Strength and Conditioning for BJJ

Strength and Conditioning for BJJ

Author: XMartial Editorial | Published Date: | Tags: bjj


BJJ and strength & conditioning have had a rocky relationship. The prevailing message was technique is all that matters, and using strength is considered a bad technique. But the meta is changing as BJJ slowly becomes more professional, with rulesets encouraging wrestling.

But many BJJ practitioners get themselves into problems such as injury or burnout by finding Powerlifting or Bodybuilding programs to plug and play. Soon, they abandon strength & conditioning as it “didn’t work for them.” So, how can you appropriately implement strength & conditioning to maximize BJJ performance?

Is Strength Important In BJJ?

There is very little research to date regarding strength and the BJJ athlete. One study showed national and/or international medalists were stronger in the bench press and could perform more push-ups and sit-ups in one minute vs. non-medalists.

However, when factoring for bodyweight, there was no difference in bench press strength. Further, no difference was found in squat strength between elite and non-elite BJJ athletes. 

Typically, when we see higher-level athletes possessing qualities greater than lower-level athletes, it suggests these attributes are important for sporting success. In this case, upper body strength is potentially more important than lower body strength for BJJ athletes.

However, we must bear in mind this is one cohort of athletes with a fast-evolving sport that is becoming more wrestling based. Therefore, full body strength may play a more significant role in modern BJJ.

When comparing BJJ athletes to Olympic wrestlers and elite Judo athletes, BJJ practitioners tend to have higher vertical jumps, potentially highlighting the importance of having powerful legs to finish sweeps and takedowns.

We can go deeper in the analysis and identify strength profiles based on the type of game you play. For example, guard and pass fighters. Pass fighters showed greater lower back endurance than guard fighters.

This is all the information we have regarding BJJ and strength within the scientific literature. But instead of looking at strength training in a vacuum of BJJ, we can take a higher viewpoint. Maximal strength is likely important as it underpins many athletic qualities, such as muscular power and endurance.

Further, strength training reduces the risk of sporting injury and halves the risk of overuse injuries, while static stretching shows no benefit.

When looking at strength training adaptations, we see positive benefits such as;

  • Increased tendon size and stiffness
  • Shifting of Type IIX to IIA muscle fibers
  • Increases in muscle fiber size
  • Increases in muscle activation

But we have more tools than maximal strength training. There is reactive, explosive, and starting strength. All of these various modalities target different areas along the force-velocity spectrum.

Do You Need Strength & Conditioning For BJJ?

The old school of thought was you don’t need strength & conditioning for BJJ as it’s all about technique. However, the sport of BJJ is changing. Not that technique isn’t important. But more physically dominant and well-conditioned athletes are making their way to the competition mats.

Even legendary grappler Marcelo Garcia has recently changed his opinion, stating he wished he performed strength & conditioning to reduce his risk of injury. Further, having a big aerobic gas tank that can perform explosive efforts will serve you well in competitions and tournaments.

This is why a well-rounded BJJ strength & conditioning program is vital to your success.

How Many Times A Week Should You Lift For BJJ?

How many times a week you lift will depend on two main factors:

  • How close you are to competition
  • Your strengths and weaknesses

Lifting 2-3 times per week is ideal when far away from the competition. As you get closer to competition, this may decrease to 1-2 times per week. If you have a good strength base and extensive training age in the gym, you may be on the lower end of the range so that you can focus on BJJ and conditioning.

If you don't have a base for your strength, you may train at the higher end of these ranges to develop strength and size.

What Cardio Is Best For BJJ?

Contrary to popular belief, there is no best cardio exercise. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is often labeled as the best as it matches or exceeds the intensity of a BJJ match, is quick to do, and has you out of breath quickly.

However, different intensities drive different adaptations. If you only perform HIIT and roll hard rounds, you may miss vital aerobic adaptations from low-intensity exercise. 

For example, let's take low-intensity, steady-state cardio. This could be your easy long run or hour on the stationary bike. Low-intensity cardio stimulates adaptations to the heart, such as increasing the heart chamber size to pump more blood per heartbeat. 

Therefore, increasing the amount of oxygen delivered to the working muscles. Oxygen is needed to regenerate energy using aerobic processes. Spend too long in a high lactate, anaerobic environment when competing, and you will invariably gas out… fast.

