Injuries Suck

Injuries suck. However, the sad truth is that we all get injured eventually. Whether it’s something you could have seen coming like an overuse injury or something totally unpredictable like a slip and fall, you have to understand that injuries will happen eventually. The best thing is to have a plan B and try your best to make the most of a bad situation.

I slipped and fell down the stairs last night and twisted my knee up pretty bad. There’s no telling how long my knee will be out of commission. However, I know in the gym I can work a lot on my upper body strength while my knee recovers. With respect to jiu-jitsu, it is obviously a lot harder to roll with a bad knee but certain drills and moves are still available to me.

The point is that it would be easy to be disheartened by this setback, but I see it as an opportunity for growth and development. The goal is to not lose too much ground or even to improve on some areas while the knee is off-line. When the knee comes back online, I should be as good or better than I am right now.

Improving At Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Work On Your Weaknesses

There are no secret techniques. There is no magic to getting your black belt. It’s just an often overlooked quality called “hard work.” But hard work for the sake of hard work can lead to a lot of wasted effort. There is nothing that can replace more time on the mat except more quality time on the mat.

The journey to black belt in jiujitsu, for most of us, is a long one. And after years of training and stopping and starting and getting older and getting injured, I have learned a few things. One of those things is that consistency and persistence are extremely important, but so is training smarter and in a more focused manner. Sure there are plenty of athletes that simply accumulate more hours per day of training and therefore get to black belt faster. However, there are many athletes that get to black belt not only quicker but arrive at black belt less injured and with more gas in the tank and with a more well-rounded game.

One thing we always stress in CrossFit is working your weaknesses. This is just as true for jiu-jitsu. Your weaknesses are where you stand to make the most improvement. If you are a great perimeter shooter in basketball, you won’t improve your overall game by spending more time shooting threes. You stand to gain more as a player by working on your weaknesses like rebounding or free throws. Thus becoming a bigger threat on the court. The better you become at something, the smaller gains you can make over time. Taking one minute off your mile time is a wholly different experience if you run a 5-minute mile versus if you have a 10-minute mile.

This advice applies to most things we do in life because most things require us to have more than one specific skill. Once we move past the initial stages of learning the basics, we should endeavor to challenge ourselves to fortify our weakest links.

The reason why most people do not follow this strategy, is because most people do not want to start over and be a beginner or look like a beginner. If you are a purple belt and you have been training for five to seven years, you probably have a lot of good moves. You can hold your own on the mat. You probably got to where you are because you found a handful of techniques that worked well for your body and you had some success with them so you ended up using them a lot and became pretty strong at those aspects of your game. It’s safe to say you are becoming an expert at a few techniques and/or positions. However, you probably still have some holes in your game because you simply cannot get good at everything. The goal should be to periodically look at your skillset objectively and decide what your weaknesses are and attack them. However, many people would rather continue to utilize the techniques that brought them success so that they can continue to appear good. This is especially true in jiujitsu where it “looks bad” if you are a higher belt getting tapped by anybody, especially lower belts. It’s that stigma that forces people to fight harder than they should and to avoid getting into positions that make them look bad. It’s that mentality that makes people train only with people that they know they can beat or only train when they’re fresh and not when they’re tired. It’s that mentality that makes people go for easy footlocks (not that I have anything against footlocks) instead of really trying to pass the guard.

My best advice for those that are too proud to be tapped by lower belts and too proud to look bad practicing moves they suck at is this: nobody cares until you are a black belt! I would rather spend the next few years being the worst brown belt so that one day I can be a formidable black belt.

Improving At Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Create a Library

If you googled this subject, you would find numerous good articles and videos by notable BJJ blackbelts. I certainly encourage you to read and view as many of those as you care to. Even though I am not a blackbelt of note, I have coached thousands of athletes of all levels and know a thing or two about improving at various physical tasks. Ironically, though this article isn’t about physical training; it’s about mental training.

