Physical Attributes in BJJ

by Tyson LaRone February 26, 2016

Physical Attributes in BJJ

Anyone that's been doing BJJ for any length of time is aware of the history of the martial art - derived from Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and Judo and adapted through rigorous real-world testing in competition and street fights to allow smaller, weaker, slower fighters to prevail through the use of leverage and timing against larger, stronger, faster fighters. Grand Master Helio Gracie was widely known to have been so frail as a child that he would have fainting spells after a single flight of stairs, which made his absolute reliance on technique more of a necessity than a choice.

Now, 22 years later, the landscape of martial arts has been radically revised in the public consciousness and BJJ has become less a well-kept secret and more of an acknowledged staple of unarmed combat in any setting. Even the American military has adopted BJJ as the basis for its Modern Army Combatives Program (MACP) with techniques taught by Rorion Gracie. BJJ is practiced all over the world with a massive competition scene. Amidst all of these advances, a debate rages about the role that physical attributes play in Jiu-Jitsu - things like strength, speed, conditioning and flexibility. It isn't uncommon to hear criticism regarding an athlete having performed well in competition only because they physically outclassed the competition while lacking in technique, implying that true jiu-jitsu can only be quantified and judged through the lense of leverage, timing and misdirection - the pillars of Royce Gracie's success in the early UFC events when it was a style versus style competition.

For my part, I would cite a quote by Miyamoto Musashi, possibly the greatest and best known samurai who ever lived, and whose life's work is immortalized in "The Book of Five Rings":


“When in a fight to the death, one wants to employ all one's weapons to the utmost. I must say that to die with one's sword still sheathed is most regrettable.”


Now, in the case of Musashi he was using the term 'sword' literally - he was the first Japanese sword master to popularize the use of both the katana and wakizashi simultaneously in battle. Up to that point there were well-structured traditional uses for each sword and the wakizashi was typically used on its own for indoor combat, partially for its smaller size and also because tradition demanded that a katana not be brought into many homes and businesses but the wakizashi could be kept on-hand. Musashi was seen as somewhat of a radical for fighting using both swords at once, as well as promoting the mastery of guns and even the use of swords as throwing projectiles. In other words, in this quote what he's really saying is that a true warrior shouldn't resign himself to defeat without having exhausted his options and maximized his chances of victory. I believe that 'sword' in this case could refer to the aforementioned physical attributes in Jiu-Jitsu, and that to lose with anyone of them 'sheathed' is regrettable. Beyond that, I believe that physical attributes are part of Jiu-Jitsu itself.

First of all, physical attributes are going to be part of a fight whether it's intended or not. No matter how technical you are, you're still moving both your body plus a resisting opponent. That takes energy so to keep it up for any length of time requires conditioning, not to mention multiple matches in a tournament. Strength and explosiveness also help a great deal, since follow-through on takedowns, sweeps, passes and submissions requires an imposition of will no matter how well they were set up. Flexibility can be a problem when it stands in place of efficient movement of center mass, but combined they create otherwise impossible opportunities to catch even seasoned opponents off-guard, which brings me to my main point - that optimal performance should be elite athleticism used as a delivery system for the techniques of jiu-jitsu, not one as opposed to the other. 

You can see this in any other major professional sport, particularly the ones that have been established for much longer than BJJ competition. There are technical disparities in players of basketball, football and baseball but elite level strength and conditioning isn't only helpful, it's the bare minimum. You'll never hear the commentators of an NFL game discussing whether or not both teams showed up strong and in condition to play an hour of football. This is partially due to these sports drawing from a much larger talent base resulting in increased exclusivity, but it's also because of a widespread recognition in these sports that physical ability is one of the few factors in a competition that you can actually control. Whose technique and strategy comes out on top might be different in every fight/game, but to show up strong and well conditioned is a choice. Similarly, to be strong and well conditioned but consciously try not to use those attributes is also unheard of in any other sport. You take the best driver, put them in the best car, you get the best result.

Aside from an individual performance standpoint, I believe that to hold back on physical attributes is a missed opportunity for both opponents and training partners. It's widely acknowledged that if a club focuses heavily on guard passing, the students of that school are also going to develop excellent guards. Focus on leglocks, everyone gets better at defending against leglocks. If everyone gets stronger, faster and better conditioned, then everyone's jiu-jitsu will become more effective at dealing with those challenges - sort of an Adam Smith economics approach. If everyone brings everything they have to jiu-jitsu, attributes included, then the level of the club and martial art as a whole will be elevated. I believe that this mentality having been widely spread in the BJJ community already is part of why it has consistently endured where other styles have failed when truly put to the test.

**Let us know what you think about this article and using strength in BJJ. Post your comments below**

Tyson LaRone
Tyson LaRone


Tyson LaRone is a Senior Agatsu Kettlebell Instructor, BJJ Black Belt, Registered Massage Therapist, IYCA Speed and Agility Specialist.

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