After training Jiu Jitsu since 2007 and strength training since 1999. I've made all the mistakes you're about to make. Or, I should say, about to make if you don't follow the the right advice.
This article will cover 9 key concepts EVERYONE should consider when putting together a strength and conditioning program for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu / Grappling.
The 9 concepts covered in this article, are...
- Complement your BJJ training - remember the most important factor in improving your BJJ training is BJJ training, any strength work should help not hinder you
- BJJ specific movements - specific movement patterns and target areas any BJJ / grappling athlete should have in their program
- Metabolic demands of the BJJ athlete - the importance and difference in strength, power, muscular endurance, hypertrophy and speed training for BJJ
- To CV or not to CV - why you may or may not include cardiovascular (CV) or 'fitness' training in your program
- Periodization - the importance of forward planning and having specific training goals
- Progression, progression, progression - the importance of forcing adaption through progression and the difference between complexity vs load progressions
- Choosing the right exercises - how do you go about deciding what exercises to use
- Forced rest periods in BJJ training - BJJ has no real seasons, make sure you make your own
- An example training program for BJJ - bringing it all together with a free downloadable sample program
1. Compliment your BJJ training
If your strength and conditioning outside of BJJ is too intense, too often, guess what? Your BJJ training is going to suffer. I've done it, everyone has done it. You train 'like a madman' in the gym and then go to BJJ class the next day and can't move for sh*t. People that you normally tap with ease are suddenly passing your guard and threatening you with subs.
Your first key concept you cannot go all out, all of the time when it comes to strength training.......your BJJ training will suffer.
I will talk about how you can avoid comprising your BJJ training throughout the following sections, although for now keep in mind that not every strength & conditioning sessions needs to be all out, save a few reps 'in the tank', look for gradual consistent progression and choose the right times to hit peaks or personal bests.
While you're here.....our science of grip strength for BJJ video
2. BJJ specific movements
The cornerstone of any good strength and conditioning program is training movement patterns and supplemental exercises that are specific to that particular sport.
First, notice I'm taking about movement patterns and not muscles. For example, we don't train biceps and back, we train the pulling motion. Remember you're training to be a better BJJ fighter, be it a competitor or hobbyist who just wants to be more effective on the mat and protect themselves from injury, NOT to get 'bigger guns'......although that will likely be a nice side effect.
Second, when I say 'supplemental exercises' this relates to areas you should focus on that are not necessarily specific to key movements, although are vital for overall physical health for the BJJ / grappling athlete. The neck is a good example. You don't lead major movement patterns with your neck, though it can take a beating in BJJ, so strengthen it to protect it.
What key movement patterns should you train
- Rotation of the torso - I don't think there is a single sport where rotation of the torso is not important. In BJJ it is critical, BJJ is not a sport with linear movement patterns and you twist your body all the time. Also, people take about moving your hips, which is actually a movement driven by the rotation of your torso in most occasions.
- Midsection stability - while closely related to rotation of the torso, torso stability is different. This is the ability to maintain tension and position in your torso as you move, or someone tries to move you. This is CRITICAL in the body's ability to transfer power, for example, from a planted foot through the torso into the arm as you pull on something, i.e. when you arm drag someone.
- Horizontal pushing (upper body) - while we should always focus on shifting our hips etc to move in BJJ, very often you need to push on your opponent with your arms. This is typically done in a horizontal motion (straight out from the chest), as opposed to pushing over head.
- Upper body pulling (with horizontal being preferred) - Similar to upper body pushing, most pulling motions are done from straight in front of your chest, directly towards you, as opposed to pulling from above the head, like you would do in a pull-up. That being said, being able to progressively load the horizontal pulling motion can be difficult, which is why exercises like 'pull-ups' are also key in BJJ strength in conditioning.
- Leg extension - I am NOT talking here about leg extension machines you see in gyms. What this means is the ability to extend your leg from a bent position to a straight position, any form of squats being a great example. All the level and direction changes you do while on your feet means this movement is key.
- Hip drive - "its all about the hips in BJJ", hands up if you've heard this? Of course you have. So developing strong hips are vital for BJJ. Think of lying on your back and bridging your hips up in the air to escape side control/mount/half guard etc or driving your hips forward when passing, or past the guard to put pressure on your opponent.
