Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has become the karate craze of the 2000s. With celebrity students such as Keanu Reeves and Kelly Slater it has gone from an underground pastime to a popular fringe sport.
What sets Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) apart from its other martial cousins is that the entire focus of the sport is on the ground. While Karate, Kung Fu, and Taekwondo seek to kick or punch the opponent from standing – the actions most associate with fighting – a BJJ match may only see the competitors on the feet for seconds of the entire match.
From a visual perspective it seems to have more in common with the other grappling arts such as Judo or wrestling, yet that is also untrue. The main focus of Judo is on the throw, and matches can be finished with a single well-executed throw. Wrestling differs again as both throws and controls are the main focus to score points.
There are two things that separate BJJ as a sport from its grappling rivals. Much like a knockout punch in boxing the submission instantly ends the fight via one competitor securing an inescapable choke, arm, or leg lock. The other is that BJJ matches are fought for a single continuous round of varying lengths depending on the skill level of the competitors.
As a new sport with less than 100 years of competitive history competitors have done their best to model strength and conditioning on other sports such as wrestling, Judo, and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). But there are significant differences in the style of competition and rules when compared to BJJ and these significantly effect how one should train for a tournament.
Wrestling is a logical place to start as it has the distinction of having been one of the original Olympic sports. While not viewed as a typical combat sport wrestling is often seen as perhaps the toughest sport on the planet. With a unique mix of needs from strength and power to flexibility and endurance wrestlers often top many performance charts when comparing sports.
The current match length for Freestyle Wrestling at the Olympics is two 3-minute periods with a 30-second rest between. As such it is really performed as two highly anaerobic efforts split with a short recovery and training methods and physiology of the top competitors reflects that. It has been estimated that physiology alone contributes as much as ”45% of the variance seen between successful and less successful Freestyle wrestling Olympic contenders” (Callan et al., 2000)
The strength demands of wrestling are extremely high. As such wrestler have long trained to gain as much strength as possible. In fact, the history of modern resistance training dates back to Milo of Croton who was said to have walked the length of the Olympic stadium carrying a calf on his back every day. As the calf grew to be a cow so too did his strength. Such was his strength that he was undefeated for seven Olympiads.
Looking at the table below you can clearly see the strength levels required for elite wrestling competition. I’ve selected what is essentially the middleweight division for both males and females to give some perspective as to what is required.
Wrestling standards (German team)
* not tested.
The fitness requirements of wrestling have changed substantially since 1988, when matches were a single five-minute continuous round. Perhaps it is here that we can start to get a clue as to what will help make a great BJJ competitor. Back then it was common to see high-level wrestlers with VO2max scores in the 60-70+ml/kh/min range (Sharratt 1984). However, with the change to the two three-minute rounds it is more common to see athletes these days with scores in the 50-60 ml/kg/min range (Horswill, 1992 and Yoon, 2002).
In other words, BJJ athletes are more likely to need the same high levels of VO2max development because their matches are more likely to mimic the demands of wrestling in the late 20th Century. As the rules of wrestling have changed to make it more exciting for TV and appeal to the Olympic audience wrestlers have become stronger and more anerobically trained. But BJJ doesn’t have those same needs due to the change in demands of match length and less stand up grappling, which places a much higher demand on maximal strength.
As the other Olympic grappling sport Judo holds the distinction of being the root of BJJ. While there are many stories as to the origin of BJJ what everyone agrees on is that the family credited with the growth of BJJ were initially trained by a Judo player named Maeda. (For the unadulterated version gleaned directly from newspaper transcripts at the time I recommend “With the back on the ground” available here – http://www.amazon.com.au/With-Back-Ground-Brazilian-Jiu-Jitsu-ebook/dp/B00N1BX9NU)
The key difference between Judo and BJJ is that while a BJJ match starts on the feet it will always end on the ground with the match being won by points or submission. However, a Judo match can be won with a singular perfectly executed throw for an Ippon.
Like BJJ the matches in Judo are continuous in length and international competitions are a single five-minute round. A useful study by Goncalves, 2015 showed that Judoka require high levels of grip strength and that power and anaerobic capacity are the main physiological characteristics required.
Below is a table depicting strength standards for elite judo competitors based off a spreadsheet form www.judofitness.com The three numbers in each column represent the necessary strength required at local, national, and elite levels respectively.
