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 by 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 as these qualities underpin the demands of a BJJ match.
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?
6 Wickedly Effective Conditioning Secrets To Dominate The Mats
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 activity level . 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 .
Depending on your belt level, matches last between 5 – 10 minutes unless competing under special rulesets like submission only with no time limit.
VO2max values for BJJ athletes sit within the typical range of moderately trained individuals, around 45.6 ml/kg/min . This isn’t extremely high and much lower than judokas and wrestlers. However, these low scores are likely because BJJ athletes aren't technically efficient when running or cycling, so they are limited by the efficiency of these movements.
While BJJ has a high aerobic demand, it utilizes all three energy systems to some degree, making it a mixed sport. This means you should perform training across the energy system spectrum.
You must 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 by emphasizing certain energy systems.
An example would be a specific conditioning protocol consisting of 4 x 25 seconds of low-intensity BJJ drills paired with 5 seconds of loaded jump squats with 40% of body mass . This was completed for 10 minutes with 20 seconds of rest between each series of 4 sets.
Compared to a simulated match, there were similar physiological responses but higher neuromuscular output due to the jump squats.
You should note that much of the conditioning for BJJ occurs within the training itself. Conditioning off the mats is 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 skills. You can be the fittest, strongest, fastest, meanest athlete on the planet. Come your first BJJ class, you won't last a minute in the bottom position. Why?
You haven't learned the ability to use your energy efficiently and effectively. You don't have the requisite skills or techniques to help you in that situation. So instead, you push and heave with all your strength while the guy on top relaxes and rides you.
This is why spending most of your training time performing the sport rather than off the mat conditioning is so important. If you roll with your instructor, you'll realize they barely breathe 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.
The best way to distinguish what physical qualities are essential for BJJ is to compare higher and lower-level BJJ practitioners. For example, the Jiu-Jitsu Anaerobic Performance Test (JJAPT) has been used for this purpose.
It consists of 5 sets of max reps in one minute of the butterfly lift with 45 seconds of rest between sets . More advanced BJJ athletes can perform significantly more reps than novice BJJ athletes . Even though traditional fitness test results did not significantly differ between the groups.
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 . 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 circuit 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 conditioning workout.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 60 sec explosive double leg takedowns and sprawls 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).
Best Exercises For BJJ Conditioning
I don't like giving the best exercises for BJJ conditioning as it often comes down to the individual and what they have available to them. However, some exercises are just better than others for overall conditioning development when it comes to BJJ.
Now, people will often say being too specific is not real conditioning and that you should just run sprints. I highly disagree. Specificity when it comes to conditioning for BJJ is highly important. That doesn't mean you can't perform non-specific exercises as part of your conditioning preparation. It just means you should prioritize BJJ specific conditioning exercises.
Specificity allows you to train the muscles exactly how they will work when training BJJ. As Soviet sport scientist Yuri Verkhoshansky has stated, "Aerobic work must stimulate the muscles in the same way as competition exercise because the anaerobic threshold reflects the aerobic potential of the muscles involved in the work."
Meaning if all of my extra conditioning work is done running, I may get generally fitter but will only improve the work capacity in my legs for running. It is unlikely to provide a high level of transfer to the sport of BJJ. So here are my go-to BJJ conditioning exercises.
When you're dead tired rolling, the last thing you want to do is spring to your feet with perfect technical stand-up technique. But if you try get up without using it, you could get tapped quickly. Not to mention this is a good habit to have if you run into a situation in the street.
That is why it's important to drill this in an aerobic conditioning context. In my cardiac output circuits, I perform 10 technical stand-ups before moving on to the next exercise.
Honestly, sprawls are just the BJJ version of burpees. They'll boost your heart rate quickly so if you're doing them for cardiac output, you need to pace yourself. If you're doing solo lactic conditioning, these are awesome and you can hard without having the impact from running.
Also, doing sprawls hard and fast will feel like you are scrambling. Make sure you get back to your feet as quickly as possible so you don't get into the habit of being slow at the bottom.
You can drill double legs without a partner. While it probably won't make your takedown game any better, it will maintain your big toe flexibility and allow you to visualize your double leg setups such as arm drags or feinting a tie up.
If you've ever had to drill 20 sit sweeps in class (not the full sweep, just the hip bump), then you know how that feels. You can do it solo too and it gets your heart rate going quickly.
The simple turtle escape when you have an opponent in front of you holding you down. You can drill this on your own continuously as part of a cardiac output circuit.
We can't all be guard pullers. Shadow wrestling while visualizing your opponent should be a staple in your BJJ conditioning. You can manipulate the intensity of various foot movement, shots, and sprawls to spike your heart rate or keep it levels at the 70% max heart rate range.
Ideally, you'd have a partner and some mats to drill techniques at different intensities. It's not always possible and sometimes not ideal if you are at the BJJ gym 6+ times per week. But if you have this option, take advantage of it. Low-intensity one for one drills are great for aerobic conditioning and drilling techiques.
Higher intensity intervals can be done through positional sparring. For example, 2-3 x 8 minute rounds of training to escape your partner having your back or escaping mount.
Non-Specific Contralateral DB Exercises & Medicine Ball Throws
As I mentioned, not every session you do needs to involve specific BJJ exercises. I often like to sprinkle non-specific exercises within my cardiac output circuit. Contralateral DB exercises are my favorite for doing this as you don't need any space and you only need a 7 kg DB or so.
Exercises like reverse lunge into opposite arm press. Or single leg RDL with opposite arm row. You'll be surprised at how quickly your heart rate sky rockets doing these exercises. Medicine ball throws are another great option if you have the space. Light and rhythmic is how you should perform them for cardiac output. Or explosive and fast for anaerobic conditioning.
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.
Aerobic Capacity (If Time)
Easy Accessory Work
Easy Accessory Work
For those closer to competition with the same 5x/week schedule, it may look like this:
Easy Accessory Work
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