Lifting for BJJ After 40?
01/10/2023 - Alex Sterner
Tired of all the conflicting opinions? This blog covers the major points to keep in mind while lifting for BJJ in your 40's: Injury prevention Equipment Is lifting heavy dangerous? Will I lose flexibility?
So you're in your 40's, and you train BJJ. What should you be doing to make sure that your body can handle the demands on the mats?
Spend enough time on the mats, and you'll get conflicting info as it relates to any part of your life - particularly your body. One guy swears his health is from his carnivore diet and kettlebells, while another claims the answer to all ailments is perineum tanning, veganism and DMT. Your professor says all you need are calisthenics and static stretches, while the 20 year old who explodes through everybody's guard says CrossFit is his secret to athleticism.
So what should I really do to make sure my body is prepared for Jiu-jitsu? Let's look at what we can do in the weight room, one step at a time.
First and foremost - How do I prevent injuries?
We've heard it all: from magical recovery tools, to the perfect stretch that can save our knees. What causes injury?
The truth is, injuries are super complex and multifaceted. BUT that doesn't mean we're helpless in preventing them.
When it boils down to it, injuries occur when the forces that encounter a tissue (bone, tendon, ligament) exceed the capacity of that tissue to tolerate force. And when we progressively load exercises, we increase our body's ability to absorb/mitigate forces. While it is most noticeable when muscle can tolerate more force (because duh, they get bigger) - these other tissues also positively respond to progressively greater loads.
And in a sport designed to destroy those very tissues - can there be a more productive use of our time?
Implements - Are kettlebells really magic?
So we've established that we need to apply load to the tissues of our body, and that these loads need to increase over time.
If we phrase it like that, there really isn't a magical implement for us to use. A barbell tends to be a good choice, since you can very easily alter the load used. But you can also increase the demands placed on the body by adding reps/sets/total volume to elicit long-term change. With this in mind, we can also make progress with dumbbells, bands, and even machines.
What's important isn't the implement - instead, it's that we're applying a greater stimulus over time.
But I've heard that lifting heavy is dangerous, won't I get hurt?
Any activity - particularly one intense enough to elicit long-term change - comes with some risk.
BUT with a focus on one particular variable, we can drastically reduce our chance of injury even while lifting heavy weights. And that variable is rate of change.
I'm sure you've noticed that whenever you do too much too fast (regardless of context), there will be some price to pay. Keeping this in mind will greatly decrease the risk of injury in strength training AND jiu-jitsu.
For example, training jiu-jitsu 5 days/week is not inherently dangerous. But if you've just had to take the last 2 months off, jumping right to 5 straight days of live rounds is a fast track to more time off.
And the same can be said about what we do in the weight room.
I assure you, there is nothing inherently dangerous about squatting 300 lbs. There are some individuals that - even in their 40's - are still hitting warm-up sets at 300 lbs. And like we discussed above, somebody strong enough to squat 300 lbs will be able to tolerate enough force to significantly decrease their chance of injury.
But I can also guarantee you, that even an individual with experience in powerlifting would be playing with fire if they jumped straight to 300 lbs after 2 months completely off.
Rate of change is by far the best predictor for injury and pain. The sooner you apply this lens to all of your physical activity, the less time you'll be spending sidelined.
Won't lifting make me less flexible?
This is a horribly overblown fear, but jiu-jitsu practitioners would benefit from prioritizing ROM (range of motion) in their strength training anyways.
What does this mean?
Deficit variations of Bulgarian Split Squats or Stiff Leg Deadlifts are a great place to start. Starting with your feet on an elevated surface means you're loading the associated joints through a greater range, and therefore increasing mobility. It also means that you're eliminating weak points in that joint's range, further working to prevent injury.
There are also certain tips and tricks you can use to take a regular exercise and increase the range of motion. For instance, elevating the heels with small plates or lifting shoes can allow many people to squat significantly deeper.
Lastly, we can emphasize ROM by keeping our egos in check. If you can squat deeper if you remove those 25's, then what are you waiting for!? It'll help your performance on the mats to be stronger through a greater ROM, you'll be more mobile, and you'll be able to add those 25's back on eventually!
Don't you get weaker as you get older?
Technically yes - but not in the way you might think. Strength actually peaks much later than many other variables, with many powerlifters actually setting strength world records late into their 40's.
So why are athletes considered 'old' after they turn 30?
This has far less to do with strength, and more to do with explosiveness or power. And more specifically, with the velocity component of power. So in far less words, speed is the trait that drops off most noticeably after the age of 30.
So where does that leave us?
First, you want to train speed/power across the large joints of your body in the safest manner possible! Try to limit impact and focus on landing softly and efficiently.
But an area of your training that pays much larger dividends is isometric strength. This type of strength is what's directly responsible for holding locked-in submissions, stabilizing dominant positions, and maintaining grips. This is also a huge component of what is referred to as 'old man strength.' The simplest way to train this type of strength is by adding pauses to traditional strength movements (bench, squat, row, etc.). Perhaps the best option is training pull up holds - simply hold your chin above the bar for as long as possible and track the time!
If this seems like a lot to keep in mind - let us help you! Our Team EP service regularly emphasizes ROM, aims to prevent injuries, safely guides you through exercises to develop explosiveness, and even has specialized mobility and prehab plans available for every major joint! Try our 7 day trial and let us do the thinking so you can focus on the work: