Fitness is not just about looking good. Fitness is not just about being a better grappler. Fitness is a hedge against sickness. What that means is that if you take all the measures of health such as blood pressure, body fat, resting heart rate, cholesterol, bone density, etc. as well as all the measures of fitness such as your 1RM deadlift, mile time, max reps pushups, etc. and plotted them for your cohort, you would see that they fall along a spectrum. The fittest people should have all their health and fitness markers toward one end of the curve and the sickest people will have their markers at the other end of the curve with the majority of the population somewhere in the middle. Genetic differences aside, people do not just magically end up on this curve. This curve, our fitness and health, is a direct result of lifestyle choices. The sickest tend to not only suffer from over consumption of refined and processed foods but also tend to be more sedentary. The fittest tend to eat better and move more and make other choices that positively affect their health and fitness. It is only through a continued practice of making good choices consistently that we move ourselves toward the fit end of the spectrum. Likewise bad choices and neglect can lead us toward sickness. However, if you’ve spent years eating right and exercising and improving your fitness, it is like putting money away for a rainy day. When times like this occur and you cannot eat as well or workout as much, you have your fitness savings account to fall back on. However, if you’ve been living hand to mouth, you will be more susceptible to large events that negatively impact your health. So put some time in every day to getting off the carbs and off the couch. Invest in your health and fitness as a lifelong pursuit. Build a strong buffer against sickness.
Nobody bothered to ask me, but if they did ask me, here’s what I would tell them: Get in really good shape if you want to compete. A jiujitsu competition is not just about who has the best jiujitsu skills, it’s about who is willing to work harder to win. The worst way to lose in my opinion is to gas out because you were not in fighting shape. There are lots of ways to train but if I was going to initially assess your readiness, I would look at these four workouts first and see how your performed. These are just three workouts that I have frequently used to train and assess athletes and there are many more that I could choose. Let’s start here. These workouts are relatively low skill and low weight but pack a punch and are useful to gauge how ready you are for the physical and mental challenges of competition. First learn to beat a barbell that isn’t fighting back before going against a live opponent.
When you enter a tournament you know based on your belt level how long your matches will last. A white belt match is 5 minutes and a black belt match is 10 minutes (different organizations will have different time limits). You will know your weight and your opponents should be within a certain weight range. You probably will not know how many matches you will have until the day of because brackets are often not set until they have all the participants registered and checked in. Ask around and get a sense if you are in a stacked division or a light division. Obviously it is better to be over-prepared for more matches. On average most people have about 4 matches at local tournaments. Be prepared. Also in terms of strength you should be able to back squat and deadlift a barbell that weighs the same or more than you for multiple reps. You should have multiple pull-ups and dips.
“Fight Gone Bad”
In the early days of CrossFit, Coach Glassman created a workout for BJ Penn to prepare him for the UFC. The workout was called “Fight Gone Bad” and it was as follows:
3 5-minute rounds of: (5 rounds if he was preparing for a championship fight).
1 minute of Wallballs, 20lbs 10ft target
1 minute of Sumo Deadlift High Pulls, 75 lbs
1 minute of Box Jumps, 20”
1 minute of Push Press, 75lbs
1 minute of Rowing for Calories
1 minute rest between rounds.
The score was the total number of reps (and calories on the rower) added up over all three rounds. What is great about this workout is that by doing the movements correctly you are forced to do a minimum amount of work for each rep and the more reps you get overall indicates your ability put out power for the duration of a fight.
“The Death Race”
5 rounds for time of:
15 Calories Bike
This is a “gas pedal” workout: you step on the gas and go! There is no rest. You have to hit this hard and fast. Getting this workout done in under 7 minutes will require you to go to a dark place. If you want to be physically and mentally prepared for a competition, strive to do this workout as fast as possible.
“StrongFit Conditioning Benchmark”
Originally this workout was written as 8 minutes with a 140lb sandbag. I suggest you set the clock to match your rank level: 5 minutes for white, 6 for blue, etc. The weight should be 60-70% of your body weight. So a 200lb black belt should be carrying a 120-140lb sandbag for 10 minutes. This is just a simple and painful workout that will test your fortitude.
Pick up the bag and bear hug it or Zercher it and do 5, below-parallel squats, walk 50ft and turn around and do 5 more squats and walk back. Repeat this as many times as you can during the time. The less you drop the bag the better. The more rounds you do the better. An average of a round per minute is pretty good. You want to exceed that by as much as possible. Hugging a heavy sandbag is a good facsimile for grappling with another human of similar size.
