Although BJJ is considered one of the safest martial arts, many people think this form of grappling imposes a significant risk to your health. But is this true? Is BJJ bad for your body?
BJJ has a lower rate of injuries than most other martial arts. This includes conceptually similar systems like wrestling or Judo. However, due to intense pressure on the neck and shoulders and hyperextension of joints during the grappling exchanges, injuries such as herniated discs, arthritis, torn ligaments, and even fractures are more than present.
Is this enough for us to say BJJ is bad for your body?
Is BJJ Bad For Your Body?
With a rate of injuries of 9.2 injuries per 1000 exposures, BJJ is one of the safest martial arts you can train in. It imposes less risk than all striking martial arts and those conceptually similar, such as Judo.
This is because BJJ favors a systematic, strategic, and technical approach to grappling rather than relying on sheer force, which is why people refer to it as a “gentle” martial art.
Conversely, it is an activity where two people engage in a grappling exchange. The main goal is to throw the opponent down to the ground, secure a dominant position from which you can attack, and hyperextend or put pressure on the opponent’s joints to win by submission.
Thus, intense rolling sessions can put a lot of stress on your body, which may result in chronic pain or injury. But the severity, as well as the frequency of these injuries, is lower than in most other martial arts.
According to a study dedicated to the dangers of BJJ, scientists put together a 67-question online survey related to injuries over the preceding 3 years, which 1140 BJJ athletes completed. 31.2% of athletes managed to stay injury-free, 48.7% suffered 1 injury, 16.6% sustained 2 injuries, and 3.5% had 3 or more.
Next, 77.6% of all injuries happened during sparring sessions, while 9.6% came in competition. Lastly, the injuries were the most common among brown belts while the lowest among white belts.
Overall, do not approach BJJ thinking it is injury-free martial art because it is not. However, the risk of injury is lower than in most other martial arts. Let’s explore the most common injuries in BJJ in more detail.
What Are The Most Common Injuries In BJJ?
The most common injuries in BJJ are skin infections, which many people find surprising. However, this is not unusual considering there is a lot of skin-to-skin contact in BJJ.
Also, the skin is continuously rubbed onto the mats, especially the knees and elbows. This often results in first-degree burns called “mat burns.” In combination with dirty mats contaminated with bacteria, mat burns can easily result in an infection.
Following is a detailed explanation of the other most common injuries in BJJ, both self and medically diagnosed.
Finger, wrist, and hand injuries are the most common self-diagnosed injuries. The nature of the sport involves a lot of intense grabbing onto the opponents’ Gi uniform, squeezing, twisting the hands, and pulling, all in an attempt to execute a takedown.
During these exchanges, it is not uncommon for the fingers to get tangled and caught in the jacket, which may result in dislocation or fracture.
This type of injury is the most common among people between 18–29 years of age (51%) and 30–39 (36.7%). It’s worth mentioning these finger and hand injuries are much lower in a No-Gi style which doesn’t include a Gi uniform.
Arm and Elbow
The next most common injury in BJJ is the one targeting the elbow and arm. The main contributors to these types of injuries are submissions such as armbar (22.4%) and Kimura (12.6%). The other way the arm and elbow may get damaged is intense pulling on the joints, hard falls to the ground, or where the arm or elbow gets hyperextended.
Submissions targeting the arm and elbow are very sensitive, and the margin for error is small. This is why these injuries are the most common among white belts who do not have enough experience to know how much force to apply to keep the opponent safe. Or, an inexperienced student might think they can “muscle their way out” of the armbar, which is a terrible idea.
Knees And Feet
Knee and foot injuries are present in just about every sport. However, these are notably common among grapplers as this type of activity puts a lot of pressure on your knees. Whether grappling and wrestling on the feet, rolling on the ground, or attacking legs with submissions, your knees take a lot of stress in BJJ.
On top of that, modern BJJ emphasizes leg-locking techniques which target the ankle, foot, and knees. A BJJ practitioner would utilize leverage to counteract the knee or foot muscles and ligaments.
They would hyperextend the joint beyond its normal range by applying enough pressure. This can easily result in dislocation, bone fracture, ligament tear, and other painful injuries. And these injuries also take a lot of time to recover from.
Knee injuries are the most common among purple and brown belts. This is because white and blue belts are not allowed to learn leglocks in some schools due to their lack of experience.
Neck and back injuries are not as common as others on this list but could be far more dangerous. These injuries usually occur when a practitioner gets caught in an awkward position with someone trying to submit them with a chokehold, such as a guillotine or rear-naked.
In most cases, the injury happens when a practitioner tries to break free from a headlock or when their neck gets hyperextended.
Neck injuries are tricky as the margin between serious and minor injuries is small. If you have difficulty moving your neck, you likely strained the muscles. However, it is likely nerve damage if a practitioner experiences shooting pain traveling down the spine, leg, or fingers.
How To Stay Injury-Free In BJJ?
Studies show that 31.2% of BJJ practitioners stay injury-free (over 3 years). To be in this group, you must pay extra attention to how you approach training and adopt some of the following habits.
