Wednesday, September 16, 2009

BJJ and Injuries

Injuries are part and parcel of doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu simply because of all the dynamic sparring we do, and the realistic damage the submissions we do can cause.

In BJJ, I would divide the injuries to minor and major injuries. The minor injuries like sore fingers from mat burn, gripping too hard, bruises all over your body or even cauliflower ears are common. They are minor and in some cases easily preventable (for example by wearing earguards and mouthguards and other protective gear, or learning how to grip). 

I will focus more on the major injuries that will require time off the mats, or even surgery. Major injuries are the main reason serious BJJ exponents never last to black belt, or won't be practicing BJJ till their old age. 

Unless you partner someone malicious and out to hurt you, nearly all major injuries are by and large mostly caused by accident. However that is not to say that most of these cannot be prevented, and seriously most of it is down to the instructor, and the culture of the gym set by the instructor

The most obvious and common way is that the instructors must teach and enforce the principle that you should take care of your training partner while grappling, and that you should respect the tap. Respecting the tap means letting go of the submission the moment your partner taps, not letting go when you think your partner should tap or only when they feel pain.

Another common way to avoid injuries in the gym by the instructor is by banning certain moves that are too dangerous to be used in active sparring. Sure, they should teach you those moves, to recognise them and learn how to apply and defend against them. But there are some submissions that does not give you enough time to tap, or causes injury before pain is felt. Moves like heel hooks and neck cranks IMO cannot be used in a dynamic spar without eventually causing a serious injury. 

However, in recent times, more and more injuries are caused by the very nature of the training. In this, I mean the gyms who are overly competitive, train conditioning for hours, and roll till they puke. It is not wrong to train hard, and it is not wrong to be competitive. However, it becomes a problem when the training and mindset is overboard and there starts to be too many injuries. I have met so many people in person and on the net who have had to retire because they broke their necks, have to fuse their spines or their knees too damaged to continue training. 

Let me add a caveat, that choice of gym depends on your motivation and ambition. If you are intending to be a full time professional MMA fighter, or full time world champion BJJ competitor, perhaps these gyms are better suited to take you towards your ambitions faster (that is not to say the other more gentler gyms wouldn't). Be aware too that many a professional MMA fighter and BJJ competitor get seriously injured too. 

From Bas Rutten's interview at mmafanhouse:

You’re actually younger than Randy Couture. Is there any chance that you could fight again?
No, there’s not. My knees are a mess. I have no cartilage in both my kneecaps. Zero. Bone on bone. It’s really bad. There’s nothing they can do, except surgeries, until that stem cell stuff. People think a knee replacement, but you can’t do a knee replacement. You can have the best surgeons on the planet, which I already went to, and they say, “Bas, it’s a really bad problem.” …

I can’t do any ground work anymore. If I bike, I have to have a bike with a high seat. I can’t run at all. If I jog half a mile, I can’t walk for five days. It’s so bad sometimes when I walk down my driveway I walk backwards.

Do you think that 10, 20, 30 years from now, we’re going to see a lot of former MMA fighters with serious, long-term injuries?
No. Everybody is training smarter. I have so much explosive power that what happened with me is my training scraped my kneecaps up. People like Randy Couture are training smarter. If you train smart, you’re OK. I was a maniac. I went balls-out every training.

On the other hand, if you are a doing BJJ on a part time basis, meaning you have a full time job, and intend not to be injured so that you can go to work, and you intend to practice BJJ your whole life, then perhaps you may need to reconsider your intensity of training. 

Many of these gyms are run by champion BJJers and market themselves as hardcore gyms. The instructors think that such training made them champions, it should work for their students too. However, many of these BJJ champions became champions in their 20s. Oft times, now that they are instructors in their own gyms, their students by and large are not kids in their 20s. If their students are 30 and above, and their training is too intense, look out for the injury rates there. 

Furthermore, I put it out there that generally, most champions are champions not purely because of hard work alone, they are genetically gifted too. For example, the average Brazilian Top Team champion is strong as hell, and while it is no doubt they produce many champions, the same type of training will cripple the average person.

Hardcore and balls to the wall training have their place. For example if you are training for a competition, you should increase the intensity of the sparring and training to peak for the competition. But you cannot train like that year in and year out and throughout your BJJ career. And even if you do train for competitions, principles such as respecting the tap and protecting your partner should still be followed. 

How do you identify such gyms that will cause you injury? Well, first and foremost how do you feel training there? Do you feel as if every practice spar is a fight to the death? Is the instructor and are the students constantly injured? Do they allow moves like heel hook and neck cranks during regular sparring?

The Machado's have a saying, that you "Play Jiu Jitsu, not fight Jiu Jitsu". Jiu Jitsu should be about having fun. BJJ should be fun. You should feel no bother about tapping than if you conceded a point in a game in a sport, or you lose playing a video game.

Lastly, here are some well respected Black Belts, on the same topic:

Pedro Sauer

Keith Owen

Sam Wee is the head instructor for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) at the KDT Academy (, Malaysia and has been teaching BJJ since 2003. 

