The power of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a form of exercise and as a weight loss activity
In the four years I’ve been learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu I’ve increased my fitness significantly. I’ve also watched those around me get into better shape and lose weight. This got me thinking about how many calories you actually burn doing BJJ, particularly when sparring.
It turns out this is a tough question to answer because of the many variables in a given sparring round e.g size, game style and skill level. At the time of writing there there’s no scientific research measuring energy expenditure in BJJ like there is for other sports and martial arts like judo and Muay Thai. What we’re left with are estimates.
To come up with an estimate, I used data from a recent research paper by Karsten Øvretveit on the physiological and perceptual responses to Brazilian jiu-jitsu sparring and plugged it into a heart rate-based calorie calculator.
According to my estimate based on these data, 30 minutes of hard sparring in BJJ burns approximately 507 calories, and 60 minutes burns 1015 calories. In Øvretveit’s study, the 30 minutes was comprised of 5 rounds of 6-minutes with 90 second rest periods between them.
Øvretveit’s research was based on 12 male BJJ athletes with:
- An average of 4.6 years of BJJ experience each
- An average weight of 81.2kg (179 lbs) and age of 30.6 years
- Average heart rate during sparring of 164 bpm equivalent to 85% of max heart rate
- Experience ranging from white to brown belt
- An average of 10.3 hours training volume per week
There are also other estimates of how many calories burned in BJJ. According to My Fitness Pal, a 178 lbs (81kg) person doing Brazilian jiu jitsu burns 410 calories in 30 minutes or 820 calories in 60 minutes. It’s not clear if this is sparring only or if it includes drilling and warmups.
Does BJJ burn more or less calories than other martial arts and sports?
If we use our estimated figure above of 507 calories for 30 minutes of hard sparring, we can compare how many calories BJJ burns versus other activities and martial arts:
|Activity (30 mins)||Calories burned|
|Jogging (6 min mile)*||406|
Note: *Other figures are based on My Fitness Pal estimates using 81.2kg for calculations
Does BJJ make you fit? Is it good for weight loss?
I’ve personally lost approximately 2 kg (4.4 lbs) in the four years of doing BJJ, while roughly maintaining strength, and reducing my body fat percentage to approximately 11 – 12%. I’ve also seen heavier training partners lose large amounts of weight after consistently training in BJJ for a number of years and cleaning up their diet.
A systematic review of the physical and physiological profiles of BJJ athletes from 2017 found that they generally had low body fat,~12% for males and 19.3 – 24.2% for females, regardless of whether they were novices or experts.
It also mentioned BJJ athletes need to be in excellent physical condition to meet training and competition demands and require aerobic power, muscular strength, muscular endurance and flexibility.
Another study of 56 competitors in the IBJJF European Open in Lisbon in 2013 found that experienced BJJ athletes had adapted more explosive leg strength and isometric handgrip scores compared to novices.
Interestingly though, while BJJ may be a great workout, it might not turn you into a super-athlete. More research from Karsten Øvretveit on BJJ athletes of various ranks and weights in Norway shows that BJJ might not be the most optimal sport for improving VO2max. VO2max is one of the best indicators of aerobic endurance which is important in a BJJ match.
His research showed that the BJJ athletes he studied had a Vo2 max only 8% higher than the general population, which means they were classified as “recreationally trained”, a moderate result compared to athletes in other sports.
Øvretveit’s conclusion was that BJJ alone might not improve VO2max significantly, and that there might be a “ceiling” effect to how much VO2max improves through BJJ. His other research has shown that a grappler’s VO2max can be improved off the mat with aerobic interval training.
Is BJJ a good workout?
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an excellent workout. The average BJJ class includes calisthenic warm ups, stretching, technique drills and sparring rounds to give a good mixture of mental and physical stimulation. The exact number of sparring rounds will depend on the gym and the timetable, and some gyms will even have separate technique classes and sparring classes.
The research above from Karsten Øvretveit on 12 male BJJ athletes sparring in five 6-minute rounds found the average heart rate to be 164 bpm which was 85% of the athlete’s maximal heart rate!
BJJ includes a mixture of aerobic and anaerobic processes, with lots of low intensity work combined with brief periods of high intensity movements.
According to Healthline, aerobic exercise (e.g running or bike riding) is great for cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance, and anaerobic exercise (weight lifting and sprinting) is great for burning calories and increasing your metabolism.
Like any sport or martial art, BJJ can come with injuries. Studies have found that the most common competition injuries in BJJ are orthopaedic elbow injuries such as sprains.
Research has also shown regular training the most common injury locations include shoulders, knees, hands and fingers, feet and toes, ribcage and more. Our guide to the most common BJJ injuries has all the information on what to expect.
Why it’s difficult to accurately know how many calories are burned in BJJ
As mentioned above, getting an accurate idea of how many calories are burned in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is difficult.
To help find out why, I spoke to Karsten Øvretveit. Karsten is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. He’s also the head of the project Describing and Developing the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Athlete, with a number with a number of published research articles about BJJ.
According to Karsten, there are two reasons why it’s difficult to measure how many calories are burned in BJJ, two of the main ones being:
- The energy requirements in BJJ depend on many independent variables including size, fitness level, skill, and the game style of not only the person being measured but the training partner too.
- Accurate measurements of energy expenditure in full-contact combat sports with methods such as indirect calorimetry is challenging, if not impossible, and while heart rate can currently be measured, it’s only an indication of the possible calories burned, and it needs to be combined with other data to get a more accurate estimate.
Karsten illustrated the difficulty of trying to work out how many calories can be burned in BJJ with a simple example:
“Consider a white belt rolling with a black belt. Even if we could control for key variables such as style, size and fitness, the discrepancy in skill would affect the amount of energy used by both athletes considerably – the black belt would use very little and the white belt would use a lot.”
“To solve this, one could account for skill discrepancies, but since belt color is not necessarily an accurate reflection of skill (there are huge intra-rank variations), you would have to create a new, objective metric of skill that you could control for. And when that is solved, you have to quantify the level of uncertainty that is inherent to BJJ itself, e.g. the numerous ways a match can develop due to factors such as gameplans and randomness.”