What Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Olympic Weightlifting Have in Common
"Justin, are pull-ups good for Weightlifting?" Someone asked me this at the gym the other day. At first, I wasn't quite sure how to answer. On one hand, yes, of course. Getting a bigger and stronger upper back will of course help your Weightlifting ability. However, on the other hand, I thought, the only thing that is going to get you better at Weightlifting is more Weightlifting. So, don't be too concerned wasting your time over doing the pull ups.
It has to be some sort of bias of the human brain that makes us want to focus on the things that don't matter in order to avoid the things that do matter, because we don't want to do them. You could give someone the best advice in the world, tell them an exact plan they need to follow to achieve their goals, and they will find a way to focus on the unimportant stuff. I think this is mainly because the stuff that we know we need to do becomes mundane and boring so we start to focus on other things in order to add some variety and spice back into our training routine.
This post isn't about the next best scientifically researched strength and conditioning program, or the "top 5 exercises to get you strong." This is simply a post about skill development. Which is something Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Weightlifting have in common.
I think it is in our nature as strength and conditioning coaches to place a bit too much value on strength training and not enough value on sport play. I think this is simply because most of us are meatheads, most of us saw a bunch of self-improvement from strength training, and in a way, our job is to get people strong. But, I think this way of thinking can lead us to become ineffective at our job.
If our job is to develop athletes to help them improve performance in their sport, we have to remember that at the end of the day, they are sport athletes and not strength athletes. They want to get better at their sport. One of those most fundamental principles in skill development is that whatever it is you want to get better at, you have to do that thing a lot. Like, A LOT. You can never replace taking a million swings to get better at hitting a baseball. Or, throwing a million routes in a game like simulation to be a better quarterback. You can improve weight room numbers all day, but if you aren't specifically practicing your skill in a deep and meaningful way, don't plan on getting better at your sport.
This is where as strength coaches we have to focus on how we can prepare an athlete for the demands of the sport. How we can develop qualities that are likely to make them better but not take away from the skills of their sport. It might be wise to push heavy numbers on a back squat for an offensive lineman, because a lineman doesn't want to get moved. They need to be big and strong and not be able to turn, because if they get turned a defensive lineman is behind them sacking the quarterback. The same methods might not be wise for a receiver who needs to be able to move more freely. A receiver needs to be fast and powerful and make a cut on a dime. Heavy back squatting all the time may limit this. These are the sort of conversations we have to have with ourselves that will influence our programming. What adaptations can we chase that will have no negative consequences for an athlete in their sport.
I know the title of the article specifically mentions Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Olympic Weightlifting and I have yet to really mention either. The point is, that both sports, much like most others are heavily dependent on skill acquisition. You may be strong and have a good wrestling background and be able to beat a bunch of white belts when you first start Jiu-Jitsu, but a brown belt will beat you 10x/10. Much like in Weightlifting where you may have a good athletic background, can jump high, are pretty strong, and this will help make you a better Weightlifter than most other beginners, you aren't going to snatch 120kg+ unless you have years of specific Weightlifting practice at your disposal.
There are certain qualities that will set you up for success in certain sports, but at the end of the day, practicing the sport A LOT is what is ultimately going to make you better. Alabama just won the College Football National Championship and there is a picture of their star quarterback, Mac Jones, after the game with his shirt off. He has the epitome of the "dad bod." A bunch of coaches committed on it saying how it was a body of "peak performance." In reality, they aren't wrong. Mac Jones can throw the football damn well. Sure, a few extra pounds of muscle and less fat likely won't hurt, but most of his time was spent getting better at football, and that is why he was third in the final Heisman standings.
As strength coaches we need to always keep this fact in mind. We can't get lost in "strength is never a weakness," and need to prepare athletes for the skills of their sport. Ultimately, our influence isn't as great as we may have been told. We certainly can make an impact, but strength training should never be a substitute for sport training. They can both work very well when used synergistically in the appropriate way, and it is our job as strength coaches to find the right dosage and recipe for strength and conditioning training.