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Conditioning for BJJ

What is the “gas tank” in BJJ?

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.

Let’s start with the two parts of our graph that most people already associate with conditioning:
1️⃣ Anaerobic Power
2️⃣ Aerobic Base
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 transition or scramble with a very high output, while an aerobic base will allow you to more fully recover during the static positions.

It may be surprising to some, but two elements of strength also make up an important part of your gas tank:
3️⃣ Local Muscular Endurance
4️⃣ Relative Strength
Local muscular endurance plays a huge role in conditioning for BJJ. 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:
5️⃣ 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.

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. 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 whichc ontinuing 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 BJJ athletes? Unless you’re injured or have other extenuating circumstances, don’t worry about “cardio” and save your precious training time for the mats!
To learn more about aerobic fitness for BJJ versus other combat sports, check out our blog post!
Source: Andreato et al. “Physical and Physiological Profiles of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Athletes: a Systemic Review.” Sports Medicine – Open (2017) 3:9DOI 10.11 86/s40798-016-0069-5

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