In terms of importance for Jiu Jitsu proficiency, be it in practice or competition, the hips are by far the one area that has the greatest impact on performance in the sport. Whether being used in the most fundamental of positions to create space to escape, generate angles for attack or producing speed and power for more advanced sweeps and takedowns, the hips are responsible for bridging the gap between lower and upper body power generation and creating the leverage needed to apply the forces used in Jiu Jitsu techniques. Looking into their function, specifically within the art of Jiu Jitsu, studying the science behind the hips will help give us a better understanding as to how we can maximize their potential for creating energy efficient movements and improve our all around game on the mats.
Hips and Principles of Physics
Going back to science, we know that force is any action that causes a body to undergo a change in velocity, speed or direction, usually from a pushing or pulling force exerted on the body. In attempting sweeps and takedowns, we are applying force to accomplish this goal, by using leverage and technique, coupled with speed and power. Power is the rate that this force is applied and transferred to this body or object. In the case of Jiu Jitsu; we normally are referring to our opponent when we talk about the application of force on an object. When an object, or opponent, is then moved or repositioned such as the case of performing a takedown for example, we can say that work has been done on that object. The amount of work done on an object is in direct proportion to the amount of force that can be generated and applied to the object. The more force applied, the more work that can be accomplished.
In terms of Jiu Jitsu application, we can sweep, pass, defend and perform takedowns with greater speed and efficiency when we apply these principles of physics. The goal of any Jiu Jistu artist is to use the least amount of energy possible to create the greatest impact and movement of your opponent. As the hips are the body part responsible for coordinating our upper and lower bodies, as well as positioning our bodies to take advantage of angles and space, the impact that they have on generating force and power is profound. When the hips are used properly, we can maximize our potential strength and generate more power to ultimately use less energy performing the same amount of work as compared to someone trying to “muscle” their way through the same technique. When one uses just their arms to try and move an opponent or only their legs to complete a movement, they waste energy and have a much more difficult time applying their technique properly. Correct hip positioning will maximize efficiency of movement and conserve energy, time and power as well as decrease the chances of failure in attempted techniques. When this happens, and the hips are used properly, you will see effortless Jiu Jitsu, the kind of jiu jitsu where a person looks as if they are using no strength, yet easily manipulating their opponent.
Hips as an Interchangeable Term with Technique
The idea of being technically proficient in Jiu Jitsu really means that you can control your opponent with greater ease and with less output of energy than they use while successfully preventing them from applying their technique efficiently against you. The hips are a critical part in almost every position and situation in Jiu Jitsu in demonstrating technical proficiency. If the hips are used incorrectly a seasoned opponent will take advantage of the situation and force a series of mistakes to be made and change the momentum of a match. It’s the reason why a smaller person can dominate a much larger adversary. For example, take downs on an opponent will be made easier when you harness the power of leverage and strength from proper hip placement. When you try to force a take down with just your arms and back muscles, you not only give yourself a much tougher time physically, but you also give your opponent a chance to defend fairly easily by dropping their hips and neutralizing your attack practically before it even began. However, by lowering your hips below the opponents and driving them forward when you shoot for a takedown, you will extend the powerful muscles of your own legs and knock your opponent off balance for two points. This synchronization of the upper and lower bodies makes more efficient use of strength and generates greater power from a better position of leverage, making the technique easier to perform and thus more technically proficient.
Another example is when you have an opponent in side control and use the principles of hip control to establish a dominant position and prevent them from moving and escaping beneath you. By staying heavy with your hips on top of them, you use leverage, gravity and just a small amount of energy to create incredible pressure which effectively pins them to the mat. When done while simultaneously controlling your opponents hips, you prevent them from creating space to generate both the leverage and power which they need to escape. In both situations, you need to effectively drive into heir body with your hips and position them properly to expend less energy to control your opponent and achieve technical mastery. It’s the proper use of hips which make some people feel as if they weigh substantially heavier than they actually do.
Hips to Create and Maintain Space and Angles
Arguably the single most important solo drill in Jiu Jitsu would be the hip escape. I have never been to a Jiu Jitsu academy where this was not taught the first day to a new student of the art. The importance placed upon this movement is certainly not undeserved. Without proper hip movements in Jiu Jitsu, you would not be able to create the space that is needed in order to apply the most basic techniques, like escapes or sweeps. When in a dangerous position, we shrimp out with our hips to create a space to recover our guard. On the bottom, we hip escape to create leverage for moves like a scissor sweep or to catch an armbar. We align our hips in a manner that capitalizes on using our body’s strength more effectively against our opponents when their bodies are aligned in such a way that allows us to take advantage of them while they are at their weakest.
