Ageing Gracelessly – the importance of mobility and conditioning after 30

Jiu-jitsu or any live, contact sport is unforgiving on the body (as I have found out) even in your prime.  I have a lot of respect for the guys my age and older just starting out at white belt.  It is a grind, especially when you are confronted with those athletic, strong twenty-year-olds who are trying to pull your head off.    

I have picked up really shitty injuries along the way that keep me off the mats if I do not take care of them.  The irony of writing this is that I am injured again because I let life take over and I ignored my mobility and conditioning work (proving that age and wisdom don’t necessarily come hand in hand).  

This article is for the older guys on the mat, perhaps I have something of value to contribute?  Maybe by sharing how I see training these days and the methods I use to keep me on the mats there will be something you can use?  Let's find out.  

Ego and Mindset

I think the ego comes into play a lot as we age, especially for men. I like to think that my ego is under control but it still catches me out from time to time.  I have to "game" the vain little fucker to make sure it takes a back seat.

It took a lot of work to trick my ego into not seeing the importance of winning or losing.  I changed my focus to the learning process.  I tell myself sparring is testing, the outcome is not important. The feedback and efficacy of what I am testing are. Can I get the technique I want to work? Did I have to muscle it or use speed to pull it off? Why did I have to use the attribute to make it work? I find this keeps the vanity of ego in check.

Another way I “game” my ego is by measuring my breathing and analyzing the roll.  For example, if the person I am sparring with passes my guard and is smashing me I ask myself: How is my breathing? How is their breathing? How much strength are they using? How much strength am I using?  How tired am I? Where is there space for me to move into? How can I use a frame to take the pressure off and more importantly apply pressure from the bottom? How can I isolate one of their limbs to make them feel under attack? (I can figure out why I was passed later).

I think this mindset is crucial, it teaches me humility, it improves my Jiu-jitsu, it keeps the probability of injury lower and it contributes to my overall goals – technical efficiency and longevity.  As an older guy, the worst thing I can do is get into an attribute-based war i.e. using strength and speed to "win".  Sparring like that creates a recovery debt or worse an injury debt that I pay for off the mat.  More crucially, what did I learn... who was strongest that time round.

On the other hand, I think there is a balance that needs to be struck.  I am training a combat sport whose ultimate goal is to efficiently dominate and neutralize my opponent.  There has to be some "go" in there, some aggression and with that aggression, use of attributes.  The difference is that when I train with attributes (strength and speed) I do it on my terms.  How?  Specific sparring rounds.  Whether that is escaping positions or submissions, holding top, takedown sparring it doesn't matter.  What matters is that I use my attributes in a controlled way.  There are three outcomes I want from this, firstly to get tired and push to improve my fitness, secondly to get realistic feedback for my game and thirdly to keep the ego in check (getting tired and losing is when I learn the most).

Warm Up, Cool Down

This is where I fucked myself up. I am pretty shit when it comes to properly warming up, I always want to skip to the fun part (drilling or rolling) the problem is, I can’t get away with it anymore.

I know it takes 20 minutes for me to properly warm up. Time can be a factor in this, if I am coming straight from work I sometimes just scrape the start of class and miss doing what I need to. I use a combination of dynamic warm-up exercises that I learned in the UK and Sun salutes from Yoga. This type of warm-up gives me a full diagnostic of my body before I start the class, I get a good indication of what muscles are tight and sometimes I get through and decide not to roll at all.

Doing gymnasts scales with my fluffy pal

I am terrible at cooldowns too. I know I need to stretch while I am still warm, not get changed, sit down and talk bollocks with my teammates. My cool down is very yoga-based, with a focus on my injuries: hip openers, lunge stretches for hip flexors and psoas muscles, up dog and down dog, triangle pose and pigeon pose to name a few staples. The other key part of the cooldown is self-massage, getting in early with a foam roller, tennis ball, lacrosse ball, etc is so important to break down any knots in my muscles.

