Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Steve Maxwell's Jiu Jitsu for Life seminar - 14 March 2015

Jiu Jitsu for a Lifetime seminar


The big problem with most people with breathing is that they tend to breathe using the top (clavicular) and middle (intercostal) chest muscles for the breath rather than breathing deep into the diaphragm.

This comes about from sitting for extended durations and staying still - like in a school classroom or at a desk job.

The muscles associated with breathing in the upper chest are designed for emergencies only - their overuse results in chronic stress and production of cortisol and under-oxygenation. Like a constant state of panic This results on poor health ... but also in poor performance and rapid gassing on the mat.

Proper breathing uses the diaphragm. The upper and middle chest should not move. On inhalation the belly should expand, but also the sides and back of the lower rib cage. Inhaling into the back this way allows for the creation of intra-abdominal pressure to form a sort of virtual weight belt to protect the lower spine during heavy exertion, like a standing guard pass or deadlift.

Steve had us lie on our backs with one of our shoes resting on our lower stomach, just below the belly button (around the Tan Tien, perhaps?) and breath into our lower belly so that the shoe would rise and fall with each breath.

You should also contract the pubococcygeus muscles of the pelvic floor, the muscles used to stop urinary flow. A full explanation:


Other sources, including yoga and Pavel Tsatsouline, also recommend contracting the anal sphincter. Yoga breathwork has three (sometimes four) bandhas or locks - throat, diaphragm, and, yep, you guessed it. Among other things, this helps prevent haemorrhoids if you do a lot of heavy lifting or similar.

Stand relaxed and count the number of breaths you take in a minute, breathing as normal. If you take more than 20 breaths a minute you are probably not ready for Jiu Jitsu. Rickson purportedly breathes 3-4 times a minute. Since he restarted teaching, he spends LOTS of class time on breathwork as well as doing a significant personal breathwork practice. The Joe Rogan Experience podcast with Kron Gracie goes into this a bit:


Steve Maxwell has been on JRE twice and is about to do it a third time. All well worth a listen. [EDIT: third podcast is up now 17-Mar 2015: http://podcasts.joerogan.net/podcasts/steve-maxwell-3 ]

Carlos Machado has an interesting take on breathing for BJJ as well. The interview is a cracker and talks about competition strategy and a number of other topics too:


The BJJBrick site has a couple of excellent recent podcasts with Steve as well - made while he was here in Sydney in early 2015.

Breathing ladders

Walk at a relaxed pace. Start by matching the breath with the steps:

Inhale - 1 step, exhale -  1 step. Do this for a specific interval or distance, then
Inhale - 2 steps, exhale 2 steps, for the same interval distance, then
Inhale - 3 steps, exhale 3 steps,
4, 5, 6 ... up to 10, 15, 20, ...

Keep good structure and relaxed posture. You should extend the inhalation and exhalation so that they last for the entire number of steps for that rung of the ladder. The hardest part is slowing down the inhalation rather than gulping the air in at the start. Think of taking little sniffs or sips of air.

Steve talked a bit about walking in patterns, like along the seams of the mats, etc., as a form of meditative or similar practice. If he's in a hotel room or whatever, he might walk figure 8's. This ties into walking the labyrinth.

Steve has a Youtube video demonstrating the ladder and related breathing drills (from an earlier visit to Sydney in the Domain, I think):

Burst Breathing

This is the primary form of breathing for recovery. Fast inhalation through the nose and fast popping exhalation through the mouth, all done from the diaphragm. Best learned by standing against a wall an having a partner lightly punch you in the diaphragm (not solar plexus, but lower) repeatedly, forcing the exhalation, and going faster and faster, until you lose the rhythm, then starting over at a slower frequency.

Control Pause

Between exhalation and inhalation, when the lungs are "empty", there is a slight pause before inhalation. This is where the control pause happens. Breathe normally into the diaphragm, then exhale completely and cover your mouth and pinch your nose with a hand to stop inadvertent gasps. Stay like this until you feel a STRONG urge to breathe. I went about 20 seconds which is about average. Breathwork should increase the length of the control pause.

Another breathwork drill is to take a quick sniff of air, then exhale, making the exhalation as long as possible.

Measuring Your Progress with Breathwork

Get a metronome (phone app) and set it for 180 beats per minute. Run in place lifting the knees in front for two minutes, one pace for each beat of the metronome. As soon as the two minutes are up, stop running, get a full inhalation, cover your mouth, pinch your nose, and hold your breath as long as you can. One guy who had been training with Steve for a while went a whole minute and could have gone on - I lasted about 20 seconds. Breathwork training should increase the time you can hold your breath, so this drill works as a way to measure your progress.

Breathing under pressure and staying calm - the Dogpile

Groups of five, all about the same weight. One guy lies on his back, arms in a defensive posture. The first guy gets on top with a side control, weight ideally on bottom guy's lower chest. Other three pile atop him at different angles. The guy on the bottom should breath into the diaphragm, little sniffs if necessary, feel the urge to panic but damp it down, and slowly but deliberately "move to where the weight isn't" and eventually escape out from underneath the pile. NB - the guy directly on top of the bottom guy is just lying as dead weight, not trying to hold the bottom guy down. Quite interesting - you DO feel a moment of panic from the pressure, but you CAN get out if you just stay calm and work centimeter by centimeter out from under. (if the guy panics, let him up, maybe try later with fewer guys on top. Probably not a great drill if you have a rib injury either.)

Shaher Khan under pressure

Postural and Remedial Exercises

At one level it seems sensible to train the specific muscles used in Jiu Jitsu for maximum performance. But for longevity in the sport, we also need to develop the unused and antagonistic muscles to avoid immobility, muscular imbalances and muscular amnesia, and to reduce our susceptibility to injury.

Drills to fix Kyphosis

Kyphosis is a postural problem where the head is in a permanently forward position, often brought on by postures like the guard or sitting at a desk using a computer. Often accompanied by internally rotated shoulders.

Measure the degree of kyphosis by standing against a wall and have a partner measure the distance between the back of your head and the wall.

Head nods from sphinx - Assume the sphinx posture, lying on your stomach propped up on your elbows. Nod your head forward and back using a full range of motion.

Head turns from sphinx - From the sphinx, turn your head from side to side leading with the eyes. It is good if this movement starts to recruit back muscles.

Rolling using the head

From the sphinx, put your left hand on your right shoulder and vice versa. You are going to roll to your right. With your eyes, look to a spot a meter to the right of your head, follow your gaze with your head, reaching out with it to your right. Use your head to pull you into a roll onto your back, without pushing with your feet or arms.

To roll back the other way, push your head back and push yourself into a roll onto your stomach. Again, only use your head, not pushing with your feet or arms. Roll 3 times in each direction.

After 10 head nods, 10 head turns, and 3 rolls in each direction, test posture against the wall again. The head should now be measurably closer and posture improved.

The video below from Steve uses a slightly different rolling method, but perfectly demonstrates the possible results.

Drills for the neck

Head drag - Lying on your back on the mat, arch your neck and drag your head back underneath like a yoga fish posture or wrestler's bridge using friction from the mat as resistance. The shoulders and thoracic spine should come off the floor. try not to use your arms to lift the shoulders.

Ear to Ear turn - From the same position, lying on your back, turn your head side to side, dragging each ear to the mat.

Use tension on the inhale, release on the exhale.

Engaging the Abs

Jiu Jitsu guard and related postures tend to work the hip flexors rather than the abs. As a result, imbalance in strength and recruitment between the hip flexors and abs are common. Shortened hip flexors from over recruitment of the hip flexors without compensatory exercise can lead to postural problems such as lordosis, over curvature of the lumbar spine.

Regular situps, leg raises, etc. tend to incorrectly recruit the hip flexors at the expense of the abs unless for is very strict.

Pelvic rocks help you wake up and engage the abs. Lie on your back with the feet flat on the floor and knees pointing ot the ceiling. Rock the pelvis forward and back ensuring you are engaging the abs to do this. Once you have the hang of this try it with one leg straight. Do each leg in turn.

The Janda situp uses reciprocal inhibition of the hip flexors by recruiting the hamstrings, so the exercise requires the abs to be fully recruited.

You lie on the mat with your heels on the floor and knees up, bent at around 90 degrees, or a bit wider, no closer. A partner holds your heels. You perform an isometric leg curl against the resistance of your partner's hands so the hamstrings are fully activated. Keeping the hamstrings engaged, hands at your sides and arms straight, SLOWLY curl up to a sitting position. Do not allow your feet to come off the floor or release the tension in your hamstrings. Curl back down slowly, one vertebra at a time. When done correctly this is extremely difficult and few people can do more than a few without practice.

You can alter the position of the arms to make the Janda situp progressively more difficult, e.g.
  • arms at your sides
  • arms folded against the chest
  • arms folded but away from the chest
  • hands on your ears
  • hands on top of the head
  • arms extended in front
  • arms extended overhead
  • holding a weight plate on the chest
If it is too hard, loop a belt around your partner's back and use it to help pull yourself up.

You can do it without a partner by using a belt affixed to something near the floor or hook your heels on the lip of the mats. Doing it without a partner requires much stricter attention to form.

There are many links on the web about Janda situps but none I thought good enough to quote here.

A common problem with wrestling using the guard or doing ab exercises like this is over recruitment of the sternocleidomastoid muscles in the neck, which once again can lead to postural issues and muscular imbalances. Pressing the tongue against the back of the teeth during these exercises can assist in more balanced recruitment of the neck muscles when performing such activities.

Engaging the Glutes

Many people have developed "gluteal amnesia", where the glutes are underutilised as the expense of the lower back and quads, which can lead to knee and lower back issues. These exercises wake up the glutes and set back on the right path.

Glute/ham raise - Lie on your back, feet flat on the floor, heels about a hand's length from the buttocks. Dorsiflex your ankles so your toes are off the floor. Lift your hips up so you are on your heels and shoulders. Squeeze your glutes together and feel them activate.

Glute march - from the raised position, lift one knee up toward the ceiling so you are resting on one heel and your shoulders. Keep you hips up and glutes clenched. Slowly change legs and repeat.


BJJ guys have well developed adductors from lots of closed guard work. However BJJ does little to work the abductors of the hip, the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. (This may not be true of one also practices martial arts with lots of kicking)

Glute sweep - get on your hands and knees, arms straight, head up. Lift and straighten your left leg, heel down, so it is straight. Now turn the toes out and bring the straight left leg out to the side and forward, and try to get the knee as close as possible to your left elbow without compromising you posture. Keep the head up. Do not allow the arms to bend or hips to twist.


The toes need to be as strong, mobile and dextrous as possible.

Sitting on toes - kneel and curl the toes under so the tips and underneath the toes are pressing on the floor. Sit back on your heels so a significant stretch is applied to the toes. Try to stay here for a minute and gradually increase the time. Also kneel sitting on the instep, and lift the knees on at a time or together to put stretch and weight on the front of the feet. You can work up to trying to balance on the front of the toes and start to stand up as Steve demonstrated.

Toe creep with towel - sit on a chair, or Swiss ball against the wall, with your toes at one end of a towel. Use your toes to grip and gradually pull the full length of the towel in toward you. Once that's done you can also push the towel back the other way using your toes.


The grip is in constant use in Jiu Jitsu. This can lead to imbalances from overuse of the muscles that flex the fingers and wrist.

 To counteract this, loop a thick rubber band around the tops of the fingers and thumb and extend the fingers away from each other, while extending the wrist back. You can do a fair few reps depending on the strength of the band.

Steve and another guy there had custom built rubber devices with a loop for each digit. I looked for these on the web, but could not find them or anything similar other than the Ironmind hand extenders, which are really only high tech and expensive rubber bands of various sizes and strengths.

