Category Archives: CrossFit

It’s Not Working

You have two gyms each running the exact same programming and after six months, you have two populations with wildly different results. Why? Because the programming comes second to the coaching, the community and the athletes. How the program is implemented is just as, if not more, important as the program itself. That’s not to say that the program is irrelevant. The program is important and a good program can help foster better coaching and community. More importantly a bad program can really hinder a coach and create road blocks to fostering a good community.

I often hear coaches and gym owners that deal with athletes and clients complaining about the programming. If your athletes are complaining about the program something is wrong but it may or may not be the program. The athletes are unhappy that’s the main problem. So let’s first deal with that problem and then dig deeper into how to implement a good program.

People want to have fun. Fun comes in many flavors but creating a fun atmosphere goes a long way toward keeping your athletes from complaining. Smile, play some music, tell some jokes, don’t take things too seriously and make sure people know that having fun is encouraged.

Training hard is its own kind of fun. Getting after a workout and suffering together with other people is a special kind of fun that people will eventually embrace. They understand that the hardwork comes with a payoff in the way they look, feel and perform. It’s okay to encourage them to enjoy the process as well as work for the outcome.

Make people feel cared for. People like to be acknowledged and cared for. Some people need far less of this and some people need far more. Some guys can get by on a fist bump and you bringing the bucket of chalk closer to them during the workout. Some people need a look in the eyes, a hug, you saying their name and telling them that everything is going to be okay. Regardless, everyone needs to know that their needs will be met for the next hour. They need to feel like this is a safe place to let their guard down and make ugly faces during the workout.

People need to be coached. Coaching is not just counting reps and cheer leading. You need to fix their movement and help them get PRs. That can be as easy as reminding them to keep their heels on the ground or as challenging as setting up a special station for them to do banded muscle ups in the workout. Even a high-level regionals athlete can benefit from a pair of eyes on them telling them to squat a little lower or pick up the bar a little sooner. Nobody is immune from coaching and everyone performs better when chasing or being chased.

Everyone likes to be acknowledged. Find ways to celebrate the victories for everyone. It’s not always a faster time. Sometimes it’s a new skill. Or just waking up early for the morning class. If you notice people’s effort, they will respond.

Scale and manage intensity. Assume more people should be scaling more often. Lighter weight does not mean less challenging. Create conditions for your athletes to experience intensity. They might be scaling the load, but they should be going faster or doing more reps unbroken. New athletes might need to just focus on mechanics and not speed. Challenge them to do 10 or 20 perfect reps in a row. The job of the coach is not merely to administer the workout, it is to train the athletes to perform. That means they within the workout there are many opportunities to improve their performance. Keep newer athletes from overdoing it and make sure the athletes that are ready and capable are pushing themselves appropriately.

Coach your athletes to be successful in the short term and the long term. If the workout involves fast barbell movements, then you should be coaching them on how to successfully cycle a barbell quickly so they can do their best on the workout. I often see coaches teach the same clean & jerk progression whether the workout is a 1 rep max or 30 reps for time. While it is essentially the same exercise, the specifics of how these two movements are done in each workout differ tremendously. That’s short term coaching: coaching them to win the workout. Long term success is giving them opportunities to practice skills that they need to work on more frequently. It’s useless to only do muscle up progressions once or twice a month when they show up in the workout. They should be incorporated much more often if you want your athletes to start getting muscle ups.

Keep your programming simple. You only have an hour to warmup, workout and cooldown. If you try to cram too much into that hour, you take away time from coaching and teaching. You also rob people of time to interact and have fun with each other. A warmup takes 5 to 10 minutes. If you want to actually teach and coach people you need to spend 10 to 15 minutes per movement going over progressions and drills and coaching. If you are going to lift above 80% of your max, then you will need to warm up and do 3 to 5 sets to gradually build to the weights you are going to lift. That takes a lot of time and requires a lot of attention from the coach to try to coach people while the weights are still light enough that they can make some changes.

