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Why Your Grip is Weak and What to Do About It

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When people, particularly grapplers, ask me about training their grip, I always attempt to classify them into two categories: experienced with a weak grip, or novice/low training age with a weak grip. The distinction matters.

Novices & Grip Training

Quite simply, someone more novice to jiu jitsu or the weight room should not worry about extra grip training too much: it will be trained adequately as you get used to training with a barbell, dumbbells and hanging from a pull-up bar. It’s a skill, like much of strength, and is specific. 

The training age of a novice is simply too young to say something definitive about your grip strength. Just be sure your training has plenty of barbells, dumbbells and hanging exercises from a bar (pull-ups, hanging leg raises, etc), and you’ll begin to develop adequate grip strength in the early going.

I have seen grown men come into the studio and attempt to hang from the bar for more than 10 seconds and dropped off immediately, but their problem wasn’t some true “weakness,” they just hadn’t ever done it. 2-3 months into training deadlifts, pull-ups/flexed arm hangs, and they were hanging for over a minute on dead hang tests. That will translate.


The Experienced Athlete and Weak Grips

When you have an experienced person with a weak grip, you have a few things that could be at play, but all ends and solutions will include directly training the grip. More importantly, though, there’s a few questions and things you should look at first: namely, why is your grip weak? 

The lowest hanging fruit is your supplementary S&C as listed above. Are you just not training at all outside jiu jitsu? Start there. It may be that simple. Make sure your program, much like the advice above, has a lot of heavy bar work in it and pull ups/hanging exercises.

However, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably tried this and still struggle. 

I always look at stronger, experienced lifters and fighters with weak grip with the same critical eye and ask the following: 

How is your overall posture?

People with chronic terrible posture have a cascading list of problems, but one of the ones I am more concerned about is the idea of “irradiation”— in other words, one muscle or group of muscle’s tension creating a positive effect for another muscle.  Think of doing a 1 Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press: you’re much stronger/more stable by clenching the opposite fist and tightening the torso/core. Otherwise, you noodle under the weight to get it up. 

Do you have shoulder pain, or is it in a bad position constantly?

This is often a giveaway for tight or glued up pec minor. It runs rampant in jiu jitsu. When that pec minor is tight and the shoulders are forward/internally rotated, there is a lot of lost strength. Solving this for some takes some real work, but a balanced strength program, some manual work (lacrosse ball smashes + manual therapist) is the way to go about solving this.

How is your core strength?

This is a favorite one of physical therapists to examine; in fact, I learned it from Dr Peter Hwang (my NYC studio-mate). Weak cores are often the hidden root of weak grips because the body simply can’t create or maintain what I often call “a closed feedback loop of tension.” Meaning there’ll be no irradiation. In other words, whatever strength and tension you are able to create through the core, leaks out in the weakest part of the body and is lost.

It’s important to point out, it may not just be one of the items above; if your posture is bad, there’s a good chance #’s 2 and 3 are problematic as well, etc, so test yourself accordingly.

Once you address these things, I find the athlete’s grip comes to life. The last step is adding in more grip training directly once you’re confident you’ve worked on the items above, and you will find it increasing in strength quite a bit. 

In part II next week, I’ll go over my favorite grip training strategies specifically.

I also go over all the necessary strength and conditioning concepts for grappling in Jiu Jitsu Strength, my 3-month self guided program for jiu jitsu athletes.

Be well, be strong,

Mark


The Strength Program of a Top Jiu Jitsu Contender

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Some projects demand something beyond your current conception of "the best of you." In training, it's the coaching relationship between two people. You both rise to the level of each other.  There’ll be no level to rise to if you don’t actively build up your environment to meet the level of expectation and performance you set for yourself. I believe these moments define us.

I met Rehan Muttalib, jiu jitsu brown belt and multiple title holder at all belt levels, through jiu-jitsu: Rehan and I attended the same academy in NYC while he lived there. From the moment our mutual friends introduced us, we clicked. I later found out, it’s because we had both done our homework on one another: he had read some of my articles, followed my social media, and heard some things about my training methods from others. And I knew he was a stud athlete and intelligent competitor who was simultaneously attending medical school while adding medals to his resume in jiu jitsu. 

In a general sense, I am very interested in high level performers and people who do multiple things well. I often loved the ideal of the “renaissance man” as a kid, and aspired to live my life in a way that was both interesting to me, and gave me the room to explore anything I found myself engaged with. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the era of Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson.  

