Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or BJJ, is having a moment. The grappling-based martial art — which took shape in the 1920s — gained some popularity in the early-90s when BJJ pioneer Royce Gracie dismantled a series of larger opponents at multiple UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) events.
For many years after, BJJ remained a fringe sport for the weirdos who wanted to fight other people for joint locks and chokeholds. Then, popular podcasters like Joe Rogan and Jocko Willink preached the benefits of the martial art — confidence, improved fitness, and the ability to defend yourself against people of all sizes.
BJJ has been the center of focus in esteemed publications such as Men’s Health, GQ, and The New Yorker. Monthly searches for the term “BJJ” have reached 53,000 per month as of January 2022, up 62% from January 2016, according to the search engine software Ahrefs. Nowadays, BJJ is practiced by everyone from Navy SEALs, professional fighters, and firefighters to doctors, lawyers, and stand-up comedians.
Considering you’re reading these words, it’s safe to assume you’ve decided to hop on the BJJ bandwagon and don a gi a few times per week. You’ve also probably become obsessed with improving your “game” — aka your approach to the physical chess match that is BJJ.
BJJ is a physical sport, and those who excel aren’t just skillful but brutally strong, explosive, and lean. Yes, you can become fitter and leaner by rolling a few times per week, but if you’re looking to take your game up a few notches, you may want to dedicate time to the weight room. Allows us to help.
Weight Training and BJJ
At a glance, BJJ may feel as far-removed from weight room work as you can get. However, there’s a bit more overlap than you might think, and, more importantly, ways to make working out in a gym benefit you on the mats.
However, mixing sport practice and weight training isn’t as easy as it sounds. Should you lift on the same days that you roll, or spread out your work? How heavy should you train in the gym? What exercises are worthwhile, and which aren’t worth your time? Here’s how to make strength training work for you as a BJJ athlete.
- What You Need for BJJ
- How to Mix Strength Training with BJJ
- Best Strength Training Exercises for BJJ
- Sample BJJ Strength Training Routine
What You Need for BJJ
Much like boxing, wrestling, or any other combat sport, Brazilian jiu-jitsu comes with several specific athletic demands. If you want to be any good, your approach to training off the mats should be fully in service of your performance on them.
To that end, your resistance training protocol should focus on developing a few specific qualities above others.
Any high-contact sport will require a great deal of flexibility, and combat sports are no different. The nature of rolling and sparring in BJJ means that you’ll often find yourself contorted into positions and postures that push your joints to their limits.
You must have the physical range of motion to handle any unpredictable situations, but you also need enough control over your own flexibility that you remain safe, no matter how much tension or torque is placed on the joint in question. Offensively speaking, better mobility allows you to flow in and out of specific positions — arm bars, De La Riva guard, omoplatas — more quickly and efficiently. And when it comes to submitting a game opponent, speed is a significant factor.
While it is common to think of flexibility as something to be achieved from long bouts of stretching — and there’s certainly merit to this — you can also adopt a strength training plan that can help you unlock new ranges of motion, making you more flexible, while also affording you the postural strength and control to feel confident in those ranges as well.
Hand-in-hand with being flexible enough to roll smoothly and all of the odd positions that come with it is a mandate that you be able to resist any unwanted shaking, shuffling, or twisting that may occur on the mat.
If you don’t have the bodily control and muscular stability to resist your opponent, you’ll likely find yourself being knocked off balance in fast-paced scrambles or surrendering a hard-earned position to a sweep.
More muscular stability combined with the bodily awareness you’ll gain from hours of rolling will help you maintain a sturdy base (and make you a real problem in any top position).
If you want to be lethal on the mats, you’ve got to be fast — period. Effectively blitzing your opponent, getting past their guard, and landing a match-winning submission or takedown requires obscene amounts of muscular power.
Fortunately, the right training plan can help you develop an abundance of power that should translate well to your explosiveness in BJJ. What’s more, you don’t even need to lift super-heavy weights to do it.
Anyone who’s rolled before knows how exhausting it can be. Grappling with someone, even for just a minute or two, can be tremendously tiring due to the constant isometric contractions your muscles perform.
However, when you’re in a real match, you can’t afford to be worn out easily and give your opponent any kind of competitive edge. Not only do you need a good deal of muscular endurance to stay in the zone if you’re taken off your feet, but you also must have high isometric strength — the ability to maintain a posture or position against resistance — to come out on top.