Lastly you need to educate your athletes. There is no reason why your athletes would understand how CrossFit programming works. Many coaches, gym owners, and high-level athletes do not understand it fully. Find a way to explain that they need to be strong. Find a way to explain that variance allows them to train for whatever life throws at them so that they can be generally physically prepared for life outside the gym. You need to educate your athletes on why cheering for each other is more important than just putting away your weights and mixing a protein shake before everyone else is done. You need to educate your athletes on why doing things you suck at is important and will make them better at the things they’re already good at. You need to educate your athletes on nutrition and why eating like a grown is important and the answer is not another bag of protein powder. You need to educate your athletes on why it’s important to keep a log book of their workouts and when they say that the program isn’t working, open it up and go over the data and see what is and isn’t working instead of just listening to them complain because they don’t want to run a 5k.

When your athletes complain use that as an opportunity to evaluate whether you are doing everything you can to help them be better and keep them happy. See how much you can fix on your end. Then if they still want to complain just turn up the music and say “3, 2, 1, go!”

The Tightfisted Panda Program

I’m just a guy that’s trying to stay in shape. I have a family, I have a job, I have a full plate, but I still need to make time for working out. I want to look good, feel good, I want to set a good example for my kids, and I don’t want to be that guy that’s let himself go because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re in your forties. I do not believe that you have to spend all your time working out to be in good shape. Intensity and consistency are the keys to getting in shape, not spending hours in the gym.

For me, fitness is my job and my hobby so I have a lot of gear. Most people don’t need to invest in a lot of gimmicky gear that’s going to collect dust and eventually get sold at a yard sale. You need the bare minimum of gear, but more importantly, you need a plan and someone that’s going to motivate you. That’s me.

This program is not going to turn you into The Rock. It’s going to motivate you to get off your ass for 20 minutes a day and workout. It’s going to make you stronger, it’s going to improve your endurance, and it’s going to challenge you to move in new ways.

Sound good? What you need is one kettlebell*, something to do pull-ups* on, and a place to run*. I program a single workout per day, five days per week. There are video examples of each exercise as well as video briefs for most of the workouts. There are tutorials for more complicated movements and options for modifications and scaling if the exercises are too hard. But best of all they are all short, intense workouts that take 20 minutes or less.

Why one kettlebell? If I could only have one piece of exercise equipment on a desert island, it would be a kettlebell. A kettlebell can be held with one hand or with both hands simultaneously, thus there are more exercise options than with a dumbbell of the same weight. The center of mass is offset unlike a dumbbell, thus you can do swinging exercises that are hard to replicate with a dumbbell, and you can hold it in different ways to challenge your grip. They’re small and portable and can be used almost anywhere. What if I want more than one kettlebell? You can have as much gear as you want. I will totally support you in spending as much as you want on cool exercise equipment. However, for this program, you just need one kettlebell. I recommend men get a bell between 35 and 55 pounds (1 to 1.5 pood). Women should get a bell between 20-35 pounds (10-16kg). I will demo almost everything with a 16kg competition bell. Most of you if you’re buying a bell for the first time I would recommend women starting with 12kg or 25lbs and men starting with 16kg or 35lbs. If you have absolutely zero working out experience and that sounds heavy, then go lighter. If you have a lot of weightlifting experience and that sounds too light, go heavier. I’m going to program everything with the 25/35 pound weight in mind for the average user and assume if it’s too challenging you will modify the reps down or modify the exercise. And I will assume if you’re using the heavier option you will either go a little slower or do fewer reps.

Why pull-ups? One of the best upper body exercises is pull-ups. Unfortunately, there are surprisingly few places to do pull-ups in our environment, so it is worth it to invest in a pull-up bar. Since many people find pull-ups extremely challenging, what I recommend is investing in some sort of suspension training device. I use a pair of gymnastic rings that I have suspended from the ceiling, but you can get a TRX type system and hang it from the ceiling, a pullup bar, or the back of a door. The suspension trainer allows you to do upperbody pulling exercises using your legs for assistance and allowing you to train your pullup muscles even if you cannot yet do a pullup. It also opens up a tremendous amount of additional exercise possibilities.

