BJJ is a unique sport in that it requires the development of many different physical qualities to be successful on the mats. Unlike football or field events (e.g., shot put, discus, and javelin) in athletics, which rely heavily on strength and power, BJJ requires a mixture of strength, power, speed, and endurance.
As a performance coach and sports scientist, I find that it’s a fun sport to train, but as an athlete, I know how hard it can be to figure out where to invest your time and energy. For example, if you aren’t training the endurance component of the sport, you’ll gas out quickly. However, if you can’t express a high degree of power and speed through your technique, you’ll miss opportunities to capitalize on your opponent’s mistakes.
In this article, I will outline the ESSENTIALS that every BJJ athlete needs to know, so that you can go as hard as you want, as fast as you want, and as long as you want without gassing out.
However, before we get into that, I want to make one thing very clear. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will substitute for time on the mats. If you aren’t consistently training with a qualified coach, no amount of conditioning will help you improve in the sport.
Repetition is the mother of skill. If you want to get better at BJJ, then you must consistently train the technical and tactical elements of the sport.
What is conditioning
First, let’s take a moment to define the term conditioning. This is a word that is often misused, and our understanding of what conditioning means in regard to our performance on the mats is the first hurdle we need to clear.
Conditioning is a broad term that describes the maximum power and capacity with which you can apply strength, power, and speed on the mats. Conditioning requires fuel, and that fuel is what allows your muscles to contract and execute your techniques (e.g., throwing, sweeping, pulling guard, choking etc.).
Furthermore, according to Joel Jamieson, conditioning is a “measure of how well an athlete is able to meet the energy production demands of their sport.” The power of the energy producing systems is expressed as the rate at which energy can be generated. And the capacity of the systems is displayed in the ability to produce energy for sustained periods of time (a.k.a. endurance).
I think we’d all agree that one of the keys to a well-executed judo throw is the speed or power with which you execute it. This first starts with solid technique, then it’s up to your ability to generate the raw power to manipulate your opponent in a violent fashion. Great technique is of no use if you move like a snail!!
In order to generate power, you need to execute a violent throw, and your body must supply your working muscles with the fuel it needs at a very FAST rate. This is CONDITIOINING POWER!
It’s one thing to be able to be fast and powerful for a few seconds, it’s another thing to be able to do it for multiple 5 to 10-minute rounds. This is where your capacity comes into play. Capacity is simply how long you can continue generating fuel for your muscles to contract.
As a performance coach, my goal is to jack up your power! However, as your “engine” gets bigger, you’ll need a bigger gas tank to fuel yourself. Simply put, I want you to have Ferrari output with Prius efficiency.
Where does muscle energy come from
Ok everyone, I am going to take you back to your 9th grade biology class so you can understand where muscle fuel comes from.
Like an engine needs gas, your muscles need biochemical fuel. This fuel comes from a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Through a series of reactions, ATP is broken down and energy is released to make your muscles contract and relax. Therefore, ATP can be considered the energy currency for your body’s economy.
The food you eat is ultimately broken down into ATP. BUT, the rate at which you can access the cash you need to “buy” fuel is dependent on how well you develop the Three Energy Systems that supply the fuel.
The three energy systems
There are three different energy systems that supply fuel to your working muscles. The power (horsepower) and capacity (gas tank) of each of these energy systems is what will determine your conditioning level.
All three of these energy systems are working at the same time. However, the contribution of each system is dependent on the task at hand. The secret to developing a devasting level of conditioning is developing ALL THREE of these systems.
Two of these systems (short-term and medium-term) systems are capable of generating energy really fast (high power)! These systems are what fuel your ability to execute an explosive throw or sweep, or to finish the last minute of a round with relentless effort.
These two systems do not utilize oxygen as part of their chemical processes and thus they are referred to as anaerobic systems. The benefit of these systems is that they produce a ton of energy, the downside is that they run out of fuel rather quickly.
The long-term (aerobic) system on the other hand can produce a ton of fuel (huge capacity), but the rate at which it develops this fuel is rather slow (low power). The aerobic system uses oxygen as part of its chemical process, unlike the anaerobic system.
