How Hard Should You Go During Sparring?

Serious training requires focus and intent when you’re on the mat. Those precious few hours of training every week deserve your complete attention so you can get good faster; life is too short for half-ass mediocrity.

Ask any black belt you like: they’ll agree that making an effort, staying focused, and paying attention is critical to your training. But this is MENTAL effort. MENTAL focus. MENTAL attention.

Some people, however, confuse 100 percent focus with going at 100 percent maximum physical effort for every single technique.

The thing is that using maximum physical effort and going full Conan all the time when you’re grappling can retard your progress significantly.

Case in point: do you know somebody who:

  • Applies every submission attempt with maximum speed and explosiveness?
  • Tries to escape every position with a sustained superhuman bridge?
  • Accompanies every guard sweep with facial expressions worthy of the Incredible Hulk?

Let me guess: this berserker grappler might be tough but he’s probably not very good technically. And nobody much likes training with him either, right?

Now when you think about it, maybe it’s not really the fault of those maximum effort people that they go hard all the time…

They might have been brainwashed by pro athletes spouting the usual athletics nonsense. “We’re just going to go out there and give 110 percent” and all that…

(What is 110 percent anyway?)

Or maybe they’ve been influenced by hardcore weightlifters who go to failure on every exercise. Bench pressing until they literally couldn’t move the bar if their life depended on it.

Going to failure is firmly enshrined in weightlifting and bodybuilding culture. But skill-based activities are different, and so bodybuilding isn’t a great model for BJJ training. Not to mention that very solid strength and conditioning gains can be made in the gym even if you only rarely go to failure.

Or maybe they’re big fans of the fictious lead guitarist of the band Spinal Tap…

Nigel Tufnel (lead guitarist): The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and…

Marty DiBergi (interviewer): Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.

Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel Tufnel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Marty DiBergi: I don’t know.

Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Marty DiBergi: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.

Hockey players, weightlifters and imaginary rock stars are all wrong, at least about BJJ sparring.

Of course I believe in getting good physical workout when you’re on the mat. When you’re done sparring you should be soaked in sweat and feel like you’ve actually used your body.

But no matter how fit you are you can’t just can’t continuously redline your body when you’re sparring.

First of all, if you’re using maximum effort for every technique then you’re endangering your training partners.

When your eyes are bulging out of your head with effort you just don’t have control over your techniques. You won’t be able to abort if you or your opponent end up in a compromising position.

Full strength sparring undermines the ability to stop if something goes wrong, and injuries will happen much more often than they need to.

Go super-hard all the time and eventually you’ll become that guy who always manages to ‘accidentally’ injure people he’s training with. And then, surprise surprise, nobody will train with you. At that point getting better will become almost impossible.

Secondly, if you’re using maximum strength for every single technique then you’re never going to develop that elusive BJJ quality called flow.

To develop flow you need to play. You need to be somewhat relaxed. You need to move smoothly. You need to… well… flow! None of which are compatible with continuous full physical effort.

Thirdly, if you’re using every ounce of strength in the first few moments of a match then you’re not going to last. If your initial techniques get countered then you’ll quickly be exhausted, and that’s not a good thing.

Dan Inosanto once told me, “If you’re tired then you’re not fast, you’re not strong, you’re not even smart.” It’s not a good sign when you’ve got flipper hands, jello arms and a heaving chest 30 seconds into a match…

So you need to be aware of how much fuel you have in the tank and then use it intelligently.

If you’re going for a long drive with limited refuelling opportunities you wouldn’t floor the accelerator and go screaming down the highway at maximum speed would you? No, you’d drive at an efficient speed and save the occasional bursts of higher speed for special situations like passing the car ahead of you.

It’s exactly the same thing in grappling.

Going to maximum effort should be a rare thing in sparring, or even in your competition. It should be a spice, not the main dish.

In general you should put no more than 80 percent of your strength into a technique when sparring. That way if it fails you’ll still have a reservoir that you can draw from for the rest of the match.

Of course there are times when 100 percent effort is mandated.

You should occasionally push yourself to the brink just to see how it feels. Run your gas tank down to empty just so you can get a realistic sense of how big your gas tank actually is.

Or if you’re behind by 2 points in a tournament and there are only 30 seconds left in the match then go for it! Leave it all on the mat. Unless you turn things around you’re going to lose, so why not finish the match completely exhausted.

And if you’re in amazing physical shape, recover quickly from being winded, AND have good enough control to not injure your training partners then you can go full Conan more often.

The bottom line? Spend most of your sparring time at 100 percent mental focus and no more than about 80 percent physical effort.

Save those 100 percent physical efforts for those rare situations where you really need it.

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