Are You in a Jiu-Jitsu Cult?

Stephan Kesting and I finally sat down to talk after all these years to talk about martial arts cults and sports science. Listen to our episode of The Strenuous Life Podcast or watch on YouTube.

Show Notes:

Yellow Bamboo fails: video 1 / video 2

Deceived: The Moo Years – podcast about Iron Kim’s martial art cult

Steve Hassan talks about the Unificiation Church (AKA Moonies)

JZ Knight on Merv Griffin

Self defense class connected to Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment

Spirit channeler Abraham Hicks and Amway

Deepak Chopra quote generator

Cult interventionists defining hypnosis

Defining brainwashing – Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert J. Lifton:

Mystical manipulation

TEDx: Dismanting QAnon (occult and theosophical cults that support QAnon)

Carlos Gracie, Sr. as spirit channeler – One Hundred Years of Armbars, Chapter 8, “Champion of a Fractured Tribe”

Carlos Gracie as spiritual guide to Oscar Santa Maria

Playboy interview with Helio Gracie

The Cult of Lloyd Irvin (New Miami Times)

“Team Lloyd Irvin crippled by mass exodus of top students after yet another scandal” (Bloody Elbow)

Archive of

Fundamental attribution error (blaming other victims but excusing yourself)

Generation Cult – podcast host grew up in a theosophy cult

Dr. Yuval Laor – awe and fervor in sudden conversions

Asch conformity experiments (line lengths test)

Intelligent Disobedience by Ira Chaleff

BJJ games as drills

Perception Action Podcast – Constaints-led approach to coaching

John Kessel x Trevor Ragan: Motor Learning (volleyball coach)

Robert Bjork – desirable difficulties: slowing down learning

Robert Bjork – dissociating learning from performance

Blocked vs random practice


Are you being sexually harassed or coerced at your martial arts school? Know the red flags and what you can do.

We would hope martial artists would honor a person’s boundaries and autonomy, as those are the basis of any self defense philosophy, but martial arts instructors and students can be perpetrators themselves. Knowing how to spot bad behavior and what to do about it can help protect you.

Understanding why certain behaviors–even seemingly innocent ones–can be red flags lies in consent, boundaries, spheres of influence, and power imbalances. The true intention or motivation behind an action can be the reason for concern, such as when a “friendly gesture” is used for manipulation.

You will see common patterns in these red flag behaviors: working to get you alone, testing your boundaries, disregarding your lack of consent, breaking down your barriers, gaining your trust (or at least compliance), and establishing control over you.

Be wary of the following behaviors by martial arts instructors or students, especially when used to pursue a sexual relationship with you:

Aggressive pursuit of a relationship

  • Corners you or pulls you aside to speak alone
  • Pressures you to go on a date or spend time alone together
  • Will not take “no” for an answer and persists despite your disinterest
  • Persists in asking for your phone number or to add them on social media
  • Asks others about you or gets your contact info from someone else
  • Uses the contact info you provided to the school for personal reasons
  • Adds you on social media to send overly personal messages
  • Does not respect that you are already in a relationship
  • Sends you unsolicited sexual messages, pictures, or videos
  • Shows up uninvited where you live or work

You should not feel pressure to date or sleep with your instructor or anyone else at the school, and they should respect your privacy. Your consent and boundaries should be honored.

Harassment and violating boundaries

  • Makes inappropriate comments about your body or appearance
  • Blocks you from entering or leaving the bathroom or changing room
  • Flirts when you cannot easily turn them down or get away
  • Makes sexual jokes or innuendos at inappropriate times
  • Shares unsolicited personal problems to gain sympathy
  • Asks prying questions about your personal or sex life
  • Tells you inappropriate details about their sex life
  • Confides in you by telling secrets to force a “bond” between you

Off-color jokes and sexual comments put you on the spot to “act cool” even if they make you uncomfortable. A manipulator may overshare to elicit sympathy or draw personal details out of you.

Unwanted sexual contact

  • Initiates unwanted or inappropriate physical contact
  • Does not ask for your consent or disregards it to touch or kiss you
  • Touches you inappropriately under the guise of “coaching”
  • Offers to massage you or help you stretch as an excuse to touch you
  • Tries to get you to massage or touch them
  • Gropes you during training or sparring but plays it off as innocent
  • Touches you under your clothes or tries to undress you
  • Exposes themselves to you
  • Offers you sex or sexual acts
  • Solicits you for sexual favors or demands sexual acts

Sexual comments and touching are past being red flags. Ethical sexual contact demands consent between everyone involved and no coercion. An abuser may try to disguise what they are doing or make it difficult to say no. Being pressured, manipulated, or tricked into saying “yes” or going along with it is wrong.

Favors and flattery

  • Offers to drive you home alone
  • Offers to travel or stay together on a trip to a tournament or seminar
  • Offers you free after-hours private lessons or one-on-one training
  • Surprises you with favors and gifts to ingratiate themselves to you
  • Flatters and compliments you excessively
  • Promises to make you successful or a “star” competitor
  • Claims they feel a special connection to you
  • Offers you alcohol or drugs to lower your inhibitions

Favors and gifts are a common way gain someone’s trust and make them feel indebted. Flattery is used to lower someone’s guard. While we wish we could trust everyone’s intentions, recognize that “being nice” is a social strategy manipulators use to get what they want. You may worry you’re being rude, but it’s okay to say “no, thanks” when someone makes you uncomfortable.

Abuse, coercion, and gaslighting

  • Uses guilt or threats to coerce you into giving them what they want
  • Teases and “negs” you to make you interact with them
  • Insults and harasses you to undermine your confidence
  • Exhibits volatile emotions like anger and jealousy to control you
  • Threatens or intimidates you to get what they want
  • Hits, slaps, shakes, chokes, or grabs you outside of martial arts training
  • Acts like you’re making a big deal out of nothing when confronted
  • Pretends nothing bad happened when you see them later
  • Blames you for making them hurt or abuse you
  • Lies about what they did or said when called out on it
  • Treats you poorly after you turn them down
  • Spreads rumors and lies about you, especially after you reject their advances
  • Roughs you up or injures you in sparring after feeling spurned

Abuse can be physical, emotional, or psychological. Coercion can be subtle, like using emotional blackmail, or as overt as threats of violence. Gaslighting is using lying, deception, and confusion to make someone doubt themselves and not resist their abuser.

