BJJ Interviews

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Steve Maxwell

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt Steve Maxwell


Steve, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Could you give our readers a quick bio on yourself?
Sure. I started wrestling, my first love, back in Carlisle, PA. It must have been around 1963 or 1964. I immediately found that I had a knack for wrestling. I wrestled all through junior high and high school and loved it. I then went on to the West Chester State Teacher’s College where I wrestled and was a physical education major. I was a really good Division I NCAA wrestler. But I never really made it to the big time in wrestling though. I was married and had a kid to support very early so it was tough to be married, in college, and train. After I got out of college, I taught in the public school system and continued to wrestle for quite a few years.

But I always had a feeling that I never quite reached my potential as a grappler. I always felt that I could be national caliber or even world caliber. So I ended up trying a lot of different things. I tried every kind of martial art that you can think of; everything from Kung Fu to Muay Thai. Bruce Lee was huge back then and after watching a few Bruce Lee movies, I was convinced that I was wasting my time on grappling when I could have been doing all this fancy Kung Fu stuff. A lot of guys felt the same way. We were all brainwashed into believing that Karate, Kung Fu, and all those striking arts were so deadly.

But the striking arts just weren’t for me. I always found myself looking around for something that I could really dig my teeth into. I found the Gracies, by accident really. A guy that I knew was telling me about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and I asked him what he was talking about. I had thought that jiu-jitsu was from Japan. He told me a little bit about the Gracies and I reluctantly went to a seminar with him. It was one of the first seminars the Gracies conducted in the U.S. I was thinking, “What are these skinny Brazilian guys going to show me?” Being a former wrestler, I figured that I would walk all over these guys. But I didn’t, and I ended up falling in love with the system. It was Rorion, Royce, and Royler at the time. And they were such great teachers. Rorion was kind of the mastermind behind all of it. I told him that not only did I want to learn this [Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu], I wanted to teach it. At the time, the only place to learn it was the Torrance academy. So I started going out there. I would go out to Torrance for a couple weeks at a time and train. And in the meantime, I ended up opening up my own gym in Philadelphia, Maxercise. It was a physical training gym but I had a lot of space so I ended up putting my own mats in there to train. But it was so hard to find people to train with that I had to actually bribe people into training with me. There was just no one around. I had to call up wrestling buddies and found a couple judokas. But after awhile, there was a group of us that was pretty hardcore. But we were pretty self-directed. It was pretty much me flying out to Torrance for a couple weeks, absorbing everything that I could, and then going back to Philly to drill the techniques and train.

As time went on, I had Royce and Rorion come to teach in Philadelphia. Royce actually lived with me for awhile and ended up marrying one of the aerobics instructors from Maxercise. At this time, Rorion started Gracie Teacher Training and I was the first person to get certified by a Gracie to teach their Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. The cool thing about it was that all of the Gracies were in and out of the academy in the beginning. But then the divorces began where there was a lot of in-fighting between the family members. Before long, everyone was splitting off into different directions. It was kind of like being a child in a divorce; I was forced to take sides. I stayed with Rorion and Royce and then along came Relson. Then there was a big fight between Relson and Rorion and I sided with Relson. Relson eventually gave me my black belt. And I was one of the first Americans to get a black belt from the Gracie family. There had been a few other black belts in the U.S. prior that the Machado’s had given out. So I was involved pretty early on.

After I received my black belt, I started training more and more with Saulo and Xande Ribeiro. I brought one of Saulo’s first black belts up to Maxercise, Regis Lebre. I really credit those guys a lot for bringing my competition jiu-jitsu up to speed. Relson’s jiu-jitsu was very “old style”. I think it was probably 20 years old. The whole “half guard revolution” flew right by me. But Saulo and Xande showed me the newer competition-style jiu-jitsu. Regis, Lovato Jr., Daniel Moraes, and a bunch of other guys came up to my gym and they all really helped me upgrade my game as well.

I was 38 years old when I got my first jiu-jitsu lesson. So, I wasn’t a spring chicken by any means. I won the Pan American Championship 8 times and won the International Master Senior Open which is held out in Rio every year. It’s like the “old guy” Worlds, it’s not really the Mundials but it’s considered the Worlds for the older guys. I was the third American black belt that won a World title.

