Written by Team Juggernaut
Jiu Jitsu, more particularly the more combative and competitive branch of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), has become increasingly popular in the U.S. and around the world. While there are many associations, gyms, clubs, coaches, and athletes in this sport, we all have at least one common goal: figuring out the best ways to get better.
That’s where sport science can come in handy. The scientific approach to sport performance won’t teach us techniques or motivate us to train harder, but it can outline the most important elements that make better grapplers and can help us organize our training in the most productive manner. So let’s see what a sport science analysis has to say about BJJ, both on the subject of what makes various characteristics important to performances and how best to get those improvements.
Top Determining Factors of BJJ Performance
In any sport, there are only three categories of ability (characteristics of the athlete) that determine performance in the here-and-now:
– Psychological characteristics (mental toughness, emotional calm, etc…)
– Technical characteristics (knowledge of moves and their strategic execution)
– Fitness characteristics (strength, power, speed, endurance)
In BJJ, there are four dominant characteristics (extracted from the above) that determine most of the differences in performance between any two grapplers. One each of psychological and technical characteristics and two fitness characteristics. Here they are, in order of their importance and with a rough percentage magnitude of their important to best performance on the mat:
1.) 70% technique (including strategy at high levels)
2a.) 5-15% strength-power
2b.) 5-15% endurance
2c.) 10% psychological characteristics
Here is a visual representation of the priorities compared to one another:
First, this estimate is based only on Gi BJJ, as there are some meaningful differences with No-Gi. Secondly, there is a giant tie for second place between three characteristics, which will be explained in detail below. Lastly, this priority list may change in relative magnitude as one moves up in the belt ranks and acquires more experience. The present list is likely most applicable to Blue, Purple, and Brown belt competitors. First, let’s take a look at each characteristic individually and define it clearly as well as describe why it makes our list of the most determinative factors in BJJ performance.
Accounting for a whopping 70% of BJJ ability is technique. Talk to most experienced or even novice grapplers and they’ll agree wholeheartedly on technique’s central importance to BJJ performance. In fact, many will argue that technique deserves even MORE of an emphasis.
The importance of technique in BJJ is not difficult to illustrate. BJJ is largely about leveraging your strongest muscle groups against an opponent’s weaker ones. Properly done techniques are so powerful, you’d have to be superhuman to be strong enough to fight back against a perfectly locked technique. For example, an Americana pits your entire pushing complex (chest, shoulders, triceps) against an opponent’s rotator cuff musculature. How strong do you have to be to rotate more than your opponent can push? Something like 5x as strong – more or less out of the human realm.
Not only can technique get you submissions, it is required to put you in the right places to set them up. A proper knee shield is essentially impossible to pass with strength alone, unless you plan on breaking right through your opponent’s shin. You need technique to position yourself, technique to run submissions, technique to avoid them, and so on down the line. We’ll leave it at this: If you think technique is overrated, get a powerlifter buddy of yours to challenge a local black belt in BJJ. The results will be highly predictable and entertaining.
Technique is not JUST about knowing the right moves and when to use them, it’s also about stringing moves together in the most productive way. This move connection process eventually evolves into strategy with the higher-ranking belts. For those who are highly skilled, knowing MORE moves or pulling them off with incredible precision may not be as important as knowing WHEN to use them and how to set up the game to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses. But you gotta know the moves SUPER WELL before you can strategize with them. In that sense, strategy is an extension of good and elaborate technique.
Strength-power describes both a grappler’s ability to generate force and to do so quickly and explosively. Technique is KING, but everyone makes mistakes (better grapplers just make them less often). As soon as your opponent makes a mistake, strength can become a decisive advantage. If your opponent doesn’t place his weight down correctly in a Kimura, you can jostle into a position where you can push your hand free, and the stronger you are, the more likely you are to succeed.
