jiu jitsu

Deloads and Recovery Methods You Can Use

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Recovery is a buzz topic of late in fitness and sports performance, and for good reason. However, I get concerned that without enough actionable steps and an echo chamber of “you need to sleep more” and “experts” who try to hack their way out of skill development and health, that the real recovery message will get lost. 

What is the “real message” of recovery anyway?

I had good mentors and people intervene with me at a young age to help me with recovery methods and ways to minimize injury; probably more than most in my age group, or more than most in general. These methods probably dominated most of what I did in the earliest part of my training career. Conversely, about five years ago, I got the opposite bug— I wanted to really push to the point some of the most extreme performers in the world did. I wanted to learn the limits of my body and understand the far extremes of the most extreme performance. This was in part, to not waste a generally healthy male body that was given some pre-disposition to do well in a variety of physical pursuits, but also to understand the mindset and preparation even more deeply that goes into the athletes and people I deal with day-to-day. 

In the time since ~2013, I’m happy to say I’ve been traveling that road with minimal injury roadblocks, precisely because I was able to utilize the lessons I had learned on recovery early on (and using my network).

Which leads me to now, where I feel quite comfortable saying I have learned two major lessons in the process:

  1. Schedules will help you avoid burnout and manage your fatigue

  2. Deloading makes you bigger and stronger.

I’ll address the schedules point in next week’s piece in detail. I want to touch today on the topic of deloading.

We all know in theory that de-loading is necessary and is built into any good program, as it offers a reprieve from the hard stress of the micro-cycle you just trained through, preparing you for the next upcoming training cycle. Physiologically, it’s where the super compensation and acute adaptation happens to ultimately give you the results you were looking for in your training.  Without a well-timed deload phase, you often find yourself a step behind. It’s the equivalent to not tapering off your jiu jitsu training before a tournament; or going for PR’s within days of competition.

Funny enough, it’s the deload and management of training cycles that I believe is one of the top reason I’ve been able to build up and maintain great athletes and clients for years running now. If you aren’t used to a periodized program, this type of organization is a game-changer. Among the benefits are being able to predict when you’ll be peaking and managing your fatigue and continuing to improve in what seems like and endless manner (if you’re used to the old train hard and burnout cycles).

However, I personally didn’t see the “magic” of the deload until I was forced to. I can remember coming off a hard month-long German Volume Training cycle that was written by Charles Poliquin and had drastically increased my sets per week for weeks leading up to it. When the deload week was finally just a few days away, I could feel my body starting to get run down with a cold-type of illness. This wasn’t unexpected and I took it as a cue to rest and start the deload early. What followed was a little alarming to me, as I ended up feeling weaker than I anticipated in that deload period, for much longer. I physically wasn’t able to go give my best at the gym or on the mats for about 2.5 weeks. I was concerned I had over-trained. And you know, I may have. 

But what happened next felt like magic or some weird voodoo— I shot up in weight, size and measurements in the next month that followed that illness and sluggish time. I even hit PR’s the whole next month in training. This all with very minimal/maintenance type training from me during that time.

If I had to break it down in somewhat simplistic terms: I was basically overreaching for about 6 weeks (and a few more training cycles on top of that) and had an extended “cool off” period in which I could literally grow and adapt to the training stimulus I aggressively put myself through in the preceding months.

The Mental Component

My big lesson? You have to ask yourself if your compulsion to not deload properly comes from your desire to win/get stronger at all costs, or if it’s a compulsive nervous response. An anxiety about something.  

If you think it’s your desire for strength, and that you can train through anything, then please believe me and any coach worth their salt out there, that you’ll get stronger from those well-timed deloads. 

If you want to get stronger, want to win the big one, but can’t seem to have mental peace with the deload, and struggle with the downtime, I very much encourage you to meditate on the matter and dig into what’s not letting you take a step that will actually help you. Learn why you have difficulty letting go.  

It’s high on my list of things to work on with athletes, so if you struggle with this, you aren’t alone. It also comes with no judgment, as it took some failure and real-time learning on my part to learn one of the best lessons of my career on this topic. I’ve seen too many people underperform on game day after 8 week camps and years of training, all because they pushed it compulsively until the big dance. Worse yet, I’ve seen injuries that I believe could have been possibly mitigated had some care been taken in respect to scheduling and deload.