It turns out there are a lot of moves in BJJ and you would be well-advised to start making a list of them. I am currently preparing to take my brown belt test and I was handed a two-page checklist of things that I will be tested on. At first glance I was a little overwhelmed at having to come up with 20 submissions from the guard, 3 escapes from the north-south position, 6 guard passes, and much, much more. I imagine most people can’t rattle off those moves if cold-called. However, if you sat down and thought about it or perhaps actually got on the mat and started drilling you could easily start to remember various submissions, sweeps, escapes, etc. What I found as I went through this list is that I have some strengths and some weaknesses. I feel very confident in certain submissions and escapes and feel really uneasy about certain sweeps and passes.

The first thing I did was write the list into a document on my computer and then started listing the various techniques I could remember under each category, e.g. Takedowns: double leg, double leg with outside trip, single leg, ogoshi, osoto gari, etc. Some categories I was easily able to populate with techniques off the top of my head, some I was stumped. The next thing I did was go to YouTube and start searching for techniques. Once I found one that I liked and thought I could perform, I would copy the link under the appropriate technique and put a short description in there.

After a few hours I was able to create a small library of techniques that I need to practice for my test. The great thing is that this isn’t just for my test but it has immediately helped my game by making me focus on some of the weak parts of my technique that I don’t spend time on. Furthermore, as I keep searching on YouTube, I keep finding more and more cool techniques that I want to try that may or may not be relevant to my test so I merely expanded the document to include more techniques and drills that I want to start using.

What usually happens is that I happen to watch a cool video and think “I should try that some time” and then I forget about it. Having this document means that now when I see a video, I immediately cut and paste the link into the document under the correct category so I can find it later. Then the next time I want to work on submissions from side control, I pull up the document and review a couple of links and find several techniques to work on.

Another thing that happens is that I often write notes about a class in a notebook but I don’t always go back into the notebook. When I do go looking for a move in my notebook, I can’t find it because I don’t remember when we did it. By putting my notes in this document I can always find them. If we worked on a knee slice guard pass, I can just write my notes from class under the correct heading: Guard_passes/Open/Knee_slice and write an entry for things we covered in class.

This library of moves cannot replace time on the mat, but by making this document, you can easily keep track of things you are good at and things you need to improve. The best advice I can give you is to worry more about the things you suck at. There is more benefit to your BJJ in finding and filling those holes in your game before your opponent finds them and takes advantage of them. This experiment has opened my eyes to what I need to improve. Now go train!

Invincible Ignorance

One of the reasons I write this blog is because sometimes I need to say things that I can’t say on regular social media. You know what I’m talking about. I post something about the world being round and some yahoo comments about how the Earth is flat. Then your Facebook wall explodes into a circus of people going back and forth. It’s ridiculous. I write my opinions here, right or wrong, so I can avoid the back and forth. I’m not trying to live in a bubble. I appreciate many different view points. However, sometimes I need a place to vent without comment.

Specifically, the types of comments I seek to avoid come from those people with invincible ignorance. Invincible ignorance, like Coach Greg Glassman, says in this video is the type of ignorance that comes from people unwilling to consider an alternate opinion. If you asked me, I would tell you the Earth is round. However, if you asked me what proof I would need to change my mind, I could come up with a short list of things that would convince me otherwise. I am not unwilling to concede the point when faced with sufficient proof. However, there are many people that would be unwilling to proffer a list of things that would convince them that their position is wrong.

Think about that. Some people when asked what could convince them to change their opinion cannot come up with an answer. That is a signal that they are more entrenched in their position than they are rational. If you hold your opinions so dear that you cannot be convinced otherwise, you have an invincible ignorance.

Jiu-Jitsu Is Not Exercise, Neither Is Yoga.

I love Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and Yoga. However, I think people need to understand a difference between exercise and sport. Exercise has a regressive and progressive quality that distinguishes it from sport. When you exercise the goal is to find a move that you can do easily enough to repeat but challenging enough that after several repetitions it becomes a stimulus for change or adaptation. For example ,there is a weight that you can squat 10 times but no more and if you squat that weight for a few sets of 10, you will stimulate your body to adapt and get stronger. At that point you need to progress to more load or more reps in order to keep getting stronger. Thus the goal is never to master the 10 rep squat at 95lbs. The goal is to keep getting stronger, faster, better, etc. and do with 195lbs what was once only possible with 95lbs.

