Being stronger is better. Period. Anybody that tells you otherwise, doesn’t know anything about being strong or about being better. Strength is not just how hard you contract your muscles nor is it how big your muscles are. Strength is the productive application of force. Strength is force applied at the right place and at the right time to complete a task. If you cannot complete the task, then you are not strong enough. No amount of stepping on the pedal or turning the wheel will make your car go forward if there is no engine under the hood. The bigger the engine the faster the car goes. There is no real world situation where strength is a disadvantage. It’s not the only important thing but you should never pass up an opportunity to get stronger and avoid people that encourage you to do so as they are not to be trusted.
Jiujitsu guys love to give lip service to technique. And you see guys complain when they get tapped that the other guy was using too much strength and their technique was bad. A tap is a tap. In the real world we don’t tap just because someone used good technique. We tap because the move worked. Technique is merely the movements or positions used to accomplish a task. There are many many different techniques that can be used to accomplish the same task. When we rate a technique as good or bad what we are really looking at is the amount of energy expended to accomplish the same task. One technique is “better” than the other if it accomplishes the same task with less energy. Both good and bad techniques can be effective and accomplish the task, but the more efficient technique will lead to better results in the long run.
I want you to have strength and technique because both of these vectors point in the same direction. We have all faced the person who has limited technical ability but they make up for it with a lot of strength and they are tough opponents and can overcome very advanced practitioners just based on their size and strength. We have also faced some tiny black belt that seems very frail yet they are able to gradually break down our defenses and submit us. However, the most formidable opponents are the ones that are strong and technical.
To separate strength from technique is actually a fallacy and cannot be done. Strength and technique both point toward task accomplishment, i.e. getting the job done. An athlete that has good technique will appear stronger because the techniques they use will maximize the force they can apply to an opponent. Conversely, a stronger athlete can overcome technical deficiencies with their strength and pull off moves that a weaker athlete would not be able to.
Choose strength and use that strength to bolster your techniques.
A common problem in jiujitsu is that people fatigue and give up position or their grip gives out when they are going for a submission and eventually have to let go before the opponent taps. These are failures of stamina and cardio-respiratory endurance. Stamina can be thought of as localized muscular endurance. Muscle fatigue is usually due to 1) the inability to supply them with enough ATP and/or 2) the inability get rid of the waste that is the byproduct of vigorous muscular activity. “Gassing” or failure of the cardio-respiratory system is due to 1) the inability to uptake enough oxygen and/or 2) the inability expel carbon dioxide expediently. Regardless of the deficiency, you need both stamina and cardio. It is of little use to have strong grip but get gassed before you can apply a choke or, in the alternative, can run circles around your opponent but cannot hold on to them. While these are different physiological and biological functions, in truth, there is lots of overlap.
Training your grip and lungs simultaneously might not optimize either function but will more accurately replicate the demands of a jiujitsu match where you need to be able to grip while your heart rate is high. With a little imagination you can create a vast amount of great workouts that will address both issues. Here is my suggestion for a very jiujitsu specific workout that will immediately start to improve your game. This is also the simplest workout I could think of that requires a minimum of space, time and equipment, thus it is nearly impervious to all your shitty excuses.
Equipment: 1) A pull-up bar or something to hang from. If you do not have a pullup bar, exposed beam, door frame, scaffolding, or staircase to hang from, then open a door and simply hang off the top of the door or throw a towel over the door and grab the towel. You will also need enough space to jump and lay on the floor.
Workout: Hang from the pull-up bar for as long as you can. When you finally come off the bar, immediately do 20 burpees and then jump up and hang from the bar again. Continue for as long as your typical match would be according to your rank.
White belt -5min; Blue belt – 6min; Purple belt – 7min; Brown belt – 8min; Black belt – 10min.
If you are an adult blue belt, your matches typically last 6 minutes. Start the clock and jump up and hang from your pullup bar. Let’s say you can hang for 45 seconds, when you drop down you immediately start doing 20 burpees. As soon as you finish, you jump up and grab the pullup bar. Let’s say the burpees took 1 minute, you should be back up on the pullup bar at 1:46 and trying to hang again. Most likely you will come off much sooner the second time and each time after. If you find that you cannot consistently do 20 burpees consecutively and quickly (90 seconds or less), then drop the burpees down to around 10-15 reps. Any resting time should be done while hanging from the bar and any time on the ground should be spent doing burpees. Work to the point where you can hang for one minute or more each time you get on the bar. Then work on increasing the speed of the burpees until 20 can be done in less than a minute.
Once your hang times are consistently over a minute and your burpees are consistently less than a minute, then extend the time to the next belt level. Once you can do this for 10 hard minutes, you start to alternate hands while hanging so you are only hanging by one arm at a time or put on a weightvest.
If you want to make it more challenge, hang from one arm at a time and/or wear a weightvest.
