Tag Archive: BJJ


Who Are You, Really?

Although the title of this post was inspired by the Mikky Ekko song of the same name, its content was prompted by a recent piece by Mark Rippetoe on T-Nation entitled CrossFit: The Good, Bad and The Ugly. Don’t worry, I won’t be posting my own thoughts here about the pros and cons of CrossFit – not right now, anyway! 🙂 No, this post is about the question of who – or, perhaps more accurately, what – you perceive yourself to be as it pertains to your approach to fitness.

As Rippetoe explains:

Exercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout or right after you’re through. Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the constituent workouts of which are specifically designed to produce that goal.

“Exercise is fun today. Well, it may not be fun, but you’ve convinced yourself to do it today because you perceive that the effect you produce today is of benefit to you today. You ‘smashed’ or ‘crushed’ or ‘smoked’ that workout… today. Same as the kids in front of the dumbbell rack at the gym catching an arm pump, the workout was about how it made you feel, good or bad, today.

“In contrast, Training is about the process you undertake to generate a specific result later, maybe much later, the workouts of which are merely the constituents of the process. Training may even involve a light day that you perceive to be a waste of time if you only consider today…

“…Different physical tasks require different physical adaptations; running 26.2 miles is obviously a different task than squatting 700 pounds, and the two efforts require completely different physical adaptations. If a program of physical activity is not designed to get you stronger or faster or better conditioned by producing a specific stress to which a specific desirable adaptation can occur, you don’t get to call it training. It is just exercise.”

And here’s the rub, as Rippetoe continues:

“For most people, exercise is perfectly adequate – it’s certainly better than sitting on your ass. For people who perceive themselves as merely housewives, salesmen, or corporate execs, and for most personal training clients… exercise is fine.”

The insinuation, of course, is that training is for those more passionate about their physical condition and athleticism. For those who perceive themselves as something more than just how society sees them in their primary family or career roles, and who have goals they are trying to reach in other endeavors. For those that, when asked “What do you do?”, are just as anxious to talk about their chosen sport as their chosen profession. For those who strive for something beyond mediocrity, beyond the bare minimum of what they “need” to do in order to function in their primary roles, stay healthy, and look good.

I am a husband and a father. I am an executive in a professional services firm. These are indeed my primary and most important responsibilities in life. The only thing I really “need” to accomplish through my fitness routine is to stay slim, toned and healthy. But that is not enough for me. I strive for excellence in all things, including in fitness for its own sake, always looking to transcend the lowest common denominator practices of the mainstream. I am far from successful, but it is the pursuit that is important. Choosing this particular journey means never being content with the status quo.

I perceive myself as something more than a husband, father and business professional. I am a martial artist, a student of Brazilian jiu jitsu. And so I also perceive myself to be an athlete. This may be completely delusional, for I am a rank amateur to be sure, and an aging one on top of that – a “wannabe.” But that’s the crux of the matter: Who do you want to be? I have chosen this pursuit, although there is no requirement that I do so, and I certainly earn no money from it. It is simply an innate desire. So that is just who I am. Really.

100 Minutes

It has been awhile since I posted, and this post in particular is more than 10 days past due: On October 1, 2013, Helio Gracie Day, my academy had a 100 minute roll to celebrate Grandmaster Helio’s 100th birthday. It was a memorable night.

100 minutes of rolling is not to be approached lightly (or without some trepidation) by a 40-something with two glass shoulders who had just spent the past 11 hours like most days, seated behind a computer screen. I tried to watch my diet more carefully and get a little extra sleep for several days leading up to the 100 minute roll, and was sure to drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration. I tried to think of it as just another open mat, although I knew it would be more work than that – fewer rests, no hanging out and chit-chatting. Walking through the door and seeing that a couple of the bigger guys – my nemeses – were there, I knew I was in for a long night…

Our professor set two timers, one for 100 minutes and the other for five minute rounds with a one minute break in between each round. He told us we could take a break whenever we needed to.

I took my first round off after about 25 minutes of rolling, and it was hard to believe we were only one-quarter through the session. But that turned out to be the last round I would take off. Yes, there were a few times where I needed more than a minute’s break between rounds, and ended up fighting for less than a full five-minute round, but for the most part I kept rolling.