Strength-power also works in offense. If you get a sloppy single-leg (lord knows the moves in competition are rarely perfect), you have a much higher chance of grinding it out and getting the takedown the stronger and faster you are. In fact, being powerful is a HUGE element in the takedown and throw game. Strength-power is no good on its own, but it can essentially expand the effective window of your techniques beyond what it would be if you were weaker and slower. Because no one has perfect technique, strength-power is beneficial for all levels, and if you’re matched on technique with your opponent, you had better hope you’re stronger and more powerful. Even the Black belts that have nearly perfect technique need strength-power. A takedown executed perfectly must also have velocity and force behind it; the more velocity and force, the more likely the takedown is, even if it’s executed AND defended perfectly. This applies to all other moves, including throws, passes, sweeps, and submissions. In any BJJ move, strength-power helps.
Strength-power varies between 5% and 15% percent of the total determination of BJJ performance. This range is dependent on the kind of game a particular grappler plays. If you play a slow and steady “barnacle game,” or a “set up and pop” explosive game, strength-power can account for roughly up to 15% of your abilities. On the other hand, if you play a constantly dynamic “always threatening” game, strength-power can mean much less, and endurance can take the fore.
First, let’s define what we DON’T mean by endurance. We definitely don’t mean the ability to run for marathon distances, so you can forget about most road work right off hand. What we mean is the “less than 10 minutes” performance required for most BJJ divisions and belt ranks. What does that convert to in miles run? More like two. In fact, because BJJ is not a continuous endeavor (even the most dynamic matches have stops and starts), endurance is not a DIRECT element in BJJ performance. Rather, endurance in BJJ really means your ability to recover between bouts of strength-power uses.
In other words, how many explosive or high-force moves can you string together before you lose most of your strength-power ability, or how much rest do you need before explosive or high-force moves done in isolation.
Why is this type of endurance so important? You can be the strongest guy ever to step on a mat, but if you gas out after two or three powerful moves, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble very, very quickly. And because (especially at higher levels), many of your moves will be countered and stuffed, having low endurance can put you in a bad way. The grapplers that can continue to attack and defend vigorously without getting too tired to move are the ones with a serious advantage.
Just as in strength-power, the importance of endurance is strategy-dependent. In Gi, it’s not terribly difficult to hold an opponent in place, be it in guard, in side control, or even in standing. If you play the barnacle game, you don’t have to have crazy endurance, because with each advance or defense, you can hunker down and hold your new position until your regain your strength-power for another set of moves. Of course a minimal level of endurance is needed, but you can get by with a smaller amount (5% or so) if you’re strong and powerful enough and if you play the right game. However, if you play a dynamic attack game, having high endurance is a MUST. Kind of tough to keep attacking if you’re not packing a punch anymore; at that point, you’re just going through the motions and needlessly exposing yourself to possible counterattack.
Psychology is only last on this list because one of the three tying variables had to be! In reality, it’s every bit as important as strength-power and endurance.
The most important element of psychology in BJJ is best summed up as a “persistently aggressive yet open-minded calm.” In order to win, you MUST be aggressive for the simple reason that BJJ matches don’t win themselves. You don’t have to be pushing the limits all the time, but the best grapplers push most of the time, in their own style, of course. If you don’t want to win and beat the other guy, you’re going to be limited in BJJ; at some point, rolling in competition is not just “playing” and aggression is a must.
While the best grapplers are aggressive in their execution of powerful techniques, they are also open-minded and aware. Tunnel vision in BJJ can be a disaster, as your opponent may be setting you up for a bigtime sweep, pass, or submission if you’re too focused on your own moves. Additionally, you could be missing a great opportunity to capitalize on an opponent’s mistakes in movement if your focus is only on getting the next pass or the next submission.
VERY related to the element of open-mindedness is the element of calm. Good grapplers almost never freak out. As soon as you freak out, you start feeling instead of thinking. As soon as you’re not thinking, you’re not able to be aware of moves, nor are you best prepared to execute your own. Calm is the very psychological foundation on which technical and physical BJJ rests. As soon as your opponent begins to freak out, even just a little, you know good things are coming your way so long as you’re pushing your game hard. Because without calm, they are going to be executing moves in a more sloppy fashion, getting tired faster, and failing to see your strategic advances as clearly.