Once I sold my gym in Philadelphia, I moved out west and was working in the commercial fitness industry. It was a big change and it became hard to get my training in. There was actually a long period of time that I didn’t train at all. Now, I fit my training in where ever and whenever I can. I’m not too interested in competition; now I train for the pure joy of training jiu-jitsu.

Where are you currently training?
When I’m in the Bay area, I train at Eduardo Rocha’s school and Practical Martial Arts, owned by Mike Valentine, which are affiliated with each other. Of course, when I’m in Philadelphia, I come back to Maxercise. But a lot of the time, I’m on the road doing fitness training, seminars, and certifications under my own flag. I keep myself in very good shape so I can still grapple a good game. The main thing that I struggle with is timing and precision but it’s not like I let myself get in terrible shape or anything like that.

Can you describe how the jiu-jitsu community has changed from your early days until now?

Well, when I started, jiu-jitsu was pretty new and people didn’t know that much about it. The Gracies had the challenge where they would challenge anyone to a fight to prove the effectiveness of their jiu-jitsu. People were outraged by this. Both guys would put their money on the table and they would have a real, honest-to-God no rules fight. And the winner would take all.

Before Renzo Gracie or Craig Kukuk were on the east coast, we [Maxercise] were here. So, when people heard of the challenge, they would come to our gym and challenge us. We would always let them know that we weren’t the Gracies and we were just students but we would never back down either. We took on a lot of bigger guys; boxers, Kung Fu stylists, and wrestlers. Wrestlers were always the tough guys but having a wrestling background myself, it wasn’t that bad. That whole “wild west” type of thing was going on big time in the beginning. People just couldn’t believe how well jiu-jitsu really worked. Pretty much every fight went like this; a couple strikes were thrown, the fighters would clinch, and if the jiu-jitsu guy was on the bottom, he would armlock or triangle the other guy. If the jiu-jitsu guy was on top, he would mount his opponent, hit him with a few slaps/punches, the guy would turn and the jiu-jitsu guy would sink in the choke. Don’t get me wrong, every fight was a little different but this is how the majority of them went.

As time went, more and more people began to study and understand jiu-jitsu. Jiu-jitsu really branched out. But as jiu-jitsu branched out, some of the instruction became watered down. In my opinion, the further you get away from the Gracie family, the weaker the instruction. Don’t get me wrong there are a lot of good guys out there but the further you get away from the Gracie lineage, the more suspicious the belt rank. There are an awful lot of guys out there who are wearing black belts but can’t trace their lineage. They can’t prove it, they can’t trace it. They don’t have certificates from the Federation of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. There are just a lot of shenanigans going on. People taking DVD courses to get their belts and things like that. Obviously, from the explosion in popularity, there are just a lot more schools and instructors out there now.

As you have gotten older, have you altered your training at all to stay healthy?
The main thing with age is you can stay proficient for a long time. I don’t think you will get much better but you can retain your skills for awhile. The recovery is the main concern. It takes much longer to recover and you have to be very, very careful about overtraining. Grapplers are a notoriously overtrained group. Most grapplers are chronically fatigued and injured. A lot of people fail to realize that grappling is a form of resistance training. You are facing a live, resisting opponent and you are expending a great deal of energy. And then when you add in supplementary training on top of your jiu-jitsu training, you can become quite overtrained very quickly. So, in order to avoid overtraining, I am very careful about how I train. I don’t train hard every day like I used to. Don’t get me wrong, I do train hard but I space those sessions out. On sessions where I am not training hard, I like to work my technique on the beginners and girls. I think it’s a great way to get your movements and practice your skills but you’re not turning it into an all-out sparring session. So, you can still get a nice sweat and a nice roll in; but it won’t be as hard on your body.

Over the years, which restoration methods have you found useful and which have you found to be unnecessary?
The most important thing is pre and post-workout nutrition. I have tended to follow a more low-carbohydrate, ketogenic-type diet over the last 20 years. I found that it is easier to maintain my ideal body composition by limiting my carb intake. I pretty much maintain my body fat below 8% and sometimes below 5% effortlessly with this diet. My diet is primarily high protein, lots of fats, and very low carbohydrates. However, I have found that having pre-workout carbs and post-workout carbs along with some protein (in the form of BCAA’s or whey) greatly facilitates my recovery. 15-20 minutes before you train and 15-20 minutes after you train, you should supplement yourself with a protein/carb beverage. This is something that I have found very useful as I have gotten older. Also, I don’t think there is any denying Creatine Monohydrate’s effectiveness especially for older athletes. I will also add Creatine Monohydrate to my post-workout shake to help keep lean muscle mass.

