3 common injuries in BJJ and how you can avoid them
When you start your journey into Brazilian jiu-jitsu, your body will take a severe beating whether you like it or not. This is one of the main reasons some of the white belts give up. One cracked rib there, a few messed up finger here and there, low back gives out, neck can’t take it, they start having problems sleeping because of all the aches and pains and voilà! Hook up the newly purchased Gi, because it’s not just worth it right? False.
Those who persist on the other end, will find out that the body gets used to it. Maybe because you learn to roll safer and your body gets stronger and more flexible, it’s a possibility. It’s pretty much because you learn not to freak out and pull moves to get out of trouble that will render you injured for a few days. It’s the natural learning curve of jiu-jitsu. You also learn to eat better to recuperate faster. Eating better makes a body good, stronger and more flexible. It has been proven many many times again.
When we start clients on a new strength and conditioning protocol, we rarely give flexibility exercises. Why? By training the body to contract and to make the muscles work, it also learns to relax on its own, especially after those big workouts. You might be stiff for a few days, it is a part of the natural healing process, which requires good nutrition. Which is why nutrition also plays a big part of it. The right nutrients have the natural ability to help the tendon and ligaments become more flexible. Nature, given that you give your body the right foods, has the greatest ability to heal our bodies.
But the funny thing is, no matter how much we try to prevent it, or tell you to do it right the first time, it seems like most of us learn from our mistakes. So why not talk about the most common injuries you most probably will experience, the why’s and the how to fix it once it happens, and if you care enough, you’ll do your homework before it does.
Low back pain
Low back pain is in fact the most common problem seen in most people in their lifetime. Add sports to it, we can see major issues, sometimes career ending ones.
If you look at a tree, if the trunk is thin but the top part is huge and full, it’s easy to think that the tree would easily fall if challenged by external forces. Better analogy yet, how easy would it be to fire a canon from a canoe? Let the visual sink in (pun intended).
As big as it is in the fitness field, core training is more complex than doing a few sets of sit-ups when you go to the gym or doing hundreds of crunches at night while watching the bachelorette.
Regarding the muscles that involve the infamous ‘’core’’, it does not only involve abdominals or lower back, but also the deep muscles such the Quadratus lomborum, the transverse, the hip flexors, the psoas, the oblique internal and external. Although in the lumbar region, the erectors and the multifidus also plays an important role for the core. Even the fascia, connective tissue sheet, mainly collagen, under the skin that attaches, stabilizes, encloses and separates the muscles and other internal organs, rises up to the neck and down to the toes. So, basically, they all have a common goal: to protect the spine at all costs.
If your back is very weak, simple exercises such as the horse stance, QL lift, planks and swiss ball crunches, if done right, can bring your lower back to the next level.
My go to exercise for low back weakness is the QL lift, as in Quadratus Lomburum, which is the muscle attached to the first ribs, low back and iliac crest of the hip. It is the same as doing the plank but you are lying down sideways with your elbow on the floor. Lift your hips while only your elbow and feet are on the floor. To increase range of motion and difficulty, execute with a straight arm as shown in the picture below, where your hips obviously wouldn’t touch the floor.
Training for the requirements of the sport is crucial in my work, but good abs are not always defined by a six pack, strength training is primordial for abs, not only endurance or hypertrophy for esthetic purposes. The requirement of the sport, as in hockey, the work time of the abdominals, when an external force is exerted, plays between a fraction of a second to perhaps, 5-10 seconds at the most , between pause following a few seconds to several minutes. I can’t say the same with BJJ since the core is always involved. With experience, they become stronger and gain a lot of endurance, so the same amount of work in the beginning will turn out to be much easier after a few months, and even easier after a few years. Why is that? By the principle of accommodation, and mostly with technique. As your technique becomes better, you use less strength and more flow. You know when to explode, which still involves the major muscle groups and without a doubt the abs, and also when to chill, to relax and focus on your next move when you are not in trouble and in transition.
So the priority for the abdominals should be on training in functional hypertrophy. Once a good base is established, training phases in strength will protect the spine and help you have a safer back. This new force will be transported in your lifts as well as several spheres of your sport.
