Strength Training for BJJ: More Mat Time, Fewer InjuriesBut what if you could avoid most of those injuries, and the ones you do sustain weren’t nearly as bad? Getting strong can help reduce injuries, letting you roll more and, of course, not be hurt all the time. While strength training won’t magically cure everything that ails you, it will help you sculpt a more durable body, one that can withstand your passion and, ultimately, give you more time on the mat.
Strength for BJJ: More Mat Time, Fewer Injuries
By: Ben Patterson, BLOC Staff Coach
At the competitive level, combat sports are a young man’s game, but they also offer opportunities for self-improvement that have nothing to do with competition—great exercise, skill development, and amazing communities. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, not unlike barbell training, is at the same time incredibly difficult, incredibly rewarding, and accessible to many kinds of people. Even outside of competition, however, the physical demands of the training can take their toll on the participant’s body. If you plan to drive your body to “roll” and train deep into your later years, then you need to make sure you do routine maintenance on your body now, maintenance that occurs off the mat and in the gym. If you’ve been skipping that maintenance, don’t worry; it’s not too late to start.
A lot of jiu-jitsu players exercise off-the-matt, doing cardio or CrossFit to improve their conditioning, lifting high reps and low weights for muscular endurance, but few of them seriously train for strength, and that is almost always a mistake. If you’ve been training jiu-jitsu for any amount of time, you’ll know that bumps and bruises are part of the game: it’s not uncommon to have a tweaked “this,” a pulled “that,” or a tight “other thing.” But what if you could avoid most of those injuries, and the ones you did sustain weren’t nearly as bad? Getting strong can help reduce injuries, letting you roll more and, of course, not be hurt all the time. While strength training won’t magically cure everything that ails you, it will help you sculpt a more durable body, one that can withstand your passion and, ultimately, give you more time on the mat.
How Will Being Stronger Prevent Injures on the Mat?
Let’s go over some basic anatomy using your shoulder as an example. Your shoulder is a ball and socket joint, meaning the rounded head of your humerus (your upper arm bone) is seated in a shallow bowl-shaped socket on your scapula (your shoulder blade). Holding the bones together in this relationship are several other tissues, including the labrum (glenoid labrum), which extends from the edges of the socket and makes the bowl of the joint a bit bigger. Several other ligaments (the names of which are not important here) act like cords or cables. They are the last line of defense before joint separation.
But ligaments (the tissue that connects bones to bones) are not the only tissues responsible for holding your shoulder together. A number of muscles, large and small, also help keep everything in place. The rotator cuff muscles and their tendons form a cuff around the humerus to hold it in place. Each of the rotator cuff muscles pulls the head of the humerus into the glenoid cavity of the shoulder, helping to keep your arm in its socket through the shoulder’s wide range of motion. The stronger these muscles are, the more efficiently they can do their job, and the less likely it is that you have to rely on ligaments to keep the joint together.
A practical example: Let’s say you find yourself in a kimura, americana, or omoplata. To the uninitiated, these are submission holds in which one’s opponent is trying to change the relationship between the humerus and scapula to one that is… unnatural. (Think of pulling the wing off a roasted chicken.) There are technical defenses and escapes, but being able to “muscle through it” and buy yourself time—even if it’s only enough time to tap—can mean the difference between taking the next roll and sitting out or being side-lined for longer. Better yet, more strength can help you avoid the situation altogether by being able to stay tighter and keep your arms from being pried away from your body in the first place.
But, What About Technique?
Putting some muscle behind your movements is often seen as a bad thing in jiu-jitsu, as if one should use pure technique to overcome a situation. While technique and skill acquisition are reasons that we are training in the first place, strength is a part of any technique. Strength is simply the production of force against an external resistance. So even shrimping down the mat takes some strength.
Not only that, but the long-term jiu-jitsu practitioner is going to train with people of all shapes, sizes, skill levels, and aggressions. Your training partner may not be coming at you with pure technical proficiency, but they still want to make you tap. If you are on the bottom of side control and you have an opponent roughly your size and skill level on top of you, how hard is it to get out? If you were 150% heavier—with the same skill level and ability to move—would it be just as difficult? Even at similar skill levels, smaller grapplers can and do beat larger opponents, but this isn’t the norm.
In general, being stronger will help you execute techniques successfully by exceeding the minimum force needed to do so. If it takes 100 pounds of force to bridge into your opponent and you can currently produce 110lbs, you can get the job done—provided you execute near-perfect technique. How much more effective will you be if you can produce 200lbs of force? This can be applied to any aspect of human movement. Obviously, there is a point of diminishing returns, but if you are not already strong, being stronger will benefit your game.
Isn’t It All About the Gas Tank, Though?
Will being stronger (read “bigger”) slow you down, make you gas out, or make you less mobile? The answer depends on how much bigger you get. The ability to produce more force is going to make movements against the same amount of resistance easier. If your “size” stays roughly the same but you get stronger, you will gain a greater ability to move around the mat.
Few will similarly argue about the benefit of power on the mat. For example, in order to win a scramble—to gain a superior position from a disconnected equal position—we need power. And power is strength expressed quickly. By increasing the amount of force we can produce in a given movement, we can get from point A to point B faster. All else equal, more strength means more power, means better positions on the mat.
The trick here is improving strength enough to noticeably increase force output on the mat without noticeably increasing the resistance (aka your body weight). If you keep your body weight in check as you get stronger, this won’t be an issue. If you are skinny, you probably need to gain weight, but with the proper program and diet, you can do that without putting on a lot of excess fat. Conversely, an overweight grappler will benefit from the increased activity—again, along with proper nutrition—helping them move around the mat more efficiently.
Being gassed out is a legitimate concern. Strength doesn’t mean much if you’re exhausted. From observing matches, we see that smaller grapplers tend to have bigger gas tanks. Even though the actual programming might look similar in the early stages, getting stronger for jiu-jitsu is a different goal than training for a powerlifting meet. Powerlifters want to be able to lift as much weight as possible within the rules of their sport. The jiu-jitsu practitioner wants to get strong to support their sport. Training for strength in general and training for a sport are not always the same things.
This is where having an expert coach who knows the difference comes in handy. Lifting on a program that steadily and methodically builds strength while keeping up with your rolling will help maintain the conditioning you need to perform your best. You’re probably not out to be the biggest guy in the gym, but the guy who is the biggest will be a little more manageable when you’re stronger.
Setting aside time to get stronger does mean less time on the mat each week. But the benefits of being strong will make the time you do get on the mat more productive and will help keep you from being side-lined. So take the time to get and stay strong; it will improve your game.