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The Strenuous Life Podcast with Stephan Kesting

This is the Stephan Kesting's Grapplearts Radio Podcast where we discuss BJJ, Grappling, MMA, and all manner of martial arts training.

Stephan runs, where he has published many hundreds of martial arts videos, articles and tutorials.

His free guide to learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, A Roadmap for BJJ, has been downloaded more than 10,000 times and has become a foundational text for the art. Click here to download that book for free as well.

Stephan has a lengthy career in martial arts, spanning more than 3 decades.  He has dedicated many years to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and you can find his accessible and practical expertise on all BJJ matters at

A black belt in multiple martial art systems, he brings a range of approaches to self defense, and a critical eye for what works in the street.

Stephan has been featured in Black Belt Magazine, Ultimate Grappling, Tapout Magazine and Ultimate Athlete.

He is also a frequent guest on martial arts related podcasts, including The Fightworks Podcast, Atlantic MMA, Combatives Corner, The Warrior’s Den, The Spartan Underground and many more.

Nov 5, 2016

Whether you're working a full time job, a parent with a couple of kids, or a student juggling a crazy class schedule, almost everyone is really busy these days.  

And if you're also trying to squeeze regular training into that busy schedule, well, things can end up in the ludicrous zone pretty quickly...

I'm no exception: of course I'm running Grapplearts, training in BJJ and trying not to fall too far behind on my conditioning, but I'm also a full time firefighter, have a couple of kids, and - until recently anyway - was responsible for homeschooling those two kids half time.

Anyway, life wearing all those different hats is exciting at best and exhausting at worst!  

Along the way I've picked up some tips for continuing to train and improve in the martial arts when time is super limited that I'd like to share with you...

Everyone is Busy!

Everyone is busy and we all wish we had more time but time is limited. Every day is 24 hours so we get 168 hours a week. That's it.

If we consider the eight or so hours we spend sleeping each night, that leaves just over a hundred hours a week and, if we're at work full time, we lose another half of that, give or take.

That leaves us with 50 or 60 hours a week for whatever else.

Many people squander much of that time watching TV shows like "Dancing With the Stars", "Westworld" or "Game of Thrones" and, while that last one is well worth-watching, it's still safe to say we would all be better off throwing away our TVs and canceling our Netflix subscriptions.

That's one way to waste less time but what are the others?

One thing people do to free up more time each day is to cut back on sleep. We all do it but research shows that, for high-level athletic competition, you need at least 10 hours of sleep each night.

I tried doing this in 2005 and 2006.  I had been invited to compete in the Abu Dhabi Trials but was finding it hard to train in regular classes because there were two young children in the house that I had to help take care of.

My solution was to start getting up at 5 am and train early in the morning with other people in similar time-stressed situations.

This worked fine for a couple of weeks until I sustained a horrific pinched nerve in my neck for the next 6 months there was continuous ice-pick-in-my-shoulder-blade pain that resisted all attempts at rehabilitation.

The bottom line is that the real cause was over-training and under-resting.  I simply couldn't sustain training hard while only sleeping 5 to 6 hours a night.

For most people (other than some freaks among us who can subsist on almost no sleep) once  you start cutting down on your sleep, you start cutting into your ability to recover. And nothing is more horrendous than being over-trained and under-rested because, if you don't sleep enough to recover from your training, you'll eventually get sick or badly injured.

The only other option, of course, is to keep yourself going on a steady stream of stimulants but, while that might work for a while, you'll eventually burn out and crash even worse. This is why doctors don't recommend drinking twelve cups of coffee a day.

As BJJ black belt Marcio Feitosa once told me,

"The first part of training is the sleeping. If you don’t sleep you can’t do anything, unless you are using chemicals and steroids.”"

So what do you do when you're busy and you have to sleep? There are three general categories.

Waste Less Time & Make More Time

The first thing you can do is to make time.

Tossing out your television and/or cancelling your Netflix subscription are two fine ways to do this.

Another thing you can do to make more time is to train outside of regular class times.

Get a friend to join you when no one else is on the mats at your club, or at another club, or on mats you've set up at home. Even if it's just 45-minutes a few times a week... It isn't much but it's enough to do a little bit of drilling and a few minutes of rolling.

It's better than nothing and doing something is always better than doing nothing.

If you can't get keys to your club, or sneak into another club when no one else is around, having a basic home gym could be your best bet.

Initially just a few cheap puzzle mats is enough (or even just a tarp and some stakes).

My first home gym consisted of 9 mats, each a 3'x3' rock hard puzzle mat.

I literally assembled these 9 mats down in my basement-apartment kitchen and ended up destroying several kitchen cupboards in the course of my training.

Was it a perfect training environment?  No, not at all!  But it was better than nothing...

Eventually I built the home gym I had always dreamed of.  It's 400 square feet of Japanese tatami mats on the floor with wrestling mats on the walls.

It took 35 years of training in the martial arts for 35 years before I got my dream dojo, so don't hold out for perfection. Eventually, you can upgrade to building the home gym of your dreams, but for starters, something is better than nothing. 

Once you have your garage gym set up, all you need to do is invite a few people to come train when the time is right for you. If you build it, they will come become there are lots of other people who want to train and don't have a space. And just that simply, you're getting in some extra drilling, training and sparring that, otherwise, you wouldn't have been able to do.

Before we move on, let's touch on something that is a terrible idea...

While setting up a home workout facility is a good idea, getting a training dummy is not. Training dummies are generally a giant waste of money, time, effort and space. I have built 4 of them and they have all ended up in the landfill.

Only about 1% of grapplers who buy a dummy end up using it consistently; the rest of just end up regretting their purchasing decision.

You're much better off having your friends come over than having a giant mannequin laying in the corner to freak out the girls you bring home.