If you’re looking to get stronger, healthier, fitter, lose weight and be more dominant on the mat, then you need to squat. Squats are an essential human movement. We sit and stand every day when we get up off the couch or off the toilet. It’s essential to our lives as human beings. Essential in the sense that if we lose the ability to squat, we lose the ability to live independently and our quality of life is greatly diminished. People that claim that they cannot squat for a variety of reasons have accepted decrepitude. They have resigned themselves to the inevitable decline that ends with them in a scooter cruising around the grocery store and living with an aide that cleans your creases. Learning and practicing basic squat mechanics and reclaiming this movement that came easy in our youth is a refusal to submit to aging and physical decline.
As an exercise, squats have the ability to strengthen not only the legs, but the back, the core and the lungs. Squatting also helps maintain flexibility by moving the ankles, knees, and hips through a normal, healthy range of motion. There are many varieties of squats, however only a few mechanical considerations which are universally accepted.
– The feet must remain flat on the floor. Weight shifting to the toes or the inside edges of the feet is to be avoided by shifting the weight back into the heels and actively trying to push the knees away from each other.
– The knees should point in the same direction as the toes. This not only helps keep the feet flat, but it puts the knee in the safest position: where the kneecaps point in the same direction as the middle toe. STarting with the toes turned out about 30 degrees is a good place to start.
– Athletes must learn to squat until the hip crease passes below the top of the knee. This below parallel position is extremely challenging because it is right at this point where the squat wants to fall apart, but maintaining proper mechanics throughout this range of motion builds the strongest squats and strengthens your muscles at the end range where they are most likely to fail.
– The squat is initiated by sitting back as if into a chair. This mimics our everyday movement pattern of sitting our butts down onto an object. Also by sitting back we learn to balance by bringing our head forward. Balance is a perishable skill that also needs to be practiced often lest we lose it (pun intended). Sitting back also helps maintain even weight on the feet and helps get the knees to line up with the toes.
– Maintaining a neutral spine. The Chinese say, “you are as old as your spine.” Thus a healthy spine is the key to longevity. The squat, done correctly, is a functional and safe way to progressively load the spine and keep it healthy. Start standing up straight and brace your spine by contracting all the muscles of the core and back so that the spine cannot bend while you are squatting. Movement should be limited to the ankles, knees, and hips.
By adhering to those five basic points of performance, squats can be done safely in all populations. Insist that all five points of performance are adhered to the best extent possible for the given athlete. If range of motion cannot be achieved, the athlete can still squat but the long-term goal would be to increase their range of motion so that they can get on and off the toilet by themselves.
There are many ways to squat and you should try them all. Air squats, back squats, front squats, overhead squats, zercher squats, goblet and many more. The style of squat mostly depends on the equipment you use and where you hold it. First start with a basic air squat (unloaded) and work on the basic mechanics. As you practice work on increasing your reps. Starting with sets of 5 to 10 is easy enough to maintain the basic points of performance. Then gradually increase the reps to 20, 30, and beyond. As fatigue starts to increase your form will decrease and you must do your best to maintain proper mechanics as the intensity increases.
Next step is to add some weight. I recommend a goblet squat. Grab a dumbbell, kettlebell, medicine ball, or some similarly heavy object between 15 and 50lbs. Hold the weight like a goblet under your chin with your elbows down and hands up as if you are about to take a sip from the challis. Squat down just like you did in the air squat. Usually with a light load, you will immediately notice some improvements in form: better balance, lower depth, more upright posture, and greater ability to have the knees track the toes. Again start at about 5 to 10 repetitions. You will most likely be limited by fatigue in the arms and shoulders from holding the weight. That’s fine. You will gain some strength and stamina by doing more of these. As with the air squat, slowly increase your repetitions until you can do sets of 50 or more with a light weight.
When you get to the point that you can do 100 air squats in a row or 50 goblet squats in a row, you will notice not only that your legs are stronger, but that your cardio is vastly improved. The benefits to your health and fitness are obvious and you will notice that your jiu-jitsu improves as well, especially regarding your passing game. Having strong legs as well as the conditioning to squat many many times will allow you to push the pace hard inside someones guard and not slow down due to fatigue. That’s only the start though. Continued progress will come from finding many different ways to make your stronger and better. The goal now is to gradually pick up heavier objects and put them on shoulders while you squat. What about reps? Jiu-jitsu doesn’t happen in sets of 5 or 10. Your training should be varied between light weight for high reps, moderate weight for moderate reps, and heavy weight for low reps. Also change the stimulus between front squats, back squats, overhead squats and zercher squats, and change the equipment from barbells, to dumbbells, to kettlebells, and to sandbags. Spend less time worrying about what to squat or how much to squat and just squat!
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.
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!
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.
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
– Loss of motivation
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.