Signs of a toxic school culture

You may not be the target of harassment, but you can judge the health of a school by how well its leadership ensures the safety of all its students and the culture it encourages. Be on the lookout for these bad signs:

  • Instructors or students engage in the red flag behaviors listed above
  • Instructors makes excuses for people who are guilty of bad behavior
  • An instructor or student has a history of sexual harassment/assault or a criminal record for it
  • Instructors and school staff are unwilling to seriously look into complaints and take action
  • Instructors and senior members use school as a dating pool for casual sex
  • Some people know a member is a problem and blame their victims for not knowing better
  • Instructors make sexist or homophobic jokes or are OK with others making them
  • Use of sexist or homophobic insults and slurs
  • Jokes about sexual assault, abuse, molestation, rape, and domestic violence
  • Female students are not taken seriously or given the same respect as men
  • Instructors and students make sexual comments about students, especially females
  • Demands for strict loyalty and shunning of people who leave the school

What you can do to protect yourself

Contact the police and get help. If you have been sexually assaulted, you can go to the police and report it. RAINN offers advice on how to report sex crimes and what to do after an assault. If you do not feel the harassment warrants going to the police, you can still take steps such as learning what to do when someone is pressuring you or stalking you.

Know your rights to consent and set your boundaries. Understand consent and your right to refuse sexual advances. Being taken advantage of by someone is not your fault. It is normal to feel embarrassed, like you did something wrong or brought it upon yourself, but the blame lies with the perpetrator, not you, even if you were tricked into going along with it.

Report problems to the head instructor or school owner. If the offender is another student or an assistant instructor, let whoever is in charge know. Make sure the school leadership takes you seriously and does not just brush it under the rug. Serious or repeat offenders need to be kicked out. Be warned though that many instructors are hesitant to question their friends or loyal students, and may try to stay out of what they consider “drama” or “he said, she said” situations.

Quit the school if it comes down to it. You may be willing to put up with some raunchy jokes or ignore “guys being guys”, but at a certain point you need to protect your safety and well-being from people who do not respect you. If the instructor is the offender, or they are unwilling or unable to handle harassment in their school, you’re better off finding somewhere else to train.

[This article was adapted from Confronting the Problem of Sexual Harassment and Coercion in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The full article includes more actions to take as a student or instructor dealing with sexual harassment within your school.]


Aesopian’s 2018 Round Up

It’s that time again where I to gather up all my recent work from around the web and compile it into a blog post! (The last two updates like this are here and here.)

Updates on are slower than ever, but as I keep saying in these posts, I’m actually busy as ever — just on Inverted Gear’s Blog instead!

My one big original blog post on for 2018 was the solemn Confronting the Problem of Sexual Harassment and Coercion in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Valerie Worthington wrote a follow-up to it you can read here (also on the Inverted Gear blog): On the Problem of Sexual Harassment and Coercion in BJJ: Five Ways to Be Part of the Solution

Here is what else I’ve written since my last check-in:

Progressing Up the Belts

Concepts and Principles of BJJ

Joint Mobility

The rest of my joint mobility articles in this series are available through my Functional Range Conditioning FAQ.

How to Guides

And lastly, a piece that doesn’t fit into these categories is 6 Years at Black Belt, a personal piece about what’s new in my recent years.

Offline, I have created several booklets for my students, including one for a workshop on goal setting, gameplan building, and concept-based learning, and another with our school’s blue belt requirements and a checklist of the knowledge and techniques my beginners curriculum is built around. Those may make it online eventually, but for now you need to come train with me if you want copies!

Thanks as always for reading! Drop me a message if you’ve got any questions I can help you with!


Confronting the Problem of Sexual Harassment and Coercion in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Years ago, I had a pop up contact form in the corner of my website that let visitors ask me anything. Most of the time, I got the typical “How do I escape side control?” and “What BJJ workouts can I do at home?” questions. But one day I received a serious message I was not entirely prepared to answer.

A young woman was a white belt at a gym where a male student was stalking and harassing her, making sexual comments during training, and even using threats of suicide to get her attention. Her concerns were not being taken seriously by her instructor, who was aware of the male students problems, but just told her the guy was just having a rough time lately. She was turning to me for guidance.

Here is her messaged (shared with permission):

I am not sure what to do about one of the other people who rolls at my gym. I’m one of two girls who trains there, and I’m fairly new. This guy managed to get my phone number early on (I’m not certain how), and unilaterally decided that we were friends. The problem is that he makes inappropriate comments (i.e. after rolling, commenting that this is the closest he’ll ever get to having sex with me, asking me out repeatedly despite firm and explicit responses that this won’t happen), and he’s fairly unstable psychologically. He can become so angry that I’m almost afraid he’ll show up at my house and hurt me (he knows where I live), and he becomes angry like this because I didn’t roll with him, or I “beat him” at something, or my face looks angry while I roll with him. He also will brush it off and pretend nothing happened or that everything is perfectly normal the next day, and he doesn’t behave this way toward any of the other guys, and more importantly he doesn’t behave this way when any of them are paying attention.

He’s pretty good friends with the instructor who has brushed this behavior off as just part of his personality and not something to worry about, though he said I could contact him if it happened again in the future and he would deal with it (since the anger/insanity is not occurring at the gym).

I’m not certain how to address this without setting off an even more dramatic reaction (the last time he became angry with me he also became suicidal). I am just not sure how to address this situation at this point and any advice would be appreciated.

Having never dealt with a problem like this before, I reached out to Val Worthington through my friend Marshal Carper to share the woman’s story and ask for advice. Val sent back this message:

The more I think about it, the more concerned I am for her and the other woman at that academy, particularly because the instructor is condoning the behavior. The women there have no allies. So here’s what I suggest you tell her:

1. Run, don’t walk, to the library/bookstore/Kindle and read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker cover to cover. And I don’t mean when she gets around to it. I mean NOW. If she says she doesn’t have time, tell her to do it the next time she would normally train. Have her bring the other woman, too; have them read this book. de Becker is a personal security expert, and he would likely argue that she should be limiting this man’s access to her. It will also give her other suggestions about what to do next to defuse the situation.

Have her also watch these videos, especially if she hems and haws about reading the book. I suspect these stories will resonate because they will share some similarities with what she’s experiencing, in terms of her feelings/intuitions. They’re maybe 5 min each.

2. Once she gets her immediate next steps straightened out, she should find a different academy. That place is no good. But first things first.

3. I have a couple friends who have worked with de Becker and/or are security experts. I’ll reach out to them and see if they are willing to give me some suggestions for her and even to chat with her if/when she’s ready.