A person who has a multi-faceted approach to life where they perform highly in many areas, is a special person to me. It’s those clients who I am happy to lend my services to. I learn an equal amount from them. Maybe more. But shhh, don’t tell them that… 

The Foundation

One point both Rehan and I bonded on and the one that ultimately solidified our relationship, was that we both saw value in traditional, results based strength and conditioning. Rehan had been around weight rooms in multiple sports, particularly football, and saw the power a strength coach can have with a good program. At the highest levels of the sport, strength matters.

It’s funny I even have to say that, because an outsider would think— “strength training and sports seems like peanut butter and jelly.” However in jiu jitsu, there are a lot of strange ideas that persist about strength training that are very dated and antiquated. One such idea is that you don’t need strength training.  

Unfortunately, I believe jiu jitsu, and grappling sports more generally, are in the dark ages with strength and conditioning. There’s a few guys who get it and have been successfully through many of these rodeos (both coaches and competitors), but largely, jiu jitsu like many combat sports, is a breeding ground for charlatans and weird ideas of fitness and “sports specificity in training” to take hold. 

Sadly, it sometimes takes an ass whooping – and even worse,  brain damage - for people to realize how important strength is in these sports. I’ll address that in a future blog, but I am happy to see that there is a definite turn around lately. I credit Gordon Ryan’s amazing transformation and his subsequent domination of the jiu jitsu scene this past year for the turnaround in attitude. Athletes are proud folks and may not admit it, but he definitely got a lot of people in the gym and calling/texting me about training sessions. (Thanks Gordon!)

Establish Priority

The first place you would naturally start any strength and conditioning program with is establishing a priority. As one of my teachers and mentors, Charles Poliquin would say, PRIORITY MEANS ONE!

I had Rehan for two major tournaments, Pan Ams and Worlds, and we had a priority established for the first, and a priority for the ultimately longer camp to Worlds. So we had two, but we never tried to work on both at the same time. 

Pan Am Priority (approximately 4 weeks to complete): establish better strength and movement through the scapular region.

Worlds Priority (3-4 months): Leg strength in the posterior chain to enhance the crown of his game: his world famous guard play.

On Scheduling

Rehan and I talked at length early on about the ultimate goal being Worlds in June 2018, but since we started training together in February, we knew we’d have Pans, a handful of IBJJF Opens and a few other opportunities that would pop up along the way on the competition circuit.

It’s really important that grappling competitors understand that you only get 1, and at most 2 peaks in performance per year. Meaning, you can only train your way to perform physiologically at your VERY best twice per year. You’ll maintain that peaking performance for a little while, but the window closes relatively quickly. If you push as hard as you did to get there continuously  you will burn out. I can’t predict your consequences, but it won’t be good. 

This comes from years of research and cross analysis in many sports for decades (by scientists all over the world).  This doesn’t mean you can’t compete and compete often— but you should know which tournaments you want to be at your very best for. A classic jiu jitsu example of a dual peak would be Worlds and ADCC (on the years a top athlete qualifies for both and both are happening). 

With this in mind, we chose to peak Rehan for Worlds. All I programmed for him, his training and his entire life, was based around getting him to peak on June 2, 2018. This was mapped out carefully, and we used classic concepts of periodization to do it.

 

The Monkey Wrench, or One Logistical Difficulty….

There’s just one thing: Rehan relocated mid-camp to Los Angeles. I’m in NYC. 

We did over half of our work together remotely, with me checking in on him every day, and me averaging a visit to the west coast every other week for April and May to check up on him, train him and tweak his program in person. While this was a big change, it is something I chose not to dwell on. We made it work.  Nothing needs to stop progress if you’re committed to making it work. I can tell you between our daily conversations and his training logs, he didn’t ever miss a step and he made every performance in the gym as effective as I could have ever hoped it to be.

 

The Training

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"Before 30, you train with your balls. After 30, you train with your brain."

- Ben Pakulski, IFBB Pro and Bodybuilding Hero

You have two age factors to account for when training anyone: chronological age, and training age. Rehan and I felt that the paradigm was different for an athlete who had been to the rodeo many times. The high level athlete who knows their body and has been using it for a long time, and who is very familiar with their sport, needs to treat their training differently than a young 20-something who is still working toward their prime.  Rehan at the time of writing this is 31 years old and with at least 15 years of hard multi-sport training (and 8 in jiu jitsu) on his odometer. 

