How To Increase Your Gas Tank (if you're a Jiu-Jitsu or Combat Athlete)

Photo credit:  Leon Maia

Photo credit: Leon Maia

The number one thing I hear from any jiu jitsu athlete when they're looking for strength and conditioning advice is how to improve their "cardio," or their gas tank. 

In reality, there are any number of factors that affect this (and in order to give you the best answer, I'd need to evaluate you). Any educated answer someone will give you probably will help, but realize it ALL starts with your breathing. There is no silly, exhausting circuit I could put you through, nor rope I could have you swing that will improve your cardio if you can't breathe. 

We all breathe, but we don't all breathe properly or efficiently. Many people will breathe short, "crocodile" breaths through their neck/upper chest, breathe only through their mouth, or worse, aren't breathing until absolutely vital, triggering a panic reflex that many call "the panic breath." This is problematic for many reasons, but chiefly among them is the state you often find yourself in when you're breathing inefficiently is a state of anxiety, panic or "flight."


 A proper breathing practice starts with learning a proper diaphragmatic breath. You can practice this by first trying to inhale and visualize/try to fill your stomach with air. Exhale fully, pushing all air out of your stomach, visualizing and using your Transverse Abdominis and rectus abdominis as the prime movers in your effort (ie: the muscles of the stomach). 

 A progression from here is then trying to breathe through and into your stomach while simultaneously filling your chest with air. When doing so, visualize your rib cage in a true "3D manner," expanding outward from all angles (even through the back) upon inhalation. When exhaling, visualize the same abdominal muscles and be mindful of any additional muscles you may be recruiting. 



Kettlebell Swing

I'm a big fan of the kettlebell swing, because in order to generate the most power, you need a fast, efficient exhalation. The only reason you see sub 150-lbs men and women swing a 32K or higher kettlebell with graceful form, explosive power, and model-like extension and thrust in their hips is because their breath garners so much power. 

You probably know how to kettlebell swing. That's great, keep doing it, but to modify the form and perfect it the way I'm talking about:

  1. Concentrate on exhaling quick and sharply through the mouth, ending in a sharp "hiss" as your hips come to a full extension at the top of the swing. Notice how in the photo above, my mouth is very clearly exhaling, almost like I'm forcefully blowing out a candle. Think of that visual: you're blowing out a candle using the breath you "collected" in your stomach at the top of the swing. 
  2. Get really good at this before continuing to my progression below. Use a lower/moderate weight kettlebell. I recommend a 35 lbs / 16 KG. Once you're efficient at that. Move on to...

Breathing Ladders 

A ladder set can best  be described as an ascending rep scheme that follows a pattern. For example, and for our use, we're counting up to 15 reps, starting with 1 rep on the first set, 2 reps on the second, 3 on the third, etc. After you've completed set 15, you've completed 120 total repetitions. 

"The Breathing Ladder" protocol is where we put our breath efficiency to the test. Between each set, you may only take the amount of breaths that you performed in each set.  So it looks something like this:

1 swing- place KB down- 1 breath
2 swings- place KB down- 2 breaths
3 swings- place KB down- 3 breaths
Etc. until 15 swings/15 breaths 

The breaths can be at any pace, but you cannot take more breaths than reps you performed that set, and they must be deep, diaphragmatic breaths. I like to place my hands on my stomach, near my obliques, to ensure I'm getting the full three dimensional breath. 


If the kettlebell swing is contraindicated for you or not quite your wheelhouse, you can regress it to the hip bridge. This is a great way (and really the true starting/novice move to learn it on) because you'll be breathing on your back, which many find is the best way to learn breathing diaphragmatically.   The protocol is the same otherwise: use the ladder technique. 

I'll get into further progressions from here in later articles, but all the strength coaches out there can certainly see the endless possibilities you can use with advanced athletes and trainees. 

Lastly, I'll close by saying these workouts, especially the diaphragmatic breaths and hip-bridges, don't seem like grueling workouts. They aren't. They weren't designed to be that way. This is essentially retraining your body to do something it should be doing properly, but somewhere it went awry. You'll begin to notice the benefits of these techniques on the mat, when you gas-out less, and when you hear your opponent breathing heavy and hard, but you're calm and relaxed, despite being the victim of their side control. 

Think of your current lung capacity like a powerful V8 engine. Big engines use lots of gas. If you're not breathing, you're not giving that V8 engine any gas. Cars with no gas are useless.

So do you really need to be flailing ropes around until you're blue in the face if you're not breathing? That's actually probably why you're blue in the face.

- Mark

Note:  Because of the demand and interest, I am developing an online course on this very subject. It's available for pre-order now by clicking here or visiting the DiSalvo Performance Academy.

For another great companion to this workout, I highly recommend Steve Maxwell and I's video on Breath Control Workouts and old Russian breathing techniques. You can grab that here