Is cardio training overrated for BJJ?

Most of us realize pretty quickly that it takes more than just rolling to get better at BJJ. Gassing out quickly, getting overpowered easily and finding yourself unable to bend and twist like you need to are all signs that we need spend some time improving our mobility and fitness.

However, this is also the time that a lot of us make a big mistake with the logic we apply to the problem.

We make the mistake of thinking that since we’re tired and sweaty at the end of a hard rolling session then we need to be that way at the end of every training session.

We end up turning every workout into a test of our cardio and work capacity, thinking that we’re working on the same thing we need on the mat. While this makes a lot of sense on the surface – we need a lot of cardio when we roll so we need to train it a lot off the mat – there are problems with this approach.

The main problem is that the human body can only recover from so much and it doesn’t look at training BJJ and cardio training as separate things. You do use a lot of cardio when you roll and that counts as cardio training to your body.

If you are always training your cardio every time you workout – be it rolling BJJ or in the gym – then you aren’t giving it a chance to re-build and improve. Remember that training breaks you down and recovery is what allows you to improve and without allowing your cardio system to recover it won’t be able to improve.

In fact, what often gets forgotten when talking about training for BJJ is that we have the chance to practice our sport at or near full speed and effort. This means that your BJJ rolling and drilling sessions are as specific as you can get with your cardio training.

Unlike sports that don’t allow you to train at full speed and effort we don’t need to fill in as many cardio gaps with a specific cardio training program. In fact, since drilling and rolling is the most specific cardio training we can do we need to make sure that we prioritize those things as cardio training when planning our overall program.

But it is here that things start to get confused, and that confusion stems from the fact that most of us look at “rolling” and “cardio training” as separate things. However, doing this can really start to cause problems if the fatigue from your cardio training starts to interfere with your ability to train hard when you roll.

You should look at your BJJ rolling and training and your cardio training as a seamless process, with one blending into and affecting the other. Training BJJ is the most specific cardio training you can do, making it the best way to improve your BJJ specific endurance and that has to be taken into account when designing your overall program.

But what often happens when starting a cardio intensive program is that we see an initial improvement followed quickly by a plateau. We see this lack of improvement – or even a regression in our fitness – as a sign to work even harder on our cardio outside of rolling and eventually a lot of us burn out or get hurt.

It is a vicious cycle I’ve seen repeated countless times and one that is tough to break because you have to go against the common views of sports training.

What I’ve found to work better is to focus on the things that you need while rolling that you don’t use enough while rolling to improve. Think about it – you get plenty of cardio already when you roll so why spend more time focusing on it when you also need strength, mobility and power when you roll but don’t use them enough to see them improve from just rolling?

I’ve found it better to use your training time more like this…

– 15 minutes of foam rolling, stretching and mobility drills – You need to keep your joints mobile to ensure you can move well and you stay injury free.

– 10 minutes of bodyweight exercises – With bodyweight exercises and bodyweight flows you can improve your body awareness and joint strength.

– 20 minutes of strength training using a mix of loaded and bodyweight exercises – When done correctly strength training helps to cement your movement and help you produce more tension more efficiently.

– 10-15 minutes of cardio – I use short interval based workouts that usually focus on maintaining posture and breathing patterns under fatigue.

That’s it…not very fancy but when done consistently 2-3 times a week a simple approach like this works great. Everything on this list is geared towards helping you move with more efficiency and maintain that efficiency under stress and fatigue, which also improves your mat endurance without directly overloading your cardio system.

Add in 2-3 classes a week with 30 minutes of rolling per class and you have a solid program that will ensure you are improving your fitness in a way that supports your BJJ training instead of potentially detracting from it. If you are rolling more than 4 times a week then you may even consider cutting back even further on your cardio training and focusing more on kettlebell swings, which make an awesome hybrid cardio-strength exercise.

Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that I am saying that you don’t need to work hard and that there won’t be times that you’re going to hit the mats and be sore or stiff from a workout. There is just a mindset prevalent in today’s sports and fitness culture that says you have to kick the shit out of yourself every time you train trying to build cardio/ work capacity and while it works for some it leaves a lot more frustrated, burned out or hurt.

I’d also like to point out a few exceptions to this general rule of thumb…

– If you are miserably out of shape then some extra low level cardio to build your overall aerobic capacity can certainly help.

– If you are a professional BJJ athlete with a ton of time to train and resources to help you recover then you can – and should – do some extra cardio training but even then you want make sure you don’t overdo it. Remember that more is not better, better is better.

– If you are not able to get in 2-3 good training/ rolling sessions each week then you will need to add in some longer cardio workouts that focus on mimicking the tension, movement and time demands of rolling. This is strictly to try to get as similar a benefit as you would get from rolling but not meant to take its place.

The take home message is that you 1) need to do something besides roll BJJ to fast track your fitness and stay injury free and that 2) you already get a lot of cardio from your BJJ training which means it doesn’t need to be the focus of your cross-training.

I’ll be diving into this topic more in future blog posts as I share more ways to help you see maximum results on the mat with minimal time and effort off of it. One of my missions with BJJ Strength Training Systems is to bring you the training info you need to apply this to your own training so you can see improvements from your training while leaving your fresh enough to roll harder and longer.

So how about you – what do you think about the importance of cardio training outside of your training and rolling?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, be sure to post a comment and share them.

And if you liked this post please click one of the Like or Share buttons to help spread the word.

Until next time…

Roll Strong,

James Wilson

BJJ Strength Training Systems

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