Thus, we had a manifesto: Training smarter to train harder. There would be no blindly hard, bruising sessions without purpose just for the sake of saying we “trained hard.” There would be no extra time spent in the gym that didn’t need to be done just to say we were there. Everything had a purpose. Recovery and down time would be treated with the same seriousness and care as training.

High level athletes, particularly those who have been competing, training and involved everyday  for many years (around a decade), have what I call a high training age.

Rehan had a very high training age: being a former Division I NCAA football player (defensive lineman), playing football growing up, and already a decorated champion in jiu jitsu at all levels, he came with experience.

It’s always important to choose your priority, but I always have to know the training age of the athlete first. The reason for this is you can reasonably assess how much strength they have to gain in what we might call the indicator lifts, or just more generally, the big lifts we hope to add strength to. These correlate with better performance on the mats (they do NOT predict it, but there is a high correlation). 

In a nutshell: the lower your training age, the more rapid room for growth you have. The higher your training age, the more you have to carefully program to bring about more modest gains than someone in their first 3 years of strength training.

Rehan came to me with some appreciable numbers in the main lifts for a grappler, and had a history and knowledge of body building. In other words, he had a good degree of gym literacy. This made me program for him in the weight room at an intermediate-to-advanced level (more below on that).

You also must know the reality of the sport you’re dealing with: 

For Rehan’s first mini program before Pan Ams, I chose to get his scapular retraction working a bit better and we used some mobility techniques that I learned from my years working with Steve Maxwell. You can find most of these in his mobility videos, but my favorites, which ultimately comprised Rehan’s daily rituals were the Single Joint Mobility Movements.

One technique I like quite a bit is the Farmer’s Carry with a Kettlebell in the Rack Position. It can stimulate the lats and trapezius muscles, depress the shoulders (taking you out of the shoulders-hiked and small-neck jiu jitsu posture), and then forces you to keep that posture while you get in some back handed GPP (General Physical Preparedness) with the farmer’s carry. You also learn to maintain that position when you have to. It really did the trick. 

We’d also progress to things like Dead Hangs on a Pull Up Bar and Scapular Pull Ups to get the body warm and things working in the proper order. 

A sample of his program for a day on the strength training of the upper body would look like this:

  • A1) Overhead Press (Neutral Grips DB)
  • A2) Pull Ups (Weighted progressively)
  • A3) Trap 3-Raise or Rotator Cuff Work

Classic, good pairing of exercises in an antagonistic co-contraction organization. It’s simply the most effective way to pair these types of exercises.  The prime mover of the last exercise rests while the formerly antagonist muscle group works on the second exercise. This organization is something I learned from Poliquin and has been built on and replicated by many great coaches.

Traditional strength programming would dictate you would want to work strength first, and then, hypertrophy if that was a desired outcome. Jiu jitsu is a weight class sport, and while I wanted to strengthen the posterior chain and work his legs in cycles of higher reps to facilitate this, you must be cognizant of putting weight on (or taking it away) from a top contender at his weight class. If he missed weight because I made him look like Dorian Yates, then I am severely out of touch as a strength coach.

 However, Rehan and I took what we knew to be a little bit of a risk. In retrospect, this wasn’t much of a risk at all.

Rehan is what I’d call a volume responder: he does well with high volume training. Intensity should be used relatively conservatively with him, and only to switch things up. With that in mind, we could lean on higher volumes of work in the weight room. The aforementioned risk I mentioned, was him putting on too much size (and going over his weight limit): being so responsive to volume.

A shot from the beginning of 2018. 

A shot from the beginning of 2018. 

A shot 3 days out from Worlds from Rehan's Instagram (May/June 2018). 

A shot 3 days out from Worlds from Rehan's Instagram (May/June 2018). 

We chose to have a little bit of a body recomposition go on in the course of the 4 months. Here is where the risk comes into play: already being around 10% body fat and frequently on weight throughout the year, he didn’t have to lose anything, but we could make him weigh the same 175-178lbs that he already did, but much, much leaner and more muscular. So that’s what we did. We built a bigger, better engine. 

Between working out with me, and the many hours of jiu jitsu training per day, his energy expenditure bought us some wiggle room. The other thing that we did was never hang out too much or for too long in hypertrophy rep ranges (8-12). We did a lot there, but they were carefully accounted for.

His lower body program became low-key viral and a joke around some jiu jitsu circles, as he’d often post on Instagram that he was doing my “leg day” with all kinds of painful emojis. It became a thing of mild legend. What was he up to on those days?

