Strength & Conditioning for Jiu-Jitsu Part II by Leo Morton1

In the first article in the series, we finally agreed on the fact that combat athletes in BJJ and MMA need to train like athletes from other mainstream sports.  A big part of that training includes a strength & conditioning program.  In this article, I’m going to outline a 2-day strength training template, and suggest some effective and efficient conditioning methods.

With regards to program design for my clients, I adhere to a very specific goal – everything we do must be done with the intention of improving their performance on the mat.  If we can’t demonstrate how performing a specific movement will improve performance, we omit it in favor of one we can.  Strength & Conditioning IS NOT the sport.  The sport is BJJ, MMA or some related combat art.  So being good at S&C in and of itself is outside the scope of our goals.  Again, a great S&C program will aim to enhance performance on every level, and should not interfere with skill training.

Next, let’s make a real effort to put the “Strength” back into “Strength & Conditioning”.  Assessing the attributes you need for an event is the subject of the next piece in this series, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it here.  In my opinion, many of the athletes that do engage in S&C regularly neglect the strength component in favor of conditioning, conditioning, and more conditioning.  Let’s remind ourselves here, endurance is a function of strength.  I’m well aware that training the glycolytic system results in important physiological changes that improve the athlete’s ability to manage fatigue.  But let’s look at this from a common sense perspective, an example all my athletes have heard me share.  There is a reason you can curl a 5 pound weight 100 times, but a 50 pound weight only 5-10 times.  It’s because your strength level is relative to the two different weights.  Advocates against this logic might argue that if you fight in the 185 weight class, there is no reason to be able to push more than 185 pounds on a weighted sled.  Hopefully you now see this as short-sighted.  The fighter who can push 500 pounds is going to push 185 pounds around with less effort, for a longer period of time.

A small sample size, but I trained Abmar Barbosa and his student Garrett for both the 2009 and 2010 Pan Championship.  Due to equipment and space issues, the training in 2009 was almost entirely circuit based.  In 2010, we did almost no traditional conditioning, just a power/strength routine 2x per week, and heavy sled pushes 2x per week (but we never sprinted with the sled).  Both Abmar and Garrett performed considerably better in 2010, and both medaled.  But more important than the medal, they felt better while rolling, and their partners all reported that they felt significantly more powerful. In my opinion, their conditioning was already good – they were rolling hard 2, even 3 times per day.  But I believed both of them could have been far stronger, so that’s where we put our focus, and I think the training delivered.

Now, before I talk about and propose a strength training program template, let’s discuss what the template is and what it is not.

It is NOT is a full program.  It does not span a specific time frame, and it is not designed for a specific event or season (i.e. off-season, pre-season).  It is not a tailored or customized routine for every reader of the article.  It doesn’t necessarily balance bi- and uni-lateral movements.  Rather, this IS a template.  It’s modifiable, adjustable, and can be progressed or regressed based on training experience.  It’s a basic routine that will train all of the movement patterns through a full range of motion.  It will challenge athletes from beginner to advanced, provided intensity is maximized in the execution.  It is a starting point for those athletes who have little training experience, and may serve as a building block to a larger program to those athletes whose training age is “older”.

Let’s talk for minute on the idea of a “basic” program.  A concept I often stress to my clients, that I blatantly stole from strength coach Dan John, is that there is a big difference between “simple” and “easy”.  Losing weight is “simple” – eat less calories than you burn – however, it’s seldom “easy”.  Getting stronger and more powerful is “simple” – consistently lift heavier weight for more reps – but it’s not “easy”.  “Basic” or “simple” does not mean it’s not effective or optimal.  Rather, a “basic” and “simple” program done with intensity and consistency will yield potentially great results, far better than an overly complicated routine which requires too much time, equipment, or thought.

