Joe Ohrablo is one strong and determined natural bodybuilder, and not just in the gym. In December of 2008, at the peak of his bodybuilding career, Joe suffered a devastating injury. He tore both quad muscles while deadlifting. Not much more then a year later, Joe is as strong as ever, and a few short weeks away from hitting the stage once again. In this interview, Joe Ohrablo talks about his injury, and what it takes to comeback so quickly against the odds.
Muscle & Strength: You're on the comeback trail. Recap your injury, and how you felt emotionally and physically in the weeks that followed...
Joe Ohrablo: Sure Steve. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a really cold December afternoon on Long Island (where I used to live in NY). It was back day and sumo deadlifts were on the menu. As I walked in I overheard IFBB pro Colette Nelson telling her training partner how important it was to warm up on a day as cold as today. If I had only heeded those words!
I started doing set after set on sumos and was going up pretty fast in weight. I was loading 100 pounds or more on some sets. When I did my last warm up with 515 my partner was telling me my form was off and I needed to drop my hips more and get my quads into the lift. I knew after that set something wasn't right. I felt a little tired, stiff and just overall off. But alas, I wanted to beat my pervious best of 555 and put 560 pounds on the bar.
After some psyching up and getting mentally amped, I ran over, put my straps on the bar, tucked my hips down and exploded up. I got the bar about an inch off the ground and I noticed both of my legs bend inward and I heard a dual "POP". I collapsed to the floor screaming in agony, realizing something was seriously wrong. Multiple members called 911 and before I knew it, I was in the hospital. I noticed a pretty jacked doctor coming towards me, and he asked me what happened. I told him the story, he pinched both of my quads and said "yeah, you tore them both."
The accident was on December 28th, and I had surgery three days later on New Year's Eve. I spent a week in the hospital and worked with a physical therapist who taught me how to get in and out of bed and how to walk using a walker. After the fear of walking and getting around left me, I was walking the halls of the hospital at one in the morning determined to get my legs stronger. When I got home my wife prepared our apartment to be as comfortable and accessible for me as possible.
I remember walking over to a sole 25 pound dumbbell we had in the apartment and trying to do a one arm shoulder press, and I almost fell. I actually worked out at home with that 25 pound dumbbell to try and prevent atrophy in my upper body, but that was impossible. I lost 18 pounds in 3 weeks. But that didn't deter me from doing dips on my walker, abs in bed and I trained with that 25 pound dumbbell three times a week! Lots of one arm laterals, one arm shoulder presses, one arm pullovers, curls, etc.
It wasn't long before I started going to physical therapy at Generations Physical Therapy in West Islip, NY. The owner Kevin helped me tremendously and was shocked at how fast I was responding to the 3 weekly sessions. As the weeks turned into months, I was no longer doing PT and I was back in the gym training harder then ever, but a lot smarter! I had to really take my time with squats by gradually and slowly adding more weight each week, and I also had to work on getting my depth better. My resolve is better than ever and I am training my legs with ferocious intensity! You said it right, I am on the comeback trail! Come June 19th, 2010, I will be back on stage and this will be an extremely important goal for me to achieve.
Muscle & Strength: We hear a lot about "muscle memory". What has been your experience with muscle memory during your comeback? Did the muscle that you lost come back quickly?
Joe Ohrablo: Well it was weird, the doctor had me on so many pain killers that my appetite was very dulled. So it was difficult at first to eat a significant amount of calories to regain most of my muscle back. But regardless, I did gain some muscle pretty fast and my primary focus was to build strength in my upper body, and mobility in my legs. Now without bragging or sounding cocky, I'm a very strong guy. Before the accident I would do flat bench dumbbell presses with 150's for 8 reps, but when I started to train again I struggled with 80's.
I remember doing a lot of machines the first few weeks, then doing dumbbells. Then, after I came off the pain medication I started to eat ample amounts of protein and carbs and the mass came back fairly quick! I remember the first time I squatted again. My legs had atrophied so badly, I only used 135 pounds. But a year later they are back! The sweep is forming well, the tear drop is prominent and my squat is back to almost 400 pounds for reps! My physical therapist told me that because I had so much muscle in the first place I would heal fast. Now I'm not sure if it was because of my injury, or my body just hit a new level of muscle maturity, but I am currently dieting for my "comeback" competition in June and my morning weight today was 211 pounds. And I honestly have never been this lean at this weight. Maybe this injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise?