Well…

6-8 reps, training a functional hypertrophy base. We’d go down in reps in intensity phases, and up in accumulation phases. That was the crux. 

The Front Squat is my grappler staple squat. Few exercises are able to increase relevant strength for grapplers in a way that doesn’t over-train them. 

You always have to remember that jiu jitsu sparring rounds are almost like mini strength sessions that a high level athlete will basically be completing every day. Over-training is a very real risk in strength training these athletes, because they are often teetering on over-training just from their sport alone. Quite simply: their jiu jitsu class can be like a workout on its own.

The highest ROI came on the Step-Up. It addressed everything that needed to be addressed in his program and areas for growth. Without going too much in the weeds, Step Ups are severely underrated as a tool for calf, ankle and foot strength, but also ultimately for balance and proprioception. All things that are important for a guard player.

 I lean heavily on unilateral work for athletes. Split Squats and Lunges (Walking, Drop, Stationary, etc), all find their way into my programs very often depending on need and what that week calls for.

Deadlifts are a popular choice for grapplers and I used the deadlift once per week in 3 week bursts, and would de-load or ditch the deadlift all together depending on many factors in the 4th week of a cycle (sometimes every third week). I notice that volume responders, particularly jiu jitsu athletes, burn out quick if you lean on the deadlift too much. As the competition drew near, the deadlift happened every other week.

Did I just give away the recipe? 

The Results

Before (Left), February 2018, and after (Right) May 30, 2018.

Before (Left), February 2018, and after (Right) May 30, 2018.

  • The body recomposition
  • Bringing up his strength and objectively measuring it in the indicator lifts and reported performance increase on the mats
  • Upgrading and enhancing his recovery practices to fuel him into the next day.

Looking at the body composition results in the images above, you can see Rehan had extraordinary results. The rough numbers tell a better story: he successfully "recomp'd," as he weighed in at roughly 175lbs in both photos (at the time of taking the second photo, he was actually closer to 173lbs). Meaning, we were remarkably successful at building muscle and keeping him squarely in his weight class. Rehan deserves a lot of credit for this, as he dialed in his diet to a point most athletes aspire to. For those who always ask what is more important in body recomposition: diet or exercise-- I say both and you have to have congruent practices in both when your goal is to change your body composition. Rehan's results only reinforced this to me.

I did not speak at length here about the importance of recovery methods: we did some of our best work here. I'd like to devote future articles to this, but I'd be remiss and misrepresenting this project to you all if I didn't drive home the importance of the work Rehan spent in the other ~20 hours of his day "working in" as Paul Chek would say.

I would like to say in closing that strength and conditioning for jiu jitsu is not so different from the well-established practices of S&C in other major sports. You simply have to identify what the important muscles are, if the athlete needs more strength or more power, body recomp, and ultimately how to get them there. We make this process overly complicated, but it needn’t be.

One of my personal missions is to communicate to the world that that jiu jitsu athletes are their own class of athlete and need their own individualization in strength and conditioning. They are not wrestlers. They are not judo players. They are not MMA fighters. While there are parallels, their strength and conditioning must be different by virtue of the fact that modern sport jiu jitsu takes place on the ground, as opposed to the other grappling arts I just mentioned. It was important to me that not only was Rehan’s program carefully individualized, but was not overly inspired by popular grappling programs in other sports.

Flash forward to now, a few days out from Worlds as I write this, and I am very satisfied with the progress Rehan made during this whole camp. From a strength and conditioning perspective, it’s been an absolute dream: full compliance, great communication, and excellent results.

Working with Rehan has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. I am very fortunate to have a great roster of clients who all are devoted, thoughtful and committed to bettering themselves, and Rehan is no different. 

As you can see from the photos above, he’s had quite the transformation. I couldn’t be more satisfied with the results and the physical preparation for him that went into this camp for Worlds. We did everything we possibly could to set up the best environment for success.

 

Be well, be strong,

Mark

 

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Three Cues to Excel in the Deadlift

Most people who deadlift do so for the great strength and size-gaining benefits that accompany it. Packed in it though, is a great lesson on how to identify your center of gravity from a hinged or bent position. This has amazing benefits for the jiu jitsu fighter or anyone trying to improve their physical quality of life. Much has been written by masters of this lift, and it is one that has a lifetime's worth of detail and exploration. I consider it to be a real art and it is truly my favorite exercise. What follows are the most common cues and reminders I find myself giving when administering the deadlift.

