Interview with BJJ Black belt and Physiotherapist, Thomas Johannessen on his journey and his advice on top exercises for BJJ

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This week we feature an interview with Norwegian Black belt competitor, Thomas Johannessen. Thomas started his BJJ journey at Trondheim BJJ in 2003, but moved to Oslo and Frontline Academy in 2006. Awarded his black belt by Eduardo «Teta» Rios in 2013, he has several competition achievements including the recent London open in the male adult Black belt division. Thomas is also an accomplished physiotherapist and personal trainer and share some advice in this interview on best exercise to improve physical condition for BJJ. You can follow him on Instagram @thojohan

1. Hi, please Introduce yourself
Hi! My name is Thomas Johannessen, I’m a black belt under Eduardo “Teta” Rios at Frontline Academy. As a brown belt I got two bronze medals from European Open, silver medal from Pan-Ams and Rome Open, and gold medal from Abu Dhabi Pro Warzaw and Swedish Open. As a black belt I have double gold in Nice Open and Swedish Open, and gold medals from Rome Open, Nordic Open and London Fall Open (two years in a row). All in the adult division. I work as a physiotherapist and personal trainer at Elixia.

2. What is your BJJ story?
I started training at Trondheim BJJ in 2003 under Per Christian Andresen. I was promoted to blue belt in 2005 by Roy Harris but I trained mostly no gi. Actually, I never owned a white belt or even a gi before I got promoted. I moved to Oslo in 2006 and started training at Frontline Academy. I mostly trained nogi still, and I remember getting smashed by more technical blue belts with the gi. My instructors in the beginning were Trond, Morten and Renato who all helped me a lot. But it was when Eduardo Rios moved to Oslo full time and started teaching I became 100 % commited to train with the gi. I also had a pretty severe neck injury that made me think more about training smarter, and from 2008 I started doing regular drilling sessions which helped me a lot since I’ve lifted weights many years, and was using a lot of power with very limited technique the first years.

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In 2009 I received my purple belt and also got the pleasure of visiting Rio with my professor, train at BTT and Gordo, and also compete in the famouse Tijuca Tennis Club at the Rio Open. I remember getting double bronze, and it was a great experience (and when I looked at the podium photo last year I suddenly recognized the guy in second place in the open weight being Joao Gabriel Rocha). In 2011 I got my brown belt, and started to compete more, especially in IBJJF tournaments. In 2012 I hurt my neck severly again, this time I needed double fusion surgery because of nerve root damage. It took me 4 months to get back on the mat, and after 6 months I won the Swedish Open which was really emotional for me since two doctors first told me to quit BJJ. But I didn’t feel in feel good competition shape until the winter of 2013 when I got a silver in the Pan Ams.

Late 2013 I got my black belt from my good friend and professor Eduard Rios, and it was a very proud moment, and I’m really happy to be part of his lineage. I’ve been trying to compete as much as I can, and I remember most my first IBJJF gold medal as a black belt in Rome, and my first double gold in Nice last year. I also try to referee on local event as well as Swedish Open and Nordic Open, and I’ve been doing seminars in Tromsø, Bodø and Bergen as well as deputizing as instructor at Frontline Academy,. At the moment I’m just enjoying training, being injury free (knock on wood) and being a part of the awesome BJJ community in Norway!

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3. You competed at the London open recently, tell us how did that go?
I won the adult super heavy division after two chokes. In the open weight I won my first by triangle, and got caught in a triangle myself in the second fight. You live by the sword, you die by the sword :p

4. You have trained and competed in many places, what makes Oslo so special?
I think the combination of great instructors and a friendly but competitive environment is the key. Everyone training to become the best they can, but also respecting their training partner and realizing he or she is crucial to their progress in the sport. Also I recognize from other successful gyms I’ve visited the focus and intensity in the trainings, and the will to put in the hours and quality it takes to progress. Also there is no elitist thinking, and if you’re a white belt coming to open mat, chances are big you will get to roll with a black belt or two if you want. We’ve had visitors saying that’s not common at their gym, but remember all world champions started as white belts.

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5. You are also a personal trainer and physiotherapist, what are the top exercises you would recommend to grapplers to improve their BJJ
It depends on what resources you have in terms of time, equipment and learning. I like to combine power lifting like squats and deadlifts with olympic lifts and other explosive exercises. The biggest mistake I see is people doing a lot of stuff that contributes mostly to exhaustion, like high heart rate circuit training for strength. It’s not allways bad for everyone, but I have heard many people complain that they can’t spar more than 2-3 times a week because of exhaustion but still do crossfit or similar stuff. The best advice I can give is train for power and explosiveness, basic exercises like deadlifts, squats, cleans/snatches (power or oly, or even kettlebell swings), chins, dips, rows and presses, and let the BJJ training handle the muscular exhaustion.

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6. And which exercise would you recommend to prevent an injuries
I don’t think there is a holy grail of injury prevention, but some general guidelines is maintaining flexibility and being strong in the full range of motion. For example: I like to do snatches, face pulls and pullovers combined with foam rolling for my upper/mid back flexibility which was really bad after my neck surgery. I think my squatting and deadlifting has helped a lot to keep my knees strong and injury free. So you really need to asses you specific weaknesses. But I do think a lot of common BJJ-injuries like knee injuries could be avoided if people trained more squats and heavy leg/hip exercises, and also maintained a flexible hip. And in the end, the best exercise might be tapping earlier sometimes.

7. Tell us about your Gym?
Frontline Academy is without doubt the best martial arts gym in Norway. We currently have two fighters signed with the UFC, we have a multiple time IBJJF gi and nogi as well as ADCC European champion as our head BJJ coach, and we have almost 10 black belts. We won the best academy at Swedish Open (biggest BJJ-competition in Scandinavia) 3 out of the 4 last years. The main academy is the one I’m training at in Oslo, but we also have gyms in Bergen and Voss (and Poland/Canada). We offer training in BJJ, SW, MMA, Muay Thai, Boxing and Yoga. We also have kids classes from the age of 5. We’re located in a cozy basement in one of Oslo’s bussiest shopping streets, Bogstadveien. If you are in Oslo you should stop by for a great training! And if you live in Oslo, why settle for anything less than the best?

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8. As a black belt, do you see yourself increasingly teaching BJJ or keep on competing?
I turned 35 this year, but I going to continue competing as long as I enjoy it. I’m still only doing adult divisions, so at one point I’ll probably consider doing some master divisions, but not yet. To keep my BJJ-journey more interesting I’m definitely going to keep doing some teaching, seminars and refereeing as well. There’s a lot of interesting things going on with the growth of the sport, so I’m just enjoying to be a part of it!

9. What is your Favourite submission?
If you asked me 10 years ago it would’ve been straight ankle lock, 3 years ago it was a lapel choke with my own gi, but now I have to say armbars.

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10. Please feel free to send a message to the BJJ community in Scandinavia
Keep being awesome and contribute to growth and positivity in the sport we all love! OSSSS!