Strength and conditioning for BJJ is a wise complement to one’s jiu jitsu practice. We often encounter two main strands of thought on strength and conditioning for BJJ in our community. On the one hand, some argue that to be ‘good’ at BJJ one must be exceptionally athletic (and by implication, young). This worldview prescribes a lot of gym work alongside jiu jitsu training. On the other hand, there’s the position that in order to become better at BJJ, one must simply put in more mat-time. Personally, I lean towards the latter end of the spectrum. That said, I’m a big believer in strength and conditioning for BJJ both to maintain one’s body and to recover from injuries. Full disclosure, I also happen to really like working out and lifting weights.
November marked my eleventh year in BJJ, and over this time strength and conditioning has taken on increasing importance for me. As many readers will know – and have experienced themselves – I’ve had two knee injuries; an MCL sprain on the right followed by a rupture of the left ACL some years later. I’ve also had a pregnancy and birth. The postnatal body has recently been viewed from a sports injuries point of view and I can attest, that sh1t takes a toll!
Exploring one’s physicality as personal development is an aspect of many athletes’ practice. Whether hobbyists, amateurs or professionals, athletes can find ‘flow’ in their practice. And flow, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, has huge implications for one’s self improvement, sense of well-being and emotional and intellectual robustness. Personally, I experience flow from writing, from software development, and physical pursuits. Athletic endeavours have long been part of my flow experiences from dance, gymnastics and softball as a child to horse-back riding as a teen and, after the relative sloth of my undergraduate degree, martial arts. Strength and conditioning became an important part of my weekly routine from 1998 when I started martial arts practice. Over time, strength and conditioning, itself, has become an opportunity to experience flow, and reap its benefits.
My full appreciation for the joy and technicality of strength and conditioning didn’t emerge until relatively recently, when I began personal training in the summer of 2013 with Vicky Busby (Soho Gyms, Bow Wharf). Vicky addressed a number of suboptimal habits I’d developed and introduced more contemporary knowledge and techniques into my strength and conditioning practice. Her support and expertise was vital to helping me rehab after the pregnancy and the first – rather gruelling – year of motherhood. After a big, disruptive move from London to Rochester, NY in February of this year, I looked high and low for a personal trainer to keep me on track. I never imagined I’d find Heather McAllister and Wolf Brigade Gym. I started working with Heather in July of this year and was amazed by what she had to offer. Her dedication and application are fearsome; her commitment to her clients’ development is palpable. Just the past fortnight, I’ve started the strength and conditioning classes as Wolf Brigade’s proximity and timetable makes this an option for me.
What I really REALLY love about Wolf Brigade Gym is the level of technical proficiency and mindfulness applied to strength and conditioning. For me, it is truly ‘next level’. I love BJJ. What that means for me, is that I love the challenge of applying technique. That’s why I love drilling, there is no substitute for reps when it comes to nailing fundamental jiu jitsu movements, or single techniques or complicated ‘attack by combination’ flows. It is why I love sparring, there is no greater joy than (finally!) getting an offensive or defensive technique to work for you in live you rolling. Nothing compares. And with a great mix of training partners – bigger, smaller, older, younger, more and less experienced – you can scale the personal challenge and the technical milestone you’re trying to reach in the varying context of size and skill differentials. Jiu jitsu practice, to be successful and satisfying, requires intense mindfulness and being fully present in what one’s doing. This is what helps us experience flow during practice, which in turn helps us to de-stress and empower our minds, bodies and spirits. Like I say, I’ve long enjoyed pushing myself with strength and conditioning, but I’d never know it could demand a similar level of mindfulness and technical proficiency.
My heart belongs to jiu jitsu. Right now, personal circumstances continue to mean training once a week. In addition to less mat time, since becoming a parent my visualisation and grappling day-dreaming time has shrunk to about zero. When it was ‘just’ work and a partner to balance there was A LOT more room to invest myself on and off the mats. I’m optimistic that over the coming years, there will be increasing room for me to practice my jiu jitsu. Strength and conditioning at Wolf Brigade really helps to keep me together, physically and psychically. It hurts to feel so disconnected from jiu jitsu, and while there are dark moments when I feel like chucking it in, I need to hold on to the jiu jitsu pieces of myself, keep the embers glowing and bide my time. Strength and conditioning work at Wolf Brigade offers a great complement to my jiu jitsu practice and is teaching me so much.
Wolf Brigade is guided by a strong philosophical perspective and has a flavour of dojo about it; I always feel I should bow on the way in. Indeed, there is significant martial arts experience among the trainers and there are Muay Thai classes and a matted area for members. Wolf Brigade trainers are deeply passionate and have nurtured an empowering and supportive environment which has attracted men and women of a wide range of ages and fitness levels. What speaks volumes about the meritocratic and empowering environment, to my mind, is the number of women in classes and among the trainers. This gym has a formidable female presence among its staff; and the technique, strength, mindfulness, passion and ability of the trainers – men and women – is aspirational and inspirational. The ‘subversive fitness’ of Wolf Brigade wouldn’t be for everyone. But it isn’t meant to be. Greg Walsh, the owner, and his crew, have made a brave choice to forge an independent path, offering instruction which, promises to develop your self-reliance, your mental and physical fitness, if not always sinking to your comfort level. That said! – don’t get it twisted. All are welcome. Everyone can do something with the right adjustments and instruction. We can all be our best selves. That process, by definition, just isn’t comfortable. Again, with reference to Flow; the distinction between saccharine ‘pleasure’ and ‘enjoyment’ which, for us grapplers, arises in the nexus of challenge and reward.
This week’s class, case and point. I went in on Wednesday after a harrowing and conflict-heavy day of parenting feeling down on myself in a number ways, not least feeling disgusted with the lack of personal discipline which is manifest in my retention of a good bit of post-natal flab. Has been bloody difficult getting my mojo back since becoming a parent and after days like those, when I don’t tune into the boy and we don’t get on well, it can be a bit of a self-loathing spiral. Too bad I couldn’t dwell on any of that crap during strength and conditioning class, where I learned several power clean variants before a conditioning routine of KB ‘power’ swings followed by ‘death by Airdyne’. I have very little experience of power cleans and there is a lot of coordination involved as many readers will already know. We did skill work with empty bars then added weights for high hang, hang and full power cleans. More and more of it was coming together for me, but I was struggling to make the lifts from a coordination/technique point of view. Heather and Greg worked closely with me and then Greg was like, ‘Hold your breath from 1 one thousand at the bottom, hold that breath until the end of the movement, you’re exhaling as soon as you start the movement’. I hadn’t realised I was breathing out so soon and giving away all my power and as soon as I made that adjustment I could execute the lift. Cue shit-eating grin. Very much the feeling of getting all the moving parts of a jiu jitsu technique to come together for the first time, or for the ‘first-time’ at a higher competency. Looking ahead to 2016, I’m excited by all I have to learn and experience at Wolf Brigade and Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor. Being able to train with professional and passionate people At Wolf Brigade and Gracie Vitor helps to make the hometown I left so long ago feel a lot more like ‘home’.