting and do a Macho Man or Stone Cold for him. I’ve always been quick on my feet with that stuff. I ragged on some of the players, joked about Vince Wilfork’s weight in a Stone Cold voice, or made fun of JJ or Brian Cushing, all in fun, to get everyone laughing.
With Savage, he’s my favorite of all time and I figured I had to have my favorite down. I thought I was good at Ric Flair until I met Patrick Clark. He does a great Flair, everything from the voice to the movements to the mannerisms.
WWE.COM: Do you think there are misconceptions about what it takes to be a WWE Superstar?
HAYES: Not everybody realizes how hard these guys work. They’re not bodybuilders anymore. Maybe that was the trend in the past, but now they’re doing athletic workouts, and they’re professional athletes. The outside world might not know that. I want the stigma to change. “They’re just meatheads and they lift.” Well, no, they’re smart and intelligent athletes who know what it takes to keep their body in tune, and they know that if their bodies fail on them, their career fails, so there’s a certain way to take care of their body and they know that.