October 2010: Interview with Jonas Sahratian

by on October 24, 2010

JOHN: I am very excited to announce that this month’s interview will be with Jonas Sahratian. Jonas, can you tell my audience a little about yourself? Also what are the things that you are most passionate about in terms of training?

JONAS: John, I am the strength and conditioning coach for men’s basketball at the University of North Carolina. I have been here since 2004. Before that I worked at the University of Kansas and for the Chicago Bulls under world renowned strength and conditioning coach Al Vermeil.

As for things that I am passionate about in regards to training I put a huge emphasis on proper biomechanics and developing movement efficiency by addressing any weaknesses found in the athlete’s kinetic chain through testing and day to day evaluation/coaching. With training I utilize a large tool box of methodologies but the overall theme revolves around sprinting, Olympic Lifting, functional weight training, plyometrics/jump training, various forms of flexibility/stretching, and sport specific metabolic conditioning. I also try to place a huge emphasis on recovery/restoration/regeneration with nutrition, supplementation, sleep, hydration, soft tissue work, and various other recovery modalities (cold tubs, contrast baths, sauna, etc).

JOHN: Do you have any specific supplement protocols that you employ with your hard training athletes that could benefit our readers in terms of 1) recovery and 2) muscular hypertrophy?

JONAS: With college players NCAA rules permit us from using many supplements. For instance we can only use protein powders that contain less than 30% of the total calories from protein. They even banned us from providing fish oils to athletes a few years ago. On the other hand student athletes can purchase permissible products (i.e. no prohormones or other supplements that can force someone to fail a drug test). So with that said kids can buy almost anything they want as long as they do not have banned substances.

JOHN: Holy cow – fish oil….30% of calories from protein or less..wow…..I am speechless

JONAS: With my pro athletes I use a large assortment of supplements based on their blood panels. But for the most part I highly recommend post workout shakes, good multi vitamin/mineral, fish oils, essential amino acids, bcaa’s, L-glutamine, green drinks, glucose partitioning supplements, and a few others. I find that these things are great for recovery, adding lean muscle mass and improving overall health. But I also believe no supplement can replace proper eating and properly planned meals in the quest to maximize ones genetic potential.

JOHN: I agree on all accounts. For EAA’s I have to tell you, I am a huuuge believer in them, even more than BCAA’s. Can you elaborate on your thoughts about EAA’s, BCAA’s and Glucose Disposal Agents for our readers? I see a huge upside to using all 3 of those, but want you to share your thoughts with our readers.

JONAS: You and I have many similar influences. Especially being influenced by Dr. Serrano he really opened my eyes to using EAA’s, BCAA’s, and Glutamine before, during, and after training. I think the most major benefits are increased protein synthesis, decreased catabolism, greater nitrogen balance, quicker recovery from training, and enhanced immune support to name just a few of the benefits. As for glucose disposal agents (such as alpha lipoic acid, gymnema, banaba tree, etc…) I like to use them with a professional athletes post workout shake to drive aminos and carbs into the muscle and enhance insulin sensitivity.

JOHN: Let’s talk about identifying weaknesses in the athlete’s kinetic chain. Can you give us an example of a weakness, how you would identify it, and how you would correct it through training protocol?

JONAS: I identify weaknesses through an extensive testing/evaluation program that encompasses looking at postural concerns, length/tension relationships, flexibility, biomechanical movement efficiency, dynamic performance indicators, structural balance, applied kinesiology, etc… The evaluating and testing process is done daily by coaching constantly and looking at and evaluating an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.

A simple example of a weakness could be a postural issue such as an excessive kyphosis (rounded shoulders and upper back) which we are seeing more and more of especially with excessive computer work, video games, text messaging, excessive bench pressing, etc. Things that could be done to help this would include: Flexibility work emphasizing stretching out the pecs and anterior deltoids and increasing mobility in their thoracic spine through manual therapy. Training would consist of some remedial corrective work to help strengthen the scapular region and external rotators of the body. Program design considerations might include a greater ratio of horizontal pulling exercises (rowing) and vertical pulling exercises (chin-up/pull-ups) to pressing exercises.

