6 Unconventional (And Fun!) Ways to Cross-Train for Jiu-Jitsu, Showcased by BJJ’s Top Athletes

Anyone who’s spent much time at all in the jiu-jitsu world has probably heard about the benefits of cross-training for strength and conditioning. Weightlifting, supplementary cardio work, and mobility exercises are all great ways to improve your jiu-jitsu performance – but not all cross-training has to happen at the gym.

While you probably shouldn’t ditch your barbell and kettlebells to throw yourself into a whole new sport, mixing up your usual workout routine with another athletic hobby from time to time can be a wonderful way to keep your body attuned to new challenges. It’s also an excellent method for making strength and conditioning, dare we say it, fun. Given that jiu-jitsu often attracts practitioners who previously hated exercise, tricking yourself into enjoying other activities that benefit your joint health, kinesthetic awareness, and endurance levels can be a worthy endeavor in and of itself!

To that end, let’s take a look at some favorite off-mat athletic activities that high-level grapplers swear by: 

  1. Rock Climbing
Instagram: @mikeymusumeci

Rock climbing is actually an umbrella term for multiple climbing styles, but the most popular option for jiu-jitsu athletes is probably bouldering. A free climbing discipline that does away with the use of ropes and harnesses, bouldering is particularly good for building freakishly powerful grips. It also has a lot in common with jiu-jitsu as a sport: both combine physical rigor with more cerebral problem-solving, both benefit from physical strength but culturally place an emphasis on technique as king, and both force you to think about weird, niche muscle groups – when, for example, was the last time you mulled over how to build finger strength

Heck, bouldering even has its own version of the heel hook – though this one is thankfully a lot less dangerous to your knee health than the kind you find at jiu-jitsu tournaments!

Multiple-time world champion and first ever ONE Championship submission grappling champ Mikey Musumeci has made no secret of being a huge rock climbing enthusiast, and often posts climbing content to his social media channels.

  1. Aerial Circus 
Photo by Jeff Amendola

While learning circus tricks – especially ten to twenty feet up in the air – sounds intimidating, these days, aerial acrobatics are more accessible to adult hobbyist students than ever before. Commercial circus rigs and aerial studios have found their own niche in the modern fitness industry, offering classes on how to safely perform acrobatics on aerial silks – as popularized by Cirque du Soleil – trapeze, and even a plain old piece of rope. 

Aerial skills, like rock climbing, develop extremely powerful grips, core strength, and active flexibility. Plus, if you weren’t already, you’ll soon be inverting like it’s nothing!

Unity’s high-flying rookie black belt Margot Ciccarelli, who swept several major IBJJF tournaments throughout her color belt career, is a big proponent of cross-training across multiple movement arts, and has practiced multiple circus disciplines, including flying trapeze and the notoriously challenging aerial straps

  1. Pole Dancing 
Instagram: @lilmonsterdemo

Sometimes considered a more risqué cousin discipline to the aerial circus arts, pole dancing may have its roots in sex work, but make no mistake – this is both an art form and a highly demanding athletic discipline in its own right. Like aerial arts, pole dancing classes are now a common staple in boutique fitness, and a great way to work on core and grip strength. 

While UFC fighter and jiu-jitsu aficionado Vanessa Demopoulos has rightfully earned acclaim for pulling off spectacular submission finishes in the cage – like the inverted triangle that put her opponent to sleep at LFA 85 – “‘Lil Monster” is equally famous for her longtime career as both an exotic dancer and competitive pole athlete. She openly credits much of her grappling prowess to the athletic power and body awareness she developed on the pole.

  1. Board Sports
Instagram: @ruotolobrothersjiujitsu

Trying to improve your balance in the standup game? Whether it’s a skateboard, a snowboard, or a surfboard, picking up a board sport will challenge your mastery over your own center of gravity like few other sports on this planet can. Just make sure to take some beginner lessons before trying to catch a wave by yourself, or journeying up those snowy mountains on your own – it’ll save you a lot of grief in the long run!

Kron Gracie, 2013 ADCC champ and son of the legendary Rickson Gracie, wanted to become a professional skateboarder once upon a time, before redirecting his focus to jiu-jitsu and MMA. For those of you who love being on the water and are looking for a little inspiration, twin jiu-jitsu phenoms and beach lovers Kade and Tye Ruotolo speak highly of their shared surfing habit as a great way to build balance for grappling – and to relax between hard training sessions!

  1. Yoga
Instagram: @yogaforbjj

Admittedly, these days, yoga is a pretty “conventional” cross-training supplement for most mainstream athletes, but many agree that the spiritual practice-turned-exercise pairs particularly naturally with grappling sports. After, all there’s a reason why we make so many murder yoga jokes about jiu-jitsu.

Take both your yoga and martial arts practice a step further by experimenting with newer styles like acro yoga, which mashes up more traditional yoga with acrobatics and circus art. Performed between at least two partners as a flow routine, acro yoga incorporates duo balancing sequences that are great for developing your ability to read a jiu-jitsu opponent’s pressure and weight distribution.

Sebastian Brosche – competitive jiu-jitsu black belt, owner of multiple podium finishes at both Mundials and Euros, and the mind behind Yoga for BJJ – credits his yoga practice with helping him recover from the wear and tear that years of judo left on his body. During the early pandemic months in 2020, he taught classes to luminaries of the sport including ADCC Open giant slayer and heel hook maven Lachlan Giles, as well as three-time black belt world champion Gezary Matuda.

  1.  Ballet
YouTube: Great Big Story

Ah, ballet. While classical dance may initially seem to have little in common with submission grappling, a lot of the athletic attributes that create skillful ballerinas also create dangerous grapplers: precise control over highly specific muscle groups, agile movement quality, and perhaps most notably, an ability to appear perfectly serene while enduring tremendous physical strain. That last one is especially handy when you want to keep up a game face before a big tournament match!

Bolshoi Ballet Academy alumnus and current Dallas Conservatory classical training program artistic director George Birkadze famously built a second career as a black belt jiu-jitsu coach and MMA fighter. He has chatted at length about the ways that classical ballet technique and martial arts can inform one another, and once quipped, “All dancers are fighters, and all fighters are dancers.”

What are your favorite ways to cross-train for jiu-jitsu? Let us know!


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