How Often Should I Train BJJ?
01/30/2023 - Alex Sterner
How Often Should I Train BJJ?
This is a question that - as a coach - I get asked al the time. And if we want to answer it well, it'll likely begin with, "It depends..." Having worked with hundreds of BJJ athletes of all levels, I can pretty confidently say I've found some strong patterns. And in this blog, I'll do my best to break those patterns down and share them with you.
Let's start with beginners.
Say we have a white belt with multiple stripes, or a blue belt. They've recently started competing, and they're really starting to care about optimizing performance. One of the first questions they have is,
"How many times should I train BJJ each week?" And while I'm sure they receive different answers, a common theme is this individual being told to train more. Is this wrong?
Unless this person is older (discussed in this blog), or struggling to recover already - it's actually my opinion that this is usually good advice. Individuals at this level simply need exposure. They'll improve greatly seeing new positions, body types, sequences, and any combination of the three. A competitor with the most mat time, has likely been exposed to most of the above variables - and therefore will not have to figure it out on the fly if they experience it in competition. Due to this reason, more mat time is usually better for beginners if we can at least get them to recover enough before chance of injury increases.
This blog would end here if that was the end of it. What's the catch?
The catch is what I like to call the quality/quantity inflection point. And if you're a higher belt, you already understand this in one way or another. Let's start with where this idea was conceived:
This concept was first brought to my attention when I began training JT Torres in the weight room in 2015. Having just recovered from a knee surgery, JT was painfully aware that sheer volume of training was no longer ideal. Before we ever even lifted a single weight together, JT sat down with me and planned out what his ideal week would look like. We discussed how much fatigue I thought my S&C sessions would induce, and we timed these accordingly so he could hit the amount of "quality training" that he thought was ideal. JT was a dream client, and I've expanded on this idea with my athletes since then.
Now let's discuss this quality/quantity inflection point in a more general sense:
As we get to ~purple belt level, we've probably been exposed to most positions/body types. We've reached a point where we no longer benefit from mass exposure. Our training now requires more quality than sheer quantity - and we can see this point most clearly in an example of an extreme.
Let's say you decide to train 3 full sessions in a single day. 3 separate sessions of technique, followed by multiple rounds of hard sparring. Let's even give you the benefit of the doubt to say that the technique taught was similar enough that you aren't completely overloaded with how much you can retain in a single day (despite this often not being the case).
In that third class, how many of your rounds are occurring at a speed that resembles what you see when you're fresh? Probably none. And since our brains are constantly adapting and learning based on the environments we place ourselves in, we're subjecting our learning experience to these rounds that are so slow we feel like we're fighting under water. Fatigue happens in almost any competitive round, but what you're feeling here isn't mere fatigue. Your body is completely failing to execute the techniques that you know how to do. You're not just practicing bad/useless habits - you might be so fatigued that you're subjecting yourself to injury. And for what?
But you drag yourself there for a few reasons. Your recent defeat in a tournament is haunting you, and you're willing to push this hard to win. You watched a David Goggins video, and if that man can run hundreds of miles - surely you can push through another Jiu-jitsu class, right? Plus everybody talks about obsession and how bad you want it - everybody you admire puts this level of masochism on a pedestal. And if it worked for them, this must be the best path to the top right?
Probably not. That's right, I'm here to say that if the above paragraph describes you - you could benefit from doing less bro.
Right now you might be thinking, "Like I'm going to listen to some dork who seems to know more about lifting weights than being a warrior! My training partners are pushing it this hard, and my professor encourages it! You think being lazy is the thing I'm missing!?"
Easy there, Rocky. That's not quite what I'm saying. We still need to work hard. That's actually the baseline. But, it's important that this hard work is combined with quality training sessions - as many times per week as possible.
So what exactly entails a quality training session?
For live rounds to build the habits and timing that will best represent what we will encounter in competition, fatigue needs to be at a manageable level. Otherwise, we're building habits and growing accustomed to timing that does not transfer to competition.
A useful (but obviously limited) comparison that I like to look at is high-level MMA athletes. When they're in fight camp, they're performing heavy sparring once, maybe twice per week at most. That isn't to say that they're spending the rest of the week sitting on their hands. They're breaking down their skills into composite parts and drilling technique, performing limited live situations, and watching relevant film study sessions to account for a large portion of their weekly training.
While MMA athletes have to manage a much higher risk of TBI (brain injury), there is some overall validity to this method. You can bet that when these individuals hit their sparring sessions, they've managed fatigue well enough to perform at speeds that will directly translate to their competition in the octagon.
Obviously, we can get more than 2 hard sparring sessions of BJJ per week. But (for better or for worse), we don't have a gauge like concussions to immediately show us that we're substituting quality for quantity of live rounds. So we should be mindful to track how much live sparring we're performing each week, and play with the total volume until we find an ideal number of sessions per week for us. Not the ideal number of sessions of our favorite athlete (who may be juiced to the gills), or our professor, or our favorite training partner.
And here's an equally crucial part:
Any remaining effort we wish to expend should be on training modalities that don't fatigue us so much that our next session is negatively affected. Drilling-only sessions, situational rounds from positions that need work, and film study are fantastic uses of our time that can improve our skill while minimizing impact on any subsequent sessions.
I already bought a few Gordon Ryan instructionals on BJJ Fanatics. Why do you keep bringing up film study?
Film study is so much more than passively watching an instructional that you purchased. If you wish to truly dissect an instructional and benefit from it, bring a laptop/ipad to a mat you have access to - and aim to drill small portions of the instructional with an emphasis on repetition. Develop a plan to integrate these techniques into more free-drilling scenarios once you've adequately committed them to memory.
When I recently visited a former training partner of mine, Michael Liera Jr., at his gym Logos in Denver - I was immediately struck by the use of film for skill acquisition.
Every class began with an hour of drilling. And it seemed like every other student had an ipad/phone on the side of their portion of mat space. As soon as we got out of training, I asked Mike about it and his response really resonated with me.
He essentially said that years ago he came to the conclusion that there was a hard cap in terms of how much you can train BJJ in a given week. But begin to record your drilling and live rounds, and you could review/critique your jiu-jitsu for hours - long after your body was too fatigued to train effectively.
And this makes sense when you look at other more mainstream sports. Film study is a constant part of skill acquisition, so what's stopping you from adopting that habit for your own benefit?
In conclusion - beginners often benefit from more mat time. They need exposure to new positions and training partners, and can often find benefit in training even when exhausted. But upper belts should do what they can to manage fatigue while still improving skills. This can include training from specific positions they're working on, replacing live rounds with drilling, and most importantly - film study.