Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is an incredibly demanding sport both mentally and physically. The massive number of positions, techniques, and variations result in you having to move your body in many unconventional ways relative to traditional movements such as walking. As such, flexibility and stretching for BJJ plays a very important role in both improving your grappling and keeping you healthy and injury free to ensure a long training career. Incorporating stretching for BJJ is a crucial component of a long-term, balanced training program.
Depending on your individual grappling style and game plan, you may need more or less flexibility than another player to effectively control and submit your opponent.
Nevertheless, even the most old-school, pressure heavy “non-athletic” BJJ game-plans will seriously benefit from a good BJJ stretching routine to prevent injury and to balance out the effects of common BJJ positions and movements.
Furthermore, if you hope to execute some of the newer-age, funky play-styles such as rubber guard or various inverted techniques, you will need to dedicate some time to stretching for BJJ and developing good flexibility in many different muscles to perform optimally and reduce the joint-stress associated with these movements.
In the following article, we will cover active and passive stretching techniques for the major joint and muscle areas where we need flexibility. We will briefly touch on the differences between flexibility and mobility, and discuss a flexible (pun-intended) BJJ stretching routine to follow before training, after training, and on off-days. After our nuts-and-bolts breakdown, we will discuss some of the overarching reasons to stretch for BJJ and some thoughts on how flexible we actually need to be for BJJ performance.
Table of contents
- Mobility vs flexibility: What’s the difference?
- Stretching techniques
- The six joints and muscles you should stretch for BJJ
- Active full body BJJ stretching routine
- Frequency and timing of stretching for BJJ
- Why you need to stretch for BJJ
- Does BJJ improve flexibility?
- Can you be too flexible for BJJ?
- Foam rolling for BJJ
- Additional resources to learn more
Mobility vs flexibility: What’s the difference?
The terms mobility and flexibility are tossed around frequently in discussions of BJJ and fitness in general. They are often used interchangeably, however they are not equivalent terms.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association, one of the foremost authorities on athletic performance, defines flexibility as “a measure of range of motion that has static and dynamic components” (Haff 320). The NSCA breaks flexibility into two components: static and dynamic flexibility.
Static flexibility is the range of possible passive movements around a joint and its surrounding muscles via external action – i.e. someone stretching your hamstring for you.
Dynamic flexibility is the range of motion available during active movements requiring voluntary action. The NSCA uses the concept of mobility to refer to dynamic flexibility, which is essentially the range of motion through which you have balance, coordination, and the ability to apply force.
From a BJJ perspective, both of these qualities are important. We obviously need dynamic flexibility in order to execute techniques. However, given that your opponent will force you into sub-optimal positions, having a good static range of motion is also important to ensure that you are not frequently injured during the course of live rolling.
Our program includes stretches to improve both static flexibility and mobility. Active techniques generally improve mobility, while the passive techniques will improve the passive ROM.
We will use the term “flexibility” in this article to refer to both principles in general..
Active stretching techniques encompass exercises where you are actively moving your joints through a range of motion. These techniques are great to use as a warm-up before BJJ practice or strength and conditioning. They can also be used as part of a standalone mobility routine performed separately from other training, such as in the morning after waking up or on a rest day. Many of the common BJJ specific warmups such as bridges and shrimping techniques can fall under the umbrella of active stretching if performed with a conscious effort towards full ranges of motion.
We make a heavy use of Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs) for our active stretching methods. CARs originated from the Functional Range Conditioning curriculum and are now widely used by martial arts strength and conditioning coaches. The goal of a CAR is to isolate the targeted joint by creating tension throughout the rest of the body. When moving the limb through the available ROM, create internal resistance by pretending your limb is in wet concrete and you have to actively push through the resistance. CARs should not be rushed or have any momentum in the rotation.
Passive stretching techniques are exercises where you move your joint to the end range of its flexibility and hold the position at a point of mild discomfort for 20 or more seconds. This may involve external assistance, such as using your BJJ belt to help stretch your hamstrings.
Passive stretches should be performed after your training sessions within 5-10 minutes of finishing, while your body temperature is still elevated. Passive post-workout stretching has been shown to improve range of motion when performed consistently over time (Haff 322).
