In the spring of 2010, I walked in a Chinese New Year parade with a heavy backpack. At the end I felt tired but otherwise o.k. When I woke up the next morning it was a different story: my entire lower back was in excruciating pain. I got on BART and tried to find a comfortable place to sit but every position hurt. The only thing that worked was lying flat on my bed with an ice pack.
I visited a doctor and, later, a chiropractor who recommended that I take off of physical activity for the next six months outside of swimming. At that point, I jumped on the scale, just to see where things stood. It had been a while. I was 245 lbs., far larger than I anticipated. I’d always been a bigger guy, especially because I enjoyed lifting weights, but this was beyond discouraging.
Later that year, I started some cross training: weights, kettlebells and conditioning. I saw some results but, come 2012, I wasn’t near where I wanted to be. I decided to take another approach and get a heavy bag. But I didn’t know how to use it or box; it was big arm punches and no footwork all the way. So, in January of 2012, I ended up at SBG NorCal in Berkeley with Coach Alan Pagle, who assured me he could teach me a few things. My plan was to spend a month or two there and then go my own way.
However, I was quickly drawn to the training. Training MMA and kickboxing was different and far more challenging than anything I’d ever done, particularly when sparring was introduced. I learned a jab and a cross (my kicks are only now catching up) and how to defend but what happened on the ground was far different. I found that my natural advantages – size and strength – could be easily nullified by someone with technique. The whole enterprise was intriguing, especially the people that came to train BJJ after the other classes. Coach Lily Pagle suggested I spend six weeks in an accelerated training group for grappling. I learned that I wasn’t very accelerated, but I was so fascinated with the art that I felt inclined to continue. So I bought a gi.
Part of me is also a realist: I want to continue training well into the future. As much as I love kickboxing, and continue to train as much as I’m able, I’m not convinced I’ll be able to throw hard kicks and punches in two decades (although I hope to prove myself wrong). Jiu-Jitsu is something you can train for your entire life; the coaches in my gym, especially Coach Lily, are living proof.
I’ve now been at this jiu-jitsu thing for a year-plus, and I am the proud owner of red and yellow stripes. They don’t indicate promotion but that I’m able to grapple with most people in the gym, which is perfect. It means I can work and learn, which is what matters. And I’m 42 years old with 43 coming in the near future. I’ve made jiu-jitsu a habit, even if circumstances sometimes make it tough to come as much as I want. I’m convinced that jiu-jitsu should be embraced by people at mid-life, and not for the reasons you often hear (self-defense). Here’s why the training is so valuable:
Why walk away from the truth? Jiu-jitsu is challenging. It’s challenging technically and sometimes feels like Twister without an instruction manual. It’s tough physically, even if you are bigger (like me). Some classes are an hour of frustration. There are plenty of books about grappling with bigger, larger opponents. Where are the books for larger, stronger people who get tapped? But the fact that it’s hard is a good thing if you are over 40. As people start to age our culture wants to make things easy. You can play golf instead of something physically challenging. When you play golf, you can use a cart instead of walking. You’re encouraged to take it easy and not challenge yourself. Jiu-jitsu is the perfect challenge because the art is about seeking the most efficient and methodical way to win. It’s not about being strong; trust me, I know. It’s about being able to spot opportunities. One of these years I hope to start spotting them.
You will build a community.
As I approached 40 I didn’t have a group of people I trusted and enjoyed being around like my parents did. I now have that. Jiu-jitsu has offered a community I never had because I’m not a church guy and because working as a writer means a lot of time in my own head. There’s not a person in my gym that I’m not grateful to know. I learn from everyone, regardless of age or experience. It’s a real gift. I no longer go to the gym because I feel like I have something to prove. I go to have fun training with my friends.
Your doctor visits will be happy.
My doctor visits as I got along in my 30s were discouraging. I was stressed and overweight and my cholesterol and blood pressure climbed. In my 40s I’m having some of the best physical exams of my life, without radical diets, abstinence or avoiding food I like (although I am more prudent). I’m about 40 pounds lighter than I was four years ago. My doctor told me to continue doing whatever I’m doing because it’s working. What I’m doing is training jiu-jitsu.
Difficult emotions will be easier to manage.
Getting older in our culture means you have to handle a lot: traffic jams, bills, deaths in the family, too much work, financial concerns, bad news. When you train jiu-jitsu you enter a pure place: all that matters is what happens on the mat. If you aren’t paying attention, whether during training or rolling, it will become quickly evident. The more I’ve trained the more I’ve learned to focus on what matters: what’s right in front of you. And when you’ve been at a real disadvantage during a roll other things in life won’t seem as significant.
Your age will be an asset.
Everyone talks about the shortcomings: reduced flexibility, less muscle mass, more aches and pains. I’m often dog-tired the day after training. There are also upsides. At 40 plus you know that life is about the long haul, not the short term. What matters is that you stay on track and continue to train, not that you train well for two weeks. You will be able to deal with setbacks because you’ve likely encountered many in other parts of life.
You won’t get bored.
This might be the most important fact. Everyone is telling you to go for a walk, swim at an easy pace, and avoid challenge. How about a smart challenge? I might have been frustrated or exhausted or confused at jiu-jitsu. When John Frankl visited our gym I sometimes felt like I was learning another language. But I’ve never been bored. The fact that I get a great workout seems almost secondary.
Going to the gym and standing on machines gets old fast. There is an element of play to a good roll. When I started training I tried to muscle everything. It didn’t help and often led to bad positions. When Matt Thornton visited our gym the main point I learned was to try to regulate your breathing and pace yourself. The more I’ve tried to do that, the more I’ve enjoyed training. Someone remarked recently that they liked rolling with me and never felt like I was trying to muscle, which is possibly the best feedback I’ve received. If I try to train this way I’ll improve.
I recently received an email from a friend who bemoaned all the aches and pains he experienced when he did some additional weight training. I couldn’t identify because I train jiu-jitsu. My goals now are to drop a few more pounds and eventually compete.
If you are 40 plus, you should train jiu-jitsu, preferably with us. If that’s not enough to convince you why don’t you come ask me in person? I’m usually in classes on Wednesday and Saturday and Monday when I can manage. You can also find me training kickboxing or at boot camp. Come when you want; I plan on doing this for a long time.
JUSTIN NORTON has been a member of SBG NorCal since 2012 and started training jiu-jitsu in 2013 at 41. He is a former Associated Press reporter and now freelances for magazines including Decibel and Fight!