BECOMING UNBREAKABLE JIU JITSU WORKOUT
Takeaway: Jiu Jitsu workout based on alignment and mechanics. What you do on and off the mat will determine your health. Avoid workouts that compromise your alignment.
Learn the best way to work out for Jiu Jitsu that you should be doing every day. You have to be strong to fight the battles you face on and off the mats. Understanding how to develop and apply your strength determines your success. Strength used in the right way makes you unbreakable.
Strength is how you prepare your body for the challenges of moving in the dynamic and unpredictable circumstances of Jiu Jitsu. Strength is more than brute force. Real strength is intelligence in movement. It’s not the load; it’s how you carry it.
The Jiu Jitsu workout we cover here builds strength and endurance around your spine and keep it in its most protected alignment. These exercises directly challenge your core to maintain good alignment and stability that are critical to successful training.
“The Jiu Jitsu athlete generally does better training back muscle endurance, as opposed to strength.”
— Spine expert Stuart McGill
We all want to avoid Jiu Jitsu injuries. Few things are worse for athletes than getting hurt and missing training time. A vital element to avoid Jiu Jitsu injuries is creating a healthy body to withstand the rigors of training. Jiu Jitsu demands a body that is strong but flexible. Too much of one or the other can lead to problems. Many athletes, in an attempt to get stronger or more flexible, actually do the opposite of what they intended—they create workouts that weaken and damage their backs.
To succeed and have a long career at Jiu Jitsu, you have to develop great mechanics and then apply them to your techniques and workouts. If anything takes precedence over form you can put yourself in danger of creating some really bad Jiu Jitsu injuries.
The Back Mechanic
To understand how to use the body to its fullest potential, we’re turning to the work of world-renowned spine expert Stuart McGill. A professor of spine mechanics for 30 years at the University of Waterloo in Canada, McGill is the author of numerous books on spine health, including Back Mechanic and Ultimate Back Fitness And Performance. (The best books I’ve read on sports training.) See More about McGill and his work at his website: www.backfitpro.com
McGill, who thought he might become a plumber as a young man, has spent his entire professional life studying the spine. McGill knows exactly what causes injury, how to avoid it in the first place and how to heal from it if it occurs. He is called the “back mechanic” and his work bears his name, the McGill Method.
His main advice for a strong and healthy back is for athletes to learn to stabilize their spine during movement and workouts.
“Our spines must do it all — a beautiful structure that is flexible and allows flowing movement, but requires a three-dimensional guy wire system to stiffen and stabilize it when it is required to bear loads. The muscular system … creates balanced stiffness eliminating the possibility of buckling and injury.”
Fighting Against The Curve
McGill has worked with all levels of athletes in his career, from amateurs to professional world champions. McGill has worked with top-level Jiu Jitsu athletes and mixed martial arts champions. He has studied the movement of former UFC champion Georges St. Pierre and helped UFC fighter Matt Brown recover from a back injury. He is well versed in the demands of Jiu Jitsu.
Much of his advice runs counter to standard training advice.
Jiu Jitsu demands flexibility, but flexing the spine before, during and after practice creates more stress than the back can handle. The back only has so many cycles of flexion it can tolerate before it becomes injured. McGill compares the spine to a branch. “You can bend a thin willow branch much more than a thick branch,” he says. “If you bend the spine too far and too often the spines discs will eventually crack and eventually they will break.”
Many Jiu Jitsu athletes that McGill has worked with have been hurt in this way.
“I have restored a few careers when others have failed by taking the flexion training out of the program and keeping it for the octagon (mat). It is the only way to create a training capacity.”
Removing The Culprits
The most common cause of back injuries, McGill writes, is poor use over an extended period of time. Prolonged faulty movement patterns weaken the spine and eventually lead to damage. Many of the things we do daily, without awareness, compromise our backs and make us susceptible to injury.
Flexion of the spine is usually the culprit. Stretching is one such activity that athletes do that can lead to back problems.
“Stretching of the low back is perceived by many to ‘feel good,’ yet very few with painful backs actually qualify to train with this approach,” McGill writes. “Flexion and rotational stretching overloads the annulus fibers often exacerbating the spinal tissues which can occur unbeknownst to the individual. Yet they continue the practice, reporting that it ‘feels good.’ They are perceiving stretch, probably via the muscle based receptors, which provides the illusion of something helpful. Generally they are ensuring that they remain chronic and will not make advances until stretching is stopped!”
Conventional ab exercises are also a problem. Much of the training advice to create a strong “core” actually duplicates movements that cause injury. While situps and leg raises might strengthen the muscles of the abdomen, they also produce some of the highest compressive forces on the spine — up to 700 pounds of pressure. This kind of pressure can damage the discs of the back.
“In fact, I believe that many commonly practiced flexion exercises result in so much spine compression that they will ensure the athlete becomes a patient (of back problems),” McGill writes.
Stronger And Safer Jiu Jitsu Workouts
The spine is meant to be a stable support to bear weight. It is not meant to forcibly bend, twist or arch. The more you bend the spine, the more you risk damaging the spine, no matter the activity. In building a strong and healthy back, your objective should be to “first, do no harm.”
Focus on good posture at all times and good things will happen. “Our recent work,” McGill writes, “shows that endurance of the back muscles is best with a neutral neck posture, slightly reduced with an extended neck and greatly compromised with neck flexion. Strong men and women cannot have a ‘slouched’ posture due to both mechanical and neurological reasons.”
If you have not had back pain, consider yourself lucky. Eighty percent of the population have reported back pain at some point. Mcgill’s advice can save you from joining that statistic.
Remove the traditional culprits of back pain from your program — like stretching, crunches and poor posture — and focus on keeping a neutral spine. You’ll be headed on the right path.
“Not only is the spine much stronger and better able to bear compressive load (about 25 to 45% stronger) when in a neutral posture, but dangerous shear forces are also minimized,” McGill writes.
This is the McGill Method: stronger and safer.
Here’s to good training and a healthy, strong back that will serve you well in Jiu Jitsu and daily life.
(Special thanks to Professor Stuart McGill for taking the time to share his thoughts on building an effective Jiu Jitsu workout.)
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