Monday, September 7, 2009

Fitness & BJJ

There are sports where warmups can be identified to be useful, for example leg stretching for running/jogging.

In my opinion, BJJ is more akin to swimming. Its a whole body activity. You don't jog before going swimming. You do laps as warmups before a swimming race. Maybe at most you stretch muscles that normally ache when you swim before swimming.

That is why currently for cardio, I make my students do takedowns for 1/2 an hour rather than skipping or running. Why? Being a BJJ class I think if you are going to do a workout, you might as well pick up some skills doing it. So while skipping gives you good cardio and make you good at skipping, I would rather my students get good at takedowns and improve their cardio. Same cardio workout, different skills practiced.

Instead of situps, replace it with armbars/triangle/omaplata's from guard. You'll get a good stomach workout in addition to getting better at armbars etc.

Also, the best way to improve grappling stamina is simple. Grapple! There are guys who can run marathons, can skip for hours, or can swim 300 laps in the pool. But they can't last 15 mins on the mat with a good blue belt. Why? Because those exercises, while it does keep you feeling fit, does not give you grappling endurance. They do however give you the mental toughness to tough it out when you think you have run out of steam. Ultimately however, I believe if you only have a limited amount of time, 2 hours of grappling will benefit you more than 2 hours of running in terms of grappling endurance.

Being that I only offer BJJ classes twice a week, and open mats on Saturday, I personally feel that this is the best use of the time in classes.

If you are training BJJ nearly every day of the week, then running, skipping and all kinds of conditioning training is useful to add on to your BJJ training. This is because you may suffer from burnout or suffer repetitive movement injuries from grappling too often, using your same movements all the time.

However, as we only offer grappling training 3 times a week, then I believe it is best to concentrate on techniques so that your body will memorize those techniques, and hopefully provide sufficient workout doing these techniques.

I have heard of students who boast on how tough their warmups are. However, can you or anyone do this several times a week, every week for years with no goal? If your goal is tournaments, yes you can do this as you build your fitness to peak at the time of your tournaments. But if you don't it will be impossible to mentally do this indefinitely.

The reason I say this is, unless you are a fitness trainer or a professional athlete, there will come a point in your life where you may not be able to train your fitness anymore. It may be because you got married, have a child, or even job or financial constraints.

This happens to even top athletes who retire, they grow fat and out of shape (have you seen Mark Kerr lately or any ex Lion's Den fighters?). It is a reality of life. Thus, to me it is best to give my students something they can keep, good technique.

The gym that I teach at KDT, has an excellent fitness training class already for those who want the extra training. But in my class, I prefer to concentrate on what I believe is my main responsibility to my students who pay me.... teach BJJ.

Ultimately I believe BJJ should give you the skills that last, even if/when you grow old, get fat and lazy, or for whatever reason you no longer are able to do intensive fitness training.

While it is true, that the fit and strong grappler with 5 moves who train like mad for competitions may beat the average joe grappler, who has a more complete game, but does not train in fitness, in the long term the average joe grappler will be able to have a longer lasting game, as he does not rely on his fitness and strength, which is temporary, but technique which lasts his lifetime.

However, I do indeed run my classes differently from other instructors, and the primary reason is to instill the skills in as little time as possible to my students. My recent blue belts on average have gone from white to blue belt in roughly a year, and they're good blue belts too!

Alternatively, I can take a page from my student who trained in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Their classes go 4 hours in 48 degree celsius heat, with 1 and a half hours of that a grueling workout!
Sam Wee is the head instructor for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) at the KDT Academy (, Malaysia and has been teaching BJJ since 2003. 

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Motivation in BJJ

What keeps you going in BJJ? This question applies to both how you keep yourself motivated instant by instant on the mat, and also long term, how and why do you keep doing BJJ in the long run?

On the mats, when you roll, how do you keep going? Some people use anger to motivate themselves, some get an adranaline rush while grappling from both aggression or fear.  Some thrive on the competition, love making their partner cry uncle, others on the mental and physical challenges that BJJ presents you with. 

The reason this is important is because this will effect the long term longivity of this art to the individual. For many of us who are not full time martial artists, who have jobs and intend to or already have families, our motivations change over time. 

If you rely on aggression, on anger, on competition, on needing to prove yourself the alpha dog on the mats, these fires WILL dim when you get married, when you have children, when you face other family or personal changes that require more of your attention.

If you are seriously injured, this will determine whether or not you will return to the mats after your injury, or decide its not worth it. When you get older, and you don't heal as fast, whether or not you are willing to day after day roll with younger, fitter, stronger and possibly more technical guys who are gunning for your tap.

Whatever your answer is, will determine how you train, why you train, whether or not you'll invest in any particular training or direction, and ultimately whether you will continue training the rest of your life. 

Sam Wee is the head instructor for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) at the KDT Academy (, Malaysia and has been teaching BJJ since 2003.