[Edit 29 Mar 2015 -  Fellow seminar attendee Andrew was kind enough to comment with the website for his expansion device - Hand X Band ]

Fingertip pushups - for finger strength. Stay on the very tips of the fingers so the outermost joint remains bent, do not let the fingers collapse so the outermost joint is bent back and you are using the pad on the front of each finger. Can start on the knees and work up.


Jiu Jitsu tends to overuse the front of the shoulder at the expense of the rear deltoid and other muscles behind the shoulder.

Modified Cobra and shoulder complex - Lie on your stomach. Hands on the floor as if about to perform a pushup, close to the chest, elbows in. Raise your head, shoulders and chest off the floor by using the muscles of the upper spine - try to leave the lower back muscles out of it. This movement should bring your hands off the floor also. The position is similar to a cobra pose in yoga.

From here, keeping the chest and shoulders raised, move the arms back and straighten them so they are pointing straight back and horizontal off the ground, thumbs down, forming a letter I. Slowly bend the elbows and point the thumbs upward so the arms form letter L's. Take the hands part way up toward the head so they form the shape of a letter W. Go slow. Press the arms out from the body to form a letter T. Take the arms up over the head to form a letter Y. Bring the hands back under the chest to the starting position. Repeat. (Was it ILTWY or ILWTY? I can't remember and it probably isn't critical).

Camel pose against wall

Kneel with your knees up against the wall, facing it. Start up on your toes. Rest your hands on your heels, take the weight , lift your chest, take your head back and arch your back, pushing you hips forward until they touch the wall. Come back and repeat. A more advanced version has you kneeling with your toes pointed back on your insteps. (Caution - I felt a slight twang in front of my hip when I went into the advanced version with a little more enthusiasm than I should. And I'd done this before without injury in yoga classes. Hasten slowly)

Bird dog and raised bird dog

The basic bird dog posture has you on your hands and knees, head up, back flat, arms straight. Lift your left arm straight out in front and lift and straighten your right leg behind. Perform both sides.

The raised bird dog is much harder. This time curl the toes under and come up off your knees onto the hands and toes. The knees should only be a couple of inches max off the floor. Now raise the left arm and right leg without compromising you alignment or lifting the left knee any higher or lower.

Hooking drill for front of shin

This exercise develops strength endurance in the muscles on the front of the lower leg. This will result in more dangerous hooking, X, leg lasso, etc. guards, tighter triangles, etc.

Lie on your back and bring your knees up so the thighs are vertical. Now sit up so your elbows are touching your knees. Dorsiflex your feet. A partner holds your feet and pulls slowly to a sitting position with your heels on the ground, then lowers you back down. Do not allow the angle at your knee joints to open, or at the ankles. Remember, the purpose is to isometrically work the muscles in the front of the shin and foot by keeping the toes and ankles bent against the resistance of your bodyweight. Your partner can vary the difficulty of the drill by holding your feet closer to the ankle or to the toes.

Calf press against wall

Lean with your elbows on a wall, facing it. Take your feet back a bit. Put your left instep on the opposite calf muscle. Push up on your toes for a calf press, adding resistance by pushing back with your arms. The further you take your foot back and the harder you push with your arms, the more difficult the exercise becomes.

Pushup Variations

All pushups should be done with the elbows close to the chest and lats flared. Wide arm pushups are more injury prone and actually move the shoulder through less of an angle to recruit the pecs than do proper pushups.

Hindu pushups - from the downward dog yoga position, you sweep forward, the nose and chest brushing the ground, pushing up into the upward dog position. Just move the butt back again to the downward dog position - reversing the pushup is a different exercise.

You can also roll over the toes from the downward dog to the upward dog as you do the swoop and pushup, so the upward dog finishes in the top of the toes and instep. As you go back, roll over the toes the other way so you finish in downward do on the bottom of the toes with heels pushing toward the floor.

Half moon pushups - These and Hindus are great for the muscles around the lower ribs and will help protect against rib injuries.

