Regardless of when you start training BJJ, its hard to deny, it gets harder as you get older. I myself have just entered Masters 2 (I just turned 36) and was asked by a podcast listener to talk about how I've adapted, if at all, my BJJ training as I've entered "Masters."
1) being a Masters (30+) competitor doesn't mean you can't achieve high level success in BJJ.
I say this because I'm a big proponent of belief. If you believe something is going to get in the way of your success, it probably is.
The best example I have of this is John Hinger, who started BJJ at 21 and achieved his first World Title (adult) at the age of 34 in 2016 and his second at 35, in 2017. Or we can also look at Fabio Gurgel winning the Europeans (adult) at the age of 40.
Lastly, we can look at Roger Gracie beating Buchecha in their 2017 super fight, while Buchecha was the reigning World Ultra Heavy and Open weight Champion, when Roger was (I believe) 36 years old.
So, clearly, age is far from the only factor when it comes to success in BJJ.
2) By talking about my experiences, I am by no way trying to hold up my training approach as some kind of gold standard.
I was asked to write about this topic and I enjoy writing about training for BJJ, particularly about different approaches for strength and conditioning to keep you healthy on the mat.
Plus, I'm not someone who trains BJJ full time, even though it may feel like it some times. I think that is closer to truth for +95% of people that train BJJ.
I started training BJJ in 2007 and I'm someone who trains 5 times a week (most weeks), yet still has a job, has a family and has to find the time to do strength training and mobility work, etc, etc and get out compete when they can (you can see some of my key competition achievements here).
So, I'm hoping you can learn a few things.
1. Outside BJJ commitments
Yes, I was also 32 when she was born and it was when I was 33 and had just moved to the U.S., that I really noticed the changes I needed to make to my training.
âSo, I was getting older, but some research suggests, that depending on whether the sport is endurance or power based, plus the length of the event, peak athletic performance can be reached at the age of 20 or as old as 37.
I was a "Masters" athlete, but I was far from over the hill. So, what happened?
For me, it wasn't a question of being able to handle the physical intensity, it was a question of being able to keep up with off the mat commitments.
It was the same for most of my time training BJJ too. I could train BJJ 5 times per week, sometimes more, have 2 to 3 hard strength and conditioning sessions, then lie around on the sofa all Saturday relaxing, eating and watching sport.
âNot so much any more.
âYes, this could be partly due to me getting older and my body not being able to recover as quickly, although I think a bigger factor was that I didn't have as much time to dedicate to recovery as I did before.
So, a big factor, I believe for most people in the "Masters" category, is that they have more commitments compared to their younger years, either from families, career, etc, that can get in their way of training BJJ, or taking the much needed downtime to recover from training.
For me, it ultimately came down to a decision on what was most important.
2. BJJ, how important is it to you?
We all have the same amount of time in a day, 24 hours. We all have to make choices each day on how we spend that time. Some choices are easier than are others, for example, you can't just easily walk away from a career to focus on BJJ training if you're bringing in a large part of the family income and putting food on the table.
I've even been told by a number of people who have very hands on jobs, that if they get injured from training or competing in BJJ, they won't be able to work. I even know of one person who lost a job because of a BJJ injury.
When I was a blue belt, around the age of 26-27, I used to day dream of somehow packing in work, training full time and living the "Jiu Jitsu Lifestyle". I dreamt of being a world champion, in fact, I still dream of being a world champion......albeit at a Masters level.
âAlthough, the cost I'm willing to pay to become a World Champion is much lower than it may have been when I first started training BJJ.
â"Why?" you might ask.
So, to achieve my absolute potential in BJJ, how much am I willing to sacrifice when I have other goals and commitments?
I had to ask my, what's more important to me?
- Committing 110% to being a BJJ competitor?
- Providing for my family?
- Pursuing a career as a physical optimisation specialist for BJJ?
What I decided was most important to me was providing for my family. I decided to put that first.
It could be any other life goal or aspiration that is important to you.
Maybe in years to come I'll look back and think "I could have done more as a BJJ competitor if I'd trained more"......and I'm OK with that. I've made the decision that other things in my life take priority and I'll have to be happy with the success I get in BJJ competition with the resource I'm willing to invest.
It's a question we can only answer for ourselves.
I think this becomes more important as we age, because typically our commitments grow as we get older. If you decided BJJ is the 100% most important thing for you, then absolutely go for it, but that decision is ultimately up to you.
If you decide its not, then sometimes that can take much of the pressure of you when you train. It doesn't mean you'll train less, but it may "un-stick" much of the mental pressure you can put yourself under to "win". Then, maybe, you'll free up your game and end up progressing much faster! Who knows. Its an interesting thought.
Although now, let's get into specifics of how I've adjusted my training.
3. Undulating intensity
I've even seen adult athletes over do it to the point that they're in too much pain to drill technique.
The aim should be consistency over intensity.
This applies to both mesocycles (longer blocks of a few weeks to a few months) and also the microcycle, typically 1 week. In terms of planning the longer term and mesocycles, if you want to know more, I talk about this in the podcast "Planning your training" and also in the article "9 Key concepts of BJJ strength training".
