BJJ Pro Tip: Why Drilling Works

Part of the magic behind the Atos team is the emphasis Professor Andre Galvao puts on drilling. If you want to win a major jiu-jitsu event, drilling is a must; hence his motto “Drill to Win.” But how does it actually work? And what’s the best way to drill BJJ techniques? Read on for some valuable insight into one of the most important activities all jiu-jitsu competitors should be doing:

The Science Behind Drilling

As it relates to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, “drilling” refers to the continuous repetition of certain techniques or sets of techniques. When we talk about drilling in layman’s terms, we refer to it as essentially doing a technique enough times to the point in which we’re creating muscle memory. Thus, in the heat of the moment, we won’t have to consciously think about the technique and all of the steps involved… our body simply executes.

But what exactly is going on when we’re “building muscle memory”? According to an article by Oxford University, the term “muscle memory” is actually a misnomer. “Although certain skills… might require the strengthening of certain muscles, the processes that are important for learning and memory of new skills occur mainly in the brain, not in the muscles.” According to research, the brain is capable of three types of memory, each of which is managed by different regions of the brain: declarative memory (memory for facts), episodic (memory for events), and procedural memory (memory for skills). It’s this procedural memory that comes into play when we drill jiu-jitsu techniques.

When we drill, several changes occur within our brain:

  • There’s an increase in the connections in the brain related to hand-eye coordination – This refers to the accuracy and efficiency of your movements, particularly as it relates to where and how you place your hands or feet in relation to your opponent. For example, if you’re working on a passing drill, your goal is to become more precise in where and how you control your opponent’s legs, in order to create or maintain the openings necessary for your pass.
  • There’s an increase in the neurons that control information processing – This refers to our brain’s ability to quickly analyze the things happening in our environment, such as your opponent’s reactions. Take our passing drill again; the better your brain becomes at recognizing how your opponent is trying to retain guard, the faster you will become at responding with an appropriate counter.
  • There’s an increase in the connections within the motor cortex, which controls muscle contraction – This is linked to the speed at which your muscles respond to directions from your brain. In our passing drill, the more repetitions you do, the more connections you are making, allowing information from the brain to be carried to the muscles faster, thereby facilitating quicker and more efficient responses to your opponent’s reactions.

How to Drill Properly

Now that we understand what’s going on in the brain… how do we make the best use of drilling? Contrary to what you might think, there is no single way to drill. In my experience, there are at least four major categories of drilling: singular, sequential, responsive, and exploratory.

  • Singular – Just as it sounds, singular drilling entails doing multiple repetitions of a single technique, over and over again. This type of drilling is great for developing explosive passing (such as a long-step pass or a knee slice) or training your body to immediately hit a slick submission (such as a spinning arm bar or triangle from guard) as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
  • Sequential – But you can’t just drill single techniques and hope that they all fall into place when you roll. Sequential drilling enables you to drill long sequences of techniques, helping you to build smooth transitions from point A to point B. For example, you might drill a guard pull to De la Riva sweep, followed by a knee slice pass to back take, with a cross collar choke to cap it off.
  • Responsive – Responsive drilling adds another layer onto the singular or sequential drilling, and depends on your partner providing various responses during the sequence. Because in live training, your opponent is never going to react the same way every time, responsive drilling allows you to practice certain techniques during varied situations. For example, in the sequence mentioned above, your partner might defend the knee slice, forcing you to modify your pass to accommodate.
  • Exploratory – If you’re like me, the thought of drilling makes you cringe. It’s like having to make your bed; it’s boring and repetitive, but you have to do it. However, you can make it fun… with what I call exploratory drilling. This is the most free-form of the drilling types, and is a close cousin to flow rolling. Like responsive drilling, you want your partner to react to your movements. However, instead of following the same path in the sequence, exploratory drilling allows you to take (or “explore”) alternate pathways. For example, say you want to start with a takedown and finish with a submission. You can explore all the many ways you can do that, whether it begins with a single leg takedown to a smash pass to mount to Ezekiel choke, or osoto gari to side control, followed by knee-on-belly to spinning arm bar.

Drilling is one of the most crucial activities for your growth in jiu-jitsu, and is indispensable for those practitioners who wish to compete.