Breathing: Optimizing Performance For Jiu Jitsu

Published on by Samantha Faulhaber


I recently got this question from a reader:
“Hey, Samantha! I was wondering if you had any advice on nutrition geared towards endurance. I feel as of late that my muscles are building lactic acid way too fast. Usually, our professor will set the match clock for 6 minutes just for the conditioning, but I’m only efficient for two rounds back to back. I’m not getting winded, it’s only muscle exhaustion. Literally, anything helps. Thanks!”

My response:
“Ha. Sort of. Except totally not. My recommendation is to start breathing. Start a dedicated breathing practice to tone down your central nervous system regularly, then do a few rounds per week where your main focus is performing at whatever speed and intensity allows you to keep a calm breathing pattern, preferably through the nose. Then as you get more mindful of it you can up the intensity. Kind of like doing weights gradually but only progressing if your form is good at the lower level. Other than that, stay hydrated throughout the day before you train, and eat healthily lol. I’m not a nutritionist so I can’t really recommend [a nutritional protocol], but I know the higher percentage of my diet is whole foods the better I function.”

My Experience
The main difference between my first and second tournaments was my ability to stay calm. In the first, my hands and forearms completely locked up and I felt like I was dying by the end of the second 6:00 match. In the second tournament, I was still tired but not nearly so drained and my arms functioned much closer to normal capacity. That was a long time ago, probably 2007. When you stay calm, you perform better. You get tired less quickly.

What can you do to stay calm?
Breathe. You’d be surprised how often you aren’t, or at least not breathing well. There are lots of different breathing technique videos on YouTube and maybe you’ll find something that suits you best. Here is a basic guide to something called Maximum Expansive Breathing, or MEB, which I teach in my group mobility classes under the name Kinstretch (, founded by Dr. Andreo Spina. It helps train your diaphragm and focuses your attention inward for a few minutes. Your diaphragm is a large muscle in your core that stretches when you breathe. We’ll strengthen it by controlling the rate and volume of the inhale and exhale and actively expand its range of motion by holding steady at specific times.

Easy way to start:
Get a clock with a second hand or a timer and put it where you can see it. Lie on your back with your knees bent, one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Notice for a few breaths which hand moves more. Just observe for a minute. Then proceed.

1. Max In/Relax Out
Inhale through your nose. Try to inflate your belly as much as you can as you inhale until you can’t inhale any more. Then simply relax to let the air back out. Repeat at least 10x, trying to inflate your belly more each time, which depresses your diaphragm into a nice low balloon over your organs.

On your 11th (or whatever final number you choose) inhale, with your belly as BIG as you can, HOLD your breath and keep your gut inflated under your hand. I usually start people at 30 seconds and see how they feel or you can hold for as long as you can.

What will probably happen: at first you will panic. Don’t worry, your body has plenty of oxygen from those big inhales you just did, and you can’t actually die from holding your breath like this. C’mon, you get choked all the time. This is nothing. Chill and do your best to hold until you can’t hold any more, then let it out. Repeat if you’re up for it, or move onto number 2.

2. Max Out/Relax In
If you thought the first part was weird, this will be much more so. Now try to deflate your belly. Think squeezing out a tube of toothpaste, or trying to reach your navel to your spine. This can be surprisingly difficult for people. Squeeze more out with each exhale, then relax to reinflate your lungs, immediately exhaling again. Give the exhale a few seconds of effort. Repeat 10x.
On the 11th exhale, HOLD. Your diaphragm is now riding high, finding and holding a stretch on the upward track. 15-20 seconds on a first try is a good effort.

"Measure your progress by how much range you get in belly expansion and depletion, the amount of control you have in lengthening the rate of forceful inhale or exhale, and the amount of time you’re able to hold."

3. Max In/Max Out
Seal in your work by using that range of motion you just worked for. Inflate the belly as much as you can, actively drawing air in and down and “blowing up the balloon” under your hand. Then maximally exhale, bringing the navel back into the spine. Repeat 10-20x. Enjoy the oxygen high you probably have now.

Was one side easier for you? Was it harder to get a long expansive inhale or was forcefully exhaling more difficult? Whichever it was, try and drag that side (inhalation/”max in” or exhalation/”max out”) out for as long as you can the next time you practice. See if you can make that portion of the breath last for a steady 5-10 seconds.

Doing this 3x a week will give you great results. Doing it every day will do it faster. It doesn’t take long to make progress. Do more or fewer breaths if you feel like it/have time. Measure your progress by how much range you get in belly expansion and depletion, the amount of control you have in lengthening the rate of forceful inhale or exhale, and the amount of time you’re able to hold. You can also start advancing by trying to feel inflation/deflation through other parts of your body, like the sides and back. The law of specificity still applies here, so once you get the hang of it and have developed some strength, practice in more stressful and demanding positions. Sit in a squat position to mimic approaching open guard. Do it in a bridge. Take a kettlebell or other weight and actually put it on your chest or belly. Do not hurt yourself and start much lower than you think you should. Try MEB while visualizing that you’re training. Try a few conscious breaths during rolling. Notice how different everything feels when you change your body position.

I Just Want to Calm Down/Stress Reduction Breathing
My go-to is a 4/8 or a 5/10 count breath. With your tongue on the roof of your mouth, inhale through your nose for the entirety of a slow four count, then make your exhale last twice as long. Pause for as long as you want at the end of your inhales and exhales. If counting while concentrating is too much trouble for you (I count out loud for these during classes), try a metronome (there are phone apps you can use) or work with a friend, taking turns counting off a few breaths for each other. Several friends of mine love the app Calm. A slow exhale can really help you get into your parasympathetic nervous system and out of fight-or-flight-or-freeze. There. You have a way to calm down any time that no one can really detect.

And thanks to the reader for asking. :)