In this article I’ll share with you the step-by-step treatment planning process I use to help return to BJJ or Judo after injury.
This is the logical progression for an injured grappling athlete to:
Restore capacity and load tolerance.
Maintain sport-specific movement skills.
Prevent an injury from occurring the first time back on the mats.
But before we get started with the first step:
Understand the cause and effect of your injury
If you’re injured, the best thing you can do is work with a physio who understands the sport-specific demands of BJJ or Judo so they can advise you of your starting point.
The 3 main reasons for this is that they can help you identify:
- Restrictions. There might be things to avoid in case they worsen or delay recovery (whether it’s post fracture or surgery or even ‘tendonitis’)
- Specific deficits. Unless you identify the specific strength or mobility deficits you need to address, you’ll be wasting your time.
- Contributing factors. It’s worth understanding what caused the injury in the first place (so you don’t make the same mistakes again)
On that last point:
Sometimes accidents just happen… but in most cases injuries are preventable.
For example, I hurt the meniscus in my knee while doing a triangle choke.
The reason I hurt myself wasn’t just about the person stacking me, but also:
- My technique was sloppy and I was front on (instead of looking in the ear)
- I didn’t have enough external rotation flexibility in my left hip to compensate for my poor positioning
[that’s 2 things to work on that aren’t even directly related to rehabbing my knee]
Read: Grappling With a Meniscus Tear: Returning to BJJ After Knee Injury
So bear in mind that depending on the injury and the person’s goals:
- The starting point may be different
- The order of steps may vary, and
- Some of the steps might overlap
Let’s get started:
1. Develop the prerequisite strength and mobility needed to get back on the mats ASAP
If you’re recovering from an injury then you might need to take some time off the mats to:
- Let some healing occur, and
- Work on some strength and mobility deficits
But how long you NEED to stay off the mats depends on a lot of things.
One of the most frequently asked questions I hear is:
When can I return to the Judo or BJJ mats after an injury?
The answer is always the same: You should get back on the Judo or BJJ mats as soon as possible after an injury as part of your rehab and return to sport program. But… first you need to define what “getting back on the mats” actually means: There’s different types of drilling and rolling that vary in predictability and intensity, so any good rehab program works logically through these as part of a step-by-step graded exposure and loading program.
**** respect healing times for tissues and begin progressive overload and graded return to activity without unnecessary delay
The worst thing you can do is take time off for things to “completely heal” then get back on the mats hoping that your training partner will remember to take it easy
[it’s the equivalent of trying to come straight back into a basketball pick-up game without first testing your ability to run, jump, dribble, shoot, or do a layup]
So the goals here are to:
- Respect healing times
- Start to address contributing factors
- Develop sufficient strength and range of movement to progress to the next step as soon as your injury allows
2. Carefully selected solo drills that work around the injured part
The solo drills you start with need to be carefully selected to be within your injured joint’s capacity. This can:
- Allow you to work around the injured joint, and
- Actually form part of your rehab
An example is variations of bridging exercises. These might be:
- Completely fine and no stress on the injury
- Be bad right now, OR
- Actually assist with improving your strength and range of movement
The key point is that a lot of your rehab should progressively replicate the sport specific demands of BJJ and Judo
(but in a non-threatening way)
3. Solo drills that replicate the demands of grappling
Here you gradually increase the complexity of solo drills until they mimic the demands of BJJ and Judo
(in terms of both levels of load and speed of movement)
But the key thing is:
You remain in control of things like speed and change of direction.
[there’s a big jump between doing movements where you’re in control and working with an unpredictable training partner]
Examples include things like: shooting for doubles, shrimping, break falls, position circuits, grappling dummies, and using resistance bands (e.g. for uchi-komi)
Grappling dummies are a surprisingly good rehab tool for returning to BJJ or Judo after injury…
…and something else I’ve used with good success with my are these Scramble Grip Trainers
By doing this you will:
- Maintain (or improve) the movement patterns specific to BJJ or Judo
- You can keep “grappling fit”
- You’ll know when you’re ready to introduce the variability of another human being…
4. Drill techniques with an unresisting partner
Just because you’re not ready to roll, it doesn’t mean you can’t drill selected techniques.
Here you can:
- Drill techniques that don’t stir up your injury
- Start to test movements that relate to the injury itself
- Work on things that may have contributed to the injury
This part of your rehab could be done:
- At your club as private lessons
- In your garage or living room if you have mats, or
- At the clinic if you have a grappling physio
The single most important thing here is to work with a training partner you can trust:
They need to be both competent and patient enough to work around your limitations.
5. Drill techniques, combinations, and counters with a semi-resisting partner
It’s a big jump between drilling techniques and rolling…
…so your most important rehabilitation tool is to have an awesome training partner or coach:
Someone who’s aware of the effect of their actions… and knows how to control the pace and intensity to gradually move between 25%, 50%, and 75% resistance.
Drilling techniques, combinations, and counters with a semi-resisting partner will:
- Gradually test your injured part in a more dynamic way, and
- Restore confidence in your movement
6. Positional sparring
At some point you need to pressure test your ability:
Positional sparring is a great way of to control predictability while testing intensity.
And here’s where art meets science. You can use positional sparring to:
- Test the previously-injured joint, OR
- Avoid a still-injured area
Either way, you’ll be able to complete some part-practice under rolling-like conditions
7. Flow rolling with selected training partner(s)
From the perspective of testing out an injury, flow rolling is almost the opposite of positional sparring:
Flow rolling is a great way to introduce more movement variability while keeping down the intensity
[obviously you need a good training partner to do this though]
By flow rolling you’ll be exposed to the breadth of positions you’ll need to put your body in
(just with less load, speed, or duration)
8. Free rolling with selected training partner(s)
If you’ve gone through each of the previous steps then returning to rolling or randori with your selected training partners should be no big deal at all:
It should seem like the logical next step
[your last session would have been similar just with less load, speed, or duration]
But at some point you’ve got to roll with the spazzy white belts…
9. Open mat and competition
Open mat and competition is less predictable and it’s harder to control the intensity…
So what path would you rather have taken to get here?
- Take X weeks/months off after an injury, lose your sport-specific conditioning, lose your timing, and have skill-fade. Then, when you think you’re ready, return to a BJJ or Judo session and roll with everyone (hoping they’ll remember to ‘keep it light’), OR
- Spend most of that time on the mats, gradually building resilience in the injured tissues, maintaining your timing, refining techniques, and developing other areas of your game?
The interesting thing about those 2 options is that with one of them you’ll know when you’re ready to roll… with the other, it’s just a guess
[and the odds are you’ll be off the mats too long and then come back and do too much too soon]
Summary: The step-by-step process to return to BJJ or Judo after injury
If you’re injured, the best thing you can do is work with a physio who understands the sport-specific demands of grappling:
To successfully return to BJJ or Judo after injury you should follow a step-by-step graded exposure and loading program…
…and the majority of this time should be on the mats as part of your rehab.
This way you’ll progress your return at the right rate, and it’ll mean that you:
- Have the required capacity to meet the demands of the sport
- Have confidence and aren’t fearful in your movements
- You’ve maintained rolling fitness, and
- You’ll have addressed the factors that lead to the injury in the first place
The time spent in each of these phases will be completely different depending on the injury. For an example: