As a brand new beginner watching your first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, it's easy to look at a room full of students and feel like you've got some conditioning work to do before you step on the mats. It's important to know that when you see the students in any given class, you're watching people who are 90 days in, 7 months in, 4 years, even 8 years deep into their jiu jitsu journey. What you're not seeing, is what they looked like on their first day. The truth is that they probably looked a lot like you.
People find jiu jitsu for a lot of reasons: self defense, competition, team camaraderie, the desire to find a healthy hobby, and the love of the art itself. But the number one reason that most people begin Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is to get in shape. Many students are trying to lose weight, some are trying to build muscle. But overall, even those who are actively working out in a gym are looking to improve their level of physical fitness.
I took my first Brazilian Jujitsu class in 2001. The desire to become a black belt academy owner someday was not what made me step on the mat the first time. I started because I was a golfer, and it was getting too cold to play. I also wanted to lose some weight. In the first four to six months of my training, I lost around 35 pounds. My desire to want to fuel my training and better at the sport led me to finally change my diet. (I always tell my students, you'll only ever eat Taco Bell before training one time.)
Between the consistent training and the diet changes, I started seeing results that I hadn't been able to achieve running and going to the gym on my own. That's the truth. If going to the gym on your own, running, and holding yourself accountable to getting in shape were easy, we would all be in perfect shape. But the truth is, that doing it on your own is hard. It doesn't work for everyone and most of us need some help.
When I first started URSA Academy, we only had one level of class, our brand new beginners were in classes with the advanced guys. We only had one level. It was tough, because that tough old school method of training was all I knew. What I started to realize was that there were a lot of people who would really benefit from training and truly NEEDED jiu jitsu, but the initial conditioning was scaring them away or making them quit. I honestly believe that jiu jitsu is for everyone. And I quickly realized that if I wanted to make jujitsu accessible to anyone, I needed to create a system that addressed the conditioning component that was holding so many people back.
At URSA Academy, we have two levels of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes. Both of them teach real BJJ techniques, they just approach things from a different angle. In our first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, we focus on flow drilling, positional grappling, movement, survival, self-defense, and conditioning through BJJ specific training. All of our new students begin in this program to understand the 'Pillars of Jiu Jitsu,' the techniques & the mentality that will be the support for your game from white to black belt.
We also drill in short, intense rounds, never more than 3 minutes at a time. Across the world, the majority of BJJ students are men, although at URSA Academy, we have a statistically larger amount of women training than most academies. But this format of small bursts of intense activity works very well for men. (Women naturally better than men at endurance training, but interval training works well for everyone.) Playing into the natural strengths of our students helps them to increase their conditioning in a way that's challenging & empowering, but it's not going to crush people.
In order to introduce as many people as possible to the sport, help them experience the benefits of jiu jitsu, and set them up for a long successful jiu jitsu journey, BJJ Professors need to build people up, not weed them out in the 'old school way.' Conditioning is the first step of that building process and it's the responsibility of any jiu jitsu professor who truly cares about the long term success of his or her students.
So, no matter what shape you're in right now, whether you're working out in the gym once a week, once a month, or you haven't been off the couch in ten years, we've got a spot for you on the mat and we'll give you all the tools you need to succeed.
Last week I explained that you’re never too old to start training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This week, I want to give you some behind the scenes details about the exact game that I recommend to a lot of my students 30 and up who are working with my in private lessons and in my Masters Class.
Jiu jitsu players 30 & up have to develop a game that that maximizes their strengths and minimizes weakness. I love doing this evaluation through a private lesson. There is no better way to dedicate time and create a truly custom plan for each person like a consistent schedule of private lessons coupled with group classes to work on the things we learn with your training partners who don’t know what’s coming! In the first private lesson, I like to roll with my students first and talk with them & find out exactly what type of athlete I’m working with, what type of pre-existing injuries do they have coming in? Etc. If I'm rolling with him and there's a lot of hesitation in his movement, I like to figure out why. Is it conditioning, fear of aggravating a prior injury, what’s going on? That will give me all of the info that I need to develop their ideal game and plan their training.
One position that I love for Masters/ 30+ people it’s the deep half guard position. I have a few older former wrestlers who train with us, one guy is in his fifties and I explained the position this way to him. “A deep half guard position is a single-leg takedown turned upside down.” Like all of my students, especially the 30+ clients, or anyone with a day job, this guy is concerned about staying healthy and making sure that he doesn’t aggravate any old injuries. In his particular situation, he has quite a few injuries that he sustained from his days as a division one college big-time wrestler. So, he needs to be careful, but he still wants to train, and he knows that ANY physical activity has calculated risk. He knows what physical contact is, he’s not afraid of that, but he’s 50 years old now & he’s got to be a little more deliberate and a little more careful.
