Today, I'm going to try and tackle the age old question: Does Size really Matter? Put simply, the answer is yes, it does indeed (and that is also what she said, but we are talking about jiu jitsu here, grapplers).
From my experience, it's pretty common for grapplers to struggle to find the size and weight (or weightclass) that optimizes their individual skills as a competitor. Strength and endurance, among other things, are likewise affected when the grappler adjusts his/her weight and size. I've had my own adventure in this area, and, given all the factors involved, I don't know if there are any universal truths on the subject, but I'm going to share my story and what I've learned.
Stage One: The Beginning Grappler Starts Out at His/Her Natural Size/Weight.
When I first started training jiu jitsu, I was relatively bulked up, and hovered at around 190 lbs (I'm 6' exactly). I had been lifting weights for many years and being strong helped me as a beginner. I could maintain certain positions more easily and, when in doubt, squeeze the crap out of my opponents, like so many young belts do (inappropriately I might add).
From my experience, it's very common for the beginning grappler to rely on strength, so having as much as possible is critical.
Stage Two: The Fallacy of Getting Smaller.At some point in their history, many competitive or moderately advanced grapplers consider dieting down to a lower weightclass in order to be more competitive. I'm speaking from my own experience, and from what I consistently see in my teammates/colleagues. This is really where this journey begins for most.
For me, it started in 2003, when I first dropped from 190 lb to around 174 lb. I dieted, starved etc., in order be leaner and to compete as a middleweight in Pan American (as a blue belt and yes, I actually won).
The rationale here is simple - we generally believe that we'll be more competitive if we compete against opponents who are essentially smaller than us. This is a common practice in many sports, including collegiate wrestling, boxing and mma. And, from my own experience and from what we see these sports, there's some truth in that.
The questions are: How do you know when you've dropped too much? And, what are the effects on your game and health? I speak for myself in saying, I reduced too much over the years in the name of being more competitive. After initially dropping to middleweight in '03, my teammate and I decided to try drop further to the lightweight class. We were suposedly emulating Helio Gracie - the original small and light yet still deftly effective grappler. I dropped down to 160 lbs, and my teammate, who is a natural 190 lb'er, dropped below 160.
And we did win some tournaments (as a purple, I medaled in Pan American and won the Gracie Open too) . But, the reality for me was that I had effectively lost a tremendous amount of core strength and a lot of my durability. I injured myself more easily and my joints took a beating. I relied on my guard game and had no real power to keep down stronger opponents in side control or mount. What's worse is, while I was more competitive in my weightclass, I was less competitive overall. The bigger, stronger and less skilled opponent had a definite advantage over me due to my ultra-lean build.
Stage 3: Coming Full Circle.
It was only this year that came to realize that a stronger, possibly heavier, version of myself is probably a better grappler than the lighter, leaner version. I'd come full circle.
So this year I've cranked up the weight training and am eating more food. The journey is still continuing, only this time I'm struggling to get back the valuable weight and power that I lost over the years. But, I'm seeing positive results and am on the right track.
So what have I learned? I'll try and distill it down to a few key points:
- Never compromise power and strength for reduced weight.
- Listen to your body, and heed the warnings of increased fatigue and injury/pain.
- De-emphasize competition weightclass and place greater emphasis on overall competitiveness.