Strength Training For Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

September 29, 2021

Ask the average bro for strength training advice for BJJ and you’ll likely get “just lift weights bro” or “just get stronger in the squat, bench, and deadlift.” While maximal strength is an important quality that influences other strength characteristics, it is not as important in BJJ as it is in other sports.

However, as the sport of BJJ evolves, many of the top BJJ players are physically imposing and have the strength to match. Which begs the question, does strength provide a competitive advantage?

As strength training isn't widely part of the BJJ training culture, developing total body strength may provide a competitive advantage over similarly skilled opponents. Aiming for general strength standards of 1.3-1.5 kg bench press, 1.5-2.0 kg squat, and 2-2.5 kg deadlift will likely be "strong enough" to give you a competitive advantage.

However, there is much more to strength training for BJJ than the squat, bench, and deadlift. While they provide a great stimulus for maximal strength, BJJ is a sport that requires muscular power and endurance in planes of movement outside of the typical ‘up and down.’

How Strong Do You Need To Be For BJJ?

How Strong Do You Need To Be For BJJ

When analyzing the strength requirements for BJJ, it is best to look at how strong elite level BJJ competitors are compared to non-elite. One study did just that comparing brown and black belt elite BJJ practitioners versus brown and black belt non-elite BJJ practitioners [1].

Elite BJJ practitioners were defined as having won a national and/or international competition medal while non-elite BJJ practitioners were non-medalists in these competitions.

Elite BJJ athletes were stronger in the bench press (111 kg vs. 98 kg), were able to perform more push-ups (41 vs. 36), and perform more sit-ups in one minute (46 vs. 40) than the non-elite BJJ athletes.

However, when accounting for bodyweight, there was no difference in bench press strength. Also, no difference was found between the groups in the squat.

It seems lower body strength may not be a differentiator between elite and non-elite BJJ practitioners. In fact, squat strength only ranged between 83-98 kg representing around 1.1-1.3 kg relative to body weight.

Muscular power output is important in BJJ during explosive actions such as sweeps and takedowns. High-level BJJ athletes have a vertical jump between 30-45 cm which is higher than Olympic wrestlers and elite judo athletes potentially highlighting the importance of having powerful legs for BJJ [2].

7 Powerful Ways To Get Stronger For Grappling/BJJ, Without Being Tired & Sore!

There was no difference in power output in the upper body using the bench press throw when comparing advanced and non-advanced BJJ athletes. Power was maximized in the throw at approximately 42% of bench press 1RM.

We can also profile BJJ practitioners by the style of game they like to play. In the literature, BJJ practitioners are labeled either as guard fighters or pass fighters [3].

While there were no differences in leg or grip strength, pass fighters exhibited greater lower back endurance than guard fighters.

Based on all of the strength training research in BJJ, a general guideline for strength standards are [2]:

  • Bench press: 1.3-1.5 kg/bodyweight
  • Squat: 1.2 kg/bodyweight
  • Deadlift: 1.7 kg/bodyweight

These BJJ strength standards would be considered very low regarding the lower body to most other athletes.

 In my opinion, it highlights the importance of upper body strength over lower body strength.

However, that doesn't discount the potential benefits of having stronger legs. With technique being equal, you can potentially gain an advantage over an opponent due to being stronger overall. Further, strength training can reduce your risk of injury by 66% and prevent over 50% of overuse injuries [6].

So instead of these standards, you can shoot for some typical strength standards of:

  • Bench press: 1.3-1.5 kg/bodyweight
  • Squat: 1.5-2 kg/bodyweight
  • Deadlift: 2-2.5 kg/bodyweight

Importantly, time taken away from your BJJ training to reach these targets is not desirable. Especially the lower body strength targets as it doesn't seem maximal lower body strength is of great importance to BJJ.

We can sum these findings up into some general principles for strength training for BJJ.

  • Aim to develop general strength in the ranges presented above for the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
  • Develop lower body explosive power so vertical jump sits in the range of 30-45 cm or higher.
  • Upper body explosive power in the form of bench press throw may not be as important but when training it, use loads approximately 40% of 1RM.
  • Upper body and trunk strength endurance should be emphasized.
  • If you are a pass fighter, place extra emphasis on lower back endurance.

It’s important to note that if a physical metric doesn’t differentiate between elite and non-elite BJJ athletes, it likely has little bearing on BJJ performance. Sadly, there isn’t much research on this specific topic so some creative freedom will be used.

Further, having an elite level bench press isn’t going to turn you from a non-elite to an elite BJJ practitioner at the national or international level. BJJ skill will always trump strength. It could be that the elite level BJJ practitioners are generally better athletes than non-elite so have higher scores for some physical tests.

Or that elite level BJJ athletes place greater emphasis on their overall training off the mats. There are many factors that can influence these testing results.

Will Strength Training Help Your BJJ?

There is no doubt that strength training will help your BJJ. It's about maximizing every competitive advantage you can have. Being technically sound is paramount. Having BJJ strength to back it up will make you unstoppable. Your stand-up will feel more comfortable and even certain sweeps will be easier.

Best Strength Training Exercises For BJJ

While I'm not a huge fan of saying a specific exercise is the best for BJJ as it often comes down to the individual, there are some exercises that I believe are great to supplement your BJJ training. Here are the best exercises that fit in each major movement category.

Push Exercise

Bench Press From The Pins (Bottom Position)

This is my favorite upper body pressing exercise as it develops raw strength from a dead stop position. This is often the position you are in if your stuck on the bottom! If possible, use a thick bar or Fat Gripz to add extra grip work and thicken your wrists.

Importantly, once you set up under the bar, create a lot of tension by pushing into the bar before pressing it off the pins. If you go to rapidly press without this tension beforehand, you can injure your shoulder.

Recommended sets and reps: 2-5 sets of 1-5 reps.

Pull Exercise

Barbell Row

I prefer to do these from the floor. It's much friendlier on the lower back and you can get a better back contraction from it. You can do these in the bent over position too while you maintain an isometric contraction of the lower back. I like to pull to my belly button to emphasize the lats but you can also pull to your upper abs for an upper back emphasis.

Recommended sets and reps: 2-5 sets of 5-10 reps.

Squat

Front Squat

Why the front squat over the back squat? Purely because you have to support the load in front of you. These places extra tension on the mid and upper back. Areas of development you will need during stand up and to strengthen your wrestling game.

You can use any type of grip when front squatting as you are not a competitive lifter. Clean grip, clean grip with straps, or a cross grip. Choose whatever is comfortable. Squat as deep as your mobility allows you. Deeper squats place less stress on the knees and result in greater activation of the quads [4,5].

Recommend sets and reps: 2-4 sets of 2-6 reps.

Hinge

Romanian Deadlift

While the deadlift is great, the Romanian deadlift is a true hip hinge movement. To perform these correctly, always start from the top. So either take the bar out of the rack or deadlift the weight first. Then slowly push your hips back as far as you can without bending your knees any further.

Your knees won't be completely straight. They'll be slightly bent. As soon as your hips stop moving backward, stop and thrust the hips forward to return to the starting position. This means you'll only get to just below your knees if you do this correctly.

Recommended sets and reps: 2-4 sets of 6-8 reps.

Lunge

Bulgarian Split Squat

This isn't technically a lunge as a lunge means you step each rep. However, the Bulgarian split squat is just as good, if not better than a regular lunge as you can load it heavier and place greater emphasis on the front leg. You also get the added bonus of stretching the back leg rectus femoris muscle which often gets tight from sitting often.

Load this exercise with either dumbbells or a barbell. You can make this extra challenging by only holding one dumbbell which will force you to resist forces laterally while performing the split squat.

Recommended sets and reps: 2-4 sets x 5-10 reps.

Rotation

Landmine Rotation

The landmine rotation is easily my favorite rotation exercise when it comes to BJJ. Being able to resist heavy loads while rotating and exploding to the starting position will give you some real power in your stand up game. I hate seeing this exercise performed with a stationary body and only the arms moving side to side.

Turn your feet and hips with the exercise so you can load not just the trunk, but the hips and legs. This is where you will get that crazy power.

Recommended sets and reps: 2-3 sets x 5-6 reps.

Carry

Sandbag Bearhug Carry

Probably my favorite carry variation for BJJ. You're essentially replicating having double underhooks or even a seatbelt grip. And the best thing is you can practice it with sandbags far heavier than the opponents in your weight class.

To level up this exercise, use a different grip each set or each week. For example, one set can use the Gable grip, next set can use a seatbelt grip with the hand over the wrist. That is how you can develop unbreakable grip strength.

Recommended sets and reps: 1-3 sets x 20-40 m.

How To Structure A Strength Training Program For BJJ

Will Strength Training Help Your BJJ

This is where the art and science of programming is blended together. To make things easier, there are some general guidelines that should be adhered to within a training day:

  • Fast to slow
  • Complex to simple
  • Compound to isolation

These guidelines ensure you get the most out of your strength and power training while minimizing the risk of injury.

Fast to slow means performing exercises on the velocity side of the force-velocity curve first in the workout. As you progress through the workout, the loading gets heavier, and therefore, the velocity decreases.

Complex to simple means performing movements that require a high level of coordination such as various jumps, throws, or Olympic lifts before simpler movements such as squats or single-limb movements.

