Strength & Conditioning for Jiu-Jitsu Part III by Leo Morton

In Part I and Part II of my series, I posited that Strength & Conditioning was an invaluable asset to the combat athlete, as well as outlined a 3x/ week template to serve as a starting point for beginner and intermediate athletes. While it’s not that the template is insufficient for an advanced athlete, I believe a customized and individualized program is a better approach for that population. And that is a good reminder for whom I’m trying to write this series. The combat athlete enthusiast who loves skill training, and even possibly enjoys competing, and wants to harness every advantage they can on the mats.

For Part III, I want to help these athletes best achieve peak performance for an event of their choosing. This will be different for everybody, and may span an MMA fight to a Grappler’s Quest tournament, or an in-house belt test. Once again though, this is for the athlete who has identified a specific event where they want to reach a condition that is above and beyond their normal level or performance.

First, let’s discuss a few important points about many combat sports. Generally speaking, we don’t have the same type of season that most team sports do. Compared to the big three here in the US, baseball, football, and basketball, in MMA and BJJ, there really is no universal off-season, pre-season, peak season, and post-season. Athletes may be required to peak 3-5 times per year, sometimes with only a few weeks in between (as in the case this year when the IBJJF Pans and Mundials were just 8 weeks or so apart).

Secondly, and most importantly, most athletes in this scenario simply don’t have the means to determine the best ways to peak. As discussed in Part I of the series, many athletes can’t afford a dedicated S&C coach. Many athletes only have access to basic equipment, both of the training and testing variety. Most athletes are not going to have the money to gather blood tests in order to customize training and diet to their specific needs.

What we are going to do here is take a different approach to our decision making when it comes to peaking. We are going to borrow some techniques from the field of Heuristics when we design our tests and use our results to initiate our peaking plan. For those of you not familiar with Heuristics, a quick Wiki reference may help here:

“…heuristics refers to experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery. Heuristic methods are used to come to an optimal solution as rapidly as possible. Part of this method is using a “rule of thumb”, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, or common sense. A heuristic is a general way of solving a problem.”1

Gerd Gigerenzer is an expert in the field of Heuristics. In his book, “Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious”, he introduces a tool for decision making he calls the fast and frugal tree. He explains,

“a fast and frugal tree asks only a few yes-or-no questions and allows for a decision after each one.”2

I have found this approach invaluable for myself, often due to the position I’m put in with various clients. Far too many times, I’ve had a local MMA fighter come to me with a scheduled fight just 8 weeks away. And while 8 weeks is sufficient to make some positive changes, as a coach you have to make some concessions in order to be effective. For instance, in my hypothetical example, I don’t have the luxury of taking a week to assess the athlete. Frankly, I don’t have a full line up of testing gear anyways. For example, I don’t have a VO2 Max testing device. On top of this, I have to be pretty confident that what we are going to attack in the next 8 weeks is as close to what the fighter needs as possible. Why? Well, let’s say we implement Plan A for 4 weeks, we might still have time to make adjustments, but once again, it’s not like we want to waste a training session or two on seeing what Plan A has done. We are really at the mercy of some very subjective observations and opinions as to the efficacy of Plan A.

Let’s take a look at two fast and frugal trees I’ve developed. One uses a hypothetical event 8 weeks out, while one begins 12 weeks prior to the event.


I think the flow is self-explanatory, but let’s dig into this a little bit more. The first thing you might notice is that the 12 week tree incorporates the 8 week decision tree. So let’s focus on the 8 week tree first. The first important “yes or no” question we have is, “Is Conditioning Adequate?” Let’s talk about ways of determining “yes” or “no”. Once again, recall that we are trying to make this judgement with minimal equipment, minimal cost, and minimal testing time.

  1. Is Conditioning Adequate – The first thing I’d do here is ask the athlete, ask his skill coach, and ask his training partners. “Can athlete X fight 3, 5 minute rounds?” “Can athlete X fight 3-4 8 minute grappling matches?” You will glean a lot of information just from a few informal interviews and questions. Yes, the information is subjective, but that’s ok here. You may learn where the athlete’s conditioning seems best, and where it seems worst (i.e. he thrives against counter fighters, or he’s very comfortable off his back). You may learn that athlete looks great in morning and afternoon sessions, but looks badly fatigued during night sessions. Or, you may find the fighter has plenty of motivation, or has to be constantly pushed by his coaches. These are all important, subjective pieces of information that will help you assess the level of conditioning. So as you apply this yourself, interview your team, and take an honest assessment of where you think you are. If you require hard data beyond this, here are a few tests you can do, using minimal equipment3:
    • Airdyne Tests:
      1. Can you complete 3-5, 1 mile rides in times between 2:30-2:45?
      2. Can you complete a 5 mile ride in a time around 13:00?
    • Treadmill Tests:
      1. Run at 10mph at 10% incline for as long as possible – scores around 1 minute indicate a low level of conditioning, while scores around 3 minutes are rare and indicate superb conditioning.
      2. Start at 7mph and a 2% incline. The incline is increased 2% every minute until 10% is reached, then it’s raised 1% every minute. Athletes should aim for a minimum of 10% incline (5 minutes).
  2. I think both the subjective data and the testing results are important. Why? Because performance in a specific skill can sometimes be only loosely correlated with performance in certain tests. Let’s recall that Lance Armstrong has one of the highest recorded VO2 maxes ever tested, yet I’m pretty sure we could predict his cardiovascular performance in a prolonged MMA or grappling sparring session – he’d most likely