CrossFit Open Workout 12.1
This is by far the simplest workout you can do to determine your readiness. The original workout is simple: perform as many burpees as you can in 7 minutes. In its original form the burpees were done to a target six inches above the athlete’s max reach. This dramatically impacts your score. I suggest you modify this to a time that corresponds to your belt level: 5 minutes for white belt, 6 for blue, etc. I also recommend you try it with and without the target. An average of about 12 burpees per minute with a target (and 15 without a target) is excellent. If you can move at that pace it will be hard for someone to out work your during your match.
There are lots of ways to train and there is no guaranty that being stronger or faster or doing more burpees will get you a medal. But being in good shape gives you confidence it gives you a leg up on your opponent. It’s one less thing you have to worry about when you’re on the mat. Go work fucking harder.
This time of year is very interesting if you are a crossfitter. The CrossFit Games Open Competition is five weeks of worldwide, online competition between basically every crossfitter in the world. Each week for five weeks a workout is released on a Thursday evening and by Monday evening everyone must submit their scores and have them validated. People compete against, themselves, their friends at the gym, and against other crossfitters from around the world. The practice of “leaderboarding” becomes a favorite pasttime during the Open as everyone constantly checks the online leaderboard to see where they rank and also follow their favorite athletes to see where they rank. By using different filters on the leaderboard, you can compare yourself to others of the same age, profession, or in the same region, etc. It’s quite an event. From the gym owner’s perspective it is a complicated time of the year because you try to sign everyone at the gym up for the Open. You have to make sure people take the online judges’ course and make yourself available to judge and validate scores. Most gym’s choose to run the Open workout all day Friday or Saturday and also make themselves available for make ups and do overs. With some people insisting on re doing the workout several times up until the last possible minute on Monday before scores need to be submitted. This can be an incredible opportunity for creating a fun, supportive, competitive environment at your gym and bring members together. Additionally, the Open competition has a magical ability to push athletes to try and succeed at many tasks that they heretofore were unable to do. Social media is often overrun with videos of people performing their first muscle up, double under, handstand pushup, etc. It’s a great time of the year. Many athletes enjoy the fun competitive atmosphere as well as the opportunity to push and hit new personal bests. There is a downside to the Open as well. Many gym owners complain about this time of year because it forces additional administrative duties on them. The need to register people, judge and validate scores, keep the gym open longer for people to redo the workout. Additionally, many gym owners find it extremely hard to program workouts during the Open because they do not want to overtrain their athletes during the competition or fatigue some body part on Wednesday or Thursday right before they may be needing it on Friday. Gym owners often complain about the logistics of the open. So workouts are difficult to run in certain spaces, they may not have enough equipment. Some athletes will either want to or need to video their workouts and that often requires rearranging of space and resources to accommodate. Also managing people’s expectations during competition season requires a whole other level of empathy above and beyond what is usually required. From the athlete’s point of view, the Open is a competition and all the stress of competition is in full effect. People stress much more about everything when it’s a competition. Some people shut down in the face of competition and refuse to partake or partake only half-heartedly. While others give in to the dark side of competition and start to obsess about everything. They swear they will only do the workout once and then find themselves repeating a workout two or more times until they are satisfied or out of time. As I said before, some people embrace this stress and it pushes them to breakthrough to new personal bests. Others breakdown. They quit. They cry. They Crumble. I myself find the impending Open always fills me with a little dread, but once I’m in it, I am glad that I signed up. The Open is possibly the best part of the year in CrossFit despite all the negatives and hassles and here’s why. The Open re-affirms one of CrossFit’s defining characteristics: intensity gets you results. The Open is about intensity. If people treated every training session at the gym every day like it was the CrossFit Open, they would get much fitter much faster. Sadly, most people, coaches, owners spend the other ten and a half months chasing more volume and doing longer workouts, doing multiple workouts, and chasing quantity over quality. Then they have a hard time adjusting to the all-out intensity of the Open. Here’s what a standard day looks like in an affiliate. There is a brief chat about the workout. There is a general warmup. Then the class will do a lifting session sometimes culminating in an EMOM. After that there is a mad rush to set up equipment for the Met Con and it’s “3,2,1 Go!” Followed by a cool down and class is over. Very little time is spent preparing for the workout, going over the movements and the standards. There is very little coaching or correcting when it comes to range of motion and standards. There is very little time spent on mobility or workout strategies. There is very little time spent on skill development. Contrast this to how things happen in the Open. Every time a workout is released coaches start posting strategies and tips to their social media. You learn the best ways to mobilize, tutorials for how to do each of the movements, the best way to cycle the barbell, the best strategies for breaking up bigger sets, etc. Suddenly people become aware of things like range of motion and movement standards and no reps. And, maybe most importantly, class isn’t divided into multiple workouts. The whole hour is devoted to getting you to perform your best and be effective tackling one workout. When you think about it like that, it’s no wonder that so many people set personal records during the Open and get their first muscle up or double under. What if we had one workout per day and just devoted a whole hour to smashing it and getting the best performance possible? Think about how that would affect your long term training and development. This is why if you look at CrossFit.com you will still see only one single workout each day. Each day the intention is to smash one work hard as if you were in competition, as if it was the only thing that mattered. Every year the Open is a reminder to me to focus on one thing and do it better.
