The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

What’s Your Workout: Fighting to Stay Fit

by Christopher Shay

The Exec

Wearing a tight, black T-shirt with a skull decal to the office, Dean Thompson doesn’t look like your average CEO. Tattooed on his massive right forearm are the Latin words nihil timendum est, or, There is nothing to be afraid of.

His workout regimen isn’t typical either. As part of his training, he lies down and places a 20-kilogram dumbbell on his throat—it helps train his body from going into panic mode during competitions, he says. “A lot of people think it’s crazy,” he says, but if the practice can help him gain an extra second or two of consciousness when he’s in a choke hold, it’s worth it.

Mr. Thompson, chief executive of Aggressive Development, which sells skateboards and inline skates, competes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a type of mixed martial art that focuses on grappling and ground fighting through joint locks and chokes. He has been practicing the sport for more than 10 years. Two years ago, he started competing in tournaments.

“It may just look like two sweaty dudes rolling on top of each other, but it’s really an intellectual time,” Mr. Thompson, 41, says, comparing Brazilian jiu-jitsu strategy to chess. In addition to Aggressive Development, he also owns two smaller companies, one that makes high-end jiu-jitsu uniforms and another that focuses on brand design and licensing.

Mr. Thompson was a professional rugby player in his native New Zealand for three years. Shortly after retiring in 2000, a gym companion asked if he’d considered martial arts. He was immediately interested. “I basically hit people on the field anyways,” says Mr. Thompson, who is 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds.

He took a couple Brazilian jiu-jitsu training sessions in New Zealand and was hooked. When Mr. Thompson moved to Hong Kong at the end of 2000, he continued his training. At first there were no Brazilian jiu-jitsu black or red belts teaching in Hong Kong, he says, so he and a few others trained together by learning from YouTube clips. It was only midway through 2008 that he started training with a proper instructor.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he says, has helped him as a businessman, making him better at thinking under pressure and anticipating what his next moves should be. “You come to understand consequences very, very quickly,” he says.

The Workout

Mr. Thompson’s workout schedule ebbs and flows as his schedule permits. In the three months prior to a tournament, he works out four or five hours a day, six days a week. He typically competes in three tournaments a year. When there is no looming competition he tries to average between 10 and 20 hours of training a week. For his job, however, he travels about three or four months a year. As a result, he often resorts to “binge training sessions” before a competition, he says.

With a tournament in New Zealand this summer, Mr. Thompson has just started his intense training. Most Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments he competes in have matches that consist of three three-minute competitions or five five-minute ones. Fighters can win by submission, when an opponent taps out; by earning more points, which judges award; or if he knocks his opponent unconscious. In Asia, where there are fewer people in his weight class, Mr. Thompson usually has to advance through eight matches before the finals, though people in lower weight classes can fight in twice that number.

Mr. Thompson’s training sessions always start off with a warm-up, where he’ll mimic many of the body movements used in fighting, including “shrimping,” an escape move in which fighters start on their backs and then push themselves along the ground, arching one’s body into the shape of shrimp. These warm-ups will last at least 30 minutes. Then for 45 minutes, Mr. Thompson will practice a specific technique or two, spending time refining the mechanics of a move such as a triangle hold—a chokehold where one encircles an opponent’s neck and arm with the legs. When the legs are squeezed together, it restricts blood flow to the opponent’s brain. For the last hour, he will spar with others at the gym.

Mr. Thompson will also incorporate plyometric exercises designed to add explosive power into his workout. Typical plyometric exercises that Mr. Thompson does include jumping exercises and exercises with a kettlebell, which is like a bowling ball with a handle. One exercise involves lying down on the floor holding a 20-kilogram kettlebell straight up in the air with one arm and then standing up as fast as possible with the kettlebell still over his head. He says he varies the number of reps he does depending on how he’s feeling. For example, if he feels his legs have been weak while sparring, he’ll work his legs in the gym until he can barely move them.

In the months before a tournament, Mr. Thompson will build up his cardio with a workout similar to one used by two-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Andre Galvao. It combines squats, push-ups, flips, rolls, and quadriceps and hip-flexibility exercises into one fluid movement back and forth across the floor. Sometimes he’ll do the workout very quickly as a warm-up—a YouTube clip of Andre Galvao doing and explaining the routine takes just over three minutes—or he may extend the exercises for much longer.


Mr. Thompson normally fights as a heavy weight, which is anyone over 205 pounds. For that, he says he wants to “be as big as possible” while not carrying any excess fat. To accomplish this, he tries to eat a high-protein diet of between 4,000 and 6,000 calories a day, ideally with larger meals coming early in the day. His favorite high-protein foods are tuna, swordfish, steak and eggs.

“It’s just management, but instead of managing money, you’re managing calories,” he says, though he admits it can be a challenge. His goal is to consume food every two to three hours, but in reality he says he falls well short.

A typical breakfast might be a protein shake, cereal and toast. Before lunch he’ll have another protein shake and some fruit. For lunch, he’ll eat a salmon steak and pasta, then for a mid-afternoon snack, he’ll have another protein shake and a banana. Dinner will be a simple chicken dinner, and then when he gets back home from training, he’ll have another protein shake.


Mr. Thompson calls Brazilian jiu-jitsu “incredible value,” though traveling to tournaments in places like Manila and Bangkok can add up. In Hong Kong, Mr. Thompson says he pays US$150 to $200 a month for jiu-jitsu training, which includes the gym membership and some private training. Brazilian jiu-jitsu kimonos cost about US$150 each, and most grapplers own at least four, Mr. Thompson says.

Quick Fix

Mr. Thompson says when he’s tight on time he tries to be in and out of the gym in 35 minutes. Normally, he’ll do five sets of five reps of free weight exercises that use multiple muscle groups. Exercises might include power cleans, where he’ll quickly lift a weight above his chest and squat underneath it.

He’ll also do some rope work, where he’ll quickly climb up and down ropes hanging from the ceiling using only his upper body. He says it is a terrific to improve grip as well work out the shoulders and arms. “I do what breaks my body down as fast as possible,” he says. “You know, things that are fun.”

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