This past November marked my greatest athletic accomplishment of my life: Representing Team USA at the FILA World Grappling Championships in Krakow, Poland and taking home the bronze medal.
Afterward, Pavel asked me to write an article on my approach to strength and conditioning for the sport of Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). “Simple enough,” I thought to myself initially.
After some thinking, I realized the scale of the task at hand and the complexity behind dissecting and analyzing the years of cross training schemes. I started to wonder if there really was a way to sum up my approach. It also brought up a critical question: “Should I attribute my success to the combination of the interdisciplinary skills I learned by spending time wrestling and studying judo, sambo, jiu jitsu, and other related grappling arts over the course of twenty-something years or was it due to my lifelong dedication to physical conditioning, specifically strength training?”
Of course, both played a huge role in the accomplishment. But what has distinguished my abilities as an athlete has been my willingness to develop my physical abilities, namely my strength, hand in hand with my technical abilities. This combination has proven to be quite difficult for my adversaries to deal with even at the highest levels of competition.
How I Trained Strength and Conditioning Over the Years
As I began to analyze my tactics for developing strength, I realized the majority of my progress resulted from time mastering a few basic movements and principals. Every time I found a weakness over the years, either in terms of strength or range of motion, I worked on using intelligent and purposeful protocols to balance that weak link into proportion with the rest of my body. Likewise, every time I got an injury, I used the proper (simple) protocols and sufficient recovery time to allow myself to fully heal. Using these protocols increased my sustainable athletic ability, which then prolonged my career enough to make some significant achievements.
I think many athletes, and sometimes even coaches, wrongly believe there is a trade-off between strength and technical ability. I believe this fallacy stems from the “bodybuilders” who enter a random grappling or wrestling tournament and gas out after thirty seconds (it’s more common that you think). Or maybe it’s the grapplers who only show up to practice once or twice a week but spend five days a week in the weight room either pumping up their pecs and biceps or “building core strength.”
Another obstacle that keeps many athletes away from strength training is the false concept that building strength is too time consuming since three to five hours a week is supposedly needed to hit all the major muscle groups (i.e. chest and triceps day, back and biceps day, etc.). The reality is that a regularly practicing jiu jitsu fighter only needs one or two hours of additional strength work to see big improvements in their game.
The final common excuse I hear is the infamous fear of “getting too bulky.” If only people realized how much work (both in terms of heavy weights and equally heavy food) is required to get “bulky” muscles, I think their anxieties would be put to rest.
True strength movements hit the entire body as a unit instead of focusing on “muscle groups” and drastically increase the strength of the hips, which power virtually every movement in BJJ.
The program below is a practical approach to strength training for someone who is interested in supplementing their BJJ game based on a formula I have applied time and time again to prepare myself and others for the toughest of martial arts competitions.
The program is designed around movements I consider essential:
- Hinge – Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Olympic Lifts (advanced athletes only)
- Squat – Barbell/Kettlebell Front Squat, Pistol
- Press –Overhead Press, Handstand Push-up, Bench Press, Push-up
- Pull – (Weighted) Pull-up, Barbell/Kettlebell/Dumbell Row
- Others – Get-up, Grip Work, Abdominal Work, External Rotations, Jump Training
- Finishers – Kettlebell Swings, Kettlebell Snatches, Kettlebell Goblet Squats
Improvement Season Program
This program is appropriate if you have no tournaments scheduled within eight weeks.
- Day 1 – Hinge, Pull, Finisher
- Day 2 – Squat, Push, Finisher
- Joint mobility
- 15 hip hinges
- 10 halos per side
- 10 goblet squats
- 10 push-ups
- 10 explosive sit-ups (mimicking a guard attack sit-up)
- 15 swings
- 1 light get-up per side
Sets, Reps, Load:
- Complete 3-5 sets per movement, depending on time availability.
- You will be cycling your reps over the course of 4 weeks and adding progressively heavier loads.
- For squats/hinges start with 6 reps per set for week 1 and drop 1 rep each week until you are down to 3-5 sets of 3 on week 4. At week 5, start over at 6 reps.
- For pushes/pulls, start with 3-5 sets of 10 reps per movement during week 1 and drop 2 reps each week until you are down to 3-5 sets of 4 during week 4.
- Make sure the load is appropriate relative to the number of reps performed and, of course, never compromise technique. Never “max out” or reach failure.
- Include variety with exercise choices, but stick with the same movement every week for at least one to two full cycles if you are a novice lifter or learning a new variation of one of the movements.
- Be smart and use proper progressions for the more challenging exercises such as pistols and handstand push-ups.
- Avoid overtraining. I take a week off every twelve weeks, but there are various other strategies to avoid overtraining and long plateaus.
Superset in some other movements:
- Get-Ups – Great for shoulder health and active recovery.
