This article was written by 3rd-degree Roger Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt Nicolas Gregoriades.
Once you make the switch in your mindset from that of a hobbyist to a committed martial artist one of the things you’ll understand is that your jiu-jitsu training is not limited to the mat. This idea is probably not new to you and by now you’ve possibly either considered or even tried some of the off-the-mat activities which many jiu-jitsu guys use to improve. These are the usual suspects which include things like weight-lifting, rock-climbing and yoga. But there are several other activities which, although they appear unrelated to BJJ, will make you move and fight better. Not only will they improve your jiu-jitsu, but most of them can be also be used as a form of ‘active rest’ to speed up your recovery from hard sparring sessions.
It’s no coincidence that so many elite-level black belts are also great surfers. It’s great for balance and learning how to transfer and load your weight. It’s been my experience that surfing helps one enter into the flow state - a form of consciousness that enhances both learning and memory. Getting used to entering and using this state and then transferring it onto the mat will have obvious benefits for the jiu-jitsu player. And not only is the paddling a good workout, but it’s also a good antidote for the hunched and contracted posture that years of grappling can create. Note - Skateboarding and snowboarding are almost as good but lack the physicality (and resulting conditioning) that the paddling of surfing provides.
I had heard about Randy Couture using trampolines for his UFC fight preparations and always thought I’d like to try it, but it wasn’t until I went to a trampolining centre recently that I realised what amazing tools these are for grapplers. There are studies which show that using trampolines have many health benefits including improved bone density and circulation as well as enhanced detoxification. It’s a fantastic workout too - an hour on the trampoline and you’ll be sweating just as much as after a few BJJ sparring matches. Visit a trampoline park and try practising solo grappling drills like shooting, sprawling, sit-outs and shrimping on the sprung surfaces. You’ll be surprised at how difficult they are - and by how much easier they seem when you get back to a regular mat. Doing backflips and somersaults is also excellent for your spatial awareness and will help with jiu-jitsu inversions like the Berimbolo (Granby). They will also help you learn how to relax when being thrown and minimise the chance of injury.
My very first grappling coach is an absolute genius. The guy trained himself to a very high level of grappling skill without any instructors of his own and with very few training resources. He has an amazing instinct and understanding of how the body should move properly in a jiu-jitsu context and is always pushing the boundaries of training. Whenever we’re in the same place I make it a priority to see him and learn from him. Last time we got together his new thing was juggling. I tried it and found it was really difficult and frustrating. I thought it was a ridiculous waste of time until I learned that it’s a complex perceptual motor-skill that has many requirements in common with jiu-jitsu, including hand-eye coordination, timing and rhythm. I don’t have any proof of it, but I’m sure that learning training your brain to do something like this improves your ability to learn jiu-jitsu.
A couple of years ago I did a free-diving course in Thailand and I was really amazed by how many similarities I noticed between it and jiu-jitsu, in particular, the sparring and competitive aspects of the art. The feelings of mild anxiety and excitement before the dives reminded me of how I feel before a jiu-jitsu competition. To be good at free diving you have to learn how to relax your body and calm your mind. If your body is stiff and tense you burn too much oxygen and have to abort your dive early, and if you don’t overcome any fearful thoughts your mind brings up you’ll panic and might even drown. This is very similar to BJJ. You’ll never be even a half-way decent grappler unless you learn how to relax your body when you’re under pressure, and you will never excel in competition until you learn how to control your mind. The experience of being several meters underwater without air and overcoming the panic reflex is very, very similar to the experience of being caught in a submission and remaining calm while you look for an escape opportunity. If you’ve followed my work for any amount of time you’ll know how big I am becoming aware of your breathing patterns during your jiu-jitsu training. Free-diving also facilitates this awareness as you need to master several breathing techniques that need to be used before you submerge.
Ok bear with me... The better your mobility, the more jiu-jitsu movements you’ll be able to do, the more you’ll tough positions you’ll be able to wriggle free from, and the more you’ll be able to generate leverage against your opponents. Do you want to know where you’re lacking mobility? Try dancing freely to some music for a few minutes and moving in as many random directions as possible (maybe do this in private…). You will quickly realise just how limited your range of motion is and where your body is stiff. Dancing is not just good body awareness and mobility and rhythm - in certain forms it’s also great for building your attributes. I remember training Geo Martinez at a seminar I taught several years ago before he was the hot-shot he is today. Even back then I was really impressed with his movement, balance and strength. Then I found out he was an elite-level breakdancer and I wasn’t surprised at all. Capoeira is especially good for BJJ players. It’s been my experience that students with capoeira experience pick up jiu-jitsu quickly and are also very athletic.
Balance is important in all aspects of life, but in functional combat sports, it’s absolutely essential. As jiu-jitsu guys we need exceptional balance not only for throws and takedowns but also to defend against sweeps when passing and reversals when in mounted positions. I’m a pretty athletic and coordinated guy, and I thought I had a good balance until I tried a slack-line. There is nothing I have found that will challenge and improve your balance as thoroughly as it does. And it builds huge, functional strength in the core and lower body. Show me a jiu-jitsu player who can perform a full pistol squat on a slack-line and I’ll show you someone very difficult to throw and who has a nightmare guard. As an added bonus, it also helps with injury prevention. If you’ve been doing jiu-jitsu for a while you’ve either hurt your knee or know a training partner who has. It’s a very common injury in our sport. Several studies have found slack-lining enhances functional knee-joint stability
Although it’s the least ‘exotic’ activity on this list, jump-roping is also one of the best for your BJJ. It’s amazing how many benefits this simple exercise can have on your conditioning and grappling game. It is great for timing, coordination, cardiovascular fitness, balance and rhythm. Over the last year, I’ve come to understand how important the concept of foot-engagement is in jiu-jitsu. Because jumping rope is fantastic for strengthening your feet, ankles and calves it really helps with this. Strong feet and toes are able to much more easily engage correctly with the mat and/or your opponent and this will result in better jiu-jitsu. It’s not spoken about much but proper footwork is also crucial for stand-up and guard passing technique. Jumping rope regularly builds the fast-twitch muscle fibres in your calves which keeps you ‘light’ on your feet and helps with explosiveness. This means better throws, standing passes and escapes. There are many ways to train If your initial reaction is to think that these more esoteric exercises couldn’t possibly improve your jiu-jitsu as much as a session of hard rolls, you’d be wrong. Training doesn’t always have to be a grind or involve drilling or sparring. With the right focus and some creative thinking, you can find many fun things that will make you better at jiu-jitsu.