When we do a sport like BJJ or Yoga (I know yoga is not a sport, but more of a practice, however, people mistakenly treat it as exercise), we initially find it very physically demanding. Thus it does creates a stimulus that drives adaptation exactly where we need to adapt with respect to the sport. We get stronger and more flexible and our stamina increases and we can train longer and better. Initially people think that all they need is that one thing, BJJ or Yoga, for all their fitness needs. They mistakenly believe that they will keep getting stronger and fitter just by doing BJJ or Yoga. However, the difference with BJJ and Yoga and similar sports is that as we improve at them we actually learn to be more efficient and can perform better without spending the same energy that we did when we first started. As we get better we cease to adapt physically.

Watch a novice and an expert perform the same moves and you are not struck by the physicality of the the expert but rather the ease and fluidity of their movement. Your first few months on the mat, you use a lot of energy to attack and defend against your opponent. Your body adapts quickly to the stress of BJJ and then you are able to train with less difficulty. After a short time you learn to relax as you train and exert energy when you need to and conserve energy when you can. When you reach that stage, it is rare that your BJJ training becomes a physical stimulus. What you start to develop is neurological aspects of technique such as timing and coordination by repeated repetitions and focusing on details and positions. As you advance, Yoga or BJJ training becomes skill practice and at that point in order to stay physically sharp, you need to supplement your BJJ practice with outside training exercises, so that you continue to gain in strength, stamina, speed, power and flexibility.

N Equals 1: Supplements

I always get asked about supplements. What should I take? What’s the best? How about protein powder? Creatine? Pre-workout? Etc. Here’s the easy truth: you probably don’t need them. Here’s the hard truth: you are looking for a quick fix instead of doing the real hard work. That being said, you are probably going to succumb to the marketing at some point and try some supplements. That’s fine, but let me help you help yourself and empower you to not be a slave to the marketing machine and to make better decisions and obviate the need for supplements.

First, ask yourself why you want supplements at all. What are you trying to accomplish or correct with this supplement? “Supplement” is short for “Dietary Supplement” and that suggests that they should be used to get something that is not provided from your diet. So before you go spending your hard-earned money, try fixing your diet. Eat better quality foods and control the quantity of food that you eat.

If you are eating fast food and looking to take protein powder or creatine or some other supplement, don’t. Clean up your crappy diet. Whatever boost in performance is guaranteed by the supplement company can be matched and exceeded by simply eliminating fast food from your diet and cooking yourself some meat and vegetables. If you’re not willing to eat your vegetables, then buying supplements is a waste of time and money.

Still want to drop some money on supplements? Okay. How will you know if they work? You will need to conduct an experiment of n=1. You need to measure your progress in the gym. Get a journal and write down your workouts and how you performed. How much you lifted, how fast you ran and how many reps you did. You can also track other things like your weight, body fat percentage and how much you slept. Go to the doctor and get some blood work done. These are the types of things that you want to keep track of and measure before you take supplements in order to get a baseline, then again during the supplement trial, and, finally, after you stop taking the supplements to see if you return to your baseline.

Furthermore, how will you know whether any progress was the result of the supplements or something else, like eating less or exercising more? You will have to control certain variables so that they do not impact the results. At the very least, you must maintain a relatively constant daily calorie intake. To be more precise, you need to establish a baseline for how much of each macronutrient you are intaking every day. If you are not getting the proper amount of macronutrients in your diet, then that should be addressed before supplementation. You need protein for your muscles, carbohydrates for energy and fats for satiety. Eating too little will cause you to under perform and eating too much will lead to unnecessary weight gain. Finding the proper amount is a process that could take a few months, but it is worth more than all the supplements out there. It is only after you start tracking exactly how much protein, fats and carbs you eat during a day that you can then see how adding or subtracting something affects your performance.

I recommend doing the Zone Diet or Flexible Dieting and establishing a baseline for one month and then adding a supplement in for another month to see if there is any improvement and then discontinuing for several weeks at the end of the month. This will provide a contrast between your baseline and you on supplements. If you haven’t changed how much you’ve eaten and worked out for the month, then at the end you can measure the gains made by the supplement and also whether there was a drop in performance upon discontinuing use at the end of the month.

