To what degree is cardio/endurance training sports specific? Are there any academic references detailing it?


I recently (a little over a month ago) starting training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). When I was trying to looking something else up, I came over this question here and more than one answer suggested that cardio is highly sports specific. But that seems to contradict this article. It is also at odds with my own very limited experience since my running improved noticeably after I started BJJ.

So, I'm certain there is some degree of cardio being sports specific, but to what degree is it true? Are there academic citations? And if it is highly sports specific, is there anything that would help for those of us that can't make it to the gym as often as we like due to schedule conflicts (single person drills, etc)?

Thank you.

  • And what exactly is "BJJ"? Jul 23, 2013 at 18:59
  • @TonnyMadsen Brazilian Jiu Jutsu. It is a modern martial art focused on grappling that developed out of traditional Jiu Jutsu after migrating through Brazil. I originally posted this in martialarts.stackexchange.com where it made more sense to assume most people would know the abreviation. Jul 23, 2013 at 20:51
  • I used to do Jui Jutsu - some 25 years ago - but I didn't know about BJJ. Do you know of a good description of the differences? Jul 23, 2013 at 21:32
  • It would help if you'd quote important parts from remote sources, if "this article" falls victim to link rot your question will be hard to understand.
    – Baarn
    Jul 24, 2013 at 7:40
  • @TonnyMadsen I am new to BJJ and have never done traditional Jiu Jutsu. But BJJ really focuses on the groundfighting where I think Jiu Jutsu is more rounded. BJJ also focuses heavily on the sporting aspect, at least at my gym. This might help: grapplearts.com/Blog/2012/03/… Jul 24, 2013 at 16:52

2 Answers 2


At the novice stages, all activities can improve general fitness. As one progresses, however, all attributes improve in more activity-specific ways. This is less true of attributes like strength and more true of attributes like cardio.

We have a general cardiovascular capability, which can be measured by activities we are not accustomed to or by VO2MAX. But improving one's cardio becomes a sport-specific project quite early on.

This New York Times article is light on the science, but has the gist correct and references relevant papers:

Each sport uses highly specific muscles and nerves. Using an elliptical cross-trainer may feel as if it is exercising your running muscles, but it is not giving you the same kind of training that running does. Nor does it train the muscles you need for cycling.

“You can maintain your cardiovascular capacity by cross-training, but it is extremely difficult to maintain your performance when you rely on cross-training,” Dr. Tanaka said. “This is because you are violating the principle of the specificity of training.”

To my knowledge, this is fairly well-known in exercise science: an aerobic base is fairly general, but beyond that, cardio is largely activity-specific (especially compared to strength).

  • 1
    I'm a bit confused...doesn't the quote from Dr. Tanaka say that cardio[vascular] training isn't sport-specific?
    – BenCole
    Jul 23, 2013 at 13:18
  • 2
    Cardiovascular fitness by itself is just the capacity of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to working muscles and carry away waste. This can be developed to a good base with any aerobic exercise. What Dave is referring to is sports specific fitness, which has cardiovascular as a component. For example, one of the adaptations in fitness is new blood vessel growth into working muscles. If you do a lower body sport like cycling, the arms aren't getting that adaptation, so if you start swimming, the swimming fitness isn't there even though you may be cardiovascularly fit overall.
    – JohnP
    Jul 23, 2013 at 15:14
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    @BenCole You're right, which is why I posted my comment. I'm using suboptimal internet sources for the moment. Jul 23, 2013 at 15:35
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    Thanks. The NY Times articles linked to the citations I was hoping for and your answer clears it mostly up. To summarize, it seems the thing to do for BJJ when I can't make it to the mats is to lift, and that of course is no substitute for hitting the mats. Jul 23, 2013 at 16:33
  • 1
    @TimothyAWiseman I agree completely. I personally have found use for yoga as a complement to grappling as well, to address mobility issues and find imbalances. Jul 23, 2013 at 16:44

Apart from general fitness which helps to some extent it really is the type of sport and specific effort of that sport. Of course cardio is itself a form of effort different from the effort required in other sports. Here also comes the difference between aerobic and anaerobic effort.

Related to you example with running an BJJ: Running is a cyclic sport and the fitness you gain from it is not like to type in martial arts unless you are alternating the rhythm like inserting sprints in a jogging session.

Striking arts specific effort is not cyclic since you have bursts of explosiveness on attacks and then more relaxed intervals. The effort here is aerobic.

Grappling arts are also not cyclic as you have periods of effort combined with periods of relaxation. Here the effort is different from striking arts since you will not be having the same explosive contractions and you will probably deal with anaerobic effort for instance a period of constant contraction while trying to keep a choke as tight as possible.

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