Unfortunately, for athletes, injuries are inevitabilities and this is true also for people training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. When a major injury like an Achilles Tendon Rupture strikes, it may mean being off the mats anywhere from 4-8 months. It’s just one of those injuries that takes a long time to heal requiring extra-special care not to sustain re-injury and start the process of recovery all over again.
For someone regularly training BJJ, 4-8 months can seem like an eternity and while it may signify a moratorium on rolling and even drilling, fortunately, there are ways to still keep yourself active and in the game. The degree of activity you want to engage in is entirely up to you and, more specifically, your doctor, but regardless, suggestions will be provided on some practical things you can do. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who sustained a ruptured achilles while filming for ‘The Game Plan’ had this to say about his situation, “Two things happen when an athlete gets injured. Some guys say, ‘F–k it, I’m going to wait it out 3-4 months.’ But with me and lots of other athletes, you find your eighth or ninth gear – a gear you’ve never gone to before – and say, ‘I’m going to come back.”
Lets look at some physical exercises which can be done to keep the body in shape and specifically geared towards bjj conditioning. While it will be challenging to focus on strength building in the lower body for obvious reasons, the good news is that there are no risks to strength building in the upper body. Most of the strength based exercises will focus on the arms and the chest with an additional focus on the core as well.
Before we begin, let’s talk briefly about some equipment that may be helpful, particularly in a home situation. With an injury like a ruptured achilles, your mobility is severely limited. Regardless of whether you do or don’t have surgery, proper recovery entails non-weight bearing on the injured leg for 4-6 weeks and after that, you start weight-bearing gradually. While you may be able to get around with crutches, even short distances can be taxing and driving may be impossible. Thus, though you may have a gym membership, it may be impractical for you to actually get there. One tool which will be very beneficial but also relatively inexpensive, light, purchasable online and quickly home-delivered is the ‘Iron Gym’ door frame pull-up bar. It’s ok if you can’t actually do pull-ups, we’ll discuss an alternative which can be done using the pull-up bar and a belt or some straps. Outside of the pull up bar, the only other helpful piece of equipment is a timer which can be set to count down from a given set of minutes. Most smart phones already have this built-in or can be easily downloaded for free from Google Play or App Store.
A useful methodology for beginning your physical training program is EMOM. EMOM is an acronym that stands for ‘Every Minute on the Minute’ and means that you perform a set of reps at the start of every minute on a timer that is counting down from a fixed set of minutes. For example, in a 5-minute EMOM of 5 situps, you would start your 5 situps at the 5 min mark, 4 min mark, 3 min mark, etc until the timer completes. You rest for the remainder of the minute after you finish your set of reps. It is a great way of measuring and keeping track of reps and rest all contained within a discrete time limit. Based on how you feel initially, you can easily calibrate either the total number of minutes or the number of reps you perform to challenge you in just the right way. The following is a suggested 20 minute regimen focusing on the upper body and core using the EMOM methodology:
5 minute EMOM of 5 Pull-ups (total: 25 Pull-ups)
5 minute EMOM of 10 Dips (total: 50 Dips)
5 minute EMOM of 10 One-legged Pushups (total: 50 Pushups)
5 minute EMOM alternating 30 second One-legged plank hold and 10 Toe Touch crunches (3 planks and 2 Toe Touch sets or 2 planks and 3 Toe Touch sets)
The above is only a suggested routine. It can be done daily, every other day or whatever cadence makes you feel comfortable. You can calibrate up and down as you see fit based on where you are when starting out and where you are after a few days or weeks on the program. Special notes on the pullups are, for safety, have a chair close by where you can rest so that you’re not standing on one foot for the duration of the EMOM. Also, your arms should be in reach of the bar when you raise them up over your head. If the bar is too high for you to reach, use a stool or a platform so that you have a stable foundation beneath you. If you are unable to do a full pull-up, no problem, there are a few alternatives. The first is a modification where you can tie two belts or straps to the pullup bar and do a hanging inverted row where you pull yourself up so that your chest meets your wrists. If this hurts your leg, the other alternative is simply to do a hang on the bar for as long as you can. Again, be sure that you can easily come off the bar by putting your uninjured foot down before beginning any pull-ups or pull variations.
For the dips, you can sit on the floor, put your hands behind you with the fingers facing in the same direction as your feet and slowly and gently, lift your rear from off the floor. For a deeper dip, you can put your legs up on a chair or a sofa while you are still sitting on the floor and then place two thick books on either side of you upon which you can place your hands. This will allow you to do a deeper dip. If your injured foot hurts, you can place a pillow beneath it or wrap it in a soft towel.
The one-legged pushups can also be modified by putting both knees on the ground instead. If the knees hurt, a pillow, soft towel or yoga mat may be used to alleviate the pressure. You can get creative with the pushups and do diamond pushups for more tricep focus or wide length pushups for more chest focus.
The pushups are meant to setup the planks that soon follow. The 30 second plank should be done with the elbows on the floor and the pelvis tucked under so that the abs are properly targeted. This is will trigger a nice burn especially with the toe touches that follow. You can alternate between doing more planks vs toe touches and vice versa.
In addition to strength based training, you can also do some physical drilling which will keep a focus on the key areas of your body that need to be kept sharp for BJJ. Depending on your rank, you can play around with inversions. Sitting on the floor, preferably a carpeted one, you can drill inverting back and forth from one side to the other using your arms to carefully prevent any potential weight-bearing or pain to your injured leg. If done correctly, inverting from side to side should not result in either of your feet ever touching the floor. Obviously, the sides of your leg may make contact with the floor but, with proper control, your feet can be kept off of it or at least only lightly touching. Shrimps, triangles, leg raises and hip raises are also possible albeit on the non-injured leg.
Outside of physical conditioning, stretching and yoga postures are a great supplement to keep your body feeling loose and flexible. Given the nature of the injury, it’s likely that you may be either in a bed or on a sofa for many hours throughout the day. This can lead to stiffening and tightness in the neck, shoulders and back. Plus, if you are now regularly engaging in an exercise regimen, your body may start to experience soreness in the arms and chest. One of the benefits of yoga postures are that they can be done while sitting in a chair or on the floor. A great free online resource which can be taken advantage of is called “Do Yoga With Me”. They have put together several guided online classes which are specifically focused on postures while sitting in a chair. Below is a sample class:
As time goes by, you will eventually begin Physical Therapy and all the exercises you learn from those sessions can, and should, be incorporated into anything you continue to do at home. The road to full recovery is long and laborious but it doesn’t have to take you completely out of the game. With a little, consistent attention, the day you return the mats may not seem like you were physically gone for very long at all.