You received your black belt from Relson Gracie who is very self defense-oriented. What are your thoughts on BJJ becoming more of a sport rather than self-defense?
I never really saw BJJ as a sport. I always viewed it as more of a martial art. It takes you about a year to beat every other martial art and the rest of your life to beat other jiu-jitsu practitioners. Some people are always against the sport because they say it lowers the efficiency of jiu-jitsu in a fight. But I have known a lot of guys that only train sport [jiu-jitsu] and have gotten in scraps and they defended themselves quite well. So, I never really quite bought into that whole ideology that sport jiu-jitsu isn’t applicable in self-defense situations. If you are fighting against live, resisting guys everyday (who are trying to choke you and joint-lock you), you are basically fighting.

Also, I would like to say that Relson’s self-defense is outstanding. It really is amazing how effective it is. He was one of the Gracies that really liked to go out and go to night clubs and hang out with the unruly crowds. He got himself into a lot of honest-to-God, real fights in the street. He proved the efficiency of jiu-jitsu in the street which is something that not a lot of people can say. But as he told me, no fight ever went over a minute. It was always over suddenly and violently. And, he had hurt some people. Haha. There is no doubt that the Gracie-style self-defense works extremely well. Especially when you are fighting people who don’t really understand what jiu-jitsu is all about. It’s pretty easy really. The hard part is always going up against other grapplers. So, I never thought that the sport aspect of jiu-jitsu ever took away from the self-defense. I even remember Helio Gracie saying something along the lines of modern jiu-jitsu being the anti-jiu-jitsu because it relies on physical attributes and not technique alone. But I think that you can only rely on technique alone when you are facing guys who don’t know any jiu-jitsu. When you are going against other guys who are versed in jiu-jitsu, obviously strength and conditioning are going to play an important part.

Your son, Zak Maxwell, is currently doing very well on the BJJ competition scene. Can you describe how you introduced him to the art?

Just like the Gracies, I put him on the mat when he was basically in diapers. He basically grew up on the mat. I would take him with me everywhere. And I actually started the kid’s classes at Maxercise just so he would have people to train with. The kids classes went pretty well and we had a lot of fun. It was always all about having fun but if Zak had a question I was more than happy to help him. I even hung a climbing rope at our house to my ex-wife’s dismay. Maybe that is one of the reasons why she is my ex-wife, haha. From the time Zak was in kindergarten, he was climbing the rope. Climbing rope is just a tremendous upper body developer for grappling. I had Zak doing every kind of exercise you could think of. But I would always make it into a game and he never thought he was getting a lesson. Everything was always covered up in play so he never felt like he was being forced into jiu-jitsu.

He was always the small guy in class and he developed a really technical style because of it. He really truly was just surviving sometimes when he first started the adult classes. And he’s become just unbelievable. He actually just kicked my butt yesterday, haha.

You are also a well-known strength and conditioning coach, can you talk a little bit about your training philosophy and how it came about?

I’ve always enjoyed physical culture. My dad got me my first barbell set when I was in grade school. I was kind of a weak kid and I was getting picked on so my dad decided to do something about it and bought me a York barbell set. And we actually went to the York Barbell gym, where I watched a lot of the Olympic lifters. So, I actually got started into the more “functional” type training. I wasn’t like most guys who get started after reading a muscle magazine and do a bunch of bodybuilder exercises. Although, I did go through that stage where I wanted to get big and ripped and all that. But in the beginning, it was all about me getting better at my sport, wrestling. I just wanted to be a better wrestler. But as time went on, I went through all of the fitness phases; Nautilus became huge in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The shorter, briefer high intensity workouts were something that I gravitated towards; because as an athlete, I didn’t have the time to spend hours in the weight room. So the short, high intensity routines were perfect for me. Then later on, I embraced the whole Hammer Strength philosophy. From there, I moved onto the Super Slow training method. I was one of the first people to be certified in the Super Slow method when I had my gym in Philadelphia. But I was always searching and always looking and never satisfied. There were a lot of good benefits from that type of machine circuit training but at the end of the day it just wasn’t for me.

