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Words: Oliver Geddes

When we train jiu jitsu we are generally taught to progress our technique whenever possible, and not rely on whatever physical gifts we might possess as using and abusing them will limit our development overall. That being said, significant deficiencies in physicality can limit our ability to apply the techniques we are looking for, and when it comes to the competition game, exceptionally developed attributes are usually the difference between competitors and champions.

I am going to look at four attributes in particular in the course of this two-part article - flexibility, grip strength, explosiveness and cardiovascular fitness - and then examine how they can be developed and the importance of doing so.

The majority of jiujitsu practitioners are relatively flexible, which is to be expected when every round of sparring contains a significant amount of ‘partner-assisted’ stretching. When it comes to high level competitors (generally, but not exclusively, guard players), this flexibility can reach ridiculous levels. From the berimbolo wizardry of the Miyao brothers to the impassable spider guard of Michael Langhi, the contortionist level of movement possessed by Keenan Cornelius and the seemingly impossible tornado guard of Roberto ‘Cyborg’ Abreu, there are plenty of champions of all sizes whose flexibility serves as a hugely important tool in their arsenal. When an athlete has reached their peak level of flexibility, getting to side control becomes the first of two problems, with the second being actually managing to stay there. Whether it’s a foot sneaking back in to replace a guard after a long battle or a last minute inversion, flexibility is an incredibly important defensive tool as well as one that opens up a huge number of options offensively as well.

In my personal opinion, a high degree of active flexibility is also the greatest asset you can have in advancing your jiujitsu. You have less physical limits, and you can cut corners in the early stages of learning techniques which would cause them to simply fail for less flexible people. As a result, you will have success with techniques for the first time more quickly and you can then refine your approach as time goes on. Less flexible people may never get that first successfully-completed sweep or submission and feel forced to move on to other techniques. Active flexibility, and the body control that comes with it, is very common in people who seem to ‘just get’ jiujitsu, and so is definitely something that should be developed.

There are plenty of routes available to advance one’s flexibility, but the five or ten minute stretch you might do after the class is not one of them. The one I personally have had success with is performance coach Joe DeFranco’s Agile 8 routine (which has since been superseded by the Limber 11, and both are available with a quick google search) which is a short lower body flexibility routine that I used daily after I gained a lot of muscle mass a few years ago and with it lost much of my flexibility. By adding this routine at the beginning of each class for a few minutes, I quickly regained much of the movement I had lost, allowing myself to function better in the higher weight class.

As an alternative, if you’re reading this you have probably heard of Sebastien Brosche’s Yoga for BJJ course, which looks to accomplish much the same thing and which I have also been following lately with some significant improvements. Failing both of those, just taking ten minutes to really stretch after each class, maybe picking two or three stretches that you think are holding you back and stretching to your limit, pushing yourself a little, resting for a few seconds and repeating two more times is a very easy way to make progress and one that, relatively speaking, takes up very little time in comparison to many of the other ways to develop attributes that will be covered in this article. To paraphrase Eddie Bravo: ‘If you were training Muay Thai and you couldn’t kick at head height, you wouldn’t decide just to do middle kicks or low kicks, you’d stretch to be able to do what is required to be successful within the sport’ - the same applies in jiujitsu.

Grip Strength
We all have that training partner whose grips we just can’t break. Maybe they have a judo background, maybe they have ‘old man strength’, maybe they have a physical job that is particularly grip intensive, or maybe they’re just Polish. Whatever the reason, there are few feelings of impotence as intense as when someone has a power grip on you and you just cannot break it. As jiujitsu has evolved over recent years, it is getting increasingly grip dependent. The competitor that has the better grips will, more often than not, win any follow-up exchanges. As such, the passer is pursuing grips that, if they can keep them, will guarantee a pass. The guard player, on the other hand, is usually initially searching for control points that will enable them to retain their guard and frustrate the passer with a mind towards eventually securing power grips of their own which will lead to a sweep or submission. This trend has only been reinforced with the surge of popularity of lapel wrap variations of practically every guard.

An important thing to take into account with grips is that your ability to hold a grip is, at least partially, mental. If you don’t commit to a grip and you expect it to get broken, it will be broken. So if you aren’t confident in your grips then you won’t have any reason to be confident in your grips, and so the cycle continues. In general, for your grip to be broken the pressure has to be passed on to your fingers. As long as you are gripping with your forearm and your hand as a whole, the grip will generally be strong This is why most grip breaks are initiated by posturing up and forcing the gripping arm and hand to extend, transferring the pressure to the fingers and making the follow-up grip break possible. As long as you remain in a comfortable situation without your fingers having to take the strain, you maintain control. As soon as you begin to lose control of the position, you will lose your grip.

In terms of training your grip, there are a lot of routes. Obviously, training jiujitsu will help substantially, but if you want a next level grip you need to do supplementary work. This may include traditional lifting exercises such as deadlifts and farmer’s walks as well as more BJJ-specific routes such as rope climbs, gi or towel pull-ups and sleeve grip inverted rows. Whilst for the first few sessions these will fry your grip and will feel like they are limiting your progression on the mat, your body will quickly adapt and you’ll find partners who were busting through your grips are now frustrated by their inability to progress. In terms of time per week required to do a basic grip training regimen, you’re looking at two or three short sessions (less than half an hour each) a week, and the potential benefits possible from such a short investment are huge.

For all attributes in jiujitsu it is incredibly important that they do not become a crutch. Taking the wrong grips and holding them ludicrously tightly will no doubt impede your opponent, but it will only be temporary and even if it is effective against lower level training partners, better practitioners will exploit this weakness. Equally, allowing people to pass your guard because you have this cool move where you throw both of your feet over their head and try to triangle them will work initially but as time goes on, you will find getting out of side control harder and harder, flexibility or no flexibility. Thus it is important always to be developing your technical base alongside your physical attributes if you want to continue to reach your full potential within the sport.

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November 21, 2016 — Jiu Jitsu Style