Two women playing guard

Is Jiu Jitsu Hard? (My Experience)

Are you interested in trying out a new hobby or developing some self defense skills and wondering if Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is hard to learn? In this article I’ll do my best to give you a thorough answer from my perspective as a woman who has been a training BJJ for about five years.

Exactly What Do You Mean by “Hard”?

In talking about how hard is Jiu Jitsu, first we have to discuss what we mean by “hard.” Here are some more specific ways to think about the question:

  • Is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu physically demanding?
  • How intense are the classes?
  • Is Jiu Jitsu emotionally difficult?
  • Does one need to be athletically inclined to succeed at Jiu Jitsu?
  • Does Jiu Jitsu require physical strength?
  • Is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Hard to Learn?
  • Are the techniques complicated or difficult to perform?
  • How long does it take to get good at Jiu Jitsu?

This article will seek to answer all of these questions and more.

Do You Need to Be Athletic In Order to Do Jiu Jitsu?

If there ever was proof that you don’t need to have an athletic background in order to become skilled at Jiu Jitsu, it’s me. Growing up, I was the kind of kid who would rather reading a book than playing sports, and there was nothing I hated more than being forced to run or participate in team sports in P.E. class. Having my lack of ability to do things that seemed to come naturally to everyone else like touching my toes or batting a baseball put on public display was a type of micro trauma that I still suffer from to this day.

As an adult, I discovered that 1) I am actually capable of learning to do physical things provided I am given a type of instruction that agrees with my learning style (Hint: “Just watch me” is not how I learn), and 2) I prefer individual sports to team sports, because the only person I’m trying to be better than is my former self.

Me at age 24, never having done much of anything athletic.
Me at age 38, much more confident in my capabilities.

I’m not saying I’m the best at Jiu Jitsu–far from it–but I will say that five years of consistent training has resulted in tangible skills. At this point, as a new purple belt, I can pretty easily tap out most untrained people who are my size or smaller, and I often tap out untrained guys who are bigger than me. That’s something 13-year-old me would have never dreamed of being able to do.

The people who fall in love with and even excel at Jiu Jitsu come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, and a wide range of athletic ability, and the vast majority of the people I know who do Jiu Jitsu had no prior experience in martial arts or grappling when they started their training.

Do You Need to be Strong to Do Jiu Jitsu?

One of the cool things about Jiu Jitsu is how it teaches you to use principles of leverage instead of relying on strength to outmatch an opponent. This is great news for people like me who would never win if it depended on strength! I’ve had very strong men comment on how “strong” I am because they are trying to use their muscles to manipulate my body and are unable to do so because I’ve positioned myself in such a way that they’re pushing against the force of my entire body in opposition to the ground, without having to use much energy at all.

An untrained person who tries to rely on strength and size alone can actually put themselves at a disadvantage when they tire out quickly while I’ve been conserving my energy. It can also take strong people of all sizes longer to develop good technique because they can’t easily see when they are “cheating” by relying on their strength, whereas I get the immediate feedback of knowing when I’m doing a technique incorrectly because it won’t work for me if I try to use muscle alone.

I won’t lie and tell you that bigger, stronger, people don’t still have some advantage, because they do, especially if they are also trained in Jiu Jitsu. But you definitely stand a better chance as a smaller person if you know Jiu Jitsu than if you know none at all!

Naturally Athletic People May Be More Likely To Feel That Jiu Jitsu is Hard.

I’ve known quite a few athletically gifted people who became frustrated when they started training Jiu Jitsu because unlike every other sport they had ever tried, Jiu Jitsu was not something they could pick up quickly and succeed at effortlessly. Jiu Jitsu is a sport where you may go months feeling as if you’re making zero progress before things finally begin to click, and while size and strength can be an advantage, you can’t rely on them alone and having those advantages can actually hold you back from recognizing areas where your technical ability is lacking.

Is Jiu Jitsu Hard to Learn?

A huge part of Jiu Jitsu’s appeal comes from the fact it’s very much a mental game, requiring strategy creativity in addition to physical skill. Training your body to execute the moves is just step one. The hard part is being able to develop a sense of the right move to do when, beyond that, to be able to set up opportunities to do the techniques that will allow you improve your position, control, and eventually submit your opponent.