Developing this base allows you to operate at higher intensities under predominantly aerobic metabolism. Further, the aerobic energy system plays a crucial role in recovery between high-intensity effort. Then you can top it off with HIIT or sprint interval training (SIT) to improve your ability to tolerate the burning sensation.

These high-intensity efforts emphasize peripheral or muscular adaptations to aid with using oxygen. If you can deliver more oxygen through a larger heart chamber and stronger heartbeat and extract more oxygen from the blood into the working muscles, you have a recipe for a huge gas tank.

But this high-intensity conditioning approach shouldn't be a 365-day-of-the-year approach. The gains stimulated from this form of cardio top out quickly. For example, Tabata. I’m sure you’ve heard of or tried Tabata training.

It involves performing 20 seconds at 170% VO2 max with 10 seconds rest for 7-8 reps. The working interval is at a pace you could hold for approximately 50 sec. According to Dr. Tabata, you must reach interval 7 or 8 with complete exhaustion so that you cannot do another interval at the prescribed intensity. Safe to say, it's a brutal regime performed four times per week for six weeks.

But what’s most crucial about this study is the window of adaptation. After 3 weeks, aerobic adaptations maxed out. After 4 weeks, anaerobic adaptations followed suit. And plenty of research shows supplementing 6-8 HIIT sessions on top of a well-developed aerobic base is enough to stimulate significant performance improvements.

So the question becomes… what do you do next if all you do is HIIT? More sessions? Go harder? Go longer? All these eventually lead to burnout, which is why you need to cycle your training stimulus depending on your goals and calendar year.

The physiological demands of BJJ require a work-to-rest ratio of 6:1, roughly translating to 117 sec of effort with 20 sec of inactivity. Each effort can be broken down into 30 sec of low-intensity activity with 2-4 sec of high-intensity activity.

Overall, this indicates BJJ is an aerobic dominant sport with intermittent high-intensity activity. Adding a tournament format to the equation further strengthens this position of being aerobic dominant.

The easiest way to conceptualize this is to think of a high/low funnel approach. Here’s a picture below:

I will cover this in more detail in the next section, but as a brief overview, cover the low and high outputs further away from the competition, with BJJ taking care of the middle. As you get closer to a competition, use HIIT to fine-tune your conditioning with intensity.

How Do You Program Strength & Conditioning With BJJ?

This is the million-dollar question and what most BJJ athletes struggle with. Go too hard in the gym, and you're too sore to perform on the mats. Do too much cardio, and you're too tired to attend an evening class.

The ideal week schedule is a polarized or high/low approach to training (as shown in the picture above). This involves placing all your high-stress activities on one day and all low-stress activities on the following day. You would then alternate these days.

What counts as high and low-stress activity?

High Stress

Low Stress

Hard Rolling

Drilling

Positional Sparring (could be considered low depending on duration and position)

Flow Rolling

Takedowns/Wrestling

Aerobic conditioning

High-velocity strength, aka power (jumps, plyometric)

Prehab/rehab/mobility exercise

Sprints (including cardio equipment)

Complete rest

Anaerobic Lactic conditioning

 

If you’re at a BJJ gym that spends the entire class drilling with the occasional position sparring, you can easily regulate how many rounds you roll after class and how intense they are. Following this training model can be more challenging if you are at a BJJ gym that rolls hard every day.

In the second example, you will need to fit low-intensity conditioning sessions where you can drastically lower your strength training volume. For the first example, it could look like this:

Mon

Tues

Wed

Thur

Fri

Sat

Sun

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

BJJ (drills, flow roll)

BJJ (positional sparring/harder rounds)

Aerobic conditioning

BJJ (positional sparring/harder rounds)

BJJ (drills, flow roll)

Open Mat or High-Intensity Con

Easy aerobic OR easy bodybuilding style training

Strength/Power

Strength/Power

Aerobic conditioning

 

This is a generic template, as it doesn't consider your lifestyle, available time, or anything related to you. But it provides a decent framework for planning your training week. Remember, you can break the high/low guideline and potentially have two high days in a row.

But bear in mind you will need to allow for adequate recovery the following day or two, so depending on how busy you are, it is an option.

2-Day BJJ Strength & Conditioning Program

These programs do not consider any individual needs such as schedule, injury history, phase of training, etc. These are general programs to show you how these sessions may look in isolation.

