Anatomy of a Black Belt

Everyone who does BJJ is eventually plagued with injuries. What’s the solution? While I have no magic bullet, if you do the research and put in the work, you can feel and move better. Here is the best advice I’ve found, all in one place.

This is a really long post, and more research has gone into this than anything else on my site, but here’s the 1-minute version if you’re in a hurry:

Quick Advice

  1. Find a physical therapist who understands how to work with athletes. Don’t settle for out-dated methodologies or programs meant for old folks. Go to a therapist who wants to get you back on the mats.
  2. Spend more time moving around and less time sitting. Step away from your desk as often as you can. Go for walks. Set reminders to stretch. Find ways to stand or kneel and take different poses at your desk.
  3. Follow a well-rounded strength and conditioning routine with a focus on improving your health. This could mean doing kettlebells, weightlifting, calisthenics, yoga, or whatever combination makes sense for your body and lifestyle.
  4. Whatever you do, understand how BJJ (and your everyday habits and job) will overwork certain muscles and postures and under-develop others. Be sure you’re balancing those out.
  5. Learn some mobility exercises and prehab tricks for your problem spots. You can go low tech with a $3 lacrosse ball or get mobility gadgets like Rumble Rollers and RAD Roller kits.

In my latest post to the Inverted Gear blog, I said that injuries are likely the main reason people quit BJJ. Even if that not totally accurate, pain will make any other reason to quit easier to listen to. This got people asking “So what is your advice to stay healthy and avoid injury?” That’s what you’ll read below.

This is not an ultimate guide to strength and conditioning for athletic performance in BJJ. We will be talking about many exercise routines and looking at the work of strength coaches, but the focus is restoring health to the joints using basic exercises. I can’t make big promises about resolving pain issues, because pain is a very complicated issue, as I wrote about in The Weird Science Pain and the Brain. I can say this has helped me to resolve many aches and pains and feel better able to withstand the stress of doing BJJ.

The world of strength, fitness, and human performance is vast and sprawling. An expert or guru is around every corner to sell you their secrets. Trying to find “the best” program can send you down many rabbit holes. What are you trying to accomplish? You’ve got strength and conditioning coaches like Joel Jamieson and Martin Rooney. Maybe you want to do gymnastics-based programs with handstands and muscle-ups like GMB and Gymnastic Bodies. You could explore Olympic and powerlifting through Kabuki or Juggernaut. You can get into “movement culture” through MovNat or Ido Portal, who taught us and Conor McGregor all about playing touch butt in the park and dodging pool noodles.

All of those could be good programs, but our goal here is finding the most straight-forward advice for injury rehab/prehab and staying healthy enough to enjoy doing BJJ. Let’s start with what helped me most:

Physical Therapy with a FMS Based Physical Therapist

Back when I was a purple belt, I suffered my worst injury, a lower back injury that still gives me trouble. The exact moment it happened is still clear to me. I was sparring with a bigger partner. I was mounted, but I managed to throw my foot up on the hip like you do for heelhook entries. I pushed him away and he pushed back. I felt a series of snaps in my lower back and felt a flash of white hot pain. I frantically tapped out and laid on the mats in agony for a few minutes.

Being a BJJ bum with no health insurance at the time, I didn’t see a doctor or get treatment. I treated” it with bed rest and taking it easy for a few weeks. But from then on, about every 6 months I would get another flair up and need to quit training for a few weeks.

Years later, when I had the money and health insurance to see doctors, I still had a hard time getting treatment that helped. Clinical doctors couldn’t see why I’d think my hip was causing my back pain. They’d send me to a physical therapist who treated me like a car crash victim and give me “core” exercises meant for fragile old ladies. I remember laying there doing 2 inch leg raises while thinking “You do realize I pick people up on the ends of my feet and toss them around, right?” Simple treatments like that may have their uses, but it did nothing for me.

The big change came when I had the luck of working with a younger physical therapist while my regular one was on vacation. This PT was following modern research and took the attitude of “let’s get you back to training.” She knew what BJJ was and was a competitive athlete herself, having done track and field in college and now Olympic lifting. She put me on a very proactive routine that didn’t treat me as fragile.

She also immediately saw the connection between my hip problems and my back pain. My injury gave me snapping hip syndrome, which is when a tendon catches against the head of the femur and “snaps” (sometimes audibly) during hip flexion and internal/external rotation. While this never quite hurt, it didn’t feel right, and it started the moment I had my major injury. This continued for years until my physical therapist went hands on to massage the psoas-iliacus back to where it’s supposed to be.

She got me on a more active rehab exercise routine using single leg Romanian deadlifts, banded bridges, couch stretch, and various other exercises specific to my problems. Your therapist should come up with a program custom to you.

From X-rays and MRI’s, I now know that I have femoral acetabular impingement, which is to say the head of the femur is larger than it should be, causing it to contact the hip socket too much, especially during hip flexion. This limits my internal hip rotation and causes lower back pain. It only took seeing 4 doctors before I got referred to a hip specialist who could correctly diagnosis this.

