Master the art of jiu-jitsu and you have mastered the science of anatomy. Understanding how the body moves and knowing what positions make us strong, and our opponents weak, is what jiu-jitsu is all about. Equally important is to know our anatomy and understand the components of the musculoskeletal system. Once we begin to learn how the body moves, and become familiar with the physics of body position and joint mechanics, we will start finding success on the mat.
At the foundation of every machine lies the framework on which everything else is built. The bones that form our skeletal system are the foundation upon which the rest of the body is made. Often referred to as “stronger than steel,” the 206 bones that make up the human skeletal system support the muscles and protect the brain and spinal cord. Unlike the rest of the musculoskeletal system, the bones are capable of withstanding tremendous amounts of force, but have little affinity to bend, stretch, compress or twist. The unique cellular matrix of calcium, minerals, and collagen, combined with the body’s innate ability to heal itself, is what makes our bones so incredibly strong and also capable of repair. Break a bone, let it heal, and it will be as good as new if not stronger under the right circumstances. No other part of anatomy can we say the same.
Muscles are what make us move. We typically think of the 600 plus muscles in our body as the “red stuff” in the anatomy charts that just perform two things – contract and relax. When worked hard enough, and given the proper amount of nutrition and rest, the tissues that make up muscles can hypertrophy and become stronger over time. During grappling sessions our muscles are constantly flowing between varying states of contraction and relaxation, or shortening and lengthening, to move our body and our opponent’s. As we all know, overcoming resistance while grappling is not simply about strength. Using the correct body positioning and leverage to create an advantage is what lies at the core of jiu-jitsu. Anyone who has trained in jiu-jitsu knows that inches make all the difference between using brute force versus technique to create a mechanical advantage.
Cushioning our bones is the cartilage, which also allows for smooth movement in the joints. There is soft cartilage in our knees as well as in between the vertebra which act as shock absorbers to distribute the force during weight-bearing activities. The meniscus in the knees and the annular fibers of the intervertebral discs are both made of cartilage. Injuries to these structures do not heal as well as we would like, due to less vasculature and blood supply. Tissues that have less blood flow generally receive less oxygen and other nutrients required for repair, which is why meniscus tears in the knee do not heal well and the discs in our spine wear out and degenerate over time.