How Do I Train Brazilian Jiu-jitsu for Life Without Back Pain?

I was in the bottom of half guard. I trapped his right elbow with an overhook and positioned my left leg to block the support of his right leg shooting out. I bridged up and rolled left in an attempt to reverse the position and move into top half guard.

It was a sweep I’d been hitting on everybody lately.

But this time when I bridged and twisted something didn’t feel right. All of my strength disappeared and I felt the pain shoot through my back.

Damn it.

My lower back was giving me issues again.

The last time this happened it took more than 2 months for me to feel normal training and rolling again.

I’d changed a few things since the last injury.

I’d cut back my training volume from five days a week to three.

I’d worked on my deadlift and it built up to over 4 plates. I’d started warming up properly and stretching.

So what happened? Why was my back giving me this shit right when I was starting to feel good and get back into a nice training rhythm?

This was 2 years ago.

At the time I thought that being strong and doing a good warm up was enough to avoid injury while training jiu-jitsu.

It wasn’t.

After having my own lower back issues time and again and seeing the same issues with my training partners I decided to figure what the hell is the real problem here.

I’ve learned a few things since then that I will share with you over the rest of this article. I’m pain free now.

And I really believe that with the right supplemental training work for a few minutes a day that we all can train jiu-jitsu without lower back pain for life.

Why do I have back pain in the first place?

There are a lot of reasons why we might have back pain.

The main reason is that today most of us are living very unnatural lifestyles. We develop weakness, shitty posture and tightness through a lifestyle that puts unnatural stresses on our backs. A recent study from iBeani has shown that poor posture from using tablets and phones are a leading cause of posture and musculoskeletal disorders.

We work at desks and sit all day. We drive to work in a car. And we come home and sit down on the couch to read or watch TV. We don’t use our bodies as they were meant to be used.

Later we show up to training and expect our bodies to perform at a high level. It doesn’t work that way.

There are essentially three side-effects that develop in your body because of the typical lifestyle that we live today. They affect how you move and whether or not you will have lower back pain.

They are:

  1. Tight hips.
  2. A weak core
  3. Lack of mobility in the upper back.

These 3 issues are very closely related and interconnected and it is usually not sufficient to work on one without working on the others.

Think of your body as a series of connected joints starting from your ankles to your shoulders.

Each joint has a main function. Either to be mobile or stable.

Here are joints of your body and their major functions from bottom to top.

JointFunction
AnklesMobility
KneesStability
HipsMobility
Core (Lower Back and Abs)Stability
Thoracic Spine (Middle/Upper Back)Mobility
ScapulaStability
ShouldersMobility

 

If a certain joint isn’t doing its job, then the adjacent joints will have to help out. Which is a recipe for injury.

Know that your core and lower back region isn’t meant to be super mobile. It’s meant to be a point of stability on your body. So if your core is weak, your hips and upper back will have to tighten up to help provide some stability.

If your hips are tight this also means that you are putting your knees and lower back at risk because they will need to over extend or rotate to compensate for your lack of mobility in the hips.

I see this all the time when guys are defending the guard pass. A guy has tight hips and overcompensates by twisting his knees or lower back out of their natural range of motion. Do not do this. Keep your knees and lower back stable. If your hips don’t have enough flexibility work on them outside of class. But keep your knees and lower back safe in training.

Usually when you have an issue with one joint it is not an isolated problem. It is very likely that you also have an issue in one or more of the adjacent joints.

So if you try to fix one issue without addressing the others you very likely won’t get the results you want.

For example, if you have tight hips and you try to fix it by only stretching your hips. It won’t do anything if the cause of your tight hips is actually a weak core.

We’ll get into the exercises and training techniques further down. But for now know that to eliminate lower back pain you need to attack the issue from 3 fronts.

  1. Mobilize your hips
  2. Strengthen/stabilize your core
  3. Mobilize your middle/upper back (thoracic spine).

Does Training Jiu-jitsu Make Back Pain Worse?

Training Jiu-jitsu doesn’t usually create lower back problems, but it does expose them.

A lot of people who don’t train are in much worse shape than we are, but they don’t feel lower back pain.

They will.

They just don’t realize it yet because they don’t test their bodies like we do in training. But they have the same symptoms and some Sunday afternoon when they are taking out the trash or moving a box they’ll get the same pain and won’t have any idea what to do about it.

Personally I’m happy to test my body on a regular basis and discover problems. That way I can work through them rather than sit around all day waiting for the inevitable.

That being said there are a few jiu-jitsu positions where your lumbar spine can get bent into undesirable positions.

Avoid getting stacked if possible. In most cases if it’s choice between getting stacked hard by a 200-pound monster or giving up the pass. Be more inclined to give up the pass. Competition is different. But in training I’d prefer to practice recovering guard than to get stacked and be out of training for the next month.

Remember this also when you are passing the guard. Using pressure to pass the guard is great, but use it in the right way. Don’t try to curl your partner up into a ball by pressing down with all you have on his lower back.

Getting twisted up in a bow and arrow choke. I’ve been bow and arrowed before where it wasn’t just a choke but a whole body twist with his full force. It sucks. And it’s one of the most dangerous positions for your back in jiu-jitsu. If you end up in this position, just tap and get out of it. It’s not worth the potential damage to your spine.

