Mike Egley is a world class BJJ black belt, who has placed at the most prestigious tournaments in the world. His Boise based jiu jitsu academy is amazing. He wrote this article on S&C for grappling. Check out more from Mike, and some of my guest posts on his site: www.egleytrainboise.com.
Strength training for Jiu Jitsu
This article will cover key concepts people should consider when putting together a strength and conditioning program for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu / Grappling.
The 5 concepts covered in this article are…
BJJ specific movements – specific movement patterns and target areas any BJJ / grappling athlete should have in their program
Metabolic demands of the Jiu Jitsu athlete – the importance and difference in strength, power, muscular endurance, hypertrophy and speed training for BJJ
Periodization – the importance of forward planning and having specific training goals
Choosing the right exercises – how do you go about deciding what exercises to use
Working with a coach – Coaches are experienced mentors who have already achieved what we want to achieve. Working with an experienced coach like Joe Pascale at Joe to Pro Athlete can help you reach your goals faster and with less distractions.
1. BJJ specific movements
The cornerstone of any good strength and conditioning program is training movement patterns and supplemental exercises that are specific to that particular sport.
First, notice I’m talking about movement patterns and not muscles. For example, we don’t train our biceps and back, we train the pulling motion. Remember you’re training to be a better BJJ fighter, be it a competitor or hobbyist who just wants to be more effective on the mat and protect themselves from injury, NOT to get ‘bigger guns’……although that will likely be a nice side effect.
Second, when I say ‘supplemental exercises’ this relates to areas you should focus on that are not necessarily specific to key movements, although are vital for overall physical health for the Jiu Jitsu / grappling athlete. The neck is a good example. You don’t lead major movement patterns with your neck, though it can take a stress in BJJ, so strengthen it to protect it.
Key movement patterns you want to train:
Rotation of the torso – I don’t think there is a single sport where rotation of the torso is not important. In BJJ it is critical, BJJ is not a sport with linear movement patterns and you twist your body all the time. Also, people talk about moving your hips, which is actually a movement driven by the rotation of your torso on most occasions.
Midsection stability – while closely related to rotation of the torso, torso stability is different. This is the ability to maintain tension and position in your torso as you move, or someone tries to move you. This is CRITICAL in the body’s ability to transfer power, for example, from a planted foot through the torso into the arm as you pull on something, i.e. when you arm drag someone.
Horizontal pushing (upper body) – while we should always focus on shifting our hips etc to move in BJJ, very often you need to push on your opponent with your arms. This is typically done in a horizontal motion (straight out from the chest), as opposed to pushing overhead.
Upper body pulling (with horizontal being preferred) – Similar to upper body pushing, most pulling motions are done from straight in front of your chest, directly towards you, as opposed to pulling from above the head, like you would do in a pull-up. That being said, being able to progressively load the horizontal pulling motion can be difficult, which is why exercises like ‘pull-ups’ are also key in BJJ strength and conditioning.
Leg extension – I am not talking here about leg extension machines you see in gyms. What this means is the ability to extend your leg from a bent position to a straight position, any form of squats being a great example. All the level and direction changes you do while on your feet means this movement is key.
Hip drive – Think of lying on your back and bridging your hips up in the air to escape side control/mount/half guard etc or driving your hips forward when passing, or past the guard to put pressure on your opponent.
Grips – the #1 supplemental exercise for BJJ. Every action in jiu jitsu begins and ends with a grip. Grips are how we connect ourselves and apply leverage to our training partners. Grip strength cannot be understated!
Neck – your neck strength is fundamental to your jiu jitsu. So many positions and techniques require good posture ending at the neck. Many of your partners will attempt to control your neck as it’s one of the best forms of control in jiu jitsu. Train it, strengthen it, protect it.
Straight arm strength – by this I mean the ability to hold your arm straight out in a locked position while bearing weight. Think of all the posting you do with your arms in a straight or near straight position, this can cause real problems in your wrists, elbows and shoulders if the weight suddenly shifts. Strengthen your arms in this position to help protect against these injuries.
Back bridges – this is a combination of a mobility and a strength exercise (see the photo below) and I’ve personally found it to be a great compliment for BJJ training to make your back strong through a full range of motion and balance all of the forward bending movements your body does on and off the mat.
Balance – any variety of balancing exercises, whether on your hands, feet or torso (i.e. movements on a gym ball) will give you much better balance when passing someone’s guard and better special awareness when moving around an opponent and defending sweeps etc.
Feet & ankles – whenever you’re not on your back, all movement is driven to some extent by the feet and given we spend so much time on our backs, this part of the body can be neglected. You don’t need extensive work on the feet, just skipping as part of your warm up or one leg balancing can tackle this area.