One thing is worth saying to slightly reign-in the importance of the psychological factors. Some grapplers repeat the often-heard “it’s all mental” bromide. While the mental (or psychological) components ARE important, there is no questioning the dominance of technique and the roughly equal importance of the fitness characteristics. It doesn’t matter how “zen” your average White belt is – a Black belt is going to embarrass him 99 times out of 100; the white belt will just be zen all the way into a submission! YES, psychology matters, but technique matters much more and the fitness characters matter equally. If BJJ was really “all mental” or “90% mental” or whatever, we might not need mats or GIs!
Now that we have the terminology somewhat grounded, let’s examine what having these characteristics as priorities can mean for the way we go about training to improve our BJJ game the most.
What the Four Factors Mean for Training
1.) Technique Training is NEVER to be Undervalued
The first and most obvious conclusion we can make about the training process from our high value of technique is that technical training is never to be undervalued. And yeah, sure, we’ve all heard it a million times before: Technique is super important, etc etc, but what does that imply for the actual day-to-day training process at the gym? In a word: drilling. Drilling often and for extended periods is what fundamentally allows you to learn and improve techniques. Live rolling sharpens your ability to use them, but drilling hammers them in before they’ll ever be a part of your live repertoire.
“Drillers make killers,” and everyone seems to know this, but some of the guys at every gym seem to think that technique drilling is a time for chitchat rather than the very core of what makes you better at BJJ. It’s not hard to understand the temptation, cause let’s be honest, drilling can get quite boring! But you do things that make you better, not just the fun things.
So, much of our time in BJJ training needs to focus on technique acquisition and practice, but a bit more can be said in that regard. MUCH practice needs to be on the BASICS, and the temptation to introduce exotic moves on a daily basis needs to be held at bay. You can become good by executing crisp technique that your opponent has rarely seen, but you become GREAT by mastering the basic BJJ staples such as arm bars, triangles, mount escapes, side control strategies, and the like to the point of near-perfection. And once again, it can get boring to practice moves you “already know,” but that’s the name of the game. Thinking of basic move practice as a step on the road to perfection rather than an exercise in pointlessness may help.
2.) Keep Strength-Power Training in the Weightroom
If you’re serious about maximally improving your game, you need to train in the weight room. We were gonna make some clever intro to this point, but there no plainer way to state this. While BJJ training is potentially very cardiovascular-exhaustive and does provide high forces to the muscles, it’s usually not enough directed overload for the muscles to make someone who’s already in shape much stronger.
The “already in shape” part is a big factor. When just starting out, just rolling is enough to improve strength and power levels considerably. However, after about a year, strength improvements start to level off as the body becomes quite accustomed to the stresses of BJJ. In fact, because your technique improves over this time, you end up using your strength at more strategic times and in shorter bursts, which means you’re actually using it less.
Because your body gets used to the forces of rolling and you’re actually using your maximal strength and power more judiciously, you need to supplement your rolling with additional strength training/power training.
We have to keep in mind that BJJ is a whole-body, brutal combat sport – no frou-frou bull crap or fancy machines will do. Your best friends are the hardcore compound barbell and bodyweight movements, often in the 4-6 repetition range: squats, deadlifts, bench presses, pull-ups, rows, shoulder presses, upright rows, and the like. Twice a week of whole-body work is a very good start for most. More experienced lifters may consider 4x per week upper/lower splits, and higher belts should likely integrate dedicated power training based highly on the Olympic weightlifting movements.
All details aside, if you want to be your best at ANY sport, weight room work is a big part of training. Not the biggest part by far, but important nonetheless. If you want to become the best BJJ player, train with weights to get stronger, period.
3.) Endurance Training: Best Done on Mats
Unlike weight training, it turns out that the best way to train endurance is to be on the mats! The hands-down best way to develop specific endurance for BJJ is to roll! It doesn’t always have to be standard time period live rolling, either. Short rounds with fast partner rotations (2 minutes), positional rolling, and “man in the hole” drills are a great way to improve your endurance while also getting technically better at Jiu Jitsu. And that’s really the important point here: Why train JUST endurance by running on a track when you could be training endurance and technique and psychology at the same time by rolling!
There’s just one small caveat to the “roll for endurance” recommendation. There are phases of training (to be discussed in the upcoming section on BJJ periodization) in which less rolling is actually more beneficial. In order to keep up endurance during those phases, extra non-rolling work can be integrated several times per week. Good modalities for this are sprint swimming intervals, the rower machine (ergometer), and the elliptical. All are non-impact (BJJ is fun for the joints as it is) and are very conducive for the kind of high intensity interval training that works best for BJJ endurance.
4.) Psychological Approach must be PRACTICED
Psychological factors are very important for BJJ success, but what exactly does this mean for the training process? One major implication is that positive psychological traits while rolling need to be coached. The best way to coach is by example. If your coach is like most upper belts, watch and learn from them. They will usually display much more of the kind of attributes during rolling than your average lower rank belt will. And don’t just watch them, ask them about their psyche approach to get insights as to your own implementation.
Learning by example is the first step, and doing it yourself is the second. Every time you live roll, try to channel the kind of psychological approach that your coaches and higher belts do. You’ll lose focus, crack up, and even freak out much more than they will at first, but don’t give up. Psychological training takes a long time and is often the most resistant to change. After months and years, you’ll have a distinctly more positive and effective mindset when rolling. The trick is, you have to keep practicing and not just going on autopilot with bad habits. If you freak out, fine, collect yourself, apologize if needed to your rolling partners, and move on. But the next time you WANT to freak out, you’ll have better chance of stopping yourself before you do, calming down, re-focusing, and executing the powerful techniques that are your best bet for improving your position. Yes, even when the gym ultra-heavy is squeezing you in side control like a tube of toothpaste!
The Periodization of BJJ Training
As for all sports, proper training for BJJ does not mean the training is always the same. In fact, training changes over the course of months and weeks in a logical manner that not only maximizes the rate of improvement, but also peaks the athlete to be at his/her best for each competition. This process of splitting up training into logical phases is called periodization, and BJJ has its own distinct periodized training format.
In deriving the periodization of BJJ, we first start with the basic premise that BJJ athletes compete once every several months on average (serious competition, in any case). Now we have a three or so month period between competitions, and we’ll be splitting that up into three distinct phases of training:
Basic technique/general preparation phase
Combination technique/specific preparation phase
Live work/pre-competition phase
Basic technique/ general preparation phase:
This first phase of training, which lasts about a month on average, has three specific purposes:
1.) To work on new techniques or improve old techniques in isolation.
2.) To enhance muscle size and/or aerobic work capacity.
3.) To ease the competitive mindset and work on becoming relaxed and open-minded to new techniques and to drilling.
1.) Technique is the most important feature of BJJ, and the best way to learn new techniques to add to the toolbox is to begin to learn them in a calm, relaxed environment and by themselves. That is, your ability to learn new techniques is highly dependent on breaking them down into easy, slow, manageable chunks. Only after a technique is learned and routinely drilled by itself, with the kinks slowly ironed out, can it be ready for integration into your actual live game. This process takes a while, so this phase is going to be dominated by lots of drilling and not too much live rolling. To be sure, SOME live rolling is always done, but noticeable less in this phase than the others. Not only NEW techniques should be learned and drilled, but older techniques can be looked at to modify them, add complexity to them, or simply work on more closely perfecting them.
