Why Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Should Be Your New Cardio: It’s Time to Stop Walking on the Treadmill and Learn Self-Defense

Posted by Zack Nicholas

Listen, I was like you.

I lifted weights, did my squats, focused on progressive overload, and thought that Brazilian jiu jitsu was just another ineffective martial art – I felt pretty confident in my weightlifting journey progress and my ability to defend myself, but I was wrong.

I was up from a skinny 145 lb-er who ate a lot of hummus to someone who weighed 210 lbs. and who counted macros, focused on progressive overload (and still ate a decent amount of hummus) see pic below of my hummus built physique:

My younger brother got into Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ) and Muay Thai one summer…I mean, like, really into jiu jitsu. Little did I know, he was so into it that he even had mats set up in my parent’s basement. I was home for Christmas break, and I guess you can imagine where this is going.

Since I had ~30 lbs. on my younger brother, I thought “What is he going to be able to do to me?”

So my brother and I headed down to the basement along with some other assortment of family members. I stepped on the mats with him in my itchy holiday sweater, we slap hands, and before I knew it, he was on my back and choking me while I was still standing.

…I remember going to sleep that night and trying really hard not to think about how easily my brother choked me out in front everyone.

It was at that point that I immediately decided to implement Brazilian jiu jitsu into my weekly weight training routine, and this long winded, shameful intro leads me into my main points on why if you are weight training you should consider supplementing your training and replacing your cardio with Brazilian jiu jitsu.

 I believe in three things – that everyone should aim to be:

-financially stable

-in decent shape

-able to physically defend themselves if needed

Allow me to speak on the final point regrading BJJ (likely one of the few things I’m reasonably qualified to speak on as I’m a current Brazilian jiu jitsu brown belt holder)

Why Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

(me in between my two younger brothers)

Before I rattle off a list of benefits in bulleted format, simply put, Brazilian jiu jitsu is just fun.

Imagine playing a video game that involves increasingly hard problem-solving skills and the only way to beat it is to play it more.

The first 6 months of jiu jitsu training will probably be one of the biggest physical and mental challenges of your life, but I promise if you put in your time you will get to feel the amazing highs and soul crushing lows of Brazilian jiu jitsu.

And, in reality, anyone who trains bjj, just wants everyone else to feel that.

Brazilian jiu jitsu is the realest form of exercise out there. You can fake a lot of things in life, but you can’t deny being physically dominated by someone.

Now onto that bulleted list of benefits from BJJ:

-teaches you self confidence

-helps with anxiety and depression

-creates discipline and thick skin

-helps you know exactly where you stand should a physical altercation arise

-provides increased mobility/flexibility

-is a great way to burn calories and lose weight (see below)

-gives you access to a great community of supportive training partners and friends

Will BJJ help me lose weight? (How Many Calories Does BJJ Burn?)

Maybe you’re just interested in losing weight and burning calories and not in the other benefits mentioned above.

In my 10+ years of weight training and fitness, I’ve done all sorts of cardio: biking, swimming, running, LISS, HIIT…

But if I’m honest with myself, all those forms of cardio are boring and none of them teach you function skills.

In preparation for this post, I actually used my apple watch to track my calories across different forms of cardio including running, biking, incline treadmill walking, and jiu jitsu to see how they stacked up against each other.

(Me modeling my apple watch)

I performed each for 30 minutes and compared how many calories were burned.

Keep in mind that these figures represented are specific to me, my body, the intensity of training and the type of training, but these should hopefully give you an idea of how many calories bjj burns when compared to other forms of cardio:

Activity: Avg. calories burned for 30 mins of each activity:
Incline Walking 175
Biking 225
Running 375
Weightlifting 265
BJJ Sparring* 365


When testing these, during every single form of cardio (aside from bjj), I was really just counting down the minutes until it was over. Except for maybe walking since I was watching the Office through for the 7th time.

The point is that BJJ (specifically, sparring in BJJ) burns nearly as many calories as running for 30 minutes.

Why Is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu So Effective as a Martial Art?

First off, BJJ is accessible to all no matter your size, shape, age, sex, or level of athleticism.

It teaches you to use leverage and methods of control where you have multiple limbs against the strength of a single limb of your opponent.

The martial art is control based and isn’t concerned with dealing as much damage as possible (like striking martial arts – e.g. boxing, muay thai).

It’s a systematic set of principles, positions, and techniques used to take down, control, and submit your opponent that anyone can learn with enough mat time and practice.

What to Expect in Your First BJJ Class

Showing up to your first BJJ class can be scary, we’ve all been there. You may be thinking you’re going to be hurt or even worse embarrassed.

First let me quell your unrealistic fears, I’ve been training bjj for over 6 years and honestly, I can’t think of a single person that I felt was malicious or intentionally trying to hurt me.

Everyone is there to learn and, in order to do that, they need to train together – it’s always a grow together mindset in a good jiu jitsu gym.

In an average BJJ Class you can expect some form of the below:

warms ups: light stretching or light jogging

guided instruction: instructor will demonstration a technique, and you then practice it with a non-resisting partner

sparring: the time when you are to test your techniques on fully resisting partners where you are trying to submit them and they are trying to submit you (generally, you don’t spar on your first couple days – and can choose to spar whenever you’re comfortable)

cool down stretches: some light stretches, usually followed by a few words by your instructor 

How to Balance Strength Training and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

If you are going to attempt to do Brazilian jiu jitsu alongside weight training or powerlifting, a large focus should be placed on recovery.

Your body can only handle so much activity and stress each week before it will be unable to recover and unable to perform optimally for your next session. 

Here Are Some Tips and General Guidelines for Balancing BJJ and Strength

-try to separate your hardest weightlifting and hardest bjj sessions in different parts of the week

-if you prefer to train both on the same day, I strongly recommend always training weights before jiu jitsu

-consider planning for at least one full rest day a week to let your body fully recover

-consider going through periods where you focus on one or the other more

+for example say you are deep into your cut and don’t have the energy for bjj or say you are preparing for a bjj competition

-as always the weightlifting focus should be on complex movements (press, squat, row etc.) to maximize your time in the gym

-also can consider doing “drilling only” bjj days (days where you don’t spar)

-consider maximizing you’re learning of jiu jitsu off the mat with bjj instructionals and online resources


Strength Training, Cardio, and BJJ – Last Words

Having big muscles and being strong is cool and all, but if your younger brother begins choking you in front of relatives that you only see once a year, you’ll wish you spent those long cardio hours learning something functional for self-defense while burning calories.

Brazilian Jiu jitsu is simply the most fun and most functional form of cardio as well as the safest martial art to practice at a high intensity.

Being secure and confident in yourself and your skillset is priceless. Yes, I believe in being big and strong, but I also believe in being functional. So why not cut out the boring part of your workout and make your cardio something fun.

Thanks for reading and hope you have a good day – if you want to read more of my rambling or philosophical ideas on meathead activities like weightlifting and martial arts check out heavybjj.com.


About the Author

Zack Nicholas (Bio) – Zack runs HeavyBJJ.com, a website dedicated to martial arts (with a focus on Brazilian jiu jitsu, of course) and fitness. When not training BJJ or at the gym, he can be found going for walks with his wife, playing video games, and attempting but failing to train his dog. Finally, to see more specific recommendations on how to start bjj or how to effectively manage weight lifting and bjj check out the detailed guide here.

(me, my wife, and our two dogs)

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