Jiu Jitsu Workout, Backed By Science, For Lifetime Training

Most Important Skill In Jiu Jitsu
Jiu Jitsu is all about moving your body. Understanding how to create the best conditions for your Jiu Jitsu workout will help keep you healthy and training for a lifetime.

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. 

Article Outline: 

Section 1: Key Points For Healthy Jiu Jitsu Workout

Sections 2: Understand Workouts That Cause Injury

Sections 3: Best Workout For Lifetime of Jiu Jitsu Training

“The Jiu Jitsu athlete generally does better training back muscle endurance, as opposed to strength. For many it is better to train spine stability rather than stretching to increase range of motion — keep the mobility training for the hips and shoulders.” 
— Spine expert Stuart Mcgill

SECTION 1

KEY POINTS FOR A HEALTHY JIU JITSU WORKOUT

Basic Patterns

There are three basic patterns to focus on in your workout: plank, hinge, and step. All the drills can be grouped into one of these three categories. These exercises will teach you how to move with balance. They will also teach you how to stop movement that could take your balance. Knowing how to stop motion, and decelerate with skill, is vital to success in Jiu Jitsu. This type of training is commonly overlooked, but is a key for development. 

Neutral Spine

Jiu Jitsu is all about moving your body. Understanding how to create the best conditions for movement is vital to developing your Jiu Jitsu. And one skill above all others is critical—learning to move while maintaining a neutral spine. A neutral spine protects you from injury and creates a stable base for Jiu Jitsu’s athletic movements. Every aspect of your Jiu Jitsu improves when you learn to maintain a neutral spine. Your takedowns get better; your passing is quicker and more balanced; your base is stronger; everything you do is better. 

Avoid Injury

“The spine bends much like a bending rod,” Stuart McGill, author of Ultimate Back Fitness, writes in an email to Zenyo Jiu Jitsu in Baltimore. McGill is a world-renowned expert on how to workout and prevent injury. “The discs deform to allow the bending motion. Imagine taking a wire coat hanger and bending it back and forth over and over. Eventually the material will fatigue and break. The spine experiences the same cumulative effect with repeat bending when combined with high load. Instead lock the back when high loads are created to leverage your opponent or to create a pry motion from a leg-foot or arm-hand contact.”

“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.” 

JIU JITSU WORKOUT: DAILY PROGRAM

Mobility

Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore

Cat Camel

Cat Camel is one exercise for spine mobility. Gently and slowly flex and extend the spine while on all fours, taking your back through a comfortable range of motion. Six to eight repetition is enough. 

Hinge

Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore Exercise

Slow Lunges

Slow lunges help to develop endurance and stability in the hips and knees. Stay attentive to maintaining an upright posture and neutral spine during this exercise. Six to eight repetitions per leg is good. 

Plank

Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore Exercise

Curl Up

The curl up trains the front abdominal wall. This exercise is central to the exercise program. Our abdominal and back muscles are designed to stop motion, not create motion. Perform a curl-up instead of a standard sit-up to maintain a healthy back. Six to eight repetitions for eight seconds or less. 

Plank

Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Exercise

Plank

The plank is one of the best exercises for a stable spine as it works all the muscles in your core, including all the abdominal muscles, internal and external obliques, hips, and back. Hold for ten seconds.

Plank

Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore Exercise

Side Plank

Side plank trains the oblique muscles and the quadratus lumborum. These muscles are important in Jiu Jitsu for balance and strength under pressure. Six to eight repetitions for eight seconds or less. Work both sides. 

Plank

Zenyo Jiu Jitsu Baltimore Exercise

Bird Dog

The bird dog strengthens the muscles of the back. Start on all fours, extend the opposite arm and leg. Focus on holding your back still and strong during the exercise. Six to eight repetitions for eight seconds or less. 