Welcome to crank town. We all rolled with one crazy fucker who’s goal is to make you tap with his perfectly drilled guillotine. It’s part of the game, tap and reset. Say hello to newly found sleepless nights. I would love to say that there are some magic tricks or exercises you can do and there are a few, but the neck is one extremely fragile part of the body and not the strongest one. It doesn’t take much pressure to tweak those little intricate neck muscles and often, it happens just with a bad move, not even a freakin guillotine or choke. First and foremost, you must recognize when to tap and leave your pride at the door, and if your goal is to go all out with your training partner, you are not any better. You are in a bad position, not in a competition. Injure your favorite partner, lose your partner.
With neck training, you need to go with baby steps. The cervical area is very fragile and like I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t take much pressure to fuck it up. 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.
To have a stronger neck, posture should be your first priority. While I talked about the neck.
extensors and how to train them in my post essential tips for a stronger core, neck and grips, this time I’ll focus on the scapular chain. The traps and rear delts are very important for postural alignment. It’s not a secret, the boys and bros of the gym (not to say meat heads) all want a big chest because you know, girls dig it. What they don’t dig though is those who have the posture of a gorilla.
The major problem I see with trainees is that strength discrepancy in the push vs. the pull.Most guys will bench big but can’t pull themselves up even if their life depended on it. If you don’t do as much pulling in your workouts than pushing, you are bound for shoulder problems, which you probably already have.
When we do the structural balance testing[i], we can easily see structural problems such as this type of strength discrepancy. For example, if you can benchpress with a shoulder width grip 300 lbs, you should be able to pull up 261lbs (your bodyweight included). However, you should also be able to externally rotate, seated with your elbow on your knee a 30lbs DB for a minimum of 8 reps, with both arms. I, and many of my fellow colleagues, have rarely seen someone who can respect those ratios. To see if you are within these ratios, contact us now.
Once you know your ratios, fixing these issues requires patience but you’ll reap the rewards very fast. Safer shoulder, increased grip strength and a lot more pulling power, which is what all BJJ players are looking for.
My favorite exercise for the scapular chain is the seated row to neck with the rope. It triggers the upper back, trapezius and external rotators. With a pronated grip, with the ball of the rope on the outside of your wrist, pull the rope as if you wanted it to touch your neck, keeping your elbows up in line with the pulley. At the end of the movement, your thumbs should almost touch your ears.
Last but not least, the seated external rotation with elbow on the knee as mentioned earlier. I would advise to start with a very light weight, if you didn’t get a chance to come and get tested by our team. Stick with the basics at first with 3 sets of 10 reps. The main concern at first is trying to bring the unilateral discrepancy up to par. One shoulder is often stronger than the other.
Shoulder pain can be very complex and the result of many unattended issues. Neck pain, which often is the result of a nerve entrapment or cervical misalignment can trigger pain in the shoulders, elbows and every so often, the wrists. Trying to point out the issues within a simple article is beyond the scope of this article. However, understand that the more you wait before you remediate to the problem, the longer it will take to turn it around and make it better. It can also provoke a whole new cascade of problems to the neck and elbow wince that body will look into better movement patterns to stay away from the pain, while shifting the work over to other muscles. The pain is not going away by magic, your body will compensate to take out the pain but the issue is not being fixed. I highly recommend seeking a good osteopath. They will not only trigger the problem, but look at why it happened in the first place. It is often a chain of problems that led to an impingement, inflammation by overuse, or just joint instability.
If you still feel pain after trying the exercises for the scapular chain mentioned earlier, go consult as the problem may be bigger what this article is all about, simple strength discrepancies.
The demands of our sports are of strength, agility, flexibility and durability. All these require a well thought out strength and conditioning plan and nutrition for performance. If you want to take this sport seriously, if you want to take your game to a ol’ oda levo, put all the elements on your side. Not just for a little while, for as long as you want to be serious about how long you want to roll and be part of this amazing sport.
[i] Those norms have been established by Elite Strength coach Charles Poliquin.