EliteFTS Spotlight: Matt Wenning

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The subject of this week’s EliteFTS Spotlight is Q&A staff member Matt Wenning. Matt is one of only a handful of people to total over 2600 pounds in professional competition. He’s also held an all-time world record of 2665 in the 308 class, and has bench pressed over 800 in a full powerlifting meet. Matt is also a highly regarded strength coach who specializes in the training of college and professional athletes. Additionally, he’s done extensive work with both the United States Army and with the disabled. In this interview, we talk at length about the work he’s doing with his football players.

Let’s start off by introducing you to the readership. We know your powerlifting background, but tell us a little bit about what you do and what you’re working on now.

I’m a private strength coach in Columbus, Ohio. I originally moved here to train at Westside Barbell, and I started my own place down on the south side of town. I train with Chuck Vogelpohl, one of the top 220 and 275 lifters of all time, and I also work with all types of athletes, especially professional football, and I do a lot of work with the military – the US Army’s Special Forces. I also train senior populations, since I went to school for biomechanics at Ball State. We had a big emphasis on aging and training, so a lot of physicians and older people come to me for advice. I also work with kids who have disabilities like autism and certain forms of muscular deficiencies.

How did you get involved with the military?

Actually, they contacted me. The asked me if I’d be interested in coming down and just doing a one-time seminar, so we went down there and showed them a lot of new things that they weren’t familiar with, and they started putting it into practice. Once they started utilizing some of the systems, they were able to make pretty good progress and decrease their injury rate. A lot of the personnel in charge liked how the guys enjoyed it, and also saw a big decrease in their injury rates.

Tell us something about your program, and what your involvement is with training football players.

It all started out at Westside, from about 1999, when I first started coming over there occasionally, until I left for my own place in 2007. We would get an occasional football guy or an agent ask us if we were interested in training certain guys from certain areas, and sometimes we would do it and other times we wouldn’t. It would depend on how many people were in the gym at that time. At first, we were big on making the football players train with us. So if an agent was trying to bring ten or fifteen players in there, there was no way you were going to work it with a five man crew. Usually we would just pick a select guy, here and there, to train every once in a while.

Through doing that, I met a couple of agents, and I also met some agents through my other job at Capital Club Athletics, which is a small, private training place in downtown Columbus, where I still work part time. There were a lot a lawyers and guys like that who had heavy connections with agents, so I got a lot of my football guys through other contacts over time. After three or four years, if you’re out working hard, and people realize what you’re doing, it doesn’t take too long for agents to find you. Most of the times, I made my connections through the agents, and the agents brought me the players.

What sort of facility do you have?

It’s Lexen Xtreme. Danny Dague runs the place, but we split the rent, and I have a lot of my own equipment in there. It’s basically half his and half mine. He carries all the Lexen rights, but I train any athlete or any football player that comes through the doors. That’s my responsibility to make sure that’s done. Me and Danny are more partners, per se, but it’s actually Danny’s gym.

Where do you do your running?

There’s a place called The Continent that’s over on the north side of Columbus. If you shoot up 71 South, there’s a large soccer complex that’s indoors, and they allow us to rent the place out for an hour or two a week to do positional drills and work on specific drills for the combine. Most of the guys I get are still moderate to lower level guys that are trying to really shine, so most of them don’t get invited to the Combine. But once the pro days are over, we have to keep them in shape, more specifically for positional drills for private workouts, kind of keeping them in shape for minicamp after the drafts.

The basis of the training for the first 4-6 weeks is consistent lifting with very minimal running except for learning steps and start positions and things that are fairly low intensity. Then, as the time comes closer to their drills, we start running more at 80 to 90 to 95%. I’m not really big on running full go, because running full go in those drills is actually more dangerous than lifting heavy weights. Every football player I’ve every been around who’s gotten hurt training for the Combine has usually gotten hurt from the running drills more than the weightlifting. You have to be very cautious. You pick safe exercises to max with, but you also pick your battles when you’re trying to teach somebody how to run. Usually, if the guys are going to the Combine or they’re being looked at by a lot of teams, they’re probably already fast. If they’re running consistently enough to where it’s not a detriment – let’s say you have a guy running a 4.5 40, and that’s the average, they’re going to be more interested to see what he does with positional drills. They have to shine on those things, because that’s where they’re going to compete after they get those baseline numbers in.

What’s your lifting philosophy with these groups?

It’s basically very powerlifting specific. We do max effort work two days a week – one for lower and one for upper, mostly picking some form of squat or deadlift or good morning, but mostly if we’re doing good mornings, we keep them around threes, and we keep them not super deep. We do suspended chain work where we have great control over how deep the bar can go so we don’t overstretch any lower back muscles and decrease risks in the lift. The squats we’re a little more risky at. We’ll have three or four spotters, so we’re not really too concerned with that. We’ve never hurt anybody squatting. Deadlifts, we’re just very cautious on what we do. Usually, I make all my guys pull sumo so they can’t use a lot of lower back to muscle something out. They can either get it or they can’t through their hips.

Can you describe the process when you start running them?

The first thing we do with the running, we usually take them out, in the beginning, two times a week to the turf, and we work mostly on dynamic mobility – high knee hugs, straight-leg marches, alternate toe touches. General warm-up positioning things, which also develop a lot of neuromuscular coordination, as well as developing a good sense of bodily awareness, so when we start the drills, their bodies are fairly in tune to what they’re doing with their own environment. We usually only practice one drill per day, so if we go in, we’re not going to practice a 40 or a 5-10-5, then practice an L Drill. We’ll practice one drill, one day – just kind of really similar to what you would do with the conjugate system lifting program. I think you can only really adjust to one type of environment. For instance, if you were going to squat with a green and a purple band and work up to a max, you wouldn’t want to work up to a max with free weights after you’re done with that. So, if you going to run somebody or go over a drill, you want to make sure that drill has 100% concentration. It’s like trying to learn everything about everything in one day. You have to kind of space it out, and you have to learn one drill at a time, because there’s so much to them.