Use Training Time More Efficiently & Effectively

The second way to train when time is super-limited is to use the time you do have more efficiently and effectively.

If you can only train twice a week, what can you do? One idea is to stay focused. Don't lay around on the mat and fall prey to jiu-jitsu gossip or rumors about the UFC. Make every minute of your training count.

When everyone else is chit-chatting, ask someone to help you review a position you've been thinking about. You only have so much time to do jiu-jitsu, so do jiu-jitsu! Leave everything else for later including, if possible, conditioning. You don't need partners or mats to do push ups and burpees at home.

So, when you're on the mats with partners, train in a way that takes advantage of your environment.

A lot of training efficiently comes down to maintaining mental focus. Ten minutes of focused training, working on a specific technique, can be more valuable than half an hour of screwing around. Think through each move and drill it into your body and your mind.

If you focus on what you're doing, you will benefit from your training much more.

Not only does fatigue make cowards of us all, fatigue also means that you learn less.

It's very hard to focus when you're tired. If you're struggling for breath, your brain isn't absorbing any more information.

Also, physically, you're moving more slowly. So you won't get in as many repetitions of a technique as you otherwise would and the repetitions you do get will be less likely to sink in in a beneficial way.

Finally, a fatigued person is less likely to get good positions while sparring, and you can't learn much when you're constantly being held totally immobile under side control.

Bottom line: if your cardio is good, you can keep your attention on what you're doing, which makes you more likely to have success with your technique, which keeps you more "in the game" so you can try out a wider variety of other movements.

If you're tired, you're not going to get as much out of your training session. So, if you can only train twice a week, try to improve your cardio when you're elsewhere, so you can get more out of the few classes you're able to attend. If you're huffing and puffing after the warm-up, you might not be in the best mind-frame to learn anything new.

You might ask, "Well, how do I work on my cardio when I'm not at my jiu-jitsu club?"

Lots of ways!

Some of them are really simple: take the stairs any chance you get, instead of the elevator.  Put a pull-up bar in your office and do a set of pull-ups every hour; your co-workers will look at you strangely, but you'll also get a reputation for being a badass, which isn't worst thing in the world.

Check out Fitness on One Hour a Week of Working Out, and/or John Hackleman's article 11 Short MMA Conditioning Workouts That Take Less Than 11 Minutes Each for additional ideas and inspiration.

Any additional training you do  will help you to develop the necessary cardiovascular level to remain focused in class.

Use Non-Mat Time to Train

Just as it's important to develop your body in your every day life, it's also important to develop your mind.

You need to keep your mind in the game; by doing that you're going to keep on getting better mentally, even when you're off the mat.

One valuable thing you can do is watch instructional videos. Whether it's DVDs, apps for your smartphone, or downloadable video products, you can't help but improve from watching a knowledgeable person share what they've developed.

Look at it this way: if took a person three years to figure something out and then put it into their instructional, even if they're only 33% effective in getting their knowledge across, that's still like moving your technique ahead by about a year.

If you hadn't seen their video, maybe it would've taken you that long to figure this out for yourself (assuming you ever figure it out at all). Instead - boom - it is injected into your brain.

Martial artists in the past never had access to instant digital knowledge but today it's taken for granted.

It's also pretty wild to think that whatever you want to learn about is now out there. Not only that, you can watch it on the bus, or on your lunch break on on a plane.

Even if you're not physically doing it, just by watching it the information will still go into your brain. Of course, eventually, you need to put it into action and physically do it, but there's a huge value to watching it.

And it's not just instructional videos, either...

There's a huge amount of competition footage out there, uploaded and broken down with the minutest details pointed out. You can have the benefit of seeing high-level competitors do their moves again and again, often broken down by other knowledgeable competitors who've taken the time to deconstruct their techniques.

If you can't train as often as you would like, you should watch video as often as you can.

Another potential way of learning, when you're not actually on the mat training, is by reading books.

Some people learn better by looking at pictures and reading descriptions than they do from watching videos. Are you this sort of person? If so, build your library of jiu-jitsu books and keep them handy for those times you're stuck at home, wishing you were on the mats.

Finally, when it comes to training your mind, the best way might be to visualize and mentally problem-solve.

This means you are imagining doing a specific technique on a specific person. In your head, you picture where you hand goes, where your foot goes and how it feels. You go through each and every step involved, beginning to end.

And, while doing this is helpful on its own, it's even better when you put your mind to work finding ways out of tight spots you've been in. Going over something mentally, you can often find a way to improve your position that, at the time, didn't occur to you.


Make the most of your training even when you can't be on the mats as much as you like. Don't cut back on sleep unless you're one of these people who only needs 5 hours a night. In that case, go for it.

Set up an area in your home where you can train with friends at convenient times but don't bother getting a grappling dummy if you plan to have house guests. And help yourself get the most from classes by improving your level of fitness.

Sneak in conditioning whenever you're able, even if it's just 20-minutes of cardio a few times a week, so you're able to hang with teammates who might train more often.

When you're training, remember to stay mentally focused. Even when you're off the mats, think about jiu-jitsu as much as you can to keep your mind from going stale.

Don't watch television (except Game of Thrones) but do watch jiu-jitsu videos as much as you can. If you're more of a bookworm, build up a jiu-jitsu library to thumb through when you're feeling the urge to train, but can't go in.

Whatever you do, don't tell yourself that you're too busy to train as much as you'd like to so there's no sense training at all.

Training is NOT an "all-or-nothing" proposition and having something is better than having nothing. There is value to training, even if you can't do it very much.

No matter what situation you find yourself in, things will eventually change and jiu-jitsu will still be there for you when you're ready to train more often. Until then, just do the best you can.

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