After an hour, it was difficult to face the reality of still having another 40 minutes to go. At one point, something happened with the five-minute timer, and the round had probably reached nearly 10 minutes before someone realized the timer was not set. The good news was that the long round had taken a nice chunk of time off the clock.

Finally, during a break between rounds, our professor announced that only about 10 minutes remained. On one hand, 10 minutes out of 100 may not sound like much, but on the other hand, it meant yet another two rounds after the exhaustion of 90 minutes of grappling.

The 100-minute bell rang in the middle of the last round – so we kept rolling, finishing out the round and adding another minute or two on top of our 100.  Imagine the joyful sound of that final, round-ending bell…

I don’t have any particularly eloquent words to write about the experience, other than to simply say it was a satisfying feeling of accomplishment to get through it. I can’t say I went balls-out every round, but I don’t think anyone could for that long; volume and intensity are always inversely proportional. I also felt good about the fact that I was not particularly sore the next morning – although I still passed on my morning gym workout!

Over the last couple of years I have become a big fan of Martin Rooney. I have most of his books, subscribe to his newsletter, frequently visit his Training for Warriors website and enjoy his blog posts on T-Nation. My brother-in-law recently forwarded me an older post of Rooney’s co-authored by Bryan Krahn entitled “11 Myths of Warrior Training”. This piece, as well as Rooney’s “Train Like a Man” series of posts on T-Nation, have made me realize that for far too long I have neglected good old-fashioned strength training in favor of metabolic conditioning and circuit training.

I pride myself on not getting sucked into fads, on doing my own thing rather than subscribing to particular programs such as CrossFit, Insanity, P90X, etc. However, I do confess to being influenced by the general trend toward the methodologies inherent in these types of high-intensity, functional training workouts, and I became hooked on hard-core circuits, interval training and other conditioning workouts after being introduced to them when I trained in mixed martial arts a couple of years ago. There is nothing wrong with these training methods, but my problem is that I have relied on them almost exclusively, to the exclusion of any traditional strength training.

When I refer to “strength training” in this context, I am speaking about “maximal strength” as Ross Enamait defines it in his excellent 2006 article, “Strength Training for Fighters.” As described in this piece, there are other strength attributes, many of which can be improved by metabolic circuits. But I have clearly neglected the attribute of maximal strength, which is the foundation for all other types of strength. While this is in no small part due to chronic shoulder problems that prevent me from doing heavy pushing exercises or overhead pressing of any kind – and a deadlift-induced groin strain that left me concerned about a hernia – I have allowed the pendulum to swing too far away from strength training. It is time to swing the pendulum back in the other direction.

BJJ is my primary focus, and I try to make class three times per week. The gym is just cross-training for me, maybe two sessions per week. Those sessions will now be focused on maximal strength training. If I can squeeze in a third gym session, it will be metabolic. If I am preparing for competition, I will shift the mix back toward metabolic conditioning. But the rest of the time, BJJ sparring itself should provide enough conditioning.

It is all about goals. Swimmers, runners, and people focused on general fitness might do fine sticking with circuits. But right now I feel the need to improve maximal strength, and it is strength that can help my BJJ and prevent injury. And I’m not afraid to admit that there’s an element of vanity too – I wouldn’t mind spending some time putting on a little more lean muscle mass.

Stripes and Stars

Last weekend I attended a seminar given by my BJJ professor’s instructor, fifth-degree black belt Professor Ailson “Jucao” Henrique Brites. As is customary, at the end of the seminar students were awarded promotions. I received my first two stripes on my blue belt. I could go on about how I feel I do not deserve them (and I don’t feel I do!), but I realize that is not for me to judge. I put my faith in my instructors and find encouragement in a quote I remember seeing but not sure where: If you feel like you deserve it, then you don’t. If you don’t feel like you deserve it, then you do.

But the real theme of this post is not my stripes, but the stars I saw on the mat that day and draw inspiration from: The new purple belts that set the bar for the next major promotion I aspire to. The newly-minted black belts that attained such a key milestone, one I intend to reach one day (even though I’ll be pushing 55 or 60 by then). The training partners I had never met before yet who each showed the spirit of BJJ brotherhood in their help and support through the techniques taught that day. And most memorably, a practitioner in his early 60s who received a certificate of honor. In presenting the award, his instructor told how he admired his student for competing in every tournament, never missing a class, and being a “tough SOB.”