2. Metabolic demands of the BJJ athlete
The metabolic demands of your sport means the energy requirements and physiological demands of your sport and then training the appropriate energy systems to meet those demands.
Think 100m versus 400m versus 5,000m distance run.
Now, already I bet you might be thinking “well BJJ can be a combination of all three” and you’d be right, so your training needs to reflect that if you want to be in optimal condition.
Fatigue Makes cowards of us all.
Cardio Fitness – of course, if you get tired because you’re not fit enough, then you’ll be too tired to execute your technique.
Muscular endurance – You may not ‘run out of breath’ per se, although if your arms get too tired because you’re performing constant pulling motions, again you’ll have a reduced ability to contract your muscles and execute technique.
Strength – To be most effective at powerful movements you first need to be able to have sufficient strength to move the required weight. Strength, power and speed go hand in hand. Plus, the stronger you are, the less effort it takes to perform smaller movements.
Power – Sometimes, you need to move your own body or your opponent’s body quickly, this requires power. As a good BJJ fighter, not something you should rely on, although great to have in your arsenal when you need it.
Speed – very closely related to power, although more about how quick your movements are, than how quickly you’re moving a particular weight.
First, let me define periodisation. Periodisation is a planned approach of working towards a training goal, where you divide the allotted time you have to train towards that goal, to focus on various aspects of your training required to reach that goal. The idea being that you reach your peak physical performance at the end of the program, which is then followed by a period of rest or active rest before (where appropriate) starting on a new cycle.
There are two main forms of periodisation:
Linear – where each block, or time period is dedicated predominantly to one focus area, e.g. strength
Non-linear (also called conjugate) – is where the focus of the training is rotated evenly across the time period, changing focus each session. E.g. strength session one, muscular endurance session two, power session three…….then repeat
A very, very simple example to explain both could be someone with 12 weeks to train for a BJJ competition and they want to focus their strength and conditioning on strength, muscular endurance and power.
Linear example – first 4 weeks focus on muscular endurance, second 4 weeks focus on strength, the last 4 weeks focus on power
Non-linear example – Monday focuses on strength, Wednesday muscular endurance and Friday on Power. This pattern is then repeated for 12 weeks
Why is periodisation so important and why should you care about it?
If you remember earlier I talked about not being able to go ‘all out, all of the time’ when it comes to strength and conditioning, for example lifting as heavy as you can, as many reps as you can, every session, every week. Well, maybe some exceptionally gifted people can, although the vast majority of people will just burn out, get injured, become ill or feel exhausted, meaning you can no longer train, or at least not to the quality you would like. You will have reached a state of OVERTRAINING…..something you want to avoid. Periodisation allows you to continually progress while avoiding overtraining.
Through a combination of varied:
Intensity – which is how hard you’re working in each session, typically determined by the load/weight you’re lifting.
Volume – which is how much you’re doing each session and/or week, determined by the number of repetitions, sets and sessions you’re doing.
The key idea (again this is simplified) is; as you progress through your training cycle you increase intensity and decrease volume, so you gradually reach your peak physical performance (or highest intensity) at the end of the cycle, before then tapering off before a competition in the case of a BJJ competitor.
4. Choosing the right exercises
What I’m interested in here is giving the concepts you can use as building blocks to design and re-design your own program time and time again.
What this section will cover is how to choose the right exercises depending on your training goal, e.g. strength, power, etc…….although before we get into the more science based discussion, three things in exercise selection that are often overlooked in developing a program are:
Resource – often the best routine, is the routine you are able to do most consistently. For example, if you live 60 minutes from your nearest gym and all you have at home is a pull-up bar, are you better off with a program that is purely based on bodyweight exercises or a routine with squats, deadlifts etc etc. Take into account how much time you have to work out, how many sessions per week, what equipment you have easily to hand (and know how to use) and other such factors and try to focus on developing a routine that will work with what resource you have available. If you only have 30 minutes twice per week, pick a routine with exercises that give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of movements targeted.
Current training status – this covers two things; 1) your training experience and 2) what your training looks like today, i.e. are you already very active or injured or have just not trained in some time. If you have very little training experience, have been injured or off for a long time, keep it simple and take it slowly, gradual progression is key. Keep the overall work volumes low (less sets) and increase over time.
What do you enjoy – sometimes we all need to do things we don’t enjoy to progress. However, if motivation is a factor for you, then designing a program of exercises you enjoy could mean the difference between you sticking to a program or not. For example, if you absolutely hate bodyweight exercises, then this could be really off putting every time it comes to training. On the flip side, I really enjoy gymnastic based exercises and actively look forward to my strength & conditioning when they are included.
5. Working with a coachCoaches are experienced mentors who have already achieved what we want to achieve. Working with an experienced coach like Joe Pascale at Joe to Pro Athlete can help you reach your goals faster and with less distractions.