The idealistic definition of BJJ is always an art that allows the smaller and weaker person to beat bigger and stronger opponent using technique and leverage.
However, when two BJJ practitioners with equal level of technique and leverage understanding fight, the winner will always be the stronger one.
Most BJJ practitioners hesitate to do strength training for two main reasons; first, BJJ training alone is already very tiring and some practitioners believe that they need to rest their body instead of hitting them with weights before or after class and BJJ students are also afraid that strength training will only make them stiff like body builders and hurt their flexibility and ability to flow with ease during sparring or competition matches.
Perhaps the best advice that helped me incorporate strength training into my BJJ comes from black belt Steve Grossi here:
Basically, he says that it will not hurt BJJ practitioners to do strength training once in a while. The focus should always be on the mat drilling technique and rolling but at least allocate a day in a week to lift some weights to improve strength.
I train BJJ 3 times a week and in my case, I allocate Saturdays and Sundays to go to the gym and lift weights.
As for the exercises, I only do workout programs that are specifically designed to develop strength, not building big muscles.
Training for strength and for building muscles use similar exercises but approached differently. When you train for building muscles, you aim for hypertrophy (breaking down your muscle cells so that they can grow bigger). To reach hypertrophy, body builders lift weights with more intensity and this is something you want to avoid if your goal is developing strength.
One of the strength training workout programs that I currently do is called the 5 X 5. This program has been around for decades and fortunately with today’s digital technology, everyone can access it for free via an app called Stronglifts. You can download the app for Android here and for iOs here.
What is the 5 X 5 strength training program?
In the 5 X 5 program you will do two workouts; workout A and workout B. Combined together, these workouts consist of five compound exercises, which stimulate different muscle groups all at once, making them ideal for strength training whereas body building usually incorporates isolation exercises that target specific muscle group.
The 5 X 5 compound exercises consist of barbell squat, barbell overhead press, barbell deadlift, barbell bench press and barbell row. These exercises develop strength on your core, hip, back and legs. Strength on all of these areas, especially the hip, is very important for BJJ.
The exercises in workout A consists of:
- 5 sets of 5 reps of barbell squat
- 5 sets of 5 reps of barbell overhead press
- 1 set of 5 reps of barbell deadlift (yes only one set for deadlift)
And workout B:
- 5 sets of 5 reps of barbell squat
- 5 sets of 5 reps of barbell bench press
- 5 sets of 5 reps of barbell row
Ideally you train 3 times a week and do one workout on a certain day and then the next workout two days later. So, if you do workout A on Monday, then workout B is on Wednesday and back to A again on Friday. The next Monday, you will start with workout B and so on. You can always adjust this to your own schedule. For me, I do workout A on Saturday and B on Sunday.
Each workout day, you will add 2.5 kilograms of weight into your lifts. So, if you lift 50 kilograms (including the barbell) on the barbell squat on Monday, you will lift 52.5 kilograms on Wednesday and this weight will continue to add up, eventually leading to you having better strength in the long run.
Each of the 5 X 5 workouts takes no longer than 45 minutes to complete. So, this program is very time efficient and does not wear on your body if you do them correctly.
Beginners should start the 5 X 5 programs with an empty barbell and gradually increase the weights each workout day.
Hiring a personal trainer to teach the correct form to lift the weights is also advisable because poorly executed lifts can lead to injuries. Just hire a trainer for about three months and once you are comfortable with the form, you can do the exercises on your own.
Taking it to the next level
You will notice significant improvement in your strength after six weeks of training using the 5 X 5 program. In BJJ context, this translates into better ability to escape from bottom position, better control on top, more powerful sweeps and much more.
However, let’s face it, the 5 X 5 program will get boring eventually. You basically do only five exercises over and over again. Sometimes, it is good to have a variety of strength training exercises so that you don’t get bored plus having your muscle stimulated differently also has its own benefits.
Other than the 5 X 5 program, you can also check out the free Body Space app (Android link & iOS link) from Bodybuilding.com. While this app comes from a body building portal, it also offers a lot of strength training options and programs. You can select from hundreds of strength training program available in the app to replace the 5 X 5 program if you are getting bored with it.
More serious athletes might also consider joining in a premium online program. The exercises in premium online programs might not have too much difference with those in the free ones but there are valuable premium benefits, such as the ability to directly contact the coach behind the program for better guidance, a supporting community forum and most of the times, these paid program also come with a diet plan to help you becoming a better overall athlete.
Some examples of good premium BJJ/grappling-specific strength training programs that you can find online are:
Ground Control Program: This program is created by American Top Team strength and conditioning coach Phil Daru. His list of clients include multiple time world champion Gezary Matuda, UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley and Alexey Oleynik.
Kettlebells For Grapplers: Kettlebells is an excellent choice if you are tired and bored with the barbell. Kettlebell exercises are very good for your hip and core. Kettlebells also do not take up a lot of space and you can buy a couple of them to do the workouts at home. Matt D’Aquino, an Olympian black belt judoka and a brown belt in BJJ, has designed a kettlebell workout program specifically designed for grappling combat sports.
Workouts For Judo: Other than the kettlebell program, Matt also has designed a workout program specifically designed for Judo. While BJJ has deviated so much from its origins in judo, these workout program is also suitable for BJJ practitioners.