After much reflection I have come to the conclusion that a promotion whether it be a stripe or a belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an acknowledgement that the practitioner is on the right track more so than a symbol of status. Jiu Jitsu is a life long journey and while we need training partners to improve it is also an individual journey at heart because each person’s Jiu Jitsu journey is different. The starting points for students differ even though end goal could be the same. Some paths require more work than others.
The belt system in Martial Arts is still a relatively new concept as instructors found that having different colored belts that represented ranking were a great motivation to students (especially European students). This relates to the modern form of martial arts that we have here in the USA today. Americans are very concerned about status whether it is social or economic or whatever. A lot of people put stock on the color of the belt as a representation of their status. In a sense for some people this is a form of validation. Is this a bad thing? No. It is a good thing. It gives people goals to work towards. It helps to keep people interested and allows them to know that they are getting better. The ranking is an outward reflection of the student’s dedication to the art.
I am still very new to Martial Arts. I grew up playing football, wrestling and lifting weights. There was no belt system in these sports. It was all about skill and proficiency. If you were skilled you “started” (ie played first team). If you were not as skilled then you would not get as much play time. So how could someone tell that they were getting better? You would tell that you are getting better by competing against another opponent whether it is in practice or a game. So coming into a sport / Martial Art that incorporated a ranking system was new to me and I really did not understand it. What did all of these different colors and stripes mean?
Now I get it. The stripes and belts are an acknowledgement from the professor to the student that the student is on the right track and doing the necessary work. I am also seeing that the stripes and the belts are like a “high five” along the way. By no means do I feel like a belt or stripe is a destination because Jiu Jitsu is evolving and growing every day. The one thing that I have observed and experienced in my school is that the higher belts do not look down on the lowers belts. The students at Neutral Ground do not display that level of arrogance. If anything, the higher that a person is ranked the more humble that I have seen them.
Walking in the door as a fresh white belt and seeing the different color belts is attractive but it is easy to get caught up in just pursuing a belt color instead of just experiencing the journey of Jiu Jitsu. To me the Jiu Jitsu journey is about self-improvement, self-discovery and brotherhood. It isn’t about status and ranking. It is being able to do something that I enjoy with other like-minded people who enjoy the same things. Since I have started my journey I have been transforming from being more Earth based to now having some Water-like fluidity.
Sure getting a rank feels great but it pales in comparison to walking in through the doors of the dojo and seeing my Jiu Jitsu brothers and sisters ready to roll.
After re-reading Part 1 (after it was posted on the website) I realized that I am in need of getting someone to edit what I write. Good thing I am not a professional writer or those typos would be mighty embarrassing. Okay now to write more specifically about my transition so far.
To summarize from the previous writing, basically my health wasn’t that good, I was suffering from injury after injury and I was no longer having fun. I found myself in that place to where I desperately needed to do something different but did not want to just spend endless hours on the treadmill or bicycle.
. . . I was no longer having fun.
On a side note, I used to joke with a lot of my friends about common powerlifter struggles like: holding your breath to tie your shoes, not being able to find the correct size in clothing, closing down buffets and basically eating whatever I wanted. Sure I was big and strong (20+ inch arms and 30+ inch quads) but a flight of stairs could easily whoop my ass.
So I took my big ass to Neutral Ground. I was obviously the biggest and strongest person there. At that point in time all that I had going for me was size and strength. Sure I wrestled in high school 15 years ago but I certainly was not in wrestling condition when I first started rolling . . . and nope I could not even make it through the warm-ups. I was in such horrible conditioning. That first day I even rolled. That first rolling experience as well as the following weeks, I would get such sick muscles pumps. I knew absolutely no technique so I just relied on my size and strength. As we all know now, that did not work out too well for me. I was getting so gassed when I was rolling. Sometimes during class I would feel like I had to puke, other times I could hardly catch my breath. A lot of the time I felt embarrassed and humiliated. I regularly would walk back to my car after class feeling defeated. I wanted so bad to be good, to win, or hell to at least not get my ass kicked my people who were smaller than me.
“. . . I felt embarrassed and humiliated.”
