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This Is What I Wish I Knew When I First Started Jiu-Jitsu
Guest post 03 - Oleg Shilkrut
Today, I have a guest article from my friend Oleg Shilkrut.
Oleg has been training Jiu-Jitsu for more than 10 years and he holds a brown belt under Jeff Serafin. He’s also worked for the last 15 years in health care as an ICU and ER RN and also as a paramedic.
I recommend that you follow Oleg on Instagram. He’s an avid traveler and writes really great write-ups and stories to document his worldwide travels. Recently, he was in Italy, Poland, Egypt, and some other cool places that I forget off the top of my head.
Oleg was one of the first friends that I made at the gym when I was a wee-little 18-year-old white belt, and I’ve learned a lot about life, Jiu-Jitsu, and health from him over the years. I hope you enjoy this well-written article.
Written by Oleg Shilkrut
Jiu-Jitsu is one of my favorite things to do in the world.
I have spent thousands of dollars and hours training, traveling, and competing, and have often wondered: “Why the hell am I doing this?”
Yet, I keep coming back, and it’s simply because I love it. I love the feeling of endorphins in my body, I love the mental break of the flow state— when nothing else matters except for turning the corner just right in the guard pass or hand fighting out of a rear-naked choke. I love the skills I get and the friends I’ve made. When I can’t train, I get moody and even more grumpy than I usually am.
There is another side to Jiu-Jitsu, though
One time, sitting in a hotel in Vegas in between IBJJF World Master’s days, I was talking to an older black belt that used to train with us. Being an Eastern European, he was getting drunk on vodka and getting philosophical. “I gave too much to this sport,” he said. “What did I get out of it? Just injuries and lost relationships”
Sounds dramatic, but I do know what he was talking about. Despite being called “the gentle art” Jiu-Jitsu is a traumatic sport. If you talk to some of the veteran MMA fighters, they will tell you that even though getting punched in the face sucks, grappling will leave some of the more enduring marks on your body. So let’s talk about how to train smart while not joining our philosophical friend and his blues.
Learn how to strength train.
Jiu-Jitsu is often billed as a sport where the small guy gets to beat up on a bigger guy despite the size and strength disadvantage. YouTube is full of videos where “Bodybuilder gets choked unconscious by a 12-year-old girl”, and Jiu-Jitsu coaches will tell you to “stop muscling things, and use technique”.
While all are somewhat true (especially the technique part), muscle and strength are an important part of grappling. Besides adding athletic ability, muscles act as protectants for joints, bones, ligaments, and tendons.
Learning how to strength train properly and safely should be mandatory for any athlete, and is a part of training for all sports, from basketball to swimming.
If badminton players do squats and pull-ups to prep for their matches, why shouldn’t people actively trying to control and submit another human being invest in their physical abilities?
Strength training is important, and if you struggle to figure out good safe ways to train on your own, find a trainer. I will not give specific advice, but I will say that when I was younger, I focused a lot on lifting heavy, and as I solidly got into my mid-thirties I focus more on kettlebells, functional movement, and end range strength. I believe the powerlifting methods of my younger years helped me develop the muscle frame and strength that stayed with me into my adulthood, while the less demanding methods that I use today help me stay safe and strong and ready for the mats.
Learn how to diet and cut weight
In weight-based sports like Jiu-Jitsu, losing weight is a common topic of conversation. Me and my Jiu-Jitsu bros spend more time talking about calories and daily weights than your average mean girls club. We love to see how low we can go and making smaller weight classes is an achievement that is viewed with pride. “The first battle is the scale” is a thought that most combat sports athletes relate to personally. This kind of thinking really played into my weight insecurities, and I embraced it wholeheartedly.
When I returned to Jiu-Jitsu after some time off I was over 200 pounds, and 2 years later I weighed in for an MMA fight at 170 pounds, a weight I haven’t seen since my high school wrestling years. I stayed around that weight for a couple of years, competing in the middleweight division in the gi at 181 pounds.
I did well, winning a bunch of regional tournaments, and even medaling at IBBJ Pans Masters in 2019. When I was doing that tournament, I remember feeling like I was cheating: I felt way bigger and stronger than the other dudes in my division.
On the other hand, as I was winning and medaling, I injured every joint in my body. I had grade II sprains of both of my AC joints (shoulder separation), both inguinal ligaments (groin sprains), MCL sprains, a torn meniscus, and herniated cervical disks.
All these injuries could, of course, have happened to me without dieting, but the loss of protection from muscle loss helped make them worse. I specifically remember sitting in the sauna the morning the of Chicago Open in 2019. I was a little heavy and was still a little over the little when I showed up to weight. Me and a friend had to run laps and wrestle around outside the arena to make weight. In the tournament, I tried opening my opponent’s guard with a log splitter, and my knee buckled inside.
I won the match and my division, but I’ve spent 3 years now dealing with this problem. This year I finally got a diagnosis of a torn meniscus and will be getting surgery later in the summer.