I forwarded Val’s message to the woman along with my own, which read:

Your story has me seriously worried, and I asked several friends in the BJJ community for advice, and all of them are very concerned, too. I don’t want to be alarmist, but I can’t take this lightly. If you follow BJJ news at all, you’ve likely read that two BJJ competitors were arrested on New Year’s Eve for gangraping a teammate, and I know of too many similar cases. This is a real problem, and I can’t just brush you off.

It would just be an awkward social situation if he had simply asked you out and been turned down, but this has gone far beyond that. He’s found out where you live, he’s using his anger and threats of suicide to control you, and you fear he will physically harm you. Those are all very serious.

I understand that you are worried about “causing drama” and fearful of retaliation, but you have done nothing wrong, and you owe nothing to this guy or your instructor. Your primary concern should be your safety and well-being. I don’t see how you can achieve those without leaving this gym and taking steps to protect yourself against this man. Your protection is more important than “being nice” or “not causing problems.”

If you insist on staying at this gym, then you need to have a serious conversation with the head instructor with all other staff members present so there is a record of your concerns. The “closest we’ll come to having sex” comment alone deserves a serious reprimand from the instructor, but this goes far beyond that. Honestly though, if you think the instructor will side with his buddy, and they will continue to treat this like a “he said, she said,” I don’t see why you would even want to stay at this gym.

I have a few questions for you.

Do you live alone?
Do you have a friend whose house you could stay at if needed?
Do you have any male friends you trust to stay with you?
Do you know if he is treating the other girl at the gym the same way?

If my response seems overly serious, realize this was right after the news broke that two of Lloyd Irvin’s “medal chasers” were accused of raping a female student in a parking garage on New Years Eve, and Lloyd’s own gang rape trial was coming to light, so the problem of sexual abuse in BJJ was a hot topic. You can read about this in the The Miami Times article The Cult of Lloyd Irvin.

Here is the woman’s response to my questions and Val’s message:

To answer your questions:

1. I don’t live alone. I am studying at a university, I live with one other female roommate.
2. yes
3. yes
4. I’ve spoken with the other girl, she was out of town when he started and after she got back she said that he obtained her phone number as well and is somewhat annoying about contacting her all the time, but when I talked to her about this she said she hasn’t observed any of this behavior in relation to her. The other members of the gym that I discussed this with say that he either has their numbers as well and contacts them incessantly or that he tried and they had already figured this out and refused to give him their number.

In response to Val:

I am already familiar with The Gift of Fear, and recently read it cover to cover so we’re good there.

Prior to your response, I spoke with a few of the other higher ranking members of my gym about this just so that people would be aware of how I feel and what is going on. It’s a relatively small gym so at this point there will always be people around who are aware of this, though I haven’t been quite as specific as I was here. I don’t think that anyone really knows how to approach it since the black belt who is officially in charge is in Brazil but at the very least he won’t be allowed to roll with me.

When I said that the instructor said I could contact him if this happened again, what I meant was that he gave me his personal phone number and said to call him if the other guy starts behaving this way again (even if it’s in the middle of the night which is what happened to cause me to start trying to sort this out). I think the reluctance to take any more extreme action stems from the slew of psychological problems that the guy has going on which are no secret, and they do make an effort to ensure that they are informed about his current state of medication. I don’t know if this is a good enough response, and I don’t know if I made myself as clear as I have been here.

Thanks for your response. I’ll make sure that this gets sorted out, which unfortunately I may have otherwise given up on, so I really appreciate it.

Like Val mentioned, she got in contact with a friend who works in security and personal protection, and he wrote this advice:

Sorry to hear about your friend. Sounds pretty much like a classic stalker situation to me. Not the best write-up, but this:

Coping with Various Types of Stalkers

…is a good starting place to at least figure out what type she is dealing with. She has to be willing to take some serious measures should she really want the guy to leave her alone:

1) Cut off contact – Unfortunately, this is going to mean finding a new place to train or a different time to train. She should also change her phone number IMMEDIATELY and not give it to anyone except her closest friends. She basically needs to ignore him. I would go so far as to walk out of a room he is in.

2) Her instructor sounds like an a-hole or a complete wimp. The fact that he is not concerned about a female student being harassed says A LOT about him as an instructor. Next school, please.

I can’t give too much more help without more info. At the very least, she needs to inform her friends of what is going on and start paying attention to her surroundings when she is coming and going from work/home/training. If she has been physically threatened she can file a police report, but it might just be easier to walk away from the situation.

Tell her to hang in there. It’s a disturbing situation to find oneself in and every bit of support she can get will be helpful.

Years after her original message, I remembered this story and sent an email to ask the woman how she was doing these days. Here is her answer:

First of all, wow, this really feels like a long time ago. This guy that I was having problems with ended up lying his way into the apartment of the other girl I trained with at the time (gave her a ride home because she was drunk then asked to use her bathroom), then cornered her and she had to physically push him out. He got kicked out of that academy, so I didn’t leave, but then another student there started the same overly pushy, and then onto threatening behavior so I left. But not before trying to talk to the owner/instructor, who cornered me in his office after asking me to come in during off hours to discuss the issue. He ended up standing in the doorway and blaming me, saying that I needed to find it in me to forgive this second guy, and that this guy was just “trying to be funny”. This conversation/lecture lasted more than an hour. After that conversation, I never went back. Things have been great since then, I changed gyms, then moved out of that city to a different academy that’s even better and more professional. I got my purple belt a few months ago and still train nearly every day. Thanks for checking up on how this turned out.

Also a somewhat relevant and ironic twist to this story: the first guy I had an issue with (the one who got kicked out) apparently had a track record of trying to force himself on girls in high school. And he has now been a police officer in that city for a few years, though he wasn’t at the time this was occurring.

If this story sounds uncommon, you do not talk to enough women. The threats of suicide may take it to the extreme, but many women have dealt with some level of creepy or predatory behavior from men they train with, or even their instructors. Start asking the women you know in BJJ and you will hear many similar stories.

My goals for the remainder of this article are to lay out what red flags to spot when someone at your school is trying to manipulate you, how to spot if a gym has a toxic culture that normalizes abuses, and what you can do as students or instructors to address these problems.

