This article was written by Marc Barton, who is a 1st degree Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt under Mauricio Gomes. Marc is the head instructor at Kingston Jiu Jitsu and is also a qualified medical doctor. Header image used on license from Shutterstock.
Back pain is an extremely common problem for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners. Rarely a class goes by without someone I know complaining of it to some extent. Jiu Jitsu is a tough activity on the body and tends to put a lot of stress on the lower back. Trying to escape certain positions, such as the mount, requires a strong lower back, and getting stacked puts a great deal of tension through the muscles and ligaments attached to the lumbar spine. For this reason, it’s hardly surprising that back problems are so common for us.
It is not just Jiu Jitsu practitioners that experience back problems, though, and approximately 8 out of 10 people experience it at some point in their lives. The main difference is that as a group of people, we tend to try to continue training despite the pain and often just ‘get on with it’. This itself may not be a bad thing at all, and I firmly believe that it is not necessary for the vast majority of Jiu Jitsu practitioners to stop training because of back issues.
The most common type of back pain is ‘nonspecific’ or ‘mechanical’ back pain. It is called nonspecific back pain because it is not due to any specific or underlying disease. It is not fully understood what causes this type of pain, but most medical practitioners feel it is due to a sprain of the muscles or ligaments attached to the lumbar spine. Other possible causes include problems with the vertebral facet joints or intervertebral discs. This type of pain, for the most part, is not considered dangerous or worrying, but this is little consolation for those of us that suffer from it.
It is very important to distinguish this nonspecific back pain from the more serious but rarer nerve root pain that occurs in around 1 in 20 cases of back pain. In these cases, the nerve coming out from the spinal cord is irritated or pressed on. It is this type of pain that causes sciatica, as the pain is felt along the course of the nerve. Nerve root pain is potentially much more serious as it can cause permanent damage to the affected nerve. For this reason, it is imperative to get your back pain assessed by a medical practitioner, such as your GP or a qualified physiotherapist, at the outset and before you go on to use any of the techniques advised in this article.
My own personal journey with back pain started about ten years ago. Around that time, I transitioned from being a recreational Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, training a couple of times a week, to someone who was training much more frequently. A couple of years ago, I left my day job and became a full-time instructor. I now teach or train almost every day and often multiple times a day. Back pain has become a part of my everyday life. Getting out of bed in the morning has become an endeavour in itself, and putting on my socks easily became one of life’s pleasures that I realised I had taken for granted. I have visited numerous physiotherapists and osteopaths over the past couple of years, and my back has greatly improved. I would like to share some of my favourite and most trusted coping methods with you.
Here are my top five tips for combating back pain as a Jiu Jitsu practitioner:
1. Adapt your game
I learnt this strategy from one of my instructors Steve Finan, who is a black belt under the legendary Mauricio Gomes. Despite being in his early 50s, Steve is one of the toughest guys I regularly roll with. I believe his longevity and ability to roll so hard in his 50s is due to the intelligence with which he approaches training. He has also experienced back problems and has very cleverly adapted his game to overcome this. He has helped me to adapt my own game so that I now avoid movements and positions which put my lower back under stress. An example of this is the classic side control escape. I used to bridge up explosively and shrimp to the side before threading my shin across and regaining guard. I have now adapted this so that I slowly bridge my hips but explosively drop downwards. The net effect is the same but without the associated strain on the lower back. I have similarly adapted escapes from the mount and other positions, and this has helped me to combat back pain a great deal.
2. Strengthen your core
One of the keys to a healthy back is a strong core. Jiu Jitsu, in general, but particularly the various guard positions, tends to strengthen the abdominal muscles, but lower back strengthening is often neglected by Jiu Jitsu practitioners. Having a strong core can help to combat the pain caused by strain on the ligaments and muscles around the lumbar spine and can also help to heal the commonest types of back pain. The Swiss ball is a very helpful piece of equipment for this, and Rener Gracie describes how he uses it to strengthen his core in this excellent video tutorial:
3. Take up Yoga
Yoga may have been the single most significant factor in my learning to control and combat my own lower back problems. Hamstring and lumbar spine flexibility is extremely important in maintaining a healthy back and can also help to reduce tension, stiffness and soreness. There are many very helpful Yoga poses for lower back pain, but these are my personal favourites:
Child’s pose – this is a fantastic restorative Yoga pose and is very effective at lengthening the spine.
Downward-facing Dog – this is the classic Yoga pose; it opens the shoulders and lengthens the thoracic and lumbar spine as well as stretching out the hamstrings.
Upward-Facing Dog – this pose stretches the abdominal muscles and helps to open up the intervertebral disc spaces.
Twisted Tiger – this pose was taught to me by my friend instructor Marvin Reid, who is an excellent Yoga teacher. It twists the torso and is excellent at stretching out the muscles and relieving tension on either side of the back in turn. It requires you to lie over a bolster but is well worth the investment.
4. Go swimming
Swimming is my go-to exercise when I am really struggling. It is low impact and puts almost no strain on the back at all. It is an excellent form of active stretching and helps build a strong core. When swimming, you are supported by the water, and it releases much of the pressure that is transmitted through the spine when standing upright. I find backstroke and front crawl particularly helpful. Swimming also releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers, and following a swim, my back always feels better. If your back injury is particularly severe or the pain unmanageable, try just wading in the water or doing low-impact exercises in the pool initially before gradually progressing on to swimming.
5. Seek help!
It is essential not to ‘go it alone'. Seeking help from a qualified medical practitioner may prevent you from causing further damage or missing a more serious cause for the pain. Several times over the past few years, a trip to the physiotherapist has helped salvage the situation and get me back on the mats quickly.
I still have bad days, and my back is definitely not as good as it used to be, but I now have more good days than bad, and I’m still in the game and training and teaching regularly. I hope that if you are suffering from lower back problems, some of these strategies that have helped me so much will also help you to combat your back pain and keep training.
[Disclaimer: This article does not constitute medical advice. If injured, always seek care from a licensed medical practitioner]