Yeah I realized what every new person to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu realizes . . . this sport is physically and mentally demanding and tough as hell. It isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of spirit. For my first few weeks there I was just a choking dummy but I just kept showing up. I bought a “gi” and kept showing up. My training changed as well too. Instead of lifting weights like I was doing previously, my weight training sessions became less and less intense. (I needed more recovery time). This was another mentally challenging thing for me. As a powerlifter, I prided myself on size and strength. I was at the point to where 3XL shirts were getting tight on me and I had to start buying 4XL. Now in BJJ, I was “shrinking.” Yeah I know that my health was improving and that is honestly great but I struggled so much internally about not being the big guy anymore. At this point I considered saying that this wasn’t for me but I couldn’t allow myself to quit. If I were to quit because it was too hard, what type of example would I be setting for my children?
“If I were to quit because it was too hard, what type of example would I be setting for my children?”
I am sure that every white belt just starting out faces that crossroads. The crossroads to where either you are going to do this or you are not. I think that jiu jitsu is great though I do not think that it is for everyone. It really takes a special, motivated and driven person to show up day after day getting your butt kicked to come back the next day to get your butt kicked again. So why didn’t I just throw in the towel? I mean I could have easily gone back to powerlifting so why continue to get my ass kicked?
Around the time that I was feeling defeated, I allowed myself to be defeated and realized that this is where I need to be and then I started to get better. Warm-ups were going a lot easier and I was making it through them. I was starting to grasp the techniques that were being taught in class and applying them to when I was rolling with others on the mat. I basically had to let my old self die and when I finally let go, I fell in love with Jiu Jitsu. I went from rolling a couple times a week to now rolling almost every day. I guess you can say that I caught the Jiu Jitsu bug as I am now addicted.
“. . . I fell in love with Jiu Jitsu.”
After 3 months of training I competed in my first competition. It was just a local competition but it was a great experience. I walked away from that competition with a greater knowledge and realization to where I stacked up against other opponents and I was proud of my results. (I took home a medal in my weight class and division). I got to see where I need to improve, what I need to refine, what I need to learn and how much harder that I need to work. That is the key thing that I have gained from my experience so far is that I am responsible for my training.
“. . . I am responsible for my training.”
No I am not responsible for the results of my competition. Don’t be silly. I am responsible for the results of my training. When it burns do I push myself to get that extra rep? When I am exhausted do I dig deep and roll for 4 more minutes? When I do not feel like getting out of bed for an early morning session do I get up?
These are simple questions that I have the answers to. I give the answers with how I live my life. The same drive and motivation that I used in powerlifting is the same drive and motivation that I have used in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The one thing that has also helped is that Neutral Ground is one of the best places to train in the country. Not only are you getting world class coaching and experience but like I have mentioned previously it is a brotherhood, a fellowship of like-minded individuals who also want to learn and get better.
“. . . A fellowship of like-minded individuals who also want to learn and get better.”
So now to answer the initial question posed, “Is a Fat Powerlifter Too Old and Out of Shape for MMA?” The initial answer is yes. Do not expect to just walk onto the mat and think that you are ready for a cage fight. Some people jump right in a cage with no training or experience and yeah that is not a good thing to do. Training at Neutral Ground has shown me so far that it takes a lot and I mean a lot to be in the type of condition that the octagon demands. Now do not get discouraged because you can be trained and get into fighting condition, it just takes time and effort.
“. . . Do not get discouraged because you can be trained and get into fighting condition . . .”
It really does not matter your level of athleticism or background, what matters is your heart. I have found that just by showing up and not giving up, I am getting better and better every day. Training at Neutral Ground has truly changed my life for the better. I really get the sense that this is someplace that I belong and that BJJ is what I am supposed to be doing. For me everything just clicks now. Has it been easy? No, and it is still not easy. Some days I still leave the gym scratching my head wondering how I got beat or why I am so horrible or even feel discouraged like I will never get better. I just feel that, brush away those feelings and show up the next day.
Am I a bad ass yet? Nope, but I am a lot closer to bad ass than I am fat ass.
I have decided to make this into a two part blog. Part 1 gives you some background on my decision. Part 2 will go more in depth in how I was able to transition.
