Breathe! The key to relaxing in BJJ


MMA strength conditioning

This topic “Breathing in BJJ”came across in class as I had a conversion with a fellow student about the oh-so common issue of getting too tight when sparring. -DW


That’s what every BJJ instructor will tell any mat noobie who wants to advance. We’ve all rolled with, or been the guy who’s undergoing a panic attack in a state of rigor mortis. Not fun.

The key to chilling out on the mat, and over-coming the psychological factors, is in all in your breathing. I will show you how to induce a non-threatening stressful situation and breathe your way out of it (Not easy).

“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.”

– Svatmarama

Look at the blue belt who calmly deals with being on the bottom position. Then look at the noobie described above.

Even against a blackbelt, the bluebelt won’t go into a state of panic or hyperventilation. The whitebelt will get out of breath within seconds.

Question: Is the bluebelt breathing well because he’s relaxed, or is he relaxed because he’s breathing well?

You’d be very surprised how often it’s the later and how both influence each other.

Really, your body is tightening up because of perceived stress. Say no by getting your breathing right.


MMA conditioning strength

Don’t be this guy


“Breathing is a reflection of stress in the body” –Paul Chek

Breathing used to be the centerfold in marital arts. Popular martial arts (Muay Thai, Boxing) teach us the “hardstyle” of breathing – that “pssst” when you throw a punch, kick or take a blow.

To create power, you must be able contract AND relax quickly. This is no mystery to the yoga or tai-chi practitioner, who uses the breath for relaxation, and loosening up.

Most people try to increase endurance or stamina through cardio workouts. Wrong muscle. A big heart that pumps puny amounts of oxygen is useless. The diaphragm is the true muscle of power.

This ain’t no mystical Chi business. (FYI, “Chi” literally means “air” or “breath” in Chinese).

MMA stength conditioning

Paul Chek gearing up to fire a Chi energy blast. Probably at a vegan.


For BJJ, breathing well will allow you to relax and:

  • Not Gas or lose breath. Have more stamina
  • Protect your organs and body from potential body drops or slams (Prevent getting the “air knocked out of you”)
  • Make you more stable, mobile and move better for any escapes, sweeps or subs (your ribcage won’t flair up and disconnect)
  • Not telegraph your moves to your opponents (See above point)
  • Provide more oxygen to your brain for clearer thinking when you need it most
  • Stop using the neck muscles to breath, which need to be fresh to keep your chin in from getting choked.
  • Better recovery between bouts. (You can expel more Carbon Dioxide)
  • Ascend to Super Saiyan


Being in that whitebelt state of panic fires up the sympathetic nervous system and gears up your body for “fight or flight”. Proper belly breathing, in through the nose, promotes the parasympathetic nervous system to “rest or digest” and signals the body to relax.

Don’t just take it from me. Here’s Kron Gracie schooling some lucky BJJ players on proper breathing. (“I learned my whole life”). Click on this link to cut to the chase at 7min or watch the whole thing below.

Some cool nauli display here too.


Here’s what to do

Since the majority of our over-stressed population has breathing dysfunction, we’ve got to make sure you’re breathing right first before I teach you to breathe under extreme stress.

Step 1

If you know me, it always starts with assessment. If you can properly pass this, move on to step 2.

Place your fingers at your sides under your last ribs. Really get in there. Give yourself 10 breaths.

Wrong: Your chest rises but your fingers stay where they are.

Right: a 360 degree expansion of the abdominal area. Chest doesn’t move.

MMA strength waterloo conditioning

You’d be surprised at how many people can’t do this. You might notice that you breathe into one side more than the other.

Real breathing uses the diaphragm muscle to expand the belly on inhalation rather than lifting the chest.

Let’s fix this up.

Get down on the ground. Lie on your back and place a shoe on your chest and another on your stomach. Put your fingers in the previous place.

MMA strength conditioning waterloo

Replace your hands with shoes

Groove the proper breathing pattern by keeping the chest down, and breathing through the belly. Try to get that 360 expansion. If you were breathing only to one side, work on getting the breath to the other as well.

Your abdomen should expand as a RESULT of your breath – don’t try to push your belly out.

Breathe until it’s natural.

“Failure to master breathing and master nothing, master the breath and master everything”

Step 2

Now let’s create a situation of stress by placing yourself in a position or movement that your body feels is vulnerable.

The easiest way I’ve found if by simply going onto a lacrosse ball and searching for muscle “hot spots”. The weak will use a foam roller. (Another way is to use the cold water bath as told by Kron in the video).

Common places for these “hotspots” are the Quads, Soleus, Glutes, Lats, and Pecs. Check out the vid below if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Otherwise continue on.

Move into the pain and hold the position.

You might go into panic, tighten up, and either stop breathing or breathe very shallowly.

Relax your body by belly breathing. And allow the muscles to loosen up and “melt” over the foam roller. Once this happens or pain decreases, move slowly into another tight area.

Learn to Breathe behind the brace (or “shield”)

Now that we understand how to control breath under extreme stress (I hope you had fun), let’s incorporate breathing into progressively higher demands of motor control as they relate to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This will teach you how to breathe while keeping tight!

MMA strength conditioning waterloo

MMA strength conditioning waterloo

3.5 month old position, look familiar?

Start in a 3.5 month old position hips flexed at 90 degrees and head down, chin in. You can place your hands in the same spot under your ribs at the sides while you master your breathing.

Progress to the Deadbug

and finally to Leg lowering progression 2

Some points to look out for while performing the above exercise:

  1. Make sure to get both legs vertical as possible before starting.
  2. Keep palms up and to the side to prevent pressing into the ground for support.
  3. Be sure to keep your chin in neutral. Think double chin.
  4. Breathe! I like to cycle 2 full belly breaths when I hold the bottom position for each rep. This is where one leg is vertical and the other is horizontal. I recommend you do the same.

This stability progression will teach your body handle breathing while keeping tight, protected and moving on your back.

Practice these exercises until breathing well is automatic (as it should be), and you’ll quickly advance your learning in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, especially in competition.

Did that help your BJJ game? Got any other tips for relaxation? Questions? Comment below.

As always, I’d love it if you’d add me on facebook or email me and say hi.

David Wu

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