Fight Muscle

An interview with Coach Scott Sonnon


A lot can happen to a guy when he loses a fight. He can become discouraged, he can quit, or he can set out to improve himself. When martial arts competitor Scott Sonnon refused to tap out in his fight with a Russian Sambo champion, the Russian broke his arm. By refusing to submit, he saved Team USA two points. It cost him a broken bone but it taught him a valuable lesson that would alter the course of his life. The lesson was simple: you must be more prepared than your opponents.

For the next ten years, this former football player turned his attention to doing just that. He not only studied philosophy and sports psychology at the university level for eight years, he competed and coached around the world until he became known as America's leading proponent of Russian martial arts. In fact, Sonnon became the first non-Russian student allowed to train at the Russian Federation of Martial Arts in St. Petersburg. He took what he learned, blended it with his eclectic background, and was soon inducted into the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame as Master Instructor of the Year.

These days his clients include Ultimate Fighting champions, professional and Olympic athletes, actors, and law enforcement officers. Basically, he's trained and consulted with everyone from tennis players to counter-terrorism units. Whether your battlefield is the playing court, the mean streets, or the soil of enemy countries, Scott Sonnon has something to teach you.

T-mag sat down to talk with Coach Sonnon recently about a variety of topics.

Testosterone: Tell us about yourself, coach.

Scott Sonnon: I was the former USA National Sambo coach and a Master of Sport in Sambo, which basically means international champ. Sambo is an internationally popular style of submission wrestling like Judo and freestyle combined. It almost made the '80 Olympics but got nuked because of the boycott. Now I basically run an athletic performance enhancement company helping clients from various backgrounds.

T-mag: What type of athletes do you normally train?

SS: I train mostly mixed martial arts (MMA) and no-holds barred (NHB) athletes, but recently I've been focusing more on the "garage gym" folks who are just interested in being healthier and stronger. I find it rewarding since there's a lot fewer preconceived expectations.

With my fighters, I need to deal with intense emotional issues because of the nature of the sport – virtually no rules fighting. There are too many attitudes, too many prima donnas, and not enough serious training for the sake of becoming a better athlete. Everyone has issues through which a coach must sift, but you'd be hard pressed to find a sport involving a greater degree of emotional content.

At this point in my life, I just enjoy training and can afford to choose my clients. A long time ago, I thought that would mean a stable of high-bill pros. After coaching in combat sports for ten years, I find myself choosing clients based upon other criteria. Who really needs the money, ultimately, you know?

T-mag: You've also worked with non-athletes like military and law enforcement too, correct?

SS: Yes, but I wouldn't call them non-athletes. I was the US Sambo Coach for the Police and Firefighters Olympic Games in Lithuania a few years back. We're trying to resurrect an old/new paradigm for the tactical and combatives guys based upon the warrior-athlete archetype. You know, allow them to perceive themselves as athletes again. They can then aspire to be larger than the box we've all put them in.

Believe me when I tell you, in the next ten years, you won't be able to see the difference between the athletic community and the tactical and combatives communities.

T-mag: Do you think athletes and tactical communities focus too much on size? Is being "too big" a problem for a SWAT team member or a soldier?

SS: Definitely. Once everyone admits that size works, then we can move forward with what can work more efficiently: general athleticism and work against a resistant opponent. Agility, coordination, and endurance enhance strength, power, and mass. Everyone would be much more effective if grappling were perceived as merely another form of resistance training and anaerobic/aerobic conditioning.

Both the tactical and combatives community would go a great deal further in survivability, effectiveness, and liability conscious performance if they concentrated on general athleticism, joined a local wrestling and/or boxing club, and jettisoned the donut fetish.

T-mag: I know you're getting more into training the average gym crowd these days, so tell me, what is the typical bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast missing in his program?

SS: I'd have to say general athleticism. People get too stuck on set/rep schemes and specific goals. They don't create enough of that variety that makes life spicy. Many athletes get so fixated on specificity they can't handle surprises. There are also too many gurus and experts out there pumping out programs for their followers rather than facilitating individual creativity and fun.

T-mag: Give us an example of what you mean by creativity.

SS: Throw in some bodyweight exercises to develop agility, coordination, and balance. Give the nervous system a kick in the ass and get it cooking again. It's been proven that you operate at a higher level when you excite the CNS.

And for God's sake, don't get fixated on "basic exercises." Living life is about becoming more complex as an organism. I despise the recent trend of K.I.S.S. or "Keep It Simple Stupid." I tire of hearing "experts" talk about training stupidity. I mean, how simple is an overhead squat? It's a freaking beautiful example of a skill that only sophisticates with practice.

Sorry, but I just think athletes should be allowed to become more sophisticated in their movement and their character. No wonder society basically views us as animate bricks. Do some tumbling, gymnastics, or acrobatics. Now there's some kinesthetic development! This can not only help the average bodybuilder and fitness enthusiast perform better in his routine, but also increase his overall athleticism.

T-mag: Let's get specific, Scott. What one thing does the average gym rat and weightlifter need?

SS: I'll tell you one thing they need – some old back-of-the-gym wrestling. Wrestling is the oldest form of physical conditioning. It's something you can ultimately figure out for yourself just by doing it, and it provides total body resistance in the form of an opponent. If guys focused on wrestling for athleticism rather than merely attempting to win a match, not only would they benefit in general, but, God forbid, it might be downright challenging and fun.

T-mag: Last time I wrestled with TC, he bit half my ear off and scratched like a girl, but maybe we'll try it again. Now, one of your big contributions is something called "circular strength." What is that and how did you come to develop it?

SS: Sambo is one of those strange sports where if you break your opponent's limbs, you win. Obviously, my athletes needed to be able to recover from disadvantageous positions in order to protect their joints and access their skills and attributes as quickly as possible. If you can't do that in Sambo, the opponent will rip off your arm and beat you with the bloody stump.

Circular strength refers to the rotational and angular quality to muscle action. Basically, most vital exercises (like squats, deads, clean and jerks, snatches, etc.) occur essentially in one plane of movement, whereas on the mat or field, action occurs in all three planes. In competition, athletes encounter sudden changes, unexpected variables, and surprise actions. It's that ability to react and stabilize that gives athletes the opportunity to access their hard-earned attributes in the fight.

For the average fitness enthusiast, circular strength training may be a form of proactive recovery and increasing joint flexibility while simultaneously strengthening the range of motion. Hey, we're only as old as our connective tissue. There's no reason to end our physical life early.

T-mag: Okay, so how do we train for circular strength?

SS: There are many old time methods for this such as sledgehammers, wood-chopping, weighted rope skipping, and hammer throwing, as well as newer, more gym-friendly implements such as Paul Chek's Tornado Ball, and of course there are clubbells.

Adding in a light-weight CST (circular strength training) warm-up to regular training session lubricates the joints, excites the nervous system in a unique way, and stimulates increased poundage in conventional lifts. CST can be used as an active recovery workout rather than hitting the couch. Used on off-days, it can fry grip strength and forearm endurance like little else and get an incredible shoulder, back, and core muscle workout.

T-mag: Clubbells look a bit like those old Indian clubs people trained with in the 1800's.

SS: They're close. Indian clubs (actually, they're Iranian in origin) were much larger, being made of wood. Clubbells were designed to maximize safety and target circular strength. Indian clubs were used as the panacea of physical training, because basically exercise science was shrouded in mythology back then. Can you imagine trying to use Indian clubs as the only strength training tool? Some countries still do this, but they don't pop up on the international sports radar very often.

T-mag: To be honest, Scott, I'm almost scared to talk too much about clubbells because so many people will go buck ass wild and start saying they're superior to regular weight training – which inevitably leads to them being a short term fad instead of another tool for the fitness toolbox. I see that trend with kettlebells. So, do you use any type of traditional resistance training to go along with the clubbell work?

SS: You better believe it! Without it, trying to throw a punch is like firing a cannon out of a canoe. These traditional exercises became tradition because they're nearly ideal for increasing the athletic work capacity.

I view it like this: if you take a jar of water and place large rocks in it, is there any room left? Sure, put in some pebbles. Any room remaining after that? Sure, put in some sand. Moral of the story? When beginning any task, start with the large rocks first. Can you imagine Michelangelo chiseling David without removing the large portions first?

T-mag: Good analogy! That puts many of these "alternative" training tools and methodologies into perspective. Now, your "training hierarchy pyramid" is interesting. Tell us more about that.

SS: It's pretty basic to understand. General Physical Preparation (GPP) lies at the bottom. This is basically increasing the work capacity of the athlete and priming him to be able to adapt to different situations. Build a program without this as the foundation and you're building a high-rise on quicksand. You won't even complete the training before it begins to sink.

The next level is Specific Physical Preparation (SPP). Like chiseling away the details, SPP begins to funnel strength, power, speed, and agility towards the intended sport. SPP should be a natural continuation of GPP, so smoothly integrated that the athlete may not even realize the change.

The level after that regards the physical skills of the sport. The key here is to design the program so that the skills naturally result from or out of SPP, rather than just something separate from strength and conditioning. Strength and conditioning and sports skills are usually lumped into separate categories. I never quite understand why coaching staffs lack effective communication of the overall goal of their athletic program.

The final level comprises the mental and emotional skills for the athlete.

T-mag: What do you mean by mental and emotional skills? You're not going to go all "new age" on us, are you?

SS: Although they're the capstone of the pyramid, I feel that ultimately this is the most essential aspect of athletic training. Unfortunately, it's also the most neglected.

How often do coaches address even pre-competitive jitters much less integrating a system of strengthening the athlete's focus and concentration skills, regulating the athlete's level of emotional arousal (neither over-excited nor under-motivated), and developing the mental toughness to avoid tanking, choking, raging, quitting, or frying (burn-out)?

T-mag: That's interesting. Can you give us a real world example of one of these skills, maybe something we can apply in the gym or in an athletic event?

SS: Think of a tennis serve, a dive, a golf swing, a snatch, or any complex skill. Now suppose the athlete's nervousness begins to compete with his visualization of the skill prior to the event. Suppose he starts visualizing proper technique, then he asks himself, "What if I choke?" He imagines a failure, improper or imperfect technique. What then becomes of his performance? Auto-suggestion is a tool which can be used to destroy performance, but also to augment it.

T-mag: How do you teach your athletes to use auto-suggestion in a positive manner?

SS: I help my clients develop "performance mantras" or PM's which are short, specific action phrases repeated over and over mentally to oust any negative imagery competing for mental space.

For instance, a client of mine preparing for the National Judo Championship focused upon the phrase, "Force the sleeve end down!" All of his grooved skills were built off of leg attacks, but he'd begin catastrophic thoughts any time he would start to get caught up in the jacket fencing upstairs. He'd become emotionally engaged with his opponent and begin a downward spiral of choking. By repeating his PM again and again, his focus bridged immediately to his strategic excellence, and any negative thoughts lacked the ability to compete for mental "air time."

Anyone can create his own performance mantra based upon his sport. It's a simple and highly effective psychological skill that great athletes stumble upon as a pre-game ritual and which intelligent coaches help their athletes develop.

T-mag: Very cool stuff. Tell us about your concept of "performance breathing."

SS: It's a pretty basic technique that can become very sophisticated if practiced. The technique has two main tasks: firstly, when compressing the body, allow exhale. When expanding the body, allow inhale. Secondly, it involves performing the effort portion of a skill at the end of an exhale, called the "control pause."

I realize there are quite a few people who teach inhalation breath-holding – the Valsalva Maneuver. Since my primary goal is sports performance, I do not. Valsalva increases the blood pressure and heart rate, shifting blood volume to the large muscles and negatively impacting fine motor skill performance.

I have no doubts that "power breathing" allows people to put on more pounds to their lifts. However, try Valsalva in Judo or Jiu-jitsu and you're more easily choked unconscious; try it in wrestling or Sambo and you lose kinesthetic sensitivity and reactive strength; try it in boxing or NHB/MMA and it'll slow punch speed as well as increase your susceptibility to knock-out; try it in baseball, basketball, or football and you'll decrease your swinging, shooting, and throwing accuracy.

When you transition to Specific Physical Preparation, athletes need to make everything specific, not just their program design and exercise selection, but also the actual performance of the technique, such as breathing.

T-mag: What do you mean by compressing and expanding the body?

SS: The lungs do not operate themselves, but rather receive operation by the musculo-skeletal system. Most athletes over-breath (hyperventilate) chronically, simply because they try to breathe rather than allow their skills (and movement in general) to "breathe them." When movement compresses the thoracic cavity, the athlete "allows" his body to exhale, and when a movement expands the cavity, he permits inhalation. It's a simple concept to understand, "body-as-bellows," but hard to apply.

T-mag: Yeah, I can see how complex it could become. Now, you write about something called "fear-reactivity." Let's talk about that.

SS: There are quite a few resources out there addressing fear and anxiety from a mere cognitive standpoint, but fear manifests in us physically. You ever hear coaches yelling to their athletes to "Relax!" in the middle of the event?

T-mag: Sure.

SS: It's lunacy! Firstly, never engage your athlete's mind or you'll interrupt and compete with his ability to focus and remain in "flow." Secondly, if you want an athlete to relax, don't ask him to think about it. That makes him more tense! Instead, give the athlete a specific task such as "Exhale!"

This is simple to see in the fighting sports, since athletes demonstrate fear through defensive bracing, such as flinching. Other athletes demonstrate fear through aggro raging – storming about, slamming and screaming, throwing equipment. This general muscular tension (rather than the specific tension necessary for the skill execution) slows down reaction and response speed and significantly decreases power and endurance.

Every action is an act of conditioning, which is why we never lift with poor form, right? Well, this includes every action. Displaying these fearful actions reinforces the state and increases our "skill" at them.

Athletes need to hide fear from their bodies and let it turn to something positive. I do more coaching in this area than any other since the most dramatic conflicts don't take place between the competitors, but between the athlete and himself.

T-mag: Can you give us a real world example of "hiding fear" from our bodies?

SS: Imagine your toughest opponent – how facing him made your heart race, your breath shallow, your hands clammy, your pits damp, your throat tight, and your stomach flip. Now, the "firing sequence" for emotional arousal begins with the autonomic – the heart rate, blood pressure, breathing depth and speed, etc.

The next step involves the hormonal arousal when we release into our bloodstream this chemical cocktail often called the "adrenaline dump." The dump can wreak havoc on the accuracy and execution of athletic skills. To control a slow and appropriate release (rather than dump), you can do a simple visualization drill when you begin to feel yourself become aroused.

Imagine that no one can see, hear or otherwise notice your increased state of readiness. Imagine that your rapidly beating heart moves deeper and deeper inside a secret chamber inside your body. As it moves deeper and deeper, imagine the thumping growing slower and more distant, softer and fading. Focus on exhaling slowly and for as long as possible.

Interestingly enough, hormonal arousal creates within us feelings... the more intense arousal (such as an adrenaline dump) the more severe our feelings. Those feelings then produce images of when we felt something similar before, something equally "fearful." Those images then create negative thoughts and begin the cycle of catastrophic thinking so frequent in athletes due to poor coaching or lack of coaching intervention.

T-mag: Man, this is getting deep! Fascinating stuff, though. When you talk about "aggro raging," that sounds a lot like what some guys go through before they perform a max lift to psych themselves up. Is that self-defeating?

SS: One of the quietest, most self-assured men I've ever met and observed in competition was Ed Coan. There are different methods of "psyching up," however, athletes making the most noise are typically trying to chase away internal fears – fears which a good coach could help them vanquish far before competition.

T-mag: Very interesting. You also mentioned the word "flow." Is this similar to Csikszentmihalyi's theory of optimal experience?

SS: Similar, yes, however, I'm not a mentalist. I'm a physical coach, which is why I address fear-reactivity and not "fearful thoughts and emotions." I'd argue that fearful thoughts and emotions are physical. That's what I'm saying.

Flow is the ability to move from failure to failure without pause and without judgment. Flow isn't something esoteric, but rather something very concrete. Many athletes develop the necessary mental/emotional skills required for their sport, but achieve these through trial and error, accident and luck. This is an inefficient learning method.

For example, when learning a jab without proper instruction, over time through a process of elimination, the athlete may arrive at proper technique. However, this assumes the athlete has the tenacity to continue in the face of repeated failure and the dedication to not be discouraged by natural athletes who achieve these skills more rapidly. How many great fighters were never uncovered because of this haphazard approach?

I frequently hear coaches instruct "just go with the flow," as if the athletes have the ability to do so automatically. However, not everyone knows how, and rare are the coaches that know how to systematically create flow within their fighters.

Flow isn't something you do, but something you get out of the way of. Athletes need to get out of their own way. Flow isn't something to be acquired, but rather flow is something that you'll learn how to avoid interrupting. Performance mantras and other psychological skills help athletes "get out of the way" of their skills.

T-mag: Coach, you've written several articles on self-defense for the average person. What's the most important thing a person needs to know about any self-defense situation where they may be attacked?

SS: The most important thing to remember is that they're totally equipped and capable to handle the situation, no matter how overwhelming the situation may appear. The second thing to remember is that doubting yourself is more dangerous than the opponent. Exhale to think clearly. Think of your loved ones to act decisively.

T-mag: These days, it seems the enemy is not an army but a lone assailant or small group of wackos. People used to learn self-defense to prevent muggings, now they want to learn how to disarm a terrorist or a nutcase going "postal" in a public place. I've always thought that a sort of primeval alertness is the most important factor – you know, not walking around like someone's pet sheep. What do you think?

SS: As someone who's worked in the counter-terrorism training field, I advise people that awareness skills, a sense of self-worth, and a strong notion of social obligation and physical fitness are far more important than martial art techniques (especially "weapon-disarms"). Conventional martial arts in general are overrated for personal protection.

T-mag: Let's talk more about the training of MMA fighters. I've heard from some of these guys that many who enter this sport focus too much on weight training and not enough of other aspects and end up getting their well-built asses whipped. Do you see that with newcomers?

SS: As much as any sport, I presume. It always comes back to sports specificity. Athletes and coaches in any sport often neglect to look at the physiological profile of their sport. MMA has a unique profile requiring a systematic training dedication, as does any other sport. In most cases with MMA, general athleticism is most highly absent.

T-mag: What approach do you take when conditioning a fighter? There's always a big debate about performing cardio. What do you think?

SS: It depends on the athlete's level of conditioning when he or she starts working with me, along with when the next event is, if it's weight-classed, if the fighter's natural physiological disposition is slow-strength, explosive-strength, endurance-strength, speed-strength, etc.

If you want a general answer, then I begin an athlete with long-slow distance to build up a muscular endurance threshold. Then, I begin to work on the anaerobic threshold with interval training. I'll do this with cycling, running, rowing, and swimming. Then, I begin to whittle down closer and closer to replicating the actual conditions of the specific event – round length, number of rounds, ring/mat size, number of opponents. But as I said, an athlete may arrive with me anywhere along that spectrum of physical preparedness and time remaining before an event.

In my opinion, it's more important to create a fighter who's prepared for the unexpected, for shock, for the adverse situation, for the Murphy moment, rather than the pristine precision instrument who's locked down to a specific expectation of an upcoming battle. To me, physically, mentally, and spiritually agile athletes hold superiority over all others. Give me someone who's less "genetically gifted" but can adapt and improvise any day!

T-mag: Let's end with something for the T-mag core audience – people who train with weights to look good naked. What can a typical bodybuilder get out of your teachings?

SS: I'm not one to train for aesthetics, but strictly for performance. However, like Dave Draper has said, traditional bodybuilders need to have "insistence on persistence." It's a highly challenging discipline.

When I met with Dave, we discussed the aspects of consciously walking into the realm of overtraining and how that impacts performance. I think that by adapting my methods to bodybuilding, athletes could develop variety and, more importantly, active recovery methods. They'd probably see dramatic development in core muscles, forearm and shoulder strength (which transfers greatly to other lifts), as well as added flexibility and range of motion.

T-mag: Thanks for talking with us, Scott.

SS: It's been an honor, Chris.

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram