How does the fitness of elite Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) athletes stack up against fighters from other martial arts? In an effort to answer this question researchers from the University State of Maringá and the Martial Arts and Combat Sports Research Group from the University of São Paulo completed a study in which they assessed raw fitness scores of BJJ athletes and compared them to those of other athletes in combat sports. Such a study is one of the first of its kind to examine the adapted physique of a BJJ athlete who must contend with a unique set of physical demands.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a martial art/fighting system that was developed in the 1920s as an adaptation of traditional Japanese ground-fighting martial arts. Though not as ubiquitous as other martial arts styles, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has continued to grow in popularity over the last 30 years both at the amateur and competitive levels. Organizations such as the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation help organize and set the standards for BJJ competitions.
In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu the focus of combat is placed on ground-fighting. Take-downs and throws are also incorporated into the style’s curriculum, but they are less emphasized than in other arts such as Judo. Although formal competitions are bracketed by weight division, the style’s teachings on leverage, weight placement, and manipulation of an opponent’s body have given the art a reputation for being effective even when executed by smaller competitors against larger adversaries.
That being said though, what does the average elite Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter look like? Compared to the extensive investigations pertaining to top athletes in other sports such as wrestling or long-distance running, very little is known about the elite BJJ athlete. In one of the few peer-reviewed resources on the matter, researchers from the University State of Maringá and the University of São Paulo examined the fitness scores of athletes who medaled in national and/or international Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitions.
What did they find? To begin, the researchers evaluated the cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance of their elite BJJ athletes by measuring their maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) scores during a treadmill test. On average the BJJ athletes consumed 49.5 mL/kg/min. This value is low compared to measurements from elite wrestlers, who have a reported maximal oxygen uptake of between 53 and 56 mL/kg/min. Even beyond that, judo athletes have an even greater average maximal oxygen uptake: about 63.0 mL/kg/min.
The BJJ athletes were also evaluated on their muscular endurance. The average elite BJJ athlete can crank out 40 push-ups in a minute—right in line with what elite judo athletes achieve according to a 2008 research study published in Acta Medica Medianae. The category where BJJ athletes really excelled was in tests of core muscular strength and endurance. The average athlete was recorded as completing 52 sit-ups per minute and scored an impressive 185.5 kgf for their maximal isometric back strength tests. In both these matters elite BJJ fighters out-scored comparably successful judo athletes.
As a whole, the authors of the paper concluded that elite Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu athletes have middling aerobic power, excellent muscular strength and endurance in their core and upper body, and maximal isometric back strength. But it is important to keep in mind that such values do not necessarily reflect the fitness of all athletes in a sport, nor can they predict which style or set of athletes is superior to another. It is also crucial to acknowledge that the study did not examine other essential characteristics such as technical skill, reflexes, and grit. Overall such research offers an intriguing, albeit very narrow window of insight into the profiling of some of the world’s most technical athletes.
By Sarah Takushi