A vid from the man himself is worth 1000 words:

Pushup turn to side plank

Perform a regular pushup, at the top turn to the right, supporting yourself on the extended left arm and lift the right arm either vertically or pointing overhead aligned with the rest of the body. Finish balanced on the edge of the left foot (beginners can use both feet to support). Turn back to the regular pushup position, perform on the other side, repeat.

Anti-hyperflexion screw pushup

Hyperflexion of the elbow is a nasty injury that happens when the forearm and upper arm are violently forced together, perhaps from misaligned posture under side control. Push with your elbows rather than your hands. According to Steve, Relson Gracie would usually form a posture with his elbows next to his ribs and hands resting palm down on his pecs when under side control to avoid this sort of injury.

I have a moderate but pretty permanent hyperflexion injury of one elbow. It doesn't stop me, but I do get a little blast of pain if someone puts weight on it the wrong way when drilling or rolling.

To strengthen the elbow joint and also increase its mobility to guard against this injury, perform pushups like this. Start from a basic pushup position. Bend your left arm and lower your left elbow to the floor close to the chest. Then lower your left shoulder to the floor rolling over your left forearm to the outside, "massaging" and flexing the elbow joint. You should finish lying on your left shoulder, with your left hip off the ground, still taking weight on both feet. Reverse the movement to push ("screw") back up to the regular pushup position, then do on the other side.

Nic Gregoriades talks a bit about the "Corkscrew" principle on his and Kit Dale's "Beyond Technique" video, which is basically about how you can use your shoulder and arm structure to push with greater power and authority by using this type of "corkscrew" pushing action.

Rising and Setting Sun Squat

An exercise for the muscles around the knees (and glutes, ankles, etc.)

Start in a low squat on your toes, knees and toes pointed out about 45 degrees each side. Heels should be touching.  Interlock your fingers and take your hands overhead, straight arms. SLOWLY raise up to a standing position on your toes, keeping the heels together, then slowly come back down to the full squat again. Start at 20 seconds up, 20 seconds down, then gradually increase the duration. Elite guys can do 90 seconds or more up and down.

Beginners can leave the arms separate and hold them out in front for balance until they get used to the exercise.

Explosive exercises do not develop "explosive strength". They will develop strength, but at a far greater risk of injury than more sensible methods. Slow exercise can work just as well with minimal risk of injury. You cannot selectively recruit fast twitch muscle fibres, and your muscles are not smart enough to be able to differentiate between various types of lifts - barbells, machines, bodyweight, etc. The more complicated the strength exercise, the less suitable it will be for general strength and performance preparation. Simple exercises done with good form are best.

Hamstring raise from knees with feet held

You also need to work the muscles on the back side of the knees for balance.

Kneel down, on your toes. A partner holds your heels and keeps your feet pressed to the floor. Lean forward slightly at the knees, then slowly bend at the waist and lower your head to the floor. Come back up again. This should place a significant isometric load on your hamstrings.Supposedly it should be possible to lower down to a flat position and back up without bending at the waist and using the hamstrings to lower and raise oneself, but for me at least that seems a long way off if it is in fact possible. The waist bending one was way hard enough.

The further you lean forward at the start, the harder the exercise becomes.

You could use a belt tied around a bench or table to hold your feet if you can't use a partner.

Reverse Plank

Working the posterior chain. Your partner is on one knee with the other thigh held horizontal. You sit on the mat and lean back so the back of your neck is resting on that thigh. Tighten the muscles of the posterior chain to lift your butt off the ground and make you entire body into a straight line. (Did we then lift one knee at a time? Can't remember)

Gi pull ups with various grips

Once you have the reverse plank understood, you can look at some interesting pulling exercises with the gi.

Your partner is wearing a gi jacket. He stands straddling your hips. you can get various grips on the gi, assume the reverse plank, and perform pullups - cuffs, elbows, collars. Grab the collar in a cross grip (not so deep that you actually choke him) and pull up so you touch your left ear to his and vice versa, mimicking the movement required for a strong collar choke.