WORKOUT: FOUNDATION

Jiu Jitsu Circuit Workout

Watch the video below to see how I combine the Jiu Jitsu exercises into a circuit. You can increase the difficulty to as hard as you want by increasing the number of repetitions of each exercise and circuit. In our Zoom Fitness Classes, we perform the circuit three times with variations for thirty minutes. Your core will thank you for the work. 

SECTION 2

UNDERSTAND JIU JITSU WORKOUTS THAT CAUSE INJURY

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. 

SECTION 3

BEST JIU JITSU WORKOUT FOR A LIFETIME OF TRAINING

Focus In Jiu Jitsu Training

Jiu Jitsu training is all about moving your body. Understanding how to create the best condition for movement is vital to developing your Jiu Jitsu. And one skill above all others is critical—learning to move while maintaining a neutral spine.

A neutral spine protects you from injury and creates a stable base for Jiu Jitsu’s athletic movements. Every aspect of your Jiu Jitsu improves when you learn to maintain a neutral spine. Your takedowns get better; your passing is quicker and more balanced; your base is stronger; everything you do is better.

What Is a Neutral Spine?

The back is made up of three segments: the lumbar, thoracic and cervical. 

Each has a natural curve and keeping those curves is considered the neutral position. This is the position of not just stability but strength. 

To understand the neutral spine, it is helpful to know that the body is designed with muscles for different purposes. The muscles of the limbs—the legs, hips and arms—are designed for motion. The muscles of the spine are designed to stabilize against motion. Core muscles help hold the spine in neutral. 

Neutral spine, right, with all three curves of the back in alignment. 

“Although motion through the back is only natural and promotes healthy tissue, our spine is at its strongest, most resilient and most supported position when it is in neutral,” writes Stuart McGill, Ph.D. McGill is a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada where he has a world-renowned research clinic devoted to studying back pain and rehabilitation. McGill is considered the expert on issues related to the back and spine. Back Mechanic: The Secrets To A Healthy Spine Your Doctor Isn’t Telling You is essential reading for all Jiu Jitsu students. (I picked up Back Mechanic after injuring my hip and neck. The book has helped me tremendously in recovery and totally changed the way I look at exercise. See more at www.backfitpro.com)

McGill has spent his professional career studying movement and its relation to the spine. Motion is meant to occur through the hips and shoulders and not through the spine, McGill writes. “Limb movement from limb muscles requires a stiffened torso. This principal is at the root of great athletic performance.” 

 

“Athletes with techniques who create a lot of spine motion when it is under high load instead of taking advantage of the motion and power production in the hips will either hurt their backs or limit their performance. The great Jiu Jitsu masters utilize spine mobility when the loads are low but stiffen the spine in neutral to create terrific hip power for high performance and resilience.”

– Stuart McGill

Moving With The Hips

“The hips are designed to bend (ball and socket joints) while the spine is a flexible rod with discs as joints that follow different rules. We restore the painful back of Jiu Jitsu practitioners by reducing bending during the day. This includes replacing situps with stir-the-pot exercises (see video below). Athletes have less pain and better performance,” McGill writes in an email conversation with Zenyo Jiu Jitsu. 

At Zenyo Jiu Jitsu, we teach that every single thing we do in life is a skill—and all skills are learned through practice. A great deal of our practice is dedicated to learning how to move through the hips while maintaining a neutral spine. 

Many people have difficulty stabilizing the spine. Tight hips from too much sitting leads to spinal movement. During Jiu Jitsu training, a flexed spine presents a threat for injury and  limits your strength, power, reaction and balance. All aspects of Jiu Jitsu suffer from allowing the spine to dominate motion instead of the hips. 

The basic unit of movement for the human body is the hip hinge. The hinge is comprised of the two dominant motion patterns: flexion and extension. Learning to hinge at the hips is the start of good movement and spinal safety. 

Hip Hinge

How To Hip Hinge

At Zenyo, we use the hinge in all our training. Learning to hinge properly is critical. All movement patterns should be built around knowledge of the hinge. 