You have two gyms each running the exact same programming and after six months, you have two populations with wildly different results. Why? Because the programming comes second to the coaching, the community and the athletes. How the program is implemented is just as, if not more, important as the program itself. That’s not to say that the program is irrelevant. The program is important and a good program can help foster better coaching and community. More importantly a bad program can really hinder a coach and create road blocks to fostering a good community.
I often hear coaches and gym owners that deal with athletes and clients complaining about the programming. If your athletes are complaining about the program something is wrong but it may or may not be the program. The athletes are unhappy that’s the main problem. So let’s first deal with that problem and then dig deeper into how to implement a good program.
People want to have fun. Fun comes in many flavors but creating a fun atmosphere goes a long way toward keeping your athletes from complaining. Smile, play some music, tell some jokes, don’t take things too seriously and make sure people know that having fun is encouraged.
Training hard is its own kind of fun. Getting after a workout and suffering together with other people is a special kind of fun that people will eventually embrace. They understand that the hardwork comes with a payoff in the way they look, feel and perform. It’s okay to encourage them to enjoy the process as well as work for the outcome.
Make people feel cared for. People like to be acknowledged and cared for. Some people need far less of this and some people need far more. Some guys can get by on a fist bump and you bringing the bucket of chalk closer to them during the workout. Some people need a look in the eyes, a hug, you saying their name and telling them that everything is going to be okay. Regardless, everyone needs to know that their needs will be met for the next hour. They need to feel like this is a safe place to let their guard down and make ugly faces during the workout.
People need to be coached. Coaching is not just counting reps and cheer leading. You need to fix their movement and help them get PRs. That can be as easy as reminding them to keep their heels on the ground or as challenging as setting up a special station for them to do banded muscle ups in the workout. Even a high-level regionals athlete can benefit from a pair of eyes on them telling them to squat a little lower or pick up the bar a little sooner. Nobody is immune from coaching and everyone performs better when chasing or being chased.
Everyone likes to be acknowledged. Find ways to celebrate the victories for everyone. It’s not always a faster time. Sometimes it’s a new skill. Or just waking up early for the morning class. If you notice people’s effort, they will respond.
Scale and manage intensity. Assume more people should be scaling more often. Lighter weight does not mean less challenging. Create conditions for your athletes to experience intensity. They might be scaling the load, but they should be going faster or doing more reps unbroken. New athletes might need to just focus on mechanics and not speed. Challenge them to do 10 or 20 perfect reps in a row. The job of the coach is not merely to administer the workout, it is to train the athletes to perform. That means they within the workout there are many opportunities to improve their performance. Keep newer athletes from overdoing it and make sure the athletes that are ready and capable are pushing themselves appropriately.
Coach your athletes to be successful in the short term and the long term. If the workout involves fast barbell movements, then you should be coaching them on how to successfully cycle a barbell quickly so they can do their best on the workout. I often see coaches teach the same clean & jerk progression whether the workout is a 1 rep max or 30 reps for time. While it is essentially the same exercise, the specifics of how these two movements are done in each workout differ tremendously. That’s short term coaching: coaching them to win the workout. Long term success is giving them opportunities to practice skills that they need to work on more frequently. It’s useless to only do muscle up progressions once or twice a month when they show up in the workout. They should be incorporated much more often if you want your athletes to start getting muscle ups.
Keep your programming simple. You only have an hour to warmup, workout and cooldown. If you try to cram too much into that hour, you take away time from coaching and teaching. You also rob people of time to interact and have fun with each other. A warmup takes 5 to 10 minutes. If you want to actually teach and coach people you need to spend 10 to 15 minutes per movement going over progressions and drills and coaching. If you are going to lift above 80% of your max, then you will need to warm up and do 3 to 5 sets to gradually build to the weights you are going to lift. That takes a lot of time and requires a lot of attention from the coach to try to coach people while the weights are still light enough that they can make some changes.
