Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World


Train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu by Getting Strong

by Andrew Lewis | July 07, 2020

Anyone who has trained Brazilian Jiu Jitsu knows that a common reason students choose not to go to class or train as hard as they like is because they’re injured in some way. A large enough academy will always have someone on the mat who has an injury that needs attention. This is normal and understandable, but it would be better if the normal state is that almost everyone is healthy and uninjured. 

My client, Kendall, started strength training in September 2018 at a bodyweight of 159 lb. He wanted to get stronger so his aching lats and shoulders wouldn’t hurt anymore. He wanted to have more muscle so he could eat more and be more functional in general and on the mat. Kendall was not only a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at the time but also a full-time BJJ instructor. He needed to be healthy and uninjured so he could do his job and enjoy his training. He added 160 lb to his squat over the next three months and gained 30 lb of bodyweight.


9/16/2018

12/16/2018

Increase

Squat

115

275

160

Press

45

110

65

Deadlift

95

260

165

Bench Press

65

155

90

Bodyweight

159.3

189.6

30.3

Kendall is a physically typical trainee. He’s 30 years old with some aches and pains, some range-of-motion limitations, and an average vertical jump (a proxy for how genetically gifted someone is). Kendall is different in that he is determined, intelligent, and procedure-oriented. He doesn’t even pause when I put a heavier weight than he’s ever lifted on the bar. He just gets under the bar and squats it, because he knows that’s what needs to be done to get the results he wants. If there were an easier or more effective way, he would do that, but there’s not. 

Strength should be acquired generally by doing movements that incorporate a lot of muscle mass over a long, effective range of motion. This is true even for BJJ practitioners. That strength should then be specifically applied in jiu jitsu practice. This two-factor model is currently the most logical model for sports-performance training. BJJ-specific strength training is nonsense: any strength training that attempts to mimic specific techniques or movements in BJJ will adversely affect the technique on the mat. Better would be to do what Kendall did and just add 5 lb to the squat three times a week. He didn’t do anything special for training. He did the Starting Strength Linear Progression just like every other novice client I coach.

kendall before and after strength training frontal view

Left, Before: September 16, 2018. Right, After: July 24, 2019.

kendall before and after strength training side view

Left, Before: September 16, 2018. Right, After: July 24, 2019.

“Strength has reduced my injuries at BJJ. It’s not that I lean on muscle to do the job technique is supposed to do. If I’m strong enough to do 100 reps without injuring myself, then I can practice 100 reps of a technique I’m drilling in one BJJ training session. But if I can only do 20 reps, then I’ll need more training sessions to get the same number of quality reps. 
“No movement is going to be technically perfect the first time. Having more strength will allow you to get through the difficult parts of a technically-demanding movement that, if you were weaker, you’d hit a roadblock you couldn’t overcome as quickly. It’s like training wheels while learning to ride a bike. You’re not using them as a crutch forever, just until you have some of the technique down to continue without them.”

A trainee who can pick up 200 lb only one time cannot pick up 300 lb even once. A trainee who can pick up 300 lb can certainly pick up 200 lb more than once – probably many more times. A student practicing a technique in BJJ can only practice it as many times as their strength will allow. They will not be able to train as long as a result. Technique also degrades as fatigue increases, so the quality of that practice will decrease. A strong student like Kendall is capable of practicing many reps of an arm bar or a foot sweep with good technique as a result of their increased maximum strength. This also requires greater self-control and introspection; Kendall should not poorly execute a technique using his strength as a crutch, and be complacent. He should still pursue technique improvement. Just because he did it doesn’t mean he did it efficiently or effectively. 

Mechanical stress (force over an area) is what causes injuries on the mat. When a muscle, tendon, or bone is weaker than the force imposed on it, it will break. This might mean a small tweak with no special attention needed or it might mean surgery – there is a large continuum. Fundamentally, stronger and denser muscles and tendons are harder to break. I’ve had many clients who practice BJJ notice the rate and severity of their injuries are much lower after getting stronger. By stronger, I don’t mean squatting 500 lb and benching 400 lb. Jiu jitsu students who increase their squat from 115 lb to 225 lb notice a difference in injury rate. Injuries that would have kept them off the mat for a week are just stiff the next day.

“One competition class, we were practicing takedowns. I had been lifting for about a year at that time. I was paired up with a friend who had not seen me much since I started lifting. He grabbed my lapel, and I guess he tried to shove me. I say “guess” because from my point of view, it was not very noticeable. My friend remarked something like “Oh shit, this is a totally different Kendall.” He had been expecting to muscle an opening or create an overreaction, but about 20 extra pounds of muscle had countered that without me having to do actively do anything.”

Balance is essential in jiu jitsu. Balance is a function of strength. A jiu jitsu student who grabs his opponent's lapel and shoves him back will have a much easier time moving him if the opponent can only squat 135 lb as opposed to 315 lb. Additionally, inertia matters. A 200 lb object will require greater force to move than a 160 lb object. Any BJJ practitioner who has rolled with someone 100 lb heavier knows this. It’s not just that they’re stronger – they physically weigh more too.

Finally, consider shoving someone else. A BJJ student who can squat 315 lb can shove a lot harder than a someone who can only squat 135 lb. Kendall can shove others a lot harder now that he’s stronger. In an actual fight, he is able to use his strength synergistically with technique to shove, throw, choke, and punch as needed to protect himself.

“BJJ is cardio. If I wanted more cardio, I could get it at my lifting sessions by rowing. I suppose someone could claim that my cardio is worse than it was when I weighed 160lb, but it's not like my heart and lungs got weaker, they just have more responsibility now. The best cardio is not going to help me if my ligaments, tendons, and muscles get hurt because they’re too weak. 
If I’m finding that I need better cardio for BJJ, it probably means my BJJ is just deficient, and I should just get better at that. Cardio has not been an issue for me. I get tired during a match - win or lose - and look for the next guy to roll. It might be that I just don’t use a lot of energy because of how I train or a skill disparity, but that’s been my experience.”

kendall arm locks an opponent bjj

Kendall (blue) arm-locks an opponent.

Anyone who has ever done the fifth rep of a heavy set of five squats understands that strength training is cardio. Setting a one-rep max might not be, but that’s not all that strength training entails. Strength training (along with regular jiu jitsu training) will provide more than enough cardio for the average BJJ student. Not every session should include burning lungs and lying passed out on the mat, but some training sessions should be long and hard enough to drive a conditioning adaptation. A high-level competitor may choose to include additional conditioning, but the vast majority of BJJ trainees don’t need specific conditioning. 

It didn’t even take Kendall three months of hard training to notice a reduction in his injury rate, severity of injuries, and general aches in both life and BJJ. He is also able to practice difficult techniques longer and with better precision because his muscles do not fatigue as quickly. Getting stronger will make anyone’s life better, but it will massively improve any BJJ practitioner’s life. I ask you to consider how many training sessions you’ve missed in the last year because you had a tweak or a serious injury. What would you be willing to do to reduce both the severity and rate of occurrence? What would it be worth to you if you could train BJJ more often and more consistently?


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