Class Stories: My Path From Broken To Unbreakable In BJJ


Hope And Caution

I thought I would share my story with you. 

I’ve been training Jiu Jitsu for more than 20 years.

I love Jiu Jitsu. I have since the first time I stepped on the mats. 

I’m fortunate to be able to coach you all, to share this wonderful martial art. I believe that Jiu Jitsu transforms lives. I’ve seen it with my own eyes as kids, and adults, develop strength, confidence and resilience. 

My story, though, isn’t just a story of love and hope. 

It is also a cautionary tale. 

I thought that Jiu Jitsu built me up, made me tough, but after years of battling in the gym, I thought that it had also broken me down. 

I’ll save you the boring details of being plagued by back pain every day for years. 

I tried all sorts of things to get better. I dove deep into yoga, practicing Ashtanga for more than ten years, up to two hours a day. I studied the Feldenkrais method. 

I had a physical therapist stick me with needles, which nearly crippled me. 

I read dozens of book, one by a doctor who claimed pain is in your mind. It’s not! 

I tried whatever I could think of.

I even got rid of my bed and couch and cajoled my wife to sit and sleep on the floor with me. We did that for six months, at least.

I managed to struggle through training during this time, but I would have to stop for back spasms. 

Eventually, I trained less and less. I worried if I would be healthy enough to continue practicing and coaching Jiu Jitsu. 

The thought terrified me. 

I hope to coach until the day I die. The way I felt at the time, I thought that day could be soon. 

Max Luis John BJJ Class
Back to training with Max, left, and Luis, right, at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu in Baltimore.

Not What Is Done

Through a stroke of luck — two actually — I got on the right track.

The first piece of luck was discovering the work of world-renowned spine specialist Stuart McGill. He is the author of Back Mechanic: The Secrets To A Healthy Spine Your Doctor Isn’t Telling You. 

I have no idea how I found out about McGill. If you google back pain, he does not appear in 20 pages of search results. That is a real shame. 

McGill is famous for promoting a series of exercises called the Big Three: Bird dog, side plank and curl up. 

He has worked with elite athletes in an array of sports. He loves mixed martial arts and Jiu Jitsu and has worked with many fighters. 

I started to follow his program. 

I’d been through so many different “methods” and approaches, I was skeptical. 

My understanding of McGill: (I recommend you read him to come to your own conclusions.) It’s not what you’ve done, but what you do that really matters. I was moving poorly all the time and aggravating my back daily. There are specific things that can hurt your back — pain triggers. Understanding and removing those is a huge part of the battle. Stretching might feel good, but it can aggravate back pain. Your spine is happier when you stabilize it and let movement come from your hips and shoulders. Your core, for the most part, is designed to resist movement, not create it. Isometric exercises, like planks, bird dogs, side planks and dead bugs, are the key to a healthy back. Walking is one of the best ways to stay healthy. However, slow walking puts extra stress on the back. Fast walking relieves pressure on the back, makes it stronger and feel better.

Read A More In-Depth Discussion Of The McGill Method: Jiu Jitsu Workout For Lifetime Fitness

A Blessing In Disguise

The second piece of luck was a blessing in disguise.

COVID closed the gym in March 2020.

Immediately, we needed to pivot to keep Zenyo going. I went from concentrating all my energy on Jiu Jitsu to having to come up with a plan for online training.

I dove into Back Mechanic for workout ideas. I read another of McGill’s books, Ultimate Back Fitness And Performance. 

I came up with a workout plan based on his books. 

And we were off. I started doing McGill-based workouts six to eight times a week for thirty minutes at a time. (You don’t need to exercise near this much to get great results.)

It totally changed my life. My back pain faded away. Even better, if it did come back, I knew that by doing the exercises that I could control it and get it to subside. 

Now, I’m back on the mats training again. I feel healthy, strong and resilient. I still get hurt or have pain at times, but now I have the strength and resilience to bounce back.

I’ve found my way to be unbreakable. 

What I Do:

The workouts based on The McGill Method have done wonders for me. I’ve seen it work wonders for the Zenyo crew, too. This is what I do:

  1. Take short walks two or three a day
  2. Isometric exercises to “turn on” the core muscles and stabilize the spine
  3. Functional strength training with a focus on keeping my back in a neutral position

(I had an appointment to see McGill in person at his headquarters in Canada. Sadly, I had to cancel because of COVID. I did travel to D.C. to work with Marc Luko, a physical therapist trained in the McGill Method. He helped me tremendously. You can find McGill at You can find Luko at I highly recommend both.)

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