Strength & Conditioning for Jiu-Jitsu by Leo Morton

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), and Mixed Martial Arts are well behind the times when it comes to Strength & Conditioning (S&C). While this may seem to be no great insight to many of you, to others it must be, as the statement itself would not be true if things were not so. I think S&C in MMA is starting to come along, with many of the professional athletes finally realizing the need for a S&C Coach to compliment the many coaches they enlist for skill training. BJJ, however, still lags behind.

The number of elite level BJJ practitioners who still say things like, “I donʼt lift weights, I just roll”, is far too high.

My personal opinion is that this is for two main reasons:

• BJJ is just starting to be accepted as a sport where “professional athletes” participate. Despite this though, the potential paydays in BJJ are minimal. This makes for two problems. First, itʼs hard for even a professional BJJ athlete to devote his entire life to the sport, as other professional athletes would. This leaves less total time to even try to fit in a proper S&C program. Secondly, after paying for skill training, the lack of purse money makes it difficult for these athletes to purchase the services of an S&C coach.

• “Technique not Strength” – BJJ relies on concepts of leverage to execute a technique properly. Using strength to muscle the technique is obviously a compensation of poor technique. So many athletes consider S&C training as a contraindication for their skill training.

Let me address this second point, first. S&C is as important for BJJ as any other sport. Frankly, all sports rely on the proper execution of technique. A tennis player does not muscle a serve. A baseball player does not muscle the bat when he swings. Shot-putters, discuss, javelin and hammer throwers in the Olympics all master techniques before they compete. Yet, they all participate in a robust S&C program, too. Why should the BJJ athlete be any different? S&C isnʼt just about being “huge” or “strong”. We will explore it in more detail later, but in summary, S&C can help you become a more efficient athlete by increasing power, managing fatigue, and keeping you injury free.

As for the first roadblock, I understand the monetary constraints of athletes. Skill training in BJJ and MMA is expensive. That said, I think itʼs an invaluable resource if you can afford it. S&C is hard, and itʼs nice to be given a program, and only have to say, “yes, coach”, or “thanks, coach.” However, if you canʼt afford one, Iʼm going to do my best to set you on a path to manage your own S&C program.

In this series, I want to talk about a few topics. First, here, I want to talk about why S&C is important, and what attributes you can expect to develop.

Future installments will include a basic 2-day template for combat athletes, a quick and dirty method for assessing your current attributes and determining where your immediate focus should be, and then a breakdown of many of the S&C methods and techniques you can find in performing an program.

So, we now know S&C is important for BJJ or MMA. Letʼs now look and see where an S&C program for combat sports are similar to other sports, as well as where it might differ.
First, the similarities between Combat Sports and other sports:

  • Power – the performance of all techniques in sports hinges on power, which is the application of strength AND speed. If my training partner and I can both lift 300 pounds, but it takes me 2 seconds where it takes him 1 second, he is more powerful. Our strength level is the same, but heʼs more powerful. Being strong and slow helps no one. Being fast with no strength is similarly useless. When all else is equal, the athlete who can generate more power with his or her techniques will be the more successful one. Even in sports not associated with “power”, this is true. The winner of the Boston Marathon ever year produces more power than the runner who comes in second. To that end, plyometrics, throws, jumps, olympic lifts and the variations, and dynamic effort lifting can all be used to improve the expression of power.
  • Strength Training – while I believe conditioning is sport specific, a point I will detail later, I donʼt believe strength training is sport specific. I believe all athletes need to train against resistance, and they all need to be able to do it in similar movement patters: squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, and twisting. Athletes need to create and resist force in these planes of movement. Now, some sports may have a few specific outlines, for instance, pitchers in baseball or swimmers may not do as much overhead pressing as the rest of the population, but in general, they will look very similar. Strength training can use resistance in many forms, but barbells and dumbbells will always offer the most bang for your buck.
  • Injury Prevention – the first rule of being a strength coach is to keep your athletes healthy. Learning to balance the risk and reward ratio of training is critical. While not much can be done about contact injuries, proper training can reduce and prevent non-contact injuries, and this is an important part of program design. Flexibility, which refers to a muscleʼs range of motion, and mobility, which refers to a jointʼs range of motion must consistently be addressed. Pre-hab exercises, as well as certain activation or isolation exercises may be used here with no or very light load to improve and maintain these attributes.