Off the mat - daily habits

This part I am pretty good at. I have written about my daily yoga habit in earlier articles. The main reason that came about was to keep me on the mats and improve my flexibility through frequency.

Yoga is in my opinion the best thing you can introduce into your routine for longevity. The likelihood is you will be able to do Yoga longer than you are Jiu-jitsu. Keeping with that train of thought, I have been evolving my daily yoga habit to include calisthenics exercises to improve my mobility. For example, I incorporate banded lunges to mobilize my hips, air squats and single-leg squats to get my posterior chain firing once I have stretched out.
Banded lunges to get my hips firing!

The other aspect of mobility I add to my daily habit is self-massage. Depending on how tight I am I use foam rollers, lacrosse balls, tennis balls and golf balls to get in and break down jacked-up muscle fibers. The other thing I do (under guidance from my physio, always consult a medical professional before just doing some shit you read on some dickheads blog on the internet) is to use a wheat pack to heat a chronic injury area before getting in there with my lacrosse ball. A lot of this stuff hurts, if you are wanting to experiment with it get advice from someone qualified and embrace the pain, it is worth it.

Below is the basic Yoga sequence I do, this sequence is tailored to my body and what feels good for me.  What works for me, might not work for you.  That said, there are only so many poses in Yoga.  Please consult a doctor/ physio before trying any of this. I strongly recommend taking a yoga class one night a week to give you a good foundation to build from.  

·       Reach to the sky then forward bend towards my toes (don’t force it) x10 reps
·       Step right leg back into a hurdlers stretch (hold for 10 seconds, longer if its tight)
·       Come up into warrior one (hold for 30 seconds)
·       Slowly lower my back leg so my knee and shin are parallel to the floor (hold for 30 seconds+)
·       Put knee on the floor, go into a hip flexor stretch, still reaching overhead to get the full stretch
·       Reach behind my back, grab my back foot and pull it to my arse, tense quad
·       Let go of foot, stretch leg back come into a high push up
·       Transition to Up dog (hold for 30 seconds, if its tight switch to cobra)
·       Transition to Down dog (hold for one minute, alternating legs, straight to bent)
·       Bring right leg forward, repeat the first steps of the sequence on my left side
·       Bring my left foot to my left hand and go into a forward bend (hold for 30 seconds+)
·       Stand up
·       Repeat 3 to 5 times

Hip opener squats, the grimace says it all
Once I am through my basic sequence I add in a few extra positions that help make sure my injuries don’t flare-up. This part is usually dynamic and depends on what hurts. I am not going to detail each one here, firstly because I am not qualified to and secondly because I simply can’t be arsed typing it all out and finally they are all on YouTube.

·       Parv Trikosanna: really helps my back unwind
·       Wide leg forward bend
·       Deep hip opener squat (sumo deadlift position with elbows between knees, palms together)
·       Lying glute/ piriformis stretches
·       Neck stretches
·       Pigeon stretch

The last part of my daily habit is the fun part. This is where I bring calisthenics to get everything firing and convince the muscles I just stretched that they need to stay long. I try and work something fun into this, the icing on the cake if you will. For example, I have been working on my handstand entry from downward dog; or other days I might do a wrist balance or Turkish getups.

·       Single leg squats x10 / leg
·       Air squats x50
·       Plank 2 mins, increment +15 seconds each week
·       Side plank 1 min each side

If you are interested in learning more about Yoga and mobility the following books have really helped me grow and evolve my routine.

·       Real Men Do Yoga by John Capouya
·       Becoming a suppleLeopard 2nd Edition by Kelly Starrett and Glen Cordoza
·       Street Workout: aworldwide anthology of urban calisthenics by Al Kavadlo and Danny Kavadlo
·       This series by Ray Long is awesome:

Off the mat - sitting

I avoid sitting at all costs. I am lucky that my employer provides standing desks, I stand all day at work. It is a great opportunity to practice balance exercises (stand on one leg, shut your eyes or do some single leg squats) or stretch (stiff-legged hamstring stretch or calf stretch) I am a fruit loop, I don’t care what I look like doing this stuff in the middle of the office.