If you have no partner use a towel (or an old gi) and loop it over a railing. Bunch it up to the size of a wrist to work no-gi grips, or use the thinner towel to simulate the gi.

If the full reverse plank makes the pull ups too hard, bend the knees to shorten the lever.

Guillotine pull up

This exercise will make your guillotine chokes (and maybe head/arm, darce, anaconda, body locks, etc.) much stronger and more enduring.

wrap a towel, blanket or similar suitably thick padding around a bar or railing. put your left arm over the bar so it is the the crook of your elbow. grab your left wrist with your right hand and try to pull yourself up and over the bar.


For pullups, Steve advocates using gymnastic rings or similar handles that allow the hands to turn into an ideal pulling position that places minimum strain on the joints. He has some ideas to make such devices cheaply on his website.

Do not look for ways to cheat through the exercises. Look for ways to make them harder, if anything.

"Cardio" is not transferable between activities. An ultramarathoner who doesn't grapple will gas out as quickly on the mat as anyone else. The best conditioning for grappling is grappling. The next is performing circuits or routines of grappling related movements solo at a good pace.

If you are doing BJJ 3-4 times a week you don't need or want more than one day a week of strength training. Maybe two if you are an elite professional competitor, but no one does that for decades.

Mobility and breathing every day.

Video download

You can obtain video of many of the drills and exercises discussed above from here:


for $29.95 USD.

TL;DR Steve Maxwell is the MAN. No one else has a system of conditioning and health so perfectly tailored to grapplers. He lives by his own creed, obviously loves what he does and is an outstanding example to all of what can be achieved at age 62. A very interesting and likeable man. With excellent Jiu Jitsu.

Bikram Yoga

I did Bikram for about three months, twice a week, at a place close to home.

Bikram is done in a room heated to over 40 degrees. Every session lasts 90 minutes. Every session does the same set of postures in exactly the same sequence. Officially the instructor is supposed to read and not deviate from a script developed by the founder, Bikram Choudry, though fortunately my instructors tried to elaborate a bit more when necessary and give some individual assistance.

I think Bikram would argue that this stops less skilled people muddying his teaching for the masses ... but IMO the result is a dumbing down to the lowest common denominator. Parallels with McDonalds.

The heat feels good to stretch in and there are a lot of back bends which I am weak at, but after spending 90 minutes in the heat I found it tends to space you out a lot and tires you - some days worse than others. Forget doing a Bikram session and a solid Jiu Jitsu session on the same day at my age. 90 minutes of a class is a bit long for me - not endurance wise, just too long. I'd prefer an hour class for something like that.

There's only very basic breathwork, with no real explanation of its purpose.

If you read up on the founder, Bikram, he comes across as a sexist sleazebag with questionable ethics. He doesn't look particularly toned. The owner of the school I went to had spent a lot of time with him and various other yoga gurus in India and knew his stuff. I found the owner quite likeable, but he gave this speech in one class about how he's just got back from hanging out with Bikram in India and segued into a short lecture on obedience which I found too much of a moral and philosophical bridge to cross. A bit too cultish.

I find Jiu Jitsu to be a really social activity, I'm always running into guys and girls I've met somewhere because of Jiu Jitsu, but while a couple of female yogis talked to me after my first class, and I talked small talk with guys in the changerooms, on the whole people just hung with their friends and there was no real sense of a club or community, which there always is at any decent BJJ school.

As for any spiritual, transcendental or self-improvement aspects of Bikram, I reckon BJJ provides all that Bikram does and much more if you're open to it. Look at what people like Rickson and John Danaher do with it.

Steve Maxwell's stuff is SO much better for Jiu Jitsu people than this. By a ridiculous margin.

Caveat: There are worse ways to use your time than spending 90 minutes in a class made up mainly of lycra-clad attractive women performing reasonably healthy physical exertion. The scenery beats the hell out of your standard matted room full of sweaty guys in gis. If I were single I reckon I'd go to a yoga class once or twice a week for sure. But not Bikram ... and not at the expense of Jiu Jitsu.