One of the first things you will notice upon beginning your training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or BJJ – especially if you don’t have a background in grappling – is the sheer physicality of the art, and the subsequent changes in your own physical fitness and body that result from learning and training it.
A normal Jiu-Jitsu class at Piranha consists of a warm-up, technique review, instruction, and repetition; and live positional drilling and / or live training (rolling / sparring). An entire class is usually around two hours, the majority of which is spent in moderate-to-intense physical activity. In a typical BJJ class, you will burn more calories than weight-lifting, running, or doing other aerobic activities for similar periods of time.
A typical Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu warm-up is around twenty to thirty minutes long and starts with lighter, less dynamic, and general exercises like jogging, high-knees, lateral slides, and cariocas and progresses to more dynamic and bodyweight-resistance exercises like crawling, rolling, and various other calisthenics. The warm-up then generally finishes with Jiu-Jitsu specific techniques and movements such as hip-escapes, sit-outs, arm-drags, collar-drags, and various partner-based speed drills that focus on specific sweeps (reversals), passes, and/or submissions.
The purpose of the warm-up is to assimilate the body to moderate-to-intense physical activity in order to perform the techniques of BJJ without straining or injuring the body due to overcompensation and to practice and perfect the various Jiu-Jitsu specific techniques that one uses during every class, sparring session, and competition match or fight.
During the warm-up you will not only increase your cardiovascular endurance with the constant physical movement and exertion, but will also increase your strength via bodyweight resistance training and improve your balance, flexibility, general body awareness, coordination, and over-all physical fitness by practice and repetition of the Jiu-Jitsu specific techniques. I have seen many students completely transform their bodies, losing fat and gaining muscle, solely because of the warm-up, which can often be as strenuous as any regular “work out” at any cardiovascular, endurance, or metabolic class-based gym like CrossFit.
Technique Review, Instruction, and Repetition
The next segment of class consists of thirty to forty minutes of technique review, instruction, and repetition. All techniques taught in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu emphasize utilizing minimal effort to achieve maximum efficiency. “Minimal effort” does not mean “no effort” or even necessarily “low effort.” For some techniques, the minimal effort required to perform them turns out to be quite a lot of effort.
The goal, however, is to always emphasize and favor proper positioning, leverage, timing, and balance over sheer strength and athletic ability. The instructor of the class will show a particular technique, often breaking the movement down into several distinct steps that can then be focused on in detail and refined while maintaining the integrity and overall effectiveness of the technique.
After instruction and opportunity for students to ask questions, students will then pair up and perform repetitions of the technique (or set of techniques) in order to build confidence and fluency in the use of the particular technique being taught. This period of class is far less physically intense than the warm-up and rolling, but due to the nature of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu techniques it will make you far more aware of your body, develop your balance, positioning, and points of leverage.
Many techniques in Jiu-Jitsu rely on unconventional arm, leg, and hip positioning; positions in which you would never find yourself normally in, were it not for becoming versed in the art of submission grappling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This is a great tool for becoming more in touch with your body as a tool, a means for self-defense, and an embodied form capable of expressing yourself through movement and control.
Training (Rolling & Sparring)
This section of class is in my opinion the most fun and rewarding and is often the most physically demanding and where you will notice your physical fitness is improving the most. At Piranha we typically train for forty-five minutes to an hour, usually segmented into six minute “rounds.” Each round you will find yourself with a different partner to train with.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is effective as a method of self-defense because while rolling you are able to attempt to control your partner and execute the techniques you have learned upon them while they are also trying to do the same, offering 100% resistance. This intensity and your ability to experiment with different approaches to different techniques in different positions against different people who have different body types, levels of strength and athleticism is what deepens your experience and allows you to develop a repertoire of techniques and movements that are most effective given your own body type, level of athleticism, and preferred style.
BJJ, because it relies on grappling and not striking, utilizing positioning and leverage over brute strength, and submissions that allow your partner or opponent to submit to your control (“tapping out”), allows two people to train at the highest levels of intensity day after day with low risk of injury. Needless to say, competing for positional dominance and submission with another human being who is doing the same can be incredibly physically demanding and strenuous. It is the perfect combination of a full-body strength workout and cardiovascular endurance training.
I have had many sessions where I am playing open guard against a pressure passer and when I wake up the next day I feel like I had squatted and deadlifted hundreds of pounds (which, technically, I did) and where my chest felt like I had performed hundreds of pushups from framing my opponent and moving continuously against them.
“Am I physically fit enough to start training?”
The answer to this question is almost always a resounding “yes!” Despite the fact that I have just detailed the many ways that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is among the most physically demanding and rewarding sports and martial arts, it is also incredibly accommodating to all levels of physical fitness and even towards athletes who have moderate-to-severe injuries or disabilities.
The diversity of techniques, the plethora of styles, and the sheer volume of techniques allows any given practitioner to pick, choose, and develop their own style that best conforms to their natural abilities – or lack thereof!
So often I have heard “I’m going to get into shape before I start training Jiu-Jitsu,” and that is the entirely wrong mentality. Jiu-Jitsu is precisely what will get you into great shape! If you feel daunted by the physicality of the art, you can participate to your own level of comfort and gradually increase the intensity as you become acclimated and your physical abilities progress and your physical fitness improves.
I have had many students who upon starting couldn’t finish the warm-up, which is just fine! Within months they were down 25 – 30 lbs. and performing the warm-up and the rest of class at the highest levels of intensity.
Jiu-Jitsu will change you!
Jiu-Jitsu is an amazing physical activity that is so rewarding on so many levels. You will develop an awareness and intimacy with your body that you would otherwise be blind to, learn incredible techniques for sport and self-defense, and get into amazing shape all while having tons of fun. Unlike “working out,” your focus is on developing a skill so there is far less arduous tedium to each training session.