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Mens Health South Africa Features Rener Gracie

April 6, 2012

The following article entitled The Art of Spinal Defence was published in the April 2012 issue of Men's Health Magazine in South Africa.

The Art of Spinal Defence

Learn the secrets that helped Brazilian jiu jitsu master Rener Gracie overcome a debilitating back injury and return better than ever

By Charles Human

"How about this?" says Rener Gracie, tossing his grappling partner onto his back and looming over him, fist poised to strike. Rener twists, slams and chokes his partner with an ease that clearly shows he's a master of his art. But when we get talking, his Jedi-like focus gives way to an infectious enthusiasm.

"I've been doing this since I could walk," he says, "and I still love training every day." As a third-generation member of the legendary Gracie family, he has a lot to live up to. His grandfather, Helio Gracie, took the Japanese art of jiu jitsu and reinvented it as a comprehensive and versatile modern fighting system. His father, Rorion, is also widely credited with founding the biggest mixed martial-arts organization in the world, the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

With a legacy like that, telling a Gracie he can't grapple is like telling him he can't breathe. So when a training incident left Rener with a herniated spinal disc it was a big deal. "It was excruciating," he says. "It was so painful that I could barely walk. It's not something I'd wish on anyone."

If the injury itself was painful, being forced to skip training was sheer torture. Although he doesn't go in for the mysticism of traditional Eastern martial arts, Rener drew on the Gracie style of jiu jitsu's pragmatic approach to help him through it. "An injury is like any other opponent: you have to study it, understand it - and then beat it," he says.

Approaching recovery with the same passion and focus that he uses on the mat, Rener fought his way back to health and is now continuing the family legacy with even more determination and vigour. Use his tactics to overcome injury and supercharge your own recovery time.

Take a balanced approach
The constant pressure of fighting off an opponent who is hell-bent on choking you can, understandably, put a massive strain on your spinal cord. Rener underwent surgery to relieve some of the pain, but it didn't address the underlying problem. The nature of his sport is such that he needed to change the way he approached his workout. "Jiu jitsu is a natural workout for your abs," Rener says. "Before my injury, I didn't focus enough on my back."

  • GET BACK ON FORM You may not be fighting off grapplers on a daily basis, but the same principle of muscular balance applies for back problems caused by lifestyle. "In general it is good to strengthen the 'physiological corset' of the trunk, including all the abdominal and back muscles," says Magda Fourie, a physiotherapist with the South African Society of Physiotherapy. Examine your lifestyle to identify the repetitive postures and movements that are a threat to your well-being. Once you've found the problem, make sure your workout includes exercises that address it.

Stay Motivated
What was 10 months of not being able to train like for a Gracie? "Are you kidding? It was the worst thing ever," Rener says.

Recovering from injury can be far more challenging than you expect. Not being able to train can have a detrimental effect on both your attitude and your life.

"Recovery can be a stressful time. You may feel that the pain is stopping you from taking part in activities that give your life value and meaning," says Fourie. So finding a way to overcome this tendency towards depression and apathy is vitally important in keeping both your body and mind in fighting shape.

"Luckily Brazilian jiu jitsu is not about brute strength. It's more about technique," Rener says. "So even when I wasn't grappling I could still learn." By observing other grapplers in action he was able to refine his own technique without stepping onto the mat. He zoned in on the guy he considered his toughest opponent - his brother, Ryron - and studied his technique. "When I got back I knew exactly what I needed to do. My technique was much better than it was before my injury," says Rener.

  • GET BACK ON FORM In his book, A Fighter's Heart (R132,, mixed martial-arts fighter Sam Sheridan writes: "There is a Brazilian word, malandro , that conveys something of essence of a crook, but also of someone who turns a disadvantage, a potential setback, into an advantage." By focusing on what he could do rather than what he couldn't, Rener turned his injury into a way to learn. To do the same, use your enforced time off to find someone who is at the top of their game in your chosen sport or hobby and observe them. Pay attention to every detail of their technique and try to replicate it in your mind.

Take it easy
Men aren't always good at taking things slow. Slow traffic, slow Internet, slow doesn't take long for the impatience - and the rage - to rise. Not operating at your optimum level can be just as infuriating. You know how it goes: you're Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi is telling you to paint the fence while the Cobra Kai sensei in your head is telling you to shake it off and be a man. After all, injury rehab is a sign of weakness, right? Wrong. Your gun-ho attitude could cost you months of recovery time in the long run.

  • GET BACK ON FORM As you recover there's the danger of pretending you're okay just so you can make that game of paintball or take the crease in an impromptu game of backyard cricket. "I started off really slowly and then gradually progressed," Rener says. "Only once I could do an exercise without pain did I progress to something more difficult." Going slowly gives your body more time to adjust. Use low-impact activities like walking or swimming to keep you active and gradually increase your exercise regime while giving your muscles time to adjust to the added workload.

Practise spinal self-defense
Your lower back muscles are like your spine's bodyguards, ready to jump into the line of fire when your back comes under attack. Even if you're not getting in the cage like a Gracie, a sedentary lifestyle will throw you to the ground and kick the stuffing out of you just as easily. Heavy lifting, long hours sitting in front of your computer and lounging in front of your TV are a recipe for back pain. "Everyone gets back pain at some time in their lives," says Fourie. "What's clear, is that the fit person will recuperate faster and more effectively than the unfit person."

Brazilian jiu jitsu naturally works the stomach muscles; fighting from your back is like one big stomach crunch. But your abs are only half the secret to a rock-solid core. Your lumbar muscles are the vital other half that will add to your core's strength.

"The core is not just about abs," has become something of a mantra for Rener Gracie. I should be for you, too.

  • GET BACK ON FORM Instead of treating them like bodyguards, we often treat our back muscles like the nerdy kids who never got picked for sports. Sure, we may pay attention to them while they're injured, but as soon as we're fighting fit we forget them and go back to focusing on cooler muscles like the chest, biceps and abs. Your back muscles are crying out for attention. If you ignore them, they will make themselves heard - or felt. The key is to work your back muscles at least as long as your work your abdominals. Make sure you include exercises like the ones on these pages, which target the muscles that really make a difference when it comes to spinal health.

Daily life is like a dark alley and the twin thugs of sedentary lifestyle and bad posture are waiting around every corner to jump out and kick your spine into submission. Here's how to open a can of whoop ass on them.

1. Monitor your lifestyle
Your computer screen should be positioned so that the top is in line with your eyes. Too low and your neck will be tilted forwards, too high and you'll be tilting your head backwards. Apply this same advice to whenever you're sitting in front of a screen. Watching movies on your laptop in bed? Not a good idea.

2. Avoid heavy lifting
"Research tells us that a sedentary lifestyle and repeated heavy lifting may contribute to the development of back pain," warns Magda Fourie, a physiotherapist with the South African Society of Physiotherapy. You might impress your neighbour by carrying her couch up the stairs, but you're not doing yourself any favours. "Help me with this?" could save you months of pain.

3. Stay active
Even if you're a regular at the gym, long periods of sitting are just plain bad for you. Work life can be a real killer (literally) as it can contribute not only to back pain but also to heart disease. So be like that hyperactive kid at school and walk around as much as possible. Schedule regular tea breaks, go over to IT instead of emailing them or, if the weather is good, go for a walk. It could save your back - and your life.