Why do I need to run? Good question. I often ask that same question when I’m in the middle of a run. Running is a tremendous cardio exercise and a life skill that will get you out of danger. Whether you like it or not, you should be able to run a full sprint to catch a plane, chase down a pick pocket, or escape from a horde of zombies. However, if you cannot run or do not have a place to run, I highly recommend having access to some piece of cardio equipment that can crush your soul in a similar fashion. I suggest running because it’s cheap. Most people have access to the outdoors, but some of you might live in a 5 story walk-up on the lower east side and running might not be feasible. Don’t worry. We can make it work. If you have a bike, a rower, an elliptical, a jump rope, or some other cardio equipment that’s awesome, and you can always just run in place if that’s the only option.

What kind of workouts will these be? Well you can expect that you will have to run, use the kettlebell and do something on the pullup bar every week, but the workouts will always be changing to challenge you in different ways. Some days you will spend more time running. Some days you’ll just stand in one place and do a lot of kettlebell swings. Some days will be a circuit of many different exercises. Some days will challenge your flexibility and balance and some days will challenge your strength. Some days you’ll hate it and be frustrated and other days you will feel amazing. It’s all part of the process. You won’t get bored, you won’t over train and burn out. Most importantly, you’ll get fit.

The cost is $20 per month or $200 for the whole year, you can get started right away. Email me at coachpanda@forcedistancetime.com and we can set up payment.

I Want To Start Lifting But I Don’t Know Where To Begin.

You want to start lifting but don’t know where to begin.

Do you want to be stronger? Do you want to have healthier bones, joints and muscles? Do you want to increase your metabolism and improve your body composition? Do you want to dominate people on the mat? Then you want to start strength training and lifting them weights. #gainz

Maybe you are a jiujitiero or maybe not. Maybe you have lifted weights before or maybe you haven’t. Maybe you have taken a long hiatus from the gym or maybe you’ve never been in a gym before. Whatever the case, you are looking to get stronger but don’t know where to begin. Here’s a simple, quick, and effective program for you to get you back on the #gainztrain.

The general rule to getting stronger is that you have to lift heavy three to five days per week at loads at or above 80% of your one rep max (1RM). However, rules were made to be broken! I have found that most jiujitsu players find it challenging to do a linear progression program like 5/3/1 or Starting Strength on top of their regular jiujitsu training.
They complain that they are simply too tired and sore to roll after a long lifting session. That makes sense because those lifting programs are for people that are only lifting and not doing a second sport.
So I want to dodge that whole problem with a program that will allow you to start lifting and getting results without derailing your jiujitsu training.

What I recommend is a few sets of 8×8. If you google “German volume training” or go to Thundrbro.com you will find lots of cool articles and lots of variations of this program. But most of the articles on it will prescribe this as a high volume training for intermediate to advanced athletes. Recently I rediscovered this through my friends at Thundrbro.com and started modifying it for myself and a few of my athletes and love the way it works.

I like this method of training because: 1) it builds strength; 2) it builds muscle; 3) it strengthens connective tissues; 4) it is fast and efficient; and 5) it uses lighter weights. The reason you are using lighter weights is that you are doing longer sets, you are under tension the entire time, and you are doing a lot of eccentric work. This creates a huge training stimulus. I additionally like starting newer lifters with lighter weights and having them move slower because they can focus on the quality of their movement more. Beginners love to rush, this program does not allow rushing. The lighter weights means you do not have to do a lot of warm up sets to get to your work weights. A quick general warm up and a couple of sets of the exercise as you work toward your weight for the day is plenty and you can get right to work.

Here is all you have to do. You will take an exercise and perform 8 sets of 8 repetitions. Each repetition is performed with a 3 second negative and a slight pause. Take approximately 30 seconds of rest between sets. If you do this correctly, each set should take between 30 and 40 seconds. Sets can start every minute or every 70 seconds. The total time for the 8 sets (64 reps) is under 9 minutes which makes for an intense session. If you do two exercises per lifting day, you will be able to finish in 30 minutes with a warm up and cool down. That’s efficient. I recommend 2 or 3 sessions per week. That is plenty on top of a normal jiujitsu training schedule.

You have to work 3 different movement functions: squatting, pushing, and pulling. These are the three biggest movement functions that use the most muscle and have the most general carry over to all athletics. Every session should include a lower body squat or lunge and at least one upper body pull or push. You can always add more, but try to carve out enough time for two 8-minute sets. Start with the legs first and then do the upper body second. But it’s not the end of the world if you switch the order because you’re waiting for someone to finish doing curls in the squat rack.

