Try these grappling conditioning exercises next time you train

Matt Thornton

Amateur Fighter
Sep 2, 2004
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I'm putting together some MMA-specific conditioning routines, and I thought I might share some of the grappling drills with my buddies on the grappling forum. I got these from the Grappling Drills DVD, Bas Rutten's Big DVDs of Combat, and also just from training in MMA. These exercises focus on CONDITIONING, so they're not so much about technique as they are cardio and muscular endurance (however, they do develop some technique and require technique). Rolling is also great for that, but these will help you develop your technique to some degree, and they'll also just help you develop your stamina and fitness in certain tricky areas of grappling. It beats the knee torture we call running, and it requires you to use your whole body.

NOTE: Next to each drill I have either made them into a LINK, or I describe it in parenthesis
ALSO: It goes without saying that because these are for conditioning, the idea is to do each drill as fast as you can while still maintaining proper form. Get as many correct reps as you can in the given time period, and you will be sucking wind and burning from lactic acid.

After a warm up and stretch...
-Monkey tree
-Chest spin
-"Trigger sprawling;" partner kneels in front of you, you stand. He reaches and slaps the mat. If he slaps forward with both hands, you do a double-leg sprawl. If he reaches to YOUR right (his left), you sprawl to your right hip and leave your left leg in the air. Vice versa for left leg.
-Guard sit ups; partner stands, you wrap your legs in a guard around his waist. Do sit ups while he tries to stay balanced.
-Leap Frog
-Sit up kimuras; start in your guard, both of his hands on the mat. Sit up and do a kimura on one side, but don't crank it; just lock the kimura and fall back a little bit. Do it on the other side. Focus on going as fast as you can while maintaining technique.
-Swinging Armbars
-Stand up in guard; partner has his guard on you, you put your hands behind your head. Step one leg up PROPERLY, then the other. Then kneel one leg at a time back down.
-Escapes; drill escapes from side mount or mount, doing as many as you can correctly in a given amount of time. Little to no resistance.
-Tricep Pull Up (great for developing grip on someone's wrists)
-Partner Leg Press; your partner stands, you're on your back. Put your feet on his hips and hold his wrists. Let him lean against your legs. Bend your legs at a 90 degree angle, bringing him down. Press him back up. Good for developing leg strength, but better for endurance and also to get a feel for controlling an opponent's weight in your open guard
-Guard Jump Ups; same as standing up in guard, but this time, hop up to both feet simultaneously. Very explosive.

-"Box Shrimping;" start at one corner of the mat. Shimp backwards all the way to the edge of the mat. When you get there, shrimp sideways to the other corner of the mat. When you get to that corner, shrimp forwards (like you're escaping sidemount) all the way to the bottom of the mat. When you get there, shrimp sideways, facing the same direction that you were the last time you sideways shrimped. You end up touching all 4 corners, and you shrimp in 4 different directions.
-Wall Spin, Sit Out You can also do this without the sit out, and the sit out itself is just a good exercise.
-"Full Wall Spins," see the last exercise, but this time, instead of having your head face the wall, start with your feet touching the wall. Throw your body to one side, and perform a 360 spin so that you end up with your feet touching the wall again. This will kill your abs.
-"Matador Guard Passes" on a bag or dummy. I prefer these on a bag or dummy so that you don't have to worry about hurting your partner. Stand in front of a bag, so that the end of the bag is pointing to you. Whip your right leg around to the RIGHT side of the bag, so that your foot is right next to it. Whip your other leg around while kneeling on your right knee. You're in knee mount. Now, in ONLY 2 STEPS (no more, no less), reverse the action so that you end up in the exact same position you started from. Go to the left side. Repeat. I LOVE this drill; it kills your legs and it will make you awesome at this pass.
-"Cartwheel Guard Passes" on a bag or dummy. Again, I think it's just safer to do this on a bag or dummy. Practice your cartwheel guard passes.
-"Knee ride drill" on a dummy. Why do this with a partner? Just do it on a dummy, or bag, or even just put something relatively flat and raised on the floor and do it on that. Don't bang up your partner.
-"Solo One Legged Bridging" Lay flat on your back, and triangle your legs so that only one leg is touching the ground. Bridge as high as you can on that leg, and hold it for a couple of seconds. Repeat. This will give you strong bridges.
-"Ground Movement." I made this one up, sort of. In this drill, lay on your back, and "run" on the mat. In other words, at a fast pace, use all acceptable forms of ground movement. Shrimp forwards, backwards, skip your hips, stand up to base, bridge, follow an imaginary guard passer, slide backwards, shoulder sprint... the idea is to make your movement on the ground as efficient as possible while putting you in great shape. One of grappling's biggest challenges is our inefficiency of ground movement. By conditioning your heart, lungs, and muscle memory to move on the ground, you will have a lot more stamina in a match. If you're near a wall or a cage, do wall spins when you get close to it. I do this in the cage at my gym, and I'm dying by the end.
-"Compression." Get your wind going, through drills or rope jumping or whatever, so that you are out of breath and your heart rate is accelerated. Then, lie on your back and stack your legs over your head. Or, you can "sprawl" on a heavy bag so that all of your weight is on your chest, laying on the heavy bag. Hold these positions. This will teach you to relax, and to regain your breath while in the awkward and uncomfortable positions of grappling. If you can relax and regain your breath, you stand a better chance of defending submissions while going for your own.

There are way more drills out there, and I wouldn't want to tell you everything that I've learned from Bas and Stephan Kesting, because I want them to make money off of their exceptional DVDs. The ones I have given you are awesome for conditoning, and I always think it's a good idea if you can find an alternative to running and spend more time on your fighting skills. These kill two bird with one stone as they will both condition your body to be in good shape, but they'll also carry over directly into your strength, stamina, speed, and explosiveness in grappling. This doesn't mean ditch your other exercises, as exercises like strength training, plyometrics, stretching, etc. are all important.

Also, throw in some shadow wrestling (shots, sprawls), pummeling drills, burpees, and body weight exercises. Those are all great exercises and will really condition you.

I think there are several times when these exercises are optimal to use. First and foremost, for beginners. I'm going to be teaching beginner's MMA classes, and I am going to base a lot of the class around conditioning. Beginner grapplers waste so much energy in rolling, that they gas themselves out. The worst thing I've seen is that this causes some people to get frustrated and not want to roll as much! Rolling is so important to development as a grappler, so if you get your stamina up, you'll be able to fit in so much more training, and as a result, you'll get better faster.

These are also great to use in a periodization plan before a grappling tournament. Say you start training 2 months in advance for a tournament. You start off with a running routine and a weight routine in the beginning, but as you get closer, you want to eventually eliminate all forms of cross training and focus specifically on grappling. These will replace your conditioning routines, and will also be good for when you need to avoid rolling to prevent injury.

Finally, they're great if you just want to be in shape. No, they won't give you a huge bench press, or increase your sex drive (I'm not Matt Furey), but they'll give you a hell of a total body workout, that will leave you both sore and sucking wind.

You can change up how you use these drills. For example, you can go for a 4 minute round with a 1 minute rest period, performing a drill at a pace that will leave you tired at the end of the round. Or, if you really want a burner, do them HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) style; perform the drill at a steady pace for a period (say 60 seconds), and then go all out for a period (say 30 seconds). Use the worst of all drills, the spin drill, for an example:
-Spin at a steady pace 60 seconds
-Spin as fast as you can for 30 seconds

Don't go for a really long HIIT workout. Just work for maximum effort during the work periods, and keeping a solid pace during the rest periods. HIIT has proven itself time and time again to be the most efficient fat burner and cardio-inducer. Make sure to do HIIT a maximum of 4 times a week; this is not an every day thing.

Have fun, and good luck (you're gonna need it)! Some of these exercises (i.e., SPIN DRILLS) are an absolute and total bitch. You will feel the burn on these, I promise you.
I'll start posting up sample routines to do these in. Feel free to make your own and post up what you did.

SOLO GRAPPLING WORKOUT (best for a shorter match; work everything at a fast pace; you will need a floor bag or dummy)
-50 penetration steps (a.k.a. "shots," 25 on each side) in the fastest time possible

-45 sprawls (15 both legs, 15 to the right hip, 15 to the left hip) in the fastest time possible

-Fall onto your back, count to 15 while in a stacked position ("Compression" drill)

-Shrimp to a corner of the mat, then box shrimp around the mat; 2 laps if it's a big mat, 4 laps for a medium sized mat, and 6 laps if it's a small space

-Stand up to base 50 times (25 on each side)

-50 Matador guard passes (25 on each side) on a bag or dummy in the shortest time possible

-"Compression;" pin all of your weight through your chest on the floor bag or dummy and count to 15; make it difficult to breathe but try to catch your breath

-Chest spins on the floor bag or dummy (the dummy can be on its back), make 20 360 degree turns in each direction

-Isometric pin (I saw Mario Sperry do this); pin the bag or dummy in a side mount and squeeze the hell out of it. Pin the bag or dummy as hard as you possibly can. Hold this pin for as long as you can, then switch sides.

