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Modest strength for BJJ

In keeping with the theme of fitness for BJJ, let’s have a look at some of the things I think you need to do when you don’t have a partner to train with. Specifically we’re going to look at strength here but I’ll deal with conditioning in another post.

As I stated before in this post and this post, I believe that doing strength and conditioning training is for the most part a waste of your time when you have a partner and a matted area to train on. But sometimes you don’t have one of those two vital elements. Here’s what I do when I don’t.

Let’s start by laying out a broad understanding of what we’re trying to achieve when we’re working for strength. Yes we’d all like to look like Pablo Popovitch and have a neck so large we’d be confused for an upright turtle, but that’s not our initial goal. Our initial goal is the avoidance of injury, both in the weight room and on the mat. We don’t want to do anything that hurts us when we’re strength training, and we want to work towards the avoidance of injury generally. We need to understand that before we begin anything. Having the strength of 3 men would be awesome, but hurting yourself training might mean having the strength of 3 babies. I’ve been there, it’s not pleasant.

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So from the bottom up, we need our legs to function as they should. I know you want to helicopter sweep the heavyweights but believe it or not the primary function of your legs is to make sure you don’t fall over, and if you do fall over it’s not because your knee buckled underneath you. You need them to be both strong and stable, and one of the best methods of achieving that goal is to spend a lot of time on one foot when you’re strength training. Single leg work can be a real eye opener when you realise how much one leg is stronger than the other. Squatting regularly can just reinforce this.

In the middle we have the core. Let’s loosely define this as your gut, your lower back and everything in between. Your core work should be a mixture of the dynamic (moving) and the static (uh, not moving). We need our core for stability. Their job is, in the main, to stablise, so it follows that we should be doing quite a bit of stability work in this area. When it comes to movement, avoid exercises that promote too much movement through the lumbar spine such as crunches. There’s a time and place for that but in the main our goal is to maintain a natural curve in the base of the spine- one that curves slightly forward towards our gut as opposed to backwards towards our backside.

The upper body is next. Broadly speaking, you can only push things away, or pull things towards you. And what’s more there’s only 2 planes of motion to do those- horizontal or vertical. Now there are some other movements that don’t follow these rules per se, such as flies, (which it could be argued is a type of pull since we’re engaging the mid back blah blah blah) but these are the main things you can do. We’re not looking for giant pecs here, we’re not bodybuilding. What we’re looking for are stable shoulders, a stable mid back, and strong chest. Essentially in BJJ terms we’re looking for a good ability to push someone away and pull someone towards for sure, but we’re also looking to make sure our shoulders do what is asked of them.

So far, we could be talking about any sport’s requirements, but the last two are pretty unique to BJJ and grappling in general. Grip and neck strength.

Neck strength is required to not get snapped down, to post on your head, and to not suffer any trauma to your spine on impact or under pressure. It’s really vital for every grappler to do some sort of sensible neck strengthening work. Start slow with static work using bands or a towel, and then work towards exercises that involve some movement. Don’t expect to be balancing on your head within a week. This takes time.

Lastly, grip work. We’d all love an iron grip, so why not throw it into your programming? People are a little stumped about how to best achieve this and there’s lots of different schools of thought. I know some people are fond of towel or gi jacket pull ups, but I’m not. For me, you can’t get enough volume with these exercises to justify using them. You simply can’t do enough gi pull ups in a session unless both your grip and your pull ups are already excellent. I prefer roll-ups using a band, a light weight and a broomstick, gi or towel rows, or gi tug-o-war if you have a partner. Farmer’s walks and heavy deadlifts can help with grip too, but we’re talking about specific movements that work grip alone here.

So here’s what I did this morning, with just a 16kg kettlebell and a gi jacket for company.

Dynamic Warm up: Sumo squats, scap push ups, reverse lunges, wall sweeps, x-band walks, band dislocates. Band neck strengthening work. 3 sets of holds.

1)      Bulgarian Split Squat- 5×12 each leg

2)      Single leg deadlift- 5×8

3)      Russian Twists 3×50

4)      Bridge 3x60seconds

5)      Push ups 5×20

6)      Jacket inverted row 5×12. (I have a punchbag rack and an old gi jacket I hung it out of for these)

7)      Side bridging 3x45sec each side

8)      Hanging leg raises (from the punchbag rack)

9)      Rollups using the band and an old 2.5kg plate. 3 up and down. (so hard!)

All in all that took me just under 45 minutes, taking only about 30 seconds between sets. Not the sexiest session you’ll ever see by any stretch of the imagination, but very effective and covers all the bases.


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