Inverted Gear Blog / Nelson Puentes

The "L Word" of BJJ - How I Started Training for Longevity

I am getting close to my 10 year anniversary with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Over the last year, I finally changed my mindset of how I look at my training, and started to think about longevity. I remember being a twenty-year-old white belt, training like a madman, often tapping too late, or barely getting out of submissions I should have tapped to. Older guys in the room would just shake their heads at me and tell me do it while you can.

Of course I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Then I turned 28, and suddenly all those little injuries from hard training and competing suddenly would not go away. It's a completely different game once you turn 30.

My knees, specifically my MCL, were sprained and partially torn more times than I care to count. My hands were a swollen mess – so much so that I had given up wearing shoes with laces on them. And my ribs seemed to never heal. Every few months I was “due” for another rib injury. Thankfully my PT friend was always ready to pop my rib back in.

So I had to start thinking about the L word, you know the one young guys like to ignore: Longevity. It was clear to me that I would be doing BJJ the rest of my life, but at this pace I was not sure my body was going to allow me to.

This is what I have been changing to improve my longevity in BJJ:

  • Started training more no-gi. I needed to give my hands a break, and training no-gi more than my typical once a week allowed my hands some rest from grip fighting while still getting my BJJ fix in. Over time I found I enjoyed no-gi just as much as I do the gi. I try to schedule my weekly training with an even split between the two.
  • Limited the amount of inversions in my game. While I never had back problems from playing inverted, I had recurring issues with my ribs. Berimbolos, rolling back takes, and inverting to re-guard had become a big part of my game. If you ever been sidelined with a rib injury, you know how painful it is. It took a bit to break out of my upside down habits, and while I have not taken them completely out of my game, I use them sparingly now, and my ribs problems have all but disappeared.
  • Developed a less grip-dependent game in the gi. I stopped playing open guard using double sleeve grips. My hands had thanked me and my game has expanded. I’ve also changed the way I pass, using my footwork and body positioning in order to set up folding passes. As an added benefit, my passing and guard game translate to no-gi much better.
  • Mobility work. My friend Matt got really deep into mobility and stretching in order to alleviate his own hip problems. I’ve been able to pick his brain, and he has helped me improve my mobility. Even though I complain non-stop when he makes me do some of the more advanced drills, he showed me how bad my hip mobility had become. Once I got that taken care of, all my knee problems disappeared. After years of recurring MCL injuries, I am back to training takedowns and leglocks without any issues.
  • Cut back on my training volume and intensity. I was training more than I should have. I wasn’t recovering correctly, and it just lead to more injuries. I have become much better at managing my intensity and training volume, and listening to my body when I need to take it easy or rest a day. I had gotten caught up in “get ready for the next tournament” cycle, and even when I stopped competing I was still in that training mindset. 

My friend Kari says that once you turn 30, you no longer get injuries, just small permanent disabilities. And I have to agree with him. Injuries that I would not even think about resting for sideline me now. They don’t magically heal now like when I was 20. We only get one body and you gotta take care of it so you can continue training. I have been very fortunate to avoid any surgeries in my 10 year run with grappling. I hope the steps I have taken keep me on the mat so that twenty years from now gray haired Nelson still has some left in the tank to roll around with his fellow old timers and the occasional young gun.

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Should We Nerf the Berimbolo Metagame?

We need to talk about the berimbolo metagame, and we can look at how other competitions handle balance and metagame for some ideas of how to introduce more variety of grappling styles into competition.

Street fighter II debuted 26 years ago. I have memories from the early 90’sof asking my mom for change so my sister and I could go down the street and play at this little arcade next to the corner store. It only had 4 or 5 machines, but the only one that mattered was Street Fighter. I got many blisters trying to master the hadouken, and this was before strategy guides or widespread internet access for that matter. When you discovered a special move, it was your duty to master it and teach all your friends.

My love for Street Fighter lives on. I’ve played the many iterations of the game on console and in the arcade. I bonded with my sister over the game, and 20 years later, I still get a rush of fear when she selects Ken, her favorite character.

Part of what makes Street Fighter a great franchise—and why my sister can still plan Ken after all these years—is that Capcom has taken great care to balance the game. As new characters were introduced with their own moves, the design was thoughtful enough to prevent one character from dominating or warping the metagame (what characters people play and the strategy they use).

The idea of metagaming can be a bit strange if it’s your first time hearing about it. In most contexts, it means using knowledge that your character wouldn’t have—for example your elf rogue in a strange dungeon wouldn’t know that you happened to see your Dungeon Master looking at the stats for Mimics earlier that afternoon (Mimics pretend to be furniture and eat people). If you act on that knowledge, you are using information that is beyond that immediate universe.

Today, metagaming is often used to describe a deeper analysis of the variables and factors that influence strategy and tactics. You look at the rules and the trends and make strategic choices based on that information.

