If you do Jiu Jitsu, (which if you’re reading this, you probably do) then you know how awkward Jiu Jitsu can be: failed takedowns, back takes, inverted guard, etc., plus all of the submissions you get put in where you’re twisted around yourself or your opponent that leave you feeling sore and your joints crunchy. Joint injuries are one of the biggest factors that determine the longevity of an intense Jiu Jitsu career, so while a lot of people understand how flexibility and Jiu Jitsu relate, not as many actively understand the relationship between their mobility and Jiu Jitsu, or how flexibility and mobility differ.
Let’s dive right in and start with an example: if you can do the splits, great, you’re flexible, you can do something many others can’t, and you’ll get lots of likes on Instagram. But if you can’t move into or out of the splits without some sort of assistance, then you’re probably not very mobile. Another example would be a head kick: someone lifts your leg up into the air above your head for you, but you can’t do it by yourself to save your life.
Flexibility is being able to hold your muscles in a stretched position, whereas mobility is being able to actively move into, within, and out of that position, which requires control over your joints and a good range of motion (ROM). Take the high kick example: someone lifts your leg above your head, so your muscles are capable of stretching that far without being injured, but if you can’t do it by yourself you don’t have the control over your joints or the ROM that you need to in order to get your muscles to stretch into a high kick. That’s the difference.
In any kind of movement, having both flexibility and mobility is ideal, but most people focus on static stretching to get flexible without ever doing mobility work. That’s crazy though. How many professional MMA fighters, or World Champion Black Belts, require someone else to assist them with specific movements? Why should your Jiu Jitsu suffer from lack of mobility work? It shouldn’t, but how do you use mobility in your Jiu Jitsu, and how do you increase the ROM you currently have?
If you’re mobile and someone tries to put you in an Americana from side control you’ll probably be able to go longer without tapping, if you do tap you’ll probably sustain less damage, and you might even be able to escape by rolling through, or some other escape. Because Jiu Jitsu is a long chain of dominant or inferior positions, being able to move around inside of these positions is crucial, and to increase ROM you train yourself inside of your limited range of motion.
Look at it this way: your body can’t get better at something it never does. This is true for all aspects of health and fitness. Want to squat 450? Well you can’t do that if you’ve never squatted a day in your life, so obviously the place to start is with the barbell. But even if the muscles themselves are strong enough to move that much weight, are the ankle joints capable of it? Is your dorsiflexion (ability to bring your shin toward your toes without the heel coming off the ground) good enough to let you squat? How about your butterfly guard? Dorsiflexion is crucial when you’re trying to sweep from butterfly, because if you lose your hooks, you might lose the sweep, and good hooks come from pointing your toes.
Your ROM is governed by your nervous system, and this process is called the stretch reflex. When you’re stretching and you get to a point your muscles have never attempted before your muscles and brain interact with one another via the nervous system, and the brain tells your muscles not to go any farther because it thinks you won’t be able to control your joints at that range, therefore putting them at risk for injury. Dr. Andrea Spina, developer of Functional Range Conditioning, goes over this in his seminars.
So to get better at these movements you have to train the joints in those movements. By slowly exposing yourself to the stress of the ROM you don’t have and giving your body time to adapt to it, you gain ROM. There are two major ways of doing this: by actively making sure to use every joint every day, and to then put your joints at their limit, and try to increase that limit.
There are different programs by different people on how to do this, but one of the most direct and effective ways is the previously mentioned Functional Range Conditioning (FRC). I’m going to give you a breakdown of these methods, but remember that this is from what I’ve learned from FRC Mobility Specialists, and is all paraphrased.
The program starts with something called “CARs”, which stands for Controlled Articular Rotations. This is basically warming your joints up for the day, or for a specific activity. Instead of stretching out your quad before a run, you would instead squeeze all the muscles in your body and try to move just one hip through its range of motion in a circle, then do the next hip, then your ankles, etc.
The next step actually increases the ROM, and it’s called “PAILs/RAILs.” These stand for Progressive/Regressive Angular Isometric Loading. It sounds impressive, and it is, but the basic principle is that you put a joint at the end of its ROM, hold it there for about two minutes, then try to pull it one direction as hard as you can without actually letting it move, then pushing it in the opposite direction while actually trying to deepen the stretch this time. Then you hold it, rinse and repeat, as desired. Much like trying to stretch daily to be able to touch your toes, this will essentially stretch your joints and train your body to let you access a wider ROM, because your brain will now know you have control over that range.
If you want an example of incredible mobility, look up Hunter Fitness on Instagram. Not only does his mobility put likely put 90% of the human race to shame, but he has a man bun.
So in relation to Jiu Jitsu, which is an all-out war on the entire body, warming up every joint in the morning and before activity is probably a good idea. Increasing the ROM is also probably a no brainier at this point, especially if you’re getting put into a lot of arm or leg locks, plan to train for the rest of your life, or want to compete at a high level.
So now you know you probably don’t have great range, and you’re really itching to get that purple belt back for the sweet knee bar they did on you. But this article isn’t enough to help you get there. Want to know more? Here are some links to let you learn right from the horse’s mouth (the horse being mobility experts in this case).
- The Interesting Science Behind Functional Range Conditioning
- Hip and Shoulder Mobility: The CARs Solution
- Why You Should Flex #EveryDamnDay for Mobility Gains
- Functional Range Release & Developing Your Own System
- Andreo Spina’s Functional Range Release
Fleur is a white belt from Fairfax Jiujitsu in Virginia. She is currently working on her Massage Therapy License before getting a degree in Kinesiology, and ultimately plans to own her own Jiujitsu academy when she becomes a black belt with her fiancé who is aiming to be a professional MMA fighter. After achieving these goals, the two of them plan to start a fitness industry based around aiding individuals in all aspects of health.