JOHN: Can you share your thoughts on the benefits of flexibility, more specifically, does a more flexible muscle allow for more motor unit recruitment, less Golgi Tendon Organ activation, etc. Just fire away with your thoughts on flexibility! Also, does stretching BEFORE weight training predispose to injury? That is a very popular question I get.

JONAS: I think flexibility work is very important but I also do not think you have to be able to do the full splits or other things to be a successful athlete. I like to look at flexibility work as a tool to create optimum length/tension relationships between muscle groups and fascial planes. This in turn can help in warding off injuries and it helps to allow the muscle to fire correctly so movement can be carried out in an efficient dynamic manner. I will use more dynamic type stretching prior to training and then more static stretching after training to calm down the nervous system and reset muscular tone.

JOHN: Can you talk about how a muscle can fire more “correctly” as a result of flexibility work? Last month on my site we posted an article on the benefits of PNF stretching, and many were really interested in that aspect of a conditioning program.

JONAS: You want your muscles to have an optimal length so that they can operate with precision in regards to functional anatomy. If tissue length and texture are not optimal you start to see lots of over compensation patterns resulting in overuse injuries, strains, and non fluid body mechanics in the affected areas. This is why stretching and pin and stretch manual therapies such as ART are so beneficial to athletes because they release adhesions and create strain free and pain free movement throughout the kinetic chain.

JOHN: You also mentioned sprinting as part of your toolkit. I have always loved sprinting, and found it interesting how large and lean sprinters thighs/hams are. I would like your thoughts on how much of that is related to just being genetically gifted with a large % of fast twitch muscle vs. training style? We have many athletes signed up on my site too, that would love a tip on how to increase their 100 meter time – any you care to share?

JONAS: I personally think genetics plays a huge role in how much hypertrophy one can achieve (you will never be the next great basketball star if you are 5′ 2″ or be Mr. Olympia if you have the genetics of a house fly even if you took a boat load of pharmaceuticals). I do think training has a huge role also as most sprinters Olympic lift, squat, sprint, and do various jumps so they are constantly dealing with lots of eccentric and concentric contractions done at high speeds/velocities. With that said there are still a number of top sprinters with “wiry” frames but are explosive and fast….the bottom line is that these guys have great genetics, they train hard, recover effectively, and are “wired” with incredibly great nervous systems. Training the nervous system in my eyes is the most effective way to enhance speed, power, and explosiveness in all athletes.

JOHN: Let’s dive into the nervous system more. We know that initially people get stronger just from enhanced nervous system function as they train…what about a very experienced athlete? How do you keep their nervous system fresh, and actually improve the function of it, without overtraining or overreaching???

JONAS: That is the secret to great coaching! I think the more experienced athletes can always recruit a greater percentage of fibers than a beginner (they have greater neural drive through training and practicing their skills). Keeping the nervous system fresh requires applying appropriate loading in terms of volume, intensity, and density. It also requires cycling in new exercises and stimuli to enhance greater training adaptations. One of the keys to keeping the CNS “fresh” is with proper soft tissue therapy, restoration modalities (i.e. cold baths, saunas, low intensity recovery workouts), great nutrition, supplementation, water, and great sleep habits.

JOHN: What are some cues that you look for in terms of when to back off training, and do lower intensity work?

JONAS: Part of it is just having an eye for tell tale signs that is why you are constantly evaluating athletes from the first time you see them. I also try to tap into their acute condition on a daily basis by asking questions: how much sleep did you get, when did you go to bed, how many meals have you eaten, what did you eat, how was class, etc??? Watching them warm-up you can see things and then in training we have some interesting tools such as tendo units which measure bar speed. So if I see a large drop off in an athlete’s speed from one work out to the next I can gauge CNS fatigue. This is where it becomes half art and half science to elicit supercompensation. Low intensity work can be built into the training program to unload the athlete and keep the CNS fresh.

JOHN: Ah yes, the tendo unit. There is a great website owned by Dave Tate called Elite Fitness Systems that talks about how to use these. Can you describe a “lower” intensity workout? When you say you lower intensity, does that mean total volume, intensity (how close you get to absolute failure), less stressful mutijoint exercises. etc?

JONAS: A lower intensity workout could be a lot of different things. It could involve an Olympic lifting session being more technique oriented using very light loads. It could be general strength exercises, medicine ball circuits, tempo running, sled dragging, even pool workouts to unload the body and return joint homeostasis. These lower intensity workouts also have a huge regenerative effect upon the body and can serve as a form of active recovery in which high intensity training can be built upon.

JOHN: Can you touch on joint homeostasis in a bit more detail; I think our readers would love to hear some tips on how to keep their joints healthy!

JONAS: Most athletes spend time pounding their joints with weight lifting, sprinting, and practice. Stretching and other therapies help by taking undue tension off but I have really found pool and water work to be beneficial for joint health. The hydrostatic pressure helps and an athlete can do various movement patterns in deep water so they are totally unloading their joints. This in turn helps with articular pumping and opens up joint space so that when an athlete gets out of the water they feel much better than when they got in.

JOHN: What do you think the major benefit of plyometrics is? What athletes seem to benefit the most from their use?

JONAS: I personally like to use plyos as a tool to teach athletes how to absorb force and redirect it. I also think it aids in improving the stretch shortening cycle. They can also be a great adjunct in teaching athletes more efficient body positions (especially in regards to the foot, ankle, knee, hips, and back) and they also help with improving landing mechanics and biomechanical and neurological efficiency. All athletes can benefit from plyos as long as they are done with logical progressions and loading volumes.

JOHN: I remember in my days of studying for the CSCS, that plyos were not necessarily good for larger athletes due to joint trauma, do you use a set weight limit, or some other tool to know when NOT to use plyos for an athlete?

Also, do you think plyos can enhance explosive strength, and help with say the free squat exercise?

JONAS: I think the type of plyometric activity performed has to really be looked at in regards to an athlete’s weight, training history, injury history, age, etc… In theory sprinting is actually a plyometric activity and I think all speed/power athletes should perform sprint work to some degree. When I mentioned plyometric training I should have included jump training such as box jumps, squat jumps, and other type exercises. I think when most people here the word plyos they think of bounding and depth jumps. As a general guideline I usually have bigger guys do mainly jump training such as box jumps, medicine ball dunks, and squat jumps teaching them to apply forces and overcome inertia. As for guidelines you have to have a good eye, know your athletes strength/power levels, and make sure they have the proper training background to use some of these more advanced methods.

I do think plyos can help enhance explosive strength because you are enhancing the rate of force development by utilizing them. As for improving the squat I know renowned powerlifting coach Louie Simmons with Westside Barbell has used a variety of box jumps to aid in improving his lifters totals in the squat and deadlift before.

JOHN: Having trained over at Louie’s in the 90’s, I can appreciate his genius. Very creative, and very nervous system focused training with speed work,etc. In terms of the “look” of a muscle, not the function of it, do you see any positive changes associated with plyo training? I know alot of fitness and figure females competitors incorporate plyos in their training regimens.

JONAS: I think they could be beneficial for those types of competitors especially when combined with heavy resistance training because you are really tapping into and targeting the fast twitch type IIb fibers that are not hit with typical bodybuilding methodologies and loading parameters.

JOHN: What are your thoughts on hypertrophy and muscle fiber specific training? I tend to be of the school of “train it all”, even though we know slow twitch fibers don’t have much capacity to grow. It seems like the capillary development, accompanying “transient pump with higher reps” helps stretch fascia tissue, etc…..please share your thoughts on how you product maximal hypertrophy within a muscle..

JONAS: It is well documented in the literature how different forms of training can induce differing types of hypertrophy. Some of the greatest minds in sports science such as the late Dr. Mel Siff and Dr. Vladimir Zatsiorsky have shown the difference between myofibrilar hypertrophy (maximal and explosive neural driven type training) versus sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (typical bodybuilding methodologies). If it is non functional hypertrophy (sarcoplasmic) that an individual is after I would use a vast array of methods including eccentric work, drop sets, various tempo prescriptions, a wide variety of repetition brackets, supersets, tri-sets, etc…I still think the underlying theme to put on as much muscle mass as humanely possible is still in lifting heavy weights though just look at the physiques of Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman, and Kai Greene these bodybuilding champions have all used different training methods but the one underlying theme you see with all of them is lifting heavy weights!

JOHN: Awesome insight Jonas. On that note I want to thank you for your time, and I know that our readers would also like to extend a huge thank you. It has been a pleasure and I look forward to talking with you more!

JONAS: My pleasure John!