I have had the good fortune so far to avoid major injury while still training hard every day and competing frequently. Let me dive right in, without warming up, into the list of things I do to avoid injury.
1. Warm up and stretch
I’ll start with one that seems to be a point of disagreement for people. I’d like to underline the fact that this list is what works for me, and not for anyone else. So take it with a grain of salt. I experiment with different approaches to training all the time and am always open to trying a new system. But since after high school, I’ve noticed that warming up and stretching has been a huge part of me remaining injury free. There is a lot of stuff out there that says stretches actually increasing chance of injury. For me, that’s not true. I ultimately need a good 20 minute warm up and stretch routine. And not just ANY routine. It’s important to warm up personal “problem areas” like shoulders, neck, hips, back, groin, etc. I just recently started doing yoga, thanks to the advice of a great competitor Sebastian Brosche and my instructor Phil Migliarese. I highly recommend Sebastian’s website, it has a lot of cool stuff for jiu jitsu guys.
2. Drill to build up muscles you actually need for your jiu jitsu
I think there’s a belief out there that you have to do strength training of some kind outside of jiu jitsu to building up the support muscles that help avoid injury. This is true conceptually, but often what happens is when you start strength training, you lose focus on jiu jitsu, and start strength training for the sake of itself, and so you build up certain muscles, neglecting ones that you might actually need for your particular style of jiu jitsu. For me, the most important way to build up the right kind of muscle is drilling, usually the fast paced kind. Depending on the technique, I prefer to do it on a dummy vs a real person, because a dummy doesn’t complain and I don’t need to split time with a dummy. You have to be creative. I don’t usually drill sweeps on a dummy, but it is very much possible. For example, here’s a guy drilling berimbolo:
3. Good technique
The best and highly unreasonable advice to avoid injury is: get good fast 😉 While you can’t magically attain black-belt-level skill in a week, sticking to fundamental principles of good technique is probably the best practical way to avoid injury. What do I mean by fundamental principles? Things like: elbow discipline, good posture, bent knees when standing, good base, good head position, don’t post your hands on the mat, etc. There are exceptions and variations to some of these, as you probably know. In fact, most of us know the good fundamentals, but we get lazy, and there’s nothing worse for injury than “lazy”. Note: there’s a huge difference between lazy and relaxed/chilling/efficient. You want to be the latter and not the former.
4. See positions in terms of injury potential
Your body bends and moves comfortable only in a small number of ways (relatively speaking). You need to understand these ranges of movement, and learn proper technique to avoid crossing to the line outside your comfortable range of movement. This is very much connected to the previous point of “good technique”. This means different things in different positions, or even for different body types and jiu jitsu styles. For me, I learn way to maintain a strong structure in most positions. You need to utilize the natural “frames” of your body (formed by using your arms and legs).
But, of course, unless you are perfect every second of every roll, you will be put in positions that place your body outside its naturally strong structural positions. This is where you have to be careful to allocate an especially large part of your thoughts to avoiding injury. That sometimes means telling your ego to shut up.
5. Don’t try crazy stuff with the wrong people
A big part of jiu jitsu is exploring new techniques, positions, and transitions. Obviously, that kind of exploration can put you in compromising positions. That’s good as long as both people are paying attention to #4 above. And that’s just it, when you are trying crazy stuff, pick your partners wisely. With some people you are safe to explore as much as you want, and with others, the combination of explosive power and ego can lead to serious injury in the compromising positions.
Bonus! 6. Avoid taking any risks in life.
Remember, that injury and pain are a part of life. So toughen the fuck up. You’ll be dead soon enough. None of this lasts forever, so it’s best to go out doing what makes you happy, and for me that means taking risks and challenging myself.