Tag Archives: brazilian jiu-jitusu

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!

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.