I try to rotate through different exercises each time I do a session: front squat with kettlebells, front squat with barbell, back squat, sandbag bearhug squat, weighted step ups, rear foot elevated lunges, etc. It’s more important that you do the exercise well than you just keep trying new exercises. So get familiar with an exercise and how much load you can handle for 8×8 before you switch to a new exercise. It is extremely common to start the workout with weight that seems manageable only to find out about half way through that you can’t finish all 8 sets. You can either rest and reset, or you can chalk it up to a learning experience and come back the next day and choose a lighter weight. Better to start too light and build some confidence than grind through the hardest workout your first day in the gym and get too sore to return the next day.

If you are an experienced lifter, you should be targeting 40-60% of your 1RM on your 8×8. If you are new you should start light, work on your form and increase weights gradually every time you cycle back to a lift you have done before. On this program you add weight to your lifts once every cycle. The lower body lifts cycle every 4 weeks and you add 5 to 10 pounds per lift. The upper body lifts cycle every 3 weeks but only increase by 2 to 5 pounds. If you are an experienced lifter, cycle through program for 8 weeks and then go back to lifting heavier again. If you are a novice, try to find your one rep max on each lift after 8 weeks.

Obviously, it would be better to have access to a gym and some weights but if you are at home and only have a kettlebell or pair of dumbbells you can make it work. If the dumbbell you have is too light to challenge your legs in the squat, then do lunges or step ups so you have to lift the weight with only one leg. That will make the weight seem twice as heavy. Likewise, if you have to press or pull with one arm at a time to challenge yourself, then do that. Stop procrastinating and go get swole.

Here are two example days.
Day 1
0:00-5:00 Warmup with some squats and pushups and a quick run or bike.
5:00-13:00 8 sets of 8 Goblet Squats with a 3-second negative and 1-second pause at the bottom. Start every set on the minute.
Rest 2:00
15:00-23:00 8 sets of 8 Bent Over Barbell Rows with a 3-second negative and a 1-second pause at the top. Start every set on the minute.
Rest 2:00
Do as many burpees as you can in 5 minutes.

Day 2
0:00-5:00 warmup with some squats, pushups and a quick run or bike.
5:00-13:00 8 sets of 8 sandbag bearhug squats with a 3-second negative and a 1-second pause at the bottom.
Rest 2:00
15:00-23:00 8 sets of 8 dumbbell bench press with a 3-second negative and a 1-second pause at the bottom.
Rest 2:00
25:00-30:00 Grab the heaviest dumbbell or kettlebell you have and do a 1-arm farmer walk until you have to put it down, then switch hands and walk until you have to put it down. Continue for 5 minutes.

What is with the 5 minute piece at the end? Well it’s a good habit to start getting in some conditioning while you are tired. At first it will be exhausting but eventually you will condition your body to be able to keep pushing when you’re fatigued. After a few weeks of this program you will notice the difference on the mat. You will be stronger and faster and able to roll longer without getting as tired.

OMG Literally Dead

I have seen a lot of social media posts from movement educators (yoga teachers, physical therapists, and others) about various cues being inaccurate. Taking issues with cues is a distraction. The cue isn’t the problem. The cue is a description or a direction but it is not a literal/factual/actual definition. If I cue you not to judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes some uppity movement teacher would chastise me for telling people to steal shoes and blame me for the shin splints and plantar fasciitis resulting from excessive walking in ill-fitting footwear. It’s a power move where the internet coach tries to position themself as an expert by criticizing the way others are doing something and presumably set them straight. Classic. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing to some degree. Regardless, it’s a waste of time and energy and ultimately not advancing the cause of movement education. For example, the one that comes up a lot lately is the “breathe into your belly” cue that is popular with yoga teachers. It’s only been the last decade that movement educators outside of the yoga space have taken any interest in breathing and suddenly they come rushing onto the scene to tell yoga teachers how they are doing it wrong. These newly minted anatomists are quick to point out that we do not have lungs in our bellies and that the cue is woefully inaccurate and misleading. Please!

