Conditioning For Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

Conditioning for BJJ is often seen as grueling body weight or weight room circuits, sprints, or just rolling more at the end of class. Sadly, this shotgun approach to conditioning can lead to a lot of fatigue, unnecessary joint pain, and lack of improvement BJJ conditioning.

Instead, conditioning is simply about being able to meet the demands of BJJ. This means conditioning for BJJ should be kept as close to the sport as possible. Meaning performing similar movements at varying volumes and intensities based on the energy system being targeted. BJJ conditioning should focus on developing aerobic capacity, lactic capacity, alactic capacity, and grip endurance.

Now, this doesn’t mean that all areas of conditioning have to be performed in your gi drilling. There is only so much time you can spend on the mat and developing grip endurance or more intense energy system development are difficult to do with just the sport of BJJ.

When performing conditioning outside of normal BJJ training, it’s generally best practice to address areas that you don’t touch on during normal class. This is often high output alactic development, and low-intensity aerobic development. So how should you put all of this together to condition for BJJ?

The Physiological Demands Of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

The Physiological Demands Of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

BJJ requires on average a 6:1 effort to pause ratio making it a highly aerobic sport due to its high level of activity [2]. This translates to roughly 117 sec of effort with 20 sec of inactivity. Each effort period generally consists of 30 sec of low-intensity activity coupled with 2-4 sec of high-intensity activity [3].

While BJJ is has a high aerobic demand, it utilises all three energy systems to some degree making it a mixed sport. This means training across the energy system spectrum should be performed.

It’s important to understand that you can’t isolate an energy system in training as all three energy systems run harmoniously. However, specific training methods can target the desired adaptations brought about by emphasizing certain energy systems.

It should be noted that much of the conditioning for BJJ occurs within training itself. Conditioning off the mats acts as an extra piece to the training puzzle to address areas you may be lacking to improve your performance on the mats.

The Efficiency Of BJJ Skill

Before I dive into developing high-level conditioning for BJJ, it’s important to address the topic of technical skill. You can be the fittest, strongest, fastest, meanest athlete on the planet. Come your first BJJ class, you won’t last a minute in bottom position. Why?

You haven’t learned the ability to use your energy efficiently and effectively. You don’t have any of the requisite skills or techniques to help you in that situation. So instead, you push and heave with as much muscle as you can while the guy on top relaxes and rides you.

This is why it is so important to spend as much of your training time performing the sport rather than off the mat conditioning. If you roll with your instructor, you’ll realize they are barely breathing heavily. They know when they can relax. The most energy-efficient way to perform a movement. And when they need to explode.

This is something that is learned over years of experience.

If you train BJJ once a week, then no amount of conditioning you perform off the mat will prepare you for what happens on the mat.

Developing Aerobic Capacity For BJJ

Developing Aerobic Capacity For BJJ

The aerobic energy system is the gas tank for the BJJ practitioner. The aerobic energy system allows you to recover faster between intense efforts [1]. In a competition setting, it will allow you to recover faster between matches and maintain high outputs throughout the competition day.

As heart rate starts to increase past approximately 160-170 BPM, the greater contribution is needed from the lactic energy system to regenerate the energy needed. The more time that can be spent aerobically, the less fatigue that will be generated. So how can we improve aerobic capacity for BJJ?

See my previous article “What Is Conditioning Training” for an in-depth breakdown of the energy systems for combat sports.

Low Intensity, Steady State Cardio (Extensive Endurance, Aerobic Capacity)

While many BJJ practitioners may go perform a long, low-intensity run, it is better to perform low-level BJJ drills in a continuous fashion. Why? Because the adaptations to the heart to be able to pump more blood isn’t the only outcome of aerobic capacity training.

It also builds the vascular network of capillaries at the muscle level which allows greater oxygen delivery. If you solely perform your low-intensity endurance work by running or biking, those capillary networks will predominantly be built throughout the leg musculature.

BJJ is a sport that requires more than just your legs. As much as possible, conditioning should match the biodynamic structure of BJJ. Meaning conditioning should be as close to the movements as possible being performed during BJJ. That way, the vascular network you build will enhance the musculature needed to perform.

Here are some examples of how you could perform a BJJ style endurance session.

With A Partner

This is your best option especially if you have a couple of mats at home. Simply put on a heart rate monitor (they are a cheap enough technology now) and aim to keep your heart rate between 120-150 BPM, no higher.

Work in 5 min blocks for 30+ mins total work time. This will be continuous with no breaks. In each 5 min block, select the drills you want to perform. E.g.

Block 1: Double leg to Sprawl to Securing the Back in Turtle (alternate every 2 shots)

Block 2: Over/Under with Pummel with movement

Block 3: Sit sweep to arm bar

Block 4: Stand up guard pass to Mount

Block 5: Arm Bar from guard to Triangle to Omoplata

Block 6: Knee on belly switch

You may have to experiment with different drills to see which allows you to keep your heart rate at a steady pace. Some drills may not work as well when alternating with a partner while some like the first and second block will as both partners are working.

You will also have to play with pacing. Some drills may take too long to reset bringing your heart rate too low.

Without A Partner

Things get a little trickier without a partner. If you have a boxing bag or grappling dummy, they will come into good use here. Going solo, you may want to add a little more variety as 5 min blocks by yourself can be long. Use 2.5 min blocks instead giving you 12 different drills to use over a 30 min period. A medicine ball is a great addition to the BJJ conditioning arsenal. Here’s an example.

