What to do if you can’t train

Stephan’s Note: this article was first published in two parts in the Beginning BJJ Newsletter, which is a free series of emails for people just starting out in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  To find out more and download a free book on BJJ go to www.beginningbjj.com.


Most of us have multiple priorities. We have to juggle our training schedule with work, family life, relaxation time, etc. A couple of days away from training never killed anybody. In fact, we’re usually refreshed and eager to get back at ‘er when we return!

But sometimes the breaks become longer than just a couple of days. Life intervenes, and before you know it weeks, or even months have gone by and you’ve only trained once or twice:(

It’s easy to get down about this and want to throw in the towel altogether, but hear me out. This happens to everyone. Training layoffs are normal, and ultimately inevitable.

Ecclesiastes (and the Byrds) had it right: “to everything there is a season.” It just wasn’t your BJJ season for a while…

I’m a black belt and a self-proclaimed ‘expert’ on grappling and BJJ. But this doesn’t make me immune to ups and downs in my own training.  One of my dirty little secrets is that my own training suffers every time I’m working on a new Grapplearts video. For example, I’m working on a soon-to-be-released video project right now, and because of the long hours spent writing, designing, filming and editing, I’ve been lucky to get on the mats once a week.

Kind of ironic, isn’t it? I’m working on a tool to give everyone else’s grappling skills a huge boost, but at the same time it causes my own skills to temporarily decline… (Don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT complaining about making videos. I work on these projects because I love doing them. I just hope that admitting this it puts things into perspective a little bit.)

You see, training layoffs and slow-downs no longer freak me out. I know that whatever is making training difficult will eventually pass and I’ll be able to get back into it full-bore! A BJJ black belt usually takes 9 to 12 years, so you’re definitely in this for the long haul. And on that timescale things are going to come up in EVERYBODY’S life, no matter who you are.

Let’s get a bit more specific…

Say that things get crazy for you at work. You’re putting in 70 hours a week at the office. You barely have time to brush your teeth, let alone sneak away three times a week for your usual training sessions.

It may take a few months, but then you finally get things under control and are ready to get your life back. Time to start training again!

I’m not gonna lie to you; your first couple of sessions probably won’t be pretty… In fact, there are TWO areas where you’re probably going to be most challenged in your game.

The first problem you’ll likely notice is that your ENDURANCE now sucks. You’ll be sucking wind bigtime when you drill, and especially when you spar. This inability to go for as long and as hard as you could before your layoff is partially due to a decrease in your objective fitness (by ‘objective’ I mean that you could measure it on a treadmill).

In the running world they talk about specific measures of fitness like ‘VO2 max’ and ‘lactate threshold.’ These are numerical values which tell you how fit you are. And if you haven’t been training for a while then all your numbers probably just went down!

In addition to these objective physiological factors killing your endurance, your ‘sports-specific fitness’ just went down too! For example, you won’t be moving as smoothly and efficiently as you were before your layoff. You’ll use muscle to pull off moves where once you would have used leverage. You’ll use strength instead of timing. You’ll rely on gross body movements where once you would have automatically made more subtle adjustments.

All this means that you’ll be burning more energy, which, of course, makes you get tired faster.

Now I said that there were two problem areas after a layoff… The second thing to go out the window when you don’t train is your TIMING.

It’s a mental thing.

Your opponent will start to pass your guard but your brain will be like the computer in the original Star Trek series (…computing… …computing… …computing…). You’ll remember the perfect counter to the guard pass long after the chance to actually use it has come and gone.

When your timing is messed up like this then your brain is soaked in molasses – always a little too slow and a little too late.

But the good news is that it will all come back to you. As I’ve now said many times, training setbacks happen to everyone. Your timing and your sports-specific endurance AREN’T gone forever; they’ll come back, I promise!

Remember that every Mundial medalist has had layoffs, and every UFC champion has spent time on the couch waiting for injuries to heal. If they managed to get back into it, so can you. To get back to your previous level you need to stay strong, believe that it will all come back to you, and KEEP TRAINING!

