The only thing BJJ guys like to talk about more than acai bowls recipes and black belt Twitter feuds is how messed up their bodies are. If someone complains about a popped elbow or tweaked knee, it become show-and-tell for everyone in the room to share their lingering pains and biggest, baddest battle scars. Being in shambles is almost a matter of pride. You must not be training hard enough if you’re not limping around with blown out ACLs or unable to lift your arms high enough to pull your own rashguard off.
Let’s change that. You don’t need to destroy your body to do BJJ. But you do need to figure out what to do to keep yourself whole. This quick guide will get you on the right track:
1. Find a sports physical therapist who wants you back on the mats.
I’m no doctor, and while I may play one on TV, I recommend you find a health professional who is qualified to correctly diagnose and treat your joint problems. The trouble is finding the right one.
After my biggest injury, I bounced between doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, yogis, massage therapists, fitness trainers, etc. looking for help. Some helped a little, others not at all, but I was always left with nagging pains or grinding joints.
When you tell most doctors “It hurts when I do jiu-jitsu,” they’ll tell you “Don’t do jiu-jitsu.” That’s not the advice you want to spend $100 to hear.
This continued for years until I finally chanced across a sports physical therapist who had a very up-to-date education and an attitude of “let’s get you back on the mats.” She quickly diagnosed issues everyone else had missed and put me on a program that got to the root of the problem. I got put on a self-care program and encouraged to start strength training and keep doing BJJ.
Find a professional who can correctly diagnose your problems, especially ones that ones caused by chronic joint problems and movement faults. Get on a proactive plan to repair yourself and ramp up into improving performance. You may need to be persistent in seeking out the right professional and asking for second opinions and referrals.
The famous kettlebell guru Pavel gives this rule of thumb: Don’t go to a physical therapist or chiropractor who deadlifts less than you.
2. Do a slow-n-steady strength and conditioning program.
For too long I drank the BJJ Kool-Aid: “Zhoo-zhitzu is pure technique, my friend. You don’t need strength. What good are big muscles -- better to be flexible.” Just do some sit-ups during warm-ups and stretch to touch your toes after class and you’re all set.
“No strength” is a good practice for learning techniques, but it’s a poor plan for staying healthy and in one piece in a combat sport. Despite what every PE coach told me while growing up, stretching is not very effective at preventing injuries. Research shows that strength training is the best at dropping injury rates.
The few times I did try to join in a conditioning class, it was the usual high intensity circuit training that BJJ and MMA loves. Always harder, always faster, push push push, never quit, do those burpees, jump on those boxes, slam the ball, now wind sprint, go go go!
It’s probably because I’m a big sissy, but I never enjoyed those workouts or felt much benefit from them. They usually beat me up so badly I couldn’t train for a few days, and I just felt more likely to get injured afterward.
A workout doesn’t need to be very intense and turn you into a floppy pile of sweaty flesh to be effective. Anyone can slap together a bunch of random exercises and call it a “WOD.” BJJ is taxing enough, so you’re probably better off finding a simple program that focuses on overall health and steady progress. You can get into more demanding programs if you need that for peak performance later.
What kind of program you follow will be largely dependent on what you have access to and what your body responds to best. A safe bet is sticking to the classics: basic weight lifting with squats and deadlifts, bodyweight exercises like push ups and pull-ups, and perhaps kettlebells for swings.
You have many good programs to pick from if you do some research. Here are a few questions you can ask when you evaluate them:
- Does the program make sense for your goals (e.g. stay in shape, get stronger, avoid injury, etc.)?
- Does it follow a logical progression and focus on proper technique first?
- Can the intensity be tuned to be in balance with the demands of BJJ training?
- Will you need a trainer to teach you or special equipment to do it?
3. Build your prehab/rehab self-treatment toolkit.
In the past few years, mobility exercises have become more in vogue in the BJJ community, likely due to CrossFit coach Kelly Starrett’s popular MobilityWOD videos and Becoming a Supple Leopard book. Whatever joint or movement problems you have, there’s some way to stretch or smash or massage or grind it that’s supposed help fix it.
Many gizmos can be used for mobility work: lacrosse balls and sports balls of all kinds, elastic rubber bands, voodoo bands, foam rollers, all sorts of sticks, bars and knobblers, PVC pipes, etc. It’s worth trying some of the cheaper DIY options and buying pro versions if they seem worth it.
You can also ditch the gadgets and work on mobility through movement practices like Josh Vogel’s “Mobility in an alley” routine:
4. Escape your desk prison and move more.
You shouldn’t be surprised to have bad posture, tight hips and a stiff back if you spend most of your wakeful hours sitting hunched over a keyboard. Sitting for too long usually results in common postural faults: head forward, hunched back, shoulders rounded, hips tight, knee turned out.
Then you get up and shuffle your way to BJJ, where you actively put yourself in positions where you have your head forward, back hunched, shoulders rounded… You see where this is going.
Physical therapy, strength training, and extra mobility work will all help, but doing those a few times a week can’t make up for the other 99% of the time you spend doing the wrong thing.
Standing desks are becoming trendy, which is good, but it’s not that standing all day instead is especially good for you too -- it’s being able to change between positions and move around. You need to go out and be in different environments that don’t have you staring into a screen 3 feet from your face.
Low intensity activities like walking, hiking or swimming can be very therapeutic by helping you escape from the same few crunched up postures that modern living tends to force you into.
5. Rest like you mean it.
Daily habits like what you eat and how you sleep have big effects on you as well. Rest is vital for your body to recover from the strains of training BJJ and working out.
Sleep is vital not just for repairing the body but also for solidifying learning. Science is still trying to figure out the precise inner workings, but it’s clear that the brain uses sleep to process and incorporate your daily experiences and newly learned skills.
Diet is important too, but that’s a bit outside my area of expertise, so I’ll give the same advice that underlies everything I recommend: do some research, stick to the basics, start simple, and don’t get too complicated unless you really need to.
If you want more help, my mega post Jiu-Jitsu Will Destroy You If You Let It: How I Finally Started Fixing My Broken Body lays out a very comprehensive guide to finding the help you need to repair yourself.