Be wary of these behaviors, especially when used to pursue a sexual relationship with you:

  • Corners you or pulls you aside to speak alone
  • Pressures you to go on a date or spend time alone together
  • Will not take no for an answer and persists despite your disinterest
  • Offers you free after hours private lessons or one-on-one training
  • Offers to drive you home alone
  • Persists in asking for your phone number or to add them on social media
  • Asks others about you or gets your contact info from someone else
  • Uses the contact info you provided to the school for personal reasons
  • Adds you on social media to send personal messages
  • Does not respect that you are already in a relationship
  • Sends you unsolicited sexual messages or pictures/videos
  • Shows up uninvited where you live or work
  • Does not respect or ask for your consent to touch or kiss you
  • Initiates unwanted or inappropriate physical contact
  • Touches you inappropriately under the guise of “coaching”
  • Offers to “massage” or help you stretch as an excuse to touch you
  • Gropes you during sparring or wrestling but plays it off as an accident
  • Makes inappropriate comments about your body or appearance
  • Surprises you with favors and gifts to ingratiate themselves to you
  • Flatters and compliments you excessively
  • Promises to make you successful or a “star” competitor
  • Claims they feel a special connection to you
  • Offers you alcohol or drugs to lower your inhibitions
  • Flirts when you cannot easily turn them down or get away
  • Blocks you from entering or leaving the bathroom or changing room
  • Makes sexual jokes or innuendos at inappropriate times
  • Shares unsolicited personal problems to gain sympathy
  • Asks prying questions about your personal or sex life
  • Tells you inappropriate details about their sex life
  • Confides in you to tell you secrets and force a “bond” between you
  • Uses guilt or threats to coerce you into giving them what they want
  • Acts like you’re making a big deal out of nothing when confronted
  • Pretends nothing bad happened when you see them later
  • Blames you for making them hurt or abuse you
  • Lies about what they did or said when called out on it
  • Exhibits volatile emotions like anger and jealousy to control you
  • Insults and harasses you to undermine your confidence
  • Treats you poorly after you turn them down
  • Spreads rumors and lies about you especially after you reject their advances

You will see common patterns in these behaviors: working to get you alone, testing your boundaries, disregarding your lack of consent, breaking down your barriers, gaining your trust (or at least compliance), and establishing control over you.

Many of these are the signs of predatory grooming, where the abuser takes the time to lower their victim’s defenses by building trust and creating emotional dependency. These tactics are often seen when men are in positions to abuse their authority over boys and girls (such as sports coaches and priests), but it can also be used on grown women. The victim can come to feel like it was their fault, not understanding the undue influence the abuser held over them and how their consent was being subverted.

While you may not be the target of unwanted sexual advances or abuses, you can evaluate if your school’s culture is healthy or not by seeing if problematic behaviors are tolerated.

Signs of a toxic school culture:

  • Instructors or students engage in the red flag behaviors listed above
  • Instructors makes excuses for people who are guilty of these behaviors
  • Instructors are unwilling to seriously look into complaints and take action
  • Instructors and senior members use student body as their dating pool
  • People know a member is a problem and blame their victims for not knowing better
  • Instructors make sexist or homophobic jokes or are OK with others making them
  • Use of sexist or homophobic insults and slurs
  • Jokes about sexual assault, abuse, molestation, rape, and domestic violence
  • Female students are not taken seriously or given the same respect as men
  • Instructors and students make sexual comments about female students
  • An instructor or student has a history of sexual harassment/assault or a criminal record for it

What you can do as a student

Contact the police and get help. If you have been sexually assaulted, you can go to the police and report it. RAINN offers advice on how to report sex crimes and what to do after an assault. If you do not feel the harassment warrants going to the police, you can still take steps such as learning what to do when someone is pressuring you or stalking you.

Know your rights to consent and set your boundaries. Understand consent and your right to refuse sexual advances. Being taken advantage of by someone is not your fault. It is normal to feel embarrassed, like you did something wrong or brought it upon yourself, but the blame lies with the perpetrator, not you, even if you were tricked into going along with it.

Report problems to the head instructor or school owner. If the offender is another student or an assistant instructor, let whoever is in charge know. Make sure the school leadership takes you seriously and does not just brush it under the rug. Serious or repeat offenders need to be kicked out. Be warned though that many instructors are hesitant to question their friends or loyal students, and may try to stay out of what they consider “drama” or “he said, she said” situations.

When you hear inappropriate comments about another student, do not “be cool” by staying quiet or laughing it off. Tell whoever said it that they are being offensive and that they need to treat people with more respect. Do not worry you are being “too serious” or killing the mood. This bad behavior often persists because people let it slide as “locker room talk” or “boys being boys” or they are afraid of starting an argument. Confronting them may mean having an awkward or tense moment, but silence is often taken as agreement, and someone needs to call them out. There are plenty of other topics to talk and joke about that do not involve objectifying or degrading women, especially your classmates.

Do not tolerate a known creep at your school. Some guys gain a bad reputation, yet people just learn to work around them. This is sometimes called the “broken stair” analogy, where instead of fixing a broken step, people get used to stepping over it, and tell people who trip on it that it’s their fault for not knowing better. Examples of being a creep include being too handsy during training and “accidentally” grabbing women’s chests and butts too often, hovering around the less experienced girls, and appointing themselves as the “mentor” to the newer girls and giving them unsolicited coaching during sparring, in addition to all of the red flags above. Rather than let it be an “unspoken rule” to avoid him, talk to the instructor about your concerns.

If you want to date another student, consider the dynamics at play. Do you have higher social status and authority than them? How would a break up affect them — would you drive them away from the school or from BJJ entirely? Will your relationship be disruptive for others? If you burn through all the single girls at your school and pounce on every new one who comes through the door, you are contributing to a toxic culture. Instructors do not usually police relationships between students, but they can be forced to step in when they are losing income because female students are being driven away.

If the problem is the instructor, leave the school. This is a difficult one, especially if the instructor is good at BJJ or you do not want to lose your BJJ friends. You may overlook bad behavior because you are just there to learn techniques and you do not care what the instructor does in their personal life or feel “that’s just Brazilians being Brazilian.” You may also not have anywhere else to train if it’s the only good school in town. This is a very difficult personal choice, and you will need to listen to your moral compass here.

What you can do as an instructor

As an instructor, you need to recognize that — for better or worse — you are the role model for your students and you set the tone for your school. You may just want to teach martial arts techniques, but your school will evolve into a social group for many of your students, and you are its central authority figure. How you act and what you say influences the culture that your school develops.

When reading the warning signs listed above, did someone come to mind? One of the hardest jobs an instructor has to do is kick out problematic students, but that is one of your responsibilities. You may want to give people a second chance after minor offenses, but at a certain point you have to lay down the law and tell them to leave.

Take complaints by your students seriously and look into them. You may be uncomfortable with this because you trust the person being accused or you don’t want to stir up “drama.” While you may not have realized it when you started a school, this is one of your duties as a leader. Many victims hesitate to come forward with their stories because they fear no one will believe them or they are ashamed of what happened to them. You do not need to act without first investigating to confirm the facts, but victims should feel safe coming to you because you respect what they have to say.

