Training for Longevity vs Explosiveness

One of the immediate difficulties that people have when they start Jiu Jitsu training is unlearning decades of athletic training mentalities that emphasize finding angles or points of leverage and applying maximum exertions within those frames. In Jiu Jitsu you immediately start learning martial arts techniques which at the onset resemble typical sports training in that you are finding angles in which the results of an exertion are maximized so it is understandable that people are confused when coaches like myself emphasize going at medium good pace and controlled through all techniques. Here I’d like to lay out a case for the limited role of explosiveness in long term Jiu Jitsu. 

Let’s begin by looking at why athletics emphasizes explosiveness in nearly all sports. The first and most obvious reason for emphasizing explosiveness is the limited nature of those activities that value explosiveness. Those activities, be they swinging a bat, running to a base, throwing a ball, jumping, tackling, etc., are rarely followed by a repeat of the same activity immediately. A batter doesn’t swing twice in immediate succession ever. There’s a solid gap between each swing. The same could be said for everything listed previously. The greater the repetition the more the explosiveness drops in terms of training methodology. Efficiency and cardiovascular conservation become greater and greater concerns as we assume greater repetition and smaller test periods between actions. 

Relating this discussion back to Jiu Jitsu, when grappling with another human being there is no gap in actions. Every moment is filled with contact and contact requires some form of exertion thus explosiveness starts to have diminishing value as a contest wears on. If my sweep is based on being explosive, the resulting top position that follows will suffer due to the energy spent to attain that position. Whereas if I’m able to sweep, takedown, pass with a more sustained approach my energy is distributed across my actions and less likely to hit walls in terms of sustainability. Each Jiu Jitsu technique is trained in isolation out of necessity but they do occur in isolation in terms of a grappling contest. Passing a guard explosively means my top control has less available energy which may result in me losing the gains I have achieved and forcing me to repeat my original action of passing or sweeping. 

Another reason explosion is emphasized in sports is a concept I will call relative advantage. Explosion is meant to overcome a situation in which contestants are relatively matched in terms of ability or strength. My limited explosion allows me to exceed our relatively matched strength for a brief moment and secure an advantage. You can see this across all levels of professional athletics. And it makes complete sense within those contexts but let me go out on a limb and assume that you are not a professional athlete because you are reading my blog. If you’re more like me you are not the greatest athlete ever known. And within the context of training martial arts for self-defense you may have to accept the reality that you could face opponents many times larger and stronger than you. When you are watching pros go at it in their respective sports, they are relative matches for one another. Weight classes exist in most combat sports as well so we are not accustomed to seeing a person contend with challenges of greater weight and strength at the extreme end of the spectrum. Within that context I will suggest to you that your explosiveness is very unlikely to be sufficient to overcome the gap between you and someone with greater physical blessings. Now not only do you have a higher probability of coming up short when maximum exertion is required to execute your Jiu Jitsu technique, but what little energy you are likely to have after that action is likely to be a significant detriment within your new position. 

Now what are the long-term effects of training for maximum exertion or explosiveness within actions? Take a look at professional athletes in their forties at the trail end of their careers. Almost regardless of the sport in question most of those athletes are lucky if they can count their surgeries on their fingers and toes. Many will suffer mobility issues to the ends of their days. This is because they were training to make fortunes at the height of their careers, not to achieve sustainable health gains for the rest of their lives. For this reason alone, I think most folks need to look hard in the mirror and consider what their purpose is when they get to their Jiu Jitsu gym. If you are training for a promising MMA career (low odds of success) or a competitive, professional Jiu Jitsu career (not likely to feed your family) than Godspeed to you but I would wager again that if you’re reading this, you’re not likely to be in that category. And you might even reconsider looking to the pros for how you train yourself to be healthy and effective. If you’re not making the millions to afford surgeries and comforts that will make up for irreversible injuries you might want to ignore the intensity of the training methods pros employ to compete in limited engagements across a small portion of their lives.

I know that the idea of training like a pro does have an extreme allure in terms of excitement and a belief in results but those results aren’t likely to apply to you. If you’re training Jiu Jitsu for self-defense you want to be healthy at all times to be able to defend yourself. A knee surgery (and no fight purse to compensate you for it) significantly impairs your ability to defend yourself as you convalesce. So, training martial arts to the point of maximum exertion and the common resultant injuries that accompany explosive training are fairly likely to turn you into the wounded gazelle that the lion targets. So, we need a mid-ground where we achieve fitness with martial arts that is sustained and consistent otherwise, we literally cannot utilize it. 

Allow me to digress to the more tactical concerns of failure which are a cornerstone of understanding Jiu Jitsu as a fighting philosophy. While having faith in your martial arts techniques is paramount, one should also plan for failure. Counters exist to all martial arts techniques and even an untrained combatant may stumble upon one accidentally in the course of a violent encounter. One of the great follies of the beginner is “what do I do in this situation” which, while being a natural and relevant question, implies that there are absolute correct techniques that never fail or for which no possible counter exists. At the earliest levels perhaps, instructors have to teach this way to a certain degree but as one progresses deeper and deeper into Jiu Jitsu and Martial Arts one finds that techniques are tools and their correctness depends greatly on context and timing. So, with this tool conceptualization in mind we perhaps can see that hitting the hammer harder is rarely the means through which a goal is realized. We must hammer with ample force but excessive force applied in the wrong context is disastrous and thus we have to find the medium where we exert ourselves no more than is necessary for success with a  reserve amount of energy on hand to change course and potentially apply posture and pressure in a new way.

If you want to see all of these concepts in action head to your local SBG gym and learn how to train smarter not harder.

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