A “Cue” is a directive from coach or teacher to athlete or student to get them to move or position themselves better. A cue is often a shorthand for a much bigger concept or set of instructions. Some cues are “terms of art” which are words or phrases that have a precise, specialized meaning within a particular field. If I shout “hooks!” at my jiu-jitsu athlete during a training session, he should understand, that I want him to position his feet on the inside of his opponent’s thighs. It is important to understand that the cue is only as good as the result that it gets. The best cue is the one that works. While an anatomically more accurate cue might be less subject to criticism it is useless if it does not get your student into a better position.

If you have been teaching movement for any length of time you will start to realize that talking more does not lead to better movement from your students. Your students move better by moving more. Nobody needs to hear everything, nor can they assimilate everything, on the first pass. In order to free the angels in the marble you need to chisel away over and over. Better movement is more refined movement. More refinement comes from repetition and a gradual improvement on the previous iteration. The job of refining movement is that of a sculptor gradually chipping away the imperfections in the marble until the hidden beauty is revealed. A sculptor takes many passes over the marble with finer and finer tools to eventually get to the finished product. A sculptor that only has a large chisel will never be able to create the fine details in the piece and a sculptor that only has a very tiny chisel will never be able to create the rough shape of the form. Your cues should have many levels of detail depending on where you and your athlete are relative to where you are going.

The job of a teacher is not merely to educate with factual knowledge, The job of a teacher is also to inspire, to entertain, and to challenge their students. The mere recitation of anatomical facts does little to ignite a student’s curiosity or get them over their fear of getting upside-down. The teacher must wear the hat of cheerleader, poet, task master, sage, story teller, and wikipedia author. The job is to curate an experience for the student from beginning to end that will ultimately be the best part of the student’s day. Using flowery language, poetry, telling stories, and cheering for students in subtle and not-so-subtle ways is part of the teacher’s job. A balance must be struck between how much you speak in literal prose and how much you speak in metaphor but both are necessary. Taking any cue out of context will often reveal many deficiencies, but the point is you can never separate the cue from the context. Do not let the literal-minded extinguish your poetry!

Lifting and Rolling

Those of us that lift and roll, i.e. strength train in addition to jiu-jitsu, don’t see what the big deal is. Those that don’t lift and roll, find the concept baffling and the actual practice of it, confounding. The basic complaint is that after a lifting session, the athlete complains that they are too tired to roll or feel weak when they do this is in addition to complaining about the general soreness. The other thing to note is that people that lift and roll also feel sore and tired and weaker when they roll, but they do it anyway.

So why do it? Lifting, done correctly, makes you stronger. Being stronger helps your jiu-jitsu. Period. Training against a larger opponent requires more strength than training against a smaller opponent regardless of the technique. Every move you do you need to apply more force to in order to move that opponent. So being stronger will help. Additionally, strength training will increase the size of the muscles but also help build the tendons that attach the muscles to the bones. Stronger tendons and other connective tissues make your joints more resistant to injury. Strength training also increases your bone density which decreases the risk of fractures. In other words, strength training is protective. It makes your body more resilient and allows you to have greater longevity in the sport.

Here is the common problem. It’s similar to the New Year’s Resolution problem. You get all excited to go back to the gym for the first time in forever and you jump on every machine and do every exercise that you can think of. Then a day or two later you are so sore you can hardly walk much less train. Then you avoid the gym for another week or two and repeat the process and then you quit going to the gym. We see this play out every January when the gyms are packed with people and then in February it’s empty.

What you should do, especially if you are looking to train jiujitsu, is under train. What is under training? It’s going in to the gym and doing much less than you think you need to get any results. When you start training after a long lay off, the excitement to go back and hit it hard is great. But you should be thinking about consistency. Make a commitment to go to the gym two or three days a week and try to spend minimal time and effort there for the first two to four weeks. Just make going to the gym a habit before you try to cram in a bunch of exercise. Over time you can increase the volume and intensity of your workouts, but don’t even worry about that until just showing up is a habit.