Do not date or have sexual relationships with your students. Even if you are sure you are a good guy and would never abuse your privileges, the problems inherent in romantic relationships between teachers and students make them a bad idea. This is a controversial point for some, since they may know of happy couples that started as a teacher-student relationship, but the potential for abuse or other problems is very high.

Should instructors be free to date students?

Some will defend an instructor’s freedom to date students and point to successful marriages that started this way. The argument usually goes: “Love can blossom anywhere. Who are we to tell consenting adults what they can and can’t do in the privacy of their bedroom? Aren’t a lot of those supposedly ‘problematic’ behaviors just normal for romance and dating?”

The problem with those arguments is that they ignore the power dynamics at play, where the teacher has much greater power over the student. We are not talking about what adults do in private, but how a teacher acts towards his students. Focusing on the few times these romantic relationships work out fine ignores that much greater number that do not. Recognize that these are not two adults meeting on level ground in a socially neutral setting. There is a high potential for manipulation and abuse.

What power does an instructor hold over a student?

  • Teaches a special knowledge, but can also withhold it
  • Can award or deny your rank promotions
  • Can give or withhold attention
  • Can praise or shame you in front of your peers
  • Has the final word on decisions that impact your life at the school
  • Can kick you out and severe your ties to other students
  • Likely to be sided with in disagreements or conflicts
  • Likely to be believed when spreading rumors
  • Hold these powers over all of your peers in the school

An instructor can also have physical power over their students, which is usually part of the job description for teaching people to fight.

Relationships with students can also cause problems for the school. Students can develop jealousy and resentment if they feel their instructor is showing favoritism towards their new romantic partner, such as getting extra attention or faster belt promotions.

In My Personal Code of Ethics as an Instructor, I wrote the following:

Do not get into relationships with students.

In my previous post, I briefly mentioned “don’t bang your students” as an obvious rule, but many readers wanted to hear more on that, which is partly why we are getting this second post.

Let’s look to what the code of ethics for Olympic coaches says about this:

Coaches do not engage in sexual intimacies with current athletes.

The code even goes one step further to ban sexual relations between coaches and former athletes for two years after the coach-athlete relationship ends, explaining it like this:

Because sexual intimacies with a former athlete are so frequently harmful to the athlete, and because such intimacies undermine public confidence in the coaching profession and thereby deter the public’s use of needed services, coaches do not engage in sexual intimacies with former athletes even after a two-year interval except in the most unusual circumstances.The coach who engages in such activity after the two years following cessation or termination of the coach-athlete relationship bears the burden of demonstrating that there has been no exploitation, in light of all relevant factors, including:

(1) the amount of time that has passed since the coach-athlete relationship terminated,
(2) the circumstances of termination,
(3) the athlete’s personal history.
(4) the athlete’s current mental status,
(5) the likelihood of adverse impact on the athlete and others, and
(6) any statements or actions made by the coach during the course of the athlete-coach relationship suggesting or inviting the possibility of a post-termination sexual or romantic relationship with the athlete or coach.

A BJJ gym is not held to the same standard as an Olympic training center, but it is still a bad idea for instructors to sleep with students for the same reasons. The teacher-student dynamic — like any with one person having more authority, control, and influence over the other — has too much potential for abuse. Students (especially women) should not need to worry that their coach has other intentions than to teach them what they signed up to learn.

I will admit I know of a few times where a BJJ black belt dated a student and they ended up happily married, but I have many more stories about nasty break-ups, rifts breaking up the gym, jealousy, angry wives, and all the drama you would expect from a Brazilian soap opera. It’s better to just keep it in your pants.

Women should feel safe joining a martial arts school without needing to keep their guard up against being pressured into sex by instructors or other students. Women want to learn martial arts so they can protect themselves against predators, not surround themselves with more.

The aim here is not to portray every instructor with a romantic interest in a student as an abuser. It’s not uncommon for people who spend a lot of time together with a shared interest to develop feelings for each other. The point is that power imbalances make the breakdown of personal and professional boundaries so prone to negative outcomes, even when no one set out with bad intentions. Thinking she can just say “no” if she’s not into you ignores that she has to worry how her answer changes her relationship with her teacher who holds power and influence over her.

What about students who pursue instructors?

The instructor-student relationship is a two way street, and the student can be the one making advances on the instructor. You may have run into so-called “black belt chasers,” women whose goal seems to be to sleep with black belts. They get brought up when this topic is debated to try to get instructors off the hook. This muddies the waters, because the instructor could be manipulated, too, but issues of power dynamics and consent still apply, and the best policy is still “do not get romantic with students,” even if they want it.

What about romantic partners or spouses who start training?

Relationships that started outside the school without teacher-student power dynamics that later move into the gym are not what we’re concerned about here.

What about women who commit abuse?

This article was written from the perspective that men are more likely to cause problems than women. Of course, a woman engaging in inappropriate behavior is wrong, too. But even if we assume any single woman is just as likely to offend as a man, just going by the numbers, men are the bigger problem because they are the majority in BJJ, especially among instructors. All demographic data I have seen for BJJ (and I have collected much of it) puts the ratio at about nine men for every one woman.

What about abuse of men and boys?

Going by those same demographics, abuse of men and boys is a problem, too, though they may be even less likely to report it. The abuse can be sexual, such a groping and rape, but more common between adults are bullying, abuses of power, or ripping off money.

Closing Thoughts

Martial arts instructors need to realize that to teach self defense and personal empowerment with any integrity, they have to ensure their schools and their own conduct are free of coercion and harassment. Students are placing a great deal of trust in you, and you are betraying that trust if you exploit it for personal gain and sexual indulgences.

As a student, you can insist that your instructors and your fellow students are held to higher standards. The relaxed, non-traditional attitude of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is what drew so many of us to it, but we should see that this blurring of boundaries does not give those with power the freedom to abuse it.

If you are currently having problems with people at your school, feel free to contact me or Valerie Worthington, and we will do what we can or put you in touch with people who are better equipped to help you.

If you are an instructor who needs the advice on how to address issues like problematic students and toxic gym culture, you can reach out and I will put you in touch with leaders on their topics.

In future articles, I will talk more about how the power imbalances between instructors and students can lead to abuses, not just for sex, but also for power and money, and how men are victimized, too.