Last summer I was ready to do something different. I was weighing around 330 lbs, recovering from multiple injuries, and ready to make a difference in my health and lifestyle. To give you a clearer picture, I was a competitive powerlifter. I have been lifting weights and competing in sports for the majority of my life. When I was going back to college, I got the competitive itch again and thrust myself into training for competition. Unlike other sports, I really did not have to worry about doing too much cardio or even eating too healthy. Hell, if I wanted to eat a pizza with pie and ice-cream I would! I enjoyed the training and the competition. I became “addicted” to getting bigger and stronger like most everyone else in that sport. I put my best foot forward and had no idea where that would take me.
To be honest with myself, the allure of powerlifting to me was that it was an easier alternative than bodybuilding. I really did not have to watch too closely what I ate (so I thought) and did not have to worry about doing too much cardio. I set out to become the best that I could be in that sport. I would sometimes travel hours to train with a stronger group of people. I became a sponge and did my best to learn and apply different methods and ideas to my training so that I could get bigger and stronger and for a while there it was very effective until December 9th, 2014. After my last competition, I qualified to compete in the XPC at the Arnold Sports Festival. I had just recently moved to Illinois and started training with Team Lilliebridge.
That Tuesday was a day that would forever change my life and I did not realize it at the time. I was starting my competition cycle and was benching (I never really bench on Mondays). The weight was flying up. 365 paused. 405 paused. 435 paused. 455 paused. All too easy. So I decided to throw 500 on the bar and roll with it. (Two weeks prior I handled 575 with a slingshot). As I was un-racking the weight and bringing it out . . . POP! That was the sound and the feel of my right triceps tendon tearing off of the bone. December 18th, I have surgery to reattach my tendon to the bone. My hopes of competing in the XPC were crushed but I was bound and determined not to give up. Two days later I was squatting in a cast on my arm.
Now to fast forward some, I made a full recovery in record time but only to fall victim to more injuries. To where I was once looking at breaking a 2000 lb total, I was frequently side lined not being able to lift. One of my trainees still jokes with my about being a walking injury. From the triceps tendon tear to a strained pec to an impinged shoulder to strained and pulled spinal erectors to finally strained it-bands, I was done. These injuries completely frustrated and discouraged me. I was doing everything right (so I thought). After the it-band injury, I decided to take a break and just lift for fun for a while. This led me on a different direction.
So over the course of suffering injuries that year it really wasn’t until June 2014 that I really made the decision and took action to do something different. At this moment in time these were some of my stats:
Blood Pressure Average: 170/90
Resting Heart Rate: 85 bpm
BF %: ~ 20%
My feet and my ankles were also swelling from edema. Yeah, that is a sign and symptom of congenital heart failure. The sport that I devoted my life to was killing me. Not only was I a walking injury but my family was afraid that I would just fall over and die any minute. Getting more honest, walking up and down stairs was exhausting and hell even walking would hurt my back and I would have to sit down. I hated going to the grocery store with my wife because my back would cramp up and I would have to waddle behind the shopping cart. I can laugh about it now but during this time, it really sucked.
So at the behest of my mother and wife (they ganged up on me) I decided to take a break from powerlifting and do something different. I knew that I needed to do something fun because I hate being on a bike or treadmill doing cardio for hours. I wanted to do something that would get me into great shape and still have fun at the same time. We have a heavy bag at the gym I train at so I thought that maybe I would go into boxing or something like that. I mean I love to fight. I have been fighting my whole life and getting my butt kicked my whole life as well. So I had to have an honest conversation with myself because I was 32 and in horrible shape. The thought of getting into the ring at my age is crazy and I had doubts.
In Nas’ famous diss to Jay-Z “Ether” there is this quote:
“I still whip your ass, you thirty-six in a karate class. You Tae-bo hoe” – Nas
Despite my initial misgivings, I asked my buddy Google about age and combat sports and found some hope. There have been guys like Randy Couture who started and competed in MMA later in life. Yeah probably won’t be the next Randy Couture but the fact that he was able to compete at such a high level in his 30’s and 40’s gave me some hope about getting involved in combat sports. I figured that I could at least give it a shot, lose weight, have some fun and possibly compete at an amateur level. So I made a decision to try kickboxing. Then I researched gyms and chose Neutral Ground as the location that I would try. (They offered a free trial week!)
