How To Train BJJ and Stay Injury Free with James “300” Foster

Third-degree Lotus Club black belt and avid competitor, James “300” Foster is back with another look at “the Gentle Art” and how practitioners can and should be able to roll well into their Golden Years.  And if you missed his last piece on Competition Mindset, make sure you go back and check it out here:  Fear is the Mind Killer-James Foster

What if I were to tell you, that contrary to popular belief, it is possible to train regularly and remain relatively free of major injuries? What if I also told you that everyone should be able to continue training into their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond? If they have the right mentality and adopt an efficient approach to training this is absolutely possible. I’m already beginning to sense your skepticism and can picture you rolling your eyes as I continue to type, but just bear with me.

To fully understand what I’m getting at we need to take a look at the most common causes of injury in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Keep in mind, if you participate in any contact sport there’s an inherent risk of injuries, sometimes referred to as “freak accidents”. These types of injuries aren’t preventable 100% of the time. However, often there are underlying contributing factors that can lead to so called accidental injuries if you take the time to analyze the situation leading up to such an incident.

Common Causes:

  • Waiting too long to tap
  • Rolling with too much intensity all the time (tension)
  • Misunderstanding proper limb positioning and range of motion
  • Not knowing how to fall properly
  • Overtraining

All of the causes on the list above are preventable, including the last which would often quickly be placed into the “accident” category by most individuals. Here’s the catch, they’re only preventable with the proper attitude, training environment, instructors, training partners, and if you’re willing to change the mentality of how you approach your training. If you choose to train at 150% daily, week in and week out, you’re increasing the probability of an injury occurring. Furthermore, if you have to be competitive in every round of rolling eventually you or your partner will experience some form of injury.
The exception to this rule would be competition training where intensity should be supervised and gradually upped for a set period of time (often referred to as a “camp”) 4-6 weeks leading up to an event. Even within the confines of tournament preparation injuries can be prevented for the most part. With that said, it is not uncommon for those of us who compete to be dinged up going into an event, however there’s a difference between that and suffering a major injury due to being reckless.
In reality the average individual spends the majority of their entire BJJ journey participating in regular classes, not preparing for a tournament 24/7. Although that’s exactly how a large number of students approach their training, trying to rack up as many “gym wins” as possible to inflate their own ego and impress their coach or Professor (or so they think). I’ll be honest, in over two decades of training nobody has handed me a gold medal, trophy, or fat prize check after the conclusion of a class. Sadly our competitive side often overshadows the side of reason and common sense. It also clouds our vision and leads to technical discrepancies, affecting our overall growth as a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, and discouraging our training partners in the process.
Earlier in the article I mentioned a handful of what I consider to be the most common causes of injury and made the bold claim that they were all preventable. Again, make sure to keep in mind you are never going to completely eliminate all possibility of injury simply due to the nature of our sport and all the variables involved. Regardless, it should be the goal of every instructor and student to cultivate a training environment in which injuries are the exception instead of the norm. How can we achieve that ideal? Here’s the big secret, wait for it….

Communication is king! I’m not referring to sending an email or text (although that’s better than nothing), I’m talking about good old face to face conversation. In fact, let’s take a look at how simple old fashion jabber jawing can help us prevent the aforementioned common causes for injury.

Coach Foster addresses a seminar audience in Seaside, Oregon.--photo courtesy of Caryn Brooks.
Coach Foster addresses a seminar audience in Seaside, Oregon.–photo courtesy of Caryn Brooks.

Waiting too long to tap

When you have your partner in a submission with one of their limbs over extended or they’re turning purple from a choke you’re faced with some options. You can take advantage of their stubbornness by cranking harder and potentially breaking something, or cure their undiagnosed insomnia by sending them into an early slumber without the aid of Ambien. Both options have the potential to lead to injury, hard feelings, and discouragement. Instead I’d recommend communicating (there’s that word again) to your partner that it’s more beneficial for them to tap, learn from their mistake, and move on instead of taking the risk of getting hurt. This begs the question, what if they don’t listen? I personally have released many submissions as to avoid hurting someone and in turn prevent them from hurting themselves. Afterwards you can make mention that they should probably tap in the future. If this doesn’t work I advise that you make the head instructor aware of the situation so he or she can help get them on the right track.
Rolling with too much intensity

We’ve all rolled with that one guy or gal who approaches every roll like it’s the finals at the World Championships. Chances are we’ve all been “accidentally” injured by that very same person. The answer isn’t always to butt heads and match their intensity, more often than not that just escalates the situation. Again, try calmly explaining to them how slowing down a little and relaxing will benefit their Jiu-Jitsu. After all, being too tense or rigid makes them easier to sweep and most individuals also leave a lot of openings while going too hard and fast. They’ll be surprised at how many mistakes they’ll recognize once they slow down a little. As before, if this approach doesn’t work you can make your instructor aware. If neither works you can simply choose to not roll with that person in the future.

Misunderstanding proper limb positioning

It’s very important for newer students to be properly educated on which way parts of our body should bend while under pressure. If someone I’m rolling with is contorting a part of their body the wrong way to prevent being swept I will immediately release the pressure and explain to them why they shouldn’t position their body in that manner. Another common example would be people turning their feet outwards while sitting in someone’s guard. I’ve seen several individuals have their knees hurt when their partner hits a sit up sweep and their foot gets stuck while the rest of their body turns. Another example would be those who attempt to spin out of tight straight ankle locks while their lower leg is being held stationary, resulting in a knee injury. It’s very important for instructors and more seasoned students alike to provide this education to those who’re putting themselves in danger.

Not knowing how to fall properly

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen become seriously injured through not knowing how to do a basic breakfall. Human instinct is to reach out and try to catch yourself while plummeting to the ground, which often results in dislocated elbows and shoulders, or something as serious as a spiral fracture. Once again, this all boils down to making sure students are educated on the proper way to land if taken down. This area is seriously lacking in many Jiu-Jitsu academies due to their aversion to working on takedowns in general. None the less, students should know how to fall properly if for nothing more then being able to protect themselves if they slip and fall on the street.


Upon first beginning to train, Jiu-Jitsu becomes an addiction for many of us. Along with this comes wanting to do everything you can do to build your skills as quick as humanly possible. This can be dangerous because the majority of those who start taking classes are doing so as a means of getting into shape. It’s important to understand that Jiu-Jitsu works our bodies in ways unlike many other single activities can replicate and it takes time for the body to addapt. Students will often begin Jiu-Jitsu and try to come to every single class right out the gate, leading to extreme fatigue, nagging injuries, and often having to take a week or more off to recover. Also, many will start participating in extracurricular actives to try to build their conditioning. The problem is they’re already starting from a deficit and working with limited resources. It’s very important for instructors to spot the early signs of overtraining and encourage the individual to slow down and take the proper time to recover. After all, Jiu-Jitsu is a marathon, not a race!
In closing, I hope you’re able to find something of benefit to you within this article and that you do your part to protect yourself while helping others remain as free of unnecessary injuries as possible.

James "300" Foster--photo courtesy of James Foster
James “300” Foster–photo courtesy of James Foster

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