Muscle & Strength: Your injury sounded like a complete fluke. The question I have is this...do you believe that training injuries like the one you experienced can be avoided, or was it just random bad luck? I guess we all know that lifting is a dangerous game, but is it just a case of... sometimes injuries "just" happen?
Joe Ohrablo: I think there were a few factors responsible for my injury. The first and foremost was it was extremely cold that day and I failed to warm up properly. If I had done 5-10 minutes of cardio to get the blood flowing, done more sets during sumo deadlifts and gradually worked up to 560, who to say I wouldn't have still torn my quads? Another factor in my injury was that I wasn't feeling good the week prior. One of my clients gave me a Levaquin that she had. Some research have shown Levaquin can weaken tendons. So was it a combination of me being tired, not warming up properly and the Levaquin? It's possible.
But, one other important factor that cannot be ignored about that fateful day. My hips were VERY tight, so I was compensating by using my lower back more during the previous sets. My partner yelled at me to drop my hips and sit back more. So I waited until the very last set to have perfect form and my quads/hips were basically cold because I was using my lower back and glutes to lift on all the other sets. So to answer your question, do injuries "just" happen? No, I don't believe that. There are many factors that contribute to someone getting injured. Whether that's progressive weakening of joints and ligaments, improper form, overtraining, etc.
Muscle & Strength: Do you still perform sumo deadlifts?
Joe Ohrablo: I actually haven't done sumos since the accident. But I have done partial, trap bar and Romanian deadlifts. I'm not opposed to incorporating them again in the future, but Lord knows I'll be a lot more careful this time around. Of course I would be completely perfect with my form and make sure I am completely warmed up.
Muscle & Strength: I want to ask you about motivation. Right now, mere months after being in the hospital, you're squatting 400+. Where does your motivation and drive come from? I mean, honestly...there are tons of young lifters who are healthy and making excuses why they shouldn't lift heavy. What drives you to get back under a heavy bar?
Joe Ohrablo: I think the key element in stoking the motivation factor is goals! I set goals for myself. When I first started going back to the gym my goal was to use the leg press with one 45 on each side and just bend my knees and slightly contract my quads. Eventually I would be able to go all the way down. Next, I set a goal of doing two 45 pound plates on each side for 20 reps. Then three plates, then four, then 5. After that I set a goal of squatting again and started out with the bar. Eventually week to week that grew into 135, 185, 225, 275, etc. During last summer when I moved to NC, I got myself into very good lean condition and started to really hammer my quads because I knew they still had plenty of room to grow back to their original size.
Now as you know from pervious interviews and the articles I write that I follow a non-liner peridoziation style of training where one week I train with heavier weights and lower reps, and the following week high intensity, high volume. Each time I return to the power week I try to out do the previous power week's performance. Of course, after my injury the most important factor is form. I will NEVER sacrifice form for weight again. A lot of people say I have a certain kind of drive and work ethic in the gym that can be called "insane'.
I am a big believer in pushing yourself to places you never thought you were capable of going to. Constant effort towards bettering my physique and my work ethic in the gym has always been an inner burning desire of mine. For all you young guys out there who want the easy way out in natural bodybuilding...there is none! You have to be willing to go through some pain and set goals for yourself. Without goals you will not have the blueprints necessary for getting bigger or leaner. I've always loved lifting heavy from day one! There is no other powerful feeling then squatting some heavy iron or doing dumbbell bench presses with 150's. It's an addiction.
Muscle & Strength: So for the average lifter who looks up to you, and appreciates your comeback...how can they "catch" the same drive and motivation? Where can they start? By carving out good habits? By setting reasonable goals? Most of us want to be like Joe Ohrablo...but the hardcore motivation can often seem like a foreign concept...
Joe Ohrablo: I think it's great to have someone you look up to in this sport. You want to read as much info as you can on that person, see how he trains, read articles by that person and you kind of "borrow" his motivation. I used to look up to Skip La Cour's mindset, and implemented his goal setting structure. It helped a lot when I started to get serious about competition. I have a contest blog on my website where I record my bodyweight, my workouts and what I'm thinking on a given day about my prep. I invite all to come take a look: http://www.dynamicpersonaltrainingnc.com/category/joes-competition-comeb...