 

Push the ground away

The most fundamentally misunderstood cue of the deadlift is that you somehow have to actively use your back to rip the bar from the ground and quite literally “pull.” I would absolutely call the deadlift a pulling lift, by virtue of it’s high demand on the posterior chain, but it’s an isometric “pull” from the upper body, with a lower body maximal effort from your posterior chain— effectively making it a “pulling motion.”

 

But a funny thing happens when we re-shift the emphasis a little: whenever I have someone who has difficulty deadlifting at a certain load, I cue them to think of their feet and imagine that on the upward portion (concentric phase) of the lift that they are pushing the ground away with their feet, while keeping the upper body rigid. Suddenly, muscles are properly cued that were underperforming earlier, their shoulders drop, traps pop, and they look like hinging perfection.  

 

It may be a pull, but you aren’t pulling with your upper body...

 

Expanding on the point above, the other massive deadlift miscue I see is that athletes will often look like they are trying to pull the bar off the ground with their back, and not using their legs to help at all until they stall with their back. Now, there is an unfolding and a bit of a pull with the back that does take place, but it must happen in conjunction with the legs “pushing you upwards” (as stated above). Moreover, those two things happening simultaneously must happen in a certain synchronicity to really effectively and expertly execute the deadlift.

RDL’s (Romanian Deadlifts) excluded, this is a huge mistake that could possibly end in injury, but more immediately, won’t do you any favors in truly reaping the benefits of the deadlift. 

Instead, take time to feel your lats, elevate your chest, brace your core, drop your shoulders, and take a few practice hinges holding this posture. This is how your upper body will remain as you deadlift. It is not a passive effort in the upper body, it’s quite active.

 

Sit on your heels

 

There’s so much of life that exists on our toes. Most sports, walking around town, and just about everything requires us to “lean in” a bit. This happens so much, that "leaning in" becomes how we are most comfortable balancing our bodies. Add to that the fact that shoes typically come with a heel (even minimalist sneakers sometimes), and you begin to see why people have trouble really getting in touch with being flat to the ground and sitting into their heels.

The problem with being too far on your toes during the deadlift is that the average deadlifter will be unable to properly cue their gluteus maximus and sit back in a nice deep hinge during the lift.   This “toe stance” has the effect of making you more likely to tilt your pelvis forward/under (posteriorly), and thus, killing a true hinge. The reason this happens is because your body is trying to get "under center" to its strong point at your center of gravity. Long term, I have seen this improper deadlift form sideline lifters for a very long time, as it has the effect of adding up to a lot of unnecessary tightness and damage to the anterior hip muscles. Even though in the moment you may feel stronger or more stable in your “toe stance,” long term it will bottom out and you’ll stall. Besides, it’s not correct anyway! 

So, avoid this at all costs by not getting your ego up or progressing too fast. Take time to practice your perfect hinge position, do support exercises, and be sure that the balance is in your heels. You also should keep the bar extremely close to your shins (almost touching, and it's okay if it does sometimes). That's the true way you keep the bar "under center." You’ll know you’re doing it properly when you can feel your glutes and the rest of your posterior chain.

 

Closing Thoughts

I find these three cues to be the most economical in recommendations, and find myself repeating them the most in the gym. These tips are very much aimed at the new deadlifter, but are very good evaluation and reflection questions an experienced powerlifter can ask themselves as well.  I included a video I often share with clients for quick reminders while deadlifting in the gym (see above). 

 

Be well.

A Best Practices Guide for the Masters Athlete

IBJJF World Masters 3 Absolute Runner Up Jay Marist.  photo credit:  Jay Marist

IBJJF World Masters 3 Absolute Runner Up Jay Marist.  photo credit: Jay Marist

Competition and logging long hours in the gym do not stop when you turn 30. There’s no better proof of that than the mats at your jiu jitsu school, CrossFit box, or obstacle races like Spartan. It’s why the over 30 crowd is increasingly well represented in the physical pursuits of many individual athletes.

The Masters athlete may be the fastest growing category of athlete and fitness enthusiast. Those reading this familiar with the term already know what I am referring to, but for the uninitiated:

The Masters divisions in many sports refers to the athlete who is generally over the age of 30, and wishes to compete at either an amateur or pro level of sport. Many sports like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, CrossFit or Powerlifting will further break this up into “Masters 1, Masters 2,” etc, based on further age brackets over 30.

