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Building Grappling Cardio through Cross-Training

Updated: May 13

Cross-Training for Cardio in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

Cross-Training for Cardio in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

A lot of guys have asked me from time to time what I think the best way to train for BJJ cardio is outside of BJJ. Cross-training is important, especially if you want to compete. If you just train more BJJ to get better cardio it will work, but you will risk burnout, and training BJJ intensely over time will break down your body.

Before I started in BJJ I was a competitive cyclist and a fairly successful one on a regional level. The training regimen of cyclists that are serious about the sport is very meticulous. Around February we would pick 2-3 races that were going to take place in the summer, each one about 4-6 weeks apart, and plan our training for the year so that we could peak our fitness for each of these. It was a science and if done correctly would allow you maximum potential performance in each of these events. The pro cyclists all do this. They will focus on specific events using the others just to get their fitness to a certain level.

We would measure heart rate, wattage output, MPH, distances ridden, and general overall feeling for each ride. Most of this was measured on a cycling computer (wattage, heart rate, MPH, and distance) and downloaded onto your computer, and then put into a graph for visual analysis. Each workout than would be emailed to a coach to monitor and critique. Your coach could then tailor your workouts accordingly.

In BJJ I have used my cycling knowledge to aid in my own preparations for different events in the past. Here are some helpful hints:

  1. Find another cardiovascular workout that you like (running, swimming, cycling, rowing…)

  2. Interval training

  3. Rest (it’s as important as training hard)

Cross-Training for Cardio in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

You need to find something outside of BJJ that you like to do. For me, it has always been swimming. I like to swim and feel that it best replicates the same type of workout as grappling. In the pool, you work all of your muscles and build a great core for BJJ. The water doesn’t beat you up, as a matter of fact, I always feel that it helps my body to stretch, get back into alignment, and heal. Our bodies are 60-70% water, so to me, it just makes sense to work out in the water.

Interval training is probably the most beneficial training you can do for getting better cardio on the mat. Training intervals will increase stamina, speed, aerobic capacity, VO2 Max, it teaches your body to go at a higher pace and recover quicker. There are two different types of intervals I like do Sprint and Moderate.

The sprint intervals are no more than 30-second intervals that you go 100% or even 110% if that is possible. The goal of each sprint interval is to take yourself to your limit or beyond. I will build up throughout the course of a couple of weeks to where I can do 10 of these. If you are doing them correctly, 10 is plenty! The key to these however isn’t just to train your body to go hard but to teach your body to recover in between. So a normal pool sprint workout would be like this:

Cross-Training for Cardio in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

Warm-up for 15-20 minutes swimming laps. In a 25 meter pool then I will start at one side, sprint to the other swimming freestyle, turn around and swim back as far as I can underwater, then walk back to where I started. I will be in the highest threshold called the anaerobic threshold when I arrive back at the wall. I will then stay there and wait until my breathing begins to settle down. While I am still breathing hard but not out of control, I will do it again and again and again. Each recovery period will last longer and that is ok. The key again is to allow your body to recover. After I have done 6-10 of these I will do another 15-20 minutes of lap swimming to warm down. The warm-up and warm-down are just a consistent easy effort.

You will begin to notice from workout to workout that these recovery periods will begin to get shorter and the workouts will be a little easier. These should be your hardest workouts of the week. Compliment these in the gym with technique and light sparring. Don’t try and be the king of the mat on the same day you did this workout, allow your body to recover.

The moderate interval is a longer interval. You will do 4-6 of these. You can do a pyramid (1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1) or ramp up (2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3). Play with these and find which you feel best using and which gives you the best results. These are to be done at about 70% effort. You don’t want to sprint on these since you will be working a different level of your cardio. These are going to be 2-4 minute intervals with the same amount of time in between for recovery. The recovery will be done however during a light effort of swimming or even walking in the pool. This teaches your body to recover while doing a small effort. I will continue swimming in between but allow myself to go slow enough to recover from the interval effort.

An average pyramid workout in the pool for me would be like this: warm-up 15-20 minutes, then begin with a 1-minute effort. After the effort, I will swim very lightly then for 1 minute allowing myself to recover. I would continue perhaps like this: 2 on 2 off, 3 on 3 off, 4 on 4 off, 3 on 3 off, 2 on 2 off, 1 on, and then a 15-20 minute warm-down.

Again the key to doing these intervals is teaching your body to work and then recover so the rest is as important or even more important than the effort. Initially, if you begin doing these you will find that they are very difficult but over the course of 4-6 weeks you will begin to get used to the workout and you will begin to notice a huge improvement in your performance in the gym. Sometimes finishing a workout initially can be difficult but work into it. Do half and then a bit more next time until you are able to finish the workout.

Cross-Training for Cardio in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

You can do both of these types of workouts in a week but if you do both don’t do more than one of each. An average weekly cardio plan for me would be something like this:

  • Monday: Light cardio – technique/very light sparring and/or 30 minutes in the pool (recover here)

  • Tuesday: Sprint intervals in the Pool and technique/light sparring

  • Wednesday: Moderate intervals – technique and light sparring

  • Thursday: Distance cardio – 1 to 1.5 hours swimming light | normal training class

  • Friday: A normal night of technique and sparring

  • Saturday: 45 minutes cardio with 1 sprint and 1 moderate interval | technique light sparring

  • Sunday: Competition type workout in the pool, on the mat or both

I would start these workouts 8-10 weeks out from a competition and slowly bring myself into form. The week of the competition I would begin to back off on everything but I would still continue to do workouts. If I felt extremely tired I’d go super easy, if I felt great then I’d allow myself a good share of efforts but not overdoing it.

The last thing I mentioned was REST. We can always set up a training regimen and then push ourselves into it but we are not machines. So you need to adjust according to how you feel. There are times to push yourself and there are times to back off. Listen to your body. Only you will know what is right and wrong for you. Most athletes have a very good sense of their bodies on how hard to go. If you do not listen and always push you can over train and then you will have a better chance of injury or getting sick and there is nothing that will set you back more than being sick or getting injured while training for a competition.

If you have any questions about this, please shoot me an email or comment below.

See you on the mats!


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