Does Powerlifting Improve Jiu-Jitsu Performance?

Powerlifts build power, but are these the right movements for BJJ?

Brazilian jiu-jitsu and deadlifts are about the coolest ways to spend your time, but should you train them both?

Probably not.

Why? We’ve roped in Chad Wesley Smith to answer this hotly debated question. He’s a sports performance coach who was a two-time collegiate national champion in shot put, he’s consulted for the British Olympic track team, one year he had the number 1 overall draft pick in the NFL combine, but his specialty is powerlifting: he’s posted top 10 all-time totals in wraps (1,055kg/2,325lb)  and sleeves (,1010kg/2,226lb).

He’s also the founder of Juggernaut Trianing Systems, a company that’s actually developed an AI-fueled app to help athletes balance strength training and jiu-jitsu, because Smith is a die hard BJJ practitioner who regularly rolls with black belt world champions like Romulo Barral, Octavio Couta, and Felipe Pena.

Can I Train Powerlifting and Jiu-Jitsu?

(This is the question that comes before whether or not you should.)

Here’s how Smith answers:

If someone is looking to improve their jiu-jitsu performance I would not suggest training for competitive powerlifting to be the best way to do that. You want see who much you can squat, bench, and deadlift? That’s fine, just do that knowing that it’s not the best thing to do.

Is training for powerlifting going to make you better at jiu-jitsu than doing no lifting at all? Definitely!

There are a lot of really poor training ideas that get promoted in jiu-jitsu, be it their incredible obsession with kettlebells or their idea of not training weights at all. Is it better than that? definitely.But I wouldn’t suggest with powerlifting as your focus if your real focus is being better at jiu-jitsu.

Squat, bench, deadlift. They’re maybe the best ways to develop a lot of power and a lot of strength, and more strength enhances just about all your athletic skills: if you’re stronger you’ll have more explosive power and strength endurance, and those three things — maximal strength, explosive power, and strength endurance — are the three qualities you want to train outside of jiu-jitsu to get better at jiu-jitsu.

maximal strength, explosive power, and strength endurance are the three qualities you want to train outside of jiu-jitsu to get better at jiu-jitsu.

Now as for how to train both sports, there are a lot of factors to consider here. Are you trying to compete in jiujitsu and do powerlifting recreationally, or vice versa, or do you just want to train both as a hobby? “Training” both sports means different things to different people, which is why it’s always best to get a coach.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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But if you like doing both, Smith’s advice is to train both on the same day.

“The most significant thing you can do is smartly structure your week of training and in general, you’re going to want to consolidate those most intensive stressors to the same day,” he says. “Whether that’s training for competitive jiu-jitsu and using the powerlifting to support that or doing powerlifting training for fun, or wanting to lift competitively.”

That may seem counterintuitive, but your other option is to train them on separate days: jiu-jitsu, squat day, jiu-jitsu, bench day, jiu-jitsu, deadlift day… how will you recover from that? By consolidating the intensive stressors to the same day, you now have recovery built in. 

It’d look something like,

  • Monday: Jiu-jitsu, squat workout
  • Tuesday: Light aerobic work/accessories
  • Wednesday: Jiu-jitsu, bench press workout
  • Thursday: Light aerobic work/accessories
  • Friday: Jiu-jitsu, deadlift workout
  • Saturday: Light aerobic work/accessories
  • Sunday: Off

[Related: Watch Chad total an incredible 2,000 pounds in 37 seconds]

Again, there’s variation here. Stronger people take longer to recover because they’re lifting heavier weights; squatting 90% of your max if your is different if your max is 350 pounds versus 700 pounds.

So a stronger person might have a week looking more like high effort, medium effort, low, high, low, off. The “highs” of less skilled athletes aren’t as high, so the lows don’t need to be as low. 

“The relative difficulty of the sessions shouldn’t be identical so you can modulate throughout the week,” says Smith. “And the same goes for jiu-jitsu: doing live training for 90 minutes and training as hard as you can might not be ideal every day. Some days, live training will be appropriate, some days do more positional training, which is going to be a little bit less taxing. And some days just do positional drilling at a controlled intensity.”

You might have noticed at this point that this is a lot of training. You might need to just pick the sport you like more and put another on one or two days a week. 

squat barbell
sportpoint/Shutterstock

Should You Train Powerlifting to Improve at Jiu-Jitsu?

But let’s get broader: is it a good idea to train both? We’ve thus far been talking about people who would like to do both. But if your goal is getting better at jiu-jitsu, should you be powerlifting?

