Penn State wrestlers able to show off results of the team’s successful strength-training program
Penn State sophomore Mark Hall says the wrestling team’s strength program allow him to have a pretty good grip on things. (Mark Selders/gopsusports.com photo)
Cael Sanderson maintains a consistently strong conviction for his Penn State wrestling team to be the best, and part of the overall master plan for the top-ranked Nittany Lions to remain durable, capable and as close to indestructible as possible is a vigorous strength-training program.
It’s not been a typical talking point but it is a vital point, one that helps his wrestlers score a lot of points, and one that many of those wrestlers are quick to point out is quite the success.
“Our coaches put great effort into making sure we’re ready to go and not just strong but wrestling strong,” said Zain Retherford, a 149-pound senior who has won 85 straight bouts and is a favorite this season to join Ed Ruth as Penn State’s only three-time NCAA champions.
“I think they put a big emphasis on making sure that the exercises we’re doing are directed toward wrestling and not strength that we can’t use. Coach (Coordinator of Strength Training) Mike Schroeder is excellent at what he does. He didn’t come from a wrestling background but he’s picked it up pretty quick. I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” Retherford said.
And Sanderson is quick to compliment both his strength coach and the strength of his wrestlers.
“We have a great strength program, our guys are strong,” Sanderson said during some limited down time last fall. “We’re working our tails off in the weight room. Lifting is very important to us.
“You have to have kind of an individual touch to each guy’s plan but we train hard. We lift hard. They’ve been training very hard this year. That’s going to show when we compete. They have plans and they’re getting bigger. We’re competitive, we want to have the best of everything for our guys.”
Junior Jason Nolf was the best in his 157-pound weight class last season and sits atop those rankings again this year, despite some down time because of a knee injury suffered Jan. 28 against Rutgers.
“I just like how individualized it is, our strength coach is awesome working with every person on every little thing,” Nolf said. “He gives us a lot of options and lets us decide what we want to do and I think that’s really cool.
“I think I’ve put a lot of muscle on and I think it’s from that but it’s also from wrestling a lot.”
Take a look at NCAA champion Vincenzo Joseph (165) and you see the pure core strength it takes to pull off something like his inside trip takedown that can emanate from a bodylock.
“Coach Mike, he’s really good at tailoring your workouts to you and what your specific needs are and strengths are,” Joseph said. (This summer), he like crashed me with explosive-type things and a lot of the grip-strength stuff. The explosive things play into my field, that’s what I’m good at, so he just wanted to help me get better with that.
“And I told him that my grip wasn’t where it needed to be, so now I feel a lot better there, too.”
While strength training reps can help with cardio, getting in and staying in wrestling shape comes from one simple philosophy – wrestling.
“You get good at wrestling from wrestling, right?” Joseph said. “You get in better shape for wrestling by wrestling; it’s pretty simple when you think about it.”
To that end, Schroeder entered the Penn State Open a few years ago just to get an idea of how a wrestler has to use each particular group of muscles and joints. He never wrestled competitively.
“We’re always trying to find a better way,” Sanderson said. “We expect that out of our kids, we expect them to be coachable and not to just do something because it’s what they’ve always done. We have to be the example and we’re bringing new things to them and Coach Mike, and Coach Casey’s (Cunningham) heavily involved in the strength program.
“We’re always going to be trying to find if there’s a better way … you have to continue to learn because things do advance. Technology advances but hard work is always going to be the key to success and you still have to have to do the right things,” he said.
Part of that, according to NCAA champion Bo Nickal (184), is not being strong but being wrestling strong.
“We have a great balance of focusing on getting stronger wrestling wise rather than just weight room wise,” Nickal said. “You can be really strong in the weight room and get on the mat and not be strong. I think that we kind of have like that perfect ratio of weight-room strength to wrestling strength to where it’s functional.
“We’re not just able to lift a crap-ton of weight and then not use it. All the strength we gain in the weight room, it transfers over to the wrestling mat really well. My improvement on strength has probably been close to the amount that I’ve improved on technique.”
Sophomore NCAA champ Mark Hall (174) said he got bigger during the offseason. “I feel like I’ve gotten stronger. I know I’ve gotten bigger, I can see that on the scale,” Hall said.
“I just feel the resources are all available. Anything I need as far as pre-workout food, post-workout food, drinks, protein, it’s at my fingertips. We have a really good nutrition team and our coaches are on top of that as well.
“They just know what it takes to be bulking up or getting smaller. Some people think if you need to lose weight, you shouldn’t lift. Here, there’s a lot of results and information that says otherwise. They’re really good at making sure we have everything we need from start to finish.”
Penn State’s wrestlers have been able to finish what they’ve started – an annual goal of an NCAA team championship – six of the past seven seasons, and the strength portion of the training regimen has paid off.
“I really like what I did and it kind of goes back to what makes you comfortable and what makes you compete your best,” Hall said.