I went up to this man afterwards, and told him he was an inspiration to me in my own training aspirations, given that I hadn’t really started my BJJ journey until 43 years of age. This guy told me he had started at 45 – and not long after being temporarily paralyzed by a stroke! He suffered a second stroke several years later, and knows that a third could kill him. Yet he not only trains and competes in BJJ but also kickboxing, and fully credits these pursuits with keeping him alive.

I can’t even begin to imagine what this man has been through, but I know enough from a three-minute conversation to say that I admire him and find him to be an inspiration of toughness, discipline, dedication and enthusiasm for life. What an encouraging example of the ability to overcome obstacles, remain active and keep your “edge” well into middle age!

Up until this past Sunday, I was having a great run: out of the past 32 days, there were only five that I had not either gone to my BJJ academy or to the gym, and not once during that time had I taken two consecutive days off. But after a day of yardwork and landscaping on Saturday, I woke up completely fatigued on Sunday, did a (useless) workout at the gym anyway, did more yardwork, and crashed at 6:30PM. I (thankfully) was already scheduled to skip my Monday morning gym session and my Tuesday night BJJ class because of work commitments, but I also blew off the Tuesday morning gym workout I had been planning as a partial makeup. I think my body was telling me something, and I decided to listen.

I was back at BJJ Wednesday, but it wasn’t one of my better, high-energy nights, and my right shoulder was on fire at the end. There are still a few other nagging injuries as well, but I’ve listened to my body enough already this week.

Thursday is often a day off, but having not worked out today that’s now only one workout in the past four days, and two workouts in the past six – if I can even count Sunday’s pathetic showing.

The recovery time was needed. Age is no excuse not to train intensely, and “overtraining” is an overrated concern. But under-recovery is a more legitimate thing to worry about at 40+.

Still, I was hoping to keep the pace up for a few more weeks, knowing that a vacation/travel-related break is coming up and I can rest then. But with a huge workload at the office these next couple weeks before I leave, it looks like I will have to stop pretending I am a professional athlete until after I return.

Once the momentum stops, it’s hard to get it back. But that’s a topic for another day.

A Microcosm Within A Microcosm

All serious practitioners of BJJ – or any martial art – appreciate the mental, spiritual and philosophical aspects of their chosen endeavor, and the life lessons it provides. As we all know, life on the mats in BJJ is a microcosm of life outside of the academy.

One of my favorite lessons is encapsulated in the following quote, which I have adopted as a motto of sorts: “Control your emotions and react to things that are actually happening, not what you fear is going to happen.” This quote comes from a blog post by John Thompson, which dealt with overcoming the anxiety of having to face an intimidating opponent in sparring.

Thompson’s post focuses on the initial mental preparation for a sparring match. As both an older (45) and smaller (155 lbs) grappler, I am not ashamed to admit to feeling anxiety in facing off with certain training partners that are larger and/or more skilled than me. But I look at each of these sparring rounds as an opportunity to get mentally stronger by confronting fear and controlling anxiety – valuable life skills that one is never beyond needing to develop, regardless of age. The battle to be won is with one’s self, not with his or her sparring partner.

This past week I was reminded by one of the advanced ranks that it is one thing to overcome the initial anxiety of beginning a challenging round of sparring, but quite another to remain calm and relaxed throughout the round. He called attention to my lack of breathing, and to the rigidity and tension in my grips and, really, my whole body, and explained that I needed to relax and feel what was happening. I was holding my breath, squeezing my grips for dear life, wasting energy and just not moving with any fluidity whatsoever. I explained (or, perhaps more accurately, made the excuse) that it was all the result of feeling that something bad could happen at any moment. His response: “Worry about it when it happens.”

That made perfect sense and is a logical extension of the motto I claim to follow but had clearly forgotten once the round began. My rigidity, tension and lack of breathing were signs I was turning Thompson’s quote on its head: I was reacting to what I feared was going to happen. I might have successfully faced my fear in initially squaring off with him in the first place, but that was not enough. I was not relaxed – not effectively controlling my emotions – during the round.

In life, people waste far too much energy worrying. I once heard a priest in a sermon at church talk about how the body’s physiological response to ruminating upon an imagined negative event is no different than its response to an actual negative event. In my sparring round, this type of physical response manifested itself in holding my breath and being tense and rigid, wasting energy and in fact making it more likely that something would go wrong for me.

