Differences in training needs and physical demand between boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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Those who embark on a mixed martial arts journey will need both a stand-up and a ground game to handle various situations, for which the most frequent choices include Boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. There are many differences between them, but the primary one is in striking versus grappling. In Boxing, the objective is to strike without being struck. In BJJ, the goal is to submit and not to be submitted. Of course, this is a rather crude description of two highly sophisticated martial arts, which both are commonly compared to chess (where tactical thinking and strategy are paramount).

While it is questionable whether Boxing is the best choice for MMA, considering its strongly structured nature compared to other stand-up martial arts, such as Krav Maga or Muay Thai, it is nonetheless a common choice for a stand-up component in MMA. Whereas BJJ provides the ground game and the ability to apply more complex and creative moves. Due to the different styles and techniques native to each sport, they have their own physical requirements and impact on the body and mind. We can also identify some similarities that combat athletes in both Boxing and BJJ must share to become effective and successful competitors.

Below, we will expand on these differences and similarities to offer a better understanding of the demands of each sport.

Injuries

Like all sports, BJJ and Boxing have inherent physical risks, and as being combat sports, these risks are not negligible. Therefore, it is important to become familiar with the potential risks and hazards of each sport.

Boxing

Having a long tradition, boxing is a mature sport deeply embedded in sport history and entertainment. Since the main goal is to strike the opponent in the head, it does not come as a surprise that the most commonly injured body region is the head, neck, and face. A 16-year study (1) of injuries to professional Australian boxers, produced by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, notes that “injuries to the eye region (45.8%) and concussion (15.9%) were the most common”. Another study (2), conducted by the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, concluded that soft tissue swelling was the most common injury type. Head injuries, sometimes resulting in brain injury, hematomas, or haemorrhages, can be life-threatening. Indeed, according to a CNN article (3), 1,604 boxers have died between 1890 and 2011, an average of 13 deaths per year.

Besides from the injuries sustained from being punched, punching can also have its own risk. Injuries to the wrist, hand, and shoulder are not uncommon. Ankle sprains can also happen, as athletes often need to quickly and explosively change directions, which can result in a misstep.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ)

Being a close combat martial art that involves full body contact, BJJ is known for its high rate of injuries. In contrast to Boxing, these injuries rarely lead to death, while life-long disabilities are more common. BJJ poses the more risk to the lower extremities than to the head. The conclusions from a study (4) by the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine shared that injuries to the knee were most common of all. It also found that the number of injuries among BJJ athletes was higher, with 2 out of 3 athletes reporting at least one injury within a 3-year period, that led to a minimum of 2-week break from training.

Injuries to the neck, hands, and lower back are also common, along with finger joint injuries resulting from intense gripping. Neck injuries are the most dangerous of all, potentially causing disabilities via nerve tears and organ failure from temporary lack of oxygen during a choke. There is also a risk of bacterial infections, ringworm or staph infections.

Cardiovascular fitness

Both Boxing and BJJ require participants to have a high level of endurance, as they must be able to sustain their energy for extended periods of time. BJJ matches and Boxing bouts (or more casual rolls and spars) can last for many minutes, and fatigue is a common threat to the athlete. The aerobic, anaerobic, and atp-pcr systems all play a role in their ability to sustain energy. They are all important. The aerobic system works when engaged in activities that require lower intensity and longer duration, such as jogging. When there is more intensity but less duration, like sprinting, the anaerobic system operates. While the atp-pcr system will come into play when there is a quick need for intense energy output for a short period of time, for example, going for a knockout in Boxing, or a takedown in BJJ.

Although both sports require explosive bursts of energy, Boxing is the more explosive one. Thus, for boxers is more important to focus more on the anaerobic and atp-pcr systems. BJJ athletes will have to pay more attention to their aerobic system because the fight-rest ratio is significantly higher in BJJ than in other martial arts. Gripping and controlling an opponent requires the ability to maintain a steady intensity for long durations.

Strength

Strength is undoubtedly a crucial attribute for both Boxing and BJJ. Despite the adage ‘technique over strength,’ strength still prevails. Strength can be used as a tool, just like other physical attributes. It has its time and place, though. Because BJJ involves controlling the opponent’s body, whether it’s through pushing, pulling, resisting, or holding, both body mass and muscle strength are major tools. Strength training also provides stability around the joints and tissues, which are commonly under heavy load in BJJ due to the many unnatural positions and the myriad of ways weight is distributed. Understanding body mechanics is crucial to minimise the risk of injury.

