What are the defining characteristics of some of the best BJJ athletes in the world? Speed, technique, tactics, strength, experience, flexibility. But which one of these is the most important? The answer to this question depends on your goals. But, if you want to be training Jiu Jitsu for life, then flexibility should be on the top of your list!
I often hear the same questions regarding flexibility: How do I get more flexible hips? How do I become flexible all over?
The question that inevitably follows is how fast can I achieve this? It suffices to say that the second question is much more annoying than the first, given that people who train BJJ should know that patience is key in any long-term pursuit.
The first thing to understand when you’re looking to develop flexibility is that it won’t happen overnight. Moreover, there are individual traits to take into account. So, when it comes to answering the question “how long does it take to become flexible?” the answer is going to be different for everyone.
The good news is that you can improve your flexibility faster than you can learn BJJ. More good news is that flexibility tends to improve faster the more time you’re dedicating to it. So, if you want to be more flexible for grappling work on it every day.
There’s a catch, though. The more body parts you try to limber up and make flexible at the same time, the longer it will take. Certain body parts play pivotal roles in Jiu Jitsu, so if you’re brittle and inflexible in those areas, I’d recommend you dedicate your time to each one individually. There’ll be plenty of time to take things to the next level once every body part you need to target becomes more flexible.
The key areas to focus on for flexibility in BJJ
A great place to start building flexibility is the hips. There’s no other body part in BJJ that requires flexibility and mobility as much as the hips do. Flexible hips are essential for guard players and passers alike. The good news is that hip flexibility is one of the easiest to develop, and it doesn’t take much time to achieve solid gains.
The next body part is not so easy to improve in terms of flexibility. Knee mobility has always been integral for grappling, but with the modern leg lock game having a flexible pair of knees is now a necessity. Moreover, if you like triangles, rubber guard, or similar positions that twist the knees, getting them limber is a must.
Next up, shoulders. How well can you withstand a kimura or americana? If you’re one of those folks that tap the moment the figure four grip is locked, shoulders should be your first focus in terms of flexibility for BJJ. It is not just about defending armlocks though – shoulders are also key in other situations like break falls and rolling transitions.
Last but not least, I have to mention the neck and traps. These are not parts people usually associate with flexibility and mobility, but in BJJ, they’re absolutely crucial. Every stacking situation (like in an armbar defense, or during a pass), any shoulder roll (Granby, Imanari, etc), every inversion will require you to have a limber neck and traps, rather than strong and stiff ones.
Stretching: Why is it so important?
The best part about flexibility is that it is a highly trainable quality. But what is it, exactly? By definition, flexibility is a range of motion in a joint or group of joints or the ability to move joints effectively through a complete range of motion. In simpler terms, it is how far you can move a joint in all naturally available directions.
That particular range of motion has to do with tendons. Tendons are the final segments of each muscle and the points where muscles attach to bones. In terms of flexibility, both the muscles and tendons can be trained, but the latter are much more important.
Stretching, as an activity that is best suited to help you improve range of motion, i.e. flexibility, comes in several different forms:
This is what most people think when we mention stretching. It is when you hold a position, targeting a specific tendon and/or muscle for time without moving. Usually, this duration is anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes.
This is similar to static stretching in terms of exercises, but the execution is different. Instead of holding the muscle/tendon in a stretched position, you move in and out with bouncing-like movement.
Active Isolated Stretching
This is when you repeat a static stretch several times in succession, on a very specific muscle group and/or tendon. This is a method that is the most beneficial for BJJ and generates the fastest results.
Videos for Flexibility
- Butterfly hip stretch – we’re going to start with one of the most important body parts and one of the most recognizable stretches. We’ve all done the butterfly stretch, although most of us incorrectly. The idea is to sit down on the ground, press the soles of your feet together, and get your heels as close to your butt as possible. The ultimate goal is to get both your knees to the ground.
The best way to do this stretch in order to develop flexibility is the active isolated stretching method. When you reach the lowest possible point with your knees, stop and hold for 30-60 seconds. Then, release, wait a couple of seconds and repeat for 3-6 times total.