So my first day going there, I made it 30 feet from the building, felt stupid and embarrassed and left. As I left I hoped that no one saw me. So feeling like a moron, I went home and decided that okay I will try it again. The following Tuesday, I showed up a little early for kickboxing. They were having a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu beginner class. I am not knowledgeable about martial arts but as I was observing the class, I thought to myself that this is just like wrestling. I remember signing a waiver that night and as I was reading it there were disclaimers about breaking bones and tearing tendons . . . I was like oh hell here we go again. So why did I stay? Well I stayed mainly because everyone was so friendly and nice. I immediately got this vibe that this was more than a dojo but I could not place my finger on it exactly. Kickboxing was cancelled that night to my dismay but I was invited to try BJJ the following day. So I came back the next day and gave it a shot. That was the absolute best decision that I have made about my health and life in quite a while.
Since that day, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at Neutral Ground has changed my life. My first class, I could not even make it through the warm-ups. I was so poorly conditioned. When I tried to do the somersaults, I got so dizzy in addition to not being able to catch my breath my running that I had to sit down. Make no mistake, training for BJJ is not easy and it is not for the faint of heart. As the new guy there, I was a choking dummy (still am sometimes to this day) and practice toy. Sure having size and strength helped me some but I really did not know how to use it in those early days. Sometimes I do not know how to properly use it now. The point is though that since that first day my health has improved drastically. My body weight is down to 280 lbs and my blood pressure is in the 120’s now. These are great benefits for me.
As it has only been a few months since I have started training at Neutral Ground, I know that I still have so much to learn and have a very long road ahead of me. You know what? That is okay because I feel like I have finally found a home. To me Neutral Ground is more than just a training facility. To me it has become more like a brotherhood. I look forward to each training session. I look forward to rolling and learning. It doesn’t matter that I am now 33 years old and wear a Gi because everyone else is wearing Gi’s too and some of them are a lot older than me!
Chances are that if you are reading this, then you are probably in a very similar situation to me. I am not a professional athlete nor am I an amateur athlete. I work full time in a very demanding industry and I also have a family. This really leaves little time in the day for training time. I am sure that you, like me, have read plenty of “training articles”, seen “inspirational memes”, and have read “fitness posts” by celebrated gurus talking about how easy it is to train and blah blah blah. Yeah, some of that stuff makes me sick to my stomach too.
If your career is in the “fitness industry” it is infinitely easier to train and maintain top condition because basically that is your livelihood and there is nothing wrong with that. If you are like me and working 8+ hours a day then you do not have the luxury of time to waste when you get to the gym, dojo, etc. Each and every training session must count. Then that poses the question, how can both you and I make the most of each training session?
This is a question that I ask myself every time before I set foot into the gym or the dojo. Since transitioning from powerlifting, my time with the weights has decreased immensely and a lot of that time has been replaced with Jiu Jitsu and now kickboxing. I get up early in the morning to hit the weights and can do this 3 times a week now. I get about a good 45 minutes per session. Yeah, that really is not a lot of time to train weights. There are some principles that I follow to maximize that time:
For the Gym:
* Always have a plan: I never walk into the weight room without a specific plan of what I am going to do that day. (I also usually have a back-up plan.) I write my plan on paper for that day and stick to it.
* Never bench on Mondays: This should be self explanatory, because Monday is “international bench day.” With 45 minutes to spare to hit the weights, waiting on a bench or a machine just isn’t an option. To avoid this I’ll squat on Mondays instead (most people hate squatting anyway).
* Limit rest between sets: Again not having the luxury of a lot of time, I limit the rest periods between sets. Yes this usually means that I am working with lighter weights so to offset that, I will perform higher repetitions.
* The gym is not a coffee shop: I will remain cordial but I am not going to get into a debate or long drawn out conversation at the gym. 5 minutes could potentially be 4 sets of an exercise that could be completed. Who has time to waste?