Because of the increased popularity of sports and competitions in Brazilian jiu jitsu and CrossFit, and the age range running a wide spectrum, this phenomenon is really no surprise at all: people of all ages want to be healthy and compete to test their abilities. 

What concerns me though, is that all too often, we take the published advice of what’s advocated for professional athletes in their early-20’s and apply to the athlete over 30. Worse yet, is the master’s athlete trying to keep up with a 23-year old prospect banging out two-a-days at the gym.  The world is (sadly) not created equal for all, and in order to live out maximum glory on the mats or the floor of the box, we need to acknowledge where we are at in life, figure out where we can over-perform, where we currently underperform, and maximize our health.  

By no means am I recommending you use your age as an excuse. We need to get that out of the way right now: you are not to ever use your age as an excuse (or anything as an excuse really, who wants to hear excuses?). You simply need to acknowledge the reality of the hand you’re currently dealt and play the heck out of that hand. Crude analogies aside, let’s explore what I mean.

 

CONSIDER YOUR TRAINING AGE

One of the first assessments I make with all new clients, especially athletes, is their “training age.” By training age, I mean the amount of years they’ve been actively exerting their body physically in the gym and/or in sport. Depending on their “age,” the training recommendations for these individuals changes.

The younger your training age, the less overall work I need to do per session with you, as you stand to benefit a lot from less stimuli as it’s all new to you.  We strive for the least effective minimum dosage of training stimulus, in other words. Why?

 

  1. I want you to be fresh to practice and enjoy your sport. Your strength and conditioning should enhance that; it shouldn’t get in the way.
  2. Newcomers to strength and conditioning at any age also need to train a bit longer in basic movements before they possess the necessary technique to really push themselves maximally. Thus, newcomers often can train more frequently as they aren’t able to really hit or exert maximal effort yet. Newcomers train more often, but usually in the domain of technique, all while benefiting from adaptation because the threshold is so low.  

 

PHYSICALLY DEMANDING SPORTS HAVE A LONG ADAPTATION PERIOD TO increase 'WORK CAPACITY'

Are you trying to be a two-a-day champ at the jiu jitsu academy in your first three months? I would advise you don’t do that until your body becomes very familiar with the demands of the sport, how to recover from it, and until your body very realistically “hardens”. 

Your work capacity is something that needs to be built. This means that if you are a newcomer to the rigors of training that could be considered "all out" (or maximal): many master's age athletes need to give their bodies a minimum of 6 months just to adjust to a sustainable 2-3x per week sports training schedule.  You read that correctly: if you’re new, your max effort classes should be at 2-3 times per week if you’re a master’s athlete. 

The exception to this is if you’re used to 2-a-days from high school, college, and a well rounded fitness regimen. Other examples include athletes who don't work full time, can take the day to recover, relax, and practice other good recovery rituals.  If this describes you, then you will probably adjust just fine to doing hard physical activity every day, and eventually twice per day a few times per week pretty quickly. Your capacity is there, but you’ll want to work on your recovery.

For some who compete at the highest levels of the masters divisions, and are recent carry-overs from the Adult (under 30) divisions, then it’s more or less business as usual into your mid 30’s.  But what if you started jiu jitsu at 39, or older? What if your CrossFit regimen was the first real hard training in your life and didn’t really start until 44? You have to treat your body much, much differently, starting with the advice above.

 

RECOVERY IS A SKILL

Recovery is as much of a skill as strength and your sport. The body adapts physiologically to stress. Give the body time to recover, and it adapts to be that much more ready to take the rigor of what you previously asked of it. 

It’s a simple concept that goes astray too often, and I don’t necessarily blame the misunderstanding and straying. It’s poorly understood what it means to be truly recovered.  

From a strength and conditioning perspective for the masters athlete: keep in mind that two maximal workouts per 7 day period is sufficient for most to see progress, and consequently, enough to fatigue you at the deepest neurological level. This is especially true of the amateur athlete who has to work full time, has a few nights per week of compromised sleep, commitments with family, etc.  

This doesn’t mean you can’t train jiu jitsu, or hit the gym more than 2 days per week, it simply means you need to periodize, or scale, your training on a weekly basis: 2 hard days of rolling and 2 skill & technique based days, for instance. 

What’s a simple way to know if you’re recovered? You should use your ability to move through the ranges of what’s planned that day as your first indicator. Is soreness keeping you from achieving a perfect hinge? If so, then you may need to re-arrange your workout days. After a few minutes of warm-up, is that guard pass feeling really shaky? Consider resting or reorganizing your sport training that day. 