We try to get out hips under our opponents to facilitate lifting them and disrupting their base and balance to create the correct distance we need to reverse them. When we have someone in our guard, we can push off their hips to maintain space by keeping our feet planted on them so that we can move around and generate distance and angles more suitable for our attacks. When we are in someone’s guard, we control their hips preventing them from elevating into armbars or triangle submission attempts. It’s the positioning of the hips that allows us the space and leverage needed to apply our Jiu Jitsu techniques.
By preventing our opponents from controlling our hips, we enable ourselves the opportunity to move freely in almost any direction that we chose as well as recover our guard when caught by a faster stronger opponent. The more that our opponent begins to control us and eliminate our hip movement, the fewer options we have available to us to escape and transition to other positions. It is of paramount importance that we maintain the freedom to move our hips unrestricted in order to be effective in Jiu Jitsu.
Conversely, we would want to control our opponent’s hips as much as we can, as it is the key to eliminating their offensive and defensive capabilities. When we mount someone, we want to lookout for them bumping us off with their hips and bridging as these are the best chances an opponent has to escape from that position. In side control, when we dominate and control their hips, we can eliminate their ability to hip out and reposition their knees in between our bodies to replace their guard.
Controlling a person’s hips will even limit the range of motion they have in their shoulders and upper torso as their upper body is connected to their hips and requires some freedom of pelvic mobility in order for the upper body to move effectively. There is only so far a person can rotate at the core when their hips are locked flat on the mat. When we take someone’s back, we keep our opponents locked in tight against our bodies, eliminating space, making them unable to escape our attack by controlling their hips and legs with our hooks and preventing them from scooting out to limit our ability to move our hips freely. Everything we do in Jiu Jitsu requires some degree of hip functionality, placement and mobility, whether we realize it or not. The more aware we are of the hips importance in grappling, the more we can utilize it to improve our game.
Improving Hip strength and Flexibility
It should be no secret that the best fighters in the world, whether it be in wrestling, BJJ or any other grappling sport, have heavy hips and are able to create huge amounts of space and pressure quickly. They can turn the corners on their opponents during a match, taking their backs in an instant. They can sustain crushing pressure when in side control or the mounted position because of their proper use of their hips. Most beginning Jiu Jitsu students are usually in awe of this effective technical ability and are without an answer as to how these veterans of the sport are able to move in such a precise and devastating manner.
The one thing that does seem to be missing in the training of many Jiu Jitsu practitioners is exercises designed to increase hip flexibility and overall speed and strength. The hips are designed to move and rotate as a ball and socket joint in a circular manner in almost a three hundred and sixty degree range of motion. The more active we are and the more we practice stretching and strengthening our hips, the more mobility and power we will posses in them. When people ignore training these important joints, they allow their hip flexors and hamstrings to tighten up and shorten which will cause a decrease in their overall flexibility and range of motion in their hips, especially as they grow older.
When our hips loose flexibility, we may begin to over compensate other muscle groups such as the knees, legs and lower back and begin to slowly develop chronic injuries over time. This can easily be avoided by adding a few beneficial exercises to your training routine. There are many exercises that we do in the gym before class to loosen up and help with flexibility, but overall to achieve greater results and improvement in hip strength, one needs to supplement what is performed in class with a little extra work outside their normal training sessions.
To improve flexibility in the hips, a few extra stretches can do wonders for a Jiu Jitsu fighter. A simple bridging exercise will stretch out the hip flexors and improve your overall mobility.
1. Partial Hip Bridge. Start out by lying on your back, with your feet on the floor slightly apart with your knees bent, you raise your hips off the ground and upwards. Hold this stretch for 20-30 seconds and repeat for 3-4 sets. You should strive to feel a gentle stretch in your pelvic girdle. Eventually you can work up into a full bridge with your hands on the ground and a full arching of your back.
2. Cobra Stretch. Starting off by lying on your stomach, have your legs spread out away from your body behind you with the tops of your feet against the ground. Place your hands on the mat about shoulder width apart and push off the ground slowly to raise your upper body while keeping your hips driving against the ground. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds and repeat for 3-4 sets. As a variation, sitting back in base, as if you were in someone’s guard. Make sure that you position your feet so that you are sitting on them with the top of the foot against the floor underneath you. Place your hands on the mat with your back arched slightly upwards; drive your hips forward which should start to bring your abs and chest close to your thighs and knees. This will help open your hip flexors and increase your flexibility.
