Chances are when you hit the gym you go after high-impact exercises like squats, deadlifts, and presses. No doubt it’s a smart idea to build your program around compound movements like these, as they pack on muscle, develop tremendous strength and power, and contribute big time to your performance on the mat. However, chances are you’ve also neglected a few highly important smaller muscle groups that can pay dividends when it comes to injury prevention and optimal performance. The following exercises can be added to your current routine to bring balance to the body, undo some of the dysfunctional movement patterns we develop on the mat, and help you stay injury-free.
Rhomboids / Lower traps
With consistent time on the mats it’s easy to adopt the dreaded “slumped” position, or more correctly, Upper Crossed Syndrome, with rounded shoulders and a forward jutting head. We’re constantly taught to keep our elbows and legs in tight and to protect our necks. While this will help us defend ourselves, over time it could lead to poor posture and serious overuse issues like, rotator cuff impingement, biceps tendinitis, and shoulder instability. The following exercises will help combat that slumped position and strengthen your postural muscles.
This exercise will strengthen the rhomboids, which are muscles in your upper back that are responsible for pulling the shoulder blades together and providing stability to the shoulder.
Loop a band around an anchor point at chest level. Grab the handles and stand with your arms in front of you at chest level, palms facing each other. With some tension in the band, make a micro movement squeezing your shoulder blades together as if you were cracking a walnut between them. Hold the squeeze for a moment then repeat again for repetitions. Don’t allow your elbows to bend or your shoulders to elevate. The movement is a shrug backwards and can also be performed with a rope on a pulley machine.
Bent Over V Raises
The lower trapezius muscles are commonly weak on most people, with the upper traps eager to take over their job. To battle this, try the Bent Over V Raise to target the lower traps, which are just below the rhomboids, and are responsible for retracting the shoulder blades back and down.
Grab two light dumbells and assume an athletic stance with knees bent, core tight, and a flat back. To begin, allow the dumbells to hang straight down in front of you with palms facing up. Raise the dumbells out in an upside down V shape, squeezing your shoulder blades together in the process. Hold the top position for a moment before lowering, and repeat for reps. Don’t allow your elbows to bend, and keep your chest facing the ground. Focus on your middle back, and don’t allow the upper traps to contribute on the exercise.
High Row to External Rotation
With all of the joint locks attacking the shoulder in Jiu Jitsu, it’s important to have healthy rotator cuffs. The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles that work together to stabilize the shoulder joint. The High Row to External Rotation exercise will work the muscles of the upper back, including the rhomboids, as well as the muscles of the rotator cuff.
Loop a band around an anchor point at eye level and grab the handles with your arms in front of you at shoulder height, palms facing down. Start the exercise by squeezing your shoulder blades together, exactly like the first exercise – scapular retractions. Next, squeeze the muscles of your upper back and drive your elbows backward to finish with your elbow joints at 90-degree angles. Then, rotate your hands upright like you were making the sign for a field goal. Maintain this position for a moment then reverse the movement, lowering your hands first, then extending your arms back to the starting point. Maintain high elbows throughout the entire movement and don’t lean or arch back, keeping a vertical spine throughout. Use a split stance for stability.
The front of the neck gets plenty of work when playing guard. The head is up off of the floor constantly, looking and reacting to our opponent. This is great for building endurance in the front of the neck, however this combined with the forward head posture discussed earlier is a recipe for injury. To balance the muscles of the neck, do isometric neck extensions, which will work the muscles on the backside.
Isometric Neck Extensions
Stand with your back against a wall with the back of your head touching the wall. With your head tilted slightly down, drive your head straight back into the wall for a minimum of five seconds before releasing, and continue for reps. Don’t allow your shoulders to shrug upward and if necessary, add a towel behind your head for extra padding.
This next exercise hits multiple problem areas with one simple move. Again, Jiu Jitsu promotes a very rounded body position, which wreaks havoc on posture and breathing mechanics. It’s always smart to extend the body backwards to balance out all of that forward flexion.
Lie face down on the floor with your arms in front of you as if you were flying, and make two thumbs up. Using the muscles of your lower and upper back and neck, lift your legs, arms, and head up off the ground as high as possible. Hold the top position for a moment before lowering back down. Don’t allow your elbows or knees to bend and try to focus the exercise on your lower back, not your glutes.
The gluteus medius is responsible for abduction of the hip, or lifting your leg out to the side, as well as stabilizing the pelvis. This is crucially important when standing on one leg as if to complete a pass or takedown. The glutes however, are rarely taxed on the mat, and a weak glute medius can lead to issues like knee and lower back pain. To sure up this weak spot and give your side obliques a challenge, try the Side Plank Leg Lift.
Side Plank Leg Lift
Begin by lying on your side. Prop yourself up onto your elbow, squeezing your side core muscles to elevate your hips off the ground, feet stacked one on the other. Your elbow should be directly below your shoulder and pushing into the ground to prevent bunching in your shoulder joint. From the side plank position, lift your top leg up using the muscles of your outer glutes (gluteus medius). Try to raise the leg leading with the outside of your heel, toe pointed down. Hold the leg up for a moment, then slowly lower it back down in a controlled motion. Don’t allow the leg to crash back down to the other, and maintain your hips high in a strong plank position throughout the entire movement.
As the old saying goes, Jiu Jitsu is about “grips and hips.” The muscles of the fingers, wrists, and forearms get a healthy dose of action both in and out of the gi. Much like the Superman above, its smart to work the opposing muscles groups to prevent imbalances. In the case of gripping, it’s the muscles on the back of the forearm.
Finger Extension w/ Rubber Band
Bring all of your fingers together to meet your thumb and place a small rubber band around them. Using the muscles on the backside of your forearm and hand, open your fingers as wide as possible, stretching the rubber band. Hold the “open” position for a moment then close all of your fingers together and repeat. Start with a thin rubber band, then add more bands or find a thicker band for more resistance.
These exercises can be added to your warm up to make sure they are activated and ready to do their job in your main lifts. As a warm up, do two sets of each exercise for 15 to 20 reps each. Most of these muscles are small and work best when trained for endurance, so high rep sets are the way to go.
You can also choose exercises based on your training split. For example, let say you will be doing a lower body routine of squats and deadlifts, activate your gluteus medius beforehand with two sets of side plank leg lifts and your lower back with two sets of Supermans. If doing an upper body routine of chest and back, warm up with a few sets of scapular retractions, Bent Over V Raises, High Rows to External Rotation, and Finger Extensions with a rubber band.
You can also create a workout combining the exercises above in a pre-hab training session. As mentioned, these muscles respond best to endurance training so add isometric holds of five to fifteen seconds to develop this quality.
Injury Prevention Workout
3 Rounds of:
Scapular Retractions 10 reps w/ 5 second isometric (iso) hold
Isometric Neck Extensions 5 reps w/ 5 second iso hold
Bent Over V Raise 10 reps w/ 5 second iso hold
3 Rounds of:
High Row to External Rotation 15 reps
Side Plank Leg Lift 15 reps per side
Superman 10 reps w/ 5 second iso hold
Finger Extension w/ Rubber band 20 reps per hand