Supplemental Exercise for BJJ: Swimming

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a great workout.  It works your core, your back, your cardio, and a large handful of other muscles.  However, as exercise it suffers from some crucial problems.  The single biggest problem is the risk of injury, both chronic and acute, that extensive BJJ practice presents.

For me, I find that if I train 5 days a week for about 1.5 to 2 hours I’ll begin to get little nagging injuries after a month or so.  Often it’ll be a finger joint that bothers me, or perhaps turf toe.  Sometimes the pain manifests in a bigger joint…but that is usually due to some sort of acute injury.

So, recently instead of filling our desire to exercise with more jiu-jitsu, my wife and I have begun swimming.  Is it the best supplemental exercise for jiu-jitsu?  I think it is!

During my tenure training BJJ, I’ve tried a couple of different ways to supplement my exercise regime.  Previously I’ve tried circuit-training and running as supplements but I found both problematic.

Circuit-Training for BJJ

I feel old for saying this…but circuit-training is basically early CrossFit.  When I began circuit-training for BJJ the year was 2006 or 2007.  In 2005 the number of CrossFit gyms nation-wide was 13…

In any case… I suspect most of the benefits of circuit-training, as well as its disadvantages, apply to CrossFit.

Circuit-Training Advantages

The best part of circuit training for BJJ is that it gives you both strength and a reasonable amount of cardio.  Explosive movements like burpees translate well into explosive movements in BJJ.

and Circuit-Training Disadvantages

In my experience, circuit-training presents three main disadvantages for BJJ.  First, it prioritizes strength (and muscle mass) over cardio.

Strength is one of those things that is both good and bad.  If you’re strong you might be able to make sloppy techniques work when a weaker person would not have been able to.  The problem arises when you grapple with someone who is as strong (or stronger!) than you and your slapdash application of the technique lets you down.  My first coach always said “leave your muscle in your back pocket, you can always take it out later,” encouraging us to use the least amount of strength possible to develop a better understanding of the technique.

This next disadvantage may be slightly contentious: muscle mass is a disadvantage in jiu-jitsu.  Sure, if I gained 20lbs of lean muscle I would be undeniably stronger than I am now.  However, being bigger and stronger doesn’t mean “better at jiu-jitsu.”  From a competition perspective, it would mean I would be fighting in a higher weight class.  Typically higher weight classes contain taller people, and long limbs are typically advantageous in BJJ.  Worse, those extra pounds of muscle require oxygen and so it is unlikely I’d be able to have my cardio remain where it is now.  I’ll add a caveat here: I’m not saying that weighing less makes for better jiu-jitsu, I just think there is a Goldilocks zone where your cardio and strength are well matched for the sport.

The final disadvantage is motivation.  Getting to the gym to run through a circuit of picking up weights is really mentally exhausting for me.  Maybe some people love it, but for me, it was just busy work.  Yes, I like the “pump” I get afterward, but it wasn’t really enough to make me excited to commit a portion of my day to it.  Long-term that meant that I stopped doing it as much.  And, after a couple of weeks off of circuit-training, your muscles will remind you with a couple of days of pain that you’ve been slacking off.

Running for BJJ

This section will be brief – like my running career.

Some people love to run.  They can do it forever, seemingly effortlessly.  Not so for me.  Running is work.  Running is hard.  Running is not fun.  In a way it is easier to do that circuit-training…just put on some running shoes and step out the door.  But man, it is one of my least favorite activities.

The benefits are clear: cardio!  Cardio is one of those attributes that you can’t ever have too much of in BJJ.

The disadvantages?  Well, it hurts.  Or, if you have wonky knees or ankles it hurts.  Know what has a proclivity for causing wonky knees and ankles?  Jiu-jitsu.

Swimming, the perfect pairing for BJJ

And now we come to swimming.  I swam as a child in local competitive leagues.  I wasn’t any good, but it was a great way for my parents to get me out of the house.  As an adult I picked up swimming again, first doing swim clinics, then moving on to do Master’s swimming.  Recently it dawned on my wife and I that we have a perfectly good lap pool just a couple miles away from us.  A couple of inexpensive year-long memberships later and we were back to the lap lanes!

All of the Advantages

When I say swimming is the perfect pairing for jiu-jitsu I’m only being a tiny bit hyperbolic.  It is a resistance activity, so you build strength.  It is amazing at building your cardio.  It teaches you breath control.  It helps to correct the classic hunched-over jiu-jitsu posture.  And, best of all: its no impact.

Disadvantages of swimming

The disadvantages of swimming are few but significant.

Most importantly, you have to have a lap lane nearby.  If you don’t…well, find a different exercise!

Almost as important as having a pool nearby is knowing how to swim.  Swimming is a skill with a meaningfully steep learning curve.  If you don’t know how to swim, or aren’t able to swim passably well, then you must take swim lessons.  You can’t just fake it.  The good news is adult swim classes are typically offered at most places that have a pool and in a couple of months you’ll be proficient enough to embark on your own swim workouts!

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