In the private lesson, I get them in the deep half position and talk about how you don't have to rely on any athleticism. (Even when you have it!) You don't have to rely on flexibility. You don't deal with any fast exchanges with somebody who's a lot younger, stronger and faster than you. You're really developing a strategy and a plan that works best for you at your age and your physical ability. The first private lesson is the most critical one I teach, because hits closest to home because we are stripping away the stuff that won’t work and teaching them how to “play within themselves.”
Next, I like to put people in what I call the power positions, where they are at a disadvantage. I’ll take mount, side, and back on them, just from a flow rolling pace. What I'm trying to do from there is get them to learn how to get to the deep half position from all three of my power positions. After they get comfortable in the ‘disadvantage,’ and learn to unlock the patience and survival that the young players don’t always have, they learn a sweep or two and turn the disadvantage into an advantage. When we get to this point, I see them develop a sense of ‘getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.’
It usually takes me less than a half hour to actually do this. As soon as we do this, the light switch is flipped on and the responses I get from my students on this is that it's a finally a platform that allows them to be comfortable with who they are and how they want to play their game. They start to realize that even at their age, they can play a style that's very, very difficult for their opponent to deal with, no matter who the other person is. It's a strategy. It's a game. It makes it fun and now we’ve got a focus and direction for their much longer journey in jiu jitsu.
The Psychology Behind the Strategy…
I find that this is very successful for people who are really at a physical disadvantage against other people. The whole point of this deep half game is that it's the opposite way of thinking of every other guard. You need everyone to smash and mount you for you to play this guard. If they don't smash and mount you, you can't play this guard. Well, what does every younger, faster guy want to do against somebody who is physically weaker or slower? They mount you, try to smash, and play their game on top of you. They're not running away from you. So, the deep half guard plays and baits the younger BJJ player and feeds them into the game every time.
It’s using the most common reactions and instincts in jiu jitsu, the desire to tap someone from mount, back, or side, and flipping them against your opponent. It also plays into the psychology of the people. Younger players are going to pounce on these power positions, because it feels like the right thing to do right now. The older player who is comfortable at a disadvantage and understands that they need the other person to think that mounting him is a good idea. They need the other person to think, the attacker to think, that being in side control is a good idea for them. They need the other person to think that being on their back is a good thing for them. It's not that we're letting them, but what we're doing is we're accepting the fact that this is a set up, and a strategy. It feels wrong, but that’s what makes it right and effective.. And so tough to deal with!
My 30+ jiu-jitsu players get to play chess and bait the younger strength players into giving away a pawn to get your knight in position. With a unique strategy, Jiu Jitsu players can be very competitive against younger stronger opponents.
The key to success here is working with your body type and your skillset and taking advantage of the fact that you've got life experience. Your brain is working better than it did when you were 18 years old, that’s your greatest asset, and we’re going to use it. My most successful Masters students have learned this strategy. They have learned to play ‘within themselves.’ That’s why it’s never too late to start training, to find your style, and to become a successful jiu jitsu player at any age.
If you are over the age of 30 and you’ve never done any athletic activity in your life, if you have physical limitations, injuries, or if you're overweight, you can still train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Its an incredible workout, a mentally challenging sport, it’s great self defense, and it’s a lot of fun. But, the best part is, with a few customizations, jiu-jitsu can work for anyone. Unlike basketball where everyone is expected to do a lot of the same physical things, in jiu jitsu, there's elements that you can trim in the game to make it work for your body, how you move, your ability level, and your age.
At 38 years old, I experience first hand a lot of the same challenges that our 30+/Masters level jiu jitsu players face. The number 1 challenge I see with my 30+ students, that we all deal with from time to time, is that we all still think we’re 20. At 40 & up, people still think they are 30. Keep going up in age & you’ll see the same thing. People in jiu jitsu, and in so many other activities push themselves to do things the exact same way that they used to do them 10-20 years ago.
If you’re really looking to be successful, training like a 20 year old when you’re 35 doesn’t make any sense. The physicality isn’t there the same way that it used to be. But, the main problem with trying to do things at 35 the same way you did when you were 20, is that you completely skip over the best thing you have going for you, something the 20 year olds don’t have.
20 year olds train with muscle, successful Masters level BJJ players 30 & up train with their brain. And guess what, brains can win. 30+ players, your brain is your biggest muscle in jiu jitsu. If you’re being too physical, you're either going to hurt yourself or hurt someone else. You have to outsmart and out-strategize your opponent. You may not have the same physical strength that you had when you were 25, but you're smarter than you used to be.
When you begin to understand that as an older BJJ player that your brain has to work first, before the strength, you can start understanding and mapping out a different style of game. Then you practice the techniques through repping, and then you practice those reps through training.
I give private lessons to people from all over the country. One of my private lesson clients from Arizona is a black belt who loves to compete, loves jiu-jitsu, and he has a great understanding of the sport overall and his role in it. He understands his age. He understands the limitations in his body and he ‘plays within himself.’ Because of that awareness & his willingness to work with what he has, he’s had great success in jiu jitsu with that strategy. He recently won the Pan Jiu Jitsu Championships at black belt. If every student can learn to ‘play within themselves,’ and develop THEIR best game, not the game that is best for the person next to you, you will reach levels of success in the sport that you didn’t realize you were capable of, especially when you get started later in life.