For example, let’s say I used to be able to squat over 300lbs when I was training hard. If I go into the gym with the idea that I can still squat over 300lbs even though I haven’t trained in 6 months, I’m going to hurt myself or the very least set myself up for disappointment. Instead, I would start very humbly and load the bar up to 95lbs and do several sets of 5 to 10 reps and call it a day. The next time maybe I would stay at 95lbs or maybe go up to 105lbs. Even if the weight felt ridiculously light I would make it a point to hold myself back. The same goes with upper body exercises. I would make it a point to do far less than what I was capable of. To leave the gym with the desire to come back and do more is far stronger than leaving because you simply couldn’t do any more. When leave the gym and you go to jiujitsu you will walk in full of that energy to continue training. Essentially, using your strength training as a physical and mental warmup to prime the pump for rolling. Gradually from there you can increase the volume and intensity of your gym sessions.

I’m sure someone will read this and say that you will never get anywhere if you keep under training. That’s true. Ultimately, if you want to get stronger and faster, then you have to train harder and lift more. However, what I am advocating is prioritizing your primary goal, getting better at jiujitsu, over your secondary goal, getting stronger. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get stronger, it means that you shouldn’t be trying to do that to the point of it interfering with your primary goal. If your deadlift goes up from 250 to 275lbs you’ve gotten stronger. If I train you just on weightlifting, I could get your deadlift to go up in 6 to 8 weeks. That would be optimal. But that would require making the weightlifting the primary goal for the 8 weeks and your jiujitsu would probably suffer. If I focus on increasing your deadlift over 3 to 4 months, it is less optimal with respect to weightlifting, but still very doable while keeping your jiujitsu game strong. Slow gains are still gains. Consistency is key.

Athlete vs. Warrior

What does it mean to be an athlete? Athletes tend to prize certain characteristics such as drive, determination, competitiveness, commitment, and adaptability. Athletes also comport to a code of conduct referred to as sportsmanship. Good sportsmanship means to play fair, be a team player, lose gracefully, win with class and dignity, respect the officials, and respect the other team.

What does it mean to be a warrior? To be a warrior one must possess strength, courage and honor. Warriors follow a code of Bushido which espouses honor, obedience, duty, and self-sacrifice. On a philosophical level these two groups are not at odds, in fact, they overlap nearly perfectly. Thus it is not surprising that many athletes look to the great warrior texts such as The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings for inspiration and guidance.

What is surprising is that martial artists do not look more closely at the best practices of athletes to help them physically prepare. I work with a lot of athletes and the best ones all do similar things. They eat right. While each athlete might have a different plan for how they eat, they all have a plan. Good athletes are in control of the quality of their food as well as the quantity of their food. They keep track of there macro and micro nutrients. Good athletes understand that proper nutrition is essential to your performance and health.

The best athletes work hard in the gym to keep their bodies functioning at a high level. Varsity and professional weight rooms are filled with athletes getting after it. There are coaches helping them not only get stronger but also fixing imbalances and preparing their bodies to be injury resistant.

The best athletes warm up. They show up early and prepare their bodies and minds for the training session or the competition at hand. They know that a good warm up not only helps them avoid injury but also helps them get mentally prepared to work hard.

The best athletes take their recovery seriously. The best athletes are nerds and go to bed early. They stretch and roll and get massages and take care of small aches and pains before they become bigger problems.

The best athletes use their practice time to fix their mistakes. I see a lot of athletes that are not that impressive in practice. They seem a little slow and sometimes look like they have two left feet, but when it’s game day they are MVPs. What I have come to realize is that good athletes will use their training sessions to fix mistakes and work on new skills. They are not concerned with how they look in practice because they are consciously working on new skills which naturally makes them slightly slower and more awkward. That’s how the best athletes continue to improve.

In addition to spending time with high level athletes, I spend a lot of time with enthusiasts and hobbyists. It is okay to merely come to the gym or dojo to look better for the summer. And, honestly, sometimes it’s more fun to hang out with people that are not seriously competitive athletes. However, we could all adopt a few better practices that would help us improve.

You do not need to revamp your whole diet, but you could make sure you eat more protein especially after you work out. You could consider removing some processed foods from your diet. You don’t have to hire a professional coach, but you could do some more burpees and swing a kettlebell every other day. You do not need to hire a professional masseuse, but you could make sure you show up in time to warmup for class and stay 10 minutes later and do some stretching before you leave.

Taking a few small steps will add up to better performance and longevity. Think like a warrior and act like an athlete.

