My high school had one of the best distance runners in the country. He was a state champion Cross Country runner and would have been state champ in track in at least one event (3200m) if it weren’t for some not-so divine intention—an early race trip and fall. He would later become an All-American several times over at UW-Whitewater during which time Fox Sports Wisconsin took notice and did a profile on him. They asked him what his secret was for machine-like endurance. “I don’t know. I just never get tired.”

He and I were running hills in late fall one year, and he muttered something about getting shape for wrestling. In shape? You just ran a 5k in 16 minutes. What the hell are you talking about?

“It’s different,” he said. “I’m not in wrestling shape yet.”

Jiu Jitsu, like wrestling, is one of the best ways to develop functional fitness—a combination of strength, explosion and aerobic threshold that has a laundry list of positives that go beyond the mat. 45 minutes of jiu-jitsu can burn almost 700 calories, which helped me fit into pants that I “outgrew” (read: “out-ate”) just a few months after I started training. Besides fitting into smaller clothes, my strength got better even though I was lifting less. My three-mile pace got faster despite only running once a week. More importantly, I started to enjoy working out again.

Part of the reason Jiu Jitsu is so effective for so many people is the built-in motivation it provides. It’s easy to coast through a workout when there’s no consequence. If you coast through a roll, you’ll get tapped over and over and over again. That reality tends to make makes cross-training—running, lifting, etc.—a lot more intense. Though the treadmill can get painfully dull, it becomes easier when you give it a purpose. Doing five-minute incline intervals at 8 mph doesn’t suck as bad if you’re worried about getting choked.  As a matter of fact, I recommend incorporating the fear of being choked into all running programs. Could you imagine training for a marathon and having to watch out for triangles? Wouldn’t that be exciting?

That’s not to say, however, that Jiu Jitsu is all smiles for your body. Black and blue aren’t just belt colors—you’ll pick up your share of bumps, bruises, stiffness and soreness. Hematoma auris—“Cauliflower Ear”—is a common condition in combat sports. It’s caused when the external portion of the ear suffers a blow and swells up. If the swelling is not managed in short order, it can become permanent. Some people see this as a badge of courage, while others see it as gross (though, I argue, even the best ears still look kind of gross—all bumpy and lumpy). In the 19th century, psychiatrists tried to link cauliflower ear to insanity. They were kind of right.

As with any contact sport, jiu-jitsu carries a risk of skin infections (e.g. ring worm). Neutral Ground, like most jiu-jitsu schools, makes sure its students watch their skin and stay off the mat if something develops (which is infrequent if you take care of your skin). Though standard soap, water and shampoo are great, a lot of grapplers recommend Defense Soap ( which uses natural antifungal ingredients to keep skin healthy.

Even if you don’t think grappling is your thing, Neutral Ground also has a number of fitness classes that are non-contact and plenty of fun. Don’t be surprised when your curiosity gets the better of you, though. If you hang around the barber shop, you’re bound to get a haircut. If you train around the mats, you’re going to have a roll.