Grappling with Injury

Written by Andrew Read

Strength and conditioning coach Andrew Read discusses his work with BJJ champion Robert Drysdale to help him fix an injury common to BJJ exponents.

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Earlier this year I had the good fortune to be asked to work with Robert Drysdale — six-time world champion, 2007 Absolute division winner at the Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling titles, and winner of more than 90 BJJ titles.

Training is not particularly complicated; smart training is a matter of finding your weakest link and making it stronger. That way, when you get to competition, your weakness is no longer such a liability and you can allow your strengths to shine. As the saying goes, ‘Train your weakness, compete with your strength’.

However, usually what happens is that an athlete rises through the ranks, shows some promise and at some point winds up with a training program that looks like it was designed for a professional strength athlete. The only problem is that, in Robert’s case, he’s not a strength athlete, he’s a Jiu-Jitsu athlete.

There is also this to consider: his training has obviously been very successful, as he’s had enormous success in the grappling world, so it would be foolish of me to mess with that. However, like most combat athletes, at 28 years of age his body is already starting to show signs of wear and tear.

The first step in determining which program an athlete like Robert needs is to perform a Functional Movement Screen (FMS). The FMS was designed by world-renowned sports therapist Gray Cook and is now being used by military, NFL teams etc. In Australia, the only FMS practitioners are Russian Kettlebell Certified (RKC) instructors under Pavel Tsatsouline’s famous system. The integration of kettlebells into FMS works very well for combat athletes, combining strength, conditioning and remedial drills into single sessions.

The FMS consists of seven exercises, each part of a gross athletic movement, such as squatting, or component parts of movement, such as straight-line core stability. The problem with most ‘workout programs’ is that they don’t take into account an individual’s movement ability, they just seek to get you sweaty. You can be strong, but not very mobile. Or you could be very flexible, but weak as a kitten. The FMS will pinpoint your biggest weaknesses and allow them to be trained out. However, one of the benefits is that it tests both left and right sides for strength and mobility symmetry.

Why is that so important? Imagine the body as a series of rubber bands knotted together. Now imagine that the left side of your body consists of skinny little rubber bands, the right side of thick, dense bands. When you pull on both ends of the bands, the linked unit won’t stretch uniformly. Instead, the skinny little bands will stretch dramatically, possibly overly, and the result will probably be a broken band. In the context of the body, this means a torn muscle or joint injury.

While flexibility and mobility are essential attributes to have, it’s just important to have matching strength on left and right sides. For example, just because someone performs a lot of throws to one side doesn’t mean that their strength should be markedly different from left to right. While there will always be a discrepancy in sporting skill between dominant and non-dominant sides, your strength and mobility should be roughly the same on each side. With the FMS scoring left and right sides independently, it becomes quite easy to distinguish large differences and treat them accordingly.

I’ve worked with several very talented BJJ practitioners with multiple Black-belts, as well as two world champions, and I’ve started to observe many common problems. One of the most common is tightness of the hip flexors. Given how much time we spend seated, it’s no surprise that most people suffer from tight hip flexors and correspondingly inactive glutes. In BJJ it’s common to draw people in towards you, using your feet to hook behind their legs or arms. This almost acts like a super-charged version of sitting and makes the hips even tighter than in most people. In fact, Robert told me he often suffered from hip pain, to the point where he couldn’t even walk around for more than a couple of hours at a time without it affecting him.

With Robert’s strength and conditioning program so obviously effective, we set out to alleviate some of the hip problems he had developed over the years. Regaining function in the hips is vital. Without strong and mobile hips, the rest of the body falters. The hips are our centre of gravity, and the end link in the transfer of power from the ground to the upper limbs. If they don’t function properly then it has a flow-on effect in the rest of the body: the upper back won’t work properly, the shoulders and neck will suffer, and at some point there will be lower back pain as the lumbar region tries to create extra movement to make up for the lack of function at the hip. Robert actually had left shoulder pain that corresponded with his right hip pain.

So, the first corrective exercise undertaken was a to use a stretch used in the RKC system to ‘pry’ the hips open and encourage thoracic rotation, to redevelop proper upper-back function for healthy shoulders. With Robert spending so much time not only in a seated position but in a seated position actively pulling with his hip flexors, he was very tight and needed to regain as much range as possible.

In addition, this overuse of the hip flexors often causes the body to stop using the abdominals properly to stabilise the spine. Because static stretching also deactivates muscles somewhat, once we had opened up Robert’s hips it was time to teach his abdominals to do their job properly again. This was accomplished with a series of lightly loaded leg-raises using a band fixed behind him. The action of pulling slightly towards the feet activates the abdominals just enough, so that while the trunk and hip angle is changing, the abdominals are working properly.

Once we had drilled these corrective exercises, it was time to put it all into practice with Robert performing a ‘get-up’. I use this exercise extensively with grapplers because it contains movements related to many elements of their sport: from sweeps to Kimuras, to sit-outs and reversals, to single-leg takedowns. It can also be used for strength training, mobility, assessment and even therapy.

We then moved on to some other drills to train correct hip firing, using exercises such as single-leg deadlifts. These exercises were performed with a stick to correct form, or loaded with a kettlebell. A kettlebell is taller than a dumbbell, so it can be used more easily for this exercise, allowing form to stay perfect throughout, without the rounding of the back that is common when lifting a dumbbell off the floor. The single-leg deadlift teaches the body to hinge properly through the hips, to activate the abdominals, to flex the trunk and to maintain posture at various trunk angles. As well as the core strength benefits that come from single-leg work, such as prevention of rotation, it also develops cross-body stabilisation, ankle stability and the ability to ‘pack’ the shoulders.

After each movement exercise we returned to the get-up. Using it in this way, I was able to check Robert’s movement on each side independently, like during the screen, and monitor his improvement. The use of all these drills proved that we were heading in the right direction and as his movement improved, so too did his hip pain.

The result? Over the sessions we had, his pain decreased, his movement skill increased and we were able to use less corrective drills daily and focus more on core strength.

Andrew Read is the head of Dragon Door Australia and is certified by Pavel Tsatsouline in his kettlebell system and CK FMS. As a strength and conditioning coach, Read has worked with champion BJJ players, Olympic judoka and stand-up fighters. He can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it