Tag Archives: BJJ

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!

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.

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.

Training for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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.

Back On The Mats, Part 2

Coming back to jiu-jitsu after such a long time has been wonderful for me. Training jiu-jitsu gives me so much purpose. Knowing that I will be tested every time I get on the mats is extremely motivating and inspiring. Resuming my quest to get my black belt is exciting. This time I have a greater appreciation of the goal but I also have more patience ironically. At 45 years old, I should be more impatient about getting my black belt but I have more trust in the process. I’m excited to spend the next 5 to 10 years chasing that blackbelt.

Back On The Mats

Back when I was in Law School in Boston, I was woefully out of shape. I started going to the gym every day with some buddies and it felt great. After a while I started getting bored and was thinking that I should try to do some martial arts. My friend and I were walking around a video rental place and he comes over with this video and says, “Watch this guy. This is what you want to do.” That video was the first UFC and that guy was Royce Gracie. That changed my life. The year was 1996.

After I finished law school in 1997, I moved back to New York City to take the bar and begin working at a small record label, TVT Records, and start training at the Renzo Gracie Academy. Back then it was the Gracie/Kukuk Academy and there I got to roll with Renzo, Craig, Matt & Nick Serra, Rodrigo Gracie, Ricardo and Flavio Almeida, John Danaher, Gene Dunn and many, many other people that went on to get black belts, fight professionally and open their own schools.

From 1997 until around 2004 jiu-jitsu dominated my life. I definitely got into other things like yoga and CrossFit during that time, but I always considered myself a jiu-jitsu guy that did other things. I had this belief that I could never open an academy because I’m not Brazilian and my name isn’t “Gracie” and I didn’t really compete that much. However, I really loved teaching. That’s how come I really embraced teaching yoga and then CrossFit because it satisfied my need to be a teacher. I felt there was more opportunity in yoga and CrossFit for me to earn a living than there was in BJJ. Also I found that I was injured a lot from BJJ and yoga and CrossFit were much safer.

I was a blue belt for about 6 years and then I finally received my purple belt. The thing I liked about Renzo’s system was that it was obvious when you were ready for a promotion but he still wouldn’t give it to you until it was a little overdue. I knew many purple belts that were dominant against purple, brown and black belts. I knew many blue belts that would be high level purple belts at other schools. Renzo made people wait. It was such an honor to receive my purple belt from him.

One my deepest regrets is not continuing to train over the last decade. I am so grateful every day that I decided to start training again. I feel reborn.