The benefit of having a monster aerobic system is that it makes you super-efficient and you’ll last LONGER than your opponents. If you compete in a tournament or have a marathon rolling session, you will need to have a well-developed LONG-TERM energy system, or your day will end quickly.
Also, research demonstrates that at the black-belt level, BJJ is mostly an aerobic sport. Why is this? As a black-belt your technique is on-point and almost everything you do is subconscious. Therefore, you aren’t having to exert as much energy.
HOWEVER, what happens when a black-belt rolls with a black-belt, or white-belt versus white-belt? This is when being in better condition that your opponent can be a huge advantage. Because when you see an opening, you can attack as hard as you want, as long as you want, while your opponent is gasping for air.
Developing the three systems
I am going to give you a few of my favorite methods for developing each system, as well as a ratio for how you should invest your time.
This is one of the most underdeveloped systems in BJJ. Why? Most people just want to do the “hard” stuff…the stuff that makes them want to puke. If you spend all your time doing that stuff (medium-term system), you will gas out FAST!!
Cardiac Output Training
I discuss this in length in my Agile Physical Preparation and General Physical Preparation ebooks, but here’s the rub. The more efficient your heart is at beating blood, the more oxygen you’ll get to your muscles and the longer you’ll last on the mats.
- Heart rate is 120-140 beat per minute
- Each session is 30-90 minutes
- 1-3 sessions per week
Combat athletes have done road work (long light jogs) for years and this is why! They were building a huge gas tank. If you don’t like to run, get on a bike, rower, stepper or elliptical.
No equipment? Go for a long fast walk and check your heart rate every 5-10 minutes to make sure you’re in the zone. If you need a little resistance add a weight backpack. Another option is to do flow rolling and basic drills (arms bars and triangles) for the prescribed duration. This is a great 2 for 1!!!
This is the system most people love to train. Why? Because they are exhausted after they are done. However, don’t confuse effort with effectiveness. If you spend too much time doing this stuff, you’ll be slow and gas out quickly.
Lactic Power Efforts
Again, you can get very creative with the exercises you choose, including BJJ Drills. I like to do speed rounds of BJJ rolls or dumbbell/barbell/kettlebell complexes for speed!
- 20-40 seconds for each effort -> maximum speed is the goal
- 2-3 reps per set
- Rest 8-15 minutes between sets…YES, 8-15 minutes
- 2-4 sets
- 1 session per week
This is also a very neglected system! Although it’s what gives you the power to execute a violent throw, sweep or technique…most people aren’t patient enough to train it. This is to YOUR advantage!
Alactic Power Efforts
You can get super creative with the exercises you use here. Just about anything that requires a lot of speed or power will work – jumps, medicine ball throws, sprints, explosive weights, or explosive BJJ techniques.
- 4-10 seconds for each effort
- 3-5 reps per set
- Rest 2-3 minutes between sets
- 1-3 sessions per week
Backwards Overhead Medicine Ball Throw
3 sets of 5 reps, 2 minutes rest between sets
KB Squat Jumps
3 set of 10 reps, 3 minutes between sets
3 sets of 6 reps, 2 minutes between sets
Here is a breakdown of how you should portion your time, in minutes, over a week to each of these energy systems.
10% Medium-Term (Anaerobic-Lactic)
30% Short-Term (Anaerobic-Alactic)
60% Long-Term (Aerobic)
Sample weekly layout
The great Vince Lombardi once said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Don’t be a coward! Use our conditioning methods, and as your skill improves, you’ll have a serious advantage over your counterparts.
By applying the principles I’ve written about, you can have the confidence that you can roll harder, longer, and faster than your opponent. If you’d like bullet proof plan for this, check out our General Physical Preparation ebook that comes as part of our Premium Membership. It hits all of these energy systems with lethal precision.
Dr. Erik Korem is an Elite Performance Coach and Sports Scientist with over 15 years of experience training Olympic champions, professional (NFL), and collegiate athletes. He currently serves as the Sr. Associate Athletics Director for Student-Athlete High Performance at William & Mary. He and his wife Dr. Hayle Korem are both BJJ athletes.