What you need to remember is that jiu-jitsu practitioners typically beat up their low back and shoulders and wrists more than, well, a person who doesn’t do BJJ.

“My low back is beat up from playing the guard a lot because that involves so much spinal flexion, lumbar flexion and rotation,” Smith notes. “There are orthopedic surgeons who look at the positions you get into in jiu-jitsu and they’re like, that’s bad. That’s not a a good place to be. But if that’s what you like doing then go for it. I’m definitely of the mind that when I turn my body in at the end of my life, it’s gonna be well worn. I’m sure I’ll pay for that later, but so be it.”

So the low back gets hit hard in jiu-jitsu and in deadlifts, and to a lesser degree back squats. For this reason, it might be better to train different hip hinge variations. If you’ve got beat up shoulders, barbell bench pressing might not be a good idea and it can be harder to get the bar in the right position for back squats. Beat up wrists with poor flexibility? It might even be tough to do front squats.

Now, strength training is good for jiu-jitsu. Maximal strength is great and it enhances a lot of other athletic skills you want in the sport. If you’re designing a strength program for BJJ, Smith — who is very good at designing strength programs for jiu-jitsu — says you want it to include some variety of:

  • Squat
  • Hip hinge
  • Upper body push
  • Upper body pull
  • Twisting exercises, and
  • Carrying exercises

Which is pretty much what you’d put in any general physical preparedness program. But for jiu-jitsu practitioners, you want it to be tailored so as to not aggravate body parts that are probably already aggravated.

[Related: Check out our podcast with Chad Wesley Smith where he talks 900-pound squats and desperation as motivation]

Back Squat Alternatives for Jiu-Jitsu (Squat Variations)

“Shifting more of your squat training to something like a safety bar squat could be a good consideration to make if your shoulders are beat up,” says Smith, who we’re sure would want you to read this article on the benefits of the safety bar squat. “If your low back gets beat up a lot, maybe shifting more of your squat training to a front squat or a high bar squat variation is gonna be useful.”

You also want to do plenty of single leg stuff, because a lot of BJJ happens on one leg. So consider Bulgarian split squats and lunge variations.

Deadlift Alternatives for Jiu-Jitsu (Hip Hinge)

Because of the risk of your low back, you might find yourself doing more squats than deadlifts.

“Or maybe more of your deadlift raining should be technique work, or from blocks, or do sumo deadlifts,” says Smith, who’s also a big fan of trap bar deadlifts for a BJJ-friendly hip hinge — they’re easy to learn and easy on the low back. Hip thrusts are also a great way to build maximal strength in the hip extension, and the exercise mimics bridging.

Bench Press Alternatives for Jiu-Jitsu (Upper Body Push)

Upper body pushes help you build stronger frames, but if your shoulders are iffy then you might want to consider neutral grip lifts: benching with a Swiss bar or dumbbells are great ideas, and Smith also likes dumbbell Z presses because it works mobility and stability for sit up guard.

[Related: Why Powerlifters Should Be Using Swiss Bars]

Upper Body Pulling for Jiu-Jitsu

The bent over barbell row mimics the position of the standing guard pass, but you can also consider the single arm dumbbell row or neutral grip chin-ups. 

Twisting Exercises for Jiu-Jitsu

Barbell Russian twists and med ball twisting slams get the nod from Smith here.

Carrying Exercises for Jiu-Jitsu

Single arm farmer’s walks and sandbag front carries are two exercises that he highlights. 

Remember, we’re not even talking about the other strength training you should be doing for BJJ, here explosive power stuff (like kneeling jumps) and strength endurance (like sled pushes), we’re only discussing maximal strength training for jiu-jitsu.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Wrapping Up

Maybe most importantly, realize that as good as your training plan is, sometimes you’re just not feeling it. 

“Once you’ve got your great training plan in place, know that it’s not written in stone,” Smith says. “Shit happens, you get in weird positions or go a little too hard. And those sorts of micro adjustments within the session, are very important. Change the movement slightly to something that I can do effectively today so I live to fight or live to lift another day”

(He emphasizes that he’s bad at following his own advice to back off when you’re not feeling super competent.)

Powerlifting’s great, but if you’re doing another sport then you might overtrain areas that get hit in both sports, like your low back and shoulders. Do strength training, but modify it to your needs. 

Nick English

Nick English

Nick is a content producer and journalist with over seven years’ experience reporting on four continents. At BarBend his writing more on nutrition and long-form content with a heaping dose of strength training. His underlying belief is in the middle path: you don’t have to count every calorie and complete every workout in order to benefit from a healthy lifestyle and a stronger body. Plus, big traps are cool.

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