You've probably heard grappling/BJJ described as trying to fold clothes with people still in them, or "high-level problem solving with dire physical consequences".
What that actually means is at some point you're going to get injured and constantly you're going to feel hurt if you train as much as you should.
If it makes you feel any better, comparisons made from data reported in judo, taekwondo, wrestling and mixed martial arts (MMA) shows that Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners are at a substantially lower risk of injury comparatively.
That's great and all but doesn't really help us discern what is a boo-boo and what requires time off, especially when we are on the daily grind.
But there are a few ways we can be sure.
What is an injury in grappling?
An injury is generally harm sustained from an outside force that can inhibit participation. This would be classified as an acute injury.
Thinking the obvious would say submissions, but also falling and moving in a direction our body wasn't made for or range of movement in our joints won't allow.
The data says that most acute injuries occur in competition at a rate of about 9.2 in 1000 matches, or 0.92%.
Pretty low huh.
This number of acute injuries is mostly orthopaedic (78%) to the joints from submissions - especially the armbar - followed by a much lesser instance of a rib injury and lacerations from head collisions.
Competitions are breeding grounds for acute injuries due to explosive movements which are much more commonplace than in a training environment.
Another consideration as an acute injury - at least something external that can sideline you - is skin infections like staph which are VERY common.
At 0.92%, you can probably guess that the stats are pretty low because we simply don't want to be sidelined and just roll anyway (besides staph, I hope!).
But what this does is make way for a different kind of injury.
The more prevalent side of the injury coin is a chronic or persistently recurring injury. These start out as acute injuries or become chronic through constant overuse like tennis elbow, tech neck or turf toe.
Your gym is littered with them.
Newbies will be in the early stages of one while a few grisly veterans will be sporting 1, 2 or more chronic injuries at any given time.
Chronic injuries often begin as an acute injury but get no proper medical diagnosis. This leads to repeated strain on areas of the body, particularly the joints, that require more long-term repair the more they are used post-acute injury.
The worst part of a chronic injury is that they can reappear seemingly out of nowhere.
So now we know what the most common injury types are, let's take a deeper look at the prevalence.
What does the data say about injury?
Here are the most common injuries by location in general:
- Hand and fingers.
- Foot and toes.
- Arm and elbow.
Suprised or sound just right?
You might be thinking knees or necks would be at the top, but there's a reason they aren't.
Here are the most common medically diagnosed injuries:
- Skin infections.
- Knee Injuries.
- Foot and toes.
Necks are a close 4th place because your neck is pretty important and definitely cannot roll through that although many make the attempt.
Why are the medical ones the least common?
I'm sure if you think about it the answer is simple.
We only seek medical advice when we can't roll through it.
You can't roll with staph, you'll be seriously reprimanded - I hope - as it is highly contagious.
You can't roll with a knee injury due to lack of function and fear of it getting much worse. Also, most practitioners have a job or kids that require the ability to walk.
Ditto the above for injuries to the foot and toes.
There are injuries constantly happening in training that we try and roll through that end up becoming chronic in nature.
So it stands to reason that the most chronic injuries are the ones that we can roll through that we do not seek medical advice for.
How do we prevent Chronic Injury in Grappling?
We know where acute injuries come from, explosive movements and overuse that eventually become chronic.
How do we steer clear?
Get It Checked
The most obvious thing is to get your acute injuries checked out by a health professional or take a day or so off to assess at the very least. If it's still bad after the day or two, you're probably injured.
If it comes good, that is zero pain and the full range of motion, then try rolling sheepishly.
The second way is to implement some resistance training at least once a week with compound movements. Compound movements are large exercises that use a couple of muscles towards the same goal.
Some examples would be:
- Push-Ups/Bench Press - Pectorals, Anterior Deltoids, Triceps.
- Deadlifts - Quadriceps, Glutes, Hamstrings, Lats, Traps.
- Squats - Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings.
- Bent Over Rows - Lats, Deltoids, Traps, Forearms & Biceps.
That's actually a pretty good basic routine right there!
Do four sets of each exercise with between 8-12 reps in each and you've found your weight range.
If you've knocked it before you've tried it, you're missing out.
There are a surprising number of benefits to yoga that transfer over to grappling such as:
Yoga will extend your range of motion in core movements used in grappling, so it'll take a bit more to submit you, let alone injure you. You'll be able to resist the pressure allied from subs with your new strength gains too.
For your finger and hand injuries, tape them both to allow additional support over the joints. A lot of grabbing and twisting with the gi on is unnatural to the tiny joints and they may need your help to remain rigid.
Perhaps for the rest of your rolling life if you don't act sooner than later.
Ready to hear something crazy?
Static stretching sucks as a warmup and it will inhibit your performance.
If you're looking for flexibility, do it at yoga (try it) or after training as a cool down.
A study of elite-level athletes found that static stretching, like bending over to touch your toes and holding, can remove the explosive elasticity in muscles before rigorous exercise.
The other half of the study looked at dynamic stretching, which is constantly moving to the stopping point of your range of motion gently.
The results were a landslide in favour of dynamic stretching.
Here is black belt Dr Gerben Keijzers demonstrating part of his movement-based warm-up.
So before you think about rolling through that acute injury, remember you could be facing a few days recovery or a few months.
The choice is yours.
Stay safe, get your injuries checked when needed and most importantly stay in the roll.
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Jake Anderson is a Bachelor of Sport Development and Mixed Martial Arts commentator with over 18 years of combined training in various Martial Arts and tertiary education in health & sport. His blogs on the foundations of health and martial arts are dedicated to the communication and education of leading a holistically fulfilling life.
Scoggin III, J. F., Brusovanik, G., Izuka, B. H., Zandee van Rilland, E., Geling, O., & Tokumura, S. (2014). Assessment of injuries during Brazilian jiu-jitsu competition. Orthopaedic journal of sports medicine, 2(2), 2325967114522184.
Baker, J. F., Devitt, B. M., & Moran, R. (2010). Anterior cruciate ligament rupture secondary to a ‘heel hook’: a dangerous martial arts technique. Knee surgery, sports traumatology, arthroscopy, 18(1), 115.
Chaouachi, A., Castagna, C., Chtara, M., Brughelli, M., Turki, O., Galy, O., ... & Behm, D. G. (2010). Effect of warm-ups involving static or dynamic stretching on agility, sprinting, and jumping performance in trained individuals. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(8), 2001-2011.