You Gassing Out, Bro?
If you gas out during a match, you may as well roll over and die. You often hear pro fighters talk about their “tank” or their “car
dio” so many recreational competitors in BJJ, Submission Wrestling, MMA or other grappling arts want to know how to train cardio in order to achieve their goals of titles, medals, and belts.
Unfortunately, many of them have the wrong idea.
When you hear the words “conditioning” or “endurance training”, what do you first picture? Hours of running, maybe? Riding the stationary bike, perhaps? You see the fighters on TUF doing those activities, so those exercises should be good for getting into fighting shape, right?
Yes, but not exactly.
It is virtually guaranteed that someone who solely runs – even if they run thousands of kilometers on the treadmill will be tired or “gassed out” after the first few minutes of a grappling match. If this happens to you, it may be because you spending too much time training the wrong energy system. Training your body specifically for your chosen sport can help you reach new levels. As a combat athlete, you need to recognize the difference between aerobic and anaerobic training.
What’s the Diff?
Aerobic vs. Anaerobic
Aerobic Exercises are performed at a level where your body’s demands for oxygen and fuel can be readily met. With good aerobic training, not only will your heart will beat slower but stronger, carrying more oxygenated blood to your body. Think marathons when you think of aerobic activity – sustained activity for long periods of time. Biologically, you are using oxygen to metabolize energy and you will produce water and carbon dioxide as byproducts of this type of exercise.
Anaerobic Exercises are performed at a higher level where your body is working so hard that the needs for oxygen and fuel exceed your ability to take it in. Your muscles must rely on your body’s stored fuels to resupply themselves. Short distance sprinting would be the anaerobic flip side of the running coin – short bursts of extreme explosiveness. When you are working your anaerobic system, you will likely feel the “burn” of the lactic acid that is produced during this type of respiration.
Grappling, by it’s nature, has some aerobic components but is primarily an anaerobic activity. At its simplest, grappling is divided into periods of explosive movements and periods of holding. To successfully attack or defend, a grappler is required to produce repeated short bursts of movement at near-maximal output throughout the duration of a match.
So while long distance running could be part of your overall work out routine (as it will definitely help you manage your weight and assist with recovery between rounds / matches), you must build a cardiovascular and energy production system that is capable of meeting the incredible anaerobic demands of the sport if you wish to become a better, more competitive grappler.
Strength vs. Endurance
Muscular strength can be defined as the amount of force a muscle can produce with a single maximum effort. Muscular endurance is the ability to resist fatigue while holding or repeating a muscular contraction. While it is admittedly important to be able to produce significant amounts of force in grappling, it may be even more important to be able to generate sufficient force repeatedly without tiring. Think of a rear naked choke, for example: Is it more important to produce a high amount of force for a brief time span, or a slightly lower amount of force for a longer period of time?
Dynamic vs. Static
Dynamic Muscular Endurance is the capacity of your body to perform explosive techniques not only repeatedly, but at close to the maximum level of output possible with each repetition. As an example, having well-developed dynamic muscular endurance would ensure that your thirtieth sweep or takedown was performed with close to if not the same power as your first one.
Static Muscular Endurance is defined as using sustained muscle tension (i.e. isometrics) to maintain your posture or to try to move a supposedly immovable object with little or no decrease in efficiency. In BJJ, good posture is quintessential to good technique. An example of having good static muscular endurance would be the ability to maintain your base and upright posture for an extended period of time while an opponent has you in his guard and is trying to break you down.
Training for Muscular Endurance
The Tabata Training Method
You may start to feel the burn after less than a minute of doing exercises high rate of speed. By performing specific exercises for a set number of short timed intervals with the goal of meeting or exceeding the number of repetitions performed in each interval after a brief break, you are engaging in what is known as High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT.
One of the most studied interval patterns is the Tabata training method. The basic outline of the Tabata training method are as follows:
4 minutes long (whole Tabata Session)
20 seconds of intense training
10 seconds of rest
Total of 8 sessions or rounds
In clinical trials, using the Tabata training method has been shown to result in significant increase in the aerobic systems of participants and, more importantly, in the anaerobic systems as well when compared to a test group that exercised for longer durations, more times in a given week. If you have a smart phone, there are plenty of apps you can use to set up your intervals to suit your needs.