It seems like a lot of work, but there is a huge payoff. Doing the hard work of eating right will improve your performance and give you the keys to knowing objectively how you are functioning. It allows you to be objective about your nutrition and your performance.

Gua Sha

You’ve probably seen some videos of people scraping themselves with large chrome axe heads.  Well this is an ancient Chinese technique call Gua Sha but nowadays most people know it as Graston.  The technique involves using an edged tool to scrape the skin and break up adhesions in the fascia under the skin.  While it might be nice to have a fancy, expensive tool to do this, all you need is a butter knife or a Chinese soup spoon and some lotion.

I love love love this technique for working on my forearms and hands after hard training sessions.  This is great for both CrossFit and Jiu-Jitsu.  Although bruising is common it’s not mandatory.  You do not have to leave big bruises in order to get results.  As you get more familiar with the technique, you will be able to gauge the proper depth and pressure better.

As you scrape, you will probably hear some sounds like you’re popping bubble wrap.  That’s the adhesions in the fascia breaking up.  Keep at it and you’ll hear the noise start to quiet.  Use lotion so you don’t irritate the skin.

Gua Sha a/k/a Graston from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Self Acceptance

I spend too much time criticizing myself and that keeps me from being my best self. I am sure I am not alone.  Self-criticism is a plague that afflicts almost everyone.  Quiet that voice of criticism.  It is not your friend. Furthermore, it is a liar!  You are not as bad as you tell yourself you are.  You are exactly as you are supposed to be.  You are the sum of all your genes and choices and experiences.  There is no other version of you that could be in this moment. Think about that.  You are exactly the person that you and your parents have created.  That does not mean that who you will be in a week will be the same.  You can make a lot of choices between now and then that will change who you are.  You best decision is your next decision.  Make it count.
People hold on to their self-criticism because they fear that without that voice telling them that they suck, they will not be motivated to improve themselves.  They fear that they will lose their edge and drive to succeed.  That in and of itself is a false belief.  Self-criticism keeps us from challenging ourselves because it fills us with self doubt.  That voice never lets us enjoy what we have already achieved.  It never acknowledges that we are good and therefore we seek acknowledgement and approval from other people.  That voice can push us down a road we no longer need to travel instead of pushing us down a new road that will lead to better things.
Self-criticism is about fighting the past. If you tell yourself that you suck now, it is because of something that happened before that has caused you to be this way.  And the more you talk about it and think about it and worry about it, the more you get angry at the things that you can not change.  Meanwhile, self-acceptance is about acknowledging that you are exactly what all the past actions and decisions have created and now you are left with this result.  You can look at your past actions and how they lead to the current result and choose to make new decisions going forward that will get different results.

Assisted Recovery: Wrists and Forearms

As soon as your training session is over, your body has to start repairing itself for the next session. Your body is naturally designed to recover and repair on its own with a little help from food, sleep and movement. If all you did was ate well, slept well and moved well, your body would naturally recover and repair itself in its own time. However, that process can be a little slow and, let’s be honest, we don’t eat, sleep and move optimally all day every day. I want to show you some things to assist our body’s natural recovery efforts that go beyond eating and sleeping.

When we start to train every day our body can’t keep up and keep repairing itself at such a rapid rate and that is when we start to see sign of overtraining such as:

– Decreased strength and performance
– Persistent muscle soreness
– Elevated resting heart rate
– Increased susceptibility to infections
– Increased incidence of injuries
– Irritability
– Depression
– Loss of motivation
– Insomnia
– Decreased appetite
– Weight loss
– Persistent fatigue
– High cortisol levels

So the obvious answer might be to train a little less. But, let’s be honest, we do not want to hear that. How do some people manage to train multiple times a day, 7 days a week? There is a old adage amongst trainers, “There is no such thing as over training, just under recovery.”

