Buckle your chin-straps folks, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.
I have read dozens of blogs, training programs, and talked to.. well every BJJ player I have ever met about training. Coming from a high level athletic background, having trained my way through some serious injury issues, I see a lot of my training partners and folks on the internet doing a lot of things that are heading to injury and a shortened career.
I decided to come up with a a two part post (and they are going to be pretty damn long) that are guidelines for preparing your body for jiu-jitsu. It is a two part series because pre-competition training is very different from what needs to be done to maintain the week to week integrity of your body.. but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
So here's what I've come up with:
Assumptions: (These are IMPORTANT)
We are talking about the general BJJ player between competitions.
You are male (females tend to respond better to more volume, and have less wear from a lifetime of contact sports)
You were not a NCAA wrestler.
You are not training for any other activity (soccer, triathlons.. whatever)
You are not a pro fighter, and there is no assumption that you will become one.
You are over the age of 25
You are under the age of 50
You have a job, bills, perhaps even a wife and kids, and thus the olympic model of:
wake, eat, train, eat, sleep, train, eat, massage, eat, go to bed is not an option.
You intend to compete, but not more than 1-2 times per year.
You have been training in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu for at least a year.
You are in this for the long hall, at least a decade past your black belt.
Mistakes in assumption:
You should be competition fit year round.
Let's kill this one from the jump. You do not have the time and training capacity to be competition fit year round. Yes you. How do I know this? Because the top athletes in the world at every sport take time off, and they don't have to hold down a day job. Hell, even the guys taking PEDs take time off. Training for most of the year should be built about keeping you healthy, and strong for the long road of a lifetime of jiu-jitsu. If you train like it's competition time all the time, you will break down, or burn out. Remember, the black belt is the beginning, not the end.
Cardio, you should do lots.
Let me be clear, I'm talking about long slow aerobic training. This is bunk for several reasons. The first is aerobic base is bunk. The second is the SAID principal. SAID stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. To put it another way, I have never seen a runner roll to get in shape for running, so why run to get in shape for rolling?
If you are outside of the competition prep window (depends on age, injury history, belt level, and personal preference.. usually 8-12 weeks)Forget 'cardio,' Jiu-jitsu is your sport, so why waste training time and recovery doing another method of cardio, which isn't going to apply any way? Besides, it takes a goddamn long time to do. I have a job, and a kid, I'd rather save my long training sessions for class. Make sure you get in at least one long-ish roll per training session, and your aerobic fitness will be fine (for most of the year).
Anerobic training isn't important.
Most people get this backwards. They train "cardio" outside of class, and only train their anerobic systems in class. The problem is in class you need to be clear enough to stay relaxed, and focus on technique while moving quickly. If you're at your anaerobic threshold that's nearly impossible to do. If your anaerobic system is fit, then you can movemovemove then relax and recover. If you're all aerobic you can move constantly, but slowly.. less than ideal. I'd rather mount my opponent and catch my breath than be able to slowly squirm under mount for a long time.
Strength training is for fighters, and meathead fighter wannabes.
I love the leverage and strategic nature of the gentle art. I really do, but I also recognize that being strong is the secret to longevity in any sport. Appropriately applied muscle mass stabilizes joints, and strength training conditions the connective tissue to take the repeated stress of people trying to unseat them. Also an appropriate strength training program can counter act the constant spinal flexion that jiu-jitsu requires. Targeted mobility work and strength training is your best weapon against nagging long term injury. If you have sore shoulders, sore back, sore neck, you probably need to strengthen something, and mobilize something else.
Mobility means stretching hamstrings, and low back
Most of us have day jobs that involve sitting at a desk, our hip flexors (rectus femoris and psoas) get shortened. This pulls our femurs out of alignment, which makes our hamstrings, glutes, and lower back FEEL tight. The problem is that the more we stretch those muscles the more we misalign ourselves and make our problems worse. Work on hip mobility and you'll get long term relief.
What's a 'recovery?'
BJJ is the only martial art where you train at 100% all the time. We all get beat up, bumped, bruised, tweaked, cranked. We need recovery modalities to restore our bodies so that we can do it again.. and again.. and well you get the idea. SMR, contrast showers, massage, sleep, nutrition, and strategic deloads are important. Yes even from jiu-jitsu. I am the only player I know that consistently drops his training volume from time to time BEFORE I get injured. Go to class, and do technique but don't spar. Drill but don't roll. Reduce your lifting volume, reduce your weight training volume. Something, let your body recover, or eventually you'll become a laundry list of injuries, and be forced to take time off.
Gotta do eleventy hundred crunches.
Granted, I am baised. I have had a back injury pretty much since dirt was new, but all of the clinicians tell us that too much flexion=ow my back hurts. Since we pretty much fight on our backs in flexion, does it make sense to spend more time doing it? Not to me.
I understand that if you can't sit up into your opponent you can't fight, but anyone who's been doing this for very long has that baseline fitness, and gets plenty from drilling, sparring, and rolling. We don't need a conditioning drill that does the same thing without the skill aspect. It's simple training economy. Why spend 20 minutes (and burn 500 spine flexes) doing sit-ups when I can use the same "training currency" working on my arm-bars from guard?
We all need to train the same way.
I have been injured.. alot. My 'training age' is very high, and I know what my training capacity is. There is a young guy at Ballard who is 19, strong, fit, fast, and never been hurt a day in his life. Even at the same weight class we'd have to train very differently. I'm older, stronger, have a significantly higher training age and injury history. My strength program is dialed in, I have my recovery dialed. I go to class warm-up, drill, roll and do a little extra conditioning here and there. He can handle a much higher volume of strength training and sparring. He doesn't need to deload as often (if at all), and can double up rolling and conditioning in the same day. If I did that, something would break. You have to find what kind of training volume your body can handle. Look at your nutrition and recovery. Monitor your moods, and stressors outside of your training life. You cannot blithely wander through this life and expect progress. It has to be measured to be managed.
So what should we do?
To be clear I am not advocating being lazy. To be good at jiu-jitsu you need to have a base level of fitness. You need to go to class and train hard. You need to get in the gym and lift like the structure of your very body depends on it.. because it does.
So what do we need?
At a minimum, remember your personal work capacity may be different, but the below is the minimum price of admission.
We need to go to class and drill and roll 3-6x per week (depending on what you can recover from)
We need 2-3 strength training workouts focusing on posterior chain (upper back, lats, glutes, hamstrings) and some high rep work for the shoulders and elbows. If you already have posture issues, or injuries make sure your strength training targets them.
We need to recover every day: good nutrition (zone, paleo, Gracie diet, whatever just eat real food), good sleep, take a long walk/do some yoga and stretching/mobility/SMR.
2-3 sessions of intense anaerobic conditioning. These can be done either as 'finishers' to the strength workouts, training sessions in class, or by themselves.
Every few weeks/couple of months (particularly before beginning competition prep, or after a meet) take some time down. It doesn't have to be off, but reduce your workload, and recover more.
That's a minimum of 7 workouts a week plus recovery. Hardly a lazy man's schedule, but you'd be amazed at how many folks will skip a solid 2/3s of the above and then run 3 miles do 200 crunches and tell themselves they've done their homework. Maybe they'll be able to keep that up for 20 years, but most people cannot. The answer lies in the middle, in looking at your own capacity honestly, and not falling into the trap of doing what you like/want/are good at/have always done because that road ends in the orthopedists office.
Coming up next part 2: training for competition.