Inverted Gear Blog / Matt Kirtley
Let’s keep busting myths! Can stretching prevent muscle soreness? Is it bad to crack your knuckles? Does weightlifting make you less flexible? Is lactic acid evil? Time to find out!
(Read the first article of this series, “Laying the Groundwork for a Mobility Practice”, to get caught up.)
Does stretching reduce muscle soreness?
No, the research doesn’t show that stretching prevents soreness. Like I said in the first article, stretching can have a mild pain-killing effect, but it’s not going to prevent the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) you feel a day or two after a hard workout. Ending a BJJ class with light “cool down” stretches feels good and can help you come down from the “fight mode” you put your nervous system in, but the price of stress on your body is soreness and fatigue. If constant soreness is a problem for you, make sure you are getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and drinking plenty of water, before you look into quick fixes.
Does stretching flush out lactic acid?
Let’s talk about lactic acid and why too much blame is placed on it.
When you feel that “burn” in your muscles from a hard workout or a tough night of sparring, someone likely told you are suffering the effects of lactic acid build up. After your first competition match, when your forearms seize up and your fingers are curled into claws, your coach probably told you the lactic acid needed to be massaged out of your muscles so you could use your hands again.
While lactic acid may play some role in muscle soreness, research does not find a strong link between the two. Sames goes for muscle cramps. Lactic acid does build up in muscles during exertion, but it quickly disappears. In recent years, researchers even found that lactic acid is not just a waste product, but consumed as a secondary fuel for more energy. This article from Sports Illustrated explains it in more depth.
To answer the original question, stretching does not flush out lactic acid in any special way, but now we know it likely wouldn’t matter even if it did.
Is it bad to crack my joints?
Cracking your joints is not bad for you. You may even feel relief and a sense that your joints are looser afterward. You will not give yourself arthritis or make your knuckles thicker (grip fighting and spider guard are more likely to do that).
So what causes that loud crack or pop? Weirdly enough, that’s the sound of gas bubbles popping in and out of existence. This video explains it:
What about those little clicks and crunches I hear inside my joints?
This is normal and usually not a problem if it causes no pain. The medical term for this is crepitus. You can probably create the effect right now in your neck by turning your head in a big circle to look up at the sky. These sounds can be caused for the same reason as cracking joints, or because of little bits of debris and junk in the joints. This is usually not cause for concern, unless you feel pain or unpleasant grinding sensations that signal something worse like bone spurs.
Do strength training, bodybuilding, and weight lifting make you inflexible?
Being strong does not make you inflexible, but you shouldn’t be surprised if you get stiff doing strength training without also working on your flexibility and mobility. Your body simply tries to get better at whatever you make it do often and under stress, so if that’s just bracing yourself to pick up heavy objects in limited ranges of motion, that’s what you get. You can do mobility training in conjunction with your strength training if you want to increase your mobility as you get stronger.
Does stretching make you weaker?
No, not permanently, at least. Static stretching has been shown to temporarily lower max muscle activation, perhaps as a neurological safety mechanism to prevent you from accidentally hurting yourself when you’re at extreme end ranges. This effect wears off relatively quickly, so while you wouldn’t want to do long stretches before training (and why the current recommendation is to do dynamic stretches for warm ups), they are still useful at other times for increasing flexibility.
But to repeat what I said in the answer to the last question -- that your body only improves at what you make it do -- holding long static stretches to gain flexibility without doing anything to gain strength and control in those ranges means you have a new range you are weak in. That’s why the distinction between flexibility and mobility is useful, since mobility includes gaining strength in new ranges.
Those were the confusions I had when I first started learning about stretching and mobility, and now you’ve got the answers to them, too. When we continue this series in Part 3, we will get into what it takes to create joint health and how to make daily mobility gains through the practice of Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs) as taught in Functional Range Conditioning. Until then, and as always, let us know if you have any specific questions or problems you want addressed next time!
In 2016, I wrote what remains one of my most popular posts ever, a guide to injury prevention and rehab titled Jiu-Jitsu Will Destroy You If You Let It: How I Finally Started Fixing My Broken Body. That still holds up today and I recommend reading it if you have not already.