As many Jiu Jitsu practitioners like to say, it’s a bit like physical chess, and that’s precisely makes it so fun for someone who enjoys an intellectual challenge. I can’t imagine a better workout than one that allows me to use my brain to outwit and physically dominate someone who is bigger and stronger than me! Because Jiu Jitsu requires so much active thinking and creative problem solving, it’s easy to forget how hard you’re working physically. Time passes quickly and before you know it class is over and you’re covered with sweat and feeling great.

Ashley with sweaty hair after Jiu Jitsu class
Here’s a picture of me after a full hour of rolling at a Saturday Morning Open Mat. I had a blast and felt great! I can assure you I would not have survived the same amount of time running or doing cardio at a fitness club.

Being able to apply basic Jiu Jitsu techniques is just the beginning, and years into your training you’ll still be uncovering new layers to refine and perfect the fundamental techniques in addition to learning new ones. It can be a lifelong journey, and any black belt will tell you there’s still always more for them to learn.

But there are are also milestones along the way. After 2-3 years of training, you’ll still have days when you feel like you completely suck and wonder if it ever gets better, but then you’ll tap out some new white belt after they make a newbie mistake and realize how far you’ve came.

To sum up: Yes, Jiu Jitsu is very complex and takes many years (decades, even) to truly master. But to many of us, that’s what makes it appealing.

How Physically Demanding Are Jiu Jitsu Classes?

So you know now that it’s possible for anyone to learn Jiu Jitsu, but how hard is a Jiu Jitsu class, really? Are you going to be able to make it to the end of the class or will you pass out during warm-ups? To this my answer is, “It depends.”

It depends on the Jiu Jitsu School

From what I understand, back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, the typical Jiu Jitsu class lasted around 2 hours, took place in an unheated and unairconditioned facility such as a garage or warehouse, began with 30 minutes or so of cardio so intense that you might throw up, and ended with an hour of rolling / sparring. There’s probably a reason that the sport wasn’t very popular with women back then, and that most gym owners had to work a separate full-time job in order to keep the lights on.

To this day, there are some Jiu Jitsu academies that still run classes in the more traditional way. Their students are probably very tough and win all kinds of competitions. But fortunately for me, many black belts in Jiu Jitsu have realized that there is a business opportunity in teaching Jiu Jitsu to “normal” people who want to enjoy a physical hobby and learn self-defense but don’t necessarily want to become a world-class level athlete. So I would say that the super intense, go-until-you-puke-and-get-yelled-at-if-you-quit type classes are not the majority of Jiu Jitsu classes, if they still exist at all.

I’ve now trained at a total of 8 different Jiu Jitsu schools (and counting!) and none of them were too intense for me. I did attend one class that was unairconditioned in the middle of summer when it was over 100 degrees outside, but this class was actually one of the most laid-back and chill classes I’ve ever been to: it began with zero warmup, there was no pressure to roll unless you wanted to, and no one would have had a problem with me stepping off the mat to get a drink of water.

The hardest class I’ve attended so far was an intermediate level class at Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City, but I felt invigorated by the challenge and proud of myself for being able to keep up. Additionally, a white belt level women’s class I attended at the same school wasn’t physically demanding at all.

Ashley and Josiah at Renzo NYC
Me and my husband Josiah after finishing the Intermediate class we attended at the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City

Most of the BJJ classes I’ve attended started with 5-10 minutes of light cardio followed by learning and drilling technique with a partner and ending with 15-30 minutes of optional rolling. If you’re not in the habit of exercising, it will take a few weeks to work up to this level of activity, but it’s nothing someone of average health can’t manage.

If you are overweight or live a sedentary lifestyle, Jiu Jitsu will require more work but it’s one of the most fun ways I can think of to lose weight and get in shape. I’ve now known several people who ended up losing 50 pounds or more after they started doing Jiu Jitsu, and all of them feel that Jiu Jitsu gave years of their life back would agree that trying a class was one of the best decisions they ever made.

It Depends on Your Own Level of Intensity

Most brand new white belts actually do end up feeling like Jiu Jitsu is an extremely hard workout after their first few classes, but the reason for this is not because Jiu Jitsu is hard but because they are working so hard…much harder than they need to.

