Mitigating Injury Risk

There are many ways a coach can mitigate injury risk during training sessions. By emphasizing the proper use of technique and skill injury risk will be minimized. Some gyms have a main emphasis only on performance, with strenuous training that eventually lead to accumulated stress and injuries (Wojtys 2010).

The BJJ athlete him/herself serves as the first level of injury prevention. The athlete should develop a high level of physical fitness and understanding or strategy and techniques before participating in hard rolls. The athlete should be able to recognize when he or she is at risk of injury and be willing to tap out before injury occurs. During training students should be taught to tap early and tap often in order to save their joints. Students should be taught not to outmuscle or endure submissions to prevent an opponent from “winning.” While some coaches will tell students to endure a guillotine or triangle until the the opponent fatigues, the damage to the vertebrae and discs are long lasting and heals slowly. Students should be taught not to try to endure submissions and just allow their opponents to “win” during training sessions.

Another way a coach can help mitigate injuries is by enforcing the use of weight classes during training classes. Students have a higher likelihood of getting injured when rolling with a heavier opponent. This is due to overexertion of muscles and joints, and due to supporting an opponent’s weight. When students must be paired with heavier opponents, the lighter practitioner should keep in a top position in order to reduce stress and strain.

Practitioners must often perform maneuvers that require motor coordination, strength, and flexibility simultaneously while under load and in an unstable position. By incorporating a strength and conditioning program, risk of injury can be mitigated during training and competition. By increasing the athlete’s flexibility, strength, and endurance we can increase the body’s resilience to injury. Injury prevention should be a part of every practitioner’s training program.

Strength and Conditioning

Students must train their strength, joint flexibility, stability, power, and endurance. By enhancing their muscular strength, students will make the muscles around their joints stronger to provide stabilization for joint, eliminating unwanted movement. Strength training will also increase bone strength and reduce incidence of bone stress fractures. Strength training will also increase the strength of the tendons and ligaments. By increasing their full range of motion and joint flexibility students will decrease their susceptibility to injury. Stability training can be incorporated into a warm up routine in order to reduce the injury risk. By training power, students will be able to withstand the strain caused by explosive movements. Endurance training will reduce injury risk by preventing fatigue related injuries. All these attributes can be trained with a proper strength and conditioning routine.

Injury Analysis

By participating in sports one must acknowledge that injuries are always a risk. NCAA sports average an injury rate of 14.5 per 1,000 athletic exposures (AEs )across 15 sports, ranging from a low of 1.9 injuries per 1,000 AEs (men’s baseball)  to a high of 35.9 injuries per 1,000 AEs (football). (Hootman et al.). BJJ in contrast has an injury rate ranging from 9.2 per 1000 AEs (Scroggin et al, 2014) to 24.9 per 1000 AEs (Kreiswirth et al, 2014). These data would indicate that BJJ is no more prone of injury than other sports routinely played at the college level. Among the various competitive martial arts, BJJ has a lower rate of injury per AE than judo, tae kwon do, wrestling, and MMA. This is mainly due to the ruleset of BJJ disallowing strikes, reducing the risk of lacerations and head trauma. Since BJJ is primarily focused on ground combat, it also has a lower injury rate than other grappling sports due to the decreased rate of being thrown. The risk for injury is also lower due to the ability of a competitor to “tap out” surrendering the match and stopping

However, injuries do occur in BJJ tournaments. The most common injuries that occur during competition are musculoskeletal, followed by rib injuries, lacerations, and cervical strain.The most common musculoskeletal injuries were elbow injuries due to attacks on the arm such as armbars and kimuras which cause powerful direction hyperextension force to the elbow and kimuras which create excess internal rotation of the shoulder and elbow. These attacks cause LCL and MCL sprains, elbow dislocation, tenderness, and  anterior sprains. Knee injuries also occurred due to direct pressure, overexertion during guard passing and sweeping, and impacts during takedowns. These injuries consist of mcl, lcl, acl sprains, and meniscus tears.

