Why All BJJ Athletes Need to Strength Train
When two grapplers step onto the mat with equal skill who is going to win? This question is asked frequently in the Brazilian jiu jitsu community. Many athletes feel technique is the only thing that matters. There is no doubt in my mind that technique is important. However, when technique is equal, then strength and conditioning do matter.
The benefits of a well-designed strength and conditioning program go beyond performance. A properly designed program will improve the athlete’s health and reduce injury risk. For a grappler a well-designed program must focus on the strength more than the conditioning.
What a Strength Program Won’t Do
A strength program will not make a grappler better at grappling. Contrary to popular belief, deadlifting will not make you better at arm bars. In the gym the goal is to get stronger. Weight training, mobility, and recovery work help the body get stronger - not better at BJJ techniques.
Why Strength Training Is Important
To improve performance and health, increasing muscle mass with strength training is key. Strength training will improve a grappler’s strength-to-weight ratio, reduce injury risk, and slow down the loss of muscle mass as the body ages.
All grappling sports require athletes to make a specific weight. Judo, wresting, and Brazilian jiu jitsu all require competitors to weigh in before a competition. In weight-class sports, athletes need a high strength-to-weight ratio. Two grapplers both weighing 150lbs are in the same weight class, but if one can squat 300lbs and the other squats 225lbs, then the one who can squat 300lbs is stronger relative to the other.
Contact sports also come with an increased risk of injury. One way to reduce injury risk is through strength training. The only way to improve technical skills is time on the mat. Reducing injury risk will keep grapplers on the mat instead - as opposed to sitting on the sidelines injured.
As the body ages, there is a natural loss of muscle mass. Sarcopenia is the medical term for this loss of muscle. Strength training is an important factor in the healthy aging process because it helps us hold on to our muscle. And the more muscle mass you can hold on to, the better.
Last, and perhaps the most overlooked aspect of strength training, is its effect on endurance. Let’s say a grappler walks into my gym who weighs 150lbs and can squat 200lbs for a two-rep max, for a total of 400lbs of work. After a twelve-week training program, that same grappler can now squat 200lbs for eight reps, for a total of 1,600lbs of work. That athlete is stronger and has an increased work capacity.
Common Misconceptions About Strength Training
Strength training with heavy weight is not well received in some grappling communities. Some grapplers feel strength training will make them slow. The opposite is true. When lifting heavy weights, the body recruits mostly type II muscle fibers, which are designed for short, intense, and fast movements such as grappling techniques.
Another misconception is strength training will make grapplers too bulky, or they feel they will wind up looking like a powerlifter. The reason powerlifters look the way they do is from their training. The sports of powerlifting and grappling are different. Grappling requires an athlete to perform at a high intensity for at least five minutes. A powerlifter’s event lasts a few seconds. Therefore, the specific adaptation powerlifters are trying to achieve is different than grappling. Most powerlifting strength routines focus on building size and strength with minimal conditioning. Grapplers training routines are not concerned with size, and focus more on strength and endurance. So as long as you are training with an appropriate program, you don’t have to worry about getting bulky.
Strength training is not a replacement for technique. But during your grappling practice is when you learn how to apply your newly developed strength and work on your specific conditioning. There is no better way to condition for grappling than to grapple, and there is no better way to getting stronger than in the weight room.
Photos by Dan of Earth.