Then I started to look at what the great warriors of the past did for exercise. What did the Spartans do? What did the ancient Indian wrestlers do? What were these people doing back before there were exercise machines and infomercials? I started to discover quite a bit of interesting data about how these past warriors trained. I started to include their training methods into my own training. And I was always experimenting because I never felt that there was only one training method that was the end-all-be-all. My body became my laboratory and I kept what worked and discarded what didn’t. Not only did I start to get great results, it kept me interested because I wasn’t doing the same thing over and over. Zak was also one of my protégés because I tested a lot on him. My system has been successful because it has all been tested on me. Theories are great but when it comes down to it, you have to just do it. Just like Nike, haha. Just do it.

In the past, you have said that you like to tailor strength and conditioning programs to an individual’s needs rather than providing a “one size fits all” program. What benchmarks do you use to determine what kind of program you prescribe (i.e. max bench press, vertical jump, pull-ups, etc.)?
It really depends on the athlete. I’ve worked with professional baseball players, professional football players, guys in the NHL, and countless grapplers. What I was always looking for was what the stresses of the sport were and what did these guys really need to emphasize to be better athletes. For example, when I worked with this one hockey player, I had never watched hockey in my life. But this guy came to me and he wanted me to train him. So I went out and watched a few tapes on hockey. I sat there and watched the tapes with a stopwatch and I discovered that hockey players usually play for about 3 minutes at a time, the longest play in a hockey game was somewhere between 5 and 13 seconds, there were lots of brief short sprints, and they would rest for a few minutes when the lines would shift. So I started to create a workout based on those facts that I knew. But I also discovered that my hockey player had a weak upper body and some of the strongest legs that I have ever seen. So I wanted to make sure that I would address the imbalance between his upper and lower body as well. And on top of this, he had imbalances from only shooting slapshots on one side; I decided that we would do some compensatory work to balance out his weak side. A lot of times, it’s not just the muscles that you use in your sport, it’s also the muscles that you don’t use in your sport. I think this is a key to avoiding injuries. An example of this was David Akers, the Philadelphia Eagles kicker. He had chronic hamstring injuries. He spent countless hours kicking field goals with his dominant leg but his other leg was not receiving the same attention which led to a huge imbalance. It’s not rocket science, if you kick 50 balls with your left leg every day, you had better do something with the right leg that is similar in nature or you are going to have problems. So in David’s case, I had him start kicking soccer balls with his other leg.

For a grappling-specific example, Saulo Ribeiro lost to Margarida in the finals of the Worlds. And it was basically due to his conditioning. I had heard that Saulo was never one who enjoyed pushing in training. He was so much more talented than everyone else perhaps he didn't have to train so hard. His skill set was so far advanced. The loss to Margarida in the finals was a bit of a wakeup call. Saulo came to me when he was getting ready for Abu Dhabi in Sao Paulo that year. Saulo had a history of gassing on the second day of the big competitions. So, we bunched all of his workouts in 2 or 3 day blocks. We got his body adapted to the rigors of competition by training in the same manner; we would have 2 or 3 days where we would train hard. When he first came to me, he was overweight. In jiu-jitsu, pulling is really, really important. So, I tested his pull-ups and his numbers were pretty mediocre for a world-class athlete. But after changing his diet from the typical carb based diet to a more ketogenic –type diet, he was able to drop about 15 pounds of fat and water bloat in a few weeks. This just about killed him, haha. Thank God for coffee! Anyway, his pull-ups went from about 12 to 21 or 22 in a matter of weeks. So, with a few tweaks to his training, we were able to prepare him for the rigors of high-level grappling. When he went to Abu Dhabi, his body was expecting 2 or 3 hard days of training. He had some electrifying matches and actually beat Jacare in the finals. So, I would say your strength and conditioning really needs to be tailored to your specific event and address your own weaknesses.

For the average jiu-jitsu practitioner who trains 3-5 times a week, what are a few things that you feel he/she needs to be including in their strength and conditioning routine?
Well, this kind of goes back to the last question. But don’t work out like a bodybuilder. Don’t waste your time doing the workouts in the latest Muscle & Fitness magazine. Watch your body for signs of fatigue and overtraining all the time. Don’t waste your time doing a lot of static stretching before class. There is a lot of research showing that static stretching before activity actually pre-disposes you to injuries and is detrimental to your performance.
Also, remember that jiu-jitsu is a complete workout in itself. You don’t need to go to the gym everyday if you are also training jiu-jitsu several times a week. Limit your supplementary training to 2 or 3 sessions per week. Limit your workouts to a few basic movements. And, keep the workouts brief.

