How should one be training Jiu-jitsu?

The question of whether one should be training jiu-jitsu for volume rather than intensity is one I have asked myself upwards of a million times throughout my tenure.

Should you train hard a few days a week or light every single day?

I recently listened to an amazing podcast with Firas Zahabi on Joe Rogan. If you haven’t listened, you should check it out here. The question of training, or more specifically, how to train, came up. FZ said that he prefers to train for volume over intensity. In other words, FZ believes that the more hours you put in on any given day, the more progress you will make in contrast to the person that trains hard but minimally. The idea here is that if you truly want to get better at jiu-jitsu or any other martial art, for that matter, you must train more often, at a lighter intensity than less frequently at a higher intensity.

What is intensity?

Intensity is essentially how hard you are training. The unfortunate thing for most of us is that the harder we train, the more time off we need to recover. Unless you are a freak athlete, it is nearly impossible to train hard, every single day without increasing the risk of injury or burnout. In contrast, if you train at a mild intensity everyday, you probably won’t need much recovery time. Theoretically, one can train for hours a day at a light pace. Think of it as the difference between walking and sprinting: You can walk for hours but maybe only sprint for a fraction of a minute. In jiu-jitsu, your training hours will be limited to what your body can handle and in the event you overdo it, you risk forfeiting more opportunities to train.

The Importance of Training Jiu-jitsu for Volume

This idea first came to me while listening to Pavel T. on the Tim Ferriss podcast (also worth a listen here). PT suggested that the harder you train, the more time you will need to rest. If, for example, you max out your pull-ups or deadlifts, you will lose strength and power and not be able to do a pull-up or deadlift again until your body recovers. This could be a few hours, or a few days. If you lift until you are injured, it could even be a few weeks. If, however, you work at only half of your maximum capacity, you can lift more frequently, which will lead to bigger and better gains and reduce the likelihood of injury.

When I first heard this, I thought it was a genius idea. If I could train in such a way that allows me much more time on the mats, why not do it? It went against the conventional standards of “Train hard to get better” but it made sense. If I trained lightly, I would be able to keep my body functional for the next session plus, I would be working on polishing my technique much more than powering through poor technique. It is an idea I try to impart to my students: Always leave room in the tank for the next training session.

If you have room in the tank for more training, you will be able to maximize the amount of volume your body can handle. Volume is important because it allows the practitioner to get more practice in. Practice is necessary for a skill such as jiu-jitsu that requires its own version 10,000 hours to mastery. If you are unable to train because you went too hard the last session, then you are wasting future opportunities to practice.

Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast

Another idea I try to teach my students is that the slower we practice our techniques, the more precise we will be able to practice them. If we can practice precision, slowly, we can develop good, precise technique smoothly. The more smoothly we practice, the more we develop the proficiency to move precisely at a higher speed. Every time we learn new skills, we must start slowly so that we can refine it before moving more quickly. A byproduct of moving more slowly in training is that we allow ourselves to move at a much lighter pace. The lighter, more precise and smooth pace helps us preserve ourselves for the next session and thus, increase our volume.

When to train hard

So, if you are training jiu-jitsu for volume, you are going to be training much lighter than usual. This will not help much when it comes to competing since jiu-jitsu competition is more akin to a sprint than a marathon. How then do you develop your cardiovascular fitness and conditioning on the mats, especially for competition?

Competition and Intensity

There will be a time that intensity is more important than training jiujitsu for volume. In order to condition your body to deal with the stress of competing, you will need to raise the intensity a few weeks before. FZ suggests that unless you are actively competing, there is no real reason to train with a high intensity. Since training camps are relatively short (4-6 weeks), one can safely push themselves harder and harder until the week before a competition. It won’t take much to get into cardiovascular shape which is why most athletic programs suggest long periods of practice (base strength, technique, skill development) before moving into being into “fight” or “competition shape”.

Final Thoughts and Periodization

I agree with everything that FZ suggested in the podcast. For one, I do believe training jiu-jitsu for volume is more important generally than training for intensity. For me personally, I do my best to train lightly, working just hard enough to keep myself safe and injury-free. Over most of the year when I am not competing, I try to learn new techniques, practice more diligently on being effective and choose only to train hard the four weeks leading up to a competition. This is called “periodization”. I will write more on this in a couple of weeks but periodization essentially means that you do not train in one manner (high volume or high intensity) all the time; you  must change things up based on short-term, intermediate and long-term goals.

So unless you have a fight or competition showing up, you likely do not need to train too hard. Instead, focus on technique and training for the long haul.

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