Training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) while managing knee issues is a pretty common concern – whether it’s due to age, injury, or chronic conditions, bad knees can definitey impact your decision on whehter or not jiu jitsu is for you.
Depending on the severity of your knee injuries, training BJJ with bad knees is possible with the right approach and gear. By adapting your training, using supportive equipment like knee sleeves, and managing your recovery, you can still train and excel at Brazilian jiu jitsu.
- Once again, if you have bad knees you can still train bjj by utilizing training adaptations and protective equipment
- If you have a knee injury, we recommend using a knee sleeve that includes both padding and compression like the Bauerfeind GENUTRAIN Knee Brace or Shock Doctor knee sleeve
- Lastly, you may want to consider adapting your training by:
- avoiding stand up grappling all together
- prioritizing half guard both offesnively and defensively
- focusing on strangles over joint locks
- considering pins that offer more control and less options for dynamic movements like mount, rear mount (as opposed to side mount)
Understanding Knee Health in BJJ
Your knees can take a some damage when training Brazilian jiu jitsu – many common positions, techniques, and takedowns rely on putting pressure on your knees like:
- positions (like turtle)
- leg entanglements (knee reaping*)
- passing from your knees (or standing)
- judo throws (Tani Otoshi, Tai Otoshi, O Soto Gari, Kani Basami)
- wrestling based takedowns (single leg, double leg, fireman’s carry)
- not to mention any time there is falling body weight or unpredictable scrambles
Luckily, I’ve never had any serious knee injuries, however, my knees will sometimes get sore from putting constant pressure on them. When this happens I’ll usually put on a knee sleeve.
Unfortunately, knee injuries are some of the most common injuries in Brazilan jiu jitsu – as shown below by this pie chart from beltchecker.com:
When examing this pie chart, we see that the most common injuries in bjj are:
- Knee Injuries (22.5%)
- Shoulder Injuries (13.7%)
- Rib Injuries (8.4%)
- Back Injuries (6.7%)
Knee health should be crucial for practitioners of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as it is a sport that places significant strain on the lower body. Knees are just particularly vulnerable due to the constant bending, twisting, and pressure applied during grappling.
Common Types of Knee Injuries in BJJ:
- Ligament sprains: Injuries to the ACL, PCL, MCL, or LCL from abrupt directional changes or impact.
- Meniscus tears: Damage to the knee’s shock-absorbing cartilage can cause pain and mobility issues.
- Tendonitis: Overuse can lead to inflammation of the tendons around the knee.
How to Train BJJ with Bad Knees
First off, our top tips for preventing knee injuries in BJJ are:
- Tap early
- Warm up properly
- Avoid overtraining
- Avoid wrestling if possible
- Consider using a knee sleeve
- Move slowly and deliberately
- Communicate with your partners*
- Do some weight or strength training
1. Utilizg Some Training Adaptations:
- Half Guard: should be your preferred position from both top and bottomsince it involves less dynamic movement with less risk of injury and is still extremely effective
- Guard Play:
- Opt for a more static guard to minimize dynamic movements positions – like the clamp guard
- Passing: utilze more static, controll-based methods of passing like half guard passing or body lock passing
- Pins: more static pins are obviously preferred so we recommend focusing on half guard pinning, mount, rear mount and avoiding more dynamic pins like knee on belly or side control
- Takedowns: Train techniques that require less twisting of the knee, such as single-leg takedowns or consider avoiding stand up grappling all together
- Submissions: avoid submissions that require dynamic movements or make dynamic counters available (like kimuras, armbars, leg entanglements)
- instead focus on submissions that offer more control like strangles (such as the rear naked choke, guillotine, north south choke)
For more specific training options I personally recommend watching John Danaher’s Ageless Jiu Jitsu Series on BJJ Fanatics.
His recommendations are not just for people who are older but for those who want to protect their bodies and prevent injuries by focusing on technique and strategy over speed.
2. Equipment and Gear to Support Knees
Knee Braces and Supports
Knee braces come in various types, offering different levels of support.
As an overall recommendation we recommend knee braces that do not contain any hard parts but are made of cloth-like material and have gel inserts for extra padding – like the Genutrain knee sleeve.
Some key features to look for with knee sleeves or braces are:
- Support: They should provide adequate compression to stabilize the knee joint.
- Comfort: As they will be worn for extended periods, they must not restrict movement.
- Quality: Look for durable materials that can withstand the rigors of training.
- Durability: A well-made knee brace should be able to endure frequent use without losing its shape or support.
Here is a list of common knee supports used in BJJ:
- Prophylactic braces, designed to protect knees from injuries during sport (these are the ones we recommend for BJJ*)
- Functional braces, to support knees that have already been injured.
- Rehabilitative braces, which limit harmful knee movement while a knee is healing from an injury or surgery.
- Unloader/offloader braces, which are specifically designed to relieve pain in people with arthritis in their knees.
