Strength and conditioning for BJJ is a subject with a lot of differing opinions. Some think it is essential, some think it’s a crutch for people with poor technique. But what is for sure is that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a physical art, and it pays to at least give the topic some thought.
There are many questions to ask around conditioning and BJJ. Which exercises are best; whether you should focus on cardio or lifting weights; and whether strength and conditioning is actually necessary for BJJ.
Read on as we discuss this topic in detail.
How Important is Strength and Conditioning for BJJ?
Next to “am I a bad person for using wrist locks”, this is probably the biggest question in the BJJ community.
The first school of thought is that technique is more important than any kind of strength and conditioning. After all, this is why BJJ was invented. It was created to provide a way for smaller people to take on larger, stronger opponents.
For this reason, many argue that physical ability just makes up for (and possibly even creates) lazy or sloppy technique.
The other side of the debate argues that strength and conditioning for BJJ is vital. It’s a physical sport, and strength comes into play no matter what you’re doing – whether you’re trying to take your opponent down, stop a takedown, pass guard, or anything.
This side will tell you that it’s stupid to ignore conditioning, as technique can always fail against a big enough strength disadvantage.
The truth is somewhere in the middle of these two sides. Both technique and conditioning are important for BJJ. Physical ability is important, without a doubt. It takes effort to attack, defend, and even just to last until the end of a round. If you can work on and improve your conditioning, you’ll have a better time in BJJ, both in class and competition.
However, be careful about using conditioning as a substitute for technique. The purpose of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is to defeat your opponent (or defend yourself) using skill, and it’s sometimes easy to rely on strength or athleticism over skill.
Whenever possible, you should try to use technique, rather than athleticism. You’ll expend less energy to perform moves, and as a result, you won’t get tired as fast, and you’ll be able to outlast your opponent in most cases.
Lifting Weights vs Cardio
The subject of conditioning for BJJ can have different interpretations, and different ways to work on it.
You can lift weights, focusing on strength, or focus on cardio and being as lean as possible.
Which is the best option as a BJJ conditioning workout?
Ideally, you want a mix of the two. For BJJ, you need strength, but you also need flexibility, mobility and cardio.
If you focus only on lifting weights or on cardio, you’ll probably be lacking in one of those areas.
I’d advise finding a mixture of the two. Lifting weights and getting stronger is super beneficial for BJJ. However, traditional weightlifting often doesn’t focus on functional strength, and can tend to neglect mobility as well (sometimes lifting even makes mobility worse).
Also, the more muscle mass you carry around, the faster you’re going to get tired. Big muscles require a lot of oxygen to fuel.
So it’s generally the best idea to try and build lean muscle, and functional strength, at the same time putting effort into building and maintaining mobility.
Cardio will help keep you lean and mobile, and will also help you maintain energy later into rolls – anyone who has ever competed knows the benefits of cardio for BJJ.
The Best Conditioning Exercises for BJJ
Some BJJ conditioning exercises are better than others. When you decide to focus on strength and conditioning for BJJ, you should take care to focus on building the kind of strength and cardio that will be beneficial to you on the mats, or in competition.
The wrong kind of workout – such as traditional weight training – may even have a negative effect on your BJJ, by hurting your cardio and flexibility.
Ideally you want to focus on exercises that build functional strength. Cardio and flexibility are also beneficial, and if you can, you want to avoid high-impact exercises that may result in injuries, or make existing injuries worse.
With all this in mind, here are some of the best BJJ conditioning exercises.
An simple exercise that requires no equipment, no gym memberships, and can be done anywhere – running.
Running will help almost anyone get in better shape for Jiu Jitsu. You’ll improve your cardio, improve mobility, and get leaner, helping you make lighter weight classes.
It’s also a great way to build leg strength, which is really valuable in BJJ, particularly if you like attacking from guard.
Yoga is probably the best way to improve mobility and flexibility, both of which are hugely important for Jiu Jitsu.
By improving in these areas, you’ll be able to hit moves on the mat a lot easier – helping everything from guard passing, to guard retention, to top control and balance.
Yoga will also help you stay injury-free, since a lot of injuries come because our body lacks flexibility.
If you’re interested in yoga to help with your BJJ but don’t know where to start, I’d suggest checking out the Yoga for BJJ program. This training program is focused specifically on how to use yoga to improve your Jiu Jitsu, and is a great place to start for beginners.
Swimming is probably the most underrated kind of workout there is. With swimming you get a full-body workout, which is surprisingly good for building lean muscle and functional strength, as well as an intense cardio workout.
Swimming is one of the best ways to get leaner, as you burn a lot of calories in a short time.
The best thing, however, about swimming is that it’s a low-impact workout. A lot of cardio puts pressure on your joints in some way, yet with swimming there is essentially zero stress on troublesome areas like ankles, knees and hips. This makes it perfect for Jiu Jitsu athletes who are often dealing with some kind of injury.
Kettlebells are the secret weapon you need to get stronger for BJJ, as well as building better cardio and burning fat.
The best thing about kettlebells is they help you work functional areas of your body, which are necessary to actually use your strength in a variety of situations. Often with traditional strength training, such as bench press, you’re getting stronger in that particular movement, but you’re not going to be as versatile and maintain that strength for different movements.
Most kettlebell exercises require a full range of motion to complete, meaning you activate a range of supporting muscles and stabilizer muscles, as well as the large muscle groups like chest, arms, shoulders and back.
At the same time, kettlebell training activates your metabolism, helping you burn fat for hours even after your workout is finished. Add in the cardio boost you get from explosive movements with kettlebells, and this is probably the best conditioning exercise for BJJ.
One of the problems with lifting heavy weights for Jiu Jitsu is the risk of injury. Heavy bench presses, deadlifts, squats etc can help you build a lot of muscle, but it also puts a ton of strain on your body. This is not good if you’re already nursing some injury from BJJ.
That’s why bodyweight training is an effective alternative. You’re never putting undue stress on your joints, because the amount of weight is limited to that of your body. These exercises also tend to focus on functional movements, which are great for mobility and flexibility.
Cross-training can be a great way to build conditioning for BJJ. In particular, Kickboxing and Muay Thai are a phenomenal way to get in better shape, improve cardio, and improve mobility.
Even if you never plan on fighting in MMA or Kickboxing, training in striking martial arts often focuses heavily on core strength, cardio, balance and stability, all of which will benefit you to take back to BJJ.
And we arrive at the final BJJ conditioning exercise, which is… BJJ!
Yes, training BJJ is a great way to improve your BJJ conditioning. While supplementing your training with other activities can help you get stronger, faster, more mobile and in better shape, you’ll do the same if you just train BJJ regularly.
You also won’t have to worry about building strength or doing movements which are useless in Jiu Jitsu, and your technique will progress as well.
So while there are some great workouts and exercises you can do for BJJ conditioning, never lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is to train and get better at Jiu Jitsu.