-Knee ride drill on the floor bag or dummy, jump over the bag 20 times each way

-Mount the bag, and from the mount, backstep your right leg over to YOUR left side, so both legs are on the bag/dummy's RIGHT side. Go back to mount, and now go to the other side. 20 reps on each side, as fast as you can

-Roll over with the bag or dummy in between your legs, now squeeze your legs together HARD for an isometric guard hold. Squeeze an incredibly hard guard for as long as you can. Repeat once.

That's the circuit. Take a short break, and if you want, repeat the circuit. I promise you, if you're pushing yourself, this one will be a real burner.
Very nice! One question of many: I never learned cartwheel guard passes in any of the places I train (which is quite a bit). However, it seems pretty cool and demoralizing if you can hit it correctly. I saw Ryan Gracie (I think) do it in that match against Renzo. How effective is it? Any tips to pull it off or learn it?
There are tons of great drills out there, I like to do a lot of wrestling, switches, sit outs, Granbys and hip hiests. Monkey rolls are a great one as well.
very nice post man, if this isnt a sticky yet, it should be... ahem, superbeast, ahem.

here's some more stuff:

switch up the partner leg press by using a de la riva hook, then switch sides.

also for the partner leg press, get your partner in the air and extend your legs and hold him there. now, armdrag one of his arms and move to his back while holding him in the air...try to get completely to his back before you let him down...this develops good sensitivity in your feet and core strength to hold him still.

stephen kesting's grappling drills is a great dvd for anyone who can stand that horribly dry commentary.
Frodo said:
Very nice! One question of many: I never learned cartwheel guard passes in any of the places I train (which is quite a bit). However, it seems pretty cool and demoralizing if you can hit it correctly. I saw Ryan Gracie (I think) do it in that match against Renzo. How effective is it? Any tips to pull it off or learn it?

The first person I ever saw do it was Sakuraba. I thought, "Man, that's crazy, only a guy like this could pull it off." It's actually way more common than you think though. For no-gi, it's pretty much a standard guard pass.

Mario Sperry also shows it in the Vale Tudo series.

However you do it, the most important point is that you do a full cartwheel. No half-assing it. If you can't do a cartwheel, start practicing handstands and work on your cartwheels. But your legs need to be up high, or else he'll stop you from getting to north/south. The best way I've seen it done is by Sakuraba. He'll hold both ankles, then suddenly release his grip on one of them. With the ankle he's still holding, he pushes on the leg so that the bottom guy's heel touches his butt. Then he takes his free hand, and while cartwheeling off of the leg he's holding, he puts that free hand on the guy's solar plexus. Cartwheel over, and at the end, you sort of do a round-off, so that you end up in north/south.

Practice makes perfect. That's the best way to learn it.
thanks man, i really owe u one. . .i have been looking for something like this for a long time
shit man.. the more i learn about you the more i think you could kick my ass

since someone brought up cartwheel guard passes. dont you think capoiera would have good synergy with bjj?
OpethDrums said:
since someone brought up cartwheel guard passes. dont you think capoiera would have good synergy with bjj?

Yeah, actually I wrote a thread about Capoeira in the stand-up forum. I bought a book on different exercises for Capoeira conditioning. Once wrestling gets out I'm going to be doing even more of it. The beginning stages of Capoeira are more like Yoga than anything, but they also build strength from weird positions. I'm a huge fan of Capoeira as a cross-training style for MMA.

This is excellent, I bookmarked this about a year ago.
If anybody has anything to add, please do.
thank you for that, great info.
my instructor has us do this drill similiar to your "ground movement", the object is to simulate the cardio you'd put out in a real fight, in a solo exercise. pretty much you put together all these drills back to back for a set amount of time, or until your exhausted:
cartwheels, shots, sprawls, neck bridge and turn to pyramid, then just over your head back into the neck bridge, spider drill, shrimps, etc etc...its quite hard. instead of doing these drills randomly you can do each to the 4 corners of the room then switch to your nect drill.

Thanks for taking the time to share your tips to improve conditioning. As a total rookie in the MMA/MT/BJJ game, I stepped into a cage for the first time ever (it was live sparring!!!) and it is very embarassing to gas while you are trying to help someone prepare for a competition.