Mental-Physical Transitions

Photo courtesy of Matthew Serjeant Photography

            I'm sure you've all heard and read plenty of articles and opinions on the curse of the blue belt.  The length of time between belts of the average Jiu-Jiteiro, the mysterious mandate that professors have for promotions, all of the usual mental stuff right?

            Here's a new one based on the physiological side of things which can affect the mental side.

            Let's draw a comparison with lifting weights.  When you're new to weight-lifting, you see a good amount of progress in a few short weeks.  Then after the first couple of months, you don't see the same progression despite increasing the mass that you're lifting.  You change your exercises, but it's a slow progression.  Sometimes you'll get the answer "your body gets used to it."  And it's not entirely wrong.

            What it is actually called is neuromuscular adaptation.  You are using your muscles in a new way, and your brain has to get used to using them in that particular way.  A voluntary muscle contraction (henceforth called an "Action Potential", or AP) is fired from the motor cortex, down the central nervous system, and to the target muscle group.  Neurons are the highways that these AP travel down, right up to meeting the actual muscle fibres.  As you fire more AP down a particular neuron highway, your highways adapt to the traffic; their Na/K pumps are faster, there is more myelination (insulation), and the AP gets there faster.

            The bulk of your progress is the path the AP takes to get to the muscle groups.  There is still hypertrophy in muscle fibres, increased capillarization, but it's mostly your neurological.  Once your body has made proper highways for an AP, the muscle fibres become responsible for the progress.  You lift more, you lift for longer, and you're less sore.  You get used to it.

            Now let's bring it back to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  The bulk of Jiu-Jiteiros don't have any prior grappling experience, though some have experience in other martial arts.  Your body has to get used to a whole new experience, and it's not just a single muscle group at a time.  It takes a while as compared to weight lifting, and just as your progress seems to be slowing, you hit blue belt.  And generally it's not long after that when new blue belts disappear.

            A new belt is great for the mental side of things, but does little for your body in terms of adaptations.  So what is the answer?  I say focus on the mental side now.  Your body is ready to accept new information, so open your mind to the wealth of knowledge out there.  Learn new things, shore up areas that you are weak in, continue to improve in areas that you are strong in, don't let stagnation affect you because it is likely only you who sees it that way.  Recognizing this and the path ahead of you will go a long ways towards staying in the game.  Become the student.  Respect the Technique.

By: Kiyoshi Perkins, BJJ Blue Belt
Triangle Athletics Sponsored Athlete

Kiyoshi Perkins
Kiyoshi Perkins


Phys Ed/Coaching student, blog writer by afternoon, grappler by early evening.