Although the incidences of injury during tournament competition is low, athletes spend a small fraction of their athletic life performing in competition, and will spend hundreds of hours in training practice per tournament. Due to this, 79% of injuries occur during training (Del Vicchio et al 2016). The accumulated hours of training can result in chronic injuries such as low back pain and tendinitis. Some injuries are “freak accidents” are caused by unforeseen circumstances. These injuries are considered non preventable injuries due to the inability to protect against them. Some of these injuries are due to the inherent techniques that are purposely used to attack joints and due to overexertion and strain of joints during movements. (Scoggin et al 2014). Some injuries that occur due in BJJ develop over time due to the style adopted by the athlete, whether to athlete adopts a guard passing or guard playing style. By adopting a certain style and repeatedly performing the same movements with less variation an athlete will develop muscular imbalances and joint injuries due to stress. Guard players often load their knees and hips in order to withstand an opponent’s movements during guard passing, placing much stress and strain on their lower body joints. Guard passing players experience greater stress on their shoulders and elbows due to the greater chances of being caught in armbars and other submissions. (DelVicchio et al 2016)

Strength Training

            Strength is an essential part of BJJ. Strength is required to advance positions, stabilize positions, and execute maneuvers. Many difficulties found in performance will be due to lack of strength, an athlete may know the correct mechanics of a movement, but if they lack strength, no amount of discussion will allow them to complete the movement. Practitioners require both concentric and isometric strength. BJJ requires concentric force in order to push and pull opponents and isometric strength is required in order to hold positions and resist opponent’s force. A good BJJ strength program will incorporate both concentric and isometric strength. Strength can be increased through strength training. By utilizing the SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demands) principle, we can progressively and gradually increase the stress placed on muscles to increase strength gains. The strength and conditioning session can be structured through the amount of sets and reps in order to achieve increases in strength, power, or endurance. The basic exercises that should be incorporated into an athlete’s exercise program are:

  1. Push (lower and upper body): Practitioners must push their opponents away with both their upper body and lower limbs.
    1. Upper body: Pushups, bench press, overhead press
    1. Lower body: Squats, bridges, lunges
  2. Pull (lower and upper body): Practitioners must pull their opponents towards them with both their upper and lower limbs.
    1. Upper body: Pull-ups, back rows
    1. Lower body: Deadlifts
  3. Core: Practitioners must have a strong core in order to withstand the push and pull of the opponent. The ability to retain a rigid posture is important in many situations in BJJ. If posture is broken, the athlete will be at the mercy of their opponent’s attacks. I
    1. Planks, side plank
  4. Plyometrics: Plyometrics must be incorporated in order to give students explosive strength. This will help the student utilize takedowns and escapes from positions. Plyometric exercises will also help with balance and power.
    1. Squat jump, split jumps, box jumps, medicine ball slams, medicine ball throws

We can combine all the previous movements in order to create a strength and conditioning program that can target all the needs of the athlete. The following tables are example templates of three programs that can be used to target the athlete’s endurance, strength, and power. Since the athlete should spend their time doing technical tactical training in class, the strength and conditioning template only consists of two days per week.

Fighter Pull-up Program

This program is to be done at the end of each training session. The program is taken from Pavel Tsatsouline .

The 3RM Fighter Pull-up Program

Day 1     3, 2, 1, 1
Day 2     3, 2, 1, 1
Day 3     3, 2, 2, 1
Day 4     3, 3, 2, 1
Day 5     4, 3, 2, 1
Day 6     Off
Day 7     4, 3, 2, 1, 1
Day 8     4, 3, 2, 2, 1
Day 9     4, 3, 3, 2, 1
Day 10   4, 4, 3, 2, 1
Day 11    5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Day 12    Off