Lastly you need to educate your athletes. There is no reason why your athletes would understand how CrossFit programming works. Many coaches, gym owners, and high-level athletes do not understand it fully. Find a way to explain that they need to be strong. Find a way to explain that variance allows them to train for whatever life throws at them so that they can be generally physically prepared for life outside the gym. You need to educate your athletes on why cheering for each other is more important than just putting away your weights and mixing a protein shake before everyone else is done. You need to educate your athletes on why doing things you suck at is important and will make them better at the things they’re already good at. You need to educate your athletes on nutrition and why eating like a grown is important and the answer is not another bag of protein powder. You need to educate your athletes on why it’s important to keep a log book of their workouts and when they say that the program isn’t working, open it up and go over the data and see what is and isn’t working instead of just listening to them complain because they don’t want to run a 5k.
When your athletes complain use that as an opportunity to evaluate whether you are doing everything you can to help them be better and keep them happy. See how much you can fix on your end. Then if they still want to complain just turn up the music and say “3, 2, 1, go!”
I’m just a guy that’s trying to stay in shape. I have a family, I have a job, I have a full plate, but I still need to make time for working out. I want to look good, feel good, I want to set a good example for my kids, and I don’t want to be that guy that’s let himself go because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re in your forties. I do not believe that you have to spend all your time working out to be in good shape. Intensity and consistency are the keys to getting in shape, not spending hours in the gym.
For me, fitness is my job and my hobby so I have a lot of gear. Most people don’t need to invest in a lot of gimmicky gear that’s going to collect dust and eventually get sold at a yard sale. You need the bare minimum of gear, but more importantly, you need a plan and someone that’s going to motivate you. That’s me.
This program is not going to turn you into The Rock. It’s going to motivate you to get off your ass for 20 minutes a day and workout. It’s going to make you stronger, it’s going to improve your endurance, and it’s going to challenge you to move in new ways.
Sound good? What you need is one kettlebell*, something to do pull-ups* on, and a place to run*. I program a single workout per day, five days per week. There are video examples of each exercise as well as video briefs for most of the workouts. There are tutorials for more complicated movements and options for modifications and scaling if the exercises are too hard. But best of all they are all short, intense workouts that take 20 minutes or less.
Why one kettlebell? If I could only have one piece of exercise equipment on a desert island, it would be a kettlebell. A kettlebell can be held with one hand or with both hands simultaneously, thus there are more exercise options than with a dumbbell of the same weight. The center of mass is offset unlike a dumbbell, thus you can do swinging exercises that are hard to replicate with a dumbbell, and you can hold it in different ways to challenge your grip. They’re small and portable and can be used almost anywhere. What if I want more than one kettlebell? You can have as much gear as you want. I will totally support you in spending as much as you want on cool exercise equipment. However, for this program, you just need one kettlebell. I recommend men get a bell between 35 and 55 pounds (1 to 1.5 pood). Women should get a bell between 20-35 pounds (10-16kg). I will demo almost everything with a 16kg competition bell. Most of you if you’re buying a bell for the first time I would recommend women starting with 12kg or 25lbs and men starting with 16kg or 35lbs. If you have absolutely zero working out experience and that sounds heavy, then go lighter. If you have a lot of weightlifting experience and that sounds too light, go heavier. I’m going to program everything with the 25/35 pound weight in mind for the average user and assume if it’s too challenging you will modify the reps down or modify the exercise. And I will assume if you’re using the heavier option you will either go a little slower or do fewer reps.
Why pull-ups? One of the best upper body exercises is pull-ups. Unfortunately, there are surprisingly few places to do pull-ups in our environment, so it is worth it to invest in a pull-up bar. Since many people find pull-ups extremely challenging, what I recommend is investing in some sort of suspension training device. I use a pair of gymnastic rings that I have suspended from the ceiling, but you can get a TRX type system and hang it from the ceiling, a pullup bar, or the back of a door. The suspension trainer allows you to do upperbody pulling exercises using your legs for assistance and allowing you to train your pullup muscles even if you cannot yet do a pullup. It also opens up a tremendous amount of additional exercise possibilities.
