Taking twelve years away from Brazilian jiu-jitsu (“BJJ”) was not good for my skills on the mat. However, I used that time to do a lot of training and coaching and worked with thousands of athletes around the world teaching CrossFit, kettlebells, weightlifting, mobility and gymnastics seminars. While it could be said that I’ve dabbled in too many fields, I like to think that doing everything from yoga to strongman training has given me a lot of perspective when it comes to training. As the saying goes, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I find that yoga teachers think that yoga is what’s missing from everyone’s training and weightlifters think that everyone needs to get stronger and lift more weight. Most blackbelts and people who have achieved success at something tend to advocate for whatever worked for them. It’s only natural. So when I lay out the things that I think are most important to BJJ athletes to help their training, I imagine my viewpoint might go against what other people have said. And that’s okay. I am just here to help.
Coming back to the mat after 12 years, it’s taken me a few months to get back to my former level but I feel like I’m there. In some ways I’m better than I was 12 years ago and in some ways I still have a lot of the same bad habits that I have to work to undo. But what is important to remember is that now, at 46 years of age, I am in better shape than I was at 34 and I am smarter about taking care of my body. So while I am an old purple belt and am not some world champion blackbelt or a CrossFit Games athlete, I have a lot of experience and time under tension. I also have a lot of training injuries that I’ve worked through so my recommendations come from a place of experience with an eye toward longevity.
Most blackbelts will tell you that if you want to be good at BJJ, you need more time on the mat. In order for you to log more training hours, you need to be healthy and injury free. In order to stay strong and healthy what you do off the mat is extremely important. Most blogs and magazine articles are concerned with optimal training: getting stronger, faster and being generally more awesome all the time. This thinking is essential for young competitors. That is not who my advice is aimed at (although younger athletes will do well to heed this advice). My experience is that you can take a 20-something male and throw a ton of training at them (both good and bad) and they will still continue to improve and get better. Furthermore, younger people can train through injuries just because they’re young and (think/believe) they’re invincible. I want to talk to the 30-, 40- and 50-year old BJJ athletes that are already starting to feel the wear and tear of training and advancing age. Time is a precious resource and the older you get, the less likely you are going to be pursuing a professional jiu-jitsu career, so efficiency and longevity are more important than creating an optimal program. For example, if you wanted to optimize your strength (i.e. get really strong, really fast), you might lift three to five days per week and follow some complicated periodized program and do a lot of complicated exercises. However, lifting once or twice a week and sticking with 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 big exercises and going as heavy as you can for that day will give you almost all the general strength benefits that you need for BJJ without sucking up a lot of valuable time and energy.
For myself and my athletes I first consider that training time is limited and so our training off the mat has to be efficient and effective. There are a lot of things that we could do, but there are a few things that we must do. There are four areas that need to be addressed and trained and if you give them the proper weight and allot adequate time for them it will help you stay strong and injury free and allow you to enjoy your time in the dojo.
The four elements are Joint Preparation, Assisted Recovery, Conditioning, and Strength. I listed them in what I consider their order of importance. Furthermore, these four elements have some overlap so the lines can be blurred sometimes. So doing joint preparation can also make you stronger and help your cardio. For example, doing heavy farmers carries (holding a very heavy dumbell/kettlebell in each hand and walking for distance or time) is not only a form of strength training, but it is also a conditioning workout because your heart will beat out of your chest. Furthermore, it strengthens the grip as well as the connective tissues in the hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Therefore, choosing exercises that have some crossover can be very efficient if you are short on time. Of course, it goes without saying, that nutrition is probably the most important weapon in your arsenal with regards to health and longevity, so while you read this eat a fucking salad!
I will go into greater detail in future blog posts on how to properly prepare your joints, ideas for recovery and, of course, strength and conditioning. Meanwhile, keep training and getting better.