I hope this gives you some things to think about in applying these concepts to your training.

Be well, be strong,

Mark DiSalvo

The Most Underrated Parameter in Programming

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Tempo is the most underrated and oft-forgotten factor in programming.

If a training program is presented to you that involves strength work, lifting, or calisthenics, and it does not even address tempo at all, I suggest you don’t bother with it.  

What is Tempo and What Does It Mean?

Tempo specifically refers to the speed of each phase of movement and contraction time in an exercise. It’s sometimes referred to as TUT or Time Under Tension.  The speed at which you’re expected to do a movement dictates the sets/reps, and by extension, the load. All of that translates to the desired response of the workout in the first place. Because of this, it is as important of a consideration as sets, reps and load when discussing strength training.

Translated further in an example: if you have very low weight on a bar and you’re meant to do it for a high rep count, you should probably be slowing down the tempo quite a bit to create muscular stress and NOT throwing weight around quickly. (*There are exceptions in power training of course, but this is outside the scope of this article).

In general, the longer your TUT or during particularly slow eccentrics, you are likely getting hypertrophy (or muscular size) benefits. One added bonus to an extremely slow tempo is that it has a very therapeutic/corrective effect to the muscles at certain low intensity percentages: because you are moving slowly, your brain and muscles have that extra time to “communicate” and you can increase motor unit activation to muscles that may be lagging as they’re increasingly placed under stress. This is why isometrics are often used in sports rehab settings or for sticking points in some athlete’s lifts.

Extremely slow tempos, in my book, would be defined as anything over 6 seconds in either phase of movement or contraction.

Conversely, the shorter your TUT or Tempo, the more you’re looking to move bigger weight. 

In strength sports, it’s pretty cut and dry as to when/why you would train with faster tempos and bigger weights. But in jiu jitsu, you must always be making careful tradeoffs for your body in terms of what strength qualities to train. For example, if you are only able to back squat or deadlift 40% of your bodyweight, I would definitely want to bring that up quite a bit and would call that a glaring area of need. However, if you’re lifting past your bodyweight in a big indicator lift (your bodyweight past 40% at least), we would definitely be looking to add more stability, identify any potential muscular imbalances, etc, and NOT turning you into a powerlifting hybrid athlete. In this case, you would train with longer tempos and moderate loads/intensities.

Applied to Grappling

In the video below, Marcelo Garcia brown belt Leigh Cohen is demonstrating a very slow Heels Elevated Front Squat.  Leigh tests more than adequately in raw strength, and his trainable qualities/needs lie more in mobility and muscular endurance, all of which are qualities very trainable by slow tempos.

To illustrate further, if Leigh’s absolute strength was the goal and his mobility was A+: we’d lose the slant board, have him lift much quicker, and probably add about 50lbs to the bar for sets of 3 or 4. 

We use tempo extensively in my training programs and in Jiu Jitsu Strength because it may be the most important variable for a Jiu Jitsu athlete to understand in their strength training. Raw weight and putting big plates on the bar feels good to your ego, but think about what helps your training the most. Sometimes it’s that, sometimes it’s not.

It may mean being Eddy Coan one day, Ronnie Coleman the next, but Ido Portal on Friday. If that analogy didn’t land: it means be smart, lift heavy when you need to, get bigger in size if you’re too small and often injured, or work your mobility if you’re stiff as steel.

— Mark DiSalvo

Part II: Why Your Grip is Weak and What to Do About It...

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Last week, I talked about the reasons your grip may be weak, no matter your experience level in the gym or on the mats.

This week, I wanted to get into ways you can effectively train your grip. This is probably what a lot of you “came to see,” but I can’t stress enough how important it is to figure out where you are on the grip strength continuum. Meaning, if you have some gnarly pec-minor issues and a weak core, I don’t care what number of Captains of Crush grip you use. So, go read last week’s blog first.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk actual grip training strategies.

Fat Gripz or Thick Dumbbells

Use these and use these often. Most of you won’t have Watson Dumbbells at your gym (and if you do, consider yourself VERY lucky), so you’ll want to purchase some Fat Gripz. Use these on just about anything you do with dumbbells. I don’t advise using these on barbell compound lifts, as the lack of control will take away from developing the bigger muscle groups you’re probably targeting when you deadlift, for example.

