Conditioning does not always get the attention it deserves in jiu-jitsu classes. As Firas Zahabi of Tristar Gym in Montreal notes in the below video, a lot of jiu-jitsu gyms keep their classes to an hour, spending half an hour on technique, and then half an hour rolling. For Firas, this is problematic because he feels that you cannot be a successful fighter without conditioning.
While he acknowledges that jiu-jitsu fighters have the most sophisticated ground game, he notes that this lack of conditioning is a problem for at least three reasons. Without conditioning, it makes it very difficult to be an efficient fighter, it increases the likelihood of injury, and it makes training less enjoyable.
Weathering the Storm
What helped to make jiu-jitsu such an effective martial art was that it placed survival at the center of its philosophy. The crucial lesson that Grandmaster Hélio Gracie taught the world was that a fighter with patience, efficiency, and proper technique can defeat an opponent with superior strength, explosivity, and speed by biding their time and waiting for an opportune time to strike. What often goes unsaid is that the kind of patience that allowed Gracie to weather the storm of his opponent’s offense was only possible because he was in exceptional shape.
Efficiency of movement allows fighters to be patient and preserve their energy, but this strategy has its limits because everyone has a finite level of endurance. If that level of endurance is too low—meaning you get exhausted too quickly—you’re more likely to make a mistake and to get tapped. To keep you fighting at peak performance and to weather the storm, you need conditioning.
A related point that Firas brings up is that there is a major difference between rolling with a partner at class and an actual fight. The adrenaline of a real fight is exhausting and takes a lot out of even well-seasoned fighters. Without conditioning, Firas says you’ll do good in practice, but you’ll likely stumble when you need to engage in a real fight or a high-level tournament.
Conditioning is not only about building up your stamina or improving performance. It’s also important because it builds up muscle strength and flexibility. Without a good baseline of strength and flexibility, you are more likely to risk injury.
Firas recommends starting off with a warmup that gets your heart rate up, that engages different muscle groups and gets them loose, and that is light enough so that you don’t risk injury. Personally, he is a fan of playing a friendly basketball or soccer because neither one is a contact sport by nature. Since the game is meant just for fun and to get warm, no one should be aggressively going for rebounds or trying to take anyone out with a slide tackle. This kind of light exercise should be followed by stretches.
Firas then recommends conditioning or weight training after class. He does not recommend weight training or conditioning before class because the point of these exercises is to put stress on your muscle so that tissue breaks down. It then repairs itself and becomes stronger in the process. In order to effectively make those repairs and become stronger, the muscle needs to rest after it has been worked out. In fact, rather than thinking of these downtimes as “rest days”, think of them as “growth days” because this is when your body is actually building muscle.
When these muscles are stronger and more flexible, they can withstand more stress when you’re on the mat and leave you less susceptible to injury.
Finally, being out of shape takes the fun out of a lot of activities. This includes jiu-jitsu class. If you’re constantly catching your breath and feeling as though you might throw up from exhaustion, you’re not going to be focusing on your technique or trying a new sequence. More importantly, you’re not going enjoy learning about jiu-jitsu. This makes it less likely that you’ll want to come back to class.
Though jiu-jitsu class focuses more on technique than building endurance, this does not mean that it’s not important. Whether you’re just getting into jiu-jitsu or someone who has been training for a few years, you should consider conditioning and weight training to be integral parts of your jiu-jitsu practice because they will ultimately make you a better and more complete fighter.