In terms of the weekly cycle, I've written out my current schedule to use as an example.
- This is something I've built up to after nearly 20 years as a sports competitor, across Rugby and BJJ
- I've purposefully taken a job that means I work flexibly from home
- The intensity undulates
Its this last point I want to focus on.
Not everyone of these sessions are hard, far from it, in fact very few of them are hard in terms of the physical intensity. Let's start with the first thing you'll see breathing exercises.
This is nothing more than a 15-20 minute walk first thing in the morning and doing very low intensity breathing exercises, that were discussed with Oxygen Advantage Founder, Patrick McKeown in the podcast "Breath Less to improve performance, recovery and health."
It has a great training effect, with a very low training load. I feel recharged after doing these exercises.
Next comes the strength training. In the podcast "Planning your training" and also in the article "9 Key concepts of BJJ strength training", I talk about leaving something in the tank and rarely going all out with strength training.
I'm looking for the minimal effective dose to maintain my body, improve my performance, all while minimising the cost to my body, so my energy can be focused on the BJJ training. Its also very low volume training, low reps, low sets, with levels of resistance that I know are going to develop strength and power, without over reaching.
Again, refer to the article and podcast for more detail, although a lot of this comes with personal experience or taking advice from an experienced coach.
It's a very different approach to going all out, all the time. Then even across the 3 sessions per week, depending on how my body feels, sometimes I will reduce the intensity
This can be a little harder to control the intensity, depending on the school you attend, the classes you go to, your belt level and your training partners.
Yes, there are absolutely times you need to push yourself hard to test your limits and force adaption. Although, you need to learn what your body can handle, what you can realistically recover from ("Recovery for BJJ athlete podcast")
As you'll see, I've built in a drilling day on Wednesday, so I'm developing my technique, but have a physically lighter day that allows me to recover, as Monday & Teusday can be more physically demanding.
Also, using the Friday free sparring class (~13, 6 minute rounds back to back) as an example, be strategic in the partners you pick and how you roll. 13 rounds is a lot of rolling, so I'm not going hard every single round and I'm working different aspects of my game against different opponents. I'm not always going full blast.
Yes, we all need to push ourselves and learning to implement good technique, while training BJJ under a very high intensity, is an important skill. I just don't do it all the time.
Sometimes the class you're in doesn't allow that, sometimes the pace is pushed by the Professor (and rightly so) and you need to stick to that intensity. Although where you have control, sometimes slowing down and learning to use technique and timing over physical intensity, is not only smart training, its also how BJJ should be.
Lastly, I'll quckly talk about the movement & mobility work.
If you want to know more about what I mean with 'movement & mobility' you can read, "BJJ strength & conditioning: a complete system?" In short, these are light session, of about 20 minutes, where I'm doing low intensity movement, sometimes on a stability ball, sometimes on the floor, working the joints through their full range of motion and working through movements and positions that are applicable for BJJ.
I'll barely break a sweat. This is treated very much as maintenance and "opening up" the body. I will always feel better after these sessions. I'm building up the body, rather than breaking it down and...
...Looking after the body is key.
4. Looking after the body
So, I'll keep this section short.
I've talked about how I approach my different training sessions, but the one other thing I'll talk about here is that I add a lot myofascal massage (foam rolling) into my days and as much movement as I can, i.e. getting outside and walking.
The question is this, what are you doing when you're not training, to get the most out of your body when you do train?
I don't see this as training, I just see it as a natural part of being human and doing low intensity movement to aid recovery and just feel good. As I've gotten older, I find this becomes more and more important to make sure I can get the most out of my training.
If you want get into 'looking after your body' more, I'd recommend:
- "BJJ Strength & Conditioning: a complete system?"
- "Recovery for the BJJ athlete"
- "Nutrition for the BJJ athlete"
- "9 Key Concepts for BJJ strength training"
5. Letting go
Well, it's helped me deal with my ego. Yet, as a black belt, I still absolutely have an ego and I'm still learning to deal with it.
I'll close out with this section, about letting go.
What I've had to let go of, and this has happened more recently, is that I'm going to get beaten up and tapped by lower belts. Particularly when those lower belts are very talented grapplers, when their main focus is BJJ, when they train 10+ times per week and sometimes outweigh me by 25-50lbs. Sometimes I outweigh them, but I still get beaten up.
Sometimes, they'll get beaten up, but its inevitable, with enough time on the mat, fighting against enough people, I'm going to get tapped and get tapped a lot.
I have to let go of the fact that I'm not always going to be able to keep up.....and that's OK.
I was speaking to a 38 year old black belt this week, who recently moved to our school after training further south in a very well known school in San Diego. He told me that even against blue belts, who are training all the time and travelling the world competing, he was getting beaten up and couldn't do anything to them.
I'm not conceding to you young guns yet, I'm still coming after your mother f*ckers with all I've got and I love the rolls that keep me sharp, I'm just saying that for me, I've had to let go a little and realise, my priorities in life and in BJJ in different.....and its OK if I get beaten up now and again.
In fact, its more than OK, it's awesome. It keeps me sharp, identifies holes in my game and it keeps me humble. I love it.