“Off the Mats” is a series dedicated to enhancing your BJJ game…off the mats! From strength and conditioning, sports psychology, nutrition, to injury prevention and rehab, we will share ways to improve yourself and your BJJ game from many different aspects of life.
So You Want to Lift?
Contributed by Lou Torres*
There’s no one-size-fits-all exercise for jiu jitsu. Most effective jiu jitsu workouts rely on classical weight-training and conditioning with a specific focus on jiu jitsu needs, depending on the athlete’s sports level. There are a number of options for improving overall strength and conditioning, optimizing your grappling performance. Perhaps that’s where it gets confusing for folks as it requires more precise planning than following general fitness and muscle-gaining routines.
The core principle behind the game of jiu jitsu is enabling the smaller opponent to defeat the larger and stronger athlete by applying the right skills and taking biomechanical advantage as they engage in the fight. This is particularly true when both of the opponents possess similar technical BJJ skills. It would seem the more conditioned athlete whose actual strength and offense/defensive technique should win, but that is not always the case.
Dynamic and unpredictable in nature, this game demands multiple muscle groups to be trained for optimizing strength. Workout choice focuses primarily on the compound moves which engage stabilization. Sets and reps of each exercise vary according to your goals.
To help you figure out where to begin, here’s a basic template:
- Train something “heavy for you” (6-8 reps lower or upper body)
- Pick a pair of upper or lower body lifts and train it for “reps” (12-20 reps)
- Catch a pump and sweat!
This is a really vague description but if you follow that overall theme you’ll be heading in the right direction. Let’s take a look at which muscle groups should be targeted and why?
- Chest, Back, & Shoulders: Upper-body pushing and pulling strength is of prime importance in both gi and no gi game style. Your upper body is responsible for all the major body movements classified as vertical and horizontal pushing and pulling. These exercises play a great role in improving your grip strength as well.
- Quads, Glutes & Hamstrings: Developing strength in your lower body, especially in your hip-hinge and leg extension movements, plays a crucial role for your BJJ performance. A good jiu jitsu guard requires you to push and pull with combined upper and lower body efforts.
- Obliques, Abs & Transverse Abdominis: Having sheer core strength plays a great role in stabilizing you and boosting your game efficiency. It makes you use your strength and power effectively. Adequate core strength is crucially important to pass the guard, maintain the base, and off-base your opponent for setting up offensive sweeps and submissions.
Now that we covered the whys of developing certain muscle groups, here are some specific workouts to maximize your grappling strength. For demonstrations of each exercise, click the title:
Strong & powerful hip joints and muscles go a long way in BJJ. Hips are used during shrimping, passing guard, shooting for takedowns, finishing submissions, bridging, etc. Kettlebell swings are an amazing workout for developing power in the hips. It also teaches how to use the hip muscles by hinging. Kettlebell swings also target your posterior muscles like hamstrings and glutes; they are significantly important for developing strong bridging abilities.
If you had to choose just one exercise for conditioning, strengthening and developing other attributes that would benefit your grappling game, it should be the sled push. This exercise requires better lower body mechanics and trunk stabilization. These are both prime components as you go for single and double-leg takedowns. The sled is also good for keeping you in top shape as it’s an amazing cardio workout. All you are required to do is load yourself with weights and start pushing it back and forth at an intensity which is suitable to your level.
Deadlifts are an amazing exercise that is primarily performed for developing strength in the posterior chain. Your lumbar, hamstrings and glutes are extremely important for all of your physical movements. A strong posterior chain is significantly important for your explosive MMA movements such as shooting for takedowns, knee strikes, hip throws and sprawling as takedown prevention. The deadlift is a core strengthening workout that works well for grapplers who want to build strength and muscle for their entire body.
Have you ever picked up some heavy object and tried walking with it? If not, then go outside and do it right now. While carrying heavy objects doesn’t sound very special or exciting, carries are considered amazing due to the incredible benefits they offer.
There are three basic ways of carrying something with a huge weight: suitcase, bear hug and farmers’ carries. Sandbags and rocks can be great for carrying heavy objects in a bear hug. For the rest of the variations, the kettlebell is a cool choice. These workouts teach core and hip stability. When done properly, carries engage all of the major muscle groups of your body.
Bent over rows are a great back & pulling exercise that work well to improve your posterior chain. When performing this exercise it’s important to not allow the spine to curve or bend. Besides the incredible upper body benefits, barbell bent over rows also positively impact full body stabilization. Barbell bent over rows require adequate strength from your hands to your feet.
MMA fighters benefit a lot from the weighted step-ups for strength development. The strength and endurance gained from this workout transfer to many grappling movements. Your quadriceps and glutes are the prime body movers during this exercise. These secondary muscles help stabilize your body during these movements: adductors (inner thighs) and calf muscles of your following leg.
Dips are among the best workouts that build chest, shoulder muscles, and triceps from a different angle and range of motion compared to pushups or bench press. It’s an amazing workout for developing upper body and push strength. The parallel dips require the body to support itself while lifting the entire body’s weight.
This workout provides absolute strength that every grappler needs. Your goal as a fighter is to develop enough absolute strength so you can fight and develop while improving your combat skill level and overall conditioning.
The benefits of practicing a variation of barbell lunges for the lower body are incredible. Unlike most strengthening exercises, barbell lunge variations are a unilateral workout targeting one leg at a time. As many people have a weak and a stronger side, unilateralism works well for working one side exclusively. This workout helps in developing better coordination and improves muscular imbalance in the limbs.
Doing this will also increase the hip flexor flexibility, which is key for grappling and throwing impactful kicks and punches. Performing lunges puts the body in a position where it isolates and activates the glutes that are used in most martial arts movements. The lunge helps in improving your core stability as well.
Bench press workouts build strength and power. If you want to train yourself with reliability and sheer strength, then bench press should be your go-to option. Its technique is highly important, so make sure you execute it correctly. Bench pressing strains your scapula, shoulder blades, and your rotator cuff if done incorrectly. Practicing it in the proper form is necessary. When considering form, make sure you keep both of your feet planted firmly on the ground, maintain a straight back, and keep your shoulders and glutes flat all the time. This technique will prevent injuries.
Barbell military press, when performed correctly, works exceptionally well for developing strength in your upper body and core. You can also perform seated and standing variations to develop MMA strength. It’s vital to perform this exercise with proper form. You must keep your whole body straight and upright during this workout.
Weighted pull-ups are done mainly for strengthening your upper body suspending your whole body by your arms. This workout increases your punching power and strengthens the back and core. This is a key element for adding power to hips while you throw a punch. Grapplers and strikers also benefit from the increased grip strength developed by this workout, making this an extremely beneficial movement for all.
Barbell squats are extremely effective for developing upper and lower body strength. This variation of squats allows you to extend your hips and force a better technique. It’s easy on your wrists, elbows, and shoulder, while developing a good amount of flexibility.
As with most activities added in order to improve your game, dosage and frequency are a big factor here. Something is better than absolutely nothing, so adding in 2 days that tackle a good part of this list per day (3-4 exercises total) is a great start. In the beginning not much more is needed to grow in strength, endurance, and flexibility.
Have fun and enjoy!
*Lou is owner and head coach at Triumph Strength and Athletics. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Lou is also recognized by the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a Corrective Exercise Specialist and holds many more training certifications.
Since graduating from the Marist University with a Bachelors of Science Degree in Exercise Physiology in 2006, Lou has worked in the fields of Personal Training, and Strength & Conditioning. Working on the youth athlete development side all the way to working with a large variety of clients including men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s led to really fun experiences as a kid within- football, wrestling and baseball. This is pre internet era, folks lol. Nothing else to do.
Lou’s exercise programs are molded from his unique experience as an athlete, strength coach, personal trainer and time as an intern in rehab side.
He has taught using a variety of methods that one can utilize within the gym setting. Adhering to the principal’s/rules that govern how the human system works. He believes everyone should be strong enough, conditioned to what they need it for and essentially always ready for life’s endeavors.