Elitefts Spotlight: Lacrosse’s Nicky Polanco

TAGS: Nicky Polanco, Lacrosse, sports, speed, sports injuries, strength training, strength coach, Elitefts Info Pages, training

If you don’t know anything about lacrosse – if you’ve never actually seen a game - chances are you’ve bought into the almost universal, yet severely mistaken, notion that it’s a leisure class sport populated by rich preppie-types from elite private schools in the Northeast. If so, we’d like to introduce you to an athlete who might change your mind. He’s Nicky Polanco, the best defenseman in Major League Lacrosse (MLL), and the way he plays lacrosse - and trains for it – will open your eyes.

Nicky’s lacrosse resume is one of the most impressive in the history of the sport. He was a two-time NJCAA All-American at Nassau Community College, and a two-time NCAA Division I All-American at Hofstra University. He was a first-team All-American his senior year at Hofstra and was named Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Player of the Year and NCAA Defensive Player of the Year. Professionally, Nicky is a four-time MLL All-Star, winning Defensive Player of the Year honors twice during that span. He’s the current captain of the Long Island Lizards of the MLL, and was a member of the 2002 and 2006 US National teams at the ILF World Championships.

These honors, however impressive, don’t even come close to telling the entire story. At 6’5”, 250, Nicky is the most physically dominant player in the sport of lacrosse. No other player in the game can match his combination of size, strength, speed, agility and sheer aggression. Very little of what Nicky does during the course of a lacrosse game will ever show up in a boxscore, because there are few concrete statistics available to quantify the fact that he’s quite possibly the most feared player – and best shut-down defenseman – in the history of the game.

How does it feel to play against Nicky Polanco?

“It felt,” said multiple-time MLL All-Star Connor Gill, “like I was being chased by a wild animal.”

Let’s start with some background on you. Where are you from, how did you start playing lacrosse, and what’s your training background?

My family started out living in Queens, NY, in the city, but we moved out to Oceanside, Long Island when I was a kid. My father is a contractor, so we pretty much had a blue collar upbringing where we had to work for everything we got. When we moved to Long Island, where lacrosse is pretty much a major sport in high schools, my brother Mondo started playing and got really good. He’s a professional player, too, with the Philadelphia Barrage. He pretty much taught me everything he ever learned about the game and made sure I did everything right. It wasn’t like anyone pushed me into it, though. I’ve always been so competitive that I’m still taking what he taught me and trying to press things as far as I possibly can.

I’ve always trained, because I’ve always played other sports besides lacrosse. I still do. I was an All-Long Island football player, which is a pretty big honor considering the number of NFL guys our area has produced, and I had a lot of honors for basketball, too. I always lifted for sports, starting from when I was very young. I did a lot of manual labor when I was a kid, too, which helped a lot.

How did you train in college and for your first few years as a professional?

I pretty much did the basics. When I wanted to put on some size, I lifted heavy for low reps, and when I wanted definition, I lifted lighter weights for a lot of reps. It was pretty much just your typical bodybuilding stuff. My splits were the usual “back and bis, chest and tris” kind of thing everyone else does. I always got stronger, but I never did anything explosively. It never really occurred to me that you could actually train to get faster, at least not in the way I’m learning about it now.

What happened to change your mind?

After a couple of years as a pro, I started doing a lot of mixed martial arts (MMA) style training with my good friend Keith Trimble at Bellmore Kickboxing on Long Island. Keith is the best teacher around, and one of the best guys I’ve ever met, and the work he had me doing improved everything about my game. MMA training works everything. You get faster, your endurance goes through the roof, and you obviously get a lot tougher when you’re sparring with guys who want to bash your face in or choke you out. I’d recommend Keith to anyone.

How did you start learning about “Darkside” methods?

I really wanted to do a few different things. I wanted to get a lot stronger, put on some quality size, and do some stuff that was more specific to lacrosse. I started working with Bob Ihlenfeldt last year, and he totally opened my eyes to a way of training that I didn’t think existed. Bobby sent me to work with Joe DeFranco for a couple of months in New Jersey, which was incredible, and now we’re back training on Long Island again.

You were featured in Maxim doing your “ab routine.” Doesn’t that mean you already knew what you were doing?

F—k you and the Prowler you rode in on.


What kind of training are you doing?

I bench, squat and deadlift. I have two max effort days per week – upper and lower – and the other two days are either dynamic effort days, sort of, or workouts where I do work to increase power in ways that transfer to my sport. I do a lot of jumps and med ball throws, and a lot of sled and Prowler work. We rotate exercises a lot, but mostly by adding different combinations of bands and chains depending on how I feel. I also do tons of Glute-Ham Raises, lower back and ab work. Bobby knows me so well that he can look at the way I warm up and figure out the workout from there. I work in the medical field in addition to being a professional athlete, so there are days where I don’t get enough sleep or I’m under a lot of stress. We figure out where I’m at that day, and we go from there.

What about “dem wood tings?”

Yeah, I do some board presses as part of my bench rotation. I’ve also done “Tricep Death” a few times. It’s rough.

What kind of gains have you made?

Oh, man. It’s been unbelievable. In the past six months, I’ve put almost a hundred pounds on my bench, and I can more than double my bodyweight in the squat and the deadlift. I was never able to do that before. My numbers aren’t big by powerlifting standards (340 bench, 535 box squat to a 14” box, 575 deadlift), but they’re lifts I know other lacrosse players can’t get. The best part of it is that I’ve put on almost fifteen pounds of mass while still getting faster.

What effect has this type of training had on your game?

I saw improvement right away, probably about three weeks into working with Bobby. I started feeling better, and I watched my numbers go way up, faster than they ever have in my life. I’m known for being one of the most, if not the most, physical players in the sport, and I felt like I could move relatively big loads explosively, which is something I never did before.

This has made me feel extremely confident on the field. I feel like my legs are under me at all times now, and I can be a lot more aggressive. The gains I’ve made with my upper body are what’s getting the most attention, I think. A big part of my game involves cross-checking with my stick, and guys have never fallen down after my checks as easily as they do now. I feel like I can plant anyone in the league pretty easily since I’m in this kind of shape now. I’m going at guys instead of having them come at me, which is huge as a defenseman. That’s all the dynamic benching – with bands and chains – the med ball throws and all the quick kind of tricep stuff we do with bands. I can just pop guys now and they fall down. I’ve broken five shafts in my first two games.

The box jumps and Prowler work have played a big part in that, too, in making me understand how much more explosive I’ve gotten. Plus, with all the heavy grip work we do, my stick feels like a toothpick.

Do you think this type of training will have an effect on the length of your career?

Absolutely, because when you train like this, you have so many options to choose from. I look at this kind of training like I’m bulletproofing myself. I’m making myself stronger all over, and that can only help me in the long run. I’m not at the point yet where I’m trying to extend my career, because I know I’m only just hitting the start of my peak right now. I still have a lot to learn about the game, and that includes learning how to train right.

How did you feel about making such a drastic change in your training right at the beginning of the peak years of your career?

You know, I didn’t really think about it too much. I knew what I wanted to do, and the people I know – my friends and my family – wouldn’t have steered me wrong. If this wasn’t the right style of training for me, my brother and Bobby and all the rest of the great people around me would have pointed me in a different direction. I think the best thing about my life is that I’m surrounded by some of the best people in the world. Instead of thinking I was already at the top, I was grateful for the opportunity to learn a new way to get even better.

This is kind of a loaded question, but why do you think you’re considered, by many, to be the most popular player in the sport?

I think my work ethic separates me from most people in any sport. When you have that drive and that discipline, people notice. I take my sport seriously. I don’t drink, I don’t do anything that would harm my career, and I do everything I can to advance the sport and help younger players learn. What I think I have going for me, also, is my willingness to be a student of the game and to constantly be educated. I’m always learning. I have a passion and an excitement for things that people can see, on the field and off, and I think the most important thing you can do as an athlete is pass that on to others.

A lot of professional athletes think that all they have to do is just play and go home, and that it doesn’t matter what they do off the field. I don’t believe that. I think I have a responsibility to be the best role model I can be, because kids are buying my jersey and using my sticks and buying things I endorse. Especially in a sport like lacrosse, that’s still growing, I have a responsibility to be the best ambassador for the game that I can be, so that’s what I try to do every day.

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