Further Reading

Cathy Chapaty has written Athletes at Risk, a five-part series for Bullshido about the problem of sexual abuse and misconduct in martial arts. While my focus here was mainly on what happens between adults, hers is mostly about adults who coach children, though the patterns of abuse are often the same. I highly recommend reading these, especially if you are a parent of a young student and an instructor who who works with kids:

  1. Convincing Olympic Athletes to Report Sexual Abuse, Misconduct a Hard Art
  2. The Evolution of Abuse of Power
  3. Education, Boundaries Key to Ending Sexual Abuse, Martial Arts Leaders Say
  4. 7 Tips to Prevent Sexual Abuse, Misconduct
  5. Time to Hold Abusers and Enablers Accountable

What Have I Been Up To? Here’s a List

Since last count, I have written over 30 more blog posts for Inverted Gear. We also passed 200 White Belt Wednesday video. Below is a list of everything I’ve written, broken down by theme.

Daniel Bertina interviewed me for a short bio you can read here: Meet the Pandas – Biomechanical Jiu-Jitsu with Nerd Power – Matt ‘Aesopian’ Kirtley. I wrote about my experiences after 5 Years at Black Belt and I’m due to write about my sixth year any time now.

FRC, Stretching, and Mobility

These are a continuation of what I started in Jiu-Jitsu Will Destroy You If You Let It: How I Finally Started Fixing My Broken Body and Functional Range Conditioning and Kinstretch from the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Perspective. In the time since I wrote the original two posts, I have obtained the Functional Range Assessment certification.

Teaching and Learning Methods


How To Guides


Functional Range Conditioning and Kinstretch from the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Perspective

Near the end of 2016, I attended a 2-day Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) seminar at Physical Culture Gym in Largo, FL. You may recall FRC from my big post last year, Jiu-Jitsu Will Destroy You If You Let It: How I Finally Started Fixing My Broken Body. The seminar was lead by the head of Functional Anatomy Seminars, Dr. Andreo Spina (AKA Dre) with assistance from FRC instructors Dewey Nielsen and Michael Ranfone.

Since that seminar, I’ve been fortunate enough to practice under Kinstretch instructors Ryan Bruggeman and Michael Wille and be treated by FRC/FRA/FR trained Dr. Moses Bernard at Physical Culture, and train BJJ and talk FRC with FRC/FRA/FR/Kinstretch certified BJJ black belt Samantha Faulhaber at Gracie Philadelphia. (Kinstretch is a mobility practice based on FRC principles that can be run as group classes. FR is Functional Range Release which is for manual therapy. FRA is Functional Range Assessment.)

I won’t keep you in suspense. All of my experiences with FRC, Kinstretch and FR have been overwhelmingly positive. With joint injuries–both acute and chronic–being the main longevity problem for BJJ athletes, FRC is the perfect combo. It is a system of rehabbing damaged joints and increasing joint mobility (defined as strength and control throughout your flexibility). FRC is now my primary focus alongside BJJ, and I am working on applying it to myself everyday. Many others have reviewed FRC in great detail (you’ll find links to these below) so instead I’m going to share what I think jiu-jitseiros or BJJ coaches would care about.

Priority #1: Do you even have fully functioning joints? The primary goal of FRC is to get each joint working like a real joint. Can it go through its full range of motion? Do you have to involve other joints to “help out”? Is anything painful, crunchy, or pinchy? Are movements smooth and controlled or awkward and jerky? For example, if I tell you to raise your arm overhead then slowly reach back behind you (only moving from the shoulder joint) and you hike your shoulder up to your ear and twist your entire torso to pretend to be able to do it, you don’t have a real shoulder joint. You will be surprised how poorly your joints work once you get someone who has a strict eye for what’s right and wrong. FRC has a system for identifying mobility goals and specifically targeting them, instead of the “Uh, I dunno, do yoga?” advice BJJ guys give each other.

View this post on Instagram

A little while back I shared this case of a swimmer with chronic impingement problems. The previous post showed the top (presentation) and middle (1 week into treatment) frame only. The third frame shows our progress approx 1 month in using basic Functional Range Release (FR)® and Functional Range Conditioning (FRC)® principles. The patient has been pain free for a while, but more important is the dramatic improvement in scapular mobility and control. ————— Articular INDEPENDENCE before articular INTERDEPENDENCE Far too often people are focused on training complex movement patterns before they even have the necessary independent joint functions needed to perform them. The patient below is a swimmer who presented with shoulder problems. It is obvious in the first frame that he lacks scapulo-thoracic dissociation (ie. His scapula and thoracic cage movements are coupled…which means he has no scapulo-thoracic joint so to speak). How then would he perform movements which require this articulation? Compensation. The patient is being managed with: 1. Functional Range Release (FR) to promote relative tissue motion, and to remold aberrant connective tissue resulting from the stress of the compensation patterns 2. Functional Range Conditioning (FRC) to create independent articular motion, build tissue resilience, and improve motor control ———————————- #FunctionalRangeRelease #FRrelease #FR #FunctionalRangeConditioning #FRC #FRCms #ControlYourself

A post shared by Dr. Andreo Spina (@drandreospina) on

Just because you can train an athletic attribute does not mean it’s good for you. At the seminar, wrestler’s neck bridge exercises were given as an example of how athletes need to make trade offs between long term health and short term injury prevention. Wrestlers have determined that the danger of harming their necks doing those bridges is less than the danger of what will happen when you’re forced into the position by an aggressive opponent. At the seminar, Dre joked that when he’s asked how to prevent baseball pitchers from getting torn rotator cuffs, team managers don’t like when his answer is to cancel the game. Humans aren’t meant to throw a ball 95mph 100 times in a day, but we made up sports where we need to. We invent sports and give ourselves reasons to do all kinds of strange things, and we find ways to get better at doing them, but that does not mean it is good for the human organism. Grabbing fully resisting humans by their jackets and tossing them around and trying to break each others’ joints every night falls into this realm.

Train in the ranges you can get injured or don’t be surprised when you get injured there. This is a controversial point because it leads to practices that would make any classically trained physical therapist cringe, like applying americana/kimura pressure to your own shoulder or straining the ACL/MCL on purpose. But if you agree with the science behind the principles of progressive adaptation and specificity (as explained in the FRC lectures), then how else could it work? Let’s state it simply: your body can’t improve its ability to handle something it never experiences. By gradually exposing yourself to that stress and giving the body a chance to adapt, you should gain resilience in that dangerous range. The trick is knowing the safest and effective ways to do this, and that is what FRC aims to do.

