Brazilian jiu-jitsu will force your body to move in directions and planes very different from the everyday movements we are used to. The guards, positions, submissions, and wild scrambles place demands on the muscles, tendons, and joints that they are not always ready to perform. There are different ways to become more supple and mobile, but how good is stretching?
Stretching for BJJ, including passive and active stretches and different mobility exercises, is a great way to increase flexibility and mobility in a way relatable to the sport. Being flexible and mobile is good for allowing you access to more techniques and reducing overall stiffness and pain in the body.
There are different ways to stretch and loosen up the body. Knowing how and when to do it will significantly increase the benefits you reap from stretching for BJJ.
Why is Stretching Important For BJJ
BJJ and grappling, in general, are demanding on the body in multiple ways. Aside from good cardio and strength, you also need a certain level of flexibility and mobility. Having at least a decent range of motion in the joints will help in many positions and, even more importantly, reduce the chance of injuries.
BJJ is an intense sport with many possible effective strategies, so each practitioner can play around his strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone needs insane flexibility to be good. But even the “stiffer” game plan can benefit from improved flexibility, even if it only serves as a form of defense against certain joint locks.
But even if you don’t rely on fancy moves, basic positions like open and closed guard still require some range of motion in the hips, hamstrings, and knees.
Other styles and movements, like the rubber guard, require a very high level of mobility. So stretching exercises and dedicated mobility routines will have to find a way into your schedule if you plan on grappling like this.
A well-designed stretching routine can also help counteract the tightness of certain muscle groups in the body caused by the common moves and positions in BJJ. We often develop imbalances in the upper back, shoulders, and hips, which, if left unchecked, will deepen and eventually lead to chronic pain or a nasty injury.
Training BJJ and strength training increase flexibility and range of motion, but stretching is invaluable for developing the complete set of qualities you need on the mats.
It’s important to note that when I say stretching, I don’t mean only static long stretches, as they alone are insufficient. I mean both active and passive stretching, along with other exercises more commonly called mobility exercises.
Mobility vs. Flexibility
Mobility and flexibility are sometimes used interchangeably, but this is done by people unfamiliar with the terms and what they mean. Flexibility is the range of motion you can achieve statically around a joint, and it relates to soft tissues like muscles and tendons and their ability to reach a certain point.
Mobility, however, is the ability to move a joint through its full range of motion. It is measured by the range of motion and your ability to achieve it without pain while retaining balance and coordination.
So, in short, flexibility is static, and mobility is dynamic. The flexibility of the muscles and tendons determines flexibility. At the same time, mobility depends on more factors, including strength, joint structure, and skill.
They are both important from a BJJ perspective. Mobility has more value because it depends on how well you can execute all techniques. Still, flexibility also comes in handy when the opponent puts you in a bad position. Furthermore, flexible muscles are part of overall mobility.
Different Forms of Stretching
Passive stretching is what most people think of when they hear the word. Passive stretches are exercises where you stretch a muscle to its full range of motion without engaging the stretched muscles. Passive stretches are held for 10–15 seconds up to minutes at a time.
Passive stretches can be done without assistance, with the help of a partner, or with a device such as the BJJ belt, which is very commonly used to stretch the hamstrings, for example.
Active stretching includes many exercises where you move a joint through its full range of motion. You will usually do these dynamic movements as a warm-up, which are very important.
Active stretches, also called mobility exercises, can be done as a warm-up or separately as a full routine. They are often used as a form of active rest because they don’t induce fatigue and help the body recover while improving mobility at the same time.
Another popular form of active stretching is CARs (controlled articular rotations). Behind the fancy names sits the concept of slow and deliberate movement through an isolated joint’s full range of motion.
Fundamental Stretches For BJJ
Before we list specific exercises, it’s important to note when different types of stretching must be done. Static stretching is best done at the end of the workout for multiple reasons.
The muscles are well warmed up, which decreases the heart rate, and it has been shown that passive stretches before the workout decrease strength.