Why do I need to run? Good question. I often ask that same question when I’m in the middle of a run. Running is a tremendous cardio exercise and a life skill that will get you out of danger. Whether you like it or not, you should be able to run a full sprint to catch a plane, chase down a pick pocket, or escape from a horde of zombies. However, if you cannot run or do not have a place to run, I highly recommend having access to some piece of cardio equipment that can crush your soul in a similar fashion. I suggest running because it’s cheap. Most people have access to the outdoors, but some of you might live in a 5 story walk-up on the lower east side and running might not be feasible. Don’t worry. We can make it work. If you have a bike, a rower, an elliptical, a jump rope, or some other cardio equipment that’s awesome, and you can always just run in place if that’s the only option.
What kind of workouts will these be? Well you can expect that you will have to run, use the kettlebell and do something on the pullup bar every week, but the workouts will always be changing to challenge you in different ways. Some days you will spend more time running. Some days you’ll just stand in one place and do a lot of kettlebell swings. Some days will be a circuit of many different exercises. Some days will challenge your flexibility and balance and some days will challenge your strength. Some days you’ll hate it and be frustrated and other days you will feel amazing. It’s all part of the process. You won’t get bored, you won’t over train and burn out. Most importantly, you’ll get fit.
You want to start lifting but don’t know where to begin.
Do you want to be stronger? Do you want to have healthier bones, joints and muscles? Do you want to increase your metabolism and improve your body composition? Do you want to dominate people on the mat? Then you want to start strength training and lifting them weights. #gainz
Maybe you are a jiujitiero or maybe not. Maybe you have lifted weights before or maybe you haven’t. Maybe you have taken a long hiatus from the gym or maybe you’ve never been in a gym before. Whatever the case, you are looking to get stronger but don’t know where to begin. Here’s a simple, quick, and effective program for you to get you back on the #gainztrain.
The general rule to getting stronger is that you have to lift heavy three to five days per week at loads at or above 80% of your one rep max (1RM). However, rules were made to be broken! I have found that most jiujitsu players find it challenging to do a linear progression program like 5/3/1 or Starting Strength on top of their regular jiujitsu training.
They complain that they are simply too tired and sore to roll after a long lifting session. That makes sense because those lifting programs are for people that are only lifting and not doing a second sport.
So I want to dodge that whole problem with a program that will allow you to start lifting and getting results without derailing your jiujitsu training.
What I recommend is a few sets of 8×8. If you google “German volume training” or go to Thundrbro.com you will find lots of cool articles and lots of variations of this program. But most of the articles on it will prescribe this as a high volume training for intermediate to advanced athletes. Recently I rediscovered this through my friends at Thundrbro.com and started modifying it for myself and a few of my athletes and love the way it works.
I like this method of training because: 1) it builds strength; 2) it builds muscle; 3) it strengthens connective tissues; 4) it is fast and efficient; and 5) it uses lighter weights. The reason you are using lighter weights is that you are doing longer sets, you are under tension the entire time, and you are doing a lot of eccentric work. This creates a huge training stimulus. I additionally like starting newer lifters with lighter weights and having them move slower because they can focus on the quality of their movement more. Beginners love to rush, this program does not allow rushing. The lighter weights means you do not have to do a lot of warm up sets to get to your work weights. A quick general warm up and a couple of sets of the exercise as you work toward your weight for the day is plenty and you can get right to work.
Here is all you have to do. You will take an exercise and perform 8 sets of 8 repetitions. Each repetition is performed with a 3 second negative and a slight pause. Take approximately 30 seconds of rest between sets. If you do this correctly, each set should take between 30 and 40 seconds. Sets can start every minute or every 70 seconds. The total time for the 8 sets (64 reps) is under 9 minutes which makes for an intense session. If you do two exercises per lifting day, you will be able to finish in 30 minutes with a warm up and cool down. That’s efficient. I recommend 2 or 3 sessions per week. That is plenty on top of a normal jiujitsu training schedule.
You have to work 3 different movement functions: squatting, pushing, and pulling. These are the three biggest movement functions that use the most muscle and have the most general carry over to all athletics. Every session should include a lower body squat or lunge and at least one upper body pull or push. You can always add more, but try to carve out enough time for two 8-minute sets. Start with the legs first and then do the upper body second. But it’s not the end of the world if you switch the order because you’re waiting for someone to finish doing curls in the squat rack.
I try to rotate through different exercises each time I do a session: front squat with kettlebells, front squat with barbell, back squat, sandbag bearhug squat, weighted step ups, rear foot elevated lunges, etc. It’s more important that you do the exercise well than you just keep trying new exercises. So get familiar with an exercise and how much load you can handle for 8×8 before you switch to a new exercise. It is extremely common to start the workout with weight that seems manageable only to find out about half way through that you can’t finish all 8 sets. You can either rest and reset, or you can chalk it up to a learning experience and come back the next day and choose a lighter weight. Better to start too light and build some confidence than grind through the hardest workout your first day in the gym and get too sore to return the next day.
If you are an experienced lifter, you should be targeting 40-60% of your 1RM on your 8×8. If you are new you should start light, work on your form and increase weights gradually every time you cycle back to a lift you have done before. On this program you add weight to your lifts once every cycle. The lower body lifts cycle every 4 weeks and you add 5 to 10 pounds per lift. The upper body lifts cycle every 3 weeks but only increase by 2 to 5 pounds. If you are an experienced lifter, cycle through program for 8 weeks and then go back to lifting heavier again. If you are a novice, try to find your one rep max on each lift after 8 weeks.
Obviously, it would be better to have access to a gym and some weights but if you are at home and only have a kettlebell or pair of dumbbells you can make it work. If the dumbbell you have is too light to challenge your legs in the squat, then do lunges or step ups so you have to lift the weight with only one leg. That will make the weight seem twice as heavy. Likewise, if you have to press or pull with one arm at a time to challenge yourself, then do that. Stop procrastinating and go get swole.
Here are two example days.
0:00-5:00 Warmup with some squats and pushups and a quick run or bike.
5:00-13:00 8 sets of 8 Goblet Squats with a 3-second negative and 1-second pause at the bottom. Start every set on the minute.
15:00-23:00 8 sets of 8 Bent Over Barbell Rows with a 3-second negative and a 1-second pause at the top. Start every set on the minute.
Do as many burpees as you can in 5 minutes.
0:00-5:00 warmup with some squats, pushups and a quick run or bike.
5:00-13:00 8 sets of 8 sandbag bearhug squats with a 3-second negative and a 1-second pause at the bottom.
15:00-23:00 8 sets of 8 dumbbell bench press with a 3-second negative and a 1-second pause at the bottom.
25:00-30:00 Grab the heaviest dumbbell or kettlebell you have and do a 1-arm farmer walk until you have to put it down, then switch hands and walk until you have to put it down. Continue for 5 minutes.
What is with the 5 minute piece at the end? Well it’s a good habit to start getting in some conditioning while you are tired. At first it will be exhausting but eventually you will condition your body to be able to keep pushing when you’re fatigued. After a few weeks of this program you will notice the difference on the mat. You will be stronger and faster and able to roll longer without getting as tired.
I have seen a lot of social media posts from movement educators (yoga teachers, physical therapists, and others) about various cues being inaccurate. Taking issues with cues is a distraction. The cue isn’t the problem. The cue is a description or a direction but it is not a literal/factual/actual definition. If I cue you not to judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes some uppity movement teacher would chastise me for telling people to steal shoes and blame me for the shin splints and plantar fasciitis resulting from excessive walking in ill-fitting footwear. It’s a power move where the internet coach tries to position themself as an expert by criticizing the way others are doing something and presumably set them straight. Classic. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing to some degree. Regardless, it’s a waste of time and energy and ultimately not advancing the cause of movement education. For example, the one that comes up a lot lately is the “breathe into your belly” cue that is popular with yoga teachers. It’s only been the last decade that movement educators outside of the yoga space have taken any interest in breathing and suddenly they come rushing onto the scene to tell yoga teachers how they are doing it wrong. These newly minted anatomists are quick to point out that we do not have lungs in our bellies and that the cue is woefully inaccurate and misleading. Please!
A “Cue” is a directive from coach or teacher to athlete or student to get them to move or position themselves better. A cue is often a shorthand for a much bigger concept or set of instructions. Some cues are “terms of art” which are words or phrases that have a precise, specialized meaning within a particular field. If I shout “hooks!” at my jiu-jitsu athlete during a training session, he should understand, that I want him to position his feet on the inside of his opponent’s thighs. It is important to understand that the cue is only as good as the result that it gets. The best cue is the one that works. While an anatomically more accurate cue might be less subject to criticism it is useless if it does not get your student into a better position.
If you have been teaching movement for any length of time you will start to realize that talking more does not lead to better movement from your students. Your students move better by moving more. Nobody needs to hear everything, nor can they assimilate everything, on the first pass. In order to free the angels in the marble you need to chisel away over and over. Better movement is more refined movement. More refinement comes from repetition and a gradual improvement on the previous iteration. The job of refining movement is that of a sculptor gradually chipping away the imperfections in the marble until the hidden beauty is revealed. A sculptor takes many passes over the marble with finer and finer tools to eventually get to the finished product. A sculptor that only has a large chisel will never be able to create the fine details in the piece and a sculptor that only has a very tiny chisel will never be able to create the rough shape of the form. Your cues should have many levels of detail depending on where you and your athlete are relative to where you are going.