* Listening to your body: If an exercise is irritating an injury or causing unnecessary pain, then I will just skip that one and move on to the next one.
So this is what I think about when I am walking into the gym when most people are still nicely tucked in their comfy beds, snoring away (maybe I am a little jealous).
For the Dojo:
The same principles that I have listed above apply to when I am training in the dojo as well as some others.
* Set training goals: It was suggested to me that every training session that I go to that I should have at least one goal and that goal could be simple. For instance, today’s goal could be to work on the “scissor sweep” during live rolling or “the arm bar.” Drilling is cool and it is important but without learning how to apply that in a “real” situation then it doesn’t really work well.
* Push yourself: When I am on the mat, I have 1 hour from start to finish. That is it. 1 hour. That is not a lot of time so even during the times that I am feeling fatigued, I have to push myself to at least do 1 more roll. This is hard for me and has taken me time to build up conditioning to do so. It is easy to sit on the side and just watch but when I do that, I am not learning anything or getting any better.
* Ask questions: This can apply to anything in life, if you do not understand something then raise your hand or speak up and say that you do not understand it. For me being a bigger guy with a shorter stockier body type, I have to constantly ask questions about better way to perform movements just on the basis of my body type alone. Another reason to ask questions is to understand the concept behind the movement. Get to know the “why.”
* Be humble or get humbled: This is funny and true. I am one of the biggest and strongest guys where I train (thank you powerlifting) and I have been submitted more times that I can count by guys smaller and weaker than me. In Jiu Jitsu, specifically there is so much to learn and so many variables that it is easy to learn but almost impossible to master. So if you or I waltz into the gym thinking that we are bad ass, there is a 150 lb BJJ guru in there that will easily roll our ass up. It happens everyday.
Adding to the whole humility piece is the sportsmanship part of Jiu Jitsu. Each match is started with respect and ends with respect. Most of the time you are thanking your training partner or opponent after a match. You are thanking them because they have helped you to become better. This is the demonstration of humility or humility in action.
* Respect: This will allow you to get the most out of your training. How? Well, no one wants to train or work with an asshole. Your instructor/coach/master/professor has a wealth of knowledge that he has shared with his students and you. They have laid the foundation of which you are embarking upon your journey. Not only do they deserve your respect but also your team mates who have been there prior to you being there. When you give respect then you will receive respect. This will help to build a bond with your training partners and coach ensuring that they will continue to help you and hold you accountable so that you can be the best that you can be.
For the Family:
* Make time for family: This is very simple. If you do not make time for your family or include them in your activities, you will find yourself without a family. Discuss your training schedule with your significant other and allow them to make suggestions, ask questions and agree to it. It is important that your significant other is involved in your decision making process regarding your training. If you do not want them involved then you might want to drop them.
* Keep your weekends open: Saturday and Sunday are two days during the week that most likely you will not be working so instead of hitting the gym, go to the park or go shopping with the family. Hell, even go as far as setting a family day for one of those days. If you don’t then you run the risk of hurting your family through ignorance and neglect. Don’t be that person.
* Family first: You only get 1 family. Now this does not mean that you have to be a door mat to anyone and stop training. This means that your child’s doctors appointment is more important than a noon training session. Again if your family is not a priority to you then you will find yourself alone.
* Be clear about how you feel: My goal is to never leave the house angry and without saying I love you to my wife and children. Life is short and precious and could be over at any moment and the last thing that I would want my family to hear is me ranting and raving over some stupid bullshit. I want them to always know that I love them so my words and my actions have to always add up.
When it comes to Jiu Jitsu, I am just getting started on my journey. So do not expect me to write an article or blog about how to be great at Jiu Jitsu anytime soon. I do know about training and how to approach training and everything I have written here is how I am approaching my training. I like to think that I am making progress and getting better but like I have mentioned previously every damn time I think that I am doing good, I find myself tapping. Yeah BJJ is a very frustrating endeavor and it takes a great deal of commitment to get good (like anything else).
There is always a way to make the most out of your training even if you have a full life. The question I ask myself is “how much does this mean to me?”