“Metabolic training” is a hot topic in the fitness industry and BJJ training, and everyone recognizes the importance of conditioning-type exercise. But what does it mean, and how do we best approach training off the mats?

“Metabolic training” is a hot topic in the fitness industry and BJJ training, and everyone recognizes the importance of conditioning-type exercise. But what does it mean, and how do we best approach training off the mats?

If you asked 10 people to define metabolic training, you would most likely receive 10 different answers. Hot buzzwords are often thrown around by people on social media who don’t truly understand what they mean in an effort to sound smart :) Typically, people mean some sort of high-intensity interval training (work hard, rest, work hard, rest, etc.), which primarily taxes the glycolytic energy system. BJJ performance absolutely relies on the glycolytic system, but it’s only one of many variables that determine grappling success. If the only thing that mattered was performing metabolic intervals, a torturous 30 minute session of burpees and lunges would be all we need, and strength coaches wouldn’t have a job!

So if it isn’t just about doing intervals until we puke, what are the different variables that make up the "gas tank" in BJJ and what’s the best model for improving conditioning?

When somebody seems to have an endless gas tank in BJJ, you might hear that the person must have good "cardio." But to think that this is due to a single physiological variable (like aerobic capacity, or cardio) is vastly oversimplifying the issue.

We like to use the following figure as a good representation of conditioning for BJJ:

Let's start with the three parts of our graph that most people already associated with conditioning:

1️) Anaerobic Power - moving with maximal speed and rate of force development, utilizing the  ATP-PCr (phosphocreatine) energy system (short bursts less than 10 seconds). Adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, is the main “energy currency” that our bodies use for any metabolic process that requires energy.

2) Glycolytic Capacity - the “next in line” tool after the ATP-PCr system runs its course. Blood glucose and/or or stored glycogen is broken down to create ATP through the process of glycolysis, and is the main energy system for bouts of work lasting between 15 seconds and 2 minutes.

3) Aerobic Base - a large volume of work at low-medium intensity, utilizing the aerobic/oxidative energy system (longer than 2 minutes). Aerobic energy production relies on oxygen, and breaks down fat in a process that is slower but provides a high yield of ATP


We could make this far more complicated, but BJJ is made up of a series of short intense scrambles/transitions followed by longer periods of static positions. Anaerobic power will determine your ability to burst or explode, glycolytic capacity will dictate your ability to repeatedly transition or scramble with a very high output, while an aerobic base will allow you to more fully recover during the static positions and in between rounds.

It may be surprising to some, but two elements of strength also make up an important part of your gas tank:

4) Local Muscular Endurance - the ability of one muscle or group of muscles to sustain repeated contractions against submaximal resistance (think maintaining grips throughout a round)

5) Relative Strength - total force production relative to body mass

Local muscular endurance plays a huge role in conditioning for BJJ (it’s technically an element of glycolytic capacity, but we prefer to think of it more as a measure of strength). If you can't maintain grips, you will have to work harder to retain guard, and can lose dominant positions you worked hard to obtain. Relative strength is your ability to express strength relative to your body weight, and will determine how much effort you must put into moving your or your opponent's body - often of a similar mass.

While you may not know of it in these terms, the final part of our graph is perhaps one of the most fundamental aspects of Jiu-Jitsu:

6) Fight Economy

We define this as the use of the least possible input, for a maximal return on output. The practitioner uses technique and leverage to achieve transitions and submissions with the least amount of effort possible. People often speak of how this can amplify strength, but we believe it can be used to magnify any of the physiological elements listed above. And you can see a decrease in fight economy if your technique is rusty and you feel like you're a step behind your opponent the whole round. Or if you haven't completed in a while, and you find yourself death-gripping a lapel 30 seconds into your first fight.


Improving any of these variables, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel like “conditioning”, will improve your fight economy and overall “gas tank” efficiency on the mats.


So the ALL-IMPORTANT question: do BJJ Athletes have ELITE levels of aerobic/cardiovascular fitness?

The answer is.....FALSE!!!

At Electrum Performance, we do our best to stay up to date on current research, and design our training programs based on the current scientific evidence. Unfortunately, BJJ is very understudied in the academic literature, and we're looking forward to seeing more research on grapplers in the future!

However, current available evidence suggests that grapplers/BJJ athletes do NOT have amazing aerobic fitness. This runs against conventional wisdom for fighters, and on the surface might seem confusing (although hopefully our explanation of all the other variables involved in fight economy helps this make more sense!). One of the most consistent questions we receive is why we don't put a big emphasis on running or other forms of "cardio", and the answer is because the current literature body says it isn't necessary! Let's examine further:

There are currently around 10 studies that have examined aerobic power, or V02max (meaning the maximum amount of oxygen consumption, typically measured in milliliters of oxygen consumed per minute per kg bodyweight) in BJJ athletes. While there are some methodology issues in these papers (namely, that V02max was typically assessed via a maximal treadmill test as opposed to performing task similar to BJJ), values ranged between 42 and 52 mL/kg/min. 

This is really not that impressive. In fact, your average high school cross country runner has a higher V02max than that! Aerobic fitness was also NOT predictive of competitive level, meaning white belts had about the same V02max as black belts. 

We interpret this to mean that there is a minimum threshold, or a sort of "line in the sand", where a certain amount of aerobic fitness is necessary for BJJ performance, after which continuing to improve aerobic capacity leads to diminishing returns. At this point, continuing to perform aerobic training would simply lead to higher levels of fatigue, compensated recovery, and wastes valuable time that could instead be devoted to training more BJJ! In fact, it is entirely possible to reach this level of V02max by just training Jiu-Jitsu and performing 0 other "cardio" training

So what's the take home message for full-time BJJ athletes? Unless you're injured or have other extenuating circumstances, you don't worry about  excessive "cardio" and can save more of your precious training time for the mats!


However, that absolutely doesn’t mean that we ignore conditioning work entirely, especially for athletes who are injured, lack one or more fight economy variables, etc. A well-rounded training template will address anaerobic power, relative strength, glycolytic capacity, local muscular endurance, and aerobic base in some way shape or form.


To find out more about how Electrum Performance programs conditioning, check out the different products at our website electrumperformance.com!


Alex Bryce

Alex Bryce

Alex Bryce is the Co-Founder and Head Strength Coach at Electrum Performance.

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