What does an average week look like once they’re running?

Usually, the very first day of the week, they’re going to do max effort legs. The next day, they’re going to do plyometric jumping, usually in the form of a box jump, where they would be sitting on a box and they have to jump to another box. Usually I do that with foam, so when they land, they’re increasing their balance and if they miss it, they’re landing into a foam block instead of a brick. So, we do a lot of things to make sure they’re jumping the highest amount possible with the least risk of injury. Most of the guys we get, once we get them fairly strong, it’s not unusual to see a 260 pound guy jump up onto a 50-57 inch box, which, if you measure that out, is pretty damned high. If you fall off of that, and you’re not catching yourself correctly, there goes an ankle or a knee. We try to do a lot of box jumping. We do a lot of jumping from the kneeling positions where your knees and feet would be on the ground, where you jump to your feet with extra weights.

Where do your players come from? Are you becoming more nationally known?

Last year, I had a guy from Colorado, and then he transferred to Ferris State. He was actually a Colorado guy. I had another guy from Missouri. The first guy I trained for the Combine or a pro day – he got picked up by a practice squad, I think for a year with the Cardinals and then he played in the NFL Europe – he was from Oklahoma State. So, I would say most of they guys I’ve had have been from Ohio – Bowling Green, or Ohio University, or Miami of Ohio. I get a lot of the smaller school guys, still, probably because there’s a lot of competition for the first five round picks, so right now I’m still in a stage where I’m proving my worth, I guess, to the agents.

Every year it gets better and better. We took Mike Peterson from Southwest Missouri last year, and he came in benching 13 reps, and it was tough, and he did 28 on his pro day. Another guy, his dad played for the 49ers – he came in benching 29 or 30 reps, and he left doing 43, which I believe was the highest of all the guys who were eligible for the draft. We took Trevor Scott, who’s currently with the Raiders. He was benching around 29 and did 37 – he was Paul Childress’s guy up at Buffalo. So, we’ve had guys from different states, but the majority are from Ohio.

How do you handle the positional drills?

We have a guy who used to be a GA for football at Ohio State, who was a big speed guy, and I utilize him quite a bit. He’s very skilled at the drills. For me, you can’t be a master at everything. My expertise lies in weights and explosive power, so I lay out the weight workouts, the plyometric workouts and all the warm-ups, and then I fit all the positional drills and everything into one big category and let him run it, but I control the volume and the intensity of all the drills and all the things they do. Once we’re done with the pro day, the positional drills become more important. If the guys do make it past the numbers for their pro day, the teams coming in and looking at these players are taking them through positional drills and running drills. They’re not really too concerned with their 40 time like they were at their pro day. They’re more concerned with how they react to the ball and how they block, and things like that that are more football specific.

I don’t consider myself a master at the positional drills, but I make sure I know what I need to know so I can control the volume and intensity. You want to make sure everything is part of the same puzzle, so we’re not trying to fit way too much work in too small of a time period. The main thing is making sure they recover and giving them time to adapt to what you’re trying to do, otherwise you’re just spinning in circles.

What does EliteFTS mean to you and your program?

Oh, that’s pretty easy. You know, if it wasn’t for all the books and the information...I talk to Jim and Dave constantly about the things that I’m doing to see if they approve – not so much to make a point of who’s right, but to back up what I’m doing or to make me think of things in different ways. Dave, Jim and I all have very similar backgrounds. We’re world class lifters, we’ve been strength coaches at different levels, so you don’t want to get so caught up in a certain philosophy or system that you don’t adapt to what’s going on around you. I always double check a lot of things. You know, when they have books that come in, Jim will tell me I need to read something that has some really good information in it. I think I use EFS probably like a lot of people do. We buy a lot of equipment there, but we also utilize their knowledge that’s on the website.

You do a lot of work with autistic kids. Can you go into that a little bit?

I have a guy that I used to train – who I still train, actually. He was paralyzed from the neck down about twenty years ago, but he’s only about 39 or 40 now. So I started training him and we made some great progress. He probably still has about 60-70% function in his arms and he had a weird break, so he can do some form of good mornings in a wheelchair and some form of abdominal work, but he doesn’t have a lot of tricep activation, so we were trying to make the best out of the worst, and increase his posture ability. Bad posture is bad for your organs and your breathing, so we wanted to improve that. I started to work with him and we saw a lot of improvement. He had a nephew that had a slight form of autism that took on physical characteristics. He had a shuffle in his walk, and he just had problems jumping or doing anything that normal 6 year olds would do. So his mother brought him in and had me look at him.

He’d been working with an occupational therapist for, gosh, I don’t even know – probably about 6-10 months – and wasn’t seeing a lot of improvement because it wasn’t aggressive enough. We started having him do small box squats with his bodyweight and dragging sleds with a ten pound plate, then working his way up to half his bodyweight, and we just took the shuffle almost completely away. He can jump, he can move around, and when they took him back to the occupational therapist, they were stunned at the progress he’d made, and they were asking questions.

So now the occupational therapist calls me and sends kids who have similar problems to help alleviate it, and that’s one of the most satisfying things I do as far as training people. When you can make a little kid walk a little better or feel like he’s a little bit more like his friends, that makes all the difference in the world.

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