Balancing Mat Time with Conditioning

Forget the work-life balance! Let’s talk about something much more important: the balance between mat time and conditioning.

I bring this up because one of the questions I get asked most frequently is about how to structure one’s training and conditioning for maximum benefit, and also how to fit that in with work, family, socializing and the rest of life. In fact today’s newsletter is partially a response to a question a BJJ purple belt asked me after I sent out a batch of newsletters dealing with conditioning routines.

Balancing mat time with conditioning time can be a very tricky problem. There are only so many discretionary hours in a week, and doing more of one thing almost always means doing less of something else. If you have, say, 6 free hours a week, and you want to be the best grappler you can be, then the question arises whether you should spend all 6 hours on the mat, or spend at least some of those hours doing conditioning.

The interesting thing is that everyone struggles with this. It’s a dilemma for the 25 year old professional fighter who has hours a day to train, as well as for the 45 year old professional accountant who likes to train a few times a week but wonders if he should also be pumping some iron.

Everybody struggles with optimizing their training time, it’s just that the constraints are different. The pro fighter worries about overtraining and getting injured, and the accountant worries that his family will forget his name if he disappears for yet another weekday evening, but nobody can do as much as they want.

Be very cautious when you read about the training schedule of a professional fighter or competitor, especially if you are looking for ideas on how to structure your training. Keep in mind that:

  1. they often lie about how much they do (to intimidate their opponents)
  2. there is a major difference between a pre-competition training camp schedule and regular maintenance training. Their maintenance training (when they aren’t getting ready for a competition) might be a lot less than they let on.
  3. a pro competitor in hard training does nothing but eat, train and sleep, a luxury not available to the vast majority of grapplers
  4. they may well be taking steroids or hormones to improve recovery time

To get closer to an answer you need to look at how much time do you have to spend on grappling each week. If you can train a lot, then you also need to figure out if you have the ability to recover from all that training. If you grapple more you get better. If you do more conditioning you get better. But if you do too much overall then you get sick or injured (i.e. if you are overtraining).

So let’s say that you’ve figured out that you have a certain number of training hours per week. For some people this number will be low (3 or 4), for serious amateurs with a lot of extra time on their hands this might be 6 sessions (90 minutes long) per week, and for professionals it might be a lot higher (8 to 15 sessions per week). How do you allocate these sessions?

There are no cut and dried answers for this topic, so here are some thoughts and guidelines you might want to consider while planning your weekly routine.

  • If your goal is primarily the development of skill and technique, then do more grappling and less conditioning. Mat time is usually the best way to improve performance, especially early in your grappling career.
  • If you have dual goals of skill development AND improved fitness then allocate anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of your available training time to conditioning and the rest to grappling.
  • Consider that many professional fighters have had great success only doing 2 to 3 pure conditioning sessions per week. They do a lot of additional conditioning, but it comes from sports-specific activities like doing drills, hitting pads, wrestling for takedowns, sparring, etc.
  • If you’re already doing a fair bit of grappling then 3 hard conditioning sessions per week are probably plenty (and you’ve likely already reaped 80% of the benefits at two hard workouts per week). Also if your grappling sessions are already fairly hard physically (i.e. they have tough warmups or have lots of sparring) then you don’t need as many additional conditioning sessions.
  • One way to prevent overtraining is to use periodization, in which you vary the quantity and intensity of your training over the course of weeks and months. I have previously discussed this in an article on peaking and tapering for competition.
  • If you despise any form of conditioning, running or working out, then relax – it’s OK to do more grappling and less conditioning. The acquisition of grappling skill is a long term process, and if you don’t enjoy the journey then you might never reach your goal.
  • For the ‘older’ grappler I highly recomend at least one weight training session per week. This session can be as short as 30 minutes, if you use a lot of multi-joint movements like squats, pullups, lunges, presses, etc. What constitutes ‘old’ is, of course, a matter of debate, but I think it’s fair to say that one is generally past one’s physical prime by age 35 to 40. Sensible and proper weight training slows the loss of muscle mass and injury-proofs your body, both of which will really help your jiu-jitsu or submission grappling.
  • The longer you’ve been physically active the more you can probably heap on your plate conditioning-wise. Your body will get used to recovering faster, and you’ll have more experience to know when you’re worn out and need to back off the throttle a bit.
  • Finally remember that any conditioning is better than no conditioning. If you hate running, hate weightlifting and hate pushups but love Ashtanga Yoga, then do Ashtanga Yoga. It may or may not be the perfect complement for your BJJ classes, but doing something you enjoy is better than finding excuses not to do the hypothetical perfect conditioning session.

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