Judo strength standards
|Gender/ weight class
||105/ 135/ 160
||160/ 195/ 270
||155/ 190/ 260
||215/ 265/ 360
||270/ 310/ 430
||55/ 65/ 85
||85/ 100/ 125
||80/ 95/ 125
||115/ 130/ 175
||140/ 165/ 230
So where does that leave BJJ?
Perhaps the best place to start is with Judo as that is played over a similar time frame for beginners and Masters. As these matches are held over the same short five minutes duration as Judo it is reasonable to follow on that defining characteristics in white belt and Masters matches will need high levels of grip strength, power, and anaerobic capacity.
However, as a competitor progresses through the belt ranks and matches increase in length things will change dramatically. The demands at each belt level increase the needs for higher levels of fitness. Match lengths are as follows:
White belt – 5mins
Blue belt – 6mins
Purple belt – 7mins
Brown belt – 8mins
Black belt – 10mins
The first and biggest conditioning error that many make is the exclusion of longer, lower intensity work while trying to build fitness. This study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11547894) shows that the aerobic system becomes a major factor in energy production far earlier than many believe – likely around the 75-second mark. Considering that an event as short as a 1500m race is around 50/50 for aerobic versus anaerobic energy contribution this means that longer matches, such as the ten-minute black belt matches will have a far higher requirement for aerobic energy production. But don’t think greater aerobic function is necessary only for black belts.
In Ultimate MMA Conditioning Joel Jamieson writes about the importance of the aerobic system. He notes that the aerobic system is important because it effects your recovery ability as well as how much blood you can push around your body. At his Certified Conditioning Coach course he also notes that the aerobic systems triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which has direct effect on calming the body, which is necessary to prime your system to adapt to training. This ties in with all the work Maffetone has done on aerobic conditioning. Maffetone’s entire work could best be summed up as aerobic training leads to better health.
While this may not seem important when performance is the end goal, and many sacrifice it in the search of greater performance, without health there is no cornerstone for true elite level performance. The high stress nature of BJJ training can lead to an over stimulated body. Whether you want to admit it or not, the body only perceives stress as a threat. It doesn’t distinguish between work stress, family stress, and training stress. It only knows how to behave to counter stress.
That process of countering stress begins with the production of the stress hormone cortisol. The inflammatory process that creates cortisol is the result of the use of our anaerobic systems – our fight or flight response. These systems have to create huge amounts of energy to save us from life or death situations. While that could mean escaping a burning building or running away from a tiger, it can just as easily mean that big brown belt who always gives you a hard time and you spend the entire time trying desperately not to give up a submission. Your body still sees that as a threat.
The bonus here is that the best way to reduce that inflammation, reduce the body’s perception of the threat, and boost your own fitness and health all come to a single point – the development of your aerobic system. Corrective exercise specialists such know that one of the quickest ways to influence the nervous system is to work on breathing. Now, we can find evidence that aerobic exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect too (http://www.omicsgroup.org/journals/has-aerobic-exercise-anti-inflammatory-effect-for-asthma-2165-7025.1000e108.php?aid=4612).
In Ultimate MMA Conditioning Jamieson recommends up to three sessions per week of moderate heart rate activity for durations of 30-90 minutes to build cardiac output. If done correctly, with a focus on diaphragmatic breathing, these training sessions will reduce stress levels in the body, boost health and fitness, and allow you to recover faster between bouts and training sessions. Recommended heart rate is between 120-150bpm.
One caveat that needs to be mentioned – this isn’t best achieved with circuit training methods. While it is certainly possible to get the heart rate to the required level using circuit protocols the mechanics aren’t the same as via normal cardiovascular training activities such as running, rowing, and riding.
During what I will call strength aerobics the amount of oxygen used by the muscles is lower. That is because beyond 50% tension blood flow is stopped to the muscle. That stops oxygen being used by the working muscle – it is working anaerobically – which ultimately means your body requires less blood to be pumped around the body. This study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6513767) showed that, “high-intensity, variable-resistance strength training produces no adaptative improvement in cardiovascular function. The physiological responses measured during a training session provide evidence that this lack of cardiovascular adaptation may be due to the low percentage of VO2max elicited by this form of exercise”. In other words, there is a very good reason why fighters have always done roadwork, logging steady miles. But those cardiac training benefits are now showing to have just as much benefit in lowering stress levels in the body.