A program should address a number of attributes, and here is a summary of what we are concerned with:

  • Movement preparation – this includes a real warmup, one that elevates the heart rate and takes the major joints through a full range of motion
  • Power – expressing strength in an explosive manner
  • Strength Training –  squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, and rotating against resistance
  • Energy Systems Development (ESD) – training the ATP-PC system, Anaerobic Glycolytic system, and the Aerobic system
  • Recovery – foam rolling, stretching, massage, & contrast showers

Strength Training

Let’s look at the strength training portion first.  This will attempt to address all the attributes above except for the ESD.  An effective, basic two-day per week template for a combat athlete might look like this:

Day 1 Strength

Movement Exercise1 – (with the exception of prehab, pick one exercise listed) Sets/ Rep
1 Prehap Squat Matrix, Y/T/I/L’s 2-3 sets of 5-8 reps
2 Explosive O-lift variants, Jump Squats, KB Swings, Med Ball Throws 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps
3 Compound Upper Weighted Pullups or BB/ DB Presses 5-8 sets of 3-5 reps
4A Single Leg Rear-foot Elevated Split Squats, Lunge variations, SL-Deadlifts 3 sets of 6-8 reps3
4B Push or Pull2 Inverted Row, BB/ DB Presses, DB Rows 3 sets of 6-8 reps
4C Core Pallof Press, Bridging Variations, Hip Thrust 3 sets
5 Foam Roll & Stretch 5-10 minutes

1 – For a full listing of movements, check Appendix A

2 – If 3 is a push, make 4B a pull.  Conversely, if 3 is a pull, make 4B a pushing movement.

3 – Notes a superset with full rest.  Perform one set of the prescribed reps of 4A, rest, then perform all the reps of 4B, rest and finish the superset by performing the reps for 4C.  Continue until the prescribed sets have been completed.

Day 2 Strength

Movement Exercise – (with the exception of prehab, pick one exercise listed) Sets/ Rep
1 Prehap Squat Matrix, Y/T/I/L’s 2-3 sets of 5-8 reps
2 Explosive O-lift variants, Jump Squats, KB Swings, Med Ball Throws 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps
3 Compound Lower Deadlift or Squat Variation 5-8 sets of 3-5 reps
4A Upper Push DB/ BB Bench Press, Push Presses, Shoulder Presses 3 sets of 6-8 reps3
4B Upper Pull Inverted Rows, Chin/ Pull-ups, Cable Rows 3 sets of 6-8 reps
4C Core Ab Rollouts, Cable Wood-chops 3 sets
5 Foam Roll & Stretch 5-10 minutes

3 – Notes a superset with full rest.  Perform one set of the prescribed reps of 4A, rest, then perform all the reps of 4B, rest and finish the superset by performing the reps for 4C.  Continue until the prescribed sets have been completed.

This is a basic template that I start with for most of my athletes.  Of course, it’s then tailored in ways specific to how they present, but that is not applicable here.  If you are not currently on a S&C program right now, that isn’t your primary concern.  Adopt the routine above and try to put 2-3 days between each session.  So for example, do Day 1 on Monday, and Day 2 on Thursday.  Stick with the exercise selection for 6-8 weeks, before changing them.  When you perform the routine, really get after it.  Strength training is about progression.  Aim to always increase the reps you can do, even if it’s just 1-2 more, or add weight, even if it’s just 5-10 pounds. While your form should always be technically perfect, don’t be afraid to heave some weight around.  In the four months before the 2010 Pan, we progressed Abmar from bodyweight chin-ups to 5 sets of 3 reps with an additional 70 pounds of kettlebells hanging from his waist.  In 2009, Robert Drysdale was performing Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats with 50 pound dumbbells in both hands for multiple sets of 8-10 reps, at a bodyweight of 225.  Nothing fancy here guys, pick up a weight and move it.

Energy Systems Development

Now for conditioning, or ESD as we referred to it above in our attribute list.  Remember guys, this isn’t event specific – not yet.  This is a general conditioning program to assist in your combat skills application.  Part 3 in this series will deal with event-specific training.

We are going to use two main methods of conditioning here, preferably on two separate days – Complexes (barbell, dumbbell or kettlebell), and Interval work (on a track or piece of cardiovascular equipment).  And we aren’t going to worry about work: rest ratios at this point.  I’m going to recommend you use Heart Rate Recovery as your guide.  If you have a heart rate monitor, great, if not, take your pulse on your wrist for 10 seconds, and multiply this number by 6.  This will customize the program just a little, and will ensure you give the appropriate amount of effort in the work sets.  Recently, a lot of coaches have advocated replacing some interval work with traditional aerobic training, where a steady heart rate is maintained for longer periods of time.  Honestly, I’m currently ambivalent towards this, and doing more research.  That said, I don’t recommend it here, and this is why.  If I recommend 3 days of conditioning, including two “hard” days and one “steady” day, I know exactly what will happen.  Within two or three weeks, it will become one “hard” day, and one “steady” day.  I have no real problem adding a “steady” day, but I don’t want it to replace a “hard” day.

Complexes – 1 Day/ Week

A Complex is a series of lifts performed back to back where you finish the reps of one movement before moving on to the next movement. The barbell (or dumbbells or kettlebells) is never set down until all reps for all movements have been performed.  More and more coaches and athletes are using complexes.  Istvan “Steve” Javorek has been using these for a long time, proving nothing is new in S&C.  Alwyn Cosgrove has long been advocating them before their more recent popularity.  Simply, find one you like and apply it here.  I’ll offer one I’m personally fond of, using kettlebells or dumbbells.  I’d recommend using two KB/DB’s in the range of 25-45 pounds each to begin with.

Pushups (using the handle of the KB/DB) x 8

Bent Rows x 8

RDL x 8

Shoulder Press x 8

Front Squat x 8

Alternating Lunge x 8 (with KB in Front Sqt position)

That’s 48 reps before you set the weight down.  It should take somewhere around 60-90 seconds to perform based on your fitness level, and you should be pushing the pace the best you can.  Set the weight down, and when your heart rate returns to 120bps, begin the next set.  Repeat for 5-6 rounds.  I’m not offering any real progression here, because once again, it’s not event specific.  However, if you can complete 5-6 sets with relative ease, you may increase the weight.

Intervals – 1 Day/ Week

Interval training is high-intensity cardiovascular training on a track, or other piece of appropriate equipment.  I like the Slide-board, Air-dyne, Spinning Bike, Versa-climber, or Rower.  If you have literally no equipment, you could also do burpees.  Sprinting on a track works very well, too, but will be a bit more demanding on the joints than the other options.

Let’s start with 15 minutes of total work, and generically use 30 seconds as our work set interval (it could just as easily be 15s or 60s, but let’s use 30s).  And in our example, let’s use the Air-dyne, because it’s a hideous, torturous device that everyone can agree we hate.  After an appropriate warmup, I want you to pedal very hard for 30s.  Not all out, I’d say an 7-9 out of 10, again depending on your level of fitness.  After the 30s, pedal very slowly until your heart rate returns to 120bpm.  Repeat this sequence until 15 minutes of work and rest has expired.  In the beginning, recovery should be relatively quick.  Towards the last 10-15%, recovery will be significantly longer.  Again, no real progression, but if you wanted to work up to one 20 minute round, or even two sets of 15 minute rounds, that would be fine.  But maintain intensity.  There should be a marked difference between your work and rest pace, and if there is not, then you are performing it for too long.

This is all I’m looking for.  Two Strength Training days lasting 60 minutes tops, and two days of conditioning that last probably no more than 30 minutes.  That’s 3 total hours per week.

I can hear a lot of people now.  What about powerlifting for strength?  What about circuits for conditioning?  What about sled pushes or hill sprints?  These are all valid points, but once more, I’m writing this mostly for the average participant/ competitor who’s goal is to get better at their respective combat sport.

Powerlifters are inhumanly strong, but train more than 2x/ week.  Conditioning circuits are great, and I use them with many of my clients – but I have 2000 sq ft of empty mat space, a private facility, and hand-picked equipment.  Sled pushes are possibly one of the best tools available to a fighter, but plan to drop $400 for a sled and weights, and then find some place to push it.  Hill sprints are definitely man-makers, but if I say run hill sprints, then I’m going to get 50 emails asking about the length and slope of the hill.  Most of you are going to do your S&C at a commercial gym, at your academy, or at home.  And this is the perspective from which this routine was written.