Don’t Roll Hard Every Session
The more you search for trouble, the more you find out. It’s simple as that. Being passionate about BJJ and enjoying sparring sessions does not mean you should roll hard every time. This is bad both when it comes to learning and progress and increases the risk of injuries by a large margin.
Sparring is a method of teaching, not a real match, where you must give it all every time. Rather than rolling hard, focus on the other areas, such as strategy, perfecting the technique, learning how to apply new moves, and fixing the holes in your game.
Strength Training To Reduce Injury Risk
BJJ is physically demanding and requires a high level of athleticism and functional strength. Being strong, flexible, and agile is vital to gaining a competitive advantage over similarly skilled training partners and lowering the risk of injuries.
Studies have shown strength training for BJJ can reduce your risk of injury by 66% and prevent over 50% of overuse injuries. Improving full-body strength enables the muscles to absorb more punishment and recover faster.
Tap Early (Tame The Ego)
The most common injuries in BJJ, notably among beginners, happen due to the lack of self-awareness of when to tap. Whether they get overwhelmed with ego or adrenalin, some students will try to escape from a bad position at all costs. This comes at a price, as it significantly increases the risk of injuries. It is like playing with fire, literally.
The beauty of BJJ is the ability to tap out at the right moment, avoid injuries, reset the exchange and try it again. Martial artists from other sports do not have such privileges, notably in boxing or Muay Thai.
So whenever you are feeling uncomfortable in a particular position or not sure if you can escape out of the choke or joint lock, tap and try again. Sparring and rolling are about learning, not winning, so keep your ego low.
Train With People Close To Your Size (Pick Your Partners Well)
Roll with training partners close to your size to prevent additional stress on the joints. Rolling with physically bigger people has certain benefits, notably if you are preparing for competition. But during the regular training sessions, you don’t need to put your body under extra pressure.
Also, be sure to pick your training partners well and avoid rolling with people who tend to always push hard. Each school has at least one such student, so be sure to avoid them. They are usually aggressive in their approach and always push hard, trying to win every exchange as if their life depends on it.
Over time, you will discover a couple of training partners who suit you, your style, and your approach the best, and be sure to stick with them.
Plan Your Active Rest Well
Once you pass the initial struggles, BJJ becomes like a drug. You can’t get enough of it. However, this is a trap, as not giving your body enough rest leads to overtraining, over usage of the muscles, and injuries.
Instead, have a strict training plan which also includes well-planned recovery days. Days when you will go for a hike, jog around the neighborhood, do some yoga stretching, or do any other low-impact workout to keep the blood running through the muscles.
Eat, Drink and Sleep Well
Committing yourself to BJJ training will force you to develop various healthy habits. Training is intense and burns a lot of energy. You must regularly fuel your body with healthy nutrients to maximize your performance.
This doesn’t mean you should follow a strict diet like world-class athletes. But just getting rid of street food and drinks rich in sugar and focusing on eating food with a lot of protein, healthy fats, and carbs are often more than enough.
Eating healthy and drinking at least 3 liters of water throughout the day helps the body recover more efficiently. This then enables you to train more without overusing the muscles.
The other key energy source is good sleep. The more you train, the more quality sleep it takes for the body to recover, and you should have no less than seven or eight hours of sleep every night.
How Does BJJ Benefit Your Body?
BJJ is considered a full-body workout. Each time you step on the mats, you improve your physical and mental health, which positively affects the quality of your life outside the gym. Following are some of the most important BJJ benefits:
Jiu-jitsu requires a high level of flexibility as this directly impacts your performance. Students can’t expect to execute certain techniques or perform well without being flexible.
Thus, they spend a lot of time stretching before and after each workout and at home. Apart from improving performance, this prevents muscle tightness and injuries and improves the range of motion and mobility.
Improves Balance And Coordination
BJJ teaches you how to move your body as one unit and synchronize the upper and lower body movements and the left and right sides of your body.
These will boost your balance and coordination in the long run and are the key to progress and adopting more complex aspects of BJJ. Strong balance and coordination also positively impact our daily lives and improve our cognitive abilities.
BJJ grappling engages and improves every single muscle group in your body. Wrestling on the feet, takedowns, and rolling on the ground enhances the muscles in your core, arms, legs, back, and shoulders. Though BJJ doesn’t offer enough resistance to build muscle mass, it will make you stronger over time.
Builds Strong Endurance
Wrestling and rolling with someone similar to your size or bigger is exhausting. Most beginners are surprised by how quickly (within a minute) they run out of breath during intense rolls.
But elevating your heart rate over the training session will improve your cardiovascular system and boost endurance. This also leads to many health benefits, such as increased lung capacity and lower heart rate and blood pressure.
Like all sports, BJJ is hard on your body to a certain degree. In the end, it is a hand-to-hand combat system that involves intense grappling, pulling, and twisting of the joints. So do not approach it thinking you won’t get hurt. Minor, self-diagnosed injuries such as bruises, chronic pain, and lacerations are quite common.
But overall, BJJ is statistically among the safest martial arts. Although present, severe injuries such as bone fractures or nerve damage are rare, and with the right approach to training, you will stay safe from these injuries. The key is to avoid sparring with aggressive students, continuously tap when you feel any discomfort, and work on keeping your body strong and healthy.