To practice, you need a straight bar. A PVC pipe works great. 

Hold the bar behind your back, touching the back of your head and hips. As you hinge at your hips, you get immediate feedback if there is motion in the spine. The hips should move; the spine should not. Training this motion daily is a great way to increase your movement knowledge and skill. 

Protecting From Injury

Jiu Jitsu presents a unique challenge to the human body. Not only are we required to move in novel ways rarely present in other sports, but also prevent others from moving us in dangerous ways. Jiu Jitsu requires us to be proficient from standing, crouching, kneeling, squatting and lying positions. Almost no other sport demands such a variety of body positioning. 

It is a challenge to keep a neutral spine while transitioning through each of these positions — from standing to kneeling to lying. At Zenyo, we focus on hip hinging during these movements, and not flexing through the spine, which reduces the risk of disabling back pain. 

“The spine bends much like a bending rod,” McGill writes in his email. “The discs deform to allow the bending motion. Imagine taking a wire coat hanger and bending it back and forth over and over. Eventually the material will fatigue and break. The spine experiences the same cumulative effect with repeat bending when combined with high load. Instead lock the back when high loads are created to leverage your opponent or to create a pry motion from a leg-foot or arm-hand contact.”

“Recent investigations into injury mechanisms have revealed that many back training practices actually replicate the loads and motions that cause the parts of the low back to become painful and even injured. For example, pain is often triggered with repeated forward flexion motion of the spine in the jiu jitsu athlete more than heavy load. Better skill means less force is required.”

McGill Forward Bend

Courtesy Back Mechanic, by Stuart McGill

Building A Strong Back

To build a strong, stable and pain-free back, you need to focus on keeping your spine in neutral. This is easier said than done. In Jiu Jitsu, there is so much going on at once it is easy to lose focus beyond the most instinctual reactions. 

Focus requires practice and dedication. “Being mentally aware and engaged in our movement patterns is fundamental in creating pain-free posture and movement. Your success rests in your ability to move mindfully and to be conscious and aware of your movements. Be aware of your spine posture,” McGill writes. 

Practice the spinal stability exercises listed below daily. They build muscular fitness, stability and control and equally develop the core muscles that support the back while increasing their endurance. 

Lastly, pay attention to how you have learned to work out over the years. Many Jiu Jitsu exercises and skills, like bridging and sit ups, may not best prepare the athlete who becomes sore before they properly train to high levels of proficiency.

“The jiu jitsu athlete generally does better training back muscle endurance, as opposed to strength. For many, it is better to train spine stability rather than stretching to increase range of motion – keep the mobility training for the hips and shoulders.”

With knowledge, focus and practice, you will be on the way to a long and healthy Jiu Jitsu career — and life. 

The Big 3: Workout For A Strong Back

McGill’s research has found these exercises to be best at building muscular fitness, stability and control.  Watch Professor McGill guide a client through the workout.

Special thanks to Professor Stuart McGill for taking the time to share his thoughts on building an effective Jiu Jitsu workout.

6 thoughts on “Jiu Jitsu Workout, Backed By Science, For Lifetime Training”

  1. Edward Bryant JR

    After reading and watching the videos for the second time, I decided to do a test. I laid on my side near the edge of the bed with my feet hanging over the edge. I put my bottom elbow on the bed and put my other hand on top of my closed fist. I pushed both my elbow and other hand against the bed to try and get up.

    First I tried with a curved spine. In some elbow positions I was unable to sit up while others I was able to sit up, but I had to use a lot of strength to do it.

    Next I tried with a neutral spine. In every position I was able to get up. The positions I had a hard time getting up with a curved spine was so much easier with a neutral spine. The positions were I was unable to get up with a curve spine, I had no problem getting up with a neutral spine!

    Now I’m wondering, how much of me not being able to get up or move in BJJ is due to a curved spine instead of my age!

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