If we look at the current metagame in IBJJF tournaments across all belt levels, you can easily make the argument that the most popular strategy is to pull guard and work for berimbolo and leg drag variations. It’s very hard to be a takedown specialist when your entire game can be negated by your opponent getting a grip and sitting on his butt. This choice can be partially motivated by the person in front of you (you saw wrestling shoes in his bag earlier), but it’s largely an exploitation of the ruleset.

In my opinion, this is a potential balance issue that needs to be corrected.

A -1 penalty for pulling guard would fix many of these problems. It’s simple, easy to enforce, and it gives the guard puller a sense of urgency. If he doesn't score from the bottom, he will lose the match. If players refuse to pull guard, we can start seeing more takedowns and less stalemates when the bottom player is happy to remain on the bottom for as long as possible until he tries to score a sweep at the end of time.

The other metagame-inspired change to make would be eliminating the grip inside the back of pants. If we agree that grabbing inside of the sleeves or pant legs is unfair, so why are we allowing the back of the pants and all of the accidental mooning that follows?

After talking with berimbolo aficionados, they all seem to agree that the berimbolo strategy would be less appealing if the grip in the pants was not allowed as it offers such a huge advantage for the bottom grappler.

I think these two changes could help balance the current IBJJF metagame. It will make for more variety. I can only watch so many berimbolo battles before I start nodding off while streaming an event, or leaving my seat at the event to get some Acai.


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Make Mistakes

I played three different sports throughout high school – wrestling, track, and football – and I was fortunate to have amazing coaches in all three. Our football games (the kind with egg-shaped ball for our non-US readers) were on Friday night. On Monday, we reviewed footage of the game as a team.

During one of our film study sessions, we analyzed our opponent’s scoring plays from the last game. A new formation had confused one of our defensive players and he “froze up,” unsure where to go, and he stood still for a moment too long, reacting too late, and giving the other team enough space to score. Our coach said, “I’d rather have you make a mistake at full speed than hesitate. If you go the wrong way, we can correct that. If you stand still, we cannot.” This lesson remains true for BJJ.

Being unsure of where to go in BJJ is normal. The amount of positions in BJJ can be overwhelming, and the number of positions only continues to grow. It is normal to see lower belts completely stop when they get to an unfamiliar position.

One of the fastest ways to get better is to go the “wrong way” a few times. BJJ can be self-correcting this way. How many times did you get triangled as white belt before you realized what “both arms in or both arms out” meant? Stopping and refusing to move because you are afraid of making a mistake only slows down your development. If you go the wrong way and end up getting “punished” for trying, you learn an important lesson: don’t do that again.

Another aspect is when upper belts overdeveloped their “spider sense,” like the super power that lets Spider-Man know he's in imminent danger. Many times I’ve rolled with purple and brown belts that would be doing great early in our roll only to slow down and turtle up inside my guard because they knew I was setting them up, or felt it was a trap. Again, the answer here is to keep working through it. Can you reset the grips and start your pass again, can you back out, can you switch to a different pass? You have options, and most times stopping will only make matters worse as your opponent can just keep working whatever got you into trouble in the first place.

A final aspect I wanted to touch on is when you are on offense. Maybe you are in closed guard and are working on your triangles, but are shy about throwing your legs up. Or you are on your feet and hesitating on shooting that double leg. Fear of failing is scary, but you have to be at peace with failing a few times. Eventually you will figure out the timing and things will begin to work. But if you don’t attempt them, they will never improve.

So I invite you to start the year by failing. Whenever you get into situations you are not familiar with, try to work through them. Take some chances on a new technique you are working on. Try to pass that really tricky purple belt’s guard. You will be better for it on the long run.

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Dear 20-Year-Old Nelson

20-year-old me,

Happy birthday! In a few days you will head to Hooters with your friends to watch UFC 79. Besides the epic war that Silva vs Liddell will be, GSP’s win by armbar will plant the MMA and submission grappling bug in your head (spoiler alert, I guess). In a few months your friend Dave will talk you into signing up for a tournament and your life will forever be changed.

You will train and compete as often as you can. Everything in your life will begin to go through the “how does this affect my jiu-jitsu filter.” It will seem strange to a lot of your family and friends, but it will make you immensely happy, so stay the course.

You will struggle with competition. You will get nervous and tense before matches. It will take a long time for this to subside, and it will never go away completely. You will need to work on it. It will not magically disappear by just competing more. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself, and learn to enjoy the moment. You will eventually learn that you are there because you enjoy competing, the outcome of the match should have little relevance on how you feel afterwards, you trained and did everything possible beforehand, don’t stress over the times you will fall short. It will only make the times you make it onto the podium that much sweeter.

Enjoy the journey. Don’t rush to get to next belt. Each belt is special and presents different challenges. Travel to as many tournaments as you can. Some of your times as white belt and blue belt will be some of your fondest memories. Don’t be afraid to go to World’s or Pans because you are not good enough. You will surprise yourself. While you will record most of your competition matches, you are terrible at keeping them organized, upload them to YouTube or they will never be seen again.