Through my PT, I got turned on to the Functional Movement Screen, and through that to Gray Cook, Brett Jones, Mark Cheng, and Tracy and Mark Reifkind, all of whom you should Google and check out. They also all lead me towards kettlebells.

Pavel’s Simple & Sinister Kettlebell Program

Early in 2015, I listened to Tim Ferriss’ interview with Pavel, the famous kettlebell guru. I’d first heard of Pavel back in the early 2000’s, but I disregarded him then because his Soviet marketing shtick didn’t appeal to me. “Comrade, I show you KGB Cold War kettlebell secret!” But Pavel came across as very intelligent and no-nonsense on Ferriss’ podcast, and a lot of what he said about training for health and fitness made sense. That got me to look into his new organization, StrongFirst, and while they still wear cargo pants and overuse “Comrade!”, their branding is less cheesy and they put out a very good information on strength training.

Pavel offers a kettlebell program called Simple & Sinister that basically consists of these five exercises:

  1. Goblet squats
  2. Halos
  3. Knee-squeeze bridges
  4. Kettlebell swings
  5. Turkish get-ups

This is the workout I’ve followed for most of the past year and I have enjoyed good results from it. It is a minimalist workout that doesn’t require any equipment beyond one or two kettlebells and doesn’t take more than 30 minute. It isn’t optimized for any one person or sport, but it’s not trying to be (and you can easily add to it).

Learning to do everything from an e-book wasn’t easy. The two DVDs that have helped me the most were”Kettlebells from the Ground Up” and “Kettlebells from the Center Dynami,” both by Grey Cook and Brett Jones.

Dan John’s Basic Human Movements

Through StrongFirst, FMS, and William Wayland (more on him below), I kept running across strength coach Dan John. He has since become one of my favorite guys in the strength and conditioning world for his friendly, no-nonsense approach. He gets credited with popularizing the goblet squat.

Dan writes and speaks about the five basic human movements. He gives them as:

  1. Push
  2. Pull
  3. Hinge
  4. Squat
  5. Loaded carry

Per a recent lecture Dan gave, that list may have expanded to include static holds and presses. Other coaches add movements like rotation, counter-rotation, lunges, brachiation (swinging arm to arm like a monkey), etc. to that that list too. Whatever list you go by, it gives you a good measure to judge your programming by. Are you doing all of these basic things? If not, you can make a big improvement by simply adding whichever one you’re missing.

The loaded carries in particular have been a great addition. They require zero technical proficiency beyond “pick up something heavy and walk around with it.” Try ending your BJJ training sessions with these if you’re not into doing a full workout.

Dan has many good articles between his website DanJohn.net, as well as T-Nation, and the StrongFirst blog. You should sign up for his weekly newsletter too.

Kelly Starrett’s Becoming a Supple Leopard and Mobility WOD

By now I expect most grapplers to know about CrossFit coach Kelly Starrett, either through his book Becoming a Supple Leopard or his popular Mobility WOD YouTube channel. Odds are good that if you look up a treatment for a sports injury on YouTube, you’ll find Kelly showing how to stretch or smash or roll it out.

One of the worst flair ups of my back pain happened a week before I was scheduled to teach a seminar. While practicing a simple move, my back suddenly went into excruciating spasms that made it hard to even breath. This went on for a few days, and nothing I tried helped. I could hardly even stand up or walk.

While laying in bed feeling sad for myself, I remembered months earlier seeing a friend grinding around on a lacrosse ball. He’s a CrossFit coach and he had mentioned he did that because of Supple Leopard. I went out and picked up a lacrosse ball from Sports Authority. It turned out to be was the best $3 I ever spent. Rolling it against my back did nothing, but I felt immediate relief from rolling the front of my hip joint. The change was dramatic, and I’ve never felt faster relief to a more painful back problem before or since.

Other coaches will argue over certain rules Kelly gives for body alignment (like foot placement in the squat), and he may have accidentally got guys spending too much time foam rolling instead of really working out, but if you need a way to “mobilize” or work on a grissley joint, he has enough mobility exercises to fill Mary Poppin’s bottomless handbag.

To learn more, you can find literally hundreds of videos of Kelly teaching mobility with a Google search. He also has two newer books, Deskbound and Ready to Run, that give health and mobility advice to office workers and runners, respectively.

For more mobility and prehab routines designed specifically for BJJ, check out Order & Progress and download their free e-book. Joe DeFranco’s Limber 11 mobility routine is worth trying out too.

Dr. Stuart McGill’s Core Exercises

“The core” is the most over-used term in fitness and physical therapy. Most people I’ve talked to assume a “strong core” means having six-pack abs. That’s not it. A more complete and accurate definition includes every muscle that helps stabilize your spine, from your neck down to your butt, front and back, left and right, and internally. How to train and strengthen the core is also a something most people are doing wrong. This is where I turn to Dr. Stuart McGill.