Passive stretching can also be performed at the end of a standalone mobility routine.
The 6 joints and muscle groups you should stretch for BJJ
Ankle mobility is crucial for BJJ for both executing techniques and avoiding injury. Generally, stiff ankles are caused by tight calf muscles, which can limit your ability to flex your foot. The rearward tension you need in your feet for strong butterfly hooks is a good example of the need for ankle mobility. You should focus on active mobility in the ankles using controlled rotations. If you experience tightness in your calves, the static calf stretch should be performed as well.
- Sit down with your legs in front of you.
- Pick the ankle you want to begin with and put your heel on the floor for a pivot point with the rest of you foot in the air
- Slowly rotate your ankle clockwise through the full available range of motion. Do not rush through the rotation. Act as though your foot is in wet concrete and you can only slowly move it around.
- As you perform the rotation, work to increase the range of motion by actively trying to increase the size of the circle you are making with your toes.
- Perform 10-15 clockwise and counterclockwise rotations with each foot. Do 1-3 sets per foot.
Static Calf Stretch
- Begin by standing and facing a wall approximately two feet (a bit more than half a metre) away.
- Place both hands on the wall.
- Step one foot towards the wall to enter a shallow lunge position. Both feet should be pointing directly at the wall.
- Engage your core to maintain a neutral spine and gently press the heel of your back foot down to passively stretch the calf on the rear leg.
- You can adjust the intensity of the stretch by stepping further back with the rear leg.
- Find a position of mild discomfort and hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Repeat 1-3 times on each leg.
Hip mobility is crucial for BJJ both in terms of injury prevention as well as BJJ performance. Hip external rotation is required to have a strong defensive and offensive guard. Good hip extension is crucial for bridging and escaping bad positions as well as passing guard and finishing submissions. Hip mobility should encompass active and passive techniques for stretching the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and hip rotators.
- Begin on your back with your knees up, feet flat, and heels about 8 inches (20 cm) from your hips.
- Press through your heels to slowly raise your hips. Squeeze your glutes to “tuck” your tailbone. You may feel a stretch on the top of your thighs when you reach the top of the bridge. Do not hyperextend your spine.
- Slowly return to the start position. Repeat 10 times for 1-3 sets.
- Begin standing near a wall or post that you can hold for balance.
- Raise one knee so that you are standing on one leg.
- Slowly rotate your hip outwards, extend your leg backwards, then bring your knee forwards to return to the start position. You should feel yourself bringing your hip through your full available range of motion.
- Pretend your leg is in wet concrete so you are actively moving with tension in your body without any momentum.
- Work to increase the range of motion as you go through each repetition of the exercise.
Lunge Hip-Flexor Stretch
- Begin in a lunge position with your back knee on the ground and the top of your foot flat on the floor.
- Reach up with both arms. Maintain a neutral spine and avoid leaning forward with the torso.
- Gently shift your hips forward to feel a stretch the front of your hip.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 1-3 times on each hip.
Crossover glute stretch
- Lie on your back with both knees up.
- Raise one leg and cross your ankle over the other leg.
- Gently raise the non-crossed leg until you feel a stretch in the opposite glute.
- Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 1-3 times on each side.
Lying hamstring stretch
- Begin by lying on the floor on your back with both legs extended and your feet gently flexed with your toes pointing up.
- Gently bring one knee up and then straighten your leg out. Raise the straightened leg until you feel a stretch in your hamstring. If you have a strap or a BJJ belt, you can wrap in around your foot for extra support. If not, simply use your hands on the back of your leg to help keep it elevated.
- Make sure your back stays flat or neutral against the floor. Do not allow the low back to arch.
- Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Repeat 1-3 times on each leg.
3. Thoracic Spine (upper back)
T-Spine mobility is vital for preventing injuries to the upper back and spine. Tight pecs, lats, and shoulders contribute to lack of T-Spine mobility and contribute to stiffness that can translate into pressure on your spine. The rounded position adopted in defensive postures contributes to stiffness in the T-Spine.
Quadrupled T-Spine Rotations
- Begin in a hands-and-knees position on the floor.
- Place one hand *lightly* behind your head, do not compress your neck or force your chin down.