The job of a teacher is not merely to educate with factual knowledge, The job of a teacher is also to inspire, to entertain, and to challenge their students. The mere recitation of anatomical facts does little to ignite a student’s curiosity or get them over their fear of getting upside-down. The teacher must wear the hat of cheerleader, poet, task master, sage, story teller, and wikipedia author. The job is to curate an experience for the student from beginning to end that will ultimately be the best part of the student’s day. Using flowery language, poetry, telling stories, and cheering for students in subtle and not-so-subtle ways is part of the teacher’s job. A balance must be struck between how much you speak in literal prose and how much you speak in metaphor but both are necessary. Taking any cue out of context will often reveal many deficiencies, but the point is you can never separate the cue from the context. Do not let the literal-minded extinguish your poetry!
Those of us that lift and roll, i.e. strength train in addition to jiu-jitsu, don’t see what the big deal is. Those that don’t lift and roll, find the concept baffling and the actual practice of it, confounding. The basic complaint is that after a lifting session, the athlete complains that they are too tired to roll or feel weak when they do this is in addition to complaining about the general soreness. The other thing to note is that people that lift and roll also feel sore and tired and weaker when they roll, but they do it anyway.
So why do it? Lifting, done correctly, makes you stronger. Being stronger helps your jiu-jitsu. Period. Training against a larger opponent requires more strength than training against a smaller opponent regardless of the technique. Every move you do you need to apply more force to in order to move that opponent. So being stronger will help. Additionally, strength training will increase the size of the muscles but also help build the tendons that attach the muscles to the bones. Stronger tendons and other connective tissues make your joints more resistant to injury. Strength training also increases your bone density which decreases the risk of fractures. In other words, strength training is protective. It makes your body more resilient and allows you to have greater longevity in the sport.
Here is the common problem. It’s similar to the New Year’s Resolution problem. You get all excited to go back to the gym for the first time in forever and you jump on every machine and do every exercise that you can think of. Then a day or two later you are so sore you can hardly walk much less train. Then you avoid the gym for another week or two and repeat the process and then you quit going to the gym. We see this play out every January when the gyms are packed with people and then in February it’s empty.
What you should do, especially if you are looking to train jiujitsu, is under train. What is under training? It’s going in to the gym and doing much less than you think you need to get any results. When you start training after a long lay off, the excitement to go back and hit it hard is great. But you should be thinking about consistency. Make a commitment to go to the gym two or three days a week and try to spend minimal time and effort there for the first two to four weeks. Just make going to the gym a habit before you try to cram in a bunch of exercise. Over time you can increase the volume and intensity of your workouts, but don’t even worry about that until just showing up is a habit.
For example, let’s say I used to be able to squat over 300lbs when I was training hard. If I go into the gym with the idea that I can still squat over 300lbs even though I haven’t trained in 6 months, I’m going to hurt myself or the very least set myself up for disappointment. Instead, I would start very humbly and load the bar up to 95lbs and do several sets of 5 to 10 reps and call it a day. The next time maybe I would stay at 95lbs or maybe go up to 105lbs. Even if the weight felt ridiculously light I would make it a point to hold myself back. The same goes with upper body exercises. I would make it a point to do far less than what I was capable of. To leave the gym with the desire to come back and do more is far stronger than leaving because you simply couldn’t do any more. When leave the gym and you go to jiujitsu you will walk in full of that energy to continue training. Essentially, using your strength training as a physical and mental warmup to prime the pump for rolling. Gradually from there you can increase the volume and intensity of your gym sessions.
I’m sure someone will read this and say that you will never get anywhere if you keep under training. That’s true. Ultimately, if you want to get stronger and faster, then you have to train harder and lift more. However, what I am advocating is prioritizing your primary goal, getting better at jiujitsu, over your secondary goal, getting stronger. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get stronger, it means that you shouldn’t be trying to do that to the point of it interfering with your primary goal. If your deadlift goes up from 250 to 275lbs you’ve gotten stronger. If I train you just on weightlifting, I could get your deadlift to go up in 6 to 8 weeks. That would be optimal. But that would require making the weightlifting the primary goal for the 8 weeks and your jiujitsu would probably suffer. If I focus on increasing your deadlift over 3 to 4 months, it is less optimal with respect to weightlifting, but still very doable while keeping your jiujitsu game strong. Slow gains are still gains. Consistency is key.