How to Mix Strength Training and BJJ
The unfortunate reality of mixing multiple physical pursuits is that you’re likely to fall somewhat short at both of them, to at least some degree. However, that doesn’t mean that strength training and BJJ are incompatible — far from it.
Rather, if you go about it smartly and stick to the right principles, you should find that your work in the weight room pays dividends in your academy.
Pick Your Priority
This goes for any two activities, sports, or skills you want to develop in tandem. If you try to split your efforts equally, you’re liable to receive underwhelming or flat-out unnoticeable results in both.
In practical terms, this means accepting that you may not be setting big personal records in the weight room as long as you view strength training as a means of improving your combat prowess. Once you accept this, you’re likely to have a better experience — and outcome — from your efforts in the gym.
Consolidate Your Workouts
Your first instinct when assessing how to effectively mingle your BJJ practice with traditional lifting might be to spread the sessions out. After all, it’s perfectly sensible to not want a heavy training session to negatively impact your jiu-jitsu practice.
However, the best practice is actually to do the opposite. As record-setting powerlifter, coach, and BJJ purple belt Chad Wesley Smith explained to BarBend, if you’re dedicating every day of the week to either strength training or BJJ, you’re never going to have any meaningful time to recover.
As such, your best bet is to try and get your practice and your lifting in on the same day. If you can do them at the same time, training after you’re done on the mats is probably the best bet. It may make for several long and tiring hours of exercise, but you’ll at least have several dedicated recovery days later in the week.
Utilize Active Recovery
Adding a couple of resistance training workouts into your weekly regime is likely to mean more overall fatigue. With higher fatigue comes a greater importance on recovery. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should camp out on the couch for the entirety of your off-days.
Light cardio or dynamic, low-intensity exercise can be a great way to both stay in shape for your next hard day in the gym and flush out the unwanted waste from the session prior.
Modulate Your Exercises
BJJ training can be exceptionally tiring even though you don’t use any external weights during your sessions. It’s quite common to feel lots of tension and fatigue in your wrists, shoulders, hips, and lower back — all of which are put under plenty of stress if you work with the barbell as well.
If your BJJ practice is remotely intense, you might find that it negatively impacts some of the exercises you do in the weight room. In such cases, you have to be prepared to make adjustments.
While certain “bedrock” exercises like the back squat, overhead press, or even some Olympic lifts do afford plenty of benefits, they may be incompatible with the rigors of training for a combat sport.
Don’t be afraid to seek out similar alternative exercises that still provide a good workout without overloading your most vulnerable body parts. If you’re looking to make a movement swap, you can try some of these scaled replacements:
- Back Squat: Goblet Squat, Trap Bar Deadlift, Box Squat
- Barbell Overhead Press: Kettlebell Overhead Press, Floor Press
- Snatch: Snatch Pull, Kettlebell Swing. Medicine Ball Slam
- Power Clean: Hang Power Clean, Kettlebell Swing, Trap Bar Deadlift with Jump
- Deadlift: Hip Thrust, Kettlebell Deadlift, Back Extension
Best Strength Training Exercises for BJJ
The main purpose of incorporating some strength training into your BJJ routine is to complement your performance on the mat, not overshadow it. To that end, the exercises you select for your accessory training should, ideally, help stimulate some of the dimensions of your athleticism that may go overlooked while you’re rolling.
Jiu-jitsu athletes often work for relatively long durations with brief bouts of intense muscular contractions. They also spend plenty of time changing their planes of motion. Therefore, you’ll want to incorporate lifts that are a bit more straightforward and target different energy systems.
Zack Telander, an accomplished strength coach and devoted BJJ practitioner, recommends some of the following movements for improving your results on the mats.
Dumbbell Overhead Press
Why Do it: Executing and resisting many positions in BJJ demand a high amount of stability and strength from your shoulders. Training those qualities with external resistance is as simple as grabbing a pair of dumbbells.
The dumbbell overhead press trains shoulder and elbow extension by nature, while the independent weights themselves force the muscles of your upper back to keep your scapula controlled the whole way.
How to Do it: Perform a hammer curl to get the dumbbells into place adjacent to your shoulders. With your feet planted firmly into the ground and your knees locked out, press the weights upward until your arm is straight. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position. You may press them both simultaneously, or lift one while lowering the other.