Train the eccentric grip, or at least use some therapeutic measures

Bring your finger-tips all together on one hand. Now, put a rubber band around your fingers, including the thumb. Open, and hold. Close back til all finger tips meet. Repeat.

Simple as that.

You concentrically use your grip muscles CONSTANTLY in jiu jitsu… and life. You need to train the eccentric portion of a true “grip” to stay balanced and healthy. It’d be like training your chest and not your back… quads, but not hamstrings. We can elaborate more in the future, but for now, understand this is a great way to passively work on your grip at your desk.

You can train the grip nearly every day, just vary the modality

The late Charles Poliquin was an advocate for every day grip training, provided you change the exercise daily. I always liked this advice, because all things considered and compared to other athletic populations: I feel grapplers develop excellent grip strength for the very reason they use their grip strength every time they hit the mat, especially while training with a gi. They have a high volume of grip training by default.

A schedule for daily grip training may look like:

  • Monday: Heavy Farmer’s Carrys with Thich Handled DB’s

  • Tuesday: Plate Pinches for time

  • Wednesday: EZ Bar Pronated Wrist Curls superset with Supinated Wrist Curls.

  • etc…

Do Relatively Heavy Deadlifts with a Barbell

I am not suggesting you become a powerlifter if jiu jitsu is your main-stay, but I certainly think and believe deadlift cycles are important in the macro view of a good strength and conditioning program for a jiu jitsu athlete. Don’t use straps.

Hang time

Get good at hanging from a bar in the “dead hang.” If you’re able to dead hang from a bar for 70 seconds or more as a jiu jitsu athlete, you’re in good company. In my own collection of data over the years, hang time is a fantastic indicator exercise for jiu jitsu.

Lastly, I’ll say that if grip training is a priority, do a few exercises for it at the TOP of each workout. If it’s your priority, it should be treated like something with priority.

Until next time,

Mark

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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There's Growth in the Grind

The thing I love about wrestlers and grapplers is the concept of “embracing the grind.” In other words, wrestling and grappling can be so damn hard, so punishing, so bruising, that you almost can’t elevate your game unless you embrace it and just forget about how rough it can be. Your success is determined by how much more you are willing to put up with than your opponent. The ones who begin to enjoy the physical challenge and grind of practice/class start to become the ones who are most successful.

Sure, to many, this sounds extreme. But behind that rough description is a story of love and giving yourself the opportunity to flourish in something extremely difficult.

Changing your body and health are the same, and on a more humble, manageable scale. Which is why I believe for some people, it's a harder change. This is mostly because people don’t take it as seriously as the wrestler or grappler: they aren’t aware of the physical consequence.

Wrestling’s consequence is easy. You get pinned, you get worked, your body hurts, you’re miserable, and not improving. You NEED to get better. Maybe that sounds familiar... 

When it comes to health or humble performance goals, you may not immediately realize the consequences.

You may have no social consequences, because all your friends and family members are equally unhealthy. You also may not realize that the extra 10lbs you are unhappy with now isn’t a problem in your performance today, but in 5 years, you just fought an unnecessary daily +10lbs battle with gravity and will be feeling the consequences of it in your joints. Walks with your kids may not be as easy, workouts are harder, sports you enjoyed partaking in don’t happen as much- or worse, you were forced into early “retirement.”

You have to take a long term look at your diet and lifestyle to understand the consequences and how to fix it. 

Once you establish the consequences, you have one end of the spectrum. I don’t like to coach from a place of negatives, though. Fixating on the negative robs you of creativity in planning and execution. It is ultimately a waste of energy and a low-level mindset. Let’s talk about the other end of the spectrum: growth.

Growth

The other end is possibility; limitless growth and happiness that you can find in improving your situation.

In wrestling or grappling, this could take many forms: the obvious is winning. But maybe you’re a great training partner and not necessarily a high achieving medalist/winner. Those great training partners have opportunities to work with Olympians and other high achievers in their preparation for competition. That work may open up doors to coaching if you’re a good communicator. Or maybe it’s with some position we can’t even fathom. It may involve you even becoming a future member of a world champion's team, or Master’s class champion. It starts with the work though, and not sitting out of class because your ego wouldn’t let you come to class only to get beaten up a little that day: or worse, you have a (food) hangover.