 

RECOVERY IS AS IMPORTANT AS TRAINING

It just needs to be prioritized. Reduce stress, sleep better, and eat well 85%-90% of the time, and you will largely take care of the recovery spread. It also is immensely important that you make time for yourself. Schedule 30 minutes as frequently in a week as you can to simply be alone. If this includes your own meditation, breathing or mindfulness practice, you'll be bringing yourself to an even better place in your recovery efforts.  I've written much on this topic and will continue to, so keep an eye out for that.  Consider also adding "me time" and meditation time through things like Morning and Evening Rituals.

 

Periodization of your training and strength/conditioning program is a must.

Periodization refers to the planning and mapping involved in creating an effective workout program. Programming for athletes, especially master’s athletes, is much different than creating workouts for the average gym goer. If you practice your sport and pair that with the same routine you’ve been using for years in the gym, then you need a drastic change. Without doing so, you may be affecting your durability and performance.

You need to carefully and progressively increase your workload without overdoing it for too long and too often. Hitting it 100% every day is simply not going to cut it.

Program design is one area of fitness and strength training that is simply too personal and complex to ever write a one size fits all solution to. As such, the best solution is to seek out a skilled strength coach or trainer who understands periodization and programming for athletes. Together, you can work on a program and work together over a period of time to maximize results. The art and science of programming is where great coaches shine, as they’ve spent years and degree-worthy amounts of study on learning how to maximize performance. This is exactly the crux of my Online Training program, as this is exactly what we do with that service: periodized training programs. Check it out the services page to see if it’d be right for you.

 

Movement quality and Motor Control is equally important as training

 

For ease of discussion, I’ll break this into two camps:

If you have a long history of being involved with the sport you find yourself pursuing in your Master’s life, then you’d be wise to spend at least half your time on your strength and conditioning, body maintenance, and wellness habits.  Why? You already have a great many hours logged, reps performed, and the brain-body patterning that are required to be great at what you do. Your time is better spent making sure you’re still able to do it indefinitely. The athlete I’m describing here is often highest risk for overtraining on the mats, or kicking it in high gear too often.

If you’re very new to the sport you find yourself in (ie: under 4 years in), and already over the age of 35, then your time needs to be spent doing that sport, perfecting your movement and technique, and on your recovery habits. Don’t get confused though, you absolutely must keep up some schedule of strength and conditioning, but it should be on something that keeps you feeling fresh, loose and prepared to get back sports. Don't embark on a new program to increase your 1RM the same month you start jiu jitsu. Give it a few months to all come together and build up to it.

Moreover, strive for movement and technical fluidity and control over the ability to quickly get through something, or literally "surviving" class and/or a workout.

 

IF YOU DROP THAT WEIGHT FOR COMPETITION, YOU MAY NEVER GET IT BACK

At the risk of sounding sensationalist, I do think it’s important to point out that weight management becomes an issue for men and women as they get older. I’m not referring to eating too much or too little, but rather, bone density issues for menopausal women and the lean muscle maintenance of men over 40 that can be a real issue. 

The athlete over 40 who wishes to cut extreme amounts of weight does so inevitably at the expense of lean tissue. Estimates by reputable sources like the NSCA report that anything over 1% of total body mass loss per week is going to be more than just fat loss: it's also muscle and water. That can be consequential for a man over 40, or the woman who has a lot of lean muscle from years of training.  

The exception to this of course, is if you’re overweight or obese and you have fat to lose. If you have difficulty gaining muscle, or find yourself experiencing muscle loss, then a drastic weight cut is not your friend. Add to the fact that most people do this process rather crudely, without professional help. Be advised, drastic weight loss can affect an individual’s body at hormonal levels that can start to wreak havoc longer term if mismanaged or done too aggressively and frequently.

I’ll often hear from people who have a longer history in their sport say something to the effect of “I don’t understand, I used to be able to cut to this weight just fine.” The unsexy truth is that it’s different to manipulate your weight when you’re at a certain age, and we are always changing physically. Things change, and your practices need to also.

