BJJ essential tips for stronger core, grip and neck
I’ve been asked to train many sports throughout my career. Figure skating, football, soccer, baseball and martial arts, they all have unique characteristics and requirements. Add to the mix the individual needs and limitations of unique athletes, the psychological aspects of competitions and teamwork, you can quickly feel overwhelmed by the amount of information susceptible to influence program design.
Individual needs dictates the process and design, but we often see patterns in many sports. As in Figure skating, the knees and ankles are the prime suspects of problems (often times hidden) and evaluating them is primordial. In this case, Brazilian Jujitsu has a few principle issues to deal with from the get go. Some of the major concerns when someone starts to practice this sport is that you can’t really be prepared, even if you have years of weight lifting under your belt, weight lifting belt that is.
The core and low back are the first major issues. Most complaints of beginners are about the low back and ribs that takes a beating. First few rolls are always mind-blowingly deadly since all you try to do is survive and you don’t obviously know what you have to do to get out of a mounted position for exaple. All you learn is to bridge and roll, or bridge to break the opponent’s posture and try to bring your knees to regard.
Breaking down the bridge and the shrimping involved in some of the drills, the low back and hip flexors are put to the test. However, to bridge and shrimp under pressure often becomes twisting of the spine with your opponent as a resistance, a full 100lbs+ or more. It is not something you can replicate with an exercise, and in fact, you shouldn’t. However, this article is not about how to perfect the technique, but how to prevent injuries. To perfect the technique, put more time on the mat.
To protect the spine and the core, besides better technique, core muscles need to be in somewhat of a great condition. Meaning that they have to be structurally functional. To understand functional strength, you need also to start thinking further than just your abs, because core strength starts from the extremities; it’s not just about sporting a set of great abs and call it a day.
What is harder to perform, a leg raise or a knee raise? Is a sit up harder with your arms up over your head or with your arms on your side? The further away the resistance, the harder it will be.
Core begins with the extremities. The further you hold a weight in front of you, the harder your core will try to stabilize. If you were to hold the weight in front of you, your lower back would fire up and your abs would be the antagonist helping out. If you were to hold a weight in the back of you, your abs would fire up to hold you straight and your low back would be the antagonist helping out by stabilizing and making sure you stay upright.
In jits, drilling the techniques makes you use less strength and more flow while being effective at performing the given technique while preserving energy. However, in the mean time, you’ll make mistakes, which often lead to injuries. When it comes to core muscles, you don’t just rely on abs or lower back, there is also deep muscle tissue such as the Quadratus lumborum, the transverse abdominus, hip flexors, psoas, internal and external obliques. Although in the back, the erector spinae and multifidus plays a big role for the core as well. Even the fascia, sheet of connective tissue, primarily collagen, beneath the skin that attaches, stabilizes, encloses, and separates muscles and other internal organs, goes up to the neck and down to the toes. So basically, they all have one goal in common, to protect the spine at all costs.
As soon as forces are being applied on the limbs, the core muscles contracts to counter the weight and stabilize the trunk. So in general, thinking of core should define a movement as a whole and a chain of muscles working together to counter the applied force.
Core muscles are best developed with exercises like deadlifts, pullups, presses and all types of squats and benchpress. Sure, there is always the crunches, sit ups and leg raises, which are the basics and in almost any body’s weight lifting plan, but like I mentioned earlier, core also comes from the extremities and is a complex recruitment from the nervous system (in this case) of the fight to survive situation. You will need one or both arms and legs to support or hold an opponent while the other limbs try to grab or block something to gain advantage, in just a few seconds. Which is why multi joint, or compound exercises do a better job. They involve more than one joint or muscle group at a time.
Then there is the neck. One of the first things we learn in martial arts in general is that the head control the rest of the body. Move the head and the body follows. So it goes without saying that a strong neck can save you from a few bad situations. After a few months of guillotine and choke drills, you’ll notice a few gains in the traps generally. The major pains in the neck (literally) are the mid back (trapezius 2-3) and scalene muscles, which are often twisted and stretched to their limits while rolling and trying to resist those chokes. Unfortunately, it’s part of the game.
