8 Principles of BJJ Strength and Conditioning

When it comes to BJJ strength and conditioning, certain principles are needed.

Oh, and look, I want to dispel something right away. I know there are those who wholeheartedly believe that if you want to get better at BJJ, you need to just spend more time on the mats.

I couldn’t agree more. That statement does hold truth to it.

The simple answer is, the more time on the mats the better.

More time drilling. More time rolling. More time learning.

Yes, yes, yes.

Spending maximum time on the mats is essential for well-rounded development.

Strength and conditioning is supplemental.

If you look at any elite grappler though, they’ll have a strength and conditioning routine in place. This strength and conditioning work, while it doesn’t make them champions in the weight room, does allow them to move better, feel stronger, roll longer and helps them to augment their game plans more readily.

Implement the following principles in your BJJ strength and conditioning and you’ll soon reap the same benefits.

Principle: I – Realize it’s not a Quick Process

Strength and conditioning, when done the right way, will strengthen the body as one. It’ll give the mind resolve, harden the flesh and strip away fat. It should also make you more resilient against injuries, while allowing you to compete at a harder, higher level.

Just like BJJ itself, strength and conditioning is a skill.

A skill takes time to learn. It requires its own learning and a continual growth mind set.

Society doesn’t help with this long term thinking. Everything is instantaneous. It’s designed now to be easy and immediate.

Real results take real time.

There are no shortcuts, no easy options and no quick fixes.

Principle: II – Have a Goal

Not having a goal is a huge mistake I see time and time again. Without a goal, the approach is haphazard and with it ultimately brings about haphazard results, if any at all.

Having a goal gives you direction.

This direction will, in turn, provide you with the exercises, sets, reps and programming needed to get there.

Some quick strength standards for BJJ:

Deadlift – 1.5/2x BW

Front Squat – 1/1.5x BW

Chin-up – +50% BW

Military Press/Floor Press/Bench Press (any) – BW

Farmer’s Walk – 3/4 BW each hand

As cheesy as it sounds, liken having a goal to a road trip. Setting off in the car with no destination in mind, wouldn’t make for a very productive drive. It’d be aimless. It’d lack clarity. You’d simply end up lost.

Make a goal.

Make it more specific. Commit to it. Give it a timeline and work out the most effective way to get there. If you’re in need of help, shoot me an email.

Principle: III – Remember, it’s not Bodybuilding

The strength and conditioning world around the internet is overrun by bodybuilding programs. BJJ strength and conditioning is a whole other beast and needs to be treated as such.

A lot of the bodybuilding programs out there are made up of isolation, or single joint exercises. While these work great for growing specific muscles for a certain look, they simply don’t cut it in the sports/combat world. Isolating muscles has shown to create imbalances across the body, along with tendon and joint damage – all things we truly need to avoid

Instead you want to build your training around the fundamental human movements: Squatting, hinging, pressing, pulling and carrying.

Strengthen these movements.

Think performance and forget “beach muscles”.

My session this morning… 1a. Sandbag Shouldering 5 x 3 each side 2a. Sandbag paused Zercher squats 5 x 5 3a. Kettlebell clean and press x 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 each arm 3b. Kettlebell row x 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 each arm 4a. Kettlebell swings – Every minute on the minute – 12 reps x 10 minutes It's nothing fancy, nothing special, just hard work. Hard work that gets repeated day in, day out. Tired, sore, achy, depressed, anxious, scarred, bruised – whatever, just show up and get the work done. Consistency builds excellence. All excuses can be worked around in some form or another. Just commit to showing up. Show up, get the work done and reap the benefits that come with the daily grind. You'll be better for it. You'll get better at it. You'll have more to show from it. You'll love, learn and grow. Make just showing up a habit.

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Principle: IV – Keep it as Simple as Possible

With an art as complex as BJJ, the strength and conditioning side of things needs to be as simple as can be.

That said, quality strength and conditioning shouldn’t be complex anyway, regardless of sport.

There’s a misnomer in the word that simple infers easy.

Simple is quite the opposite, it’s about distilling information down to its smallest, most succinct parts. As a coach, I want to get my athletes as strong and as fit as possible in the quickest and safest route possible. More often than not, the simplest looking programs on paper are the toughest and most rewarding in practice.

Simple Double Kettlebell Strength Workout

*Warm-up/Joint prep/Foam roll/Mobilize

1a. Double kettlebell Clean and Press* 5 – 10 x (2, 3, 5)

2a. Double kettlebell Front Squat 5 – 10 x (2, 3, 5)

*Clean the bells before every press

The numbers in the brackets represent the reps. Firstly you’ll clean the kettlebells and press them and then clean them again for a second press. The kettlebells are then returned to the ground. After a brief rest of no more than 30 seconds, the bells are cleaned and pressed 3 total times before returning them to the ground.