Here are some real life tips-from-the-trenches about what you can do minimize your loss of skills during these inevitable training layoffs and get you through the tough times. (I’ve included a lot of links to other articles, make sure to check them all out!)

Layoff Survival Strategy 1: Make Time for Grappling

There’s no doubt about it. The more you train, the better you get (provided, of course, that you don’t overtrain).

Friendly competition between training partners is the heart and soul of getting better on the mat. So if you don’t train as often, chances are that you’ll be left in the dust relative to most of your training partners.

Everyone continuing to improve while you stagnate can be very frustrating, and sometimes it’s a natural reaction to want to throw in the towel completely. The thought process might go something like “screw it, I won’t train until I actually have the time to do it properly.”

But this is a mistake…

Here’s a noted authority (that would be *ahem* myself) talking about how often you should train in a week:

“But let me reassure you that training once a week is much, much, much better than not training at all. You will maintain at least some of your timing and conditioning, and will be much further ahead when you can return to your previous level of training. Of course if you can augment your weekly training session with some cardio or strength training so much the better.”

So if you’re going through a crazy busy time, try to figure out a way to somehow sneak out and train once a week… Or once every two weeks… Or even just once a month…

My BJJ coach, Marcus Soares, calls guys who train infrequently ‘tourists’ and jokes about them needing a visa to be allowed into class. But it’s all in good fun. And the truth is that he’s still glad to see them…

Now it’s true you probably won’t improve much with once-a-week training (unless you’re a complete beginner). But at least it keeps your head in the game and prevents your skills from backsliding completely.

If you can’t train at your regular club because you’re traveling for work or pleasure, then you’ve got another option. Find a club to train away from home!

Many BJJ and grappling clubs offer drop-in training, especially for out-of-town training. There’s often a small fee – usually $10 to $25. But even if it’s a really high drop-in fee (I’ve seen up to $40) it’s still less than what you’d pay for a single person at a good restaurant, so just consider it part of the whole vacation.

And even a single training session in an unfamiliar club will give you valuable insight into how other people train. To find a school either use Google or search the Grapplearts school database.

Training in a new, unfamiliar club can be an experience worth going out of your way for!

For example, in a previous life I was required to travel across the continent to just outside of Lakeland, Florida. Once there, I worked in a gray office cubicle, chained to a computer, for 10 hours a day. There were no BJJ clubs in town at the time.

One of the highlights of my time in Florida was the once-a-week visit to Orlando where I would train with BJJ black belt Marcelo Grosso. I’d leave right after work and then spend 1 1/2 to 2 hours in traffic get to Orlando, but training at this club was a really cool experience! And it helped prove to me that my timing and sports-specific endurance wasn’t going to disappear overnight.

Who knows! If you train a few times at a new school you may even learn a technique or two with which to confound your training partners when you get home again!!

Sometimes the best way to get through a tough time is with a little help from your friends. Specifically friends who are willing to train with you at unusual times and/or in unusual settings.

Being physically flexible is a good thing in BJJ, but so is being flexible with your training schedule! And a little lateral thinking about where and when to train can go a long way. I’ve rolled with training partners who had full time jobs and could only meet me for 6 am training sessions. And late at night on mats laid down in my kitchen. And in police stations, the back of a friend’s factory, and on a tarp laid down on top of grass in the park…

Take a good look at your schedule. Being conscious about how you spend your time is incredibly important!!

Laura Vanderkam – the author of “168 Hours; You Have More Time Than You Think” – cites a poll in which the average North American thinks he/she only has 16.5 hours of leisure time in a week. But, strangely enough, the average American also watches somewhere in the range of 18 to 23 hours of television every week.


(I threw out my TV years ago. One of the best things I ever did: freed up tons of time…)

So let’s say that you absolutely, positively don’t have time to train. Fine. I accept that. I’ll even agree that it sucks and feel appropriately sorry for you.But not if you’re still managing to watch all new episodes of Entourage, Glee, and Dancing with the Stars, plus posting on Facebook five times a day. If you can do this then you DO have the time to train, and I’m a little less sympathetic!

