Do Put Your Child in BJJ

Published on by Samantha Faulhaber

Put Your Child in BJJ -- it will teach them discipline, respect, problem-solving…. You’ve heard all this before, especially if you’re reading this article, listed and promoted by a Jiu-Jitsu website. You’ve heard these arguments before for a number of other things marketed to your child, too.

I’m here to make a case for some different reasons that are really, really important to present and future quality of life. Here’s the reasons why I think you should put your child in Jiu-jitsu which are really, really important:

Bone and muscular development and joint health.

Children are known for having fantastic range of motion. Squatting butt to ground, climbing, and rolling around are free and easy expressions that parents often observe wistfully, remembering when they were that age and could do all of those things. If you had never stopped doing those things, your body would have maintained the ability to do those things. You can get them back, but it’s more difficult to regain than to maintain. The body and nervous system need to be convinced by your literal actions that you’re serious about what you want. Your kids already have these abilities. It isn’t until adolescence that the body goes on a huge culling of synapses in a time referred to by neurologists as a “critical period” of neuroplasticity, prioritizing those whose pathways have been most deeply grooved into the brain.1

Think about it – before you did Jiu-Jitsu, or maybe let’s think about your friends that currently don’t do Jiu-Jitsu – how much variety of movement did your body or do your friends’ current bodies get in a week compared to how you ran around as a kid? Sit, walk, shuffle, occasionally reach for something on a high shelf? Even if the gym is a part of daily life, how much global movement is involved? Is life almost uniformly a sagittal plane experience, meaning forward and backward movement only? Your body has almost limitless degrees of motion it can create but it only maintains that which is challenged regularly. It would be grossly inefficient to do otherwise. We were built by an era that demanded survival and preservation of energy. Maintenance of unused tissue would be a tremendous waste of that energy. When you’re spring cleaning you probably throw away things you only used three times in the last year. Your body acts similarly, maintaining and prioritizing what is used on a regular basis. You may always have an arm, but the cellular structures and neurological controls that allow you to move it past your regular range of motion will not always be there.

Our bodies are constantly adapting. There are no true constants in your cellular makeup. And what our bodies are adapting to are the forces exerted upon them. Astronauts have reduced bone density when they return to Earth because there was no gravity acting upon their tissues and so no need to maintain the same structural rigidity. Astronauts’ bones regain density on Earth when given enough time to adapt back. As we age we are encouraged to weight train to limit bone loss because our cells will respond to the signals with greater structural support. Your body and your joints don’t care what you want. They care what you do, and specifically what you do most often. The greater the variety of things your body does on a regular basis, the greater ability you will have to deal with physical variables and the less chance of you have of hurting something “out of nowhere”.

Adaptation does need to be progressive in order to best avoid injury. There’s a reason you don’t start lifting weights with 300 lbs. Any time a force exceeds the tissue’s capacity for load or neurological control there is going to be an injury. This is one of the reasons there are weight classes in BJJ. This incrementalism is an added benefit to how we drill new techniques without resistance before we try to execute them live with resistance. Drilling vs training is moving from un-or-minimally-loaded to loaded demands on the tissue.

Biomechanist Katy Bowman likes to talk about how natural movement provides us with a lot of neatly bundled benefits. For example, we could make a list of exercises to do like:

  • Dorsiflexion of the ankle, and toes
  • Flexion of the knee and hip
  • Extension of the knee and hip
  • Flexion and extension of the glenohumoral joint
  • Activation of the glutes
  • Pelvic floor activation
  • So on and so forth

Or we could just call it “walking” which when done correctly provides us with all of these activities and is a heck of a lot easier to schedule than looking at a list of each muscle we’re trying to use and programming for reps.

Jiu-Jitsu bundles all of our movement capacity and challenges it with multidirectional, chaotic external forces. No other sport besides the grappling arts will challenge so many planes of motion on so many levels with resistance, and even the resistance is constantly variable. Your cells are getting a great big dose of adaptive demands every time you step on the mat. Trying to create a workout that matches what Jiu-Jitsu brings to the table in variability would mostly just be an exercise in frustration. This goes a long way to compensate for the lack of human activity required by modern life. It’s awesome that I can order a pizza from my phone on my couch to be delivered to my door, but my cells are learning a lot less for it than if I had to swing a scythe for the wheat it took to make the crust. Or even walk to the pizza place and carry the box home.

Engagement of our muscles is what makes our blood flow. I’m not even kidding. Blood moves like this: The mechanical stimulation of a muscle working causes the smooth-muscle walls of the arterioles to relax and open (this is called vasodilation), causing a drop in pressure that pulls blood from the arteries to the capillaires.2 Your heart is super duper important, but it is not the primary mover of blood to the tissues that need it. If you’re not using your muscles, your muscles are starving for nutrient and oxygen exchange. Your joints degrade without movement. If your kids’ developing bodies don’t get well-distributed bloodflow and joint articulations they will suffer long-term. Movement is very serious business. Isn’t it so great that you’ve found something that is such a fun way to “take your medicine”? Isn’t it also AMAZING that our bodies can continue to live for a surprisingly long time with almost no movement and a diet of Cheetos and Diet Coke, if we so choose? Our bodies are AMAZING.

Ido Portal, Dr. Andreo Spina, Dewey Nielsen, and Ryan Hurst are just a couple of the big names of “movement training” that train BJJ. These guys know. You’re most likely to have heard of Ido Portal, who through his work with Conor Macgregor has gotten the loudest mouthpiece possible for movement culture training.

It’s not too late for you, the responsible adult who is trying to drag yourself to the gym a few times a week. But you have the chance to create a world for your children’s still-developing bodies that makes them amazing movers with strong bones, strength in almost every range of motion, problem-solving skills, motor control that can deal with anything that comes at them in life, and healthy resilient tissue. And they’ll know how to use all of that to defend themselves while having FUN! I’m sold. Sign me and my imaginary children up. I need to get to more classes.

1Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself

2Katy Bowman, Move Your DNA