BJJers are obsessive to the point of self-destruction. Dre trains BJJ and Dewey is a black belt. Once they found out I was a BJJ guy, they kept dropping advice for training BJJ athletes. A major one was to recognize that BJJ people will train endlessly without doing anything to counteract overuse injuries and crappy joints. You will have to intervene to get them to do correctives, otherwise you get 25-year olds with arthritic hands, elbows that can’t straighten, hips that are stuck permanently in flexion and external rotation, flat duck feet, constant lower back problems, necks that can’t turn, etc. Check out Samantha Faulhaber’s article Stop Glorifying Jiu-Jitsu Injuries.

FRC is not a “just do this one weird trick” mobility routine. Without access to the whole system (either through a seminar or a FRC practitioner), you’re going to struggle to cobble together a worthwhile FRC mobility program. That’s what I did for a while but didn’t feel like I was making gains. Going to the seminar doesn’t give you a simple plan to follow, because you’re mostly learning principles and it’s up to you to apply them. Learning FRC starts with a review of the relevant scientific research (stretching, injury prevention, connective tissue growth, motor neurons, cellular biology, etc.) to dispel myths and present the best evidence for what works. These guiding principles are used to build the framework that the FRC methods fit in to. You will, of course, also learn specific exercises that are common to FRC practice, but without the underlying concepts, it’s difficult to correctly apply them.

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

― Harrington Emerson

The best way to learn the complete FRC system is at a seminar. FRC is not explained in any single book or DVD. Without attending a seminar, the best you can do on your own is read articles like this one, browse through Instagram videos, and watch YouTube channels by FRC practitioners. After attending a FRC seminar, you gain access to resources like the private FRC Facebook group, the monthly FRC newsletter, and the members only section of the FRC website which contains the seminar lectures and many examples exercises.

Going to a FRC seminar is overkill unless you’re a fitness or health professional. At a seminar of over 50 people, I would guess most were chiropractors, physical therapists, athletic trainers, or CrossFit instructors–that is, people who make a living by improving other people’s health and performance. I found one strength and conditioning coach who was a purple belt (his telltale Shoyoroll hoodie gave him away), and one MMA fighter/trainer. If you are just looking for a way to add more mobility training to your workout, your best bet is working with a FRC mobility specialist or going to a Kinstretch class. If you have an interest in training others, then a FRC seminar is worth it. Whether you feel an obligation to maintain the long term health of your students as their BJJ instructor is up to you.

A lot of what’s going on isn’t visible to the naked eye. There is a world of difference between copying FRC exercises from Instagram videos and being coached by a FRC mobility specialist. Working with Dre and Dewey reminded me of the times I’ve learned “invisible jiu-jitsu” from black belts in the Rickson lineage. Beforehand, you’re thinking “That looks too simple, there can’t be too much to it.” Then you experience it and you realize “Oh, wow, that’s not at all like what I was doing it.” Examples of these “unseen” FRC skills are: generating internal tension, dissociating one joint or muscle from another, maintaining slow diaphragmatic breathing, creating abdominal pressure, resisting yourself throughout a motion, ramping up and down isometric contractions, and focusing your attention into a specific point in a muscle. Without being able to feel that, you can be confused why someone is struggling when they are hardly moving during FRC training.

Your best introduction to FRC is CARs. The bread and butter of FRC is Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs), a practice of taking joints through their fullest range of motion, slowly and with control. A joint-by-joint CARs routine is taught as a daily morning routine. Here are two example CARs routines, both (coincidentally) filmed by Philly-based BJJ black belts:

Jiu-Jitsu Player’s Morning CARs Routine by Samantha Faulhaber

Mobility in an alley Josh Vogel AKA Sloth

You can perform CARs at different levels of intensity, depending on your goals. Morning CARs is low intensity, just waking up the joints and telling the body “Hey, look at all the range of motion I want you to maintain.” Higher levels of irradiation (generating tension throughout your body) can be used to gain new ranges of motion.

How I apply FRC to my BJJ training:

  • Maintain a steady CARs routine. My morning full body CARs is mandatory. Ever time I take a break from work throughout the day, I hit a few joints with CARs, especially hips because of all the sitting at a desk. Before BJJ training is another round of CARs, with extra ones thrown in between rounds of sparring.
  • Work on my FRC homework everyday. With guidance from the FRC experts I’ve train with, I have my own list of things to work on. Here’s what it looks like: internal hip rotation (from neutral, flexion, and extension), hip extension, internal knee rotation, foot “shortening” (intrinsic muscles), spinal segmentation (especially lumbar), thoracic rotation, and scapular control. The exact routine I do is personalized but applies the appropriate methods from the FRC toolbox like PAIL/RAIL, PAL/RAL, ENG, isometric ramping, etc. (These terms are explained in the “more resources” links below.)
  • Incorporate FRC into how I teach BJJ. Just by following my warm-ups, my students are now performing CARs and other basic FRC practices. After training, I will stay to work on my personal FRC homework but I’m happy to have students join me and try it out. In FRC there is a big emphasis on the concept of “movement prerequisites”–making sure your athletes have the mobility to control themselves throughout the ranges you are going to demand of them. In BJJ we ask people to many unusual things with their body, but we take little responsibility for the negative effects it can have. FRC allows you to balance this out.

I understand I did not explain many of the technical aspects of FRC so you may still be scratching your head about how you even “do FRC,” so I’ll leave you with this closing advice and links to where you can learn more:

If you want to apply FRC to yourself:

  • Do CARs every morning. The videos and links I shared here are enough to get started. The most common mistake is doing CARs too fast and loose. Go slower and tighter than feels natural.
  • Work with a FRC mobility specialist. The FRC system goes far beyond CARs. A FRC mobility specialist will be able to guide you through the harder stuff. You can piece some of it together from Instagram videos and blog posts, but I can’t overstate how big of a difference it makes to work with an experienced FRC practitioner. Think about the backyard grapplers who try to learn BJJ from YouTube. It’s like that. Get someone who knows what they’re doing to show you what’s up. Check the “Find a Provider” map on the FRC website.
  • Visit a FR practitioner if you have serious joint problems. Functional Range Release is the system as applied to manual therapy. Even with the seminar experience and access to the official FRC resources, I was having trouble making improvement in problem areas until was treated with FR. You can find health professionals to perform FR on you through the “Find a Provider” map.
  • Attend Kinstretch classes. This is my main recommendation, if you have access to it. Kinstretch classes pack the most punch for your time and money. Check the “Find a Provider” map on, but be warned that few places offer it outside of a some major US cities.

