We’ve all heard the BJJ marketing line: beating a bigger and stronger opponent using superior technique, a claim that was backed up by the performance of Royce Gracie in the early UFCs just over 23 years ago and the main reason that many people got into BJJ in the first place. However, Royce had an absolute technical advantage over his opponents who were not well versed in submission or grappling skills, something that does not hold true today. While the technique is still an essential factor, strength is still important, particularly if your opponent is of an equal or superior technical level. Broadly speaking, the technique can be thought of as an input multiplier while strength is the input.
Types of Strength
When most people think of ‘strength training’, they usually only think about maximal strength, however, there are different types of strength qualities, and the following general qualities are the most important when it comes to your BJJ performance:
- Maximal Strength – The ability of the neuromuscular system to generate maximal tension against external resistance. The most common example of athletes who are focused purely on maximal strength is powerlifters.
- Explosive Strength – The ability of the neuromuscular system to exert a maximal amount of force in a minimal amount of time. Good examples of explosive strength athletes are weight lifters, sprinters, and throwers.
- Strength Endurance – The ability of the neuromuscular system to exert a consistent level of force for extended periods of time. Many different types of athletes require high levels of strength endurance such as rowers, wrestlers, and yes, BJJ athletes.
Assess Yourself: Which Type of Strength Do You Need Most?
While it would be great to have high levels of all the different types of strength, that is simply not realistic for BJJ athletes. Strength training costs both time and energy which can detract from your actual skill training. In particular, maximal and explosive strength training, while not requiring a large amount of time, costs a lot in terms of your body’s recovery ability due to its high degree of stress on the central nervous system.
The best way to approach strength training for BJJ is to realistically assess your rolling and competition performance:
Do you feel constantly overpowered by opponents that are similar in weight? If so, you may be lacking in maximal strength.
Do you feel like you can hold your own in terms of strength but your muscles fatigue too quickly? You are likely lacking in strength endurance.
Do you find that you are lacking that explosive burst when necessary, even though you are strong? Explosive strength training might be your answer.
The type and level of strength that you would most need is also heavily dependent on your game; are you a slow and crushing passer, a torreando master, a closed guard player etc.?
The Importance of Maximal Strength
Maximal strength is the foundation upon which all the other strength gains are built: take for an example, athlete A who is able to squat a maximum of 400lbs and athlete B whose squat maximum is only 250lbs. If we do a strength endurance test consisting of the max number of reps of 200lbs in one minute, which athlete would be able to perform better? Generally speaking, increasing your maximal strength will result in gains in all the other types of strength; however the reverse is not true. In addition, plenty of rolling will develop good levels of strength endurance by itself while also developing your technique of course.
However, at a certain point, it might be more beneficial for a BJJ athlete to focus on developing the other strength qualities once a good degree of maximal strength has already been achieved. Fortunately, measuring maximal strength is very easy and there are numerous strength standards published all over the Internet. If you have achieved the following strength levels, then further increasing your maximal strength may have little marginal benefit for your BJJ. If you haven’t been able to achieve these standards (or you are at the bottom of the ranges and think that more strength can benefit your game) then you should engage in some maximal strength training.
Deadlift: 2 – 2.5x bodyweight
Squat: 1.8 – 2.3x bodyweight
Front Squat: 1.5 – 2.0x bodyweight
Bench Press: 1.3 – 1.5x bodyweight
Weighted Chin/Pull Up: Bodyweight + 0.5 – 0.7x bodyweight
Training for Different Types of Strength
After assessing your rolling performance, your game, and the strength standards above, hopefully you are now better aware of the type of strength quality that you should be training for in order to improve your BJJ performance.
- High intensity: >80% 1 Rep Max.
- Low reps: 5 reps or under per set.
- Long rest periods between sets: 2 – 5 minutes.
- 3 to 4 working sets per exercise.
- Tempo will be slow to fast, although you should always attempt to move the weight as fast as possible.
- Use major compound movements such as variations of the lifts mentioned in the strength standards above.
- An example of popular maximal strength programs you can follow: Starting Strength, 5/3/1, Texas Method, Madcow Method, Westside Method, Juggernaut Method.
- 40 – 75% 1 Rep Max for strength lifts.
- 0 – 40% 1 Rep Max for ballistic work.
- Low reps: 6 reps or under per set.
- Long rest periods of 2 – 4 minutes; you want to fully recover between sets to ensure optimal power production.
- 2 to 5 working sets per exercise.
- Tempo should be as fast as possible.
- You can use Olympic weightlifting exercises or powerlifting exercises for the strength lifts. Ballistic work can include depth jumps, weighted jumps, clap pushups, medicine ball throws/slams or hand release pullups.
- Low to moderate intensity: 30 – 70% 1 Rep Max for strength lifts.
- High reps: 10 reps or over per set.
- Shorter rest periods: 30s – 2 minutes.
- 2 to 5 working sets per exercise.
- Tempo should be consistent: slow to moderate.
- You can use a large variety of exercises from barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, bodyweight exercises, or jiu-jitsu specific exercises such as gi rows or gi pull ups.
Understand How Strength Training Fits Into Your Overall Program
When it comes to non-technique training, or supplemental training, strength is just one component, cardio and flexibility are also two other critical components. If you are already very strong, there may be little use in doing any strength training at all beyond the bare minimum; your BJJ performance would likely benefit more from more cardio and flexibility training.
In many sports, heavy strength training is done in the off-season. The problem with BJJ is that there is no real offseason (although the IBJJF gi season covers the first half of the year), and hence no set period for which to perform plenty of strength training. Given everybody’s different training and competition schedules, the amount and timing of strength training would have to be highly individual. Remember, while strength training is important, it is only one piece of the puzzle of your BJJ performance.