BJJ Specific Exercises
Let’s take a quick look at some ways you can train for muscular endurance and increase your anaerobic capacity so you can tolerate more lactic acid buildup and combat the feelings of fatigue that result from the lactic acid in your system with exercises that translate well to grappling. Below are some of the specific exercises I use in the Cardio, Conditioning, and Competition Prep classes I run. Start with a low volume of repetitions or a short duration of activity and gradually increase your target over time – you will see functional outcomes while grappling if you focus on developing your anaerobic energy system.
Using only the resistance of your body, these exercises can help you develop a high level of anaerobic conditioning with minimum equipment.
One drill that we love to do at London BJJ is walking side sit outs using a speed ladder. This grappling-specific movement is not only a great way to get out from under when you’re stuck in turtle position, but it’s an amazing whole body exercise. The shoulder stability required in the posting arm helps with developing static muscular endurance in your shoulder girdle while the sit out motion of the legs is done explosively to develop dynamic muscular endurance in your hips and core.
Another drill that is a staple in our Competition Classes is the Spiderman Lunge to Plank exercise. This movement drill combines dynamic muscular endurance development during the lightning fast lunges and static muscular endurance development when holding the plank position stable – all while your system is under oxygen deprivation. The lunge movement will work on explosiveness for wrestling shots and passing the open guard while the plank is excellent for developing core strength necessary for maintaining strong posture.
These now-ubiquitous tools are a club favourite for developing dynamic and static muscular endurance at London BJJ. Here are just two examples of how to use them effectively.
For dynamic muscular endurance, explosive movements such as the double squat thrusts are great. Not just an upper body exercise, the double squat thrust works the hips, lower back, and hamstrings. These muscles are the ones that are most responsible for the majority of explosive movements. If you are utilizing your hips to thrust forward and drive the kettlebells up into fully pressed position from the clean, you are doing it correctly. The double squat thrust is a great exercise to help you learn how to keep your hips under your shoulders for explosive takedowns.
For static muscular endurance, we use the Reverse Turkish Get Up to train the body to remain stable under a load. This movement incorporates several side plank positions and also mimics a technical jiu jitsu standup, to some degree. The Reverse Turkish Get Up will help you learn to get your hips underneath you to generate power to stand up while maintaining the muscular tension to keep kettlebell in good alignment over your shoulder and hip.
Pull Up Bar
Using a simple door- or wall-mounted pull up bar you can develop static muscular endurance in your upper back, shoulders, arms and hands.
If you’re tired of your hands getting tired and you want gorilla-like grips that never give out, try this exercise out – Just pull yourself up so that your elbows are at 90 degrees and keep them at that 90 degree angle while you switch your grips from position to position, one hand at a time. Beware! This one’s a killer at first, so perhaps do this exercise on a day when you’re not training BJJ specifically.
To work on your dynamic muscular endurance using a pull up bar, think about doing negative training. Do a regular pull up, bringing your chest up to the bar, then lower yourself over a 5 second interval, pulling yourself up quickly when you reach the bottom of the movement. Repeat and focus on the lowering portion of the pull up instead of the actual lift. By working your body differently, you may find the resulting boost in dynamic muscular endurance is significant. This can help to greatly increase your pulling strength for breaking people down inside your guard.
While the best exercise for grappling is grappling, sometimes we don’t have a partner to work with and sometimes there just isn’t a class to go to. In those cases, utilize the above concepts to train with your energy systems in mind. The key point is this: If you expect to be a consistent high level performer on the mats, you need to think about why you’re doing the exercises you’re doing and what benefits they might provide to you as a grappler. Spend some of your training time doing sport-specific exercises to work on sport-specific goals, remembering that training whole movement patterns is more important than training discrete muscle groups, especially in combat sports. If you decide to do so, you will gas out less, think more confidently, and fight as strongly in the final match of the day as you did in the first.
Win or lose, a true champion never stops moving forward and never lets his opponent see him get tired. To fight like a champion, you need to train like one.