If I have to sit, I use a lumbar support. I take my lacrosse ball everywhere with me, if I am traveling I stick it in my lower back, under a glute, etc.

At home, why sit on the sofa? Mostly (because sitting screws me up) I lie on my yoga mat in cobra or on my back. If I am sitting it is cross-legged, if my back is jacked up, I sit on a yoga block cross-legged. Sitting cross-legged or foot to foot is great for working hip openers and maintaining a good posture.

If I have to sit for any length of time, as soon as I can, I get up and move. I have taken to doing five quick squats when I stand up to tell things to fire properly.

An excellent resource for any athlete is “Becoming a Supple Leopard” by Dr Kelly Starrett. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, it has been as pivotal to my evolution as Saul Ribeiro’s Jiu-jitsu University. Dr Kelly examines our lifestyle, he covers correct posture, breathing, sitting. He shows you how to evaluate yourself and provides detailed prescriptions to fix yourself. If you are an older grappler, buy this book. If you are a younger grappler, buy this book. If you aren’t a grappler, buy this book!

Off the mat - Strength and Conditioning

This part of my routine can get shelved from time to time. I know that I need to do compound strength exercises to supplement my mobility work. I don’t really enjoy lifting weights anymore, I find it tedious but it is a necessary evil.
Chin-ups in my homemade gym

I find it hard to “explode” these days.  I used to like doing explosive calisthenic exercises e.g. sit out push-ups, lizard crawls, archer pull-ups, push-ups up, and down flights of steps; honestly, I can't find my groove with this stuff anymore, if anyone has any tips id love to hear them.

I do like doing some of the Cross-fit benchmark Wods e.g. Cindy, Frelen; to get my heart rate up. “oh no, did he say “Cross-fit”, isn’t BJJ that heresy…” For now, I will say this, I am not a Cross-fitter I have dabbled. I think that Cross-fit, done properly with correct form and light manageable weights is a great fitness tool. Funnily enough, when ego gets involved and people start trying to RX workouts when they aren’t ready to, that is when they get fucked up.

Cross-fit gets a bad rep on the BJJ scene, which I find odd because the social dynamics of the two are both quite similar i.e. both are somewhat cult-like, both attract driven people who like to put the work in and grind.

I digress. Off the mat strength work. I stick to core compound movements and lifts, nothing flash, just shit that works:

·       Deadlifts
·       Turkish Get Ups
·       Chin Ups
·       Burpees
·       Front Squats
·       Cleans
·       TRX push-ups

Other off the mat stuff

It is worth mentioning that I have been experimenting with cold therapy and contrast baths on and off for years.  I do find this helps with recovery, I am writing another series of articles about this experiment but I haven’t been consistent enough to draw any concrete conclusions yet.  All I know is, twenty minutes in cold water helps.

I will now trot out the standard things you hear all over the web: diet, hydration and sleep.  I am not mocking or overlooking them, it is just they are talked about heavily by most fitness bloggers.  I am experimenting with intermittent fasting at the moment, there is another article series for the future (I managed to put on 6kg in lockdown while fasting so clearly I am not doing it right)

Final Thoughts

Wow, that was a lot of information!

I think the key thing I have realized as I age is that I can do contact sports that I love. The problem is that I spend three times longer on mobility, stretching, strength and conditioning to train probably six hours a week.

Sitting is to be avoided at all costs. If I sit for any length of time I make sure I get up and move as soon as I can. While I sit, I use a lumbar support or lacrosse ball to keep my posture.

I was taught to take attributes out of Jits, I still roll like this and I believe it is right.  It is easy to add strength, speed, and agility back in if you have them.   I do train hard with attributes too but these days but I keep those sessions to once a week and make sure it is ego-free specific drilling or sparring.  The use of attributes is on my terms, I want to keep training not write myself off for the vanity of my ego.

Take care, see you on the mats.


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