Layoff Survival Strategy 2: Find Time to Exercise

Do anything you can to avoid becoming a sedentary blob!!!

When I was in Florida there weren’t any BJJ or submission grappling clubs in town. I’ve already talked about my weekly pilgrimage to Orlando, but another piece of the puzzle was the daily run. Almost every day on the way from office to hotel room, I’d squeeze in a quick 2 to 3 mile run on a trail around a pretty lake.

Running is such a good way to build up your endurance. It’s been called “the king of the exercises” for good reason… Some people find running boring, but I think that being outside makes it a lot more enjoyable for me.

Here’s a list of tips that might help you if you’re one of those people who ‘just can’t run.’

Here’s what it comes down to: human bodies are very adaptable and this is a double edged sword.

On the one hand, it’s a good thing because it means that our bodies actually respond and adapt to the stresses encountered in the environment. For example, if you lift a heavy weight every day then eventually you’ll get stronger and that weight won’t seem quite so heavy.

But our adaptability can also be a bad thing. For example, as a species we’re very good at accumulating body fat. Maybe this was a good thing when our caveman ancestors needed to store energy for the winter, but in the modern era we’ve got so much cheap food all around us that our programming to eat more works against us.

So if you spend your days driving a desk in an office and don’t counteract that with exercise then your body will adapt, but in the wrong way. Your metabolism will slow down, your body fat will increase, your endurance will decrease and your bones will get weaker. These changes will make life much harder for you when you get back on the mat, and put you at an increased risk for injury. So it’s really important that you find a way to include some physical exercise into your weekly 168 hours.

Assuming you sleep 8 hours a night, that leaves you with 112 hours of waking time every week. And from that perspective you should probably be able to squeeze in a couple of hours of straining and sweating somehow, right? And one or two hours a week are a hell of a lot better than nothing!

I don’t believe that holidays are an excuse to let yourself go. After all, cruise ships usually have treadmills as well as ridiculously overflowing all-you-can-eat buffet tables! In fact, I wrote a whole article about how to staying fit on holidays…

When it comes to working out you can do a lot with a bit of determination and improvisation. If you want some inspiration then check out the workout routines of these MMA fighters (some of these fighters are no longer active, but you might still get some good ideas from their routines nonetheless).

But don’t think that you have to do epic UFC-style workouts. When you’re under the gun, then do Yoga, running, crossfit, bodybuilding, Pilates, Zoomba, pole dancing or fitness bootcamps in the park, it really doesn’t matter!

The bottom line is to do something – anything – to keep moving.

Layoff Survival Strategy 3: Keep Your Mind Active

Yogi Berra said “baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.” And the same is true in grappling.

I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of it here, but there are no shortage of studies demonstrating the power of visualization. Basically, if you think about an activity hard enough, then your brain basically is ‘tricked’ into thinking that you are actually doing it. And that literally improves your objective performance of the task.

The take-home message is that the more you think about an activity, watch an activity, and research an activity, then the faster you’ll improve at that activity!

I believe that deliberately, attentively watching grappling videos – either footage of people rolling/competing, or instructional footage – is a form of visualization. And in the modern digital age there’s no shortage of online video, DVDs, downloadable instruction, etc. etc. that you can use to keep your mind sharp during layoffs.

Here’s some specific examples of how the internet helped my training. And while we’re on that topic, here’s some great advice on how to actually use instructional media to get better (plus a bit of background on what’s happening at the neurological level too):

I’m not saying that watching instructional DVDs and youtube clips is better than actually training. But doing something is a hundred times better than doing nothing! Unchallenged muscles shrink and get weaker. And your grappling brain works much the same way, so challenge your noggin any way you can. If life takes you away from the mats for a while, keep your chin up and your eyes on the prize. You WILL eventually figure out a way to train regularly again.

And since you’ll eventually get back to training I’ll leave you with a few tips on coming back from a training layoff!

Take care, and good luck
Stephan Kesting

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