3. Focus on Recovery
I get it jiu jitsu is fun and can be very additcting, but it’s important that your body has limits especially when dealing with chronic injuries or recovering from an injury.
If you want to improve as quickly as possible without getting injured you must understand that the body simply has a negative rate of return beyond a certain number of weekly training days.
That’s why recommend training only 1-3 sessions of Brazilian jiu jitsu a week at least initially.
Here’s why prioritizing recovery is essential for BJJ practitioners:
Prevention of Overuse Injuries: Continuous training without adequate rest can lead to overuse injuries. The knees, in particular, are susceptible to conditions such as tendinitis and bursitis due to repetitive stress. Recovery time allows for the healing of micro-tears in the muscles and connective tissues around the knee, reducing the risk of chronic issues.
Restoration of Joint Health: Knee joints benefit from periods of rest to recover from the compressive and shearing forces experienced during BJJ. Recovery practices such as icing, compression, and elevation can help reduce inflammation and promote healing of the joint structures.
Muscle Repair and Growth: After intense training sessions, muscles need time to repair and grow stronger. This is particularly important for the muscles supporting the knee, such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles. Adequate recovery ensures these muscles can provide better stabilization for the knee joint, thereby reducing the risk of injury.
Improved Performance: Recovery is not just about injury prevention; it’s also about performance enhancement. Well-rested athletes have better focus, coordination, and strength, which are all vital for executing techniques safely and effectively in BJJ.
Professional Guidance: For BJJ athletes recovering from knee injuries, as always seeking professional guidance from physical therapists or sports medicine specialists is key. They can provide personalized recovery protocols, recommend supportive gear like knee braces, and guide the athlete through a safe return to the mats.
4. Consider Weight Training to Strengthen Your Knees
Strength traininghas been scientifically shown to help strengthen bones, joints, and ligaments.
One such study is “Value of resistance training for the reduction of sports injuries” which indicates that resistance training promotes growth and/or increases in the strength of ligaments, tendons, tendon to bone, and ligament to bone junction strength (PubMed).
This study and others like it demonstrate that regular and properly executed strength training can lead to adaptations in the musculoskeletal system, including:
- Increased Bone Density: Strength training can stimulate bone formation and increase bone mineral density, which is crucial for preventing osteoporosis and fractures.
- Strengthened Joints: By improving the stability and function of muscles surrounding joints, resistance training can help protect joints from injury and may alleviate symptoms of joint conditions.
- Enhanced Ligament and Tendon Strength: Resistance exercises can lead to stronger connective tissues, which are essential for joint stability and overall mobility.
Some exercises to consider including for your weight training that focus on knee health are:
- Leg Press: The leg press machine allows you to strengthen your quads, hamstrings, and glutes while controlling the amount of weight and limiting the range of motion to protect the knees.
- Straight Leg Raises: This exercise helps strengthen the quadriceps without putting pressure on the knee. Lie on your back, lift one leg while keeping it straight, hold for a few seconds, and then lower it slowly.
- Hamstring Curls: Using a leg curl machine can help strengthen the hamstrings, which support the back of the knee. Start with light weights and increase gradually.
- Step-Ups: Step-ups onto a box or bench can help strengthen the muscles around the knee. Ensure the step height does not cause pain in the knee.
- Seated or Lying Leg Extensions: This exercise targets the quadriceps while minimizing stress on the knee joint. Use a leg extension machine with a light weight to start.
- Calf Raises: Strengthening the calf muscles can also support the knee. Use a calf raise machine or do them standing on a step with your heels hanging off the edge.
Lastly, Some Practical Tips for Weight Training with Knee Injuries:
- Warm-Up Properly: Always start with a warm-up to increase blood flow to the muscles and reduce the risk of injury.
- Use Correct Form: Proper technique is crucial to avoid additional strain on the knee. Consider working with a physical therapist or certified trainer to learn the correct form.
- Start with Low Weights: Begin with lighter weights to ensure your knee can handle the exercise without pain.
- Listen to Your Body: If an exercise causes pain in the knee, stop immediately. Pain is an indicator that you might be exacerbating the injury.
- Incorporate Stability Training: Exercises that improve balance and stability can help protect your knees by improving muscle control and joint position sense.
- Focus on Full Range of Motion: Move through the full range of motion in a controlled manner to strengthen the muscles and maintain joint flexibility.
- Don’t Lock Your Knees: When performing exercises like leg presses or leg extensions, avoid locking your knees at the end of the movement to keep tension on the muscles rather than the joint
Why BJJ Is One of the Few Martial Arts That Can Be Practiced By Those with Existing Knee Injuries
Despite knee concerns, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is still an extremely effective martial art that can be learned by someone who is less athletic or dealing with knee injuries.
Here are some benefits and options to consider:
Low-Impact Training Options
- Athleticism: You don’t have to be the most athletic individual to be good at bjj – jiu jitsu is control and techniques based so you don’t have to rely on dynamic movements.