 

CONCLUSION

This all could apply to any athlete at any age, but it becomes especially important when you're on the other side of 30. Much of what I discussed above is geared at the grappler/martial artist, and the masters athlete who competes at weight class sports. Much of this also can be applied to the competitive CrossFit athlete too, because they are often interested in multiple physical pursuits outside the box, and finding time for it all is a task. Regardless, the point still stands that you must acknowledge that the life of an athlete has a progression, as all things do in life, and to not acknowledge that comes at your own detriment. For some, these truths may be hard to swallow, but they are recommendations meant to keep you pursuing the sports for as long as you desire, and never being forced off the mats.  Long story short: take your time, and train smart to train hard.

What I Learned From My First Jiu Jitsu Competition

People of all backgrounds walk through my doors, send me emails, or ask for training advice. The secret is that the actively competitive athlete is the easy one to advise: their needs are largely defined by the sport they play. It's harder when you're either done with your life revolving around competitive athletics or you never lived that life to begin with. My best advice to this person is to always find something to train for: a marathon, 5K, rec soccer league, or competing in martial arts. 

You find out a lot about yourself through competition. Here's another secret: it's not the competition itself that brings the joy. Though winning is great, the real ecstasy-like high comes from the preparatory period: those days of training hard and watching your progress, the impeccable sleep and the energy you gain from it, the insight you get on your own personal and physical limits (or lack thereof), overcoming plateaus and the relationships you make with your teammates, classmates and coaches. It's a rich experience. 

I live what I do. I live on the advice I give to my athletes and you all: the things I write about daily and take photos of on Instagram, podcast about on Functional Meatheads, and elsewhere. I love a challenge, but like many, easily can fall into the monotony of doing whatever is required of us in life. The key is not doing this for too long, and I like to think I'm good at sensing imbalance in my life. That's why I decided to compete in the IBJJF NY Summer No-Gi. Open

The idea that I would consider my hobby of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu a good means for competition and the experiences that accompany it entered my brain pretty early in my beginnings in the sport a year and a half ago. I knew as a fumbling and clumsy white belt that I'd be on the competition mats before long, even if it meant getting triangled in the first round. 

Conceiving the idea and executing it are something entirely different however: a feeling many are familiar with. Little speed bumps happen that deter you from pulling the trigger:

"Oh, I have a trip coming up."

"Oh, I have a work thing the week before."

Anything pops up and becomes a reason not to do it.

I had my own version of this: I got promoted.

Around February of 2015, I was just starting to get comfortable with my fellow white belts and was chomping at the bits to get into the NY Spring Open that upcoming April at white belt.

One evening that month, I heard my name called at the promotion ceremony and before I knew it, was having a blue belt tied around my waist by Marcelo Garcia. 

photo: Ric Ricard

photo: Ric Ricard

Shit. I was happy, but more so, I was scared. I felt undeserving and many emotions of uneasiness.  Feelings I usually help athletes get through in my sessions with them. It's different when it's you though. 

Almost immediately after that night, I felt insecure. I was getting to roll with higher caliber players at the academy and getting walloped. It was the same story while rolling with now-fellow blue belts. It was around this time I talked myself out of the Spring Open.

I can honestly tell you, one day removed from yesterday (my first competition), that it was the decision I regret most since starting jiu-jitsu.

Yes I would have likely lost like I did yesterday, and probably much worse.

But you know what? It doesn't matter. 

I got so much pleasure these past 5 weeks while training (often twice per day), programming my workouts for a sport I love, sleeping 8-9 hours a night, saying no to bullshit food that ends up making you feel worse about yourself, reveling happily in my rest periods, the close relationships I made with my fellow competitors, the support and encouragement I received from family and friends, and yes, even the weight cut. 

I could have experienced this all sooner, but I didn't, because I let some weird voice talk me out of it.

It was the most concentrated dose of positivity rolled into a five week period that I ever experienced. This is coming from a guy who played traveling competitive hockey from age 11. There wasn't one bit of negativity or true life stress in those 5 weeks.

I wouldn't trade it for a thing.  

I wouldn't trade it for the result either: I got triangled in the first round.

I wouldn't trade it because you have to earn the wins. They come from preparation like I described above, but also something more:  the intangibles that you only get through experience. 

Experience I'm working on and it started yesterday. 

I'd like to thank all who supported me and helped in any way along the road. Your words of encouragement are little tiny doses positivity that deeply sink into the brain and put the body at ease, giving a deep sense of feeling like you can do anything.  Words are powerful and change your reality.  There's never anything wrong with being positive, kids!

I thank you for reading a little bit about my experiences and if you have your own story, please do share below in the comments or email me, I'd love to hear it.