3. Lunging stretch. Step forward with one foot and bend at the knee. Stretch your other foot backwards balancing yourself on your toes. In this position, lower your hips to the ground and focus on the flexing of the pelvic joint. If added into your routine on a regular basis, you should start to feel and notice improvements in your hip mobility in a short amount of time.
4. S –Stretch. Sitting on the mat in almost a hurdler’s position, you will place your right leg in front of you and bend it at the knee, bringing your right foot back in towards your left hip. Your left leg will be stretched out behind you with your left foot curled behind your right side, making an s shape with your legs. You will lean your upper body forward, trying to touch your chest to the inner thigh and knee of your right leg. After holding for 20-30 seconds, you will turn towards your right foot and lean forward over your shin while pressing your chest down also 20-30 seconds. Finally you will turn towards your outside with your left elbow touching your right knee and try to lay your chest flat on the mat and hold this position for the same amount of time. If you want to adjust this drill for the benefit of speed and balance, switch legs without using your hands for balance as fast as you can for a set amount of time or repetitions.
To improve hip strength, there are many exercises that can benefit both the flexor and extensors as well as improve the power you can generate. By strengthening muscle groups above and below the hips, you will begin to strengthen the hips themselves.
1. Single leg step ups. These help increase the strength involved in extending the legs and hips and require the use of the hamstring and gluteus muscles. Find an elevated platform, such as a bench or plyometric steps and slowly step up onto it with 1 foot and raise the body slowly up onto the bench while maintaining controlled movements and balance. Slowly raising and lowering the body in this exercise will help increase the strengthening of the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the hips. Do 3-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions for each leg.
2. Box jumps, squats and lunges also work very well for the purpose of strengthening the hip flexors and should be performed with a conscientious attention to the hips themselves, rather than the muscles of the legs to increase the benefits of strengthening this region. At the end of each repetition, extend the hips outwards, over exaggerating the “popping out” of the hips to ensure that they are getting a proper workout. This may require doing these as body weight exercises at first and paying close attention to how they feel during and after workouts to prevent straining or injuring them.
3. Stability ball exercises. To increase hip flexor strength, you will want to focus on the muscle groups of the abdominal region. Stability ball exercises are well suited for this purpose. Start by lying down face on top of the exercise ball. Walk your hands out in front of you into a pushup position with your feet resting on the ball into a plank position and hold the position for 30 seconds to a minute. By focusing on the pelvic muscles, you will increase the strength in your hip flexors. Perform 3-4 sets of this exercise.
4. Pull up bar hang and twist. While hanging from a pull up bar, raise your knees towards your chest and then twist your upper torso to the left and right with your knees bent at a ninety degree angle. Try to do this while keeping your upper torso as straight as possible, using your hips to generate the power needed to move your legs. When you get comfortable with this, try to do it with your legs completely extended outwards. This is a great exercise that will increase the strength of your hip flexors and improve your speed. The added benefit is that it will increase grip strength, lower back and abdominal muscles as well. Try to do 3-4 sets of 20 repetitions.
5. Triangles. Lying on your back with your hands palm down at your sides, lift your hips off the ground as high as you can and practice locking in triangles. By focusing on the lifting motion of the pelvis high off the ground, you will develop functional strength in the hips. When you’re hips are stronger and faster than your opponents, you will be able to beat them to certain positions and have an easier time dominating them in a match. As the most important area in our bodies for Jiu Jitsu, we should stress strength in our hips as a major priority in our training routines.
Essentially there is no position in Jiu Jitsu where you don’t use your hips. Hips are the key to success in Jiu Jitsu. Without mobility and strength in your hips, you will have difficulty trying to create the space, leverage and force needed to apply your techniques. Soon you will revert to using too much strength and energy in your arms and back and you will tire out quickly. Against a seasoned Jiu Jitsu fighter, this will be the beginning of the end for you. When you use strength, you get tired. When you get tired, you make mistakes. When you make mistakes, you get tapped out. Practice hip drills with a partner. If you are alone, there are tons of solo drills that will improve your game. Increase your strength and flexibility in the hips and focus on them as they are the most important piece of the Jiu Jitsu puzzle. When you take the time to recognize the tremendous role that the hips play overall in your game, and make an effort to improve this aspect of your Jiu Jitsu, you will begin to make huge gains on the mat as the hips truly are the centerpiece of the gentle art.
Written By BJJ Black Belt Tim Bruce from Gracie Barra Delray Beach