Recreational BJJ and Strength: What’s Missing?
5 minutes that seems like eternity. Silence is all you hear in a room full of warriors, fighting for position. The feeling of a wet blanket stifling your breath while taunting your lack of oxygen. Being bent, broken, dragged and thrown. Just to have it happen all over again. Round after round. Day after day.
Now, for most of us this sounds like hell. Yet, for an ever growing number of Americans this is the idea of a fun Friday night. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has taken over the Martial Arts world in America due to it’s overwhelming effectiveness and it’s reward of technique over strength and size.
I have many friends who train regularly in BJJ and other grappling arts. I myself train on and off (though admittedly it’s been more off as my business has been a priority this past year). One thing that I notice among both recreational and competitive combat athletes is an inconsistent view of strength training and it’s role in the total development of a fighter.
A little history
In the old days of boxing, weight training was shunned for fear that it would create a body that was slow and lumbering. As combat sports advanced, the need for a dedicated strength portion of training would become more evident. When the UFC “resurfaced” with rules and weight classes strength took on a new form. A huge influx of elite wrestlers started to excel. Fighters who had been cutting weight for matches since their teen years were now maximizing their advantage by being significantly bigger come fight time than many of their opponents. Being technically proficient was still the most important aspect of a fighter’s game but now strength became another skill to employ.
Strength training for BJJ athletes (I will use BJJ to cover all grappling since many competitions don’t specify) is a bit more difficult than for my more genpop clients. For one, the majority of their free time should be spent in sport specific prep, ie training BJJ. If this client has a stressful job, family, and any external obligations this definitely starts to cut into any accessible time for extra training.
The other problem is recovery. BJJ is a very demanding sport both in contact (throws, and takedowns) and muscular fatigue (try flexing your bicep for 3 minutes straight and you will see what I mean). Which both diminish your recovery. Recovery is often referred to as a cup. It starts off full. Job, family, training, each take a little sip out of the cup. If you are training BJJ 5x/ week, lifting 5x/ week, working 50-60 hours/ week, and dealing with relationships, kids and things get pretty tough. Once that cup gets empty you just have to wait for it to fill itself back up.
The biggest issue I see with most BJJ strength programs is their insistence in making every strength session a conditioning session. Unless I am dealing with a very high level BJJ athlete (whose technique is so good that he/she doesn’t need to use athleticism in training) most of them are getting an inordinate amount of conditioning work just in their sport practice. If do think some additional conditioning is warranted but I would put it in the form of low intensity road work. Something that will in fact aid in recovery as opposed to taking away from it. Let the weight room time be focused on getting stronger.
A lot of BJJ athletes eschew a barbell in favor of kettlebells. While I embrace the barbell and it’s role in creating really strong people, I will concede that it is not a necessity in the instance of someone whose primary goal is sport performance and not absolute strength.
A missing component of many BJJ strength programs is strongman inspired movements. Strongman requires lifting extremely heavy odd objects with the athlete’s body in disadvantaged positions for leverage. Sound familiar?
Incorporating Strongman lifts into your BJJ strength program is threefold.
So a sample program for a BJJ athlete looking to increase their real world strength on the mats might look like this: (I think 2x/ week of strength training is ample for someone who is training BJJ 4-6x/ week. If you wish to increase training to 3x/ week I suggest rotating Days 1/2/1 M/W/F and the next week would be 2/1/2 M/W/F.)
Day 1: Cycle through each exercise in succession with ample rest between (:45-:60)
Heavy Sandbag Carry for max distance x3
Sled Push 3×100’
Day 2: Cycle through each exercise in succession with ample rest in between (:45-:60)
TGU 3×4 each side AHAP
Sandbag Squats x8 AHAP
Sandbag over shoulder Max reps in :60 x3
If you notice, I tried to keep this as low on required equipment as possible. Kettlebells take up little room, are very versatile, and portable. Sandbags are easy to make (although I suggest buying a quality one made for durability. I like the ones from Rogue and also Cerberus) and cheap. A sled is a great investment and there are ones that can easily fit in the trunk of your car. If you don’t have access to a sled, have a buddy steer his car in neutral and push it around a parking lot.
Give this a try and see how your grappling game improves.