The more we increase our training, the more we must focus on our recovery. I purposely use the term “assisted recovery” to distinguish it from “active recovery”–a term many are already familiar with. Most people think of active recovery as a rest day where they go out and still workout but at a lesser intensity: a long run, a yoga class or playing a sport. Active recovery can be great and effective except sometimes doing more exercise does not send the proper signal to your nervous system that it is now time for recovery mode (i.e. your nervous system stays in fight or flight mode also known as sympathetic nervous system) . When I say assisted recovery I mean that we should aid in the down-regulation of the nervous system and facilitate the recovery process (also known as the parasympathetic nervous system) so that we can train hard again.

One of the most neglected areas on our body is our hands and forearms. We use our hands for everything on and off the mat, yet we seldom take any time to give the muscles (and other soft tissues) any help in recovery. Doing some self-massage with the Yoga Tune Up® balls will help fight inflammation, help lymphatic drainage, speed the recovery process, reduce pain and reduce soreness and fatigue. Additionally, because we store a lot of tension in the hands and forearms, you will see greater shoulder mobility after doing these exercises. Get a pair of Yoga Tune Up® balls and try the following moves after your next training session.

Check In / Check Out
Before beginning check your shoulder mobility. This is a baseline to just see where you shoulders are before we begin to roll out the hands and forearms. You can also take note of how “tight” your shoulders, wrists or forearms feel before beginning. This is a classic yoga move called Gomukhasana and it is great for illustrating shoulder mobility and imbalances from side to side. Use a belt if your shoulders are tight. Try both sides and do not stretch just take about 10 seconds to adjust and see how closely you can get your hands together. The point is to just see how far you can go without stretching specifically to get into this shape. After each of the exercises below, check back in with this move to see if there is any improvement in shoulder mobility. In fact, I recommend checking in after you do your right hand but before you do your left hand. You can feel the improvements as you go and notice the immediate differences on each side of your body as you do each exercise.

Why is this particular pose important? The pose is a great diagnostic for the amount of usable shoulder mobility you possess: flexion plus external rotation in the upper arm and extension plus internal rotation in the lower arm. If someone is missing range of motion the body will find lots of compensatory mechanisms to cheat when it can.  But for practical jiujitsu purposes: we can see how soon you will tap to americanas and kimuras. The less range you have the quicker the submission will cause you to tap. If you have more mobility you buy yourself some time to tap before damage occurs. Also you have more wiggle room to escape.

Gomukhasana Arms for Shoulder Mobility from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Hand Rollout
I call this particular move “The Childproof Lid” because it reminds me of opening a bottle of pills from the drugstore. Press down hard and turn. The fact that the balls are grippy, they will catch your skin and create a lot of shear force which will break up adhesions in the fascia. It will make your hand feel really warm and increase the circulation in your hand. In addition to that technique, try to really smash the ball and roll the whole surface of the palm like you’re making a bread. Do about 2 to 3 minute on each hand and make sure to try the gomukhasana arms in between sides to see if there is any change in your mobility. Also notice how much better your hands feel after doing this.

Day 3 of 30. The Childproof Lid from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Forearm Rollout
The main muscles that control your fingers and your grip are actually in your forearms and pull on the fingers with long tendons that extend down to the finger tips. Therefore, when you use your grip, your forearms get smoked. Additionally, the different muscles in your body should slide against each other like silk sheets, but when they get inflamed and neglected, they start to roughen up like corduroy and eventually turn to velcro. If you don’t do anything about it, it starts to rob you of grip strength because now when a muscle fires it doesn’t just pull the finger it has to pull all the other muscles it is stuck to. There are lots of ways to roll out these muscles. First, put your balls on the table and roll them out by simply pressing your forearm down and moving back and forth. Second, take your balls to the wall and lean your weight into them and make tiny movements with your hands and wrists.

Day 20 of 30. Put Your Balls On The Table. from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

The Tiny Conductor from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Deep Finger Stretching
I learned these finger stretches from a colleague of mine and I had never seen them before. I’m guessing you haven’t seen them before either. They are good and deep and will help your hands a lot. Go slow with these because they are really intense.

Intense Finger Stretches from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

See my other blog post on how to prepare your wrists before class and add these assisted recovery techniques after class. Do this work once or twice a week and over time you will have strong, healthy hands and be able to train harder.

