Four Reasons You Might Be Getting Tired in BJJ

by Guest Author, Mark Mullen (BJJ Brown Belt, Judo Brown Belt)

I’ve been grappling for many years, and here’s a situation that comes up all the time…

I often spar younger, heavier, beginners. At the end of the round they’re usually fighting for breath, arms trembling from fatigue.

They stagger unsteadily to their feet and croaks through parched lips “Man….(huff! puff!) I really need (gasp! pant!)…to work on my (huff! puff!)…cardio!”

When this happens I usually offer a few words of advice. Typically I say something about learning how to relax while rolling and trying to conserve one’s strength as a matter of strategy (not to say self preservation!).

You see, the truth is that their cardiovascular conditioning may very well be far more superior to my own. These beginners will also often be solidly muscled, having spent years in the weight room gobbling creatine capsules.

So why are they so exhausted and I’m not?

There are a number of answers to this question – and few of them have anything to do with VO2 Max or other widely accepted measures of cardiovascular fitness and maximal aerobic power.

Here Are 4 Reasons You Might be Getting Tired

1) NOT being as efficient as possible. Josh Russell, head instructor of my BJJ academy teaches nearly every class (3 per night). He also attends all of the open mat sessions and, without fail, rolls with the toughest, most skilled grapplers at each session. That’s a lot of hard rolling in any given week. When I asked him how he managed to maintain that level of activity in a given week (and stay injury free) he said simply “I try to be as efficient as possible in every movement and position”.

I thought about this during the next several weeks of training and freshly examined my own efficiency in the various positions.

  • Was I using timing to execute the escape at the opportune moment, OR trying to force the opponent when he had turned all of his attention to preventing my escape?
  • Was I using a little extra power in pushing with my arms to create space, OR was I making the noninituitive effort to move my hips to create space to regain my guard?
  • Was I allowing the opponent to settle his weight on me then struggling to move, OR was I using fluid movement to prevent him from even establishing his position and anchors in the scramble?

There are many instances in a roll where you can identify a more efficient method of advancing position or escaping

2) Flexibility. A few weeks ago I was teaching the Flower Sweep to a couple of beginners. These guys had spent a lot of time in the weight room: they were fit, but had little flexibility in their hamstrings and hips. The Flower Sweep requires a large sweeping motion of the leg to induce the pendulum momentum. However, their hamstrings were so tight and hips so immobile, that the simple movement was exhausting them; breath held and faces red and grimacing they battled the muscular tension in their hamstrings: every muscle tensed and inhibiting the antagonistic.

“I am fighting my own body!” said one of the exasperated whitebelts. If you are fatiguing from performing repetitions with a compliant partner, how tiring is it to resist when you are being stacked under the full weight and pressure of your opponent? Marcus Soares – 7th Degree BB said that he felt yoga was beneficial to the BJJ practitioner as it assisted one in relaxing in contorted positions and breathing normally.

Anyone who has ever been to a Yoga class and found it shockingly exhausting will attest to how fatiguing some movements can be when you lack the requisite flexibility.

3) Stop Yelling! I read a recent discussion on a BJJ Forum where one person recounted the scenario of the exhausted whitebelt who had come on with plenty of intensity and speed but soon gassed out. “As he caught his breath I asked him what he figured would happen if instead of talking quietly or loudly depending on the situation – he always went around screaming at the top of his lungs? Well, if you picture jiu-jitsu as a conversation (as Dave Camarillo put it), there will be times when it is appropriate to “yell,” but you’ll lose your voice if that’s the only level at which you talk.”

Several years ago a Japanese Pride fighter was a guest at a friend’s academy and trained there for a period. I asked my buddy how the experience was of rolling with the professional fighter. “He is super relaxed – uses very little strength until you are attempting to submit him or he submit you and then he escapes / explodes in a burst.”

4) Bracing. Here’s something I read years ago. It was a fascinating discussion of fatigue in BJJ on a popular MMA Forum, and I saved a text copy of one of the posts. I recently found it in my archives and thought it was too good not to share. (If you are the original author of the post – I take no credit for your ideas and thanks for casting light on the topic)

Bracing

“…the primary cause of fatigue. When the organism is in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or unpredicted orientation there is a psychophysiological mechanism called “bracing.” Bracing is the irradiation of muscular recruitment – meaning that all of the muscles are ‘tensed’ in response to the ‘perceived threat’ of the unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or unpredicted orientation. If you’ve ever flexed your muscles (ala bodybuilding), you know that this exertion is extreme… and can result in as little as fatigue, to passing unconscious, to migraines and even fatalities.

It was an evolutionarily stable survival strategy that evolved for our ability to mobilize quickly and fight our way to flight. However, it is only a short-term mechanism, and only is beneficial at a decisive moment… and when confronted with a skilled fighter, the decisive moment is very, very shallow.

To defray the defensive mechanism, you must place yourself in that position in training, to become kinesthetically and more important – psychophysiologically, with the orientation… once acquainted, and RELAXED (read here poised, not catatonic), you will gain energy from the confidence of knowing you are in no (immediate) danger.”

Jiu-jitsu is one of those activities that you can immediately tell what the skill level of the opponent is when you come to grips. They do not react to your feints and you can feel their base, balance, strength and anticipation of your attacks. In seconds one can get the sensation that one is in deep water with an experienced adversary.This ‘bracing’ mechanism described in the box above partly explained why I would get so tired rolling with higher level guys when I could easily roll for 40 min with guys close to my level. Not only the more experienced guys forcing me to “yell” when they had a dominant position and threatened to submit, but I was tensing in anticipation of their coming game.

What do you do when you feel that you’re in over your head. Unconsciously you tense up, arms stiffened, holding your breath and preparing for his attack. When you are rigid, tensed and not breathing, your gas tank empties at an accelerated rate. This even happens at the highest level of competition when a competitor feels they are overmatched – observe the posture and tenseness of the MMA fighter when he realizes that his next takedown is likely to be thwarted.

The other factor here is being in an unfamiliar position in the grappling. Frank Shamrock was the first fighter who I recall being relaxed in matches when in an inferior position.Shamrock explained that he did not panic in competition because he had already been in that position a “million times in the gym” and could relax. Spending time in bad positions in training, while uncomfortable (and trying on the ego!) can help your threshold against the bracing effect by allowing you to remain mentally relaxed in a familiar situation and allowing the mental recognition of the timing and opportunity to escape.

Conclusion

Cardio conditioning IS super important – that is beyond debate. I go for runs to augment my own jiu-jitsu practice. However when you see elite level athletes with the best coaching, conditioning and diet completely gas out in the first round of a fight there HAVE to be other factors at play!

So the next time you find your lungs burning after a roll – before booking additional time on the treadmill – ask yourself “am I being efficient? Am I flexible enough? Am I yelling? Am I bracing?”

There’s nothing wrong with hitting the treadmill for some wind sprints, but it’s also quite possible that some of these other factors may have contributed to your fatigue.

About the Author: Mark Mullen was one of Stephan Kesting’s very first BJJ training partners.

He is now based in Calgary and awarded his BJJ brown belt by Josh Russel. He is also a brown belt in Judo.

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