Guest post by Henry Akins, the third American to receive a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu black belt from legendary fighter Rickson Gracie. Akins trained under Rickson Gracie for 15 years. Akins became the head instructor or “Professor” at the Rickson Gracie Academy from 2005 to 2008 before resigning due to a back injury.
Akins has recently released an instructional website called Hidden Jiu-Jitsu where for the first time ever, he reveals the secret details that nobody outside of the Gracie family has been taught.
What was your biggest breakthrough in your Jiu Jitsu training?
I got asked this question the other day and I really had to put quite a bit of thought into it. I’ve had zillions of breakthroughs in training just like everyone else. Sometimes it relates to a specific technique, a way to escape, a moment something is available to attack or just a concept and idea. But I think something that I have been constantly reminded of recently in life and something that has had the greatest impact in my training the last few years is this.
The more relaxed and less strength I use the more effective my jiu-jitsu can become.
I know all our instructors have tried to beat this idea into our heads from day one but it’s one thing to hear it and something completely different to experience it. The first time I had actually experienced this was when I was a purple belt almost 18 years ago. I was just getting back on the mats from taking almost a year off from training because I had blown out both my knees in a tournament. Because I had no insurance at the time I could not afford surgery so I was forced to rehab myself. During that year off, because I couldn’t train I hit the gym 5 days a week religiously, determined to strengthen and stabilize my legs so I could get back to training.
During the year off, because of the heavy lifting I had put on a little more then 15 lbs. During my first month back I remember rolling with a friend of mine who was a blue belt and a pretty physical guy. Before my layoff he was bigger and stronger then me but my timing and technique were so much better usually I could catch him a few times in a 5 or 6 minute training. As we slapped hands I remember the thought going through my head “he’s not going to be able to muscle me anymore” thinking because of all my lifting I was probably stronger then him now. Our roll started and I remember as he tried to push me to my back I pushed back determined to show him I was much stronger then the old version of me and he wasn’t going to man handle me. As I pushed backed, he pushed harder, then I turned it up and the intensity kept escalating. By the end of our roll I remember being completely gassed and frustrated. My forearms were throbbing, my arms and legs were dead. I had failed to catch him even once and I felt like it was one of the hardest rolls as in physical exertion I had ever had. I remember feeling frustrated because I wanted to dominate the match so bad and had failed miserably.
That night playing the roll back in my head, I thought to myself I can’t fight so hard, I’m just getting back into training so I don’t have the wind to go that hard plus with all the added muscle and weight, my body requires more oxygen, I need to just roll light until I get my movement and timing back and it’s ok if I get dominated.
I was so used to being one of the top dogs at the school I felt like I had to come back and perform and live up to expectations I had placed on myself and felt others had of me.
The next night I was back at training determined to just take it easy and not exert myself so much. Being completely gassed and wiped out after one roll was one of the most frustrating and humbling feelings ever. So the first roll I partner back up with my friend who had given me such a hard time the night before. I decided to let him dictate and I was just going to try to move, relax and stay safe. By the end of the training I had caught him 3 times and wasn’t tired at all. I felt like I had used at most, half the strength from the night before but my Jiu-Jitsu was far more effective. I was shocked. I know my technique and timing didn’t get that much better in one day. It was the strategy to my training that was completely different. Instead of trying to impose my will on my friend I just went with the flow and tried to capitalize on opportunities as they presented them-self.
Like I said we are told all the time, not to use strength and to try to relax but this was the first time I had such a profound experience and really understood what those words mean in the context of training Jiu-Jitsu.
I think what happens in training is we are constantly told these things but when we roll with others and see other people rolling they are not relaxed and are using quite a bit of strength to get things done. So even though we hear relax and don’t use strength we very seldom experience it, especially training at the lower levels. Just the idea goes against reason for most… exert less effort and get more done. We are taught in almost every other facet of life to work harder to accomplish things or get things done and this idea certainly transitions onto the mats for most of us in training…. If this technique doesn’t work I must need to push or squeeze or pull harder. We’ve all been there and done that.
Using strength and muscling works against us in may ways. First the more strength we use the quicker we get tired. When we become stiff and rigid and have tension in the body, it allows our opponent to be able to control us much easier. Imagine pushing a board off you and trying to push a blanket off you. It requires more movement and effort to push a blanket off you, something that doesn’t have rigidity. Also being stiff and rigid slows us down. In order for us to be able to react quickly and with precision we need to be relaxed, if we are tense our muscles must first relax before we can move. Being stiff or tense also dampens our sensitivity. If we are stiff or muscling it’s very difficult to feel what our opponent is doing and react accordingly. The ultimate goal of Jiu-Jitsu is to use all of our opponents movements against them so that they become their own worst enemy.
Training relaxed and without using strength greatly reduces the risk of injury and is a method of training that will be able to serve us into old age. As we age our physicality will decrease but the timing, sensitivity, and precision of our technique can still be developed and can increase. Because of this we can continue to become better martial artists as we age.
The last few years because of injuries unrelated to jiu-jitsu and my focus on teaching I’ve spent very little time and have been very inconsistent with my own training. Because my cardio is not there my style has completely changed to this extremely hyper relaxed state where I try to take all tension out of my body and only engage muscles when and where I need and I’ve found that I’m still able to be extremely effective training like this. One of the big things I’ve noticed is that it’s extremely difficult for my training partners to escalate their intensity on me, my relaxed state seems to put my training partners into a relaxed state. Its very difficult to “go hard” with someone that is not resisting or fighting anything you do.
A couple years ago I had a Black Belt instructor tell me that when I train I need to go harder with his guys even though many times I was tapping them out multiple times in a 5 or 6 minute roll. He told me because I was so relaxed his guys felt like they couldn’t train hard with me. I told him they are welcome to go as hard as they want, That I didn’t need to go any harder to catch his students and just because I’m not using strength doesn’t necessarily mean I’m taking it easy on them. This was a more competition based school where the level of technique wasn’t that high but guys got very good results because of their speed strength pace and endurance. I explained to him that training like that is completely against the principles and philosophy of Jiu-Jitsu.
I feel the ultimate expression of Jiu-Jitsu is to be completely relaxed, patient but precise with our movements. It’s this style of Jiu-Jitsu that allows a smaller weaker individual to overcome a larger stronger opponent. Making more small adjustments instead of big movements. Developing your Jiu-Jitsu is not always about tapping your opponent out, it’s about learning and improving, becoming more effective and efficient. So remember when training, try to relax, don’t use strength and flow with the go.