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How to Keep Ringworm, Staph, and MRSA Away From Your BJJ Gym

Andrew Smith is a third degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He co-owns a studio, where he also teaches, in the Richmond, VA, area.

A washer and dryer are fantastic disinfectants for gis, towels, and other equipment.

A washer and dryer are fantastic disinfectants for gis, towels, and other equipment.

Clean Your Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Mats and Equipment!

"Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu" and "cleanliness" aren't always thought of in the same category, but they really should be. Jiu-jitsu is a necessarily intimate martial art, with lots of skin contact (and contact with the gi, the traditional outfit or uniform, which can actually be much worse). As such, it is absolutely crucial that the gym owner follow certain steps in order to keep such terrible things as MRSA (staph on steroids), staph, and ringworm off the mats and away from the students. Here are a few of the procedures our gym has implemented over the last eight years in order to keep our teachers and students safe.

Start With Clean Gis

Virtually everyone's initial reaction when hearing about a skin infection at your gym is going to be, "Those mats must be dirty! Gross!" While this may be true, it is absolutely imperative that the gis the students are wearing (or the no-gi attire like board shorts and rashguards) are utterly clean at the start of class. Furthermore, if the student is taking back-to-back classes, they should change into a fresh, clean gi, before starting the next class. This simple precaution goes leaps and bounds beyond merely cleaning the mats (and don't get me wrong—you've got to clean the mats religiously—more on that below).

Skin-to-skin contact, or gi-to-skin contact, is by far the main way that skin infection spreads. This is where the nasty stuff lives and thrives—where it's warm and moist—and skin infections are extremely likely to leap from person to person, or gi to gi, or gi to person.

One thing that has been a real game-changer at my gym has been installing a stackable washer and dryer. For one thing, the owners of the gym simply wash our gis immediately after class is over. There's no time for that MRSA to fester and grow because the washing machine is going to kill it just minutes after class. For another thing, students will occasionally leave their dirty gis behind at the end of class and go home. We just throw these into the wash (after cursing violently at the student, of course) and prevent that gross thing from festering on a shelf somewhere.

Oh, and don't forget about the belt. The BJJ belt is sometimes intentionally not washed because of a belief that mystical, magical powers and knowledge might somehow be "washed away." Believe me when I say that nasty things definitely live and thrive on your belt, so there's no good reason for this superstitious non-washing behavior to continue any longer.

Have a No-Tolerance Policy!

Under no circumstances should you tolerate a student coming into class with a stinky gi they've worn before! Having this policy is absolutely crucial, and it goes for board shorts and rashguards, as well. I'd like to think that this is common sense, but it isn't necessarily common knowledge if your students haven't trained before. Be sure to let them know why it's so important; don't just chastise or humiliate them in front of the class. At our gym, we have loaner gis for the first couple of times this happens. Sometimes students attend back-to-back classes and are unaware of the need to bring a second gi, so loaners are useful as students become familiar with this policy.

Clean the mats like a champ!

Clean the mats like a champ!

Soapy water to clean the mats and floors

Soapy water to clean the mats and floors

Involve Your Students in the Cleaning Routine

It's important that the mats and surrounding floor (don't forget the floors!) are viewed collectively as a "war zone," of sorts. The infected area needs to be cleaned immediately after each and every class.

Create an end-of-class routine that includes cleaning the mats and surrounding floor. Teach your students about the importance of this task by involving them in the procedure. Have each student do a specific job at the end of class. One student can make the mop water (make sure you have the process specifically outlined here, as well), one student can sweep the floors at the back of the gym (and the bathrooms), one student can sweep the mats (or two or three, depending on how big your mats are), and so on. Be sure there is a specific order in which the process goes every time. This is important because it needs to become an absolute routine!

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Over time, the students will take ownership of the cleanup process and understand how important it is. They will be glad to help out because they know it keeps them much safer and healthier. None of them wants to be kept off the mat for weeks at a time due to illness! Education is the key here; if they don't understand the risks, they aren't likely to appreciate how important this process is.

Hanging the mops helps them dry faster and reduces bacteria growth.

Hanging the mops helps them dry faster and reduces bacteria growth.

Mop Heads, Spraying the Walls

Clean mop heads, washed and dried 2 times every week, really help prevent the spread of disease.

Clean mop heads, washed and dried 2 times every week, really help prevent the spread of disease.

Pro Tips for Keeping the Gym Clean

  • In addition to mopping the mats (and the entire gym—we have moppable, faux wood floors, which we considered when designing the gym), be sure to also spray the walls down if you have pads on them, or even if you don't. We use a simple chemical sprayer like John Goodman used in Arachnophobia (and I always imagine I'm him when spraying the wall pads!). Don't forget about the heavy bags, too, if you have them hanging.
  • Change your mop heads regularly. We simply throw our mop heads in the washing machine twice per week (every Wednesday and Sunday). If you have time to toss them in the dryer as well, this is wonderful, as it's just an extra step in the disinfection process. But if all you can do is wash them, that's tremendous.
  • Mop any time there is a break between classes. We mop anywhere from 2-3 times a day, at the conclusion of any class where there isn't another class that immediately follows the class that's ending. Again, routine is everything here. Make sure the students are in the habit of doing this automatically at the close of class.
  • Keep the gym tidy, too. Don't neglect tidiness just because it doesn't (on the surface) have anything to do with creating a sterile environment. Over time, it certainly does: if nothing is ever out of place, and your gym is always a place of impeccable order, your students will pick up on this and pitch in to keep the gym not only tidy but extremely sterile, as well.

Spraying Down the Walls


The Shower!

A shower is a must-have at any BJJ gym, if at all possible.

A shower is a must-have at any BJJ gym, if at all possible.

Shower Power

If you pick up only one tip from this article to add to your routine, pick this one: Be religious and vigilant about showering. Encourage your students to shower before coming to the gym. If they're coming straight from work at a physical job, offer them a shower at your gym, if you have one. Installing a shower at your gym will be a true game changer. At our gym, we have two showers now, but one is plenty in order to observe a jump in your overall cleanliness.

Speaking personally, I absolutely can't wait to jump in the shower immediately after class. You could say that I'm spoiled by having a shower at the gym, but even if you aren't able to install a shower just yet, be sure to make it crystal clear to all students that they absolutely must shower as soon as they get home. I encourage our students to use the gym shower. This helps reduce everyone's risk of skin infection, not just the student getting into the shower.

Showers do require regular cleaning, of course, so be sure to add that to your gym's regular cleaning checklist. We use staff instead of the students to keep the showers clean. We ask our staff to pay particular attention to disinfecting everything—the floor, walls, faucets, shower curtain, and so on—but you may decide to have students take on this cleaning job, as well. That's up to you.

Be sure the shower is well-stocked with soap. This is not a place to scrimp and save; rather, see this as a wise investment in your gym. Consider providing loaner towels, but encourage students to bring their own towel, along with their gi and other equipment.

Our Gym, Always Clean

Keeping Away the Nasties!

To recap:

  • Sweep and mop frequently
  • Keep mop heads clean
  • Spray or otherwise disinfect wall pads and heavy bags
  • Encourage frequent showering
  • Have a "no-tolerance" policy for stinky gis
  • Require a fresh gi for every single class
  • No open wounds
  • Make daily cleaning a habit for students

Think of your gym as more of a daycare center or even a hospital in terms of the sterility of the environment—and you'll be considerably better off for it. What habits and routines have you fallen into at your gym? Which tips from this article will you begin to incorporate into your routines?

Nasties poll

© 2014 Andrew Smith

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