Jiu-Jitsu is the ultimate mobility test. Did you study?

Published on by Samantha Faulhaber

Photo By: John Cooper

There’s a reason the wrestler hits the ground running (so to speak) when he starts Jiu-Jitsu. Ok, there’s a lot of reasons. But the overarching one is that of prerequisites for success. Both neurologically and physically, he or she has adapted through training to jump right into the fray. It would be more confusing if they didn’t do well after training similar, transferrable movements for x number of years. They have recent experience squatting, bending, bridging, and rolling with speed and explosiveness.

Contrast this with the office worker that decides he needs to get a new healthy hobby and Jiu-Jitsu is where he’d like to spend his efforts. He sits for 8 hours per day, walks, or maybe we’ll generously say that he goes to the gym once or twice per week.

There are movement prerequisites to everything. To run you must be able to balance on two feet and propel yourself forward. Squatting at its most general is made up of ankle dorsiflexion, knees that can bend past 90 degrees, and hip flexion. Pullups – arms that can reach directly overhead (shoulder mobility), wrists that can rotate to meet the angle of the bar, elbows that can straighten, scapula that move freely. Pushups require your wrists to flex at or near 90 degrees. To attempt any of these movements without their prerequisite components is asking for injury SOMEWHERE. When one piece can’t handle the movement some other piece must either mobilize farther to compensate and weaken or the piece itself may break in some way. All injuries are a result of load greater than the tissue can handle in a given range of motion. (And ego, which I’ve written about for Digitsu before).

Look at Jiu-Jitsu and the prerequisites for motion. You can easily argue that you need all of them. All the motions. Plus not only are you loading each position but you’re loading (applying weight and or force) with a whole person that is moving around quickly, meaning you must adjust and generate oppositional force through an entire range. If our office-worker has been doing squats at the gym it’s great but it also means he has used his ankle, knee, and hip flexion in approximately 10 degrees of the circle the hip can move in. Tissues respond to specific demands, and if training hasn’t been done in the other ranges the body and brain won’t know how to handle those ranges as well.

When I’m training someone and they get a cramp from doing a specific movement, I know that the cause is neuromuscular confusion 98% of the time. Your brain and muscles don’t know how to handle the area. I train people almost exclusively with body weight, because most of us don’t know how little range we’re really comfortable in. No steps are skipped on the way to loading. This is not even about passive flexibility, it’s about being able to ask muscles to operate within a range of motion.

Your body turns over ALL of its cells in the course of three years. Each new generation of cells is told how to build according to the demands regularly placed on the tissue. If our office-worker hasn’t bent his knees past 90 degrees in nearly three years (or fewer), the body will simply not allow them to bend that far any more. You don’t need it, so it doesn’t waste energy preserving it in the tissue. We’re not so far removed from an age where every unit of energy needed to be ruthlessly preserved.

If we combine our two guys and say it’s an ex-wrestler-turned-office-worker that doesn’t move much anymore he may be even more at risk. His brain says yes but his body simply doesn’t know how to operate safely in those formerly familiar ranges. Ideally you find out about your movement restrictions when you idly reach for something and can’t. If you go in to an intense activity in the hope that you can pick up where you left off you’re asking for trouble. How many injuries come from corporate softball games where somebody thinks they can jump back into the glory days?

So what can you do? Luckily our bodies are amazing adaptive machines that will not likely break anything right away, unless you really push too hard immediately. Keep and improve your range of motion by moving each joint, with engaged effort, through its full range, on a consistent basis. Maybe this is a ten minute warmup before training every day or maybe you can do it while your coffee is brewing in the morning. By checking in with your joints specifically you’ll get a real idea of what you’re capable of WITHOUT load. You’ll be able to monitor for changes or restrictions without overt stress. This will allow you to be safer when you’re hopping around the mats with somebody trying to jump on top of you and you don’t have time to think very hard before acting. Deliberate daily movement will also make your tissues keep what you already have and encourage them to expand farther. If you only “ask” once in a while your body won’t “remember” it nearly as well. I have a few video examples of a twenty minute daily routine on my website, Move Well Philly. You “study” by working to make your body operate better. Being aware of what you’re capable of now is the first step towards making yourself better. Stay humble, be honest, get better.