The Breakdown of BJJ
The origins of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) span back to the early 20th when masters Helio and Carlos Gracie of Brazil were introduced to Judo by the talented practitioner Mitsuyo Maeda of Japan. The two would eventually adapt their newfound techniques to better suit the smaller, less athletic individual to beat the larger and stronger opponent. Today, BJJ plays a major role in the overall arsenal of many MMA fighters; however, it is a competitive sport itself too. BJJ matches are classified as “Gi” or “No-gi,” where the athletes are either wearing a thick kimono (known as a gi) or tight compression apparel, respectively. Both styles of BJJ have their own technical nuances, but the overarching goal of both styles remains the same.
The objective is to win by securing a choke hold or joint lock, which ultimately forces the opponent to submit or “tap” to avoid being strangled unconscious or suffering injury from the joint manipulation. If a match does not end in submission, the winner is often that who scored more points by securing more dominant positions than their opponent.
Match length varies depending on one’s skill level and rank, with the following times being most common:
- White belt: 5min
- Blue belt: 6min
- Purple belt 7min
- Brown belt: 8min
- Black belt: 10min
Professional BJJ athletes may only have one match against a predetermined opponent, much like MMA; however, the overwhelming number of practitioners compete in bracketed tournaments, where they are matched with opponents of equal experience and size. Depending on the weight class and importance of the tournament, one may have 5+ matches in a single day.
Physiological Components of BJJ
Strength: BJJ relies heavily on technical ability to defeat an opponent; however, strength can certainly close the gap or be the difference between opponents of similar skill levels. Research suggests that BJJ athletes most commonly possess excellent abdominal and upper body strength endurance as well as high levels of isometric low back strength (2). Lower body strength/strength endurance is not deemed critical by research standards; however, from an anecdotal standpoint, one could argue that a significant number require the athlete to use dynamic and isometric force through the lower body (i.e., triangle chokes, arm bars, close guard, etc.) to be successful.
Power: BJJ often requires slow and methodical movements to control the opponent; however, several instances necessitate rapid explosivity. These include things such as takedowns, throws, positional/submission escapes, and certain submission applications. A high level of technical mastery is required to apply high force with a technique at a particular time to induce a successful outcome. It is particularly advantageous for a BJJ athlete to possess rapid high force expression ability relative to their body weight, as they often compete against those of the same size as they are.
Endurance: Anaerobic endurance and aerobic capacity are key to success for the BJJ athlete. As acidosis from glycolytic lactic acid production occurs, the ability to maintain grip controls, frame against an opponent, apply submission techniques, and escape dangerous positions is compromised; therefore, training to handle this as much as possible is key (1, 3). Additionally, the better aerobic capacity one possesses, the quicker they can recover both during a match, and in between the several they may have in a tournament.
With all these components in mind, developing a training plan for BJJ remains difficult because it cannot detract from or negatively impact BJJ-specific training. Consider further that a BJJ athlete may train 5-6 times a week for 1.5-2 hours at a time, perhaps competing dozens of times per year. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for wasteful training. Outside of enhancing performance, several key considerations to a BJJ training program include the following:
- Weight Classes: Attempting to add significant levels of muscle is ill-advised in most cases because it can set a BJJ athlete over their desired weight class; therefore, training should reflect this.
- BJJ Injury: Injury is an inherent part of grappling sports; thus, programming should attempt to help mitigate the risk of these things happening and not put further undue stress on the body or joints that may be problem areas.
- Recovery: Recoverability is everything; therefore, one must plan their workouts around BJJ training strategically so that overtraining does not occur.
Below is a template of a week of performance training for the BJJ athlete who is actively keeping and looking to maintain or make incremental gains in strength/power. Keep in mind this will vary tremendously depending on the skill level, age, competition schedule, injury profile, etc., of the individual athlete.
BJJ is a challenging sport that requires an array of physical and technical competencies to be successful. A balance must be struck between performance training for BJJ and actual BJJ training in that the former must be careful not to detract from the latter but instead enhance it. Remaining committed to developing the necessary strength, power, and endurance for BJJ necessitates that one also recognizes the inherent risk for injury, limited recoverability, and body composition standards that also come with competing in BJJ. Safe and happy training!
1. Andreato LV, de Moraes SF, de Moraes Gomes TL, Esteves JDC, Andreato TV, and Franchini E. Estimated aerobic power, muscular strength and flexibility in elite Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu athletes. Science & Sports 26: 329-337, 2011.
2. Andreato LV, Lara FJD, Andrade A, and Branco BHM. Physical and physiological profiles of Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes: a systematic review. Sports medicine-open 3: 1-17, 2017.
3. Junior JS, dos Santos RP, Kons R, Gillis J, Caputo F, and Detanico D. Relationship between a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specific test performance and physical capacities in experienced athletes. Science & Sports, 2022.