For neck training purposes, I would advise to go with very light loads. These are very small muscles and are easily strainable.
My go to exercise to train the neck extensors is the swiss ball neck support.
Level 1 which is done upright while you are holding the ball with the back of your head against the wall. Use a 3 second isometric contraction (push your head in the ball at max 25% effort) for about 3 sets of 10 reps.
Level 2 is done by bridging with only your head and shoulders on the ball, as the starting position. The goal is to lift your shoulders off the ball while pushing your head into the ball for 3 sets of 5 repetitions of 5 seconds isometric contractions.
On to the forearms and grip strength. The missing link in almost every training program is the grip strength.
If your grip can’t hold the loads during a workout, it will probably give out in intense rolls, especially in competitions. Exercises such as deadlift, chin-ups or squats with HEX bar are the exercises that will give you big results, but if your grip does not follow, you’ll see your results stagnate. Equipment that can help you a lot is oversized bars or small additions like FatGripz or GripsFear that can be carried with you and can be installed on any type of bar.
When looking at the sports requirement, pulling, grabbing and holding the GI, wrists or the neck clamp to break posture for example is what needs to be done to gain advantage. So gripping strength is the most useful tool for grapplers and BJJ fighters.
Gripping strength is acquired by developing;
Pinching strength; between your fingers and your thumbs.
Crushing strength; as in making a fist, crushing a beer can or shaking someone’s hand.
Holding strength; hanging on to something. Think of holding as long as you can from a chin-up bar. More of an endurance feat.
Here is a small forearm program that you’ll feel deep down to your bones.
|A1||Scott bench Elbow flexion pronated grip wide grip||4||8||2020||0|
|A2||Standing Elbow flexion pronated medium grip||4||8||2020||0|
|A3||Db neutral grip curl standing||4||Max out (15-20)||2020||90|
|B1||Standing Wrist flexion bar behind back||3||12||2010||0|
|B2||Wrist extension forearms on flat bench||3||12||2010||60|
|C||Wrist flexion, low pulley||3||Max out (15-20)||2020||60|
On a side note, It turns out that your grip strength could be used as a predictor test for longevity. It can be highly predictive of functional limitations and years of disability. “Physicians or other health care professionals can measure grip strength to identify patients with serious conditions such as heart failure or other heart conditions who have a particularly high risk of dying from their disease,” says Dr. Dr. Darryl Leong, Researcher and Assistant Professor of Medicine at McMaster University Michael G. of Medicine and Cardiology.
Based on their study of 140,000 adults aged between 35-70 years and followed over a 4-year period in 17 countries, the results revealed that for every 5 kilograms (11 pounds) drop in grip strength, one in six had an increased risk of death from any cause[i].
Gripping force was a strong predictor of cardiovascular disease mortality for people from a variety of economic and socio-cultural backgrounds. These results suggest that muscle strength is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and can even predict the risk of death in people who develop cardiovascular or non-cardiovascular disease. These findings will help researchers design a way to improve muscle strength in patients and increase their life expectancy.
Essentially, besides putting more time on the mats, improving your game can be done with a short strength and conditioning program. You don’t have to put up as many hours in the gym as you do on the mats. I would use weights as a form of injury prevention first. We all know that injuries come and go if you are serious about your fighting game. Healthy joints starts by having proper flexibility and strength in them. The only way to do so is by having a simple strength training program that will follow your needs and goals.
Strength and lean muscle mass should never be seen as a crutch but should be a requirement for longevity and health, for any given sports and area of life. Use your strength wisely and bring your game to the next level.
[i] A similar study published in the journal PLOS ONE is linked to other aging markers, such as mortality, disability, cognitive decline, and the ability to recover from subjects’ hospital stays. The researchers analyzed more than 50 studies of people from all over the world and of all ages and found that a 65-year-old white woman with no high school education had the same grip strength as a 69-year-old white woman. had completed high school. This suggests that less educated people with less access to health care may have lower grip strength, which is associated with lower life expectancy, higher rates of illness, and faster cognitive decline. In summary, the rate of aging in different population groups can be measured using a simple grasping test.