So hands up who’s hurt their back?

We’re going to take a wild guess and say that your hands in the air. If not, our second guess is you’ve not been doing jits for very long. In the game of squash and strangle back pain seems inevitable. And when it arrives it sucks!!

Back pain:

  • Hurts
  • Stops you drilling techniques as well as you could
  • Ruins sparring
  • Never seems to go away as quickly as you want
  • Can lead to more / worse injuries,
  • Has the potential to stop you from training altogether!

I’m sure you’ve experienced some of these things yourself. It’s no surprise in a sport full of chokes, cranks and joint locks that injuries occur and there’s not much you can do to stop the one off incidents. If someone whips on an armbar and you don’t tap in time guess what… your arm’s going to hurt.

But there are plenty of other pains, injuries and problems that seem to just develop over time. What’s more, these types of injuries can be the ones that end up causing huge problems later on. The type of problems that can require a lengthy spell on the sidelines, surgery or even with you having to stop jits altogether!

The back often falls into this category. It can absolutely be the victim of a specific incident, but if you’ve trained enough it’s very likely you’ve moved around at points with a back that feels “40 years older” than it should simply because you’ve been rolling a lot.

A guy holding his back in pain

So what’s going on with the back?

Why does it get hurt in the first place and why does it seem that the more jits you do the more frequent back pain becomes?!

Well there are numerous answers to these questions and each case will be slightly different. That said, to start with we need look no further than a simple understanding of posture. No doubt you’re familiar with posture – if you’ve trained even a little bit you’ll have heard the word before. Every position in the game has an optimal posture and this concept is always talked about during training.

An image showing good posture in bjj.

The idea of optimal posture also applies to simply standing still. Here at aps no matter who we’re dealing with our first job is to assess, not guess. In this assessment one of the first things we’ll look at is static posture. Before you even do any movement we want to know what the position of your spine is. Often where there is pain in the back there is too much flexion or extension happening somewhere in the spine. These faulty postures can play havoc when you move around or it’s time to roll. Especially with stuff like hard sparring where there’s higher loads and forces to absorb and stabilise!

What does this have to do with Jiu-Jitsu?

Well think about the postures you tend to be in. Notice a trend? Bar the idea of keeping your back straight and strong for some techniques, rarely are you using your spines extension. Most of the time you’re hunched over in a flexed position. Not only do you spend a lot of time in a flexed position but you’re using muscles that predominantly flex the body (lats, pecs, abs and hip flexors). We bet you even spend time out of the gym doing extra strengthening exercises for these muscles (sit ups, pull ups and bench press anyone?!).

This means you’re actually creating a strength imbalance between the flexion and extension muscles. Our static posture will often be dictated by which muscles are strong and which are weak so if we have strong flexor muscles it can cause us to live in flexion. Take the upper back for instance.

Woman with Upper Cross Syndrome

In a state of constant flexion our upper back is now out of optimal posture and this means:

  • You’re more likely to start getting niggling aches and pains, not just in your back but other places like your neck and shoulders.
  • You’re more likely to pick up nastier injuries, as you’re rolling around with a compromised position.
  • You won’t be as strong or stable as you could be to absorb and dissipate the heavy demands of grappling.

But surely this kind of posture could be minimised? How are you going to keep doing this amazing sport if your back can’t cope? Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a way to reduce the frequency, intensity and impact of back injuries to not only keep you rolling more often but also improve the quality of your jiu-jitsu?

Yes. Yes it would. And luckily, with a little know how this is very possible!

The first step to improving faulty posture is to unwind muscles that are overly tight and strengthen muscles that are weak, in order to pull the body in to a more friendly position.

Below is a glimpse at the kind of techniques we start with to encourage more extension in the thoracic spine. This a great start on the road to developing a strong, healthy, happy back.

*If you are currently suffering from a significant injury or pain please consult with a professional before trying these techniques.

Rocking Ab & Middle Back Stretch

The rocking ab stretch is an awesome global mobilisation and stretch. It stretches out the flexor muscles (hip flexors, abs, pecs, lats etc) as well as encouraging the spine in to extension.

  • Sitting on a Swiss Ball walk your legs forward and lean backwards so you are laying over the ball with your knees bent and your bum near the ground.
  • Take a breath in.
  • As you breathe out straighten your legs and slowly extend yourself over the ball. Extend your arms to increase the stretch.
  • If comfortable take a few deep breaths in this lengthened position. Allow your body to expand as you breathe in and relax further over the ball as you breathe out.
  • Then return to the start position before extending back over the ball for another few breaths.
  • Repeat 3-5 times.
  • Caution: If you experience any dizziness looking up towards the sky you may experience dizziness while performing this stretch. It is very important to stop the stretch immediately if you experience any unusual symptoms e.g. nausea, dizziness or change in vision and get it checked out by a professional.

An image showing the first part of the ab stretch.

An image showing the first part of the ab stretch

Segmental Thoracic Extension

This is a great technique to encourage extension of the spine in a more isolated way. The foam roller allows us to target specific areas of the back that are missed with more global mobilisations.

Caution: Don’t do this mobilisation if your rib expansion isn’t good. You can check by putting a tape measure round your chest and taking a deep breathe in. You want an increase of at least 1.5inches.

  • Place the roller across your spine just below your shoulder blades.
  • Cupping your hands behind your neck for support, inhale and gently extend back over the roller whilst looking up.
  • Limit the movement to when you feel other parts of your body trying to move (like low back, neck etc) or back muscles tighten.
  • Then as you exhale let your back melt into the roller.
  • Towards the end of the exhale return to start position doing up to 3 repetitions in any spot that feels restricted.
  • You can work all the way up to the top of the shoulder blades moving up about an inch to the next vertebrae.
  • Spinning the roller length ways along the back can be really effective in the upper vertebrae but take care as the neck can get aggravated. If in any doubt get a coach to teach you this one.

An image showing the first part of segmental thoracic extension.

An image showing the second part of segmental thoracic extension.


The cobra is one of the best exercises for building up strength and endurance in the postural fibres of the extensor muscles. This is something a lot of people neglect in their training. When you train the back muscles in normal rep ranges it doesn’t generate the required time under tension to encourage changes in posture so pay close attention to the reps, sets and durations prescribed.

  • Lie face down with your arms at your sides.
  • Pick your chest up off the floor with the neck in neutral alignment simultaneously squeezing your shoulder blades together and rotating your arms out so the palms face away from your body.
  • You should feel the muscles between your shoulder blades doing the work. If you feel stress in your low back squeeze your glutes together prior to lifting your torso.
  • Hold the position for 30 seconds and then rest down for 10 seconds. This is one rep. Perform 4 reps in total. This is one set. Rest for no more than 30 seconds and then perform another set of 4 reps.
  • Perform 2-3 total sets.

An image showing the cobra.

The two mobilisations can be used both before training to free up the spine prior to rolling and in the evening to help the body recover. The cobra can be added to the end of gym workouts or even to rest days.

In Part 2 of this series we’ll take a look at the lower back and how the common positions in BJJ can cause postural problems here.

If you want to truly get learn the details of these exercises, and learn some more, keep your eyes peeled for one of our workshops.

To keep up to date with news of our workshops please sign up for our newsletter below.

If you’d like to explore your specific back pain or injury in more depth then book in for a chat (it’s free!) You can tell us all the details and work out the best way for you to get pain free and back to the mat better than ever!

Click here to get in touch and book a consultation.

Until next time.


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