    As to the result of the inquiry – if the fighter answers, “no”, then life is simple (but not so fun). Train conditioning for the next 8 weeks. Circuits, sprints, sled pushes, hill sprints, complexes, and rounds and rounds of near maximal effort skill training. If the athlete is sparring hard 5 times per week, I’d recommend 3-5 hard conditioning workouts per week, of 20-30 minutes each. That sounds like a lot, and for many people, it will be. It will be of paramount importance to listen to your body and back off when you need to. However, the message of this first and most important question is simple – CONDITIONING trumps all other attributes (outside of skill, obviously). So if you are 8 weeks out and your conditioning is terrible, forget about power, flexibility, strength, or anything else. Get in fight shape, now!

    Now, if the answer is “yes”, then we move to the next question, “Is Strength Adequate?”

  3. Is Strength Adequate – this is the position I found myself in with Abmar Barbosa prior to the 2010 Pans. Abmar’s conditioning was and always is phenomenal. He was rolling 2-4 hard sessions per day, getting plenty of anaerobic work. Relative to his conditioning level though, his strength level was originally poor. So we focused on 2-3 days of resistance training, using heavy weights and multi-joint compound lifts, like deadlifts, chins, and presses. How did we answer “no”, to this question? I use a pretty simple chart4:






x Body Weight

x BW

x BW


x BW

x BW

x BW


x BW

x BW

x BW









*Chins get a little harder to interpret with higher weight classes

Now, honestly, I think these levels from Tim Henriques are a little high for fighters. But we don’t live and die by these numbers. I want all my athletes to meet the minimal levels if they can, and when time allows, surpass them and work towards the next two levels. Again, this is used as a quick and dirty assessment. What does answering “No” mean? If conditioning is good, yet strength is sub-optimal, let’s devote some time to work towards these numbers. To prove my point, I don’t even want to spend time testing the athlete’s one rep max. Hopefully the fighter has an idea of where his lifts are, in higher rep ranges. Jim Wendler offers the following formula for comparing maxes in various rep ranges5:

Weight x Reps x .0333 + Weight = Estimated 1RM

It’s not perfect, but we aren’t concerned with perfection. We are interested in directionally correct, rules-of-thumb guidelines. So once more, if strength is not adequate, then train the strength attribute for 4 weeks, then move to training conditioning. A strength training template like the one I presented in Part II of the series would be fine here, even if I am a bit biased towards it.

Now, if the answer is “Yes”, the fighter is in very good shape, which is pretty rare especially at the non-elite level. Still, where do we go from there? Well the chart says if both conditioning and strength levels are good, then train for power and maintain conditioning. Let’s review what this training will look like. Power training includes Olympic lifts, Medicine Ball Throws, Plyometrics, Explosive Sled Pushes, the Dynamic Effort methodology, and Sprints. Maintain conditioning, while working on converting as much of your strength to power as possible.

Now let’s spend just a few moments on a hypothetical event 12 weeks out. This time, the first question we ask is around our Strength Level. Use the same parameters as above. If it’s not, then train strength for 4 weeks, then use the 8 week tree from that point. If strength is adequate, then once again train the power attribute for 4 weeks, then assess again at 8 weeks out.

As has been my intended message in this whole series, there is nothing groundbreaking here. We find ourselves 8 or 12 weeks out from an event which we want to peak for, and know we have a few main attributes that are all important to have. But where do we get the most bang for our buck? Well, use the fast and frugal tree. Conditioning is always the most important attribute. If that’s satisfactory, only then should we focus on the other attributes, including strength and power. This is the same decision making process I used for my short-notice clients, and I believe it will help you to.

In part IV, we are going to examine the difference between effectiveness and efficiency in terms of attribute development, and once more, try to simplify our approach towards training them!

1Heuristic. In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 10, 2010, from

2Gigerenzer, Gird. Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. New York, NY. Viking, 2007.

3Boyle, Mike. Designing Strength Training Programs and Facilities.

4Henriques, Tim. “Are You Strong?”
T-Nation. 09 May 2007. 10 October 2010.

5Wendler, Jim. 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System to Increase Raw Strength.

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