Saturday, September 3, 2011

Do Warm-ups Hinder Progress? Or "I've got 7 seconds of fight in me" and I used it all in the warm-up.

I've got 7 seconds of fight in me. - Kevin James, Comedian

Psychologist, Carle Beuke, Ph.D., recently wrote an interesting article titled, How to become an expert. He talked about using deliberate practice to improve one’s skills and abilities. For those who are unaware, deliberate practice is where you break down an activity into chunks and slowly work on that chunk until you master it. Then you move on to the next chain in the series. 

What I found interesting about his article is that when he discusses sports, he specifically mentions the idea of excessive warm-ups, which is one of my pet peeves about BJJ and grappling training. Beuke writes:

Deliberate practice requires pushing yourself to perform slightly better than you normally would. You need to be at your best to achieve this. This means being well-rested and fresh. For this reason, doing an hour of cardio to 'warm up' for sports practice is not helpful.

Now, as time passes, age and weight affects my ability to accurately assess why I am not a fan of heavy warm-ups. My lack of fondness for them has built up slowly over the years because there have been many times where I have been worn out before drilling even started, or worse, injured. Often during these types of warm-ups my lower back muscles seize up into a pretzel knot, my abdominals lock up or I get calf cramps or a cramp that curls my foot up into a little ball. After that class is all about survival.

I can understand a brief 10 minute warm-up where we jog a little, perform some grappling specific exercises such as shrimping, bridging, rolling, break-falls and then proceed to light stretching.  But what has happened over the years is that Crossfit, P90x and other hardcore training techniques such as Tabata drills have seeped their way into the ‘warm-up’ and many classes often become an endurance test before you can gain BJJ knowledge.

I think this happens for a couple of reasons. The first is because I am dubious that most instructors from 18 to 32 years of age truly understand that once you hit a certain age the body does not just bounce back after exercise. This may lead to a callousness or indifference to the plight of those who struggle because of a complete lack of awareness of what the older grappler is experiencing. Further, aches, pains and injuries accumulate over the years and are easy to aggravate. As a large segment of grapplers are 30 and above it would behoove instructors to be mindful of this.

Additionally, many younger grapplers have different expectations than older grapplers. Many younger grapplers dream about being BJJ, Judo or Sambo champions. Then they want to parlay that experience into becoming an MMA champion. (A good number of these guys can’t figure out why everyone doesn’t want to train as hard as they do and get frustrated by it.) Others want to open their own grappling school one day.

To borrow from Seinfield, when he was younger, becoming Batman or Superman wasn't a dream, it was an option. But for older grapplers, they want to make sure they don’t get injured so they can have the option of going in to work the next day or so they can attend to their children's needs that night and the next day. This means that they have to avoid 'overdoing it" in class. Plus, older grapplers can’t afford to live the austere life of a fighter because they usually have spouses, kids, mortgages and job or career responsibilities. Of course, experiences and desires vary but if you’ve been around the grappling scene for more than a month you understand what I am talking about.

I train at a school that is not competition oriented and I appreciate this, but a lot of people do not have this choice and train at schools that have a lot of students focused on MMA and competing in grappling tournaments. It is my assertion that this often leads to warm-ups that are too rough.

As Beuke alluded to, when the body is excessively taxed it is very difficult to perform drills properly. If the individual doesn’t quit during the session (and I have never seen anyone quit in 8 years of grappling) they will resort to going through the motions and will have difficulty focusing on the specifics. Further, they may not be able to drill with precision due to fatigue. This can lead to bad habits or injury during techniques that require attention to detail such as throws and takedowns.

As a grappler I know that grappling is not meant to be easy. I also know that there is a fine line between pushing grapplers hard to achieve excellence and overworking them. My purpose in writing about this and raising questions is not to bash instructors, young people or grapplers who are easily able to cope with any warm-ups thrown their way. It is to remind people that warm-ups for grappling should be intended to prepare students for drills and rolling (sparring) that occurs afterward. It shouldn’t drain them of their capacity to learn and leave them unable to get the most out of their training session.


  1. I'm a big fan of intense warm ups. I heard someone once make the point that if the warm up is difficult, it forces you to focus on the technique during drilling and rolling without muscling your way through a move. Additionally, it improves your BJJ cardio without rolling. This way your cardio builds up 2x as fast than if your only cardio was rolling.

  2. Thanks for your comments Nomyanthi.

    I believe there are many angles this question can be approached from. One thing I didn't write in the article is that perhaps there should be one or two classes per week for older students or people who may have injuries, etc. Everyone would be welcome but the warm-ups would acknowledge that certain types of activity would be detrimental to certain players. During drilling and rolling we can always ask someone to watch out for a certain body part or can we roll at 50% but during most warm-ups asking for leniency is out of the question due to certain exercises. Sometimes the only reasonable way out would be if the person is injured. I think peer pressure plays a huge role in people conforming to the standard as well.

  3. What do you think of a period of slow-rolling as a warm up? I try to get a bit of rolling in as a warm up the class. I think that this action might warm people up better than running in a circle and toe-touches.

    It's not for everyone, but it works for me.

  4. Most warm-ups are done improperly, turning into a fitness session. Which is to misunderstand the concept of a sports specific warm-up. Heck many still prescribe static stretching in their warm-ups which the sports science community has shunned for some time.

  5. It is nice to see this addressed. As a newbie to jiu jitsu and as a professional strength coach, I was taken back by the length and intensity of warm up sessions. When a warm up cuts into your ability to properly learn form and skills, the warm up is too much and/or your conditioning sucks. The problem is that in jiu jitsu, you can probably never be in "too good" of shape if you are rolling a lot. So there is an implicit justification in the intense warmup.

    Skills should be taught when you are fresh to develop proper motor patterns, inter-muscular coordination and ensure safety. It does no good to "focus" when you cannot complete a movement due to cardio issues, technique goes out the window as you just want to complete the movement. It is a basic hierarchy of need and desire satisfaction, when you are tired it is better to get through it in some way, than not to do it at all. Yes, once you know the movement, you can focus when tired, but until you have the skill developed, it is too much to ask of a novice. It is a pedagogical flaw.

    Our warmups consist of running about 8-10 minutes doing various drills while running. Then we do about 15 trips of various rolls and escapes the length of the floor, and run back. I am 44, the oldest guy in the class, and the last 8 of those trips I never fully complete. Students half my age aren't doing as much as me. One person in our class completes it like it is supposed to be done. As a coach, that shows me it is too much. We then stretch and do floor exercises for another 10 minutes, so our warm up pushes about 25 minutes, pretty much non-stop.

    IMO, the rolls and escapes and running back are sufficient to warm up. There are days I don't roll at the end of class because I am not able to...nothing left especially when we drill for over 40 minutes. Our classes run the full 1.5 hours.

    In retrospect, I probably should have chosen a school with 1 hour classes. But, I doubt I would get the individual attention that I get at my current place.