No, you have to love the process and the greater vision.

The same is true of improving health markers in your life. You see that little changes like the extra two workouts per week are making: you feel a little stronger, and less out of breath while training. Imagine if 2 workouts changed this, what the possibilities are a few years from now are by simply attacking 2 workouts per week. What progress you'll have, what weight you’ll lose! 

The other secret here is that those 2 workouts will turn into 4, and a beginner’s mindset will develop as you spend a few extra hours a week reading articles on exercise, or pursuing a sport more deeply. This newfound hobby will take you to places you didn’t think of previously. Things I cannot predict.

All because you said to yourself, I have these two workouts in the bag- let’s keep this going.

You have to get out of your own way and show up though. You have to believe that you’re worth the effort and can achieve great things by simply putting one foot out in front of the other. Throwing out the junk food, stocking the fridge with quality meats, vegetables and fruits, and scheduling gym time are all shrines and overtures to you and displays of your confidence in yourself. It's you taking control and molding your world.

Without even realizing it, you’ve begun to embrace the grind. 

Be well, be strong,

Mark

 

Who is Asking?

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I was asked a question last week about insulin and adrenal hormones, and why you wouldn’t want to spike them before your workout.

I field a lot of intelligent questions like this: from clients, training partners and people who write to me, to friends and family.  The answer to so many questions like it is: who is asking?

Many people who read well intentioned or even largely true training advice must keep in mind who is dispensing the advice and who their intended audience is. While there are universal training truths, you must remember the old adage: Sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul.

What do I mean?

  • In times where you hope to increase muscle mass, you’ll be sacrificing training for strength (in intermediate to experienced trainees).

  • In times where your goal is to burn fat, you probably won’t be gaining muscle (novice trainees might, but intermediate and advanced will not).

  • You do not want to take in sugar or carbohydrate to spike your insulin before you workout because it will come with performance detriment, but a wrestler or grappler who is doing two-a-days and has a strength session may actually benefit from increasing their blood glucose levels with GOOD sugars before a workout or training session.

 

I think I’m making my point. There are only so many masters you can serve, and simultaneous goals you can achieve. That's why you must establish your priority and be realistic about your situation to get better results. It comes back to the big question: Who is asking?

Often times, you have to be aware of situations where you “don’t know what you don’t know” (to borrow another old phrase). This is where professionals and coaches are critical: they help you identify who you are, what group you fit into, and how to best address your question. More importantly, they can help you prioritize your goals. Sometimes you don’t even know what questions to be asking. That’s why anyone serious about their training needs coaching in some capacity.

From the side of the professional, the coach, the trainer, the therapist: this is where we need to band together and establish good networks: if I am being asked by an olympic lifter how to “clean up” their clean and jerk for competition, that is not something I can offer finer nuance on, and I am acutely aware of that. We can work your clean, front squat and mobility to get you a bit better, but if you have very little time, and it's all mechanics of sport: I want to refer you to the best sport coach. If you ask me about conditioning, strength and mobility for grappling, then I can help you quite readily, and if a yoga teacher was asked about grappling, I would expect he/she to do the same.

I digress and offer the simple advice we opened with: if you or your client can better identify the priority in your current program and reality of the situation, you can better identify the big question:

Who is asking?

 

How Do You Know if You're Over-Training?

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Overtraining is a funny topic, because it’s so profoundly misunderstood. It’s misunderstood at levels that get people feeling like they’re lazy if they don’t train that day; or on the other end of the spectrum: feeling like their workout allows them to sit the rest of the week out in hopes that they "hit it hard enough already."  Neither are correct. That's more neurosis than simple objective feedback from your body.

I sometimes even hesitate to dwell on this topic in any sensationalist way because, while it's incredibly important, I never want to come off as the "told ya-so" disciplinarian parent, nor do I want to coddle and excuse what could simply be a lack of effort and discipline on the part of the trainee. Both outcomes are negative and lead to the athlete simply tuning out to what could be good advice.  So for the athletes and coaches reading this alike, I encourage you to be very aware of how to deal with overtraining in athletes and the signs of it, but trust that you have the knowledge, education and intuition when the problem arises. Don't stress; the stress is much worse.

Overtraining quite simply is the state you find yourself in after chronically overreaching in your training effort. Much can be mitigated by recovery efforts, but even the best laid recovery practices can’t outrun a body that can’t recover, adapt, and come back stronger.

I made mention a few weeks ago in my article on The Athlete of Over 30 Best Practices, that you should alter your training plans for the day if you’re feeling over-trained. But how do you know if you’re overtrained? Let’s discuss…

 

Did you over-reach in the past 2 days?

 

Overreaching in strength and conditioning circles refers to the temporary over-exertion of yourself to reach a certain short-term goal. Maybe it was you going the extra round in jiu jitsu (past your normal capacity), or having multiple consecutive two-a-days.

In the gym, it may mean that you went for your PR in a squat or deadlift in the past 48 hours. Maybe you had a two-a-day: sprints in the morning, strength training in the evening. The actual practice of this isn't "bad," but the chronic repeating of it can get you in trouble (why do you think so many programs have "de-load" weeks and times where you alter your volume and intensity?)

You can conceivably overreach for a number of sessions in a row to produce a desired training effect, but you’ll be in slippery territory if you do this unsupervised or chronically. Sometimes, high level athletes will overreach to achieve a certain goal. 

Whatever the case, you've dealt a slightly larger than normal blow to your nervous system that your body is recovering from and adapting to in order to come back stronger.  While this is happening, you’d be wise to move, but somewhere in the 60-70% total exertion/effort range max for the immediate 48-72 hours after. This could include longer duration cardio/running/biking, practicing your technique for your lifts by doing higher volume and low weight sets, drilling in jiu jitsu, etc.

To be clear, you are not overtrained at this point. However, if you chronically trained in this fashion, you’d probably be pushing into over-training territory. Precisely how much is a personal approximation and number, and is in part, measured by some of the small giveaways listed below. To figure it out first though, you must take an inventory of your body.

 

reflect, but don't get too "heady"

There are many reasons a mental malaise and brain fog can onset that are not a result of physical fatigue. Stress, distractions from work, life, family or otherwise, and simply not being present can easily disrupt your focus, and have physical manifestations. You’ll feel tired, cranky, or just physically drained.  Should you train on those days? That depends…

It’s hard to distinguish between this “attitude fatigue” and actual physical over-training.  A quick way to tell which is which is by thinking to your last 4 training sessions. Are you usually happy and enthusiastic to go and knock it out of the park? Then you may be actually in need of that extra rest day if you're feeling sludgy. Conversely, if you’re always hemming and hawing the whole way to the gym and don’t really get focused until your first set, then you’re probably simply psyching yourself out… in the bad way. In this case, training would probably be a good idea.

It simply comes down to being disciplined. You won’t always feel like training, but you should. Compliance and how much you show up and complete what’s outlined is what’s most important.

So if you’re certain it’s not an attitude fatigue incident, let’s explore these four clues:

 

Find a “benchmark exercise”

Everyone has an exercise they’re good at and simply have a higher aptitude in relation to other exercises. My personal one is the Farmer’s Walk. Besides simply being a strength and strength capacity building exercise, the Farmer’s Walk gives me a good indication to my balance that day, basic coordination, and how tense or tight I am feeling.  On most days, if I pick up a heavy kettle bell, dumbbell, or any thick-gripped implement, I feel ready to move with it. However, there’s some days where I am simply off and even grabbing a 16kg or 20kg kettle bell to do a simple warm-up is asking a lot. Moving is tough, coordination of my legs while walking is off (more on that below), and everything just feels heavier than it should.

Simply put, if an exercise is hard that you know should be easy, you may want to reconsider training that day. Take a longer warm-up, get into some harder working sets to see what happens, but don’t be surprised if you need to alter your workouts.

The same goes for combat sports, particularly grappling. If you’re feeling really sluggish and a lack of sharpness after 10-15 minutes of warming up and a few times through your favorite pass or sweep, you may want to stick to drilling that day.