McGill literally wrote the textbook on spinal rehab and has worked with top athletes in the Olympics, powerlifting, BJJ and MMA. Most of the other experts listed here refer to McGill’s research when talking about the spine.

If you have a low back problem, McGill’s book Back Mechanic is the best purchase you can make. Having read his two two other big books — Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation and Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance — I can say they are extremely comprehensive, but very dry and dense. Only pick those up if you’re a medical professional or a serious sports trainer.

Per McGill’s research, I now do these four exercises everyday:

  1. Curl up
  2. Side plank
  3. Bird dog
  4. Stir the pot

All of those are shown in the video above, and you can find many more explanations of each on YouTube. The first three are what McGill calls “the non-negotiables” because everyone should do them.

This YouTube playlist has more valuable advice and talks from McGill. You should also read this two part interview on T-Nation (his opinions on CrossFit are entertaining too). You can also listen to him speak on many podcasts.

William Wayland’s Advice for Grapplers

William Wayland introduced me to these two important terms: 1) upper and lower crossed syndromes (explained here), and 2) fuckaboutitis (explained here).

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William has written many great posts for the Scramblog, all of which I wish I had followed the advice of sooner:

Steve Maxwell’s Mobility and Corrective Exercises

Steve Maxwell has been a major figure in both the BJJ and fitness worlds for decades. He was Royce’s fitness coach for the first UFC’s, and he was arguably the first guy doing kettlebells in the US. Even Pavel credits Steve with bringing the Turkish get-up and halo to kettlebell culture. These days Steve is probably known best for his mobility workshops, but he’s done every strength and conditioning method under the sun. I got to experience this firsthand when I attended one of his joint mobility seminars, where we spent 4 hours running through a variety of mobility and strength training methodologies. I even got to hold his original hand-welded stainless steel kettlebells, courtesy of their custodian, Jason C. Brown.

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In a blog post about the history of kettlebells, Steve points out that pure kettlebell programs lack two key movements: vertical pulling and horizontal pushing. He also gives very easy fixes for this: pull ups, push ups, and dips.

Steve has many fitness products including DVDs and digital downloads. His older World Martial Arts DVD set Encyclopedia of Joint Mobility is extremely comprehensive, but at 3 hours long, it will be information overload for most. I’d stick with his more recent downloadable videos through his website. I enjoyed Jiu Jitsu for a Lifetime: The Corrective & Balancing Workouts and still use much of it. At his seminar, Steve recommended Universal Mobility, which is cheap at only $15.

Perhaps the best advice I’ve got from Steve was that BJJ on its own is going to be so taxing on your mind and body that any strength and conditioning training you do needs to be simple and focus on basics.

Jason C. Brown’s Kettlebell Workouts for BJJ

While venturing into the world of kettlebells, I often turn to Jason C. Brown, a long-time advocate for kettlebells for BJJ. He’s who I’m holding Steve’s kettlebells with in the photo above.

If you want to steal one thing from Jason, my vote is for the half kneeling clean to twisting press from the video above. Then swipe his 1.5 stance for swings and cleans. Your hips will thank you. Go check out his Bamboo Blog too.

Dr. Andreo Spina’s FRC

Most recently, I’ve been getting into the work of Dr. Andreo Spina, the man behind Functional Anatomy Seminars. Spina loves his acronyms and registered trademarks, and his system is build around a host of them: FR, FRC, FAP, TTT, CAR, PAIL, RAIL, IsoMP… Once you wrap your head around the jargon, the joint mobility system he lays out is very comprehensive and effective.

In particular, check out controlled articular rotations (CARs), a method keeping joints healthy and moving well. The best guides to those (that I can find without digging through hundreds of 15 second Instagram clips or going to a $1000 seminar) are Philly BJJ black belt Josh Vogel’s “Mobility in an alley” video paired with these two articles:

You can learn a lot digging through Spina’s YouTube and Instagram too. Try Googling whatever terms he uses to find people who have written reviews of his seminars with more explanations.


There you have it. That’s my list of the people and practices that have helped me the most. To put it all together, here’s what my routine looks like now:

  • Starting every day with light movement, usually Dr. Spina’s CAR’s routine and Steve Maxwell exercises.
  • Performing McGill’s “Big 3 non-negotiable” core exercises everyday (bird dog, side plank and curl up). I now start my BJJ classes with those too.
  • Doing Pavel’s Simple & Sinister kettlebell program, with push-ups and pull-ups added thanks to Steve Maxwell’s advice.
  • My phone is set to remind me to get up and move every hour so I don’t fall into a trance at my computer. I do exercises like squats, push ups, rubber band pull-aparts, or more CAR’s.
  • Spending as much time barefoot as possible, including when I walk my dog, even if that makes me look like the neighborhood weirdo. (Don’t worry, I wash my feet before BJJ.)
  • Rolling around on lacrosse balls and other mobility gizmos to hit my problem spots.

The biggest challenge is just picking a starting point and sticking to it. Start doing something simple and add to it as you go. Anyone I wrote about above will get you going in the right direction.

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