What you should add to your strength and conditioning routine really depends on you. If a guy is a gasser, then I’m going to work on conditioning with him. If the guy is really flexible and has good endurance but is weak as all hell, then I’m going to work on his strength. It’s all about knowing yourself. Ask youself, “Where am I weak? Where do I need to improve myself?”

But in all reality, for the regular recreational guy, none of this really matters. For these guys, the main emphasis should be on attending class regularly and staying healthy. Most people have regular jobs and jiu-jitsu is their fun time or their workout. So, most of these people don’t need to worry about the perfect strength and conditioning routine. But for someone like my son, who trains twice a day every day, and is basically a professional jiu-jitsu player, strength and conditioning is important. But he also has the luxury of sleeping and playing video games in the middle of the day when other people are working. So, it’s really case by case.

What kind of diet do you follow?
My original mentor was Gregory Ellis. He gave me my first job in the fitness industry back in the 1970’s. Ellis was a pretty inventive guy and actually went on to get his doctorate in exercise physiology. He was the one that got me out of the vegetarian phase and got me to eat meat again. He explained to me that meat (protein) was better for body composition than carbohydrates. And after some testing on myself, I discovered that the low carbohydrate lifestyle was the way to go. Not only did I feel better, but I gained muscle and strength. I felt better than I had in years.

Now, I basically eat protein/fat foods in the form of meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and certain dairy products. I also mix in a small amount of vegetables. I stay away from fruit for the most part but eat some seasonal fruits. And no grains whatsoever. It’s basically an animal protein-based diet and I have never felt better. Every aspect of my health has improved since I started eating like this. And as I mentioned before, I also have pre and post-workout carbohydrates for recovery purposes.

You have several strength and conditioning DVD’s on the market, do you have any plans for future releases?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am writing my first book. I will be putting some of my ideas together in a kettlebell book. I was also at the very ground floor of the kettlebell revolution as well. I was kind of like the Forrest Gump of the fitness industry, haha. I just happened to be around for all of these movements in the fitness industry. Anyway, I am just starting to write the book so I’m not sure when it will be out but it will also have a companion DVD that comes with it.

What else can we expect from you in the future?
I will always be out there experimenting and trying new things. I will continue to write about them on my website and my blog . I blog about twice a month and I think that is just about enough so people don’t get sick of me, haha. My Maxbell teacher training programs and body weight training certs are recognized as being the best in the business. I lead a pretty unusual lifestyle. After I sold my business in Philadelphia, I have been traveling the country in an RV. I just go wherever I feel like going and it is usually pretty interesting. Kind of like an ancient nomadic warrior, haha. But I do have all the amenities on board. I have DirecTV so I can watch 500 channels and watch my beloved Eagles. And pretty much wherever I can get a phone signal, I have access to the internet.

Any last comments?
Thanks for the opportunity to do this interview. I can be contacted at . I was rated one of the top fitness blogs by more than one organization so check that out at And I also do online training which can be found on my website at

Quick Hits

Favorite Takedown: High Crotch Single

Favorite Submission: X choke with gi, Kimura with no gi

How many days a week do you train? I get on the mat 4 days per week when not traveling

Favorite music to train to: I don’t like training to music. I find it distracting.

Ratio of Drilling to Sparring you recommend: For a young [inexperienced] guy, I would say 50/50. But as you become more adept and your expertise is better, I would say 20/80. Drilling is very beneficial for beginners but, in my opinion, it isn’t as necessary for more experienced guys.

Favorite thing to do outside of grappling: Meditation

Favorite jiu-jitsu guys to watch: Zak Maxwell

Biggest mistake that new grapplers make: Everyone should learn with a gi. A lot of these guys who do MMA only practice no-gi which is a mistake in my opinion. They never learn the technical aspects of grappling that guys who train in the gi do. It is easy to transition from gi to no-gi but not the other way around.

Also, I think way too many people jump into competitions too soon. I don’t think white belts have any business competing. A lot of inexperienced people jump right into competition after a few months of training before they have knowledge of the fundamentals. I think a lot of people end up discouraged from competition and end up quitting. I think it would be better if they waited until they were at least blue belts.


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