Check your breathing

If you are sore, tight, stressed, or simply not having a good day, the chances that you are dysfunctionally breathing are quite high. You're probably breathing through your mouth, and/or possibly infrequently, and sighing and grunting a lot. If that's you, simply take a few deep diaphragmatic breaths and see what happens. I wager you'll find a lot more calm.

On the bright side of this practice, you'll have focused and altered your state in a very positive way for your training session. The relaxed demeanor and increased mobility of your tissue will allow you to fully utilize everything you have for the training session.

On the other side of the coin, if this still reveals some fatigue, you'll have taken the first step to putting your body in a "healing" state by blunting your sympathetic nervous system, and moving yourself into the parasympathetic realm, allowing your body to start healing better.

Grip strength

I notice amongst athletes and avid gym-goers alike, that grip strength is one of the first things to go as they approach overtraining and chronic overreaching territory. This observation is only valid of course, if people have a standard warm-up or some exercise that they’re used to using a heavy gripping effort for that we can compare it to session-to-session.  

We usually notice this at the beginning of a workout when someone is going to pick up a dumbbell or kettle bell they’re used to handling for warm-up purposes, or if they go to hang from a bar. Invariably, when they’re a little overly fatigued, it feels heavier to them than it should.  This has a lot to do with your nervous system readiness, that is, how quickly your body and brain are communicating to execute what you’re asking of it. The physical therapists I work with often equate grip strength issues to core issues as well; so if you're overly sore and damaged through the torso, and your grip isn't up to snuff, then we may have a reduced training load on our hands.

I particularly like to do a shoulder warm-up series with kettle bells to warmup before workouts. On the days in which I am a little over-trained, I find myself a little slower to process the grip of the thick handles, and it simply feels more difficult than it should to work with 12 or 16kg. 

Balance

Tripping on the mats? Doing a farmers walk and having issues staying under center? Not unlike grip strength feeling weak, your balance and all the systems that dictate it (vestibular, etc) can be the first to go when your body is shuttling its resources elsewhere. Often times, it takes a set or two to get your body and balance in sync, but if it’s going past the initial warm-up, you’d benefit from scaling back that day.

 

PROGRESSION AND PERIODIZATION ARE REAL THINGS

I find there’s two ends of this spectrum: people who very obviously have a lot on their training plate and are feeling burned out, and people who train much less frequently, but still feel burned out.  Both individuals are making mistakes of programming and periodization.

Don’t get discouraged if you’re feeling a bit over-trained and it’s coming from just a few workouts per week. You should already be logging your exercise (if you take it seriously), so go back and see what your total number of workouts was in 1 month. Increase that number by roughly 10-15% the next month to help build your capacity. Secondly, heed the next bullet point (more on that below. Spoiler alert: improve your recovery habits).

However, maybe you’re the opposite; maybe you’re burning out and it’s because you’re training TOO much. Remember, give yourself 48 hours if necessary between strength training bouts, and don’t expect to be king of the ring/mats the day after a hard strength training session either.

 

Identify Your Recovery Errors

The best laid plans can be easily laid to waste if your recovery efforts are tainted. The tried and true advice of proper sleep, diet and stress management go a long way. If you feel like you do everything perfect, but are chronically stressed and subsequently, under-slept, you WILL suffer. There is no way around this and I see it ALL the time. Stress management can derail all your training efforts and increase your chance for injury, blunt your progress, and make you retain unwanted weight. This is not an exaggeration and it's something I deal with almost weekly with clients and athletes (I live and train in NYC, after all...).

 

don't worry...

The worst thing you can do is worry. Remember, all these markers and symptoms are objective feedback from your body that something is off. They aren't a statement of judgement about you as an athlete.

Start becoming more mindful of everything above and you'll give yourself a much deeper window into your recovery habits. If you are indeed overtrained, you will be able to diagnose and appropriately respond to keep yourself healthy. It bears repeating that the majority of people reading this article may not need this advice now, but being mindful of these things can actually enhance and help you train harder and smarter later, as you can proceed full speed ahead if you are covering the spread and having no ill effects. We didn't cover everything, because that could be a book in itself, but I hope this got you all thinking about the topic.

Be well,

Mark

 

ps- If you have any rituals or signs you notice in recognizing overtraining, leave a comment below.