Based on the last point, you should never do intense static stretches before a workout. Light stretching of the muscles is fine, even recommended, as it will loosen things a bit.
Dynamic stretches are a very important part of the warm-up before every workout. This is one way of doing mobility, and all BJJ classes will feature various exercises as a form of warm-up before the actual practice.
However, extensive active stretching can be done as a separate session to aid in quicker mobility development. This is best done in the morning or on rest days as a way of active recovery.
We will give you a few key stretches for the major joints used in BJJ. Some are active, others passive, so do them according to the instructions above. There are also some excellent full routines by people specializing in mobility development and modeling yoga specific to the demands of grappling.
The neck is placed under immense pressure in BJJ and is problematic for many grapplers. I bet money that anyone with more than a year on the mats has had neck problems of a sort.
Neck stretches should improve the mobility and strength of the neck before the workout. Long passive stretches are a great way to relieve pressure during the cooldown or any time of the day.
Post-workout passive stretches:
The thoracic spine also needs to get loosened through stretches. Tight lats and shoulders produce a lot of tension on the spine and can be very painful, so having a mobile t-spine, and upper back is important.
BJJ places a lot of pressure on the upper and mid back due to the rounded defensive position and can lead to bad posture, and many stretches alleviate that.
Spine twists are crucial for spine health and are my personal favorite thing to do early in the morning, coupled with passive hangs on a bar.
There are many different ways to twist, and I recommend doing a full routine for the thoracic spine when you can; the effects are worth it.
Many BJJ techniques require mobile shoulders, and they are a vital cog in the machine. The same poses cause a stiff upper back and impair shoulders’ mobility.
One of the best ways to keep your shoulders healthy is by hanging from a bar. The benefits of passive hanging have been advertised heavily in recent years. I can tell from experience that hanging has helped me immensely with nagging problems.
In addition, shoulder CARs are an excellent way to warm up the shoulders before practice:
Passive stretches to the shoulders can be added to the cool down or separately:
Hip mobility is perhaps the most important for BJJ. A decent level of mobility in the hips is required for most offensive and defensive techniques. The quads, hamstring, hip flexors, and hip joints are all critical and must be made supple by static and dynamic stretches.
Standing hip circles (internal and external rotation) are something you’ve surely done and should continue doing before every practice.
The lunge hip flexor stretch is a great passive stretch that works magic on the hip flexors.
My personal favorite is the lying figure four stretch or the crossover glute stretch.
The ankles were not so important in BJJ, but since ankle locks became so prominent, ankle mobility is necessary if you are a higher-level gi competitor or into no-gi. Of course, good mobility in the ankle is used in different triangle positions, butterfly guards, and such. So taking care of their flexibility and mobility is a good idea.
The calves also play a significant role in ankle mobility and must be stretched and foam-rolled. Stiff and tight calves even lead to knee pain.
Here is a full routine to take care of your calves:
Doing full yoga or mobility routines is an excellent way to help with recovery and increase mobility and flexibility. The important thing about these routines is that you must understand what they are, which is an extra.
They shouldn’t replace BJJ training or strength training. But if you have the time, they are an excellent addition to your regimen.
It can be done at different times depending on the full body routine. Some are great for the morning, others are designed to help you sleep better, and others are excellent wind-downs immediately after training.
I personally do 10-15 minutes every single morning to start my day, and sometimes I like to do longer routines on rest days. As much as I enjoy them, they do not replace other forms of training for me.
There are dedicated online channels and trainers who have specialized in distilling yoga and mobility knowledge specifically for grapplers, and in my experience, they have done a tremendous job.
There are programs for warming up, cooling down, targeting specific body parts, and other variables. So you may need to browse to find exactly what you need.
Here are some great ones to get you started:
Doing the correct stretches at the right time will increase the range of motion of all your joints, so you can enjoy rolling much more. Feeling loose and supple is excellent in everyday life and will help you move freely even into old age.
Stretching for BJJ is not a cure for everything, nor a substitute for other types of training. Still, I am sure you will enjoy and benefit from it if done correctly.