For real dude, get it together.

You will have an MMA fight. You will win using your jiu-jitsu, but you should take time and be better prepared for it, so you don’t take unnecessary punishment. Five weeks of striking is not enough time to prepare for an MMA fight. I’m serious. This is an MMA bout. I know you’re thinking that you got this and that it can’t be that hard to hit someone, but please for the sake of future Nelson, put more training into your striking.

Enjoy your high metabolism while it lasts. You will not be able to survive on a diet of cheeseburgers for long (especially when you combine them with large stacks of post-tournament pancakes), though you will probably insist on trying. Start reading up on healthy eating and make better choices sooner than later. Future Nelson will appreciate that too.

You will be busy. Between school, work, and jiu-jitsu you will have very little time for anything else. That is not an excuse to stop reading or trying to learn a different language. You will spend years putting off learning Portuguese, and you will be surprised how quickly you pick it up when you actually put some effort into it. Just like you put daily amount of work into jiu-jitsu and don’t see results for a long time, you will start implementing into everything else in your life.

You will start your own business eventually, and just like BJJ, many people will tell you it is a waste of time. It will certainly feel that way at times. All your savings and whatever money you made on your other two jobs will be flown to Pakistan only to return as gis months later. That little project you started in your mom’s basement will become bigger that you can imagine.

You will be chronically single, and your relationships will fail over and over again. You will not be in a relationship that last more than two months until you meet the women that you will marry. And all that failure and heartache will be worth it. She is everything you ever wanted and more. So while you’re working on your diet and your striking, don’t change this part. We end up in a good place. Trust me, bro.

Best advice I can give you is learn to embrace failure. Fail, dust yourself off and try again. You will eventually succeed, and be able to live the life you always dreamed off.

Keep working.


Future Nelson

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Don’t Forget Your Singlet

It’s that time of the year.

A few weeks ago in the United States, families gathered on a special Thursday to celebrate each other and what their thankful for in their lives. But the Friday that follows is just as important. No, I’m not talking about Black Friday shopping.

The day after Thanksgiving marks the start of winter sports for high schoolers in the US. For me, that means one thing: Wrestling season.

I wrestled for two years in high school. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t very good. I somehow managed to have an above .500 record and make it out of our district to compete in regionals. Even though I didn’t walk away from high school wrestling with a bunch of trophies and a story fit for Hollywood—a story about a Chilean underdog who changes the hearts and minds of New Jersey with his bravery and technique—All of those hours in the wrestling room have paid dividends over the years that followed.

Wrestling seems to wax and wane in popularity amongst BJJ guys. We know we should work on it, especially if we want to go into MMA, but only a few actually dedicate serious time to it.

I don’t blame you. Wrestling can be tough on the joints, and you can get injured if you are not careful with your technique and your training partner selection. Then again, the same hazards exist on the ground (perhaps minus the physics of two people falling from standing), but just as we learn to train safely on the ground, you can learn to train safely standing. When you learn wrestling skills, like being able to finish single legs, how to shoot a good double, or how to stay on top during a scramble, your entire game benefits.

These skills, even though we lump into the category of “wrestling,” are just as valuable on the ground. Single legs abound from guard, and learning to double leg and fight through scrambles is valuable for those chaotic moments when someone is trying to run from your sweep.

Part of learning wrestling is getting reps in with a qualified instructor, but taking the time to appreciate the sport and watch some live matches can help your training as well.

If you are a grappling fan, or an MMA fan, you owe it to yourself to make it out to a wrestling match this winter, whether is college or high school. You will see not only amazing takedowns, but epic scrambles, and turnover and pinning combinations that from time to time make it onto our BJJ realm.

Wrestling meets have an amazing format that might be confusing to an outsider. Here’s the overview: Each team fills 14 weight classes, starting at 106 and ending at heavyweight (weight cap in high school is 285). Each individual match result is added to the team score. A win by points nets you 3 points, a major decision whenever the point differential is between 8-14 nets 4 points towards the team score, a tech fall is reached whenever a wrestler’s point differential reaches 15+, and finally a pin will earn the most points at 6.

This simple system can make for some heart stopping moments during matches. My friends in NJ recently ported over this system into a BJJ duel meet between two schools. Sheridan BJJ and Max Athletics, I was there to ref and had the best seat in the house. Matches were set up for about 18 white belts, 8 blue belts and 4 purple belts. At the end of the day, about half of them got to compete for the first time.

As a spectator it was great to watch. They kept the scoring criteria simple. A submission gave a team 6 points. A win over 10 points 4, and 3 for a decision. It’s a simple way to set up matches between school, and a welcome change from your typical “in house” tournament. I invite you to make it to a duel meet this winter, and if possible port over this format to your own school.

Whether you’re looking at the technique of wrestling or the format, there’s a lot that us BJJ guys can learn from the folks in singlets.

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