Our good friend and cracking Personal Trainer, Dave (Foundations Performance and Training) put together an amazing article for us, based on what S&C you should be doing to compliment your BJJ. The advice was based on us asking if we trained 3 x a week in BJJ, and had the time to lift maybe twice a week, what are our best options, and he certainly delivered the goods. Read on friends!
Strength training leaving you too tired to roll effectively?
You train hard on the mats. You know strength training is good for you and that it will help to keep you on the mats by making you more robust. You even know your front squats from your back squats and your 5/3/1 from your Westside. But, there’s a problem: you still can’t work out why some of the classic exercises leave you feeling like you spent an entire open mat getting ragdolled by the competition team.
The reason for this is that most of the popular programmes you find online are designed for very specific groups of people: olympic weightlifters, bodybuilders, powerlifters and crossfitters. Think Starting Strength, 5/3/1, 5x5, Westside for Skinny Bastards, and so on. If your sport doesn’t involve a barbell or a posing pouch, then you’re often shit out of luck.
This is a huge problem for grapplers because these programmes assume that lifting is the main event in your life. This means they usually bang on about certain exercises being a “must have” or “king of the weight room”. However, you need your strength training to be the thing that keeps you on the mats, not so stiff and tired that your mat sessions suck, or you skip some altogether.
The Fatigue to Stimulus Ratio
This happens because all the activities you do have a fatigue to stimulus ratio. You adapt to stimulus, it makes you stronger or quicker or more robust. Fatigue can lower the quality of your training or even keep you off the mats. Put simply: stimulus = good, too much fatigue = bad.
“How the hell does this help me choose what exercises I should be doing?” I hear you cry. Well, you want to choose exercises that give you a lot of stimulus without too much fatigue. This will mean you get those sweet, sweet adaptations without being too tired to use them on the mats.
There’s a simple classification system that I use for what exercises sessions should include that I adapted from the great Dan John:
So, as long as you’re hitting all of those across your lifting sessions, you’re good to go.
But, what BJJ specific exercises should I include?
The number one exercise most of the classic programmes include is the barbell back squat. To give them their dues, back squats can be loaded heavy, and that can give you a lot of stimulus. Nevertheless, I don’t really like relying on this as the main squatting movement for grapplers for a few reasons. Grapplers spend a hell of a lot of time with shoulders shrugged, upper back rounded and hands up close to their necks in a ‘defensive’ posture. Added to that, a lot of grapplers have tight shoulders that can make getting the bar into a solid position on your back a nightmare or an easily irritated low back that puts you off squatting full stop. Secondly, they’ve got a relatively high fatigue cost because there’s more shear force acting on the spine as well as being able to go heavier on them.
Anterior loaded squats, like goblet squats, zercher squats and front squats, solve a lot of these problems. They get you out of the rounded position, allow you to stay upright and keep the load where you want it: in the legs. To use a phrase that can sound ridiculous: you get a squattier squat. They’re also a little easier to recover from than back squats, due to less shear force acting on the spine, and that means more time on the mats. Better still, it’s much easier to perform split squats really well with a zercher or front rack position than with the bar on your back. Single leg work is well worth including and it can be loaded heavy once you’re confident enough to do so. Finally, a good front loaded squat can often transfer to your back squat but I’ve found it’s rare that this works the other way around.
Deadlifts are another exercise that the internet loves to promote, and with good reason. Like back squats, they give you a great level of stimulus, but the fatigue cost is high. Personally, nothing trashes me like heavy conventional deadlifts and I’ve noticed the same with my Jiu Jitsu clients. Luckily, you can get all of the benefit of a hinge without the extra fatigue of starting every rep from the floor.
Enter the Romanian Deadlift. Grab a pair of straps because your hamstrings and glutes are much stronger than your grip, load them up and reap the benefits of stronger, more flexible hamstrings and hips. Think tighter armbars and stronger guard retention with your hamstrings and brutal top pressure, explosive hip bumps and vicious finishing on armbars and leglocks. Never forget: the RDL isn’t about how low the bar goes, it’s about how far back your hips go. It can help to think of it as a standing hip thrust, rather than a deadlift from the floor. If your weight is on your midfoot or towards your heels, then you’re good but if your weight is on your toes, you’re doing them wrong.