Given the different match lengths seen in high level BJJ compared to wrestling and Judo it is important to develop the cardiovascular system as fully as possible. This requires teaching the heart to pump blood efficiently for extended periods of time. This has the effect of increasing the size and strength of the heart to cope with these demands. The added bonus for BJJ athletes is that it has a calming effect on the body as well as being lower intensity, which means you can fit a lot of it into your week.
The next part of the puzzle to piece together is mobility and flexibility work. Competition BJJ requires very high levels of flexibility to achieve some of the positions. A healthy, supple spine is one of the highest priorities for success at BJJ and this can only be achieved through making the hips and shoulders extremely strong and supple too. Great mobility requires a combination of both strength and flexibility so that extreme ranges of motion can be achieved without damaging the body supporting ligaments. For the back this means that not just the 26 joints of the back need to be strong and mobile but that the major joints above and below must be too.
While there are many options available for joint mobility the simplest solution is to use Pavel Tsatsouline’s Super Joints. We use this on every single client at my gym daily and these seemingly simple exercises make everything else work better. The joints of the body are like mechanical parts that need to be lubed to move properly. The only difference is that we add lube by moving them frequently through full ranges. These exercises have the added effect of soothing the body after hard rolling and can be used as part of a cool down as well as a warm up to return the body to a state of rest post training.
Flexibility is something that requires the same effort as improving any other facet of fitness. I often see people with terrible flexibility that bemoan their lack thereof and can’t help but ask if they’re training their flexibility as often as their strength or fitness. To improve flexibility is a daily task in the beginning but the rewards are highly worthwhile. The buffer that you give yourself when accidentally caught in extreme positions during training will be able to be absorbed by the body instead of resulting in muscle tears.
Forget all the nonsense that you may have read about stretching being bad for you. Great martial artists, of any discipline, all possess great flexibility and the only way to get there is to stretch. Start with thirty minutes of targeted relaxed stretching every day. If you focus on breathing at the same time you will get that same soothing effect spoken of earlier regarding settling the nervous system post training. This rested state allows the body to better absorb the stress from training resulting in greater levels of performance.
If you think that targeted relaxed stretching with a focus on breathing sounds familiar you’d be right. There is a very real reason why BJJ greats such as Rickson Gracie speak so highly of yoga and its benefits for martial practitioners. Along with the improvements in range of motion and injury prevention the focus on flexion-based postures amplifies the calming effect as it triggers the para sympathetic nervous system.
And this leaves us with strength training. A basic strength-training template is as simple as looking at the key exercises favored by its more well studied cousins, wrestling and Judo, and adopting their favorites too. The squat, power clean, bench press, deadlift, pull ups, and prone row make for a great all-round athletic training plan.
However, there are a great many options for similar exercises that can be done from ground-based postures. These postures – lying, quadruped, and kneeling – mimic many of the positions found within the sport. Additionally they are a useful way to train around the many injuries that come from hard grappling.
These exercises often target multiple qualities of movement as they’re done from a reduced base of stability. Exercises such as single leg deadlifts over deadlifts greatly improve strength and stability in single leg positions. Renegade rows allow the body to learn how to pull hard while the abs have to brace at high levels to resist the rotational forces. Here are some alternatives for traditional strength exercises that will help ground fighters more, as well as reduce training time by hitting multiple needs at once.
Pushing exercises –
One arm bench press
½ kneeling press
Pulling exercises –
Sled pulls from plank
Sled pulls from ½ kneeling
Sled pulls from tall kneeling
One arm rows with bilateral stance
One arm rows with spit stance
One arm rows from single leg stance
Hinge exercises –
Single leg deadlift
Split stance deadlift
Deadlift with asymmetrical load
As noted earlier in the Judo section, high levels of grip strength are required for competition. There are two possibilities here. Firstly, that an athlete lacks adequate grip strength. The second, and more likely option, is that the athlete does so much grip work already through regular training that adding to it will overly stress the hands and grip.