Block 1: Knee on belly switches on dummy

Block 2: Sprawls

Block 3: Medicine ball circuit of Slams x10, Chest Pass against wall x10, Rotational throw x10/side against wall, Scoop toss x10

Block 4: Fall back to technical stand up

Block 5: Shrimping

Block 6: Double leg

Repeat once more or add new drills.

Tempo Intervals (Extensive & Intensive Tempo)

Tempo running was made famous by the track coach Charlie Francis. It allows a higher intensity of work but with greater recovery meaning greater quality. You want to perform these tempo intervals at around 70% of your maximum speed and effort.

Tempo running doesn’t have to be only performed by running. Other modalities will make good substitutions.

These are probably best done with methods off the mats. However, if you perform them on the mats, performing various takedowns would be your best option.

Simply perform these intervals on the minute on a rower or bike. Performing calisthenics in the rest period is a great way of increasing the density of the session and providing a full-body aerobic stimulus E.g.

Week 1: 20sec effort + 10 pushups or crunches. Go every 60 sec.

Week 2: 25sec effort + 10 pushups or crunches. Go every 60 sec.

Week 3: 30sec effort + 10 pushups or crunches. Go every 60 sec.

Calisthenics can also be replaced by BJJ drills such as technical stand ups. Work up to approximately 30 mins of work whether that’s split into sets or 30 straight sets.

Developing Lactic Capacity For BJJ

Developing Lactic Capacity for BJJ

The anaerobic lactic energy system lasts for up to 90 sec. That is why the aerobic energy system plays such a large role in your overall conditioning. As the body needs energy faster than the aerobic system can regenerate, then the anaerobic lactic energy system kicks in to compensate.

Lactic capacity can be developed through BJJ specific movement as well as off the mats. If you are performing lactic capacity training on the mat, you will need training partners. Sadly, performing this type of training on your own would require different modalities.

With A Partner

Shark tanks can be a great way of putting together BJJ specific lactic capacity sessions. However, these need to be set up so they can’t easily rest. For example, bringing in fresh guys more often especially when the person working is in an advantageous position.

Without A Partner

It can be a little harder to control with a shark tank so performing continuous double leg takedowns is another option. For example:

3 x 90 sec explosive double leg takedowns with 60-120 sec rest. Repeat for 2-4 series with 4-6 min between series.

The same protocol can be used on an off feet piece of equipment such as a rower at near maximal effort.

Developing Alactic Capacity For BJJ

As mentioned previously in “What Is Conditioning Training,” taking creatine monohydrate is the easiest, most effective way of improving alactic capacity without a training intervention. When it comes to training, you will need to select exercises that allow for maximum speed and effort.

In BJJ, that could be shooting for double legs. However, it is difficult to get this intensity on the ground. It is better off performing alactic capacity work off the mats using medicine ball throws, explosive pushups, or jump squats. For example:

10 x 10-sec explosive pushups or jump squats (alternate each set) w/ 20-30 sec rest. 2-3 series with 8-10 mins of light drilling between.

If you are an athlete that isn’t so explosive, it would be wise to spend time developing alactic power. While highly genetic, improvements can still be made. E.g.

5 x 7-sec explosive pushups or jump squats or medicine ball throws w/ full recovery between reps (2-5 mins).

How To Plan A Training Week For BJJ

Referring back to Charlie Francis who I mentioned earlier in the article, consolidating similar stressors on the same day is how you can mitigate developing too much fatigue. Sadly, it’s not possible to train your hardest every single day of the week. Eventually, something will give.

Here is how a training week could look for a BJJ practitioner far out from competition. Assuming you are training 5x/week BJJ with a day off in the week.

SkillMonTuesWedThursFriSat
High/LowLowHighLowHighLowHigh
BJJDrillingPositional Sparring/DrillingOFFPositional Sparring/DrillingDrillingOpen Mat
ConditioningAerobic CapacityAlactic PowerAerobic Capacity (If time)Alactic PowerAerobic Capacity
StrengthEasy accessory workMaximal Strength/PowerMaximal Strength/PowerEasy accessory work

For those closer to competition with the same 5x/week schedule, it may look like this:

SkillMonTuesWedThursFriSat
High/LowLowHighLowHighLowHigh
BJJDrillingPositional Sparring/RollingOFFPositional Sparring/RollingDrillingOpen Mat
ConditioningLactic CapacityAerobic CapacityLactic Capacity
StrengthEasy accessory workPower/Power EndurancePower/Power Endurance

References

1. Tomlin, D. L., & Wenger, H. A. (2001). The relationship between aerobic fitness and recovery from high intensity intermittent exercise. Sports Medicine31(1), 1-11.

2. Andreato, L. V., Franchini, E., De Moraes, S. M., Pastório, J. J., Da Silva, D. F., Esteves, J. V., & Branco, B. H. (2013). Physiological and technical-tactical analysis in Brazilian jiu-jitsu competition. Asian journal of sports medicine4(2), 137.

3. Andreato, L. V., Julio, U. F., Panissa, V. L. G., Esteves, J. V. D. C., Hardt, F., de Moraes, S. M. F., … & Franchini, E. (2015). Brazilian jiu-jitsu simulated competition part II: Physical performance, time-motion, technical-tactical analyses, and perceptual responses. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research29(7).

Written by James de Lacey

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with high-level teams and athletes. I review the latest research every month for Science for Sport and use my combined knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your combat training.

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