Qualitative analysis of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: What the science is telling us about the physiologica need for BJJ

A quick look on the internet produced a plethora of BJJ related training articles with the overwhelming consensus that a training program could be done with traditional gym exercises. Hmmm, I couldn’t fault the trainers’ enthusiasm in their blogs and YouTube clips, but having been schooled in exercise science, I wasn’t overly convinced by their rationales. So I decided to put my research skills into practice and analyse the physiological demands of BJJ. It quickly became apparent that there is a paucity of academic research in the area, although recently it seems to be attracting increasing interest.

 

ANALYSIS OF THE SPORT

Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is a combat sport which aims on taking the opponent to the ground, achieve a superior dominant position in order to apply a stranglehold or a joint lock. It is characterized as an intermittent sport as it presents high intensity efforts alternated with low intensity periods, small breaks and includes a variety of skills as well as physical qualities such as strength, flexibility, speed, agility, aerobic and anaerobic power. Match duration for adults graded as brown and black belts are 8 and 10 minutes respectively, and on average athletes have to perform 4 to 6 matches to be the winner. Strength & conditioning is fundamental for BJJ athletes to enhance physical qualities necessary to succeed in the sport and decrease injury risk. However, empirical studies about BJJ still in its prime and as the sport has been shown physiological similarities with MMA, Judo and Wrestling, studies of the respective modalities are included in this report.

BJJ Energy Systems – BJJ, Judo and wrestling from a physiological standpoint are intermittent in nature and rely on the aerobic and the anaerobic system. The phosphagen system (ATP-PC) is used for dynamic powerful movements such as a double leg takedown <10 seconds (s), glycolytic system could be engaged during the continuous attacks or defences (>10s to 120s) and after 3 minutes the aerobic system is engaged which is fundamental for recovery and to resynthesize ATP. Del Vecchio and colleagues analysed 33 matches and the time spent during the standing part of the combat, ground combat and recovery time after referee interruption.  The mean time of the combat is (170s) before the recovery time which equates to a work/rest ratio superior to 10/1. Peak heart rate (182±6 bpm) and rate of perceived exertion described by the athletes as being between fairly light and somewhat hard.

Mean times (s) of BJJ match standing, on the floor and recovery time within the combat.

 Table 1. Time motion analysis of the 2005 BJJ World Cup   (Del Vecchio et al., 2007)

In another study, Andreato research team has found an effort/pause ratio of 6:1 and a low/high intensity ratio of 8:1 (Table 2). The data in table 1 and 2 suggest that BJJ relies on all energy systems: E.g. High intensity actions 4s (ATP-PC system), total time of combat without recovery interval 24s - 117s (glycolytic system) and total length of the match 8 min (aerobic system).

Table 2.    Time motion analysis of a BJJ matches of amateur subjects (Andreato et al., 2013)

Del Vetcchio et al. (2007); Andreato et al. 2012;  Franchini et al. (2005) respectively have found lactate levels right after BJJ matches (10.2±1.5 mmol/L), after 2 minutes (11.9±5.8 mmol/L) and (9.5±2.4 mmol/L) after one minute in a simulated match.  Elevations of lactate level are known to interfere on muscle contractile mechanism which diminishes the efficiency of reaction time in Judo players. These results suggest that a training program to improve muscle buffering capacity and blood concentrations acidosis is recommended to prevent the attenuation of strength and power during training and competition.

The aerobic system - The VO2max values presented on (Table 3) are considered of medium values, a study has shown that Judo practitioners with high VO2max were able to generate more work and presented a quicker return of resting heart rate. It has been suggested that a higher VO2max could assist in anaerobic intermittent exercise performance, especially on the replenishment of ATP. The problem with too much aerobic is that muscle fibres might shift from type II to type I fibres if athletes engage in higher volume endurance type training. A conditioning specific circuit combined with interval training appears to be more specific to improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity and creates a metabolic state similar to a BJJ match which is essential to adapt athletes buffering acidosis and drops on blood pH.

Table 3. Mean values of VO2max on a variety of combat studies including Judo, wrestlers and BJJ.

Strength & Power – It is suggested that weight training for martial arts should include a variety of movements for the major muscle groups using Olympic weightlifting, basic strength and auxiliary exercises. Also, the sport relies on a variety of types of strength and power at different points on the force velocity curve as well as strength endurance and isometric strength.  Andreato and colleagues recommend special attention for upper body isometric strength as BJJ athletes do not have space for wide dynamic contractions. Dynamic and static grip training should also be included as forearm circumference correlates with hand grip strength. However, the strength programme should not interfere with skill training and the exercise selection should be as specific as possible to fit the principle of specificity. Reactive speed is also essential, since during an attack the athlete can quickly apply a defence or counter-attack and sometimes highly trained athletes can even anticipate a defence before an attack has been carried out. Flexibility training is vital as it allows athletes to have enough mobility to perform a given skill plus the possible contribution on injury prevention. In addition, the program should aim to decrease the athlete body fat as high body fat percentage has been negatively correlated with performance. 

 Table 4. The 1RM of athletes competing at the World Cup BJJ 2005.

 

Table 5. Flexibility values of athletes competing at the World BJJ Cup 2005.

Concurrent Training - The information on these studies does not specify the complete picture of an exercise program for BJJ but gives us the insight of the physiological demands. As there are many variables that need to be included in the development of a BJJ athlete, a careful selection of the training stimulus should be made to avoid the undesirable effects of training interference. The phases such as general strength, local muscle conditioning and aerobic base are very important to build a robust athlete. Without this foundation, a BJJ athlete is unlike to succeed as this base conditioning phase would support subsequent phases such as strength and power. But then again, training different physiological components can be problematic as the concurrent development of physical qualities may attenuate one another: (E.g. Muscle AMPK signalling interference on mTOR pathways).

For example, in order to build a solid cardiovascular system, a long term program has to be thought carefully to avoid the negative effects of concurrent training. Recently, a study about periodization from Australia suggests to perform interval training at low intensity (<75–85% V̇O2max) during the base condition or the hypertrophy phase would pose less training interference. Thus, leaving the high intensity interval training (>85% VO2max) for the strength and power phase, which would heavily rely on the training residuals of the previous phase.

The bottom line, BJJ relies on all three energy systems with predominance of the aerobic system due to the duration of the match as the oxidative system is extremely important for resynthesise ATP. It moderately activates glycolytic pathways and has blocks of high intensity actions that rely on muscle power to execute decisive techniques to achieve superior positions (alactic system). It also relies on upper body isometric strength as well as grip strength endurance with the overall contribution of strength, strength endurance, power and reactive speed while maintaining a low body fat percentage. Therefore, all these physiological qualities should be trained accordingly and/or prioritized in case the BJJ fighter has a deficiency in any of these qualities. However, the training program should have a great variety of exercises along the force/velocity curve and the exercises performed should present greater similarity to the actual sport as it gets closer to the competition (specificity).  

 

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