All Other Things Being Equal

There is a common argument that is put forth so much that we do not think about how stupid it is. The argument goes like this, “All other things being equal, the person with more X will prevail.” The argument is always used by someone that is trying to sell you more X. The fallacy of the argument is that the way it is set up, no matter what X is it will confer an advantage over people that are otherwise equally endowed. So no matter what X is, the statement always holds true for X as well as Y or Z.

For example, you hear this in competitive sports all the time, “All other things being equal, the athlete that is _________ will win.” You could fill the blank with “stronger,” “faster,” “heavier,” “better conditioned,” etc. The point is anybody that has an advantage of any kind and can capitalize on that advantage will be victorious. The argument that one advantage is more advantageous than another is specious.

Yes being stronger than your opponent is helpful if you can capitalize on that. The same is true of having better endurance or a better strategy. But all other things are not equal. They are never equal. Ever. You and your opponent both have strengths and weaknesses. The best path to victory is not trying to merely outdo everyone with strength, speed, or endurance. Because what will you do when you encounter someone stronger than you? Remember, there is always someone stronger than you. Always.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

-Robert A. Heinlein

You need to be strong when your opponent is weak. You need to be fast when your opponent is slow. You need endurance when your opponent is gassed. You need strategy when your opponent is confused. You need to be centered when your opponent is scattered. Your fitness is not one thing, it is many things. Your success should be built on many things not one thing. Specialization is for insects.

Your training off the mat should make you formidable on many levels. Train to have no weaknesses that your opponent can exploit. Train so hard off the mat, that rolling is always easy in comparison.

Your Cardio Sucks

Here’s a phrase I want you to ponder, “cardio-respiratory endurance is modal specific.” What does it mean? Let me give you an example. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France victories and was considered the best cyclist of all time. Prior to becoming the greatest cyclist, he was a reknowned triathlete as a teenager. After retiring in 2005, he decided to run the 2006 New York Marathon. Yet the best cyclist in the world, who had triathlon experience, who was coached by elite marathoners, and who was likely taking the best performance enhancing drugs available at the time, was only able to perform above average at the marathon. Many people speculated that since he had the best cardio endurance of any athlete alive at the time, he would be able to dominate in an endurance event like the marathon. Yet human physiology proved them wrong.

You take the best cyclist in the world and put her in a boat, in running shoes, on cross-country skis, in a gi, or in any other event other than cycling, and she will cease to be dominant. How many times have you heard people new to jiu-jitsu remark that “grappling is a different type of cardio” or some version of that statement. At the most basic level, cardio-respiratory endurance is the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide. As you train, the body will get more efficient at intaking oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide. That’s a good thing. However, efficiency at running does not translate perfectly to efficiency at jiu-jitsu. Jiu-jitsu uses many more muscles than running, it requires changes of tempo and direction, it requires both isometric holding of positions and dynamic, explosive movements. Jiu-jitsu utilizes the anaerobic as well as the aerobic energy pathways. It should not come as a surprise that 20 minutes of cardio on a treadmill doesn’t have much carry over to a 7-minute grappling session. This is why you see people come in to jiu-jitsu for the first time and they seem fit from the gym, but they gas quickly when on the mat.

This is not an excuse for you to stop doing cardio!

If you want to improve your cardio-respiratory endurance on the mat (and you should!), then you need to train in such a way that has carryover to BJJ. You need to do short fast intervals. You need to do longer workouts with high rep full-body movements, You need to train with multiple modalities in a single workout. You need to change your workouts often to avoid plateaus.

Strength vs. Technique

Being stronger is better. Period. Anybody that tells you otherwise, doesn’t know anything about being strong or about being better. Strength is not just how hard you contract your muscles nor is it how big your muscles are. Strength is the productive application of force. Strength is force applied at the right place and at the right time to complete a task. If you cannot complete the task, then you are not strong enough. No amount of stepping on the pedal or turning the wheel will make your car go forward if there is no engine under the hood. The bigger the engine the faster the car goes. There is no real world situation where strength is a disadvantage. It’s not the only important thing but you should never pass up an opportunity to get stronger and avoid people that encourage you to do so as they are not to be trusted.