- Wide Leg Adductor Stretch – Another extremely popular exercise is the wide leg stretch. It targets a particular group of muscles called the adductors, which have the role of bringing the legs towards each other.
For the exercise, sit down on your butt, legs straight, but spread wide. The back of both your legs should be firmly on the floor, with the toes pointing upwards. Keeping your back straight, your goal is to lean forward, eventually touching your chest to the ground. At the same time, you want to keep both legs straight and at as wide an angle as possible. The best method here is static stretching, which means holding the position for an extended period of time (up to three minutes).
- Skier squats– The skier squat is an exercise that looks deceptively easy until you give it a try. It is actually really hard to perform. Start standing with both of your legs close together, feet together pointing forward. The goal is to look to one side, point your knees to that side, and squat down towards the opposite side. The more you do this exercise, the more range of motion you’ll develop in your knees.
The dynamic method is best here – try to gently bounce your way as deep as possible in a squat position and get back up. The target repetitions are at least 10 and you should aim for 3-5 sets.
- Bent leg split stretch – This is a more isolated stretch compared to the skier squat. It is also an essential drill for better BJJ flexibility, as we often find ourselves in similar positions when we roll. This also makes the exercise important for injury prevention.
To perform the exercise, sit down on the ground one leg bent with the heel beneath your butt, and the other extended in front of you. At first, move your butt over the leg that is bent, as far as it is comfortable. Afterward, move to the other side attempting to sit on the ground while you point the toes of the bent leg outwards. Leaning forward in this position makes the stretch go even deeper.
The method to use here is active isolated stretching. Until you’re comfortable in both positions, use the method as straight sets, going to one side, then releasing to the middle, and repeating until you’re done. Later on, you can combine both sides as a superset. Aim for 30-60 seconds of stretching per rep and a total of 3 to 6 reps.
- Shoulder dislocators – Despite sounding like a horrific injury, this exercise is a must for anyone looking to improve flexibility in their shoulder girdle. The exercise is simple – grab your belt, extend both arms straight and hold the belt at the hip level. The goal is to make a circle, taking your belt over your head and all the way toward your lower back. At all times during the motion, your elbows need to stay straight.
If you’re new to this exercise, hold the belt with your arms further away from each other. As you get more flexible, you can grip closer and closer. The dynamic method with 10 repetitions in 3-5 sets is best here.
- “Hand across body” stretch – This is another one of those exercises you’ve probably done. The point is to get your arm across your chest so that you can stretch out the medium head of your shoulder muscle. However, if you don’t get the right angle on the stretch, you’re not doing much to improve your BJJ flexibility.
To set the stretch up, place the upper arm across your chest. Use your other arm to grip the triceps of the arm you’re stretching. Use this arm to pull the arm that you’re stretching downwards towards your navel first. You’ll feel some initial tension in your shoulder muscles. To accentuate the stretch even more, pull the arm further across your chest. Use the static stretching method.
Neck and traps stretch
- Stick stretch drills – Last but not least is neck mobility and flexibility of the trapezius muscle. As the name suggests, you’re going to need a stick for this exercise. The goal is to hold the stick behind you, arms straight and palms facing away from your body. To get into position, you should aim to drive the stick towards your heels, and then try to pull it apart. This locks the scapulae in the perfect position for the drills.
The drills include head movement in every direction. First, go side to side, then up and down, and then laterally (trying to get your ear to your shoulder). The stick behind your back allows these common warm-up exercises to develop more flexible neck and traps for Jiu Jitsu. Active isolated stretching for each exercise is the method of choice.
When it comes to organizing these as a routine, I’d suggest you focus on your most inflexible body part first, Once you’ve improved your flexibility there, you can start introducing other exercises to build a full-body routine that will take your flexibility to the next level.
BJJ flexibility is a highly trainable quality. If you choose the right exercises for your target muscles and tendons and the right stretching method, you’ll quickly and efficiently develop a much better range of motion. Give these exercises a try and let us know how they work for you!