At Lift Lab we have come to train quite a bit of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) competitors. BJJ is a niche sport much like Weightlifting. There are many thoughts out there on better and worse ways to train football players, basketball players, baseball players, etc. I thought I would give you some thoughts as to how we train athletes that come to us in a niche sport, like BJJ.
When first assessing an athlete, no matter who they are, we need to find what they have and what they lack. The goal then is to keep them excelling at what they have, and then get them a bit better at what they don’t have.
So, let’s take a look at what many BJJ athletes need when they come to us.
It’s usually good to look at things from a movement perspective first. If we can find where people are limited from a movement perspective, then we can start to identify how those limitations might be limiting their performance in their sport. To take an outside example, if we see that a pitcher has limited flexion at the shoulder, we can make an educated guess that their performance might be limited on the mound.
So, let’s actually look at Jiu-Jitsu now. In BJJ, there is a lot of time spent moving on the ground. To be an efficient mover on the ground we need to have access to a wide array of movement from our spine. If we have a back that is stiff, we can predict that we might not be very good at making dynamic movements on the ground and off of our back.
So, what can we do to assess and increase movement variability through the spine?
An easy assessment to see how athletes move through their spine is a simple rocking exercise.
We can also use this exercise as a training tool to improve movement variability and increase someone’s ability to flex at their spine. Other ways to do this are by different variations of “core” exercises where the athlete has to hold positions of the spine that they aren’t used to holding or have a hard time holding. Such exercises may include bear crawl holds, bear crawls, and deadbug variations.
If there’s one thing that strength and conditioning coaches agree on across the board in improving athletic performance, it is strength. If we had the chance to develop one quality with an athlete and nothing else, it would be to get them stronger. This holds true with BJJ as well. It is important to point out what we mean by strength though. There’s a difference between lifting weights to increase muscle and lifting weights to get stronger. Increasing muscle mass can help in getting someone stronger, but when we talk about strength, we talk about increasing someone’s ability to create more force. This is the quality we would want to develop if it’s the only one that we could.
Increasing strength can help a BJJ athlete by making it more difficult for someone to take them down, make it easier to take someone else down, and simply establish more dominant control over someone if their skill in BJJ is on par with their opponent. Strength is super important, but I would have a hard time saying someone could out strength an opponent whose skill is more developed.
In developing strength, the compound movements are your biggest bang for your buck. Deadlifts, bench presses, squats variations, and rows. Again, it is important to prescribe exercises based on what the athlete is going to excel at most. That’s where assessing an athlete always comes first.
This might seem obvious, but to compete at a high level in BJJ you need to have a gas tank. Anyone who has wrestled or has done BJJ definitely understands this. You don’t want to be the guy tanked 3 minutes in. From my own experience in wresting, being more exhausted than your opponent is a sure way to not only lose a match, but have an overwhelming sense of suffering during.
Let’s get a bit more specific as to what conditioning may look like when training for BJJ. It is important to note that various forms of “cardio” are not all created equal. You could be a killer distance runner but get fatigued super quick when someone else is grabbing ahold of you the whole time. This is an important factor in many sports much like BJJ. It is always important to have a solid aerobic base, but it is equally if not more important that your muscles possess the ability to create high levels of force over a prolonged period of time. Much like a running back in football wants to be able to make cuts and sprint at the same speeds in the 4th quarter as the 1st quarter, in BJJ you want to be able to pull your opponent around and make transitions just as fast and forceful late in a match as the beginning.
We like to develop this sort of specific capacity in the gym by doing various forms of high-intensity continuous training (HICT). The goal of this type of training is to increase the oxidative component of your more fast twitch muscle fibers (the ones responsible for higher rates of force production). We may have athletes doing step-ups with a weighted vest, sled pushes and pulls, sled rows, etc for 10-15 minutes. The key in this type of training is to take 3-5 second breaks between every short bursts of reps in order to keep the same intensity the entire time in order to develop the quality that you wish.
BJJ is one of those sports that grip gets all the hype. And, it should get at least some hype, because you are always gripping, pulling, and tugging on an opponent, more so when Gi’s are present. So, when training a BJJ athlete it shall be important to train grip. However, I want to make a specific point about training grip. It isn’t all about the forearms. When people think about grip training, they think about the wrists, hands and forearms. Now, those are specific areas that need to be strong, but it is important to note where a lot of pulling originates from, and that’s the back. Having a strong grip goes beyond just training the forearms. An athlete needs a strong upper back to actually be able to do something with their grip. If you can hold on to your opponent all day but can’t do anything to move them, that’s a problem. Having a strong back should increase your ability to actually do something with the grip you have on an opponent.
A simple way we can help strengthen back and grip at the same time is to simply add fat grips to upper back exercises like rows, pull ups, etc. You can also use other tools like towels to increase the concentration on grip. The main focus is to still focus on the upper back strength but add a layer of training that makes the grip a bit more challenging. You can also increase grip strength by doing heavier deadlifts with double overhand grip or with fat bars. This way you’re sort of getting the entire body involved with a grip related activity.
I understand there are many ways to train many athletes, and this is not meant to be a one-size fits all program. You may come across athletes that need more attention to detail in another area. There are always outliers, but we don’t create systems and programs around outliers. We can adapt to outliers, but our focus is on the athletes and people that we are mostly going to see.