- Drilling Techniques: BJJ practitioners with knee issues can focus on drilling techniques that put less strain on the knees. This approach allows for skill development without exacerbating knee pain.
- Swimming and Water-Based Exercises: Those with bad knees can also supplement their BJJ training with swimming or water aerobics, which are low-impact activities that help maintain cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength.
Joint Health and Mobility Improvements
- Stretching Routines: BJJ can actually help increase your flexibility. Plus regular stretching can improve flexibility around the knee, aiding in both injury prevention and recovery.
- Strength Training: Implementing specific strength training exercises for the muscles supporting the knee can lead to better joint stability and may reduce the risk of injury during BJJ practice.
Risks and Considerations
In the strenuous sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), practitioners with pre-existing knee problems must weigh the potential for aggravating injuries against the benefits of training. Ther’es no denying that the sport inherently poses a risk to joints, particularly the knees, due to the technical maneuvers and physical demands.
Common Knee Injuries in BJJ
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can cause a range of knee injuries, from acute strains to chronic conditions. The most commonly encountered issues include:
- Ligament tears: Injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), and lateral collateral ligament (LCL).
- Meniscus tears: Caused by forceful twisting or rotation of the knee joint.
- Tendonitis: Inflammation of the tendons, often due to repetitive stress.
- Bursitis: Inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs that cushion the knee joint.
Assessing Personal Risk
Before continuing with BJJ training, individuals should consider:
- Medical history: A thorough evaluation of past knee injuries and current knee health.
- Intensity of training: Higher intensity and frequency increase the probability of injury.
- Protective measures: Utilization of knee braces and proper techniques may aid in reducing risk.
The decision to train with bad knees requires a careful assessment of these risks in consultation with medical professionals and BJJ instructors.
Making an Informed Decision
When making the final decsion to train bjj, one must weigh several key considerations:
First, consulting with a healthcare professional is paramount to understand the nature and severity of the knee condition. They can provide tailored advice on suitable exercises and whether one should engage in BJJ training.
If clearance is given, individuals should prioritize knee strengthening and conditioning. Low-impact exercises can help fortify the muscles around the knee, potentially mitigating pain and reducing the risk of further injury. A doctor or physical therapist might recommend specific exercises to enhance joint stability and mobility.
Adapting training techniques to avoid aggravating the knee is also critical. Here are some steps practitioners can take:
- Avoid high-impact moves: Focus on drills and techniques that do not strain the knees.
- Listen to the body: Recognize pain signals and avoid actions that elicit discomfort.
- Implement protective gear: Use knee braces or supports during training to provide additional stability.
Lastly, one should consider the potential for re-injury and the impact it may have on daily activities outside of BJJ. Training with bad knees can sometimes lead to further damage, thus, it’s crucial to evaluate the long-term implications of continuing BJJ practice.
Frequently Asked Questions
What preventative measures can be taken to protect knees while practicing BJJ?
Practitioners can minimize knee injuries by engaging in proper warm-ups, strengthening exercises for the leg muscles, utilizing protective equipment, and by maintaining flexibility. It is essential to learn correct techniques to reduce undue stress on the knees.
How can a knee brace or knee pads contribute to safer BJJ training?
Knee braces provide support and stabilize the knee joint, which can prevent injuries from hyperextension or twisting motions. Similarly, knee pads can offer cushioning and protect against impacts during training.
What adaptations or modifications can be made in BJJ practice to accommodate knee injuries?
BJJ practitioners with knee concerns should avoid stand up grappling, prioritize half guard both offesnively and defensively as well as consider other positions that offer more control and less options for dynamic movements like mount, rear mount.
Are there specific techniques in BJJ that should be avoided or altered if you have knee issues?
BJJ practitioners with knee issues should avoid dynamic positions and techniques that put excessive strain on the knees, such wrestling or even tand up grappling all together, submissions that require dynamic movements like armbarbs, as well as movement-based guard passing techniques like side-to-side or toreondo passing.
What is the risk of aggravating existing knee conditions when training in BJJ?
Training BJJ with a pre-existing knee condition holds a significant risk of exacerbating the injury, especially if appropriate precautions are not taken. Sprains and strains are common and can lead to more severe issues if not managed properly.
Can you recommend any alternative martial arts that are more suitable for individuals with bad knees?
Martial arts that emphasize upper body movements and have less impact on the knees, such as traditional forms of Tai Chi or certain styles of Aikido, may be more suitable for individuals with knee problems. It is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new martial art.
Kannus, P., Haapasalo, H., Sankelo, M., Sievänen, H., Pasanen, M., Heinonen, A., … & Vuori, I. (1995). Effect of starting age of physical activity on bone mass in the dominant arm of tennis and squash players. Annals of Internal Medicine, 123(1), 27-31.