Simple, basic, not easy.  Perform this routine as closely as you can for the next 6-8 weeks.  No, it will not give you the gas tank of Frankie Edgar.  Nor will it give you Roger Gracie’s pressure, or Jacare’s explosiveness.  You will, however, become stronger, last longer on the mat, and decrease your potential for injury.

In part 3, we will finally start to explore how to prioritize attributes for an actual event, where you have average to short notice, and no real testing equipment or protocols available to you.

This by no means represents a full list.  It’s a good sample of exercises for each movement pattern.  Exercises in orange represent my favorites.
1 Arm DB Snatch Expl Pushup Cable/ Band Reverse Wood Chop Core Row
Clean High Pull MB Chest Pass Cable/ Band Wood Chop Four-Point Plank
Hang Jump Shrug MB Rotational Throw Corkscrew Plank Walkup
Hang Clean Over Head Med Ball Slam Landmine Plank with Elbow to Knee
Squat Jump Pallof Press Side Bridge
Seated Russian Twist Side Bridge and Reach
Three-Point Plank
Two-Point Plank
Back Squat Full Pistol Squat Back Extension Single-Leg Back Extension
Front Squat Lunge (Forward, Reverse, Lateral, Drop) Glute Bridge (Bodyweight, Barbell) Single-Leg Good Morning
Goblet Squat Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat Band Pull-through Single-Leg Romanian Deadliftt (BB & DB)
Overhead Squat Single-Leg Bench Getup Deadlift Single-Leg Slide Board Leg Curl
Single-Leg Squat on Bench Good Morning
Slide-board Reverse Lunge Hip Thrust
Split Squat Rack Pulls
Stepup Reverse Hyperextension
Romanian Deadlift (BB & DB)
SHELC (Supine Hip Extension Leg Curl)
Slide Board Leg Curl
Snatch-Grip Deadlift
Supine Hip Extension
Trap Bar Deadlift
BB Military Press Dumbbell Alternating Press Chinup Side-to-Side Pullup
Push Jerk Dumbbell Push Press (1 or 2 Arm) Close-Grip Pullup Single-Arm Lat Pulldown
Push Press Dumbbell Shoulder Press (1 or 2 Arm) Lat Pulldown Single-Arm Pullup
Split Jerk Mixed-Grip Pullup
Bench Press Blast Strap/ TRX Pushup Bent-Over Row Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
Close-Grip Bench Press Dumbbell Alternating Bench Press Cable/ Band Face Pulls One-Arm Horizontal Pullup (BB/ TRX)
Close-Grip Incline Bench Press Dumbbell Bench Press Horizontal Pullup (BB/ TRX/ Blast Strap) One-Arm Standing Cable Row
Dip Incline Dumbbell Bench Press Standing Cable/ Band Row
Floor Press Standing Cable/ Band Chest Press T-Bar Row
Incline Bench Press
Pushup (floor, ball, platform)

3 Responses to “Strength & Conditioning for Jiu-Jitsu Part II by Leo Morton1”

  1. Steve Foulds says:

    Great article mate! I too am a personal trainer.

    Joey, a squat matrix is a combination of different squats one after the other – We usually do a lunge matrix like forward, sideways then rotational – 5 reps per leg, no rest between movements. You get the drift how it could apply to squats though…

    YTILs are more commonly known as Y/T/W/Ls and are the letter shape the arm/elbow joint makes at extension. Blackburns & wall slides are another great addition to shoulder warmups. Thats almost exactly half the warmup we do at Critical Conditioning.

    For clarification – and Leo please correct if I’m wrong – the first DB/BB presses are vertical push (think military press) as the first exercise mentioned is a pull up(vertical pull variation). Therefore, the second “DB/BB presses” mentioned will be horizontal push, as inverted rows & DB rows are horizontal pull – hope that helps!!

  2. Great article! I am a personal trainer as well and love how you used broke it down for the average Joe and not with fancy equipment.

  3. Joey says:

    what is a Squat Matrix, Y/T/I/L’s? it did a search on google and found
    on youtube for ehte squat martix, is this correct? but i am unsure what the Y/t/i/l’s are. Also in day one when you say DB/BB presses, do you mean bench presses? . thank you for your help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *