To condition or not to condition, that is the question…
Whether ’tis smarter for your body to strain under barbells and long distance runs, or ignore all that stuff and just focus on getting more mat time.
This is NOT an article about general fitness, or about achieving a goal in another sport. If you want to run a half-marathon for the challenge, the endorphins, or the sense of achievement then there’s no ambiguity about what you should do: tie up those running shoes and start jogging!
Or if your goal is to bench press 400 lbs then get thee to a gym.
Instead let’s narrow the conversation…
Let’s suppose your focus isn’t running for running’s sake, or bigger biceps by doing curls for the girls. What if your goal is simply to become a more effective grappler, perform better on the mats, and maybe take home some tournament bling at the next competition.
If that’s the case, then the question is subtly different: should you add conditioning to your routine just for the purpose of getting better at jiu-jitsu?
Every expert has an opinion (and an agenda) on this topic. And most of the time if you get three pieces of advice on this topic they all contradict each other.
The truth is that there just isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer that works for everybody when it comes to conditioning.
But there is a right answer for you.
Before we get to the solution let’s first examine the situation a little bit…
The first problem is that there’s almost always a tradeoff between spending time on the mat and spending time in the gym.
You only have a certain amount of time each week to train, which begs the question of how to most efficiently use that limited time.
In other words you have to make some important time management questions.
Should you drill and spar to develop your your technical skills, or spend the time exercising to improve your the physical conditioning? Will your BJJ improve more if work on your cardio by doing sprints on a treadmill, or honing your armbar by actually working with people on the mat? And if you do want to do conditioning then how much of your time should you dedicate to it?
Doing it all – more, more, more – isn’t the right answer.
It’s not really a question of mental toughness. If you keep on piling on activity after activity then, at some point, you’re going to run into the limits of time, energy and your ability to recover.
If you train harder than you can recover then you’ll become overtrained very quickly. And overtraining will bring your training comes to a screeching halt. You’ll careen from illness to injury, from layoff to layoff, because your body is too worn down to recover properly.
Now it’s indisputable that most professional grapplers and MMA fighters do supplement their technical training and sparring with additional cardio and strength workouts.
In fact I’d guess that at least 90% of serious competitors make time to run, swim, bike, lift weights, toss kettle bells, sprint up stairs, powerlift, Olympic lift, bodybuild, or do circuit training.
It’s understandable. They want to be bigger, faster, and stronger.
These competitors also want to feel like they’ve got every base covered and left no stone unturned.
Gassing out in a match SUCKS, and sometimes the difference between winning and losing is simply going a little bit harder for a little bit longer than your opponent.
Dedicated competitors hope that going the extra mile in training, squeezing in that little bit of extra conditioning, might just make the difference between victory and defeat in a difficult match.
These hardcore training regimes can be inspiring, but never forget though that many of these professionals do nothing but eat, sleep and train. They probably don’t spend most of their day working at a job, studying at school, and getting by with 6 hours of sleep for most of the week.
Plus the dirty little secret is that most of these high-level guys are taking a witch’s brew of steroids, testosterone, growth hormone, and a ton of other chemicals.
Yes, steroids make them stronger, but more relevant to our discussion is that they also help with recovery: people using synthetic hormones can recover faster and train more often than those of us who are clean.
Given all this it’s interesting that there are a few compelling counter-examples of high level guys who don’t do much extra conditioning at all…
Who are they and how do they do it?
Let’s start by looking at Marcelo Garcia. Marcelo has had an amazing career in BJJ and submission grappling competition. He’s gone on record to say that he prefers to simply train with intensity on the mat over doing cardio or strength training off the mat.
Now typically Marcelo will train BJJ hard, twice a day. He starts each class with a difficult, sweat inducing, lung-pumping ‘warm up’ that involves running, jumping, and quite a few bodyweight exercises. So you could actually make the argument that he IS doing strength and conditioning work.
Also he spars hard! His dynamic style of grappling is full of transitions and scrambles that his cardio gets sufficiently developed just by rolling.
If we’re looking for an example of an MMA fighter who didn’t spend much time in the gym then the first man who comes to mind is Japanese legend Kazushi Sakuraba. Sakuraba beat 4 Gracies in Pride FC, the biggest, baddest MMA organisation of its day.
I’ve never personally met Sakuraba, but according to all reports he apparently didn’t like to lift weights, didn’t run, and was reportedly even spotted smoking cigarettes before a match! But he still went out there, fought the top people, and pulled off some stunning upsets.
How did he do it?
Well, first of all we can’t rule out that he might be a genetic freak. Some people are born with muscles, hearts and lungs that respond really well to minimal exercise (I hate those people).
Also we have to consider that Japanese MMA camps are notorious for their long, brutal, intense sparring sessions, so maybe he got enough conditioning just from doing that (kind of like Marcelo Garcia).
Now there is a youtube video of Sakuraba doing some bodyweight exercises which might indicate he did a little more conditioning than he let on. Squats, jumping jacks and pushups are a far cry from spending hours on the treadmill or at the Crossfit gym, but it’s definitely a form conditioning nonetheless
Finally, even I don’t think it’s actually the case here, there’s a chance that Sakuraba might be a ‘closet trainer.’
I’ve come across this weird phenomenon mostly in the Rugby world but I’m sure it exists elsewhere too. I’m not sure why these closet trainers do this – maybe they’re trying to avoid overtraining lectures from concerned coaches – but for whatever reason these guys will attend all the regular practices and conditioning sessions, then secretly sneak off in the middle of the night to do extra work on their own without telling anyone about it.
Another clue as to some high level guys succeed without conditioning might come from somebody I trained with in the nineties: a Japanese MMA fighter called Ikuhisa Minowa, also known as ‘Minowaman,’ ‘The Punk,’ and ‘Giant Killer.’
Minowa has had a pro career with 102 pro fights. Many of his fights (and wins!) were against much, much much larger opponents, including a 350 lb and incredible Hulk look-alike Bob Sapp, and a 7’ 2” tall Choi Hong-man.
Despite often being hugely outgunned in the strength department Minowa told me that he hated strength and conditioning work and hardly ever did it.
Interestingly I remember being struck at how relaxed Minowa was during sparring.
It was like he was moving in a daydream, conceding positions and flowing with the go. In fact I wondered if he ever went hard during sparring. Then at once point I came close to finishing a kneebar on him, at which point he started to fight like a crazed Tasmanian Devil. This showed me that he definitely could bump it up into high gear when necessary.
Maybe the fact that Minowa was so relaxed explains how he managed to fight at a very high level without doing conditioning. His training and his psychological makeup allowed him to get really good at conserving his strength and energy until he really needed it.
So, how does any of this apply to you?
After all, talking about professional competitors is interesting but the bottom line is that most people training BJJ aren’t professional fighters.
Most jiu-jitsu students have to work a job or two, and have other responsibilities in their lives.
You most likely only have a limited number of hours per week that you can train. The question is how to make best use of those hours to work towards your blue belt, purple belt, brown belt, black belt?
If you absolutely hate doing conditioning then don’t worry about it. Don’t do it, just train hard and as often as you can. Give it your all and leave it all on the mats. If you won the genetic lottery then maybe your body’s physiology will allow you to reach your maximum potential just through intense drilling and sparring.
Plus it’ll be hard for your teammates to browbeat you into lifting weights if you just keep on pointing to Marcelo Garcia!
But let’s say that you DON’T hate strength and conditioning. Let’s say you have a busy life and are wondering if adding some kind of weightlifting and/or cardio would be a good use of your time?
You just want to know if conditioning will help your jiu-jitsu!
Here’s the key…
The right answer is to test it.
No need to speculate. No need to discuss, debate or argue. Just go and try it for a couple of months.
Do an experiment: Start a general strength and conditioning program and then see how it affects your ability to perform on the mat.
If you haven’t already been doing much conditioning then the good news is that you’ll start seeing results pretty quickly. Even if you just train twice a week for 6 to 8 weeks you should be able to feel a difference in your body, be able to test your performance on the mats, and have your answer.
Let’s say that you DO notice a difference, but then start wondering if a slightly different program would have better results.
Once again the answer is straightforward: test it. Your body will tell you the answer.
Over the years I’ve learned what works well for my particular body. I’ve experimented with lots and lots of different programs, from Olympic lifting to Long Slow Distance runs to intense circuit training. In the end I seem to get the biggest bump on the mats when I’m doing both cardio and conventional weight training, mostly in in separate sessions.
My optimum seems to occur when I do a couple of good cardio sessions per week, with at least one of those sessions at a Long Slow Distance pace rather than sprints.
I believe that endurance is the most important physical attribute.
Having better cardio also allows me to absorb more information during training and learn more during sparring simply because I’m not so damn tired. It’s hard to figure out and retain information when you’re gasping for breath.
But in addition to cardio it seems like a bread-and-butter style of weight training (squats, bench press, pull-ups, etc.) seem to hold my body together and make it more resistant to injury. Yes, lifting weights will make you stronger, but I believe that the real benefit of weightraining is injury prevention.
This works for me, but results may vary. Your body, your physiology, your genetics, your age, your diet and your psychology are different, so you may need a different regimen to be at your best.
Some people report think that their jiu-jitsu improves more when they do sprints rather than long distance runs, or that Olympic lifting translates better to grappling, or that kettlebell circuits are the bomb.
What’s the best routine? Well, I hope you can see by now that that’s actually the wrong question…
There is no one perfect form of conditioning for BJJ. It depends on your body, your age, your style of jiu-jitsu, and the likelihood that you’ll actually continue to do that conditioning.
What should you do?