Again, rest no more than 30 seconds before cleaning and pressing the bells for 5 reps. This time when they return to the ground you get to rest 60 – 120 seconds. This is then repeated anywhere from 5 to 10 times total. The same applies for the front squats, except the bells are only cleaned up the once for each number, 2, 3, 5.

Double kettlebell clean and presses and double kettlebell front squats are a staple in my training. Every time I look back through old training journals, good things tend to happen around the inclusion of these two movements. As for reps and sets, I like 2's, 3's, 5's with both the clean and presses and for the front squats. Two reps – little rest, three reps – little rest, five reps and a bigger rest. This is then repeated anywhere from 5 – 10 times through. If there was ever a case for stripping things back to their bare bones, I'd stand up tall and argue for these two movements. Want to make things a little more savage? After the fifth rep is completed, take the kettlebells for a walk in the rack position. Talk about full-body tension, a pounding heart rate, burning lungs and a monstrous mental task…#savagesimplicity

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Principle V – Strength Rules

If you train BJJ more than twice a week, the conditioning side of things needs scaling back. Strength is the big thing in a BJJ strength and conditioning program. Things like strength endurance, power, cardio, endurance and all the rest are ancillary to pure strength. From Pavel Tsatsouline:

“If you have no strength, what will you endure?”

As a quick note too, no, you won’t get too bulky.

Training for strength is a totally different ball game than hypertrophy.

I honestly wish I could show you how difficult it is to build appreciable levels of muscle. It takes time, dedication, consistent eating and hours upon hours of work.

Your training is about getting you stronger, not bigger.

Principle VI – Do no Harm

Unfortunately now, the trend in fitness is to compete at fitness. There is a lot of energy put into personal bests, beating times, more reps, blah, blah, blah…

The problem is, this generally comes at the expense of technique, safety and achieving the desired goal.

Don’t fall into this pitfall.

There is an inherent risk with any exercise. Invest in some quality coaching, get feedback from someone in the know and not only will your progress skyrocket, you’ll also keep yourself safer and injury free.

The Main Elements to Strength and Conditioning Safety

  • Technique/form/movement quality is paramount. Like I said, get a coach in person, or online (I am available to help where needed) to make sure you’re moving correctly and safely.
  • Don’t let ego dictate the weight on the bar, or kettlebell, or sandbag. Start slowly, build up, master each weight and allow progression to come naturally. Rushing will only slow down progress in the long run.
  • Rarely max out. This is not powerlifting or strongman. This is principles for BJJ strength and conditioning. The closer you get to your maxes, the more risk there is for injury.

Principle VII – Most things Work

Most things in the strength and conditioning world work. Some better than others, but most things work nonetheless. The key is to find something you enjoy – whether that’s  kettlebells, barbells, bodyweight, sandbags or a combination of both, a major key to seeing success is your enjoyment in the act.

Find what works for you!

Principle VIII – Add in Mobility/Corrective Work

A lot of injuries that occur in training are due to a lack of injury prevention or a failure to correct weaknesses.

The best way to limit the likelihood of these injuries from popping up is twofold: One, in the gym, don’t just work on your strengths, but rather build up weaknesses and two, commit to working in frequent mobility and prehab work to fix muscular imbalances, movement weaknesses, stability, overly tight muscles, weakened muscles and all the rest.

Don’t know where to start?

Well, if you’ve spent any appreciable amount of time on the mats, then in all likeliness you have a few notable BJJ traits:

  • Overly forward flexed posture
  • Internally rotated shoulders
  • Tightened, shortened pecs
  • Tightened lats
  • Tightened hip flexors
  • Shortened abs
  • Winged scapulars

As far as corrective exercises go, opt for plenty of hardstyle kettlebell swings, conventional deadlifts (with a huge focus on form over weight) and bodyweight ring rows.

In terms of corrective exercises to fix the muscular imbalances, look no further than Kelly Starrett’s “Becoming a Supple Leopard

Superb, superb book – Honestly can’t recommend it enough for anyone who spends time on the mats or engages in a BJJ strength and conditioning program.

Closing Thoughts on BJJ Strength and Conditioning

BJJ is such a complex and wonderful journey to be on. It’s dynamic and ever changing and because of that, BJJ strength and conditioning has to be kept minimal.

Following the above eight principles, this minimal work is incredibly beneficial.

Always start light and always put focus on form, movement quality and grace over reps, weights and numbers. Keep ego out of the weight room and train your weaknesses and fix imbalances.

Find yourself a knowledgeable coach who can provide feedback, support and constructive criticism to aid you in refining your technique. while strengthening the body.

Keep a journal and reassess every few months. Check in with yourself like a boss giving a work review to an employee. What is working? What isn’t? Any aches and pains? If so, how do you proactively fix them? Check in with yourself to see if you’re improving on and off the mats.

If you need assistance in any strength related issues, email me for coaching.