Joint Preparation: Wrists and Forearms

Joint Preparation is strengthening the connective tissues around the joints: the tendons and ligaments. This is different than strengthening the muscles. Muscle tissues regenerate in about 90 days, connective tissue takes closer to 210 days to regenerate. Connective tissue has one-tenth the metabolic rate of muscle that means it takes 10 times longer to heal when it’s injured. The reason I prioritize joint preparation is because Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), by its nature, is based on causing trauma to the joints (armlocks, leglocks and neck cranks), therefore, strengthening connective tissue is a priority if one is to have longevity in the sport. Since it takes a really long time to regenerate connective tissue you need to prepare your joints consistently over a long period of time.

If you look at sports injuries in general, they tend to occur at end range of the joint where the muscles, tendons and ligaments are stretched to their fullest and are therefore their weakest. So joint preparation is basically end range strengthening and conditioning. This can look like weighted stretching or may take the form of various exercises that move the joints through full ranges of motion. By gradually loading the tissues at end range we can condition them to be stronger and more resilient in those positions.

In this article, I will take you through some of my favorite things to do to condition my wrists and forearms. Doing these will help your wrists stay strong and healthy over the years of doing BJJ.

Forearm Blast
This series of exercises will warm up your hands and forearms better than any other exercise I have ever done. There are five exercises that I show on this video. You begin with your arms straight out in front of you and you extend your wrists like you are pushing against a heavy door. Stretch you fingers as long and wide as you can and then make a tight fist while keeping your wrist bent back. Repeat this as fast as you can while trying to extend and flex your fingers as much as you can. Go as long as you can manage. You want to work towards being able to go for a minute. Then repeat this with your wrist flexed and your fingers pointing down at the floor. Now it gets more interesting, bend your elbows 90 degrees like you are a T-Rex and repeat the two variations (fingers up and fingers down). Lastly, with your elbows bent quickly flip your hands over, palms up and palms down, as fast as you can. This works the supination and pronation of the forearm. This whole sequence should take you less than 5 minutes. At first your forearms will feel swollen and tight like Popeye, but then after a minute the hands and wrists will feel really warm and loose. You are probably wondering if the burning sensation in your forearms is normal and healthy. Yeah, kind of. You have many muscles in your forearms that are encased in fascia and all those muscles should be able to slide and glide against each other and move independently. When we do these exercises we become aware that we do not have as much slide and glide as we should. The friction between these surfaces causes a lot of heat. Doing the joint preparation and assisted recovery (my next blog post) will help and you will soon notice that you can go longer and longer with this exercise.

Forearm Blast from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Wrist Stretches
Now that you are warmed up, we can stretch the wrists a little. These stretches are good to help increase some range of motion and also to start loading the joints with a little bit of weight. The four stretches I show on video can all be done from the knees and do not take very long. I recommend doing 10 gentle pulses into each stretch and then holding the last rep for 30 seconds.

Forearm Blast: Part 2 from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.

Wrist Push-Ups
These wrist push-ups are extremely challenging, but they will build very strong wrists that can withstand a lot of abuse. I recommend starting these standing up against the wall and only doing 1 hand at a time initially (The other hand was just doing a regular pushup. Don’t try to do 1-arm wrist pushups, you fucking savage!). That is how I learned them. Eventually, I was able to do them with both hands simultaneously standing at the wall, then I started doing them from my knees on the floor with one hand and then eventually with both hands. I was at the point where I could do them from my toes, but then I hurt my wrist and had to start back from square one. Even though these exercises didn’t prevent me from getting injured, by scaling back to very light versions of these, I was able to get my wrist back to 100% in a very short period of time. Work up to 5 sets of 5 of each variation. Start with the standing variations first before going to your knees. Also do not be in a hurry. These exercises are for the connective tissues that take a long time to regenerate. You will not see huge wrist muscles all of a sudden. You have to be patient and even if you think the variation is too easy, make sure you can do 5 sets of 5 with perfect form before trying to advance. Even if you stayed at the easiest variation and did them once a week for a year, in a year you wrists would be much stronger and healthier.

Forearm Blast: Part 3 from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.