At the end of that post, I talked about how I was starting to get into Functional Range Conditioning, a joint health and mobility training system. Since that time, I have become certified in FRC and the Functional Range Assessment. I wrote about FRC in a 2017 post titled Functional Range Conditioning and Kinstretch from the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Perspective.
In this first installment in my series on mobility training, we will address these topics and clear up some confusion, including:
- Common posture and joint issues faced by BJJ practitioners
- The differences between flexibility and mobility
- When to stretch and how to get warmed up to train
- How much mobility training can mitigate injuries
Let’s start with the first big question:
What stresses are you putting on your body?
Your body tissues and your nervous system adapt to the stresses you put on them, and the more often or more forcefully they are stressed, the more they will adapt to handle those stresses for the future.
Training BJJ is the most obvious stress most of the readers put their bodies through. Your workout (e.g. CrossFit, lifting, circuit training, etc.) puts demands on you. Activities like bike riding, kayaking, rock climbing, etc. do, too.
You also have more passive stresses like sitting all day and the habitual postures you adopt. The force is not high but so much time is spent in a narrow range of positions that the body will adapt to maintain these over others.
Even in the absence of acute injuries, most jiu-jiteiros will complain about stiff joints, sore muscles, and lingering ill effects of past injuries.
Read this list and check off anything that applies to you:
- Slouched, hunched posture
- Shoulders rounded forward
- Pinchy shoulder
- Stiff, sore neck
- Head sticks forward
- Tight hip flexors
- Tight hamstrings
- Duck feet
- Flat footed
- Crappy knees
- Stiff ankles
- Jammed toes
- Aching fingers
- Sore elbows
- Clicking wrists
Odds are high you checked off more than a few of those complaints. BJJ may be good for your heart and mind, but it will wreck your joints. Even just a good, simple exercise routine may counteract some of these problems, but with the tendency for jiu-jiteiros to overtrain BJJ at the expense of their body, it pays to know how to keep yourself together and deal with the aches and pains that are somewhat unique to BJJ.
The first step towards fixing these problems is recognizing they are problems but that they are not untreatable and that you do not have to needlessly suffer to do BJJ. Being 100% injury and pain free may not be possible in a combat sport, but you do not need to live with all those little nagging aches and pains.
The goal of a mobility routine would be to reduce and eliminate pain, improve the health of the joints and connective tissues, and increase your range of motion and ability to gracefully express movement with strength and control.
What’s the difference between flexibility and mobility?
Flexibility is the total possible range of motion of a joint, even if achieved with outside forces like gravity or a partner stretching you.
Mobility is the range of motion that you can control under your own power.
Flexibility includes passive ranges.
Why does this difference matter?
Splitting these terms apart lets us be more goal oriented when we select stretches and exercises. A lot of what passes for “mobility training” is actually flexibility training or something else altogether like movement skills. This distinction will become more important when we get into selecting stretches and exercises for achieving specific goals like improving the health of a joint or strengthening connective tissue.
What limits flexibility?
When someone has an issue like “tight hamstrings” and they are told to stretch, they may imagine it’s as if they had a size small hamstring installed on their size large leg, and the goal of stretching is to literally stretch the muscle out so it’s longer. Following this logic, you do a few short stretches (maybe 10-20 seconds), and you feel more limber and it seems like you can stretch a little farther, so that’s that. Except the next day, your hamstrings are back to being as tight as ever.
In many cases (if not most), what limits your range of motion is the nervous system and its safety mechanisms like the stretch reflex, not “tissue length.” Your nervous system can restrict your movement and make you “tight” when it does not trust you can handle going any further. That is what most of us run into when we stretch tight muscles.
You can also have restrictions like boney blocks, scar tissue, junked up joint capsules, pain problems, which are issues you would want to take up with a doctor or physical therapist, or find a Functional Range Release practitioner.
Is mobility gained by doing “animal” movements like crawling, Ginástica Natural, “functional patterns,” etc.?
Many exercise systems aim to improve mobility (though they may define it differently than I do here), and they all probably help with it to some degree. Jiu-jiteiros (and that includes me) love crawling around, tumbling, and doing novel movements or solo grappling drills instead of traditional programs. A problem with these movement practices is that they may fail to counteract the overtraining caused by BJJ, sometimes instead only reinforcing the same issues, or they are not specific enough to target specific problems. My bias toward FRC is because it focuses on creating healthy joints and connective tissue (as opposed to max strength, cardio, or other physical traits) which is where BJJ causes most of its damage on the body.