Since they don’t yet know any technique, white belts typically go as fast and hard as they can the full force of their strength any time they roll (which is actually very dangerous for both them and their training partners, and why some schools don’t allow white belts to roll until after they’ve been training for several months). If you’re using your muscles explosively at an intense pace over a period of 20 or 30 minutes you will burn out.

But once you learn to breathe, relax, and conserve energy, you realize this level of intensity is not efficient Jiu Jitsu. In fact, you may notice the upper level belts you’re rolling haven’t even broken a sweat, and I promise it’s not because their cardio is so much better than yours!

It’s Always Okay to Listen to Your Body and Go at Your Own Pace.

This is something I feel very strongly about. If you end up at a Jiu Jitsu class that is more intense than you’re comfortable with, it’s always okay to sit out a roll or step off the mat and watch from the sidelines if you feel you need to, and anyone who would make you feel otherwise is not worth your respect.

Unless you are training for a World Championship and have willingly agreed to train under a coach who will push you to the level of an international athlete, there’s no reason to allow someone to make you feel as if you don’t have the right to decide what’s best for you and your body. Of course you won’t get very far if you allow yourself to make excuses for laziness, but it’s also not lazy to refuse to push past your actual limits. If anything, pacing yourself is what will allow you to keep coming back day after day instead of getting injured or burning out.

Jiu Jitsu Can Be Emotionally Difficult.

One aspect of how hard Jiu Jitsu is that can be easy to underestimate is the emotional component. It’s not uncommon for scars from old traumas and less-than-desirable character traits that you are good at suppressing in your day-to-day life to show up on the mats.

Dealing with unexpected and unpleasant emotions can be tough, but depending on how you choose to respond, Jiu Jitsu can give you the opportunity to work through old issues to break harmful patterns, ultimately making you happier and potentially improving your relationships. That’s why a lot of people lovingly refer to Jiu Jitsu as “therapy.”

Jiu Jitsu is for Anyone, but Not for Everyone.

My instructor has said, “Jiu Jitsu is for anyone, but it’s not for everyone.” What he means is that if you want to learn Jiu Jitsu, you 100% can, regardless of your age, size, gender, or current ability level. However, not everyone has the mental fortitude to commit to something long term and stick it out even when it’s difficult. And if you don’t commit to train consistently over a period of time, you’ll never move past the beginner stage.

For most people, three days per week is the minimum amount of time to see progress, and on average it takes at least two years of training at that level of consistency to earn a blue belt, which signifies that you’ve learned the basics. Some people who can’t make it to a class more than once or twice per week supplement their training with solo drills and study at home. (It helps if you live with a willing training partner, but you can also use a grappling dummy for home practice.)

I do have one friend who has been training twice per week very consistently for the past four years, and she is a very solid intermediate level blue belt. She is the only person I have every known to stick with training just twice per week long enough to see measurable progress.

In addition to the time commitment, Jiu Jitsu also requires what my instructor calls “grit”. This is somewhat of an intangible quality, but I would describe it as the fire within a person that makes them respond to struggle by becoming even more determined to succeed. For me it means when someone taps me with a really great submission, instead of feeling defeated I feel impressed and inspired to someday be that good. For others, it might mean pushing just a little past the point when you feel like you’ve got nothing left to give, showing up to watch from the sidelines while recovering from an injury, or continuing to show up even though you’re the smallest person in the class.

Anyone can choose to do that, but not everyone will.

Even A Basic Level of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is Useful.

It’s impossible to go from a complete beginner to good at Jiu Jitsu in just six months, no matter how strong or athletic you may be. However, you don’t have to do Jiu Jitsu for a decade in order to benefit from it.

It’s hard for me to imagine wanting to quit at this point, but I do get it, because I’ve left other hobbies. For example, my husband and I used to go to a rock climbing gym multiple nights per week. I still love rock climbing, but can rarely find the time to go.

Even if you only end up doing Jiu Jitsu for a year or two, there are still so many benefits to any amount of training, including a community, a way to exercise consistently, and self-defense skills that could save your life.

If you’re considering it at all, I would encourage you to go ahead and give it a try! If someone like me can do it, so can you, and who knows, it might end up changing your life!

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