But getting back to carving good habits, it's all about how bad do you want to be big or finally shredded? If the desire is that deep, then you will do what is necessary to achieve those goals. It may be in some people's best interest to hire a coach to guide them through the process of getting their goals organized and steering them in the right direction with their training and nutrition.
Muscle & Strength: What do you have to say to someone who is thinking right now... "But Joe Ohrablo is blessed with good genetics. He can lose fat and gain muscle. Me, I'm a hardgainer. I can't seem to make any progress."
Joe Ohrablo: Well first I would say "thanks for the compliment man, lol". Having above average genetics doesn't mean that the fundamentals of bodybuilding don't apply. First and foremost, if you're referring to the type of hardgainer that is an ectomorph, then the first thing he must do is discover his macronutrient breakdown for gaining. For someone who is - let's say - 170 pounds and an extreme ectomorph he may need as much as 230-250 grams of protein, 300-400 grams carbs and 60-80 grams of fat to gain.
As far as supplements, I would have "Mr. Ecto" take creatine monohydrate for cell volumization and strength along with glutamine for recovery, a good whey protein supplement and a multivitamin. As far as training goes I would have him follow a non-linear periodization program. He would train Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On week one he would focus on the "big three": squats, deadlifts and bench press, with auxiliary movements thrown in. His rep range would be in the 2-5 range, and his focus would be on raw strength and power (with one hypertrophy rep range motion included as well). On week two "Mr. Ecto" would train with ferocious intensity using supersets, drop sets, negatives, static contraction, focus on getting good failure sets in the 10-15 range, and get a fantastic pump. Alternating styles like this can create rapid gains in both mass and strength!
Muscle & Strength: Now that you'll be back on stage, and past this injury, have your bodybuilding goals changed? Are you just taking things day to day, or are your goals the same as before the injury?
Joe Ohrablo: My goals really haven't changed much.In the off-season the goal is always strength and size, but I do cardio year round now. Being that I'm 35 years old it's important for me to have overall good health and to keep my cardio vascular efficiency strong. I still follow a non-linear periodization program for most of the year. I play around with various techniques such as FST-7 and wave loading, but I am a lot smarter this time around.
I pay attention to my form, warming up properly, and I listen to my body better. If I feel I "have it" when I'm trying to go heavy, then I'll go ahead. If not then I'll back off. But one thing I can say is that I think my injury somehow helped my body. This past off-season I got my body weight to an all time high of about 222 pounds. And I had visible abs at this weight! Maybe when I was going through the healing process and didn't train hard for a while and then came back, my ability to gain muscle was a lot stronger then it was to gain it in the first place when I started training.
Muscle & Strength: Tell me about your upcoming contest, and how your prep is going?
Joe Ohrablo: The contest is an NPA sanctioned event. It's June 19th In Durham, NC, at Northern High School. I began prepping at 20 weeks out, and at the time of this interview I am 17 weeks out. I began the prep at 218 pounds and today I was 209.8. My macronutrients are 310 carbs, 310 protein and 50 fats, with one re-feed day of 400 carbs. Right now I'm dropping about a pound a week which is good because my ultimate goal is to hold onto as much muscle as humanly possible leading to the contest. Once I get to about 16 weeks out I'll drop my macros one more time to 300 protein, 300 carbs and 50 fats, with two re-feed days on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
I'm doing cardio about 5 days a week now, all interval training with an "AST" twist to it. If your familiar with the AST version of cardio, what they do is have you do interval training for 16 minutes and record the distance and calories and try to better those numbers the next time you do it. I actually do 20 minutes and always do a treadmill. It's extremely challenging and I love the endorphin rush I get afterwards. As far as my weight training, I'm full on a power/intensity rotation and loving it! I found a gym down here that has 150 pound dumbbells and it felt so good to be able to bench them again after not having access to anything heavier then 120's!
I'm squatting pretty heavy again with my last power workout ending with 390 for 5 reps! My leg workouts on intensity weeks have been downright torture! I've been supersetting either leg presses or front squats with sissy squats. I forgot how insane the burn is on those old school beauties. Thanks to Tom Platz for making those popular again in the 80's! I can say this competition means more to me than any other. My orthopedic surgeon told me I would NEVER bodybuild again. Deep in my heart I knew it was BS. My physical therapist Kevin over at Generations in West Islip, NY, believed in me and gave me constant encouragement as I was in the painful healing process. Thanks Kevin! Win, lose, or draw this contest is 100% for me. I have something to prove to myself.