Why Do it: The thruster is a fantastic way to develop multiple athletic qualities in tandem that all affect your performance on the mats. The front squat portion of the exercise brings some much-needed high-load leg training, while transitioning to a push press will teach you how to develop rapid muscular power from head to toe.
How to Do it: Remove the barbell from the rack and place it on your shoulders in a front rack position. Place your feet roughly between hip and shoulder-width apart, with your feet turned out as much as is comfortable.
Sit as low as you can into a front squat. Pause for a beat at the bottom, and then explosively drive out of the hole. As you approach a standing position, continue pushing into the floor such that the barbell flies off your shoulders. Use your arms to push it into place over your head.
Why Do it: Since your lower back often bears so much force during practice, you should include at least one exercise that directly strengthens the lumbar spine. The back extension is a fantastic option since you’re allowed so much freedom of movement — you can also incorporate as much or as little external load as you need in order to make the exercise effective.
How to Do it: You need a back extension station for this exercise. Secure your feet against the pads and set the thigh rest at the appropriate height — it should come up to just below your groin. Bend at the hips with a straight spine until your torso is perpendicular to your legs. Squeeze your glutes to return yourself to a straightened position.
Why Do it: Believe it or not, you get a good bit of quad stimulation any time you have to push yourself off the mat or drive against your opponent. Calisthenics training isn’t half bad at developing your “push” muscles like the quads, pectorals, and triceps. Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said for the opposing tissues.
The Nordic hamstring curl lets you train your hamstrings effectively — and you don’t even need weights to do it. You can do Nordic curls with a partner and get plenty of effective results along with protecting your knees against potential instability or injury.
How to Do it: Assume a full kneeling position. Your ankles must be fixed under a stable surface, or you can have a partner hold them down. From here, slowly lower your body down toward the ground. You must maintain a locked hip the entire way.
You may not have the hamstrings strength to lower your body all the way down with control. When you feel tension breaking, use your hands to stop your fall and push yourself back up to the starting position.
Why Do it: All athletes need strong backs. This is true of combat sports as much as it is on the powerlifting platform. The barbell row is no-frills and all business. Not only do you build some valuable isometric strength by maintaining a static hip hinge for the entirety of your set, but you can load up on weight and pound your lats — as long as you’ve got proper technique.
To top it off, barbell rows also work your grip strength, which should have tremendous carryover to your ground game.
How to Do it: Grab a barbell with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Perform a hip hinge and tip over until your torso is slightly above perpendicular to the ground. Allow the bar to hang down directly under your shoulders, and then pull it up and back towards your hip. Keep your arms tucked tightly to your sides.
Sample Strength Training Routine for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Both Smith and Telander echo that the most important thing to remember when it comes to mixing exercise modalities is to take things very, very easily to start. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a skill-based endeavor and doesn’t obey the same physiological ruleset as resistance training.
The more hours of quality practice you can log on the mats over the course of months or years, the better athlete you’ll be. However, you can’t get solid practice if you’re nursing sore muscles or, worse yet, battling back from an injury.
As such, it is important that you introduce resistance training slowly and carefully monitor its impact on your overall recovery. The following two-day routine is something you can integrate into your existing training and slowly ramp up on over time with more exercises or repetitions.
- Barbell Row: 3×6
- Thruster: 2×3
- Back Extension: 3×10
- Front Squat: 3×5
- Dumbbell Overhead Press: 3×8
- Nordic Curl: 2×5
Progress your resistance training by incrementally adding weight where possible, or slowly increasing your rep count on exercises like the Nordic curl. Remember, though, that strength training should not interfere with your BJJ performance.
Some early muscle soreness is to be expected when you start a new form of exercise, but if you’re noticeably sore for weeks after training, you’re probably going too hard.
Developing true mastery in BJJ takes many, many years. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to turn up your game a little bit. If you’re one of the blessed few who take to the sport naturally and find it easy to progress, power to you.
However, there’s no shame in looking towards other types of exercise to help you along the way. A bit of weight lifting can do wonders for your strength, stability, and even your confidence in the gym. Use strength training wisely to augment your skills on the mat and the results will speak for themselves.
Featured Image: Miljan Zivkovic / Shutterstock