If you want to learn the FRC system to practice on others:

  • Find a FRC seminar to go to. The best way to learn all of this is still the formal approach of attending a seminar. Check the “Become a Provider” page of for seminar listings.
  • Be prepared to learn a lot of jargon. The FRC system terminology is heavy with abbreviations and acronyms. I know this is off-putting to people who feel like it’s just rebranding existing stretching techniques, but in the end you’ll appreciate being able to be specific about what you are doing. You’ll also spot borrowed BJJ terms like “rear naked choke grip”, “kimura” stretches, and more.
  • Brush up on your anatomy and physiology. Coming into FRC without a background in medicine or even athletic training, I was out of my depth in some of the more technical lectures, especially when it got into the cellular biology. Thankfully, I know how to use Google and Wikipedia so I got up to speed. You should be fine if you actually went to school for this stuff.
  • Understand the limits of what you can and cannot do. Before you go putting your hands on someone, know the legal limits of how much you can touch and manipulate clients. As BJJers, we’re used to grabbing people in all kinds of nasty ways, but once you start touching people for medical reasons, you need your paperwork in order.

More FRC seminar reviews and resources:

For a good introduction to FRC and Kinstretch from the main man himself, read Dr. Andreo Spina on How to Improve Your Mobility Each Time You Work Out.

Here are links to in-depth reviews by people with better credentials than myself:

Everything tagged “FRC” on the Post Competitive Training Insights blog is worth reading. The author Chris Ruffolo also runs the very good/r/StartMoving subreddit.

More Andreo Spina:

More Dewey Neilsen:

Also check out head FRC instructors Hunter Cook and Dana John Heimbecker and the official Kinstretch Instagram.

Evolution of Effective Training Systems – Dr. Andreo Spina on Onnit’s Total Human Optimization Podcast

Dr. Andreo Spina on Re-Learning to Use Your Body (Functional Range Conditioning Interview) – GMB Podcast


If you’ve missed me, check Panda Nation

Updates to has been glacial slow in recent years, but that’s not to say I haven’t been busy. Since the beginning of 2016, I have written over 20 articles for the Inverted Gear blog, created over 65 (and counting) White Belt Wednesday videos with Hillary and Nelson, and I may or may not have been a crazed Adidas-wearing panda ninja that chased Nelson around his house with a katana. One of my blog posts even resulted in this t-shirt becoming a real thing:


The purpose of this post is to catalog all that activity in one place.

White Belt Questions, Black Belt Answers:

Solo Drills: Horizontal Movements

My posts to the Inverted Gear Blog:

  1. You Learn Even on the Bad Days
  2. 5 Ways to Take Ownership of Your Progress Today –
  3. How to Fully Develop Your Grappling Gameplan
  4. Building Your Gameplan Around Combo Attacks
  5. The Best Way to Learn from Instructionals
  6. 5 Tips to Keep You on the Long Road to Black Belt and Beyond
  7. Surviving the First Year of BJJ: A Crash Course for White Belts
  8. Advice for Newbie White Belts and Anxious Blue Belts
  9. Getting Through the Blue and Purple Belt Growing Pains
  10. What It Means to be a Brown Belt and How to Make Progress Towards Black
  11. 10 Ways to Improve Your BJJ While Off the Mats
  12. 5 Simple Tips for Fixing Your Wrecked Body
  13. What Drives Success in BJJ
  14. Finding the Right BJJ School for You
  15. How to Teach for Maximum Knowledge Retention
  16. Adventures in Reaping Land: A Review of Reilly Bodycomb’s Rdojo Camp
  17. The Four Corners of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
  18. Becoming a BJJ Houdini
  19. The Black Belt Secret to Jiu-Jitsu Excuses
  20. Are you playing to win or just not lose?

More content is always in the works, so follow Inverted Gear to get it while it’s hot.


Seminar footage added to Mastering the Crucifix


Have you ever heard of a BJJ instructional suddenly gaining 2 hours of bonus content at no extra cost? Now you have.

We’ve added 2 hours of new seminar footage to Mastering the Crucifix. One seminar is gi, the other no-gi. Artechoke customers who already own MTC can access the bonus content here (you must be logged in):

Don’t own it yet? You can buy Mastering the Crucifix or save money by bundling it with Jeff Rockwell’s Sit-Up Escape System. Get 10% using coupon code RELAUNCH.

The digital nature of Artechoke’s cloud instructionals let’s us do cool things like this. I have a few more additions I plan to make to Mastering the Crucifix later this year.

Let’s take a minute to talk about how cool this is. We’re doing things with BJJ publishing that haven’t been done before.

Marshal is a writer who loves books, but he’s also forwarding-thinking and sees that the future of publishing isn’t made from dead trees. Some time I’ll make him talk about his work to implement a digital distribution model for college textbooks. He was working on ways reduce textbook prices and save college students from being ripped off like they are today.

3-D Jiu-Jitsu was Marshal’s proof of concept. He wanted to know if people would “get” what he’s trying to do. Explaining what makes this different than traditional BJJ instructionals has always been our biggest challenge. Is it a book, a DVD, a BJJ subscription site, a digital download?

The truth is that it’s almost all of those things, but no one exactly. It’s a hybrid. Each component is familiar, but one one else has done it quite like this. That sometimes makes it hard to explain. But when we put it into people’s hands and in front of their eyes, they always go “Wow, this is great! Why didn’t anyone else think of this?”

Today I went through all of Mastering the Crucifix and added up the run time for all its videos. If we released those on DVDs, it would be over 3:30 hours long. Most companies would have split that across 4-6 discs, call it “The Crucifix Trap System: The Black Belt’s Secret to Punishing Any Opponent with Crippling Submissions” and pushed for $175 pre-orders . The price needs to be that inflated so they can pay the 50% affiliate fee to guys who hype it on social media and e-mail lists.

If we published it as a paper book, it would be as big as anything Victory Belt put on book shelves, back when they were into martial arts instead of CrossFit.

If it was in the app store, we’d have to split it into six separate $30 apps to get around the file size limits, like BudoVideos does with their DVDs.

The point I’m making is the Mastering the Crucifix is a big product by any traditional standard, and we went to the trouble of combining all of them in a new way, even adding multi-angle looped demonstrations not seen anywhere else.

Now we’re almost doubling the size of an instructional at no extra cost, basically because I thought “Hey, this would be cool to share.”

I hope you think it’s cool too. Tell a friend if you do.

Remember, Artechoke members have access to the private Artechoke Open Mat group Facebook to ask questions and get answers from authors like me. Find the link in the sidebar after logging in.


Jiu-Jitsu Will Destroy You If You Let It: How I Finally Started Fixing My Broken Body

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, 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).


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.


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.