To answer the question of how to get in shape for Brazilian jiu jitsu, we must first look at the requirements of the sport. One of the founding principles of exercise science is the SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demand) principle. For every type of training you do the body has a specific adaptation. For example the adaptation from a sprint is going to be different than that of running a longer distance at a slower pace. The understanding of this principle will shed some light on the best way to prepare the body for Brazilian jiu jitsu.
Physical Requirements of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Brazilian jiu jitsu is one of the rare sports that is considered a mixed sport. Meaning, it is neither purely anaerobic nor purely aerobic. A better way to look at it is that BJJ uses the glycogen-lactic acid system and the aerobic system.
Depending on what belt level the competitor is a match length can be anywhere from five to ten minutes long. At first glance this may appear to fall under the aerobic category, but this doesn’t take into consideration what happens during the allowed time frame. During most matches there are periods when you are going all out, pushing yourself and building up lactic acid. There are other times where you are moving a slow place or taking a rest. We have all been in matches where you just need a few seconds to relax, get your breath, and slow things down. Most athletes would find it difficult to sprint for five minutes straight, but tis is what a lot of competitors try to do in a match. This will last about thirty seconds before they produce a large amount of lactic acid that will force them to slow down. I am sure anyone reading this who has ever competed in a BJJ tournament can tell you about the extreme lactic acid that is built up in the forearms during a match.
The fact that Brazilian jiu jitsu requires both the anaerobic and aerobic systems to be functioning at a high-level makes conditioning more difficult. I have seen athletes approach the problem from both ends of the spectrum. On one end is the cardio machine, the student who tries to get in shape by only running long distances. He or she may be able to run for miles, but at the end of a five-minute rolling session is spent. On the other end is the athlete who spends lots of time in the weight room or just sprinting. But the same thing happens. After the first round of rolling he or she needs to take a break.
So, the question remains – how do we actually get in shape for Brazilian jiu jitsu?
How Long and How Often?
Conditioning sessions should not replace your Brazilian jiu jitsu sessions. Based on the SAID principle discussed earlier, nothing beats Brazilian jiu jitsu rolling sessions and drills. I understand time is limited, so if you have to choose between going to the gym for a Brazilian jiu jitsu class and a conditioning workout, it is always best to choose jiu jitsu. For the days when you cannot make class or have time planned out in your week for strength and conditioning sessions, the conditioning you do outside the BJJ gym must match the demand of your sport.
- How long should your rounds be? The duration of your conditioning rounds should match the specific length of your match. For a white belt that is typically five minutes. For a purple belt it is typically seven.
- How many round should you do? This depends on how soon you will be competing. If you are four weeks out from a competition, then three to four rounds are normally enough. For those who do not compete or are not competing for a while, two to three rounds is plenty.
- How often should we condition? This depends on your availability and how close you are to a competition. If time is not an option and you are competing in four weeks, then two to three days per week is good. During the last four weeks the heavy lifting should be reduced and specific conditioning should be raised. For those who do not compete or are not competing in a while or have limited time, then one or two days of conditioning per week is enough.
Brazilian jiu jitsu requires the body to be strong yet flexible. The athlete needs to have great conditioning and technical skill. To build your conditioning, each circuit needs to resemble a round of rolling. Running at a slow speed for five minutes is not going to cut it. If you look at what happens during a match there are times when you are on your feet, times when you are on the ground, times when you are pushing, and times when you are getting your breath.
For my athletes, I design circuits that mimic a match and you should include movements that mimic Brazilian jiu jitsu. Your goal is to get in shape for a Brazilian jiu jitsu not a 5K. Most of the movements can be bodyweight. If you have access to a medicine ball and a training dummy you can add some variety. Use what you know. If there is a specific guard pass you want to work on, then add it into your circuit and perform it on the training dummy.
Below is a sample conditioning circuit that is great for blue belts. For the higher belts, you can add to it. For the white belts, you should remove two exercises.
Conditioning Circuit Workout
Perform each exercise for 30 seconds in the following order. Do not rest until after the last exercise.
- Jumping jacks
- Sprawls in place
- Knee walks
- Wrestler sit-outs
- Arm drags
- Side to side knee on belly
- Back falls to tactical stand up
- Standing guard opening (start on your knees like in the guard and stand up to open)
- Knee walk sprawl (do one knee walk then one sprawl repeat for the allowed time)
- Lie on your back and shoot triangles
- Hip escapes
- Back bridge with reach (bridge up and reach with the opposite hand over your shoulder)
This comes out to a total of six minutes of work per round. You will do multiple rounds, so between the first and second round take a three-minute rest. Between the second and third (if you are doing three) the rest should be two minutes. For those doing four rounds, then rest is a minute and a half between the third and fourth time through. In a tournament as you get deeper into the brackets you get more fatigued. Therefore I want less rest between your last few rounds.
Brazilian jiu jitsu is a complex sport not just physically but mentally. Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards out of all of us.” When you are tired the last thing you are thinking about is proper technique. The most important thing you can do to improve your Brazilian jiu jitsu is train Brazilian jiu jitsu, but when time is available you should train your conditioning in a specific way that matches the demands of BJJ. Since most Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners work or go to school any available time for conditioning cannot be wasted. Why spend thirty minutes running or on the elliptical when you can do fifteen minutes of specific conditioning?
Photos courtesy of David Brown Photography.