Let’s face it: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a combat sport, so no matter how much we tout the arte suave’s gentleness, injuries often feel inevitable. While it may be impossible to prevent every injury in BJJ, the real trick is to make sure you avoid the worst sorts of injuries!
We’ll be looking at the two of the worst BJJ injuries, examining some high-risk positions, and offering some tips on how to stay safe when training. By being aware of which parts of the body are more injury prone (and more reluctant to heal!) you’ll be able to save yourself pain and keep yourself off the sidelines.
Accepting that all choices have risk
It is important to accept that training Jiu Jitsu means you’ll be injured at some point – but this isn’t quite the bad news that it seems. All sports offer their own risks – from tennis to swimming to golf, there is no such thing as a risk-free sport!
Further, it isn’t as if you can avoid injuries by avoiding sports! People who live sedentary lives are more likely to suffer from heart disease, depression, diabetes, and a whole host of health problems!
Avoiding 100% of injuries is too lofty a goal, no matter which sport you play. What is most important is staying away from devastating injuries that require extensive time off or surgery.
BJJ Specific Injuries: Neck and Knees
The two body parts that are most prone to serious injuries in grappling are the neck and knees. Both of these body parts are attacked directly via submissions, but are also at risk even outside of submission attempts.
Neck injuries can range from minor sprains to herniated discs. Muscle pain can be painful and limit your mobility and damage to the spinal column is very serious and may permanently take you off the mats.
The knee is an injury prone joint – both from submissions and awkward positioning. Unlike the shoulder, the knee has very little range of motion, and unlike the elbow the knee is a very complex joint. This combination of limited range of motion and complexity is further compounded by the fact that we ask our knees to carry all of our weight every day!
Injuries to the neck and the knee can often heal, sometimes on their own, although generally quicker with physical therapy or rehabilitative exercises. In extreme cases these injuries will not be able to heal without surgery.
BJJ Neck Injuries: Risk Situations And Prevention
The human neck is well-built for its typical job: holding our bowling ball of a head steady atop our body while simultaneously allowing us to swivel it to nearly any angle. However, in BJJ we ask much more of our neck as we use our head to push our opponents or to bear our full weight during inversions.
While submissions like the guillotine target the neck directly, it is actually during those moments where we’re carrying our weight on our neck when it is at the most risk.
A common complaint amongst BJJ practitioners is a stiff, sore neck. This sort of pain is often felt when looking up or to the sides. There are a variety of causes for this ranging from muscle spasms to bulging or herniated discs.
If you’re feeling a stiff neck accompanied by numbness or tingling down one or both arms, then you’re probably looking at a disc problem. This is less common but more serious. You’ll want to see a doctor and get checked out so you don’t risk making it worse.
For most people, thankfully, the problem isn’t disc related but instead stems from muscle spasms or joint tightness. BJJ puts us in a head-forward position similar to slouching, and thus can cause or worsen all of the typical neck and back pain caused by a desk job.
It is always important to have good posture while working at a desk – and if murder-yoga is your favorite way to unwind after work then this applies doubly for you!
If you are feeling neck pain, you can use a towel or your belt to help you move through the painful areas. This can help increase your mobility and relieve pain.
While we can’t avoid the head-forward position that is so common in BJJ, we can avoid forcing our neck to move through extreme ranges of forward flexion. When you are in a stacked position try not to have all of your weight rest on your neck. Both in granby rolls and when your opponent is driving into you, you want the pressure of the stack to remain on your upper back or shoulders.
Whenever you’re rolled up onto your neck you are putting yourself at risk. One warmup that is often done incorrectly is forward and backward rolls. Check out this video and make sure you’re rolling over your shoulders and not your neck.
BJJ Knee Injuries: Risk Situations And Prevention
Knee injuries are amongst the most common BJJ injuries that can take you off the mat. They tend to stick around and can become chronic if you’re not careful. Knee injuries are important to avoid for the simple reason that they will definitely interfere with your everyday life!
Injuring a knee in grappling can happen in a number of ways from leg locks to sloppy flying submissions or guard jumping gone wrong.
Knee injuries usually take the form of torn ligaments or a damaged meniscus. The collateral ligaments that are on the outsides of the joint are the most common victims. Luckily even a complete tear of the MCL or LCL can be dealt with quite quickly. Injuring the cruciate ligaments inside the joint (like the ACL), on the other hand, usually means surgery and a long recovery.
The menisci act as cushions between the thigh and shin bones and can also be damaged while training Jiu Jitsu. Meniscus tears range from slightly annoying problems you can live with to major injuries requiring surgery.
Strengthening your knees to withstand most BJJ injuries requires strengthening the muscles that support the knee. You don’t need huge leg muscles, but you do need them to be strong across a wide range of angles.
In addition to having strong supporting muscles, the next step for avoiding knee injuries is to avoid injuring your knees yourself. While heel hooks often get the blame for causing knee injuries, arguably improper escape technique should be held responsible!
When you’re just starting out defending leg attacks you’ll likely have no idea what you’re doing. That’s a normal part of training and the best thing you can do is tap early. If you don’t know what you’re doing, doing it harder generally isn’t the answer. Turning the wrong way when you’re locked in a heel-hook can result in you submitting yourself!
Check out our guide on how to handle modern ashi-garami leg entanglements to learn the proper way to escape a heel hook!
Other ways people injure their legs is by putting themselves in compromised positions. Remember, the knee is mainly meant to hinge forward and back. If you are putting lateral (side to side) pressure on your knee, whether by forcing yourself into rubber guard or when trying to invent a new side control escape, be aware that your knee isn’t meant to bend that way!
Generally positions like rubber guard and buggy chokes rely on hip flexibility. When people lack the hip flexibility to get into position they sometimes force themselves into the position by torquing their knee. This can work in the short term, but the risks are considerable. Work on your underlying flexibility problems before forcing yourself into new positions.
One of the easiest ways to end your BJJ career is to get a catastrophic injury. Training after a neck or knee injury is possible but avoiding these injuries should be everyone’s goal! Being aware of the areas that are most commonly injured and knowing how to prevent them is essential for everyone who hopes to train Jiu Jitsu long term.
The best way to avoid neck injuries in BJJ is to make sure you aren’t putting yourself in a fully stacked position with your weight on your neck; try to keep your weight on your shoulders. For knee health, make sure you condition the muscles of the knee and avoid intentionally applying lateral tension to your own knee joint.
Evan is nomadic brown belt, currently traveling through Mexico. He enjoys pressure passes and tacos.