2.) The physical emphasis of this phase depends somewhat on your style of play. Strength dependent players should focus highly on adding muscle mass in the weight room, while endurance dependent players would be best served focusing on cardio to develop their aerobic work capacity. Since lots of live rolling is not done in this phase, running, swimming, and biking are useful cardio modalities here. For both styles of play, this phase sets up the next for better results. Muscle size is the most important underlying factor of strength/power, and aerobic work capacity the most important underlying factor of endurance. By increasing them here, we set up the athlete for more specific benefits later on. If an athlete (like most) has a mixed game not overly favoring either strength or endurance, a mixture of muscle size and endurance training should be done.
3.) Having a competitive, “warrior” mindset can by itself be stressful and take a toll on the athlete. This first phase emphasizes a step back from that mindset, if for no other reasons than to give the athlete a break so that he/she can be fresh for the next upcoming competition down the line. Additionally, a calm and open-minded attitude can promote a sense of openness, and make the uptake of new techniques or corrections go over better. In any case, it helps to be calm and patient when drilling is done, because otherwise it can be boring!
Combination technique/specific preparation phase:
After the basic technique and general prep phase comes the next month-or-so long phase of combo techniques and specific physical preparation. For each of the three sport characteristic classes, we have recommendations in this phase:
1.) Because individual techniques have been well-learned in the last phase, we’re now ready to make them a bit more useful on our way to adding them into our actual live game. In this phase, our technical training will emphasize taking isolated techniques that we already know (including new ones we learned in the last phase) and combining them to form meaningful sport movements. A submission by itself is useless in most cases if you haven’t yet passed the opponent’s guard. However, once the guard has been passed, many submissions become both realistic and dangerous. Thus, for example, a guard pass and a submission that were learned individually in the previous phase can now be combined into a string, becoming one fluid movement. The same can be done for a takedown into a guard pass, and so on down the line with an almost infinite number of moves (sweep to submission, reversal to pass, escape to takedown, failed submission to another sub attempt, etc.). These combo drills can be slowly accelerated to faster and more athletic paces than the usual drilling work, since the athlete already knows all the component moves well by themselves. This phase will also have more positional rolling, which focuses on starting from a position of advantage or disadvantage and using recently learned techniques to improve or finish the situation. At the end of the phase, the BJJ player will have a set of USEFUL moves that he may be ready to employ in live rolling. During this phase, live rolling can begin to occur a bit more frequently as well.
2.) In the physical realm, the strength-reliant player will begin to train in actual strength training (not muscle size training) to strengthen the muscles he/she built in the preceding phase. The endurance-player will make endurance training more intense and more specific (HIIT, short bursts of effort followed by easier recover phases), but also decrease its total volume since combination techniques, positional rolling, and live rolling are increasing in prevalence and themselves both stimulate endurance adaptations and add fatigue. At the end of the phase, the strength player will be the strongest he’s ever been, the endurance player the most enduring, and even-approach players with their best-ever combination of both qualities.
3.) Psychologically, this phase requires quite a bit of focus on patience, since it can be awkward to transition new techniques into combination drills and positional rolling. But this patience pays off big time once those techniques are ingrained enough to use in live work, which they will be at the end of this phase. Focused aggression can rise slightly during this phase, as the new techniques will require not only execution, but force.
Live work/pre-competition phase
In the month or so before the next competition, the live work and pre-competition phase is executed to make the final preparations for actual live rolls in competition. This phase has its own unique characteristic features:
1.) You don’t learn new techniques fast enough, nor can they be integrated fast enough to use in competition with so little time left. In fact, training isolated new techniques too much in this phase can cost valuable time that could have been spent preparing the athlete for competition in more productive ways. Those ways include a heavy reliance on positional rolling and live rolling, with a smaller reliance on combination drills just to keep the moves fresh. Basically, all the techniques you’re going to use in this upcoming tournament are there, and your job is to practice using them in live rolls so that you can execute them at the tourney. Know that TKD instructor that can do cool kicks all by himself but can barely get off the ground before being pumped in a live match? The live phase is to prevent you from being anything like that guy. Take the techniques you know, don’t get fancy and try wacky new stuff you just saw on YouTube, and add them to your dependable live rolling game. After this phase, you’ll be able to pull off moves in competition which you would never have in the last one, which is exactly how you measure progress in BJJ!
2.) Physically, the strength/power player is going to training in the weight room to maximize strength and now, finally, power itself. That means training will be a combination of heavy low reps and very explosive low reps, with total volumes being low to promote adaptation and to make way for the high fatigue of increasing live rolling on the mat. Endurance players will almost completely (or in fact, totally) drop their off-mat work and allow the high rolling volumes to maintain their endurance gains. Toward the final week before the competition, weight training and rolling volumes will get cut drastically to reduce fatigue and allow the athlete to peak for best performance at the competition.
3.) Psychologically, this phase of training requires the utmost effort. In the beginning of this phase, an effort has to be made to actually utilize newly learned techniques in live rolling and not just rely on the same old game from before. Toward the end of this phase and as the competition looms closer, live rolling intensity MUST go up to very high levels in order to simulate the competition itself. How else are we to prepare the athlete for the competition than by simulating all factors, including the intensity of the rolls. Anyone who has made the mistake of only rolling “cooperatively” in the gym leading up to a competition can attest to the vast discrepancy of the pace, style, and temperament present in true competitive rolling.
Toward the end of the final phase, volumes of training should be drastically reduced (by at least half), and the final several days should be both low volume AND intensity (basically just warming up and flow-rolling). This will bring down fatigue but keep fitness high, resulting in maximum performance on the mat. After the competition, at least several days (or a week, even) of super light drilling and much-needed rest is probably the best idea. This is not only to bring down the fatigue of the competition itself (which, for the small number of total rolls can be quite immense), but to make sure that the fatigue of the whole previous training cycle (especially the final phase) is lowered. After this week or so of super-easy training and rest, the next basic technique and general proration phase for the next tournament can begin!
At the expense of running a bit long with this article (a separate article on BJJ periodization might be in order), a couple of quick modifiers, caveats, and tips:
– Beginner grapplers should focus more on the first (technique and general prep) phase. These phases should be longer for them than for others.
– More advanced grapplers can focus more on the latter two phases, and the very advanced can spend much more time in the final phase
– Athletes that compete more often can shorten the phases to their needs, but those who don’t compete as often as in the examples above should still go through live work phases to integrate their new skills into their live game. In the end, it’s all about the live game in a way.
– No phase EXCLUSIVELY trains any one way. Even the first phase will have live rolling, and the pre-competition final phase will have individual technique review, it’s the FRACTION of the time spent on the particulars of each phase that give them their names.
BJJ Training Periodization
That about covers this intro of the sport science of BJJ. Hopefully the information can help you sharpen up your prep, even if it reaffirms what you’ve already been doing. In any case, best of luck with your game and enjoy the process!
By Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. Jen Case, and Travis Conley
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”
Dr. Jennifer Case holds a PhD in Sports Nutrition and is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri, where she teaches exercise prescription, functional anatomy, and other Kinesiology courses. A former MMA Fatal Femmes World Champion, Jen is the current IBJJF Master/Senior World Champion in the Purple Belt division, both for her weightclass and absolute. She is currently a Brown Belt under Jason Bircher at KCBJJ (Renato Tavares Lineage). When Jen is not teaching, training or competing, she likes to spend time with her friends and beloved pets (2 cats, 2 dogs), and has been described as “the most world’s most bad-ass butterfly enthusiast” for her perennial attendance to many of the nation’s top butterfly exhibits.
Travis Conley began wrestling in Metro Kansas City at a young age. After a productive state-caliber high school wrestling career, Travis was recruited to become a professional wrestler. After a shoulder injury in 2005, he began training for BJJ and never looked back. Multiple ADCC qualification championships, superfight wins, and world rankings later, Travis was recently promoted to Brown Belt as one of the World’s top-ranked Purple Belts, and won the Sambo Pan-Am championships with only several weeks of dedicated Sambo training. Between traveling the world to give BJJ seminars, Travis trains clients and writes diets at his very own Underground Gym in Lee’s Summit, MO.