I like to say that if you could carve a brain out of a 40-year-old or a 50-year-old then put it inside of a 20-year-old with the physical ability and the mental ability, you would have yourself the perfect machine, a perfect athlete. But unfortunately, it takes experience and years to learn some lessons on what works & what doesn't, what got you injured & what didn't. At any age, you can physically get stronger. You can get more flexible, but when you're rolling in that moment, in that match, you are what you are. You have to understand your body and understand what you’re working with right now, and how to use it to the best of your ability.
One of the most important factors in your success as an older BJJ practitioner is your academy. You have to have the right environment and the right group to train with. If you go to a gym full of professional fighters and you're 37 you're looking to do jiu-jitsu as a hobby, that's not going to be a good fit. You have to find the right academy that has that same kind of vision that suits your needs as a practitioner. Your academy and your professor are the number one influence that will shape your game through the course of your training journey. So, when you’re interviewing academies during your trials, as yourself, "Do I see myself being able to be successful here?,” “Do they work with other people like me?” “Will I have a team of training partners that make sense for me to train with?” “Is this the right fit?,” “Will they understand how to work with me based on my age, my body, and my background?”
Not only will these questions keep you safe, influence your style, and help you to be successful, but they will almost guarantee that you have the fun camaraderie that you might have had in sports back in the day. If you find people in your academy that are like you, that are facing your same challenges, and coming back every week on the jiu jitsu journey with you, you’re much more likely to keep training and make this part of a healthy lifestyle for years to come.
When you're bitten by the 'jiu jitsu bug,' it’s easy to feel like you want & need to train as much as possible to improve as fast as you can.
But, is training as much as possible really the best way to improve? And if not, how often should you train?
The truth is, it depends on your goals, needs, and your limitations. But here are some guidelines..
I recommend that all new students train two times per week for the first 30 - 60 days. During this time, his or her body and mind are getting acclimated to jiu jitsu. Even those students who come into jiu jitsu in decent shape from running or weights have to get used to the demands of jiu jitsu. Its simply a "different" type of in shape.
Two times per week will also help a student's mind to get used to the terminology, the flow of the drills, the structure and pacing classes, and the physical contact with his or her training partners.
In the early years at URSA Academy, before I had this 2x per week recommendation, I had some students who would capitalize on the new student excitement and train 5-6 days per week at the beginning to try to fast track their progress and maximize their results. I even had a guy we called, "2 a day Sam" because he trained 2x per day, 6 days per week. But unfortunately, I started to see a pattern that every single person who trained 6 days a week either took really long breaks at about the 3rd or 4th month, or quit altogether.
What's the use of 'fast tracking' your progress in the beginning if you're just going to quit after you get in the swing of things?! The truth is that everyone has a life outside of jiu jitsu. Even me. Jiu jitsu is my passion, my stress relief, my workout, and I'm lucky enough to say, it’s also my job. But that doesn't mean that I can spend all day, every day training and expect to get the best out of myself every session or every roll.
After the first 30-60 days, I typically recommend training 2, 3, or 4 times per week in our advanced classes for our average students who have chosen to make jiu jitsu a healthy hobby, stress reliever, and workout. That allows enough time throughout the week for rest, healing, and downtime, while still getting enough mat time. The key here is training hard on your consistent training days.
At URSA Academy, I encourage my students not to take breaks between rolls. I tell everyone to 'roll until they are done.' If thats 2 matches, great. That's good for the day. If it’s 8 matches, do it. But, do 8 in a row. Don't roll 2 matches, then sit for 3, then roll another one. Roll until you are satisfied with your training and done for the day. That's the best way that I've found to get the most out of every session.
I've found that my students who train using this method 3 days per week progress at a faster rate than those who train 5 days a week but don't push themselves through to the end. So, it’s not always about number of days on the mat, it’s about the quality of the reps, drills, and rolls when you're on it.
For students looking to compete, I recommend upping that schedule to 4-6 days per week 6-8 weeks before the tournament. After the tournament, drop back to your long term sustainable schedule, whatever that may be for you.
Long term sustainability is really the name of the game in jiu jitsu. Anyone can train like a beast for a couple of months. (I did it at a few different points in my jiu jitsu journey when I was working towards a specific goal, like right after I got my purple belt, and at times when I was dealing with a lot of stress in school.) But on the whole, training should be PART of a healthy, active, and balanced lifestyle, NOT your entire life.
To see the most results as fast as possible, work with your Professor to create the ideal schedule for you, based on your goals, and your other responsibilities and stick to it. Be consistent. Be realistic with your time, your body, and your expectations. And most importantly, realize that nothing about jiu jitsu success is fast. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the ultimate 'marathon.' The road to black belt is long, but it’s worth it.