Spar to get fit or get fit to spar?

When it comes to conditioning for Jiu Jitsu, the statement “if you want to get fit for Jiu Jitsu just roll more” is something you’ll commonly hear said in most gyms around the world. However, how true is this statement? In the first of this series of blogs on preparation for Jiu Jitsu, I thought it would be interesting to explore what research has been done that helps us understand how to get fit for Jiu Jitsu, and to suggest some guidelines that might be useful depending on the objectives and the level of the reader. 

First it's probably worth running through some quick definitions of some terms that will crop up in this article:

  • Aerobic exercise – Here the intensity of the exercise is at a level where the energy required is being produced in the presence of oxygen and there is little accumulation of waste produces and as such the exercise can be sustained for a long time.
  • Anaerobic exercise – Here the intensity of the exercise is at a level where the energy required can no longer be produced solely in the presence of oxygen and as a result there is an accumulation of waste products that ultimately result in the athlete having to stop.
  • Aerobic capacity – The higher your aerobic capacity the more intense you can exercise before it becomes anaerobic. Importantly for Jiu jitsu, the higher your aerobic capacity the quicker you will be able to get rid of the waste products that accumulated during anaerobic exercise after high intensity efforts (i.e. between rounds/matches or even after high intensity movements during a round). This is key as whist it is partly genetic, it is also trainable.

So, what do we know about Jiu Jitsu training?

Well, whilst high quality research into Jiu Jitsu is still in its infancy, a study by Øvretveit (1) examined the energy system contribution to 5 x 6 minute free sparring rounds with 90 seconds recovery between rounds. The subjects in this study had been training regularly (4 times a week) for a minimum of a year. The researchers found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that this type of session quickly generated high levels of blood lactate in the subjects. Blood lactate is used as a marker of the accumulation of waste products during the process of energy generation and therefore it is reasonable to assume that this sort of free sparring sessions is primarily a form of anaerobic exercise. However, perhaps more interesting was the fact that the authors also assessed each of the subjects Vo2 max (as a measure of aerobic capacity) a few days prior to the sparring session and found the following:

  1. Despite training Jiu Jitsu 4 x a week, the Jiu Jitsu subjects had similar aerobic capacities to age matched subjects who didn’t undertake the same degree of physical exercise, suggesting that regular Jiu Jitsu training in this level of subject does not develop aerobic capacity.
  2. The higher the Jiu Jitsu subjects’ aerobic capacity the easier they found it to sustain performance across the course of the 6-round session, suggesting that a high aerobic capacity is performance enhancing.

Taken together it would seem that while having a higher aerobic capacity will be beneficial to your ability to train and compete, training Jiu Jitsu alone will not necessarily develop it! What we are seeing in action here is what is termed in sports science as the principle of specificity – which states that the body adapts to the type of demand that is placed on it. Therefore, because the demand of sparring is primarily anaerobic, the aerobic system does not receive sufficient stimulus to adapt and, if we want to develop it, we are going to have to find other ways of doing so. This is an important consideration when it comes to training for any sport as it’s not necessarily about replicating the sport (although sport specific training is important) but rather it’s about identifying the qualities (in this example aerobic capacity) that will enhance performance, but aren’t currently improving, and directing some training towards it. 

 

So how can you develop aerobic capacity?

One way is to supplement your Jiu Jitsu training with some non-specific aerobic interval training. In fact, this is what Øvretveit (2) did in a follow up study. In this study, subjects were randomly assigned to either a training group or a control group for 6 weeks. While all subjects maintained their normal Jiu Jitsu schedule of 4 sessions per week, the training group also performed two high intensity aerobic interval running sessions per week. Each aerobic interval session included a warm-up followed by four 4-minute intervals where the subjects aimed to work at an intensity where their heart rate stayed between 85-95% of its max. Each 4-minute interval was followed by 3 minutes of active recovery at 70% max heart rate. At the end of the 6 weeks the training group was found to have improved their aerobic capacity by 8%, however no improvements were seen in the control group. What is interesting about these results is that they show that you don’t have to invest a lot of additional time to improve aerobic capacity (most of their weekly training was still Jiu Jitsu), while also further demonstrating that Jiu Jitsu alone won’t improve aerobic capacity in relatively trained Jiu Jitsu athletes. 

The eagle eyed of you who also record your own heart rate during sparring (from Garmin, whoop etc) might look at these prescribed heart rates and ask, “If that session is based off heart rate and I hit similar heart rates for similar timeframes to it when I spar, surely I’m going to get similar improvements in aerobic capacity?” It would appear not, as while during activities like cycling and running heart rate is highly linked to oxygen consumption, during Jiu Jitsu sparring this link is broken. There are several reasons for this, with the frequent changes in intensity during a round, the increased contribution of the arms vs the legs, the supine body positions that practitioners find themselves in and the frequent isometric contractions that occur during sparring all blunting the link between heart rate and aerobic capacity development. 

 

 

So, given what has been presented so far am I suggesting everyone should be supplementing their training with aerobic capacity training?

Well no. Ultimately Jiu Jitsu is like most other sports in this regard and if you are just starting out on your Jiu Jitsu journey I’d say the majority of your time should still be spent on the mats, as sparring will develop your ability to perform techniques at a lower energy cost and allow you to rely less on using strength during sparring. These changes alone will improve your ability to sustain performance through multiple rounds in the early stages of your development. 

If you are a higher ranked belt training a few times a week, it’s going to depend on you individually. As I mentioned earlier, aerobic capacity is partly genetic, and we’ve all seen and trained with those guys and girls who have naturally good levels of aerobic conditioning and can go round after round with little to no drop in performance. If you are one of them and you are looking to add in some off the mats training to support your Jiu Jitsu you may be better investing your time elsewhere as your aerobic capacity is probably not limiting you relative to your training needs. However, if like me, you haven’t been blessed with a great gas tank you might notice some benefit to adding in 1-2 aerobic conditioning sessions per week. 

 

 

Finally, if you are a high-level competitor, I’d say there is great benefit to adding some aerobic conditioning to your training week, primarily to support tournaments, where producing a greater percentage of energy via aerobic means could provide a performance advantage, particularly in large brackets. Indeed, at this stage of development, while specific sparring, manipulating the length of rounds and shark tanking will be an important part of your preparation, and may enhance aerobic capacity to some degree, the efficiency of your movement means planning training blocks were there is some separation of the technical/ tactical from the physical training will be even more important. 

All this isn’t to say that you need to be doing aerobic intervals all year round either. While it seems clear that sparring doesn’t develop aerobic capacity, it is quite possible that once it is developed sparring will help maintain it, or at least slow the speed at which it declines. Given this, a few blocks of aerobic intervals across the year or, if you are a competitor, smartly placed relative to your key competitions may represent an effective way of integrating this type of training.

 

So, in conclusion is sparring enough to develop fitness for Jiu Jitsu?

Ultimately it depends. While sparring will develop more efficient movement and will improve the anaerobic system, it does not seem to develop the aerobic system. The degree to which you will benefit from training aimed at developing your aerobic capacity will depend on both your objectives and your physiology.

 

  1. Øvretveit K. Acute physiological and perceptual responses to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu sparring: the role of maximal oxygen uptake. International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport 18: 481-494, 2018.

  2. Øvretveit K. Aerobic interval training improves maximal oxygen uptake and reduces body fat in grapplers. 2019.

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February 11, 2022 — Rachel Griffiths