Even-Esh: Avoid fads; go ‘back-yard’ tough

Updated: August 8, 2023

Photo: Simply carrying a heavy stone is a  great strength-training tool for wrestlers.

By Zach Even-Esh

There is a growing trend in strength and conditioning where technology and science are taking over and athletes are not getting stronger and tougher. Toughness is context specific, but let me put it this way: 

When I began training wrestlers out of my house 21 years ago, our equipment and “facility” was spartan like. It was my garage, backyard and the local playground. Those wrestlers were savages and none of them started that way. They all started as hard working, hungry wrestlers who did not qualify for the New Jersey Region tournament. Most of them qualified for states a year later and all of them placed in states two years later. 

These wrestlers went to one wrestling club and had one strength coach: me. Today, many of the wrestlers I train go to two wrestling clubs, have a mindset coach, a nutrition coach and every other coach under the sun. And these wrestlers are struggling to win one match or even qualify for states. 

You can argue that the competition has gotten better, but for those of you who’ve been around 12-plus years, see how these wrestlers are extremely busy doing lots of “stuff” yet struggling to make dramatic improvements.

In strength and conditioning, the fads and gimmicks are enticing parents. The technology is enticing the coaches. The training is too fancy, too “perfect” and as a result, we’re not building gladiators! In the book, “The Talent Code”, there was intense research in their efforts to find where the best athletes gather for training.

There was a common element amongst these training locations that were producing the world’s best tennis players, musicians, runners, etc. and it was the following excerpt:

“A curious pattern I’d observed at the talent hotbeds: they tended to be junky, unattractive places. If the training grounds of all the talent hotbeds I visited were magically assembled into a single facility — a mega-hotbed, as it were — that place would resemble a shantytown. 

“Its buildings would be makeshift, corrugated-roofed affairs, its walls paint bald, its fields weedy and uneven. So many hotbeds shared this disheveled ambiance that I began to sense a link between the dented, beat-up state of the incubators and the sleek talent they produced.” 

Which, in Dr. John Bargh’s (Yale University) opinion, was precisely the case, and for a reason he readily explained. 

“If we’re in a nice, easy, pleasant environment, we naturally shut off effort,” Dr. Bargh said. ‘Why work?’

But if people get the signal that it’s rough, they get motivated now. 

“A nice, well-kept tennis academy gives them the luxury future right now. Of course, they’d be demotivated. They can’t help it.”

Here’s my point with sharing those excerpts:  Stop getting fancy. Stop looking for the silver bullet. Stop thinking that a Kettlebell or a certain training program is suddenly going to save you. 

The big missing link is consistent training with great coaches, great training partners and great effort. Consistency being a crucial aspect of the puzzle. Now, as we battle against the overly-scientific training, it’s important to have at least one training session a week that pushes you to your limits and builds grit that transfers to the mat. 

Why? Because the toughest matches are won under exhausted, stressful circumstances. There’s nothing easy, perfect or convenient about winning big matches. 

The following is a sample gut-busting training session I can recall from my garage days:

Warm-Up: 2 Rounds (5-7 minutes);

1A) Squats x 10;

1B) Lunges x 10 / 10 each leg;

1C) Push-Ups x 10;

1D) Band-Face Pulls x 20; 

1E) Leg Raises while holding yourself upright on dip bars x 10 

Then we trained in the garage (free weights): (15-20 minutes)

1A) Trap-Bar Deadlift: 5 x 3 – 6 reps (2-3 warm-ups, 2 hard sets) 

1B) Pull-Ups 5 x MAX (Change Grip Every Set) 

1C) KB Swings 5 x 6 

Then we went in my backyard: (12-15 minutes) 

3 or 4 rounds of:

2A) Sandbag or Tree-Log Carry x 100 feet;

2B) Rope Climb x 1 Climb Up / Down;

2C) Sledgehammer Strikes on tree stump or tire x 20 reps (switch top hand at 10 reps); 

2D) Partner Wheelbarrow (hold partner’s ankles while he walks on hands) x 50 feet;

My truck had a few sleds and weights in the back and we’d drive down the street to the local playground where we worked hard for another 15 minutes or so:

3A) Truck Push x 100 feet;

3B) Hill Sprints + Hand Fight or High Crotch + Lift with Partner x 30 seconds;

3C) Sled Drags x 100 feet 

3D) Picnic-Table Military Press x 10 

3E) Bulgarian-Split Squats (Back foot on picnic table bench) x 10 / 10

Just writing this out reminds me how intense the training was. It was certainly not for everyone but man did these wrestlers become absolute savages! Winning in wrestling requires you to dig deep and push. Not every training session needs to be a barn burner, but if you don’t push the envelope then you’ll never win those close battles when it really counts. 

Now get after it and make it happen. It is up to you.   

(Zach Even-Esh is a strength and performance coach in New Jersey. He is the founder of The Underground Strength Gym, creator of The Underground Strength Coach Cert, The SSPC Cert and author of The Encyclopedia of Underground Strength. For more information, free resources and coaching, visit http://ZachStrength.com and https://UndergroundStrengthClub.com.)