Here’s the scenario: You’re curious about training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) for one reason or another. You contact an academy and set up a trial class so you can get on the mats and see what you think about it. Afterwards, the Instructor or Program Manager sits down with you to go over the schedule and membership rates. You may be unsure of how often you're expected to train, or how often you should be training for the best rate of progression. Or, you could be one of those people who are either "All In or All Out". In any case, let me shed some light on starting out in BJJ and optimal training frequency for new students.
The All In/All Out Student
After the staff member goes over the schedule with you, you realize that you’ll only be able to make it to four out of the 16 different classes they offer each week. Seeing as how you can only attend 25% of the classes they offer you make the decision that it’s not worth it to you. As an "All In or All Out" type of person there’s no way you're going to go into this sort of training with anything less than a full commitment on your part. But here’s the problem with your logic: You have no idea what you don’t know about training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It’s called Unconscious Ignorance, and it happens to the best of us.
To begin with, very few people in the world who train BJJ have the luxury of being able to attend every class that their academy offers. At my academy, Iowa City Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, we offer 13 classes per week to Adults as well as 11 Open Mat sessions and one Competition Training Session per week. Nobody has ever attended every session available to them in one week.
The average person doesn’t have the time available to train 25 sessions per week, nor should they. Doing so would increase your chance of injuries and lead to a rapid onset case of Burn Out due to over training.
That’s just looking at the physical aspect. There are two other dimensions not being accounted for by most new students - the mental aspect and their ability to learn and retain complex information that is being taught to them both verbally and visually.
When you first start at a BJJ academy as a new student, you are stepping into another world. You will be doing things you’ve probably never done before, wearing a uniform you’ve probably never worn before, trying to follow etiquette you’re unfamiliar with, and hearing words and terms you’ve probably never heard before. You might as well have been kidnapped, thrown on a plane and dropped off in another part of the world. Needless to say, the odds are you’re going to be completely overwhelmed by all of this and will need some time to let it all sink in and understand it. So go slow at first and let yourself get comfortable with things.
Ultimately, it’s not about how many days per week you come to class. It’s about how much you can retain. With so much else going on at the academy that’s new to you, the actual lesson can seem like just one small wave in a sea of the new and unfamiliar. It might be a while until it’s the only thing that’s new for you in the academy to remember.
The new student who tries to train too much won’t get the time necessary to think deeply about what they’ve learned that week because their mind will be flooded with far too much for them to digest. The tsunami of information that never gets properly digested, understood and retained accumulates in the brain, and unless it can be properly categorized, serves only as cluttered static to block new information from being processed. These students remain scatter-brained for the majority of their short time on the mats and never really understand any one technique at a basic level of competency. This leads to frustration for them, obviously, and when it’s combined with the physical fatigue and injuries they’ve possibly accumulated, it’s little wonder that they no longer see the value in training. They've burned out.
On the other side of this “All In” coin is the “All Out” component. Some of these prospective students won’t have an opportunity to go All In because their schedule doesn’t allow them to. In these cases they figure that if they can’t go All In they just won’t train at all.
What happens in the All Out scenario is a completely missed opportunity for the individual to better themselves at all. In the beginning of a person’s Jiu-Jitsu journey, any opportunity to be on the mats will likely lead to a dramatic increase in their familiarity, competency, understanding, proficiency and confidence in their Jiu-Jitsu. These gains may seem small to those who have yet to start training, but those of us who have spent a few months or more on the mats know that progress made at this stage is happening at an incredible rate.
However, the All Out prospective student is unable to see this version of their future or even understand it. They truly have no idea what they are missing out on. Because they are unwilling to even begin training, they will never achieve the benefits for which they initially sought out Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. They will wake up the next day in their beds the exact same people they were the day before. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Your Best Approach to Beginning Training
I recommend that for the first six months to one year of training that the average person attend two classes per week on average. Some students may be able to handle three days per week quite early on, but two days per week seems to be the best for most people.
Two days of training per week will allow you to focus on learning a small set of moves each class, and then spend time between classes to reflect and think deeply about what you’re learning. I also recommend attending one to two Open Mat sessions per week. I prefer Open Mat sessions over Sparring sessions for students because it gives them the freedom to either practice techniques, do drills or spar. I don’t like to force sparring on new students or have new students neglect an opportunity for deliberate practice for the excitement of sparring.
By the time you reach one year of training you should look to add an extra day to your regular training schedule. By now you’re probably proficient with basic movements (hip escape, forward roll, etc.) and are getting pretty decent at escapes and maybe some submissions. Adding another day is probably the right choice for you at this point. If you’ve been consistently training two days per week you’re probably about a year out from your Blue Belt. Adding another day at this point will really help increase your competency and proficiency. This is where being a student at an academy with a lot of training options in the schedule is great.
As you increase in experience you will be able to add more and more classes to your weekly schedule. You will be very familiar with all things Jiu-Jitsu and you’ll be training a lot smarter - which will hopefully help prevent silly injuries and keep you on the mats.
It's Called Life
Those of us who reach a high level in BJJ are not special or leading a particularly blessed life. We have the same crammed schedules and difficult situations that everyone has. In the 20+ years of my Journey, I've gotten injured, been sick many times, been deployed, gone to school, worked three jobs at once, had friends and family members pass away, moved several times, had relationships start and end, as well as innumerable other commitments and constraints that I had to deal with and work around in order to train. It's just life; and we all have to live it. Some weeks you can't get on the mats. Sometimes you're out for a month or more. Other times your schedule opens up and you're on the mats every day. At times it can be feast or famine. Peaks and Valleys. But, if Jiu-Jitsu is something you want in your life then you'll find a way to get it and keep it. If it's not something you really want, you'll find an excuse as to why you can't start or why you can no longer continue.
The Journey & A Better Version of You
In the end, regardless of how long you’ve been training Jiu-Jitsu - first class or your 500th class, pace yourself. Just try to improve yourself by 1% every time you’re on the mats. Avoid the trap of comparing yourself to other students. Only compare your current self to the person you were the moment before you walked into the academy for your very first time. Because that’s the only comparison that matters. After a year of training twice per week (2 x 48 training weeks per year), you ought to be close to a 100% better version of yourself from a year ago.
Jiu-Jitsu is a journey we undertake in an effort to improve our lives and accomplish our goals. You owe it to yourself to train smart so you can stay the course of this journey and see it through. You can be this current version of you now - a police officer, a banker, a cook, a doctor, a store owner, a venture capitalist, a stay at home mom. Or, you can be you, but with a Blue Belt, a Purple Belt, a Brown Belt, or a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I know which version of myself I prefer.
Good luck to you on your Journey!
Owner & Head Instructor, ICBJJ