Any position that twists or bends your lower back beyond its limits is potentially dangerous and can really screw up your day. Be conscious of your body position in training. If you get into a bad position be willing to give up the advantage or tap if you have to. Don’t let your ego be the cause of an injury that puts you out of training for months.

Always remember which joints are meant to be used for what while training.

KneesStability
HipsMobility
Core (Lower Back and Abs)Stability
Thoracic Spine (Middle/Upper Back)Mobility

My Sleep Routine

Over the years I went back and forth researching sleep and the ways it can help me recover. I experimented both with my sleep habits with various mattresses, anything from latex and memory foam to air mattresses.

Finally, I settled with an air mattress. When I say “air mattress” I don’t mean those flimsy inflatables you’d get at Walmart. I did my research, read countless reviews and finally made the decision and invested in a top-of-the-line airbed. It did wonders for my back pain, it allows me to adjust the firmness and find the setting that’s just right to keep my spine aligned and eliminate the pressure points at my hips and shoulders.

What Exercises Can I Do to Prevent Lower Back Pain

As we talked about above. There are three major aspects to preparing your lower back for long term injury free training.

  1. Hip Mobility Exercises
  2. Core Stability Exercises
  3. Thoracic Spine Mobility Exercises

The following exercises address these issues and have helped me to train pain free. Do these exercises every day. It will take a total of about 10 minutes to do all of them and it is well worth the time investment.

Do them in the order suggested and preferably do them every morning when you wake up or whatever time of day will be easiest for you to be consistent.

For a detailed description of each exercise I’ve made the video below. In the video I go through each exercise one by one explaining the key points of each.

You can follow along with the video while doing the exercises yourself. And once you’ve gotten comfortable with the exercises and can do them yourself you won’t need the video anymore.

A note on weight lifting and progressive overload.

I think general weight lifting and strength training is a good thing for jiu-jitsu guys. Lifting weights in the proper way builds strong muscles, joints, and bones. The problem is that a lot of people associate weight lifting with bicep curls, the bench press and trying to look like a bodybuilder. All of which do very little for your jiu-jitsu game.

However, training to get fast, strong, and mobile by strength training with a combination of full body exercises like deadlifts, military press, and chin-ups combined with the types of corrective and preventive exercises shown in this article can have a great long term impact on your training and overall health and well-being.

I won’t go into great details in this article about how to select a strength training program. But any strength training program worth your time will have at the very least the following elements. 1) A good balance between push and pull type exercises 2) Single leg exercises as well as traditional power exercises like squats and deadlifts 3) core stability and mobility exercises.

What Can I Do During Training to Avoid Lower Back Pain?

Doing the daily exercises mentioned above will without a doubt help to keep your back pain free while training. However, there are few things to keep in mind when you actually arrive to the gym and get ready to hit the mat.

  1. Do a proper warmup.

This is an obvious thing to say but really do a warmup. Being cold is the easiest way to hurt yourself while training. If you roll without warming up, you are asking for trouble. A great warmup to use if you don’t already have one is to simply go through the above exercises before you start to train.

  1. Pay attention to your lower back position during rolling.

Always remember that it’s your hips and upper back that are meant to be mobile. Not your lower back. Avoid getting into positions that twist or bend your lower back unnecessarily whenever possible. I mentioned a few specific positions above, but this is worth repeating. Awareness of your body is key to avoiding injury.

  1. Beware of training in the morning.

When you train in the morning there are two disadvantages for your lower back. You are dehydrated and your disks are bigger due to lack of gravity pressing down on you during the night. This increases the chance of a lower back injury. Avoid compromising positions even more so in the morning.

  1. Hydrate well.

A note on proper hydration. Drink at least 3-4 liters of water every day as standard. And when you train continually sip water in between drills and rolling. Drink an appropriate amount of water for your conditions. That could be anywhere from 0.5 to 2 liters per hour depending on your training conditions and intensity. If you train for more than 1 hour in hot conditions, consider drinking Gatorade or coconut water as well. Or if you are cheap like me just add salt to your water.

  1. Do the 50-50 Hip Flexor Stretch

Of all the exercises shown above the 50-50 stretch has been the single most effective for me. It’s effective as a long term preventative exercise and it’s also effective to use right here and now to immediately relieve mild lower back pain. I do it every time I start to feel tight and it immediately helps.

I Already Injured My Back and No Matter What I Do It Hurts Like Hell. What Do I Do?

Don’t train through the pain.

In this article I’ve outlined what has worked for me and what can help you avoid and overcome minor injuries. Try to do the exercises above as long as they are pain free.

If you can’t do the exercises without pain or you are having ongoing problems that you can’t seem to shake, then go see a physiotherapist. You might need an X-ray and you might need more intensive treatment.

Seriously. It sucks not training, but it sucks even more having serious back issues and making them worse.

Get the physio. Come back and train after.

Thanks for reading. If you have any specific questions or comments, please put them in the comments below or feel free to email me at tyler@tylerjwatkins.com or visit tylerjwatkins.com.

Thanks,

Tyler

About the author

Richard Presley

A purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Richard is the owner and primary writer of Attack The back. Check out my About Me Page to learn more!