The Best Jiu-Jitsu Athletes In The World Train 7 Days a Week
The line between skill development and physical limits is blurring.
Originally published in In Fitness and In Health on June 15, 2021.
I don’t know if competition brings out the best in people, but I do know that it brings out their limits.
In any sport, there’s constant debate about the “best” way to train. In submission grappling (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), this debate is amplified because there are so many more ways to develop your skills than the average sport. The obsessive nature of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu makes it the ultimate proving ground for skill development and innovation.
I’ve competed against guys who live in the gym, training 3–4 times per day and subsisting off of ramen noodles and Panda Express — the high-performance diet of BJJ world champions (literally). Can you beat that level of dedication?
More importantly, should an athlete train every day, twice a day, as hard as they physically can without breaking themselves? Should they focus on drills or sparring? Should they train through injuries? Should they lift weights? Should they watch tape? How often and with what variance should they do all of these things?
The questions are endless, and there really isn’t a right answer. There’s too much variance between individual athletes to determine the hands-down “best” way to do anything.
Or is there?
Hidden in all the “fighter-bro” machismo, shirtless gym photos, and hardcore intensity of the top Jiu-Jitsu gyms that you might see on social media, I believe there are a few important lessons that can be learned from these athletes about skill acquisition, sports performance, and perhaps even life.
The Danaher Death Squad
Unless you do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you’ve probably never even heard of the “Danaher Death Squad” (the DDS). The “Squad”, as they’re referred to by their coach, John Danaher, is arguably the most competitively dominant submission grappling team of the last decade.
With athletes like ONE Championship standout Garry Tonon, 3-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC — the Olympics of grappling) Champion Gordon Ryan, and Gordon’s younger brother, rising prospect Nicky Ryan to name a few, the team has taken the submission grappling world by storm in the last 5 years. They’ve won titles in every organization the sport has to offer, and most of the athletes on the team are very young — in their early 20s.
Grappling is a sport that takes a particularly long time to get good at, and the DDS has just about shattered everything that we once knew about grappling training and the technical development of the sport. Athletes from this team are medaling at and winning the largest tournaments in the world with just a few years of training. Sometimes, just a few months.
Well, part of it, as revealed by their coach on the Joe Rogan Experience just a few weeks ago, is that they train every freakin’ day. 7 days a week. They’re obsessed with being the best in the world, and they’re willing to let other aspects of their life suffer in order to achieve that goal. They’re all-in in a sport where a lot of people are pretending to be all-in. They talk the talk and walk the walk.
It might seem toxic and I might be pushing the narrative of hustle culture, but at the end of the day, there is a strong argument to be made for working insanely hard at something and gritting your way to the top, especially in sports. Success isn’t pretty — it’s boring and it sucks. That’s just how competition works at the highest levels. Don’t shoot the messenger.
The DDS is changing everything I thought I knew about making progress in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and their approach is the perfect blend of old-school east-coast grit and a highly intellectual, systematic approach to submission grappling. It’s a martial art, but they develop their skills using the scientific method. As a personal development dork, I can’t help but wonder: what if you took this approach and applied it to literally anything else.
How Hard Should Really You Work?
I don’t really know how smart it is to train 7 days a week, but competition results for the Danaher Death Squad have proven that this amount of training is certainly effective for skill development.
High-level grapplers have a highly obsessive nature. 3-time IBJJF black belt world champion Mikey Musumeci recently posted on his Instagram that he had just finished going a 5-day training “binge” where he was training for over 10 hours per day.
I don’t know about you, but the only thing I think I’ve ever done for 10 hours in one day was sleeping off jet lag.
Whether it’s training 7 days per week or training for 10 hours in a single day, these feats of focus are exceptional and inspirational.
However, that’s part of the problem. Just because someone learns a certain way or has a certain work capacity, doesn’t mean that that’s the end-all-be-all method for learning that we should all use. But at the same time, can’t we learn something from these incredibly high-performers?
Instead of hearing about someone training every single day or training for 10 hours a day and deciding that I have to adapt their method, it’s much more useful to use these stories as data for what is possible. Maybe I can’t train for 10 hours a day, but perhaps I can temporarily increase my study time to develop new training strategies that will help me grow faster and more efficiently.
Don’t Push the Limit But Still Push Yourself
Training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a very physical endeavor. There’s a lot of intense physical training involved and athletes are required to push their bodies to their absolute limits in some cases in order to win matches on the biggest stage.
However, if you want to train for many years and get your black belt, or if you want to become the best in the world, you can’t constantly push yourself to the limit. The best martial artists don’t solely approach their training as if they were preparing for a sport, they approach it as if they are developing a skill.
Skill acquisition is much more complicated than trying to get abs at the gym or trying to hit a new weight on the scale. Fitness is pretty simple (not easy), but getting good at a difficult skill is, well, really complicated.
A 10-hour training session might seem like just an extreme version of progressive overload, but there’s more to it than just overwhelming your senses. Even DDS superstar Gordon Ryan (one of the grittiest athletes out there) attests that quality sleep and recovery is one of the biggest determinants for his skill development.
Pushing your limit can be detrimental to your long-term success not only because it can break you physically, but because it will likely break you mentally as well. If you have an incredibly strong mind, your body might break before your mind, but eventually, something’s gotta give.
True high-performance comes from both extended commitments to systems put in place for skill development along with the self-awareness to recognize one’s own limits and work with them, not against them. Your best chance for growth is likely just below your breaking point.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: improvement isn’t about never stopping, it’s about never quitting.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a sport, but it’s also a skill, like playing the guitar or even writing. The debate on how to attain peak performance in any skill is clouded in personal bias and anecdotal evidence, but there is something to be said for putting in the work every day at something you want to be the best of the world at.
It might sound difficult and overwhelming for me to tell you that to be great at something you have to do it every single day, but there’s more to getting good at things than just grinding your life away. Especially if you plan on working near maximal levels, you need to focus on working smart.
You don’t have to give it your all every single day, but if you give every day, you’ll likely progress faster than someone who’s resting on their laurels. That is the biggest takeaway I’ve learned from the athletes who train 7 days per week.
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