Is mobility gained by rolling on lacrosse balls, foam rollers, and other self-myofascial release tools?
Largely due to CrossFit’s Kelly Starrett and his MobilityWOD, the BJJ world got into all the rolling and smashing on “mobility” tools to work out sore spots and tight muscles. Many of these “mobilization” techniques can cause fast changes to ranges of motion or pain levels. The question still remains if they are really doing what we think they are doing (such as voodoo band flossing and foam rolling) but many have experienced improvements from doing them, myself included.
Back to the question, do these improve mobility as defined above as the ability to actively control a range of motion? The answer is likely no, if all you do is smash and stretch the tissue without progressing to active exercises that have the goal of incorporating the newly acquired range. If you just roll or stretch briefly as a band-aid to the soreness and tightness you feel from training BJJ, you should not expect lasting changes or improvements.
Can stretching prevent injuries?
Static stretching (i.e. going to your end range and holding the pose) before rigorous physical activity does not seem to prevent injury and may sometimes make the risk worse. This runs contrary to how many BJJ schools start their classes and decades of PE coaches warning kids what will happen if they do not stretch before playing sports, but that’s what the research indicates.
A little light stretching before training may feel good and there is probably little harm in that if you are not training too hard, but most modern experts would have you do more active warm-ups or dynamic stretches and get your heart rate and body temperature up before training or competing and save the stretches for another time.
Stretching does have its uses though, just not as warm-ups and short term injury prevention. Long, static stretches can be used to gain larger range of motions, especially when used in combination with strengthening exercises like isometrics. FRC has a protocol based on this called PAIL/RAILs that combines long stretches and isometrics on both sides of the stretched joint. In future installments, we will talk more about these and other exercises that can fix common problems caused by doing BJJ.
Can stretching treat pain or heal injuries?
Some evidence points to stretching having a pain killing effect by changing the pain threshold in the nervous system. That’s not to say it’s appropriate for treating injuries or chronic pain problems. You should get those checked out by an appropriately qualified medical professional, not a BJJ blogger like me. But when you feel a general sense of soreness and stretching helps relieve it, that’s likely what you experience.
While on the topic of pain, you should know that it’s a big and weird subject that is full of misconceptions and where truth is often stranger than fiction. I wrote about this in a post titled The Weird Science of Pain and the Brain. The short story is that pain does not always mean injury (and vice versa) and many factors affect pain perception, such as your psychology, your beliefs about pain and injuries, nervous system sensitization, and more. Pain -- especially chronic, recurring, or persistent pain -- is a complex topic, but if you suffer from it, you should look deeper into it.
We are cutting today’s post here, but as the series continues, we will give examples of mobility practices you can start doing on your own, and how to address problems common to BJJ athletes.
So how do I start improving my mobility?
Sorry to be a tease but you’ll have to wait until next time! We will get into the basic daily routine you should be doing, and how to start targeting your biggest problem areas.
Until then, if you have any specific questions that were not addressed above or that you hope we can get to in the future, please leave a comment below or on Facebook.
Repetition is the mother of learning. Everyone knows this, and that’s why we stress the importance of drilling. Every high level competitors in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and every other sport puts in countless reps. But not all reps and drilling are equally valuable, and once you look into the science of motor learning, it turns out we can fool ourselves into feeling like we’re getting better when we’re not. So what can we do to get better reps and learn faster? That answer is in block versus random practice.
My goal here is not to explain all the research behind this, but if you are interested, Jason C. Brown lays it out in his article Applying the Science of Motor Learning to Your BJJ Practice. What I want to do is give you examples of how you can run drilling in your classes or open mats to implement more random practice through the use of games and positional sparring.
To borrow from Japanese martial arts like judo, we’ll use the terms tori and uke to describe the student who is executing and succeeding at the technique (tori) and the student who is on the receiving end (uke).