It is not just the mental preparation for the round, or the overall outcome of the round, that is a microcosm of life. Every single moment in the round is a microcosm in its own right: a call to live only in the present, control your emotions, and avoid reacting out of fear for what may happen. Yes, bad things can and do happen on the mat, and in life. Worry about it when it happens.

I have built some solid momentum over the last couple weeks. After missing a full week of BJJ due to various work and personal commitments (but still hitting the gym a few mornings that week), I was able to go to four classes the week I returned, and five (including a private lesson this morning) the next. With a couple of visits to the gym thrown in the mix, I have had six workouts in each of the past two weeks and, looking back a little further, have actually worked out 15 of the last 18 days. (Note – I generally don’t count a BJJ class or private lesson as a “workout” if it is mostly technical without much sparring; if I throw this morning’s technical private back into the mix, I have actually done “something” workout and/or BJJ related for 16 of the past 18 days).

I know I won’t always be able to keep up this pace. Work, family and other personal/social commitments make it impractical. As much as I advocate “pushing the edge,” it is difficult to sustain such a regimen when it is a part-time endeavor, and sometimes the stress of trying to pack so much into a week can be counterproductive. I also need to be cognizant of the need for recovery time. “Over-training” is a misnomer; unless you are a professional athlete or an Olympian, chances are you are NOT doing enough to over-train. Even 40+ exercise enthusiasts like me can push themselves as hard as their younger counterparts. But “under-recovery” is a more appropriate term for a very real outcome. One thing older athletes do need is more recovery time.

I have been nursing a couple of minor injuries of late, in addition to my perpetual glass shoulders: jammed finger, hyperextended elbow, strained groin. Although it is hard to willingly give up a workout or BJJ class, the decision should always be compared to the longer absence that could result from injuries that become significant because they were not given a chance to heal. All of my current ailments (except my perpetual glass shoulders) seem to be enjoying some improvement, so I’m going to try to keep up the pace. My schedule during the upcoming week won’t be quite as flexible as the last two, but I should still be able to do something most days. Starting the week off with a Monday morning workout is the hardest part, but for me it’s one of the keys to keeping the momentum going.

BJJ is a journey of highs, lows and plateaus. For me, the lows and plateaus seem to be the more natural state – which is not at all to say I don’t enjoy my training. On the contrary, my BJJ experience – and the instructors and fellow students that have made it possible – have been a tremendous blessing in my life and a source of great joy. But the joy comes from the challenge, and my point about “lows and plateaus” is simply a statement about the sense of struggle and uphill climbing in trying to overcome the challenge. It is never easy, and I am never content with my performance or my progress, but I can be equally self-critical in other areas of life as well. It is characteristic of trying to be the best you can be, never feeling satisfied or complacent.

It is only on the rare occasion that I will actually feel like I am gaining some momentum, and having the opportunity to fit in at least three sessions per week for a few consecutive weeks is a prerequisite for me to feel like I am getting into any kind of groove. But then something comes along to stop the momentum, such as an injury or a scheduling constraint that keeps me out of the academy for a week or so.

Such was the case last week, where a combination of work and family commitments resulted in 11 days of no BJJ training (although I did make sure to get to the gym in the mornings before work to at least keep up my fitness and conditioning). Whenever I miss a week or so of BJJ, it takes me a few classes to feel like I am back in the routine, and I don’t feel like I am rolling very well during those first few classes.

Does a week off really make a difference? Or am I just psyching myself out with a self-fulfilling prophecy by worrying too much about the effect of the week off? The answer is probably yes to both. I think at my level of inexperience, a week off is certainly enough time to accumulate some rust. But I am surely amplifying the effect by thinking too much about how it will manifest itself in my rolls. As in any sparring session, I think the goal has to be to clear your mind, just get in there and let your body do what it is going to do.

I have seen plenty of blog posts about getting “back on the mats” after a long layoff (I liked this one by Georgette Oden). But this was just a week, and there will of course be other weeks off, even if just for vacation. I know everyone hates to miss even a week of training, but I am curious as to others’ thoughts on whether it affects your performance, and if so whether you think it is a physical or mental matter.