Here is how this should be addressed:
If you lack grip strength perform all your normal strength work such as bench press and power cleans. However for your pulling work, such as pull-ups and prone rows, use a rope or gi grip. At my gym we favor sled pulling over barbell or dumbbell rows using a rope as it taxes the grip more, and we use rope climbs or towel pull-ups over holding the bar.
The second option – the over worked grip – is better addressed by doing finger extension exercises. The muscles of hands and fingers get so tight from grappling and working on the various grips that it is easy for them to become overly tight. Just like tight muscles in the back or legs can lead to injury so too can they lead to injury in the hands. Taking time to stretch the fingers back post training can be enormously helpful, along with rubber band finger extension exercises. Simply pinch all your fingers together and place a rubber band around them. Now open the fingers outwards so that the fingers become as open as possible – the reverse of your grip. I tend to do these all day long and often carry a rubber band in my pocket so I can spend time on them while on the phone or even coaching.
The biggest hurdle for any serious BJJ competitor to handle is managing your program. Between work, on the mat skill training, and accessory work there is a lot to fit in. Most serious BJJ athletes spend at least five sessions per week on the mats. Given the class schedule at most gyms that means every evening is usually busy. That means the morning is your best choice to add in extra training. This splits your sessions up by as much as possible and allows for the best possible recovery.
Many will try to cram two sessions together in an effort to save time. This study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18296973) shows that it is certainly possible to work on both within the same session, however, during periods where you wish to improve a specific aspect of your fitness it is best to have a targeted training session solely on that focus. The main areas that need to be addressed are:
One of the biggest changes in sports training theory over the last two decades has been the growth of concurrent training. Concurrent training addresses multiple fitness qualities at once as opposed to a traditional linear model that was previously used. In the traditional model the athlete would work on a single quality at a time building towards a final peak event.
However, in the world of combat sports this is often unrealistic, as the nature of the sport requires many qualities to be addressed at once. This allows for multiple factors of fitness to be trained not just within a week, but within a session too. As discussed above, most BJJ athletes will train five-plus times per week, and most classes are evening classes. The following is how a sample week may look.
||Max strength + Anaerobic endurance
||Cardiac Output + flexibility
||Max strength + anaerobic endurance
||Cardiac output + flexibility
||Cardiac output + flexibility
Sample plan for BJJ, full workouts:
Monday – Maximal strength + anaerobic endurance
Warm up – 5-10mins of easy cardiovascular work
Dynamic warm up
1B. Bench press
Perform 3 sets of 5 reps, with each set heavier than the one before. The final set should be hard to complete all reps.
2A. Renegade rows 3 x 5
2B. Get up 3 x 1
3A. One arm row from split stance 3 x 5
3B. ½ kneeling press 3 x 5
Complete 3 rounds of 6 x 30s work: 30s recovery on a rower. Rest 5-6mins between efforts. To be done at maximum intensity to replicate tournament fighting.
Tuesday – Cardiac output + flexibility
30-45mins of steady state cycling or rowing. Heart rate should be 70-75% of max heart rate.
Finish with 30mins of targeted yoga work focusing on your breathing to relax the body.
Wednesday – recovery
30mins of easy swimming/ treading water.
30mins of targeted yoga work focusing on breathing to relax the body.
Thursday – Maximal strength + anaerobic endurance
As per Monday
Recovery – as per Wednesday AM
Friday – Cardiac output + flexibility
As per Tuesday AM
Saturday – Recovery
As per Wednesday AM
Sunday – Cardiac output + flexibility
As per Tuesday AM
Many will be tempted to add in more hard conditioning type sessions, believing that more is better. But the nature of regular BJJ training is that it is already very high intensity. While you may be able to cope with added high intensity work in the short term you will find yourself burnt out or hurt in the longer term. Think of accessory training as a way to make your body better instead of a way to test your fitness – allow tournaments to do that.
With a focus on maximal strength and steady state cardiac output training there is limited interference if the sessions are split up. If you choose to mix maximal strength and cardiac output training be aware that you won’t get the full benefit of either. However, the maximal strength and anaerobic endurance training go well together.
The focus on quite a few extra easy sessions (recovery, flexibility, and cardiac output) allows you to add many extra sessions in per week with little risk. Over time these easier sessions add up, giving you a much greater pool of strength and conditioning to draw from come competition time.