- Abdominal Work – Hanging leg raises and bar rotations. That’s it.
- Grip Work – Bodyweight bar hangs, front- loaded barbell hangs, farmers walks, pipe rollers, etc.
- External Rotations – Scarecrows, resistance band and cable external rotations. I always include these on push days.
- Jumps – Vertical jump, broad jumps, or lateral jumps, but never more than 4 reps per set and for advanced athletes only.
Note: Bar rotations are performed by sticking the end of a barbell (usually wrapped in a cloth) into a corner. Hold the other end of the bar with a baseball bat grip. Your top hand should be at the top edge of the end of the barbell and your hips should be as square as possible to the corner. Wind up your hips away from the bar and aggressively bump the bar with your hips to set it in motion. Ride out the kinetic energy of the bar with almost straight arms until the bar is all the way on the other side of your hips. Centrifugal force will keep the bar far away from your body. You will rotate slightly on your feet as you perform this motion. When executed properly, the bar should move with speed and your mid-section should be exhausted at the end of each set, not your shoulders or arms. Never do more than 10 reps per side. Work up to adding a 25 pound plate to the bar.
Rest: 3-5 minutes of active recovery between sets and supersets
Finishers: 10 minutes of classic kettlebell workouts with respectable bell sizes (swing/snatch/goblet squat ladders, pyramids, or intervals)
More Notes: The time commitment here is minimal while the benefits are tremendous. Start very light and have knowledgeable coaches provide constructive criticism to refine your technique to ensure you are building strength and not just getting better at cheating the movement. Focus on the bodyweight varieties if you do not have access to a gym. Reassess your progress every two to three months based on your training journal (and make sure you are thinking “wow, xxx lbs used to feel kinda heavy”).
Conditioning Work: BJJ practice and the finishers following each strength workout should be sufficient to maintain baseline conditioning. Run at a slow pace for at least a half hour no more than one time per week to maintain aerobic conditioning if you are not getting enough conditioning during your BJJ practice.
Bonus Flexibility Work: BJJ rewards a degree of flexibility beyond the average grappling art. Take away the guesswork behind adding substantial flexibility and hop into a yoga class at least once a week. My favorite styles are Ashtanga (a structured series of postures) and Vinyasa (a more varied, free flowing style). You will be amazed with your progress within a few short weeks, given you don’t crank yourself into an injured state by rushing and forcing. If you don’t have time for a class, pop in a beginner DVD and practice for at least a half hour at home. An added bonus of taking yoga is the additional breath control you gain by practicing the ujjayi breathing. I find this method helps me remember to breathe deep enough during competitions.
Competition Season Program
This program is appropriate if you are within eight weeks of a tournament or series of tournaments.
- Day 1 – Hinge, Pull, Finisher
- Day 2 – Squat, Push, Finisher
Sets, Reps, Load:
- After warming up, I recommend doing 2 sets of 6-8 reps for each squat/hinge movement with a relatively light to moderate load.
- For pushes/pulls, I recommend 2 sets of 8-10 with a light/moderate load.
- Include ample variety in exercise choices, but do not try anything brand new within 4 weeks of a big competition.
Rest: 1 minute between sets/supersets
More Notes: Yes, the training split is still exactly the same. There is no need to complicate things. Since the focus during this phase will be more on conditioning, strength workouts should be much briefer (as indicated by only 2 sets per movement). I would recommend including plenty of grip-oriented varieties of common strength movements such as towel or gi grip pull-ups and thick bar deadlifts, and superset in plenty of static holds such as bar hangs and farmers walks. Additionally, superset in some “squeezing strength” drills during your strength workouts or BJJ practices.
Squeezing Strength Drills:
Spend 30 seconds squeezing a foam roller as hard as you can in the following positions:
- Rear naked choke squeeze (left and right side)
- Triangle squeeze (2 foam rollers, left and right side)
- Guillotine/ankle lock squeeze (left and right side)
- Guard squeeze (2 foam rollers)
Finisher: Same, occasionally including some higher intensity protocols such as Tabatas and breathing ladders.
Conditioning Work: On top of more live sparring during BJJ practice and some additional road work, be sure to include at least two short sessions per week designed to push your mental toughness and anaerobic conditioning. This can be accomplished in a multitude of settings and designs, but make sure someone else is there to push you beyond your comfort zone. That said, don’t injure yourself by being reckless.
The Real Secret to Strength for BJJ Fighters
So, there you have it: a nice formula for approaching strength and conditioning with the purpose of enhancing your BJJ game. The biggest question is, “Will you let your ego get in the way of your training?” 99% of athletes do. Be the 1% that is willing to do what’s needed to succeed and continue to push the evolution of the sport.
Do you still need to learn any of those lifts?
A STRONGFIRST COURSE WILL TEACH YOU.