- Focusing on keeping your spine as neutral as possible, take a deep breath as you twist upwards towards the arm-behind-the-head side.
- Some minor natural rounding of the upper spine is normal, however avoid excessive rounding.
- Exhale as you reverse and close the twist.
- Twist towards the planted arm, exhaling as much as possible to increase the twist.
- Unwind and repeat for 10 reps on each side and 1-3 sets.
- Begin by lying on your back with your legs straight.
- Bend one knee and cross it over the other leg.
- Bend the other knee and bring your foot towards your hip.
- Reach for your bottom-leg foot with your hand. Grab the top of your hamstring on the top leg with your other hand.
- You should be in a spinal twist with your upper back flat. You will feel a stretch in your legs and through the mid-back.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on both sides for 1-3 sets.
Shoulder mobility is crucial for avoiding the all-too-common shoulder injuries suffered by many grapplers. The same rounded, defensive posture that causes T-spine stiffness also contributes to immobility in the shoulders.
- Begin standing with your arms at your side.
- Brace your whole body from the ground up by squeezing your glutes, tightening your abs, and pulling your shoulder-blades down and together.
- Slowly raise one arm with your thumb pointing upwards until your arm is straight overhead. Your palm should still be facing inwards. Keep your body braced the whole time. The goal is to completely isolate the motion in the shoulder joint.
- Rotate your hand and arm until your thumb is pointing forward and your palm is facing out.
- Slowly bring your arm backwards and down until you return it to your side. Aim to create the largest arc that you can.
- Repeat for 10 repetitions, 1-3 sets each arm.
Quadrupled overhead shoulder stretch
- Begin on your hands and knees with a chair or bench in front of you.
- Raise one arm and place it on the bench in front of you, completely straight.
- Gently lower your torso to stretch your shoulder overhead.
- Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds. Perform 1-3 sets per arm.
The neck and cervical spine can take a serious beating when doing BJJ. Neck stretches for BJJ should focus on active range of motion and contribute to overall neck strength.
- Stand with your arms at your side.
- Brace your whole body from the ground up by squeezing your glutes, tightening your abs, and pulling your shoulder-blades down and together.
- Tuck your chin and slowly rotate your neck through a full range of motion.
- Perform 10-15 repetitions and 1-3 sets each direction.
Ear-to-shoulder passive stretch
- Begin in a standing position
- Gently bend your neck to bring your ear to your shoulder.
- Reach across the top of your head with your hand on the ear-to-shoulder side and gently pull your neck. Be very careful that you apply just a small amount of pressure.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on each side.
Wrist stretches are often overlooked when discussing stretching for BJJ. Mobility in the wrists is crucial in BJJ to avoid injury, particularly in grip-heavy grappling styles. Active and passive wrist stretches are a vital component of a complete stretching routine for BJJ. Be very gentle when stretching your wrists, the joint is highly susceptible to injury from too much stretching pressure.
- Begin on your hands and knees.
- Shift the weight towards your knees until you have enough weight off your hands that you can gently raise your palms.
- Perform 10 pulses by slowly raising your palms off the ground and lowering them back down.
- Rotate your hands until your fingers point backwards and gently glide forward to stretch your forearm area. Perform 10 gently glides forward to actively stretch the wrists.
- Turn your hands over to place the back of your hand on the floor, fingers pointing towards you.
- Gently apply slight pressure to stretch the topside of your forearm. Be very careful to only apply slight pressure or you run the risk of wrist-locking yourself.
- Perform 5-10 on-off pressure pulses for each stretch. Repeat 1-3 times.
Backhand wrist stretch
Assume the hands and knees position, palms down, fingers pointing backward.
- Glide forward as you did in the active stretch until you feel a tolerable stretch in the forearms.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 1-3 times.
- You can perform these stretches with both wrists at a time or one at a time.
Active full body BJJ stretching routine
The following routine can be performed before BJJ class, as a morning wake-up routine, or as an active recovery on non-training days. You can perform as little as one set up to three or more depending on your available time and overall flexibility needs. Refer to the above section for the full breakdown on each stretch. Feel free to substitute other active stretches for a given body part.