If you want BJJ training programs designed with progression leading into the competition, check out the Sweet Science of Fighting Dominate The Mats Program.

Assuming you have only two extra days or time slots to train per week, I've given two strength and two conditioning days. Depending on your needs, you could perform both strength or both conditioning. To mix both, perform day 1 of both week 1, then day 2 of both week 2, and repeat.

 

Day 1 Strength/Power

A1) Box Jump 3 x 5

B1) Power Clean 4 x 2 

C1) Front Squat 3 x 4 @75% 1RM

D1) Bench Press 3 x 5 @70% 1RM

D2) Chin-Up 3 x 5-10 @8 RPE

E1) Landmine Rotation 3 x 5/side

 

Day 2 Strength/Power

A1) Snatch Grip High Pull From Blocks 3 x 3

B1) Jump Squat 3 x 3 @20-30% Squat 1RM

C1) Romanian Deadlift 3 x 6 @7 RPE

D1) Press 4 x 4 @7 RPE

D2) 1-Arm DB Row 4 x 8-12/side @7 RPE

E1) Fat Bar Curl 3 x 10-12 @8 RPE

E2) Triceps Pushdown 3 x 10-15 @8 RPE

 

Day 1 Conditioning

Low-intensity, steady-state cardio – 30-45 mins. Either use off-feet cardio equipment (bike, rower, etc.) or BJJ solo drills in a circuit fashion. Keep heart rate between 120-150 BPM.

 

Day 2 Conditioning

Extensive tempo – 2 x (10 x 20sec @70% effort/40sec rest). Rest 2-3 min. 1 x (8 x 30sec @70% effort/30sec rest). 

Alactic Power After A Gym Session

5 x 7-sec maximal sprints w/ 2-3 min rest. Use off-feet cardio equipment

 

3-Day BJJ Strength & Conditioning Program

Having three days per week to dedicate to strength & conditioning can be a blessing and a curse. If pushed too hard, the extra day can do you more harm than good. Instead of performing 3 hard full body training sessions, I like to make one of the days a “restorative” or low-intensity bodybuilding style training day.

The high reps pump blood to the muscles and tendons, helping aid recovery. Further, the loads aren't heavy enough to cause fatigue problems, and the lifts chosen are mainly isolation exercises.

 

Day 1

A1) Box Jump 3 x 5

B1) Power Clean 4 x 2 

C1) Front Squat 3 x 4 @75% 1RM

D1) Bench Press 3 x 5 @70% 1RM

D2) Chin-Up 3 x 5-10 @8 RPE

E1) Landmine Rotation 3 x 5/side

 

Day 2

A1) Back Extension 3 x 15-20

A2) 4-Way Neck Isometric 3 x 10sec/side

A3) Leg Extension 3 x 10-15

B1) DB Lateral Raise 3 x 10-15

B2) DB Reverse Fly 3 x 15-20

B3) Lying Leg Curl 3 x 10-15

C1) Fat Bar Curl 3 x 10-12

C2) Triceps Pushdown 3 x 10-15

 

Day 3

A1) Snatch Grip High Pull From Blocks 3 x 3

B1) Jump Squat 3 x 3 @20-30% Squat 1RM

C1) Romanian Deadlift 3 x 6 @7 RPE

D1) Press 4 x 4 @7 RPE

D2) 1-Arm DB Row 4 x 8-12/side @7 RPE

 

Example High-Intensity Conditioning Sessions

Alactic Capacity – 2 x (10 x 10sec @100% effort/10sec rest) with 5-8 min rest between series.

Lactic Capacity – 3 x (3 x 30sec @100% effort/30sec rest) with 5-8 min rest between series.

Summary

Strength and conditioning for BJJ can seem complicated, but it doesn't have to be. You've found the sweet spot if you can strike a balance between making progress and keeping yourself fresh enough to roll on the mats.

Initially, you may need to drastically lower the volume of strength and conditioning until you adapt to the new workload. Once you are recovering well, you can increase the volume or frequency of training.

Select Sweet Science Training Program Plan Here

About the writer

JAMES DE LACEY

James de Lacey is a Master of Sport & Exercise Science and worked as a professional strength & conditioning coach in elite and international Rugby Union and Rugby League worldwide. He is also a published academic researcher, and now specializes in physical preparation for combat sports. You can find his website at Sweet Science of Fighting.






References

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