Now, there’s a huge benefit to be had from lifting very heavy weights
(90%+ of your 1rm) - denser bones, stronger ligaments, robust joints and a more efficient central nervous system. In many programmes, the conventional deadlift is used here. Again, I don’t think the extra fatigue cost is worth it if you’re grappling regularly when you can get a hell of a lot less fatigue from a trap bar or hex bar.
The trap bar is easier to learn than conventional deadlift, you can generally load it up heavier (unless you’re an excellent deadlifter already) and it has a lower fatigue cost because there’s less of that damn shear force acting on your spine. All of these benefits come from the fact that the weight stays in line with your centre of mass, instead of in front of it like in conventional or sumo deadlifts.
What if you haven’t got access to a trap bar? You could do a lot worse than heavy front squats. Some of my clients front squat twice a week, and I personally made a lot of progress this way before I bought a trap bar. So, don’t fear using a good exercise twice with different weights and rep ranges.
We’ve covered the lower body, so what about the upper body?
Assuming your shoulders don’t hate it, bench press is an excellent choice. However, I suggest you check out the video on bench setup to get the most out of it (https://youtu.be/81gbki4-63g). If you love bench but your shoulders don’t, then dumbbell bench press, press ups, and paralette press ups are all excellent alternatives. Side note: if you’re looking to load up your press ups, do not put a plate on your back by yourself. Instead, use a weighted vest or have a VERY observant spotter because the plate will move and if it slides off at the right angle, you will break fingers.
For overhead pressing work, I tend to start my grapplers off with Arnold presses and Zidrunas presses (or Z-presses) before we move on to barbell overhead presses and push presses, assuming they don’t aggravate their shoulders. Arnold and Z-presses teach you how to use the shoulder properly in a press instead of being tempted into leaning back and turning it into a standing bench press and then wondering why your low back is always sore.
BJJ tends to involve a little more upper body pulling than it does pushing
Especially if you roll in the gi. For vertical pulling, you want a steady diet of pull ups and chin ups. Don’t throw your head forward over the top of the bar, and don’t you dare cut these reps short like a wannabe bodybuilder desperate to claim they can do sets of 20. Once clients can hit multiple sets of 5, I prefer to add weight than to chase a lot of volume with these because you want to save the volume for the mats. If you can’t do one, start with lat pulldowns and band assisted pull ups. Just remember not to stand on the band while you do them unless you literally hate having pain-free genitals.
Horizontal pulls are a bit more variable. Seated rows, ring/TRX rows, batwing rows, bench supported dumbbell rows, bent over barbell rows and Pendlay rows all fit the bill here. The key with upper body pulling is to get the feel for squeezing your back instead of using your entire body to get the weight moving (although, there’s a time and place for that too). Your shoulder blades are supposed to be able to move AROUND your ribcage, so don’t forget to get a good stretch in the bottom position of these too. Again, don’t chuck your head forward and just focus on SQUEEZING your back.
What about the core?
While direct ab training often gets a bad reputation, the core is more than simply abs - it covers everything between hip and shoulder. BJJ players do get a lot of ‘core’ work from the sport but that doesn’t mean you should skip it entirely. You generally get a lot from heavy carries - farmers walks, suitcase carries and waiter carries all work well here. You can do these 3-5 sets of a specific distance or time. If you’ve got no space to walk, you can march with the weights on the spot, just remember to do it slow and controlled. Russian Kettlebell Club planks and ab wheel rollouts are also good choices here. Finally, hanging leg raises are a staple for my grapplers because they provide core and hip flexor work alongside more grip and getting the shoulder benefits of hanging. They can also really help bridge the gap for people building towards their first pull up. Just don’t use momentum to swing all over the place.
I hope you now understand why “best” exercises don’t exist and what actually matters is the reasoning behind your choices. Ultimately, gym work is there to add to your BJJ training, not take away from it - and this is why I don’t tend to recommend relying heavily on back squats and deadlifts. Finally, don’t be afraid to rotate exercises, change recommended rep ranges or weights when you’re feeling beaten up from grappling because consistently lifting in a variety of ways will always outdo 6 months of powerlifting programme perfection and 6 months of nothing. If you’ve got any questions, the easiest way to reach me is on instagram @foundations_performance or by email: email@example.com
Dave Allanson, CSCS