How Can Rock Climbing Benefit Your BJJ Game?
By Tony Cadorin
Ask a room full of Jiu Jitsu practitioners what they could gain from taking up rock climbing as a cross training activity, and almost everyone would guess grip strength. But rock climbing, like any other sport, has many hidden aspects to it that can transfer to your Jiu Jitsu game to make you a better competitor and all-around athlete.
First, let’s get the grip strength argument out of the way. Yes, you will very quickly develop forearms to make Popeye jealous with veins that flow enough blood to drown a vampire. The implications for increased grip strength are obvious in both the gi, where clamping onto lapels like vice grips creates an obvious advantage, and in no-gi grappling. But the advantage of developing your grips through rock climbing runs much deeper than just strength. When you commit to climbing on a regular basis and commit to climbing to actual failure (i.e. falling), you begin to develop an understanding of just how far you can push your grips before they fail. Pumped full of adrenaline, with air underneath you (even in the rock climbing gym), you begin to surprise yourself with how long you can actually hold on and what it actually takes for your forearm muscles to give up. After a while, this becomes a game of willpower and mental training rather than strength or endurance. When you transfer this notion to your grips in Jiu Jitsu you begin to recognize that most grip battles come down to the simple question of whether you want to hold on more or if your opponent wants to remove your grips more. In the end, your better understanding of your own capabilities wins the battle over their relative ignorance.
Rock climbing, as with many other sports, also parallels Jiu Jitsu in that it is a sport that absolutely requires you to develop systems of efficiency. Everyone has seen a hyper-fit brand-new white belt gas out after only a few minutes of grappling. This isn’t because they aren’t in shape, don’t have “jiu jitsu cardio” or aren’t “built for grappling”; it’s almost completely because new athletes lack the ability to discern when to apply pressure, how to apply it, and when to rest. New white belts have their foot on the gas pedal all the time, simply trying to do anything advantageous. Certainly, even when experienced Jiu Jitsu practitioners go into matches applying all their strength through the entire match, they gas out in a similar, albeit not quite equal, fashion. Rock climbing, in many ways, increases the consequences of failure and so forces you to learn how to apply force in the most efficient manner. You learn to rest when the climbing is easy to prepare for the hard climbing. You learn to relax your hands and not overgrip the holds to preserve forearm strength.
Rock climbing also helps, in a similar manner to yoga or other meditative practices, in that you learn to control your fear and to understand the self-talk that goes on while performing difficult tasks. When you’re on a wall in an area where falling would mean a serious risk of injury, you must suppress your internal dialogue of failure and fear in order to perform at the highest level possible. When you’re worried and scared, you lose focus on the task of hand, which only increases your odds of failure. Rock climbers aren’t fearless or reckless; quite the opposite. Rock climbing teaches you about your inner monologues of fear so that you can sort out what are useful thoughts. There are very useful thoughts that provide warning inputs on what you’re doing. Other thoughts though are simply unreasonable fears that only serve to obstruct your safe progress forward. While competing and training Jiu Jitsu, we’re often faced with situations like this. When someone seems imminently close to submitting you, there may be a simple escape that you can perform to avoid being submitted and maybe even gain an advantageous position from that escape. But as certain submissions get continually deeper, the mind can slip into a panicked self-preservation mode which often does the worst job at actually preserving itself! Being able to calm your self-talk and work through difficult positions is an invaluable skill that can be sharpened through rock climbing.
So if you haven’t been out climbing, reach out to one of our climbing/rolling athletes here in Arizona and get cross training!
Thanks to Alex “The Tojo” Kray (Nava BJJ), Nicholas Bujak (Soul Fighters), Kyle Boehm (10th Planet) and James Nelson (Roots BJJ) for their additional input on this article.