A reader recently asked an interesting question…
I’m super-busy with my job and my kids. In a good week I only get to go to BJJ class once, maybe twice, so I want to add some conditioning to the mix. If I only have one additional hour per week to devote to physical fitness what would you suggest?
I feel his pain! Everybody’s busy these days, and nobody is as busy as a working parent. And good for anyone who is trying to juggle all that plus train too!
I’ve got some suggestions for Jim, but first let’s talk about the general context…
If he’s this busy then he probably isn’t looking to compete in the Mundials anytime soon (nor would a couple of BJJ sessions and one hour of conditioning be anywhere near sufficient for this goal).
So what we’re really talking about is physical fitness for general health that has some carryover to BJJ, not an ultra-BJJ-specific conditioning regimen.
How many times have you heard that there’s nothing as important as your health? And it’s true, because if your health is shot then nothing else matters: without it you can’t enjoy anything else, take care of your family, or contribute to society. And without health the shiny baubles you’ve worked so hard for will seem pretty irrelevant.
The unfortunate part is that it often takes a major health crisis – a heart attack, a bad illness, etc – to drive this lesson home.
Health is like a credit card: you can make withdrawals on it, but eventually you have to pay it off. If you just withdraw from it over and over and never put anything back in, then you’ll accumulate unsustainable debt and eventually it’s going to bite you in the ass very badly!
Of course there will be times in life when you simply can’t make working out a priority. Times when important, urgent crises take centre stage and commander all your available time and energy.
This is a normal part of being an adult. And during those times your best option may be to focus on the crises at hand and temporarily forgo your fitness regimen.
But it can’t stay like that. You can’t live in crisis forever. If you run up enough debt on your credit card (i.e. get out of shape enough) then bad things happen. So the smart thing to do is not to run up too much of a debt in the first place.
And the best way to do that when it comes to health is to doggedly, ruthlessly, and creatively carve out some time to exercise.
But is one hour of exercise enough?
There’s a saying that perfect is the the enemy of good. And doing something is infinitely better than doing nothing. So maybe one hour a week won’t get you back to the medal podium at the next big tournament, but it’ll help keep you within striking distance getting into good shape when whatever craziness you’re going through dies down a little bit.
So what should you do during that hour of exercise?
First of all, you should break it up!
I think that two separate thirty minute sessions a week, or three separate twenty minute sessions a week is much better than just going for one hour once a week. It keeps your body used to sweating, moving and not being glued to a desk. Plus you’ll probably be able to train at a higher intensity for several shorter sessions as opposed to one longer session.
I’ve done this in my own life. When my kids were young, in addition to doing BJJ I would stuff a child into a jogging stroller and go for about a 25 minute run once or twice a week. During that run I would stop twice, each time doing a set of pushups and a set of pull-ups to failure.
So at the end of the 25 minute workout I would have worked my arms, back, legs, lungs and heart. Plus achieved a little bit of stress relief.
Was it an optimal workout? No. Was I in my all time best shape? Definitely not!
But it was better than nothing, it stopped me from becoming fat, and it definitely helped my endurance on the mat.
I think that running is the most important exercise you can do (click here to read 10 tips for running for BJJ).
But it’s not the only solution. Fortunately there are lots of ways to make yourself tired and exhausted very quickly!
But let’s say that I could only do conditioning for one singular hour a week, and couldn’t break it up…
Well, one workout a week is still a thousand times better than no workouts a week!
Everybody has different strengths, weaknesses and requirements, thus their optimal once-a-week workout would probably be quite different.
My own personal one-hour workout would probably look something like this…
- 20 minutes of cardio. In my case I would probably do 20 minutes of medium-hard steady state cardio on a stairmaster or treadmill. Another alternative would be sprint intervals instead (click here for a sample workout). Some people love sprints and interval training, but others – like myself – find that they get the best results from steady state cardio. Only through experimentation will you find out what works best for you.
- 10 minutes of barbell squats. The squat is one of those fundamental movements essential to all sports, including BJJ. Basically you’re using your legs to push something (the ground) away from you. I personally prefer a powerlifting-style squat and would probably do 3 to 4 sets of 4 to 8 reps, but any type of weighted squat would do. Or, in a pinch, weighted lunges or heavy leg presses.
- 5 to 10 minutes of hinging movements. If the squat is pushing away with your legs, then the hinge is folding your body forward at the waist and then straightening up again. Many people use the basic kettlebell swing or the stiff legged deadlift to train this motion and build strength in their posterior chain. Incidentally if you’re doing wide-legged powerlifting style squats (as opposed to narrow-stanced ‘bodybuilding’ style squats) then you’re training both the hinge and the squat at the same time so isolating the hinge becomes less important.
- 10 minutes of pressing movements. Basically here you’re using your arms to push something away from your body. Typically it’s done as a bench press using either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells, but military presses, handstand pushups, one-armed pushups, and dips would all accomplish the same requirement.
- 10 minutes of pulling movements. I’m a big fan of pull-ups but since the fundamental idea here is to pull something towards your body you could also do cable rows, pulldowns, dumbell rows or bent over rows. Anything to develop the lats, biceps and grip.
- 5 minutes of stretching. Hey, you’re only working out once a week, so you’re not going to become a yogi right now. But 5 minutes of stretching your arms, legs, hips and back is still better than nothing, and a good way to wind down your conditioning session.
I’ve used the basic workout above many times, because it engages the heart, lungs, and all the basic human movements. All the lifts are compound movements which hit many muscles at the same time and teach them how to work together to generate force (note the conspicous lack of bicep curls and leg extensions).
One final suggestion is to try and sneak in a bit of extra training at every opportunity. Every little bit helps and reminds your body that it is designed to move and be active.
For example you could try to…
- Make the commitment to never take an escalator or elevator when you can take the stairs instead.
- Buy a portable pull-up bar, hang it in a doorway, and do 5 pull-ups every time you walk under it.
- Do your maximum number of push ups twice a day, once in the morning, and once in the evening.
- Sitting is the new smoking, so take your phone calls standing (or preferably walking).
- And so on…
Good luck getting through this. Remember – the goal is to avoid falling too far behind, not to get in the best shape of your life.
Doing something is better than doing nothing.
P.S. If you have any suggestions on this topic, or have workouts that got you through a tough spot, post them in the comments below. I’m interested in hearing all the solutions that people have come up with to deal with this very common problem.