Once you can do 5 pullups in a row (Day 11) switch to the 5RM program

The 5RM Fighter Pull-up Program

Day 1     5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Day 2     5, 4, 3, 2, 2
Day 3     5, 4, 3, 3, 2
Day 4     5, 4, 4, 3, 2
Day 5     5, 5, 4, 3, 2
Day 6     Off
Day 7     6, 5, 4, 3, 2
Day 8     6, 5, 4, 3, 3
Day 9     6, 5, 4, 4, 3
Day 10    6, 5, 5, 4, 3
Day 11    6, 6, 5, 4, 3
Day 12    Off
Day 13    7, 6, 5, 4, 3
Day 14    7, 6, 5, 4, 4
Day 15    7, 6, 5, 5, 4
Day 16    7, 6, 6, 5, 4
Day 17    7, 7, 6, 5, 4
Day 18    Off
Day 19    8, 7, 6, 5, 4
Day 20    8, 7, 6, 5, 5
Day 21    8, 7, 6, 6, 5
Day 22    8, 7, 7, 6, 5
Day 23    8, 8, 7, 6, 5
Day 24    Off
Day 25    9, 8, 7, 6, 5
Day 26    9, 8, 7, 6, 6
Day 27    9, 8, 7, 7, 6
Day 28    9, 8, 8, 7, 6
Day 29    9, 9, 8, 7, 6
Day 30    Off

Strength and Conditioning for BJJ (theory)

The right strength and conditioning program must be tailored specifically around the individual practitioner. Many variables will influence the design of an athlete’s strength and conditioning program. A coach must consider how long has the athlete been training for, what’s the athlete’s history of training, and does the athlete want to compete? A competitor’s strength and conditioning program will greatly vary from a hobbyist. The level of competition in today’s BJJ scene is drastically different than in the nascent days of the sport. There is no longer debate over whether technique is more important than strength. A good BJJ competitor will possess both technique and strength. All top level competitors must have a strength and conditioning program. A hobbyist will not need an intensive strength and conditioning program as a competitor will, as their requirements are drastically lower. However, even hobbyists need a strength and conditioning program in order to resist injury and increase their BJJ longevity.

The strength and conditioning training athletes should be subjected to should directly improve their BJJ. Since many practitioners will be working full-time jobs time must be used as efficiently as possible. Because BJJ is a skill based sport, athletes must spend the majority of their time on the mats in order to accumulate hours in technical tactical training. Due to this, the strength and conditioning of a practitioner must be fast and efficient. The major parts of the practitioners physicality that should be addressed is strength, balance, power, endurance, and joint flexibility.

New practitioners should follow a periodization protocol with hypertrophy, strength, and power. To be the most time efficient, students should make compound multi-joint exercises as their fundamental base exercise. Isolative movements should be disregarded as they will lead to muscle imbalances and do not reflect the way muscles are used in a realistic way. It is important to note that our students are not looking to compete as weightlifters or bodybuilders, the strength and conditioning training is a means to an end – becoming better at BJJ. There should be a focus on function and movement over specific muscle groups Another consideration is that BJJ is a weight class sport, so hypertrophy can be detrimental to practitioners. Load intensity should be prioritized over total volume in order to decrease hypertrophy and increase strength.

Along with strength training, competitors must improve their energy systems, colloquially referred to as their “cardio”. While most coaches have a shallow understanding of energy systems, often suggesting to students to run long distances in order to increase their “cardio”, it is important to train all three energy systems, the ATP-Pcr, glycolytic, and oxidative phosphorylation system. Since a BJJ match can range from 5-10 minutes, athletes must have good anaerobic and aerobic endurance in order to perform well throughout a single match and on subsequent matches.

Another consideration is that the training paradigm a BJJ athlete will differ from the traditional annual planning template due to the lack of a competition season in BJJ. There are only a few large BJJ tournaments that occur throughout the year, with many smaller local tournaments occurring consistently throughout the year. The paradigm of training for a competition season does not work within the sport of BJJ. Athletes must maintain a base level of athleticism throughout the year.