Compound to isolation means performing multi joint movements such as squats and deadlifts before single joint movements such as lateral raises or bicep curls.

It’s important to remember these guidelines serve as an overall guiding principles. It doesn’t mean that all exercises always have to be performed in these orders.

Sometimes, using rest periods to perform easier isolation exercises can be a great training strategy to make the most use of your time. You will see an example of this below.

When planning strength training sessions for the week, you need to choose how many days a week you’ll train. This is all going to depend on the time you have available. If you work full time, you may only have time to strength train 2 days a week when juggling BJJ training.

Dominate the mats

2 Day Strength Training Program For BJJ

In my experience, performing strength training before BJJ training works best. Whether that’s directly before BJJ practice if you’re time-crunched or in the morning of your evening BJJ sessions if you have more time.

If you’re only drilling at BJJ, then strength training can be performed later in the day.

If you’ve ever tried strength training after a tough BJJ training session, you know it’s near impossible to do anything from the fatigue!

When training twice a week, both sessions should be full-body to take advantage of the limited training time.

So without further or do, here is a sample 2 day a week strength training program for BJJ.

Day 1

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Box or Broad Jump

3-5 x 3-5

Cell

A2) Neck Training Variation

3-4 sets

Cell

B1) KB Swing

3-4 x 6-8

Cell

C1) Front Squat

3-4 x 2-5

70-85% 1RM

D1) Barbell Row

3-4 x 6-10

8 RPE

E1) 1-Arm Overhead Press

2-4 x 8-12

8 RPE

F1) Farmers Walk

2-3 x 20-40 m

Cell

Day 2

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Medicine Ball Overhead Scoop Toss

3-5 x 3-4

3-8 kg

A2) Neck Training Variation

3-4 sets

Cell

B1) Deadlift

3-4 x 2-5

70-85% 1RM

C1) Bench Press

3-4 x 3-6

70-85% 1RM

C2) Chin-Up

3-4 x 5-10

8 RPE

D1) Landmine Rotation

2-4 x 5-6/side

8 RPE

E1) Sandbag Bearhug or Zercher Carry

2-3 x 20-40 m

Cell

F1) Grip Training Variation

2-3 sets

Cell

3 Day Strength Training Program For BJJ

If you are training BJJ 5+ times a week, I wouldn’t recommend performing three days of strength training a week. Twice a week is easily enough to get what you need done.

However, if you are training less BJJ and want to add in an extra strength training session to gain some size or just to feel stronger overall, here is how you can go about it.

Two days should be your ‘hard’ training sessions that involve full-body strength and power exercises. These will be complexed so the strength exercise will be followed by the velocity or power exercise. You can also use these complexes in the 2-Day schedule but I want to show another way of organizing your training program.

By doing this, we can take advantage of the post-activation potentiation phenomenon. This phenomenon was best described by Soviet researcher Dr. Verkhoshanksy. I paraphrase:

"Imagine what would happen if you lifted a half-full bottle of water when you thought the bottle was full. There'd be a mismatch between your perception of the force needed to move the bottle, and the actual force required. The bottle would move twice as fast as you intended."

Using complexes is a more intermediate-advanced way of organizing training so it is a good progression from moving from fast to slow exercises like in the 2-Day program.

One day will consist of ‘easy’ isolation or bodybuilding exercises to address muscular imbalances, general prehab, or overall hypertrophy.

Day 1 (‘Hard’)

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Front Squat

3-5 x 2-5

70-85% 1RM

A2) Box or Broad Jump

3-5 x 3-5

Cell

B1) Bench Press

3-4 x 2-5

70-85% 1RM

B2) Med Ball Chest Throw

3-4 x 2-5

2-4 kg

C1) KB Swing

3-4 x 6-8

Cell

C2) Neck Training Variation

3-4 sets

Cell

D1) Barbell Row

3-4 x 5-10

8 RPE

E1) Farmers Walk

2-3 x 20-40 m

Cell

Day 2 (‘Easy’)

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Sandbag Zercher or Bearhug Carry

3-4 x 20-40 m

Cell

B1) Reverse Fly

2-3 x 15-20

Cell

B2) Isometric Back Extension

2-3 x 20-60 sec

Cell

C1) Fat Gripz BB Curl

2-3 x 10-15

Cell

C2) Towel Tricep Extension

2-3 x 10-15

Cell

D1) Neck Training Variation

3-4 sets

Cell

D2) Hanging Leg Raise

3-4 x 10-15

Cell

Day 3 (‘Hard’)

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Deadlift

3-4 x 2-5

70-85% 1RM

A2) Split Squat Jump

3-4 x 3-4/leg

Cell

B1) Push Press

3-4 x 2-5

70-85% 1RM

B2) Medicine Ball Overhead Scoop Toss

3-4 x 3-4

3-8 kg

C1) Chin-Up

3-4 x 5-10

Cell

C2) Neck Training Variation

3-4 sets

Cell

D1) Landmine Rotation

2-3 x 5-6/side

Cell

D2) Rotational Med Ball Throw

2-3 x 3-5/side

Cell

E1) Grip Training Variation

2-3 sets

Cell

Grip Strength Training For BJJ

Both maximal handgrip strength and strength endurance of the grip are important factors for BJJ performance.

With so many different grips used in BJJ, it’s important to train as many of them as possible either by making modifications to your main exercises or adding specific grip training exercises.

See my article “How To Improve Grip Strength For BJJ” for the different grips and training options.

What About BJJ Conditioning?

Of course, conditioning is a vital part of your physical preparation for BJJ. I've done a full rundown in my conditioning for BJJ article so head over there to see everything you need to know about conditioning.

Bodyweight Strength Training For BJJ

If you refer to my “Calisthenics for BJJ” article, I mention that bodyweight only training isn’t enough to get the most out of strength training. This is because various loading elicits different adaptations.

However, if you don’t have access to gym equipment for whatever reason, bodyweight training will have to suffice. Placing the emphasis on jumps, upper body strength and endurance, and trunk strength and endurance will be the main goals.

Here is a sample twice a week bodyweight strength training program for BJJ with the only piece of equipment being an elastic band:

Day 1

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Vertical Jump

3-5 x 3-5

Cell

A2) 4-Way Neck Isometric Hold

3-5 x 10 sec/side

Cell

B1) Explosive Incline Pushup

3-5 x 3-5

Cell

B2) Band Pull Apart

3-5 x 15-25

Cell

C1) Bulgarian Split Squat

2-3 x 8-15/side

Cell

C2) Cross Body Crunch

2-3 x 5-10/side

Cell

D1) Banded Pushup

3-4 x 8-15

Cell

D2) Prone Superman

3-4 x 10-20

Cell

E1) Bent Over Band Row

3-4 x 10-20

Cell

E2) Gripper or Rice Bucket or Finger Extensions

3-4 sets

Cell

Day 2

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Broad Jump

3-5 x 3-5

Cell

A2) 4-Way Neck Isometric Hold

3-5 x 10 sec/side

Cell

B1) Explosive Pushup

3-5 x 3-5

Cell

B2) Lying Leg Raise

3-5 x 10-20

Cell

C1) Band Good Morning

2-4 x 10-20

Cell

C2) Side Plank

2-4 x 20-60/side

Cell

D1) Pushup Isometric Hold

3-4 x 20-45sec

Cell

D2) Prone Superman Power Hold

3-4 x 20-60sec

Cell

E1) Band Face Pull

2-3 x 15-25

Cell

E2) Gripper or Rice Bucket or Finger Extensions

2-3 sets

Cell

These programs provided are very general plans. When programming for yourself, there will be individual factors to account for such as previous injuries, time, equipment, and space available, and individual strengths and weaknesses.

However, these examples will provide a framework to work off of. You can see the guiding principles in action such as moving from fast to slow movements during the training session.

Summary

Having strength in BJJ is often undervalued because technical proficiency is so important. But strength is more than performance. It will help you reduce the risk of injury so you can be on the mats longer leveling up your skills. Strength training for BJJ must be part of your overall preparation maximize your BJJ performance.

Manhandle Opponents And Dominate The Mats

Customizable BJJ strength training program and competition strength training program so you can manhandle opponents and dominate the mats!

Strength in BJJ
Strength in BJJ

References

1. Marinho, B. F., Andreato, L. V., Follmer, B., & Franchini, E. (2016). Comparison of body composition and physical fitness in elite and non-elite Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes. Science & Sports31(3), 129-134.

2. Andreato, L. V., Lara, F. J. D., Andrade, A., & Branco, B. H. M. (2017). Physical and physiological profiles of Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes: a systematic review. Sports medicine-open3(1), 9.

3. de Paula Lima, P. O., Lima, A. A., Coelho, A. C. S., Lima, Y. L., Almeida, G. P. L., Bezerra, M. A., & de Oliveira, R. R. (2017). Biomechanical differences in brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes: the role of combat style. International journal of sports physical therapy12(1), 67.

4. Hartmann, H., Wirth, K., & Klusemann, M. (2013). Analysis of the load on the knee joint and vertebral column with changes in squatting depth and weight load. Sports medicine, 43(10), 993-1008.

5. Wretenberg, P., Feng, Y., Lindberg, F., & Arboreilus, U. P. (1993). Joint moments of force and quadriceps muscle activity during squatting exercise. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 3(4), 244-250.

About the author 

James de Lacey

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international level teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your combat training.


Tags

bjj


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