Once the students have a basic sense of the techniques of the day, have them start in the initial position and move around with partner at a low intensity. The coach calls out a technique (either by name or by numbering them) and tori goes for it. Once tori accomplishes their goal (or fails to the point of no recovery), they reset to the starting position and keep moving around with uke, ready for your next command.
Tell the uke that the purpose is still to have tori succeed with their moves most of the time and to not make it impossible. The uke can give them a few freebies (successful reps with no real resistance) to get them warmed up, but then pick a certain way to challenge them and see how they handle it. Once tori is dealing with it well, you can either raise the intensity or add more challenges. Uke can make it more challenging as tori succeeds. If tori is a beginner, their uke may need to tone it down. As a coach, you can pick what these counters are if you don’t want to leave it up to the students to invent their own.
You can start at a low level of resistance and gradually raise the intensity by telling the uke to go harder, e.g. “Start at 20%... OK, now 50%... Finish it out at 75-90% or more.” Beginners usually lack the ability to judge how hard they are going, so you may just tell them to do specific counters (“Now try to stiff arm them so they can’t pass.”) instead of expecting them to be able to improvise.
To cut down on the time spent waiting for every student to finish the move and reset before you can call out the next command, you can tell the ukes to individually call out the moves to their partners. They do not need to do it in any order, and in fact it should be fairly random or even repeat the same move two or more times in a row sometimes so tori does not get to go into autopilot.
If the techniques depend on certain triggers (i.e. reactions by their partner), then the uke does not even need to say anything and instead feeds their partner the trigger so tori has to learn to see the opportunity for themselves
To make it into a conditioning drill, you can make students jog around the room, then when you call out a move, they grab their partner, drop to the floor, both do a rep, then get back to their feet and keep jogging around the room. You can mix in solo movements or exercises like technical stand-ups, push-ups, etc.
A common problem with positional sparring is that the partner knows exactly what tori is going to try to do, and students can let their ego take over and feel like having the move of the day work on them would be humiliating. Even if they do not, tori may just not have a good grasp of the technique and stumble trying to put the whole sequence together. You can fix this by doing reps with resistance where tori gets to start the rep against a non-resisting uke, but at a certain agreed upon movement in the move, uke fights back. You start near the end state (for example, right before the sweep, pass, takedown, etc. is above to be finished) so tori has a near 100% chance of finishing it. Then you move the “fight” moment early in the technique, repeating this until you get to where they are just doing positional sparring without any special rules.
These are just a few examples of how you can run classes or your own practice to get more random practice and therefore more long-term motor learning occurring. Once you get the hang of it, you can make up your own games and drills (grills?) for any technique, position, or sequence.
If you have any questions about how to run these, or you would like to share how you already do this, I would be very happy to hear from you.
I’m going to make a bold assumption: You want to get better at BJJ. (I must be a mind reader.) Open mat can be a secret weapon in your training if you use it right. These tips will help make sure you do.
Go in with a purpose
What makes open mat good is also what makes it bad: you can do whatever you want. Without someone running class, it’s all too easy to waste time, goof off, or simply not know what to do. Go in prepared giving yourself a goal.
– Improve move X.
– Improve my escapes.
– Improve my conditioning.
– Try out this new guard.
– Review my basics.
Try picking a topic—a certain position, submission, guard or even concept—and set your mind on exploring and learning it in depth. It’s easier to stay focused when you know what you’re focusing on.
It’s time to experiment
Now is your chance to put that encyclopedic knowledge of every BJJ instructional to use. Is there a move that’s been making waves in competition that you want to learn? You could bring a laptop or iPhone to watch instructionals then drill them.
Forget this piece of advice if it doesn’t line up with your goals. Sometimes drilling those same basics you’ve known forever is the right thing to do (at least it’s never wrong.)
Don’t get technique overload
Just because you’re free to do whatever you want doesn’t mean you should pull out every technique you’ve ever Youtubed. Get two experienced guys on the mat and it can quickly turn into technique show and tell (“Hey, check this out!” “That reminds me of this…” “You gotta see how I do it…”) Keep your goals in mind and don’t get too far off track (unless it’s really something worth checking out.)
Put in the reps
Once you’ve figured out what you want to work on, start drilling. Then keep drilling. Discipline yourself to put in a healthy number of repetitions. No skimping on your reps because you don’t have an instructor keeping his hawk eyes on you. I’m sorry if this is boring but it’s good for you.
Find the right training partner
Who you train with can make or break an open mat. If they aren’t as motivated as you, it’s a pain to force them to drill when all they want to do is talk and spar a bit. You’re better off with a white belt that has a good worth ethic and is eager to learn than a lazy purple belt that doesn’t really feel like breaking a sweat. Finding the right person to team up with can give you a serious boost and make grappling R&D really fun and rewarding.
Do live drills
Take whatever you working on and make up live drills AKA isolation sparring for it. This is an fantastic training method that a lot of people overlook. Your drills can be as simple as starting from a specific position over and over again to running a series of situational exercises that increase in complexity as they go.
Take sparring seriously
Nothing bugs me more than two guys rolling for 1 minute before someone taps then spending 2 minutes talking about it. Save the discussion for later. Quick bits of advice or showing someone how to stop a move they’ve got caught in a couple times is OK. But you’re there to spar. Now is a good chance to push your endurance and forget time limits and go until you are absolutely dead.
Film your sparring
If you’ve got a camera and a tripod (or a willing third person), try getting your sparring sessions on video and watching them afterward. You’ll often be surprised by the things you do (and don’t do) that you never realized.
The simplest advice I can give to sum up my attitude towards everything said above, just give your priorities some thought, come up with a simple plan or goal, and go to open mat with an attitude of making sure you improve something in particular. You will still have fun and have plenty of time to roll or chill and hang out with buddies after you make your specific gains.
So you've got a fancy new gi and you want to do everything you can to keep it looking good and fitting right for a long time. Here's your guide to washing, drying, and shrinking (or not shrinking) your gis.
Do I need to do a vinegar soak before washing a new gi for first time?
No. This is not necessary for new gis. This practice comes from the idea that you need to "set" the dye so it does not run in the wash. Some gi companies may have problems with extra dye on their fabric so they can get a supersaturated color, and that first soak and wash helps remove dye that would run off, but the vinegar doesn't do anything. If you want to be safe about colors running, you can wash a new gi by itself, no vinegar needed.
Can a vinegar soak get funky smells out of a gi?
Yes, that is a fine use of vinegar. Soaking gis (or any stinky gym clothes) in a mild vinegar solution is a common home remedy for getting bad scents out. You can also buy special detergents formulated specifically for removing strong odors.
To avoid the funk in the first place, wash your gi as soon as you can after training and don't let it sit in the washer afterwards too long. Don't cram your sweaty gi in a gym bag and forget about it, and don't throw it in a laundry hamper for a few days to ferment (and ruin the clothes its sitting on).
Should I machine dry my gi?
That depends on if you want to shrink the gi (see below) and if you are worried about extra wear and tear. Tumbling around in the dryer will wear out fabric faster, but it will also make it feel softer.
How do I shrink a gi?
This is a good use of a dryer. After washing a gi, throw it in your dyer, and the hot air will shrink the cotton. Start conservatively, not going too hot yet. After shrinking, the cotton will stretch again (think of how tight freshly washed and dried jeans are before they relax). It may take a few tries before it gets to your desired size/length. Once you're happy with it, you probably want to switch to air drying to keep the fit you like. Sweat, body heat, and being yanked on in training will stretch it again too, so expect some changes over time.
Can I bleach my gi?
The common advice is to not bleach a white gi because it will weaken the fabric. I have tried to find the scientific explanation for this, and per the chemists, a little bleach should not destroy cotton, so you are probably safe occasionally adding a small amount of bleach to the wash if you want to keep the whites at their whitest. That said, not everything on a gi is white, so expect lightening of colored stitching, drawstrings, belt loops, patches, etc. They make color-safe bleach for this purpose.
Should I wash with cold or hot water?
You are fine washing with cold water. Modern detergents work in cold water, and you save on energy.
How do I get a stain out of my gi?
I'm going to assume we're talking about blood stains here, since it seems like if I wear a new white gi, that's the day I get paired with someone who has all their knuckles bleed everywhere they grip. I recommend spot treating it with a stain remover and washing it as soon as you can, before the stains have a chance to set.
Following this advice should give your gi a long and happy life!