Sample active full body stretching routine
- Neck CARS – 1-3 sets of 10 reps
- Shoulder CARS – 1-3 sets of 10 reps
- Hip Cars – 1-3 sets of 10 reps
- T-Spine rotations – 1-3 sets of 10 reps
- Wrist pulses – 1-3 sets of 10 pulses
Post-workout/Pre-bedtime passive stretch routine
This routine is best performed after a workout while you are still warm or as a pre-bedtime wind-down. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds at a point of tolerable discomfort. Perform 1-3 sets per body part. You can substitute passive stretches as desired. You can also just focus on the muscles that tend to be tight in your body.
Sample post-workout/pre-bedtime passive stretching routine
- Lunge-hip flexor stretch – 30 second hold per side, 1-3 sets
- Lying hamstring stretch – 30 second hold per side, 1-3 sets
- Crossover glute stretch – 30 second hold per side, 1-3 sets
- Bretzel – 30 second hold per side, 1-3 sets
- Overhead shoulder stretch – 30 second hold per side, 1-3 sets
- Ear-to-shoulder neck stretch – 30 second hold per side, 1-3 sets
- Hands and knees wrist stretch – 30 second hold per side, 1-3 sets
Frequency and timing of stretching for BJJ
Stretching should be performed as often as possible, especially if mobility tends to be an issue. The active routine can be performed every day as a morning ritual if you have the time.
The passive routine should be primarily focused during post-workout periods or before bed, but can also be tacked-on to the active routine if desired.
Passive stretching in general should be avoided before doing heavy physical activity, particularly before strength and conditioning. Depending on your flexibility, some pre-workout passive stretching may be beneficial on a case by case basis, however there is some evidence suggesting that passive stretching can temporarily reduce maximum force output.
Why do I need to stretch for BJJ?
You are probably already interested in stretching to help your BJJ, and are looking for the best BJJ stretching routine to get you going. If you are skeptical about the need to stretch for BJJ, or just want some concrete motivation to stick with a BJJ stretching routine, the following are three of the most important reasons to dedicate consistent time to stretching for BJJ.
1. Reducing the risk of Injury
Reducing the risk of injury should be the primary reason you are consistently stretching for BJJ. Although injury prevention is a massive topic in and of itself, for our discussion we are going to boil it down to the following simplified concept: BJJ will inevitably place your body in sub-optimal positions that stress various joints in the body. If the muscles around the specified joint have limited flexibility, the strain of those positions will be felt sooner by the joint.
A greater range of motion in the muscles surrounding the joint will allow you to more safely handle pressure on that joint. Of course, even the most flexible BJJ players will suffer joint injuries if the joints are pushed too far. However, depending on the specific joint, increased flexibility in the surrounding tissue will allow more movement and pressure on the joint before you experience a strain in the area or worse, the loud, painful “pop” we all dread so much.
2. Counteracting common BJJ positions and movements
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu players (especially those who never stretch), tend to have tightness in similar areas based on common movement patterns in BJJ. Specifically, tightness in the hip flexors and upper back is incredibly common in grapplers.
Although there are many reasons this can happen, the dynamics of playing closed and open guard play a huge role in this tendency. Playing both closed and open guard requires a lot of hip-flexion movement, which can be more or less summarized as the motion of bringing your knees to your chest.
Additionally, guard playing requires a lot of flexion in the upper back and a tendency to round the shoulders forward to adopt a defensive posture, maintain leverage, and avoid getting passed.
Tight hip flexors can lead to lower back pain in addition to reducing the power and coordination of your hip extension (i.e. driving your hips forward as seen in bridging-type motions and explosive guard passing).
Tight shoulders, rounded upper back, and limited external rotation in the shoulder can also lead to strain, injury, and decreased performance.
Without stretching to counteract the tendency towards tightness in these areas, you will ultimately be decreasing your performance, worsening your posture, and potentially increasing your risk of pain and injury as discussed in reason number one.
3. Safely allowing a greater arsenal of techniques
The specific game plan and techniques you want to use in your own BJJ style will play a large role in how flexible you need to be for BJJ. There are some masters, particularly those with an old-school pressure type of game such as Bernardio Faria, who have developed a phenomenal play-style that does not require a ton of flexibility.