Letʼs now look at how S&C must be tailored and optimized for the demands of combat sports.

  • Conditioning – Combat sport contests are unlike almost any other sport, characterized by negative work to rest ratios. Traditional sports like football, soccer, or basketball all have bursts of powerful activity, but typically have much longer periods of rest or active recovery. Combat sports, however, are completely different. MMA matches may have 3 to 5 rounds of work for 5 minutes each, broken up by only one or two minutes of rest. Grappling matches often times are 8 or 10 minutes of straight work. This is unique, and must be considered when conditioning. As every reader can sympathize, the first real “roll” they ever participated in was probably brutal from a cardiovascular and muscular perspective. And just how we had to ease into “rolling” for longer and more intense sessions, the same approach must be applied here. So you must plan a proper progression. As a very high level example, a progression of work: rest for an interval workout might be 10s on, 20s off for two weeks, then 15s:15s for two more weeks, then 20s:10s up to the taper of an event.
  • Opposition – Combat sports are not techniques done WITH an opponent, but techniques done TO an opponent. With the exception of the striking portion of MMA, the rest of a fight, including clinch work, takedowns, and grappling is all done not against only the gravity of your own body weight, but also with and against the opponentʼs body weight. Therefore, conditioning should be geared towards generating demands on the cardiovascular and muscular systems.
  • Area and Duration – an average soccer player may run 6-7 miles over a field 100+ meters long for a duration of 90 minutes. UFC competitors compete in a 750 square foot Octagon, and wrestlers and grapplers often in an even smaller space. As mentioned earlier, a long MMA match may be 25 minutes, and grappling matches donʼt typically exceed 10 minutes. Therefore, combat athletes should generally never half to conditionthemselves to run 6-7 miles for 90 minutes. Rather, the conditioning should mimic the time and space requirements of the actual event.
  • Posture and Movements – Combat Sports include a huge portion of the curriculum with the athlete on the ground on his or her back, or on top of an opponent in that position. This has to be accounted for. Good S&C coaches have long advocated doing as much of the program in a standing position, as it offers greater functionality than many traditional exercises (ie, standing barbell shoulder press vs seated barbell shoulder press). This idea makes great sense for most sports. Again though, much of a combat sport contest may take place on the ground with the athlete in a supine or prone position. Additionally, as I outlined the planes of movement earlier, each sport emphasizes one or two of them uniquely, and Combat Sports are no different. In order to avoid overuse injuries, the program design of the athlete must seek to balance out movements seen in competition with movements used in training.

Where does this leave us? As I see it, it leaves us with the challenge of designing a program for the athlete that trains power and strength in relatively standard fashions, yet addresses conditioning with specificity towards combat sporting events. In the next installment, I will outline a basic, yet effective 2-day strength training template, and some ideas for conditioning the combat athlete.


Leo Morton is a strengh and conditioning coach in Massachusetts. Leo has worked as a strengh and conditioning coach for Brazilain Jiu-Jitsu athletes such as Robert Drysdale and Abmar Barbosa.

3 Responses to “Strength & Conditioning for Jiu-Jitsu by Leo Morton”

  1. Joshua says:

    Would like to see a templet of a 2 day s&c program pls..

  2. ted Prynce says:

    S & C needn’t be expensive, there’s tons of D I Y ‘that can be done utilizing the local environment with things like hill sprints, sledgehammers and tyres or swinging weights, in fact theres many competant links on your search engine, if you use a gym then deadlifts take some beating

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