Exercise Physiology: Energy Systems AKA “Cardio”

What’s cardio? No seriously, think about it. You may know people who can roll for thirty minutes straight but can’t run for ten minutes. Or you may know someone who can run ultra-marathons for twenty hours but will get exhausted after two hours of class. The answer is energy systems. By understanding what energy systems are you can train them specifically for BJJ, whether it’s to survive two hours of class, or to run at 100% for 4, 5, 6 . . . rounds at a tournament.

The three energy systems are phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative. All three systems do different things and all three run at the same time, however the dominant energy system used is based on the duration and intensity of the activity. Most importantly they can all be TRAINED to run better – releasing more energy for a longer amount of time.

  • The phosphagen system runs on creatine phosphate (PCr) and is the NOW energy system. It provides the fuel for short (~10 seconds) high intensity movements – such as an explosive double leg or an all out scramble. This fuel is stored in your muscles and is constantly refueled. However, the amount of stored PCr is small and takes a period of inactivity to refuel, hence the reason why you can’t sprint at full speed for longer than a few seconds. This system has a work rest period of 1:10, for every one second of use ten seconds are required for recovery.
  • The glycolytic energy system is a medium length energy system that runs on muscle glycogen – stored sugars. This system provides energy for anaerobic activity and can supply around 60 seconds of energy before the next energy system is required to provide the bulk of the energy.
  • The oxidative energy system is a long term energy system that provides energy for aerobic activities. This system is used during rest and low-intensity exercises and can be used almost indefinitely.

These energy systems should be carefully managed and trained in order to train for longer durations and to ensure energy supply is not a limiting factor during training and competition. Each energy supply can be trained to allow for bigger supplies and faster processing.

All sports will have their own unique needs of the different energy systems; a power lifter will rely almost solely on phosphagen and a marathoner will rely almost solely on oxidation. Brazilian Jiujitsu matches rely on a blend of all three energy systems.

What energy systems are used in BJJ?

Analysis of BJJ competition matches show that matches contain short periods of standing grappling with the majority of the round doing groundwork. Ranking dictates the length of match, ranging from 5-minutes for white belts to 10-minutes for black belts.

Matches have been shown to possess a 6-10:1 work to rest ratio. While the athlete will have to work almost continuously for most of the match, matches also possess “down-time” where an athlete may stall while in an advantageous position to strategize – thus matches are discontinuous in nature. Most movements are slow, methodical, and much time is spent in isometric contractions. Matches have few high-intensity explosive movements, but such movements occur at critical junctions during a match and such movements will often dictate the winner of the match.

Many maneuvers performed during matches last approximately 10-15 seconds; takedowns, escapes, sweeps, submissions, and reversals are achieved within that timespan. Some may take less or more time, but nearly all possess brief moments of rest before a second effort is taken. During training sessions, most rolls are 5-6 minutes in duration – meaning that while training in the gym, the anaerobic energy system is the most used. During competition, rest periods between matches are equal or shorter to match length, providing a 1:1 rest work ratio.

What does this mean for you?

This data shows that BJJ relies on all three energy systems, so all three must be trained. Since training time must be carefully managed, the protocol I use for my athletes is as follows

  1. Phosphagen system – This system must be trained using short bursts of high intensity exercise.
    Set 1: (10 seconds sprint, 20 seconds active rest) x 3
    60 seconds of standing rest time
    Set 2: (10 seconds sprint, 20 seconds active rest) x 3
    60 seconds of standing rest time
    Set 3: (10 seconds sprint, 20 seconds active rest) x 3
    60 seconds of standing rest time
  2. Glycolytic system – This system must be trained using a moderate-high intensity protocol
    One minute hard run (85% heart rate), followed by two minutes of moderate intensity (75% heart rate) jog – repeat for thirty minutes
  3. Oxidative system – This system is trained using long, slow, low intensity exercise
    By far the most boring protocol, 60 minutes of jogging at 75% heart rate