Masters such as Faria have proven in competition that you don’t need to rely on flexibility to be effective at beating your opponents. Nevertheless, even with a “non-flexibility dependent” BJJ game, you should still follow our baseline stretching routine for the previous two reasons.
On the other hand, many of the newer styles, particularly those seen in no-gi such as Eddie Bravo’s rubber-guard and variations, require a fair amount of hip flexibility to perform safely and effectively.
Many blackbelts will correctly point out that even techniques such as rubber guard rely on hip positioning and angle to be truly effective. However, there’s no denying that employing these techniques effectively and consistently generally requires more hip flexibility than other BJJ game plans. Many no-gi beginners will find that it may take months of stretching before they are able to even attempt to perform some of the weirder new-age guard styles.
On a more fundamental note, many bread-and-butter guard retention and recovery methods require good flexibility in the legs and hips to allow you the extra inches, or even just centimeters, needed to slide your knee back in, get a foot on your opponent’s hip, or insert that pesky butterfly hook.
Additionally, if you plan to play any inverted guard, the strain on your lower back can be incredibly high, particularly if you lack normal hamstring flexibility. As with most of what we discussed, this ties back into reason number one to stretch: preventing injuries.
Does BJJ itself improve flexibility?
Depending on your instructor’s warmups, the BJJ game you play, and what positions you frequently use, you may see some flexibility improvements in certain joints through BJJ training. Nevertheless, as we mentioned above, BJJ will also lead to tightness in many muscle groups that’s unlikely to resolve itself without additional stretching.
Can you be too flexible for BJJ?
Stretching and flexibility, as a whole, is a very beneficial thing. There are certain conditions such as hypermobility in which stretching may not be a good idea, however this more than likely does not apply to you. The vast majority of individuals are never going to reach a point of too much flexibility.
The biggest risk of excess flexibility would be losing control and strength in certain positions. This is extremely unlikely in most practitioners, and can also be mitigated by a good strength and conditioning routine for BJJ.
Is foam rolling for BJJ a good idea?
Foam rolling, more technically termed self-myofascial release, is a method where you apply external pressure to tight areas of muscle tissue (“trigger points”) in order to relax the area and temporarily improve range of motion. Foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and other specialty tools are used to dig into the tight tissue, which triggers something called “autogenic inhibition,” resulting in a relaxation of the surrounding musculature.
Foam rolling is generally a safe addition to mobility routines and can be performed before or after training. The key is to apply moderate pressure to the tight muscle areas and hold for 30 or more seconds. If you don’t hold for long enough, the release will not occur. Avoid placing pressure on the joints and instead focus the foam roller, lacrosse ball, or other tool on the muscle itself.
Additional resources to learn more
Yoga for BJJ is a popular yoga training program for BJJ players. Yoga itself can be a good way to improve flexibility, however it is not necessarily any better than more traditional stretching methods.
Some people may find yoga flows to be more enjoyable or focused and will be more consistent by following a yoga program. There is nothing special about yoga programs marketed towards BJJ players versus many standard yoga practices, however the direction and guidance of a BJJ blackbelt who also knows yoga can inspire more confidence for those whose primary goal is flexibility for BJJ.
Full CAR/Functional range conditioning (FRC) routine
FRC is becoming an increasingly popular methodology for martial arts training, and has the added benefit of improving end-range strength in addition to general mobility. We incorporate some CARs into our routine above. If you are interested in a full FRC routine, the following YouTube video is a good one to follow.
Closing thoughts: Stretching for BJJ
A consistent stretching routine has serious benefits for BJJ players, including injury prevention and performance improvement. Try our recommended warm-up routine as well as our static cooldown routine and experiment for yourself to see what feels good. Over time, your ranges of motion will improve with stretching. Following routines from yoga and FRC are also great options you can explore to improve flexibility measures.
Don’t forget to supplement with a great strength and conditioning routine for BJJ as well.
Stay strong, flexible, and dangerous. We’ll see you on the mats!
Haff, Greg, and N. Travis Triplett. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Human Kinetics, 2016.
Jordan is a BJJ addict and strength and fitness coach. He’s a purple belt and regularly competes in gi and no-gi. He currently trains at 10th Planet Tucson in Arizona. Jordan is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and NASM Certified Personal Trainer. You can follow him on Instagram.