In Boxing, strength can also be a technique multiplier, giving more power and the ability to absorb damage. But when compared to BJJ, where the main goal is to manipulate the opponent’s body, strength is not nearly as important. One study (5) has shown that BJJ athletes are stronger than Muay Thai and MMA fighters, supporting that strength requirements are greater in BJJ than in other martial arts. Unlike boxers, it’s also crucial for BJJ athletes to have strong handgrips, especially for those who train or compete wearing gis.

While strength is important for boxers, there are other attributes that are more important, namely: speed, coordination, agility, and balance. Leg strength is crucial for boxers when it comes to strength. In the study mentioned above, Muay Thai fighters showed more lower limb explosive strength. They also scored higher in terms of balance, agility, and anaerobic work output.

Strength vs Hypertrophy

The more muscle mass one has, the more nutrients and oxygen is needed to keep them going. Thus, there comes a point where this will leave the person more susceptible to ‘gassing out’ or feeling fatigued. Rather than adding muscle mass, the goal should be to gain as much strength as possible with the minimum amount of muscle. The arms play a key role in Boxing as the connector of power (the extension point where power transfers out of), not as the generator of power. Put another way, the passenger of the car, not the driver of the car. The power is generated by the lower body and rotating whip. Thus, it is much more important to have fast arms that are capable of delivering punches with speed and snap, as opposed to having strong or big arms.

The Core

For both sports, the core is perhaps the most important muscle group. It connects our lower body to our upper body, with the primary function being stabilized. It is also responsible for flexing, extending, and rotating the torso. A strong core will give athletes of both sports more spinal protection and aid in the ability to perform techniques. Rotating is a key movement in generating power for a punch. Extending is a key movement in bridging off an opponent. Flexing is a key movement in crunching to block a body shot, or doing a simple get-up in BJJ. These are just a few examples of the involvement of the core. It wouldn’t be overdramatic to say that almost all techniques of both sports require or would last aid from core strength.

Conclusion

Boxing and BJJ both utilize the entire body, but since Boxing is a stand-up sport that is more explosive in nature, boxers would be better off with explosive training (plyometrics), and explosive attributes (fast twitch muscles, strong anaerobic and atp-pcr systems) in addition to good balance, speed, and stronger leg muscles.

Although upper body strength is utilized in both Boxing and BJJ, it becomes more important in BJJ due to the increased resistance in grappling. As BJJ athletes work a lot on maintaining positions (holding someone down, keeping them from advancing/passing), which requires the ability to maintain their posture, core training has increased importance for them. Strength and aerobic capacity are also more crucial for BJJ athletes, where they must steadily “grind” to gain positional dominance.


References

(1). Zazryn TR, Finch CF, McCrory PA 16 year study of injuries to professional boxers in the state of Victoria, AustraliaBritish Journal of Sports Medicine 2003;37:321-324.

(2). Mao Y, Zhao D, Li J, Fu W. Incidence Rates and Pathology Types of Boxing-Specific Injuries: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Epidemiology Studies in the 21st Century. Orthop J Sports Med. 2023 Mar 31.

(3) . $ https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/17/sport/boxing-deaths-patrick-day-spt-intl-trnd$

(4). Hinz M, Kleim BD, Berthold DP, Geyer S, Lambert C, Imhoff AB, Mehl J. Injury Patterns, Risk Factors, and Return to Sport in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: A Cross-sectional Survey of 1140 Athletes. Orthop J Sports Med. 2021 Dec 20

(5) Wąsacz, Wojciech, Łukasz Rydzik, Ibrahim Ouergui, Agnieszka Koteja, Dorota Ambroży, Tadeusz Ambroży, Pavel Ruzbarsky, and Marian Rzepko. 2022. “Comparison of the Physical Fitness Profile of Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Athletes with Reference to Training Experience” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19, no. 14: 8451. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19148451

About the author

J. Amor

A writer who has a strong passion for martial arts and human mind-body-spirit optimization, with a decade-long mixed training history.