Jiujitsu guys love to give lip service to technique. And you see guys complain when they get tapped that the other guy was using too much strength and their technique was bad. A tap is a tap. In the real world we don’t tap just because someone used good technique. We tap because the move worked. Technique is merely the movements or positions used to accomplish a task. There are many many different techniques that can be used to accomplish the same task. When we rate a technique as good or bad what we are really looking at is the amount of energy expended to accomplish the same task. One technique is “better” than the other if it accomplishes the same task with less energy. Both good and bad techniques can be effective and accomplish the task, but the more efficient technique will lead to better results in the long run.

I want you to have strength and technique because both of these vectors point in the same direction. We have all faced the person who has limited technical ability but they make up for it with a lot of strength and they are tough opponents and can overcome very advanced practitioners just based on their size and strength. We have also faced some tiny black belt that seems very frail yet they are able to gradually break down our defenses and submit us. However, the most formidable opponents are the ones that are strong and technical.

To separate strength from technique is actually a fallacy and cannot be done. Strength and technique both point toward task accomplishment, i.e. getting the job done. An athlete that has good technique will appear stronger because the techniques they use will maximize the force they can apply to an opponent. Conversely, a stronger athlete can overcome technical deficiencies with their strength and pull off moves that a weaker athlete would not be able to.

Choose strength and use that strength to bolster your techniques.

Simple Jiujitsu Workout

A common problem in jiujitsu is that people fatigue and give up position or their grip gives out when they are going for a submission and eventually have to let go before the opponent taps. These are failures of stamina and cardio-respiratory endurance. Stamina can be thought of as localized muscular endurance. Muscle fatigue is usually due to 1) the inability to supply them with enough ATP and/or 2) the inability get rid of the waste that is the byproduct of vigorous muscular activity. “Gassing” or failure of the cardio-respiratory system is due to 1) the inability to uptake enough oxygen and/or 2) the inability expel carbon dioxide expediently. Regardless of the deficiency, you need both stamina and cardio. It is of little use to have strong grip but get gassed before you can apply a choke or, in the alternative, can run circles around your opponent but cannot hold on to them. While these are different physiological and biological functions, in truth, there is lots of overlap.

Training your grip and lungs simultaneously might not optimize either function but will more accurately replicate the demands of a jiujitsu match where you need to be able to grip while your heart rate is high. With a little imagination you can create a vast amount of great workouts that will address both issues. Here is my suggestion for a very jiujitsu specific workout that will immediately start to improve your game. This is also the simplest workout I could think of that requires a minimum of space, time and equipment, thus it is nearly impervious to all your shitty excuses.

Equipment: 1) A pull-up bar or something to hang from. If you do not have a pullup bar, exposed beam, door frame, scaffolding, or staircase to hang from, then open a door and simply hang off the top of the door or throw a towel over the door and grab the towel. You will also need enough space to jump and lay on the floor.

Workout: Hang from the pull-up bar for as long as you can. When you finally come off the bar, immediately do 20 burpees and then jump up and hang from the bar again. Continue for as long as your typical match would be according to your rank.

White belt -5min; Blue belt – 6min; Purple belt – 7min; Brown belt – 8min; Black belt – 10min.   

If you are an adult blue belt, your matches typically last 6 minutes. Start the clock and jump up and hang from your pullup bar. Let’s say you can hang for 45 seconds, when you drop down you immediately start doing 20 burpees. As soon as you finish, you jump up and grab the pullup bar. Let’s say the burpees took 1 minute, you should be back up on the pullup bar at 1:46 and trying to hang again. Most likely you will come off much sooner the second time and each time after. If you find that you cannot consistently do 20 burpees consecutively and quickly (90 seconds or less), then drop the burpees down to around 10-15 reps. Any resting time should be done while hanging from the bar and any time on the ground should be spent doing burpees. Work to the point where you can hang for one minute or more each time you get on the bar. Then work on increasing the speed of the burpees until 20 can be done in less than a minute.

Once your hang times are consistently over a minute and your burpees are consistently less than a minute, then extend the time to the next belt level. Once you can do this for 10 hard minutes, you start to alternate hands while hanging so you are only hanging by one arm at a time or put on a weightvest.

If you want to make it more challenge, hang from one arm at a time and/or wear a weightvest.