What is the best way to improve your cardio and fitness level for BJJ or MMA?
Is it important to be stronger, faster, or more flexible? Some would say all of these things, while others would say none and just focus on technique. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu specifically, it is said to focus on technique over everything. This is not always that simple.
A lot of confusion begins at the white belt level, when there is an absence in the understanding of technique. When it comes time to “roll” or “spar” and two individuals are still new, technique plays a very small role in the outcome. When two individuals do not have proper technique it comes down to who is stronger, faster, or more aggressive. This leads people into believing that they need to be strong, fast, or have great cardio to compete in BJJ or MMA. Once athletes reach a level of proficiency in the martial art, they have an understanding of technique and leverage that will overcome all but the strongest and fastest opponents. These “rolling” or “sparring” sessions usually are determined by the style or “game” of the fighters and who has better technique, or game is superior. At the highest levels, when everyone’s technique is fairly equal, this is where fitness and cardio start to matter most. When there are no difference in technique or game, the more athletic opponent has the advantage.
Whether you are new to BJJ, Judo, Wrestling, MMA, or any other martial art you probably are interested in becoming physically fit enough to compete or at least be able to last in training long enough to benefit from some sparring sessions.
So what to do? Do we lift? Do we run? What is the best way to get in shape for BJJ or MMA?
Fortunately, the answer is very simple! The training principle of specificity states that sports training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce a training effect. The Specificity Principle simply states that training must go from highly general training to highly specific training. The principle of Specificity also implies that to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill. This is why runners run, and swimmers swim! This is also why you will hear, “It’s a different kind of cardio.” Our body’s are very adaptive and built for survival. When we perform certain exercises to exhaustion our body responds by improving those functions so we have can better perform the next time we need to do the same thing.
This means that to get in better shape for BJJ or MMA you should do exercises that most mimic BJJ or MMA. Whether you want to get stronger, faster, more flexible, or even improve your cardio, this is the best way to do it. In the most general sense you could perform movements or exercises that are similar to actually competing in BJJ or MMA. This means doing your BJJ functional drills, Wrestling Drills, MMA drills, etc. More specifically would mean actually training BJJ or MMA. Actually training with live opponents. You will get tired, fatigued, weak… just keep training and focus on your technique. Those are the times you are improving your body. If you continue to stop when your mind tells you to, you will always stay in the shape you are in. If you challenge your mind and see what your body is really capable of, you will improve and become a better you. According to the principle of specificity, this is how you want to train to improve your fitness level for mixed martial arts.
So what about cross training?
Cross training is training in two or more sports in order to improve fitness and performance, especially in the main sport. If you feel the need to do more or to cross train, first ask yourself if you have more time to be at your BJJ or MMA Academy. Remember what is most important, technique before strength, speed, or cardio. These things will leave you as you get older, however technique will always be there. There are stories about Carlos Gracie Sr. and Helio Gracie well into their senior years before they passed and they definitely did not have the strength and speed, or cardio of a 20 year old.
First you would want to participate in alternative classes. Does your academy offer Wrestling, Muay Thai, Judo, Boxing or some other martial art? These would be most similar to what you are trying to get in shape for besides your main martial art. If you are training for MMA, which literally stands for Mixed Martial Arts, you should be training to master these different styles anyway! What about alternatives like Yoga to improve your flexibility?
If you still have some free time that your academy doesn’t offer classes you could do sport specific exercises or functional training at a local gym. These sport specific exercises should be developed with care and introduced to you by a qualified professional, instructor, or personal trainer familiar with your martial art. If you develop muscles the wrong way you could hinder your performance or worse yet, injure yourself and not be able to train, slowing down your improvements and setting you backward. You need to be familiar with the FITT principles, proper frequency, intensity, time, and type. Some of my bigger recommendations of training methods to improve BJJ, Wrestling, and MMA would be HIIT and Tabata style training. HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training or High Intensity Intermittent Exercise. Tabata style training only last 4 minutes. However, you push yourself as hard as you can for 20 seconds and rest for 10 seconds until you complete eight sets. You can do any exercises you choose, though we recommend you make them very specific to movements you would do in BJJ and MMA. Many times in a sparring session or competition you have intervals of high intensity and intervals of rest. This style of training mimics that but is only one aspect of the training. Professor Brian Ruscio has had multiple Personal Training certifications and can guide you into the right training methods. You can contact him at Grappling Mastery if you have more questions.
In closing, we’ve catered to those who MUST feel like they are getting that extra competitive edge by doing something outside of the academy or dojo. Though, we’ve also given you the real secrets to getting in the best shape for fighting and martial arts. Packing on extra muscle mass or trying to get milliseconds quicker will not overcome great technique, unless you also already have great technique. Getting better cardio for Jiu Jitsu and MMA can best be done by sparring and drilling more BJJ and MMA. Getting functional strength, speed, and flexibility will come with more sparring and rolling. Just like working out in a gym, results take time, dedication, and hard work.
“Swimmers swim, Runners run, and Jiujitsueros roll!”