I firmly believe that this sauna before the tournament made my tissue too elastic, and the weight cuts cost me too much muscle, so I didn’t have the strength to support his weight on my knee. This happens to people I train with too. I had a teammate that I haven’t seen in a little bit walk into the gym recently, and I could tell he lost a bunch of weight. He told me he lost about twenty pounds in some months. This worried me, because of my experiences. I told him so. We rolled, and he tweaked his knee right away.
So what did we do wrong? Crash diet, set goals too low, jumped from fad to fad, and didn’t stay consistent with eating habits. I binged and purged, and paid the price. I will not go through the exact diets that I’ve tried, but if you are as much of an adept of the JRE as I am you will know all the trends that I have attempted in that time.
Smaller isn’t always better. When me and everybody’s favorite Professor Chris M. Wojcik traveled to India to volunteer in the summer of 2018, we stopped by a dorm house of some Indian Wrestlers. We showed off some moves to each other and talked, and they asked us about our diets. Assuming they all wanted to get lean, we talked to them about intermittent fasting and zucchini pasta, and they all looked confused. “Nobody is losing weight here,” they said, smacking their biceps. “We want to get strong”. This obsession with being lean is partially cultural, and small numbers on the scale don’t translate into health
After having tried all the ways, I got tired of being hungry and tried to find another way to eat. The weight skyrocketed to over 200, back to where I was before it all started. I competed here for some years, but I don’t like it either. The belly gets in the way, and there are a lot of big boys in my division. I am now trying this new thing where I drink a lot of water, eat balanced meals, and don’t overindulge, with a reasonable caloric goal in mind. The weight is slowly coming off when I stay consistent. I have honestly never felt better: my brain works, I feel satisfied, and I am not jumping on people from the hunger pangs.
For competition weight cuts I have focused more on choosing the appropriate weight class, staying within range, and using water cuts to make weight. I have tried water loading and Epsom salts, and I like the results I get. Of course, there is a way to overdo that too: there are plenty of videos of MMA fighters coming close to death to make weight. Don’t do that.
Protect your neck and back.
One of my coworkers, a tall, heavy guy in his 40s started Jiu-Jitsu after spending a lifetime not doing any sports at all. He loved it, and we talked a lot about the moves he was learning, how to get into competitions, and which gis to buy. One day I stopped seeing him around.
When I did run into him again, I asked him about Jiu-Jitsu. Turns out he herniated some neck discs, was in pain around the clock for months and was very close to getting surgery. “I’m done,” he said.
The human neck is small and feeble and gets undeservedly punished in Jiu-Jitsu. Neck cranks, chokes, bridges, and posts all strain and damage the tiny human neck. I have herniated neck discs, that I’ve spent thousands of dollars and many hours rehabbing. Everybody’s favorite West Coast Trials standout Christopher Wojcik has herniated neck discs. Mike, my coworker, now has herniated neck discs. What do we all have in common? We did not strengthen the neck. This should be mandatory for every class. Resistance bands, neck lifts, the Iron Neck, and any kind of strengthening neck activity should be incorporated into the training regimen of every grappler. And nobody ever does! Until our hands are on fire from the spinal impingement.
The lower back gets beat up too. In some cases, it is less serious since there is no spinal cord down at the end of the spine. It could be bad though – one of my teammates, a black belt and a coach, is now talking about getting a spinal fusion to fix his degenerative disc disease and relieve pain and numbness in his hip and leg. I know people that have stopped training because of back problems, and others that train through their injuries. Back problems are not unique to Jiu-Jitsu, but we do strain the back a lot: inverting, wrestling, twisting, and cranking. I have started to decompress my back every training just by doing hangs.
Protect your skin
I didn’t own a rash guard for years into my Jiu-Jitsu career. I trained no-gi in old t-shirts, and wore my gi on my bare skin, proudly shoving my chest hairs into my training partner’s faces. I made fun of spats, was ok not showering for a while after training, forgot to wash my gi sometimes, and was annoyed at my coach telling me not to use the bathroom in my bare feet.
In short, I was a young slob.
For the most part, I got away with it. I did get ringworm eventually, and stayed away for a couple of days, until coming back to training with an active infection. I covered it up with some bandage, but the whole gym got it anyways. When one of us would go away and heal up, we would come back and catch it again. I literally moved away, came back to visit, and got ringworm. It lasted a while. I bought boxes of antifungal cream and defense wipes that I left at the gym because I felt so bad.
Ringworm isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s annoying and it takes a while to beat. Every time I get it, I have to take a month off and take oral medications. There are other diseases: herpes, staph, and scabies being the most common. Some of them stay forever, while others can be really serious (MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strand of staph is a rising concern in today’s world)
This may all sound scary, but there are easy fixes: I don’t leave my skin exposed in training, shower after practice, keep all my gear clean, wash my gym bag, and in general practice good hygiene. I have had no problems since I started practicing basic hygienic practices.
I realize that this is mostly a list of “how not to train”, as opposed to ways of training. That was intentional: I am not a personal trainer or a nutritionist, and I won’t pretend to be an expert at these things. More importantly, everybody is different, and we all have to figure out what works.
The point of this article is that Jiu-Jitsu is a combat sport and should be taken seriously. We have to prep the body and treat it with respect, and then we can all ride off into the sunset together, happily choking each other until death does us part.
Thanks for reading!
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