What does it mean to be an athlete? Athletes tend to prize certain characteristics such as drive, determination, competitiveness, commitment, and adaptability. Athletes also comport to a code of conduct referred to as sportsmanship. Good sportsmanship means to play fair, be a team player, lose gracefully, win with class and dignity, respect the officials, and respect the other team.
What does it mean to be a warrior? To be a warrior one must possess strength, courage and honor. Warriors follow a code of Bushido which espouses honor, obedience, duty, and self-sacrifice. On a philosophical level these two groups are not at odds, in fact, they overlap nearly perfectly. Thus it is not surprising that many athletes look to the great warrior texts such as The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings for inspiration and guidance.
What is surprising is that martial artists do not look more closely at the best practices of athletes to help them physically prepare. I work with a lot of athletes and the best ones all do similar things. They eat right. While each athlete might have a different plan for how they eat, they all have a plan. Good athletes are in control of the quality of their food as well as the quantity of their food. They keep track of there macro and micro nutrients. Good athletes understand that proper nutrition is essential to your performance and health.
The best athletes work hard in the gym to keep their bodies functioning at a high level. Varsity and professional weight rooms are filled with athletes getting after it. There are coaches helping them not only get stronger but also fixing imbalances and preparing their bodies to be injury resistant.
The best athletes warm up. They show up early and prepare their bodies and minds for the training session or the competition at hand. They know that a good warm up not only helps them avoid injury but also helps them get mentally prepared to work hard.
The best athletes take their recovery seriously. The best athletes are nerds and go to bed early. They stretch and roll and get massages and take care of small aches and pains before they become bigger problems.
The best athletes use their practice time to fix their mistakes. I see a lot of athletes that are not that impressive in practice. They seem a little slow and sometimes look like they have two left feet, but when it’s game day they are MVPs. What I have come to realize is that good athletes will use their training sessions to fix mistakes and work on new skills. They are not concerned with how they look in practice because they are consciously working on new skills which naturally makes them slightly slower and more awkward. That’s how the best athletes continue to improve.
In addition to spending time with high level athletes, I spend a lot of time with enthusiasts and hobbyists. It is okay to merely come to the gym or dojo to look better for the summer. And, honestly, sometimes it’s more fun to hang out with people that are not seriously competitive athletes. However, we could all adopt a few better practices that would help us improve.
You do not need to revamp your whole diet, but you could make sure you eat more protein especially after you work out. You could consider removing some processed foods from your diet. You don’t have to hire a professional coach, but you could do some more burpees and swing a kettlebell every other day. You do not need to hire a professional masseuse, but you could make sure you show up in time to warmup for class and stay 10 minutes later and do some stretching before you leave.
Taking a few small steps will add up to better performance and longevity. Think like a warrior and act like an athlete.
There is a common argument that is put forth so much that we do not think about how stupid it is. The argument goes like this, “All other things being equal, the person with more X will prevail.” The argument is always used by someone that is trying to sell you more X. The fallacy of the argument is that the way it is set up, no matter what X is it will confer an advantage over people that are otherwise equally endowed. So no matter what X is, the statement always holds true for X as well as Y or Z.
For example, you hear this in competitive sports all the time, “All other things being equal, the athlete that is _________ will win.” You could fill the blank with “stronger,” “faster,” “heavier,” “better conditioned,” etc. The point is anybody that has an advantage of any kind and can capitalize on that advantage will be victorious. The argument that one advantage is more advantageous than another is specious.
Yes being stronger than your opponent is helpful if you can capitalize on that. The same is true of having better endurance or a better strategy. But all other things are not equal. They are never equal. Ever. You and your opponent both have strengths and weaknesses. The best path to victory is not trying to merely outdo everyone with strength, speed, or endurance. Because what will you do when you encounter someone stronger than you? Remember, there is always someone stronger than you. Always.
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
-Robert A. Heinlein
You need to be strong when your opponent is weak. You need to be fast when your opponent is slow. You need endurance when your opponent is gassed. You need strategy when your opponent is confused. You need to be centered when your opponent is scattered. Your fitness is not one thing, it is many things. Your success should be built on many things not one thing. Specialization is for insects.
Your training off the mat should make you formidable on many levels. Train to have no weaknesses that your opponent can exploit. Train so hard off the mat, that rolling is always easy in comparison.