Now, before moving on to the supplemental exercises I want to mention why the following exercises are considered 'supplemental' and yet still important to train. It's quite simple, while these exercises will assist the major movement patterns, they do not drive the major movement patterns. Therefore, if you didn't add the supplemental exercises to your routine, you still be hitting the major target areas. PLUS these supplemental exercises target either small muscles or unique body positions, so you can't train or load them in the same way. For example, you shouldn't train your neck by doing 3 sets of 6 reps of a particular weight in the same way you'd train the hip drive movement with deadlifts.....more on this to follow.
- Grips - the #1 supplemental exercise for BJJ, goes without saying.
- Neck - your neck can take a beating and cause you real problems if injured. Train it, strengthen it, protect it.
- Straight arm strength - by this I mean the ability to hold your arm straight out in a locked position while bearing wait. Think of all the posting you do with your arms in a straight or near straight position, this can cause real problems in your wrists, elbows and shoulders if the weight suddenly shifts. Strengthen your arms in this position to help protect against these injuries.
- Back bridges - this is a combination of a mobility and a strength exercise (see the photo below) and I've personally found it to be a great compliment for BJJ training to make your back strong through a full range of motion and balance all of the forward bending movements your body does on and off the mat.
- Balance - any variety of balancing exercises, whether on your hands, feet or torso (i.e. movements on a gym ball) will give you much better balance when passing someone's guard and better spacial awareness when moving around an opponent and defending sweeps etc.
- Feet & ankles - whenever you're not on your back, all movement is driven to some extent by the feet and given we spend so much time on our backs, this part of the body can be neglected. You don't need extensive work on the feet, just skipping as part of your warm up or one leg balancing can tackle this area.
FINAL POINT on BJJ specific movements, notice how I've not included isolated exercises like bicep curls, triceps presses etc, etc. Your body moves in BJJ as a unit, moving multiple muscle groups at the same time, train it that way!
3. Metabolic demands of the BJJ athlete
This does not mean, eating a load of food because you 'needs loads of energy'.........while that could be true, it is more to do with the specific energy systems that the body uses when sprinting as opposed to walking. I won't bore you and go into the fine detail, all you need to know is that at a cellular level your body creates energy using different mechanisms, known as the ATP (high intensity, short burst movements), Glycolytic (moderate intensity, moderate duration) and Oxidative (low intensity, longer duration).
Think 100m versus 400m versus 5,000m.
Now, already I bet you're thinking "well BJJ can be a combination of all three" and you'd be right, so your training needs to reflect that if you want to be in optimal condition.
I won't talk in terms of three energy systems mentioned instead I'll use the terms 'power', 'speed', 'muscular endurance', 'Cardio Vascular (CV) Fitness' etc as they are much, much easier to wrap your head around.
So what does the 'ideal' BJJ fighter need:
- CV Fitness - of course, if you get tired because you're not fit enough, then you'll be too tired to execute your technique. Game over! You need to be fit.
- Muscular endurance - You may not 'run out of breath' per se, although if your arms get too tired because you're performing constant pulling motions, again you'll have a reduced ability to contract your muscles and execute technique. Game over!
- Strength - To be most effective at powerful movements you first need to be able to have sufficient strength to move the required weight. Strength, power and speed go hand in hand. PLUS the stronger you are, the less effort it takes to perform smaller movements, i.e. holding and slowly pulling on someones collar, so you'll use less energy and by default have better muscular endurance.
- Power - Sometimes, you need to move your own body or your opponent's body quickly, this requires power. As a good BJJ fighter, not something you should rely on, although great to have in your arsenal when you need it.
- Speed - very closely relate to power, although more about how quick your movements are, than how quickly you're moving a particular weight.
- Some hypertrophy (building muscle) training - this is not always required and it very much depends on the individual, although tied to strength (yet not the only factor) greater muscle cross sectional area (how thick your muscle fibres are) is a factor in how strong you'll be.
A lot to take in and as I go through this article I'll start to break down how you train these various areas and how to incorporate them in an overall program. For now, just make a mental note that a good strength and conditioning program for BJJ does not just mean doing as many pull-ups as possible, it will incorporate various elements of the above.
4. To CV or not to CV
I rarely include CV training in programs for BJJ fighters, outside what they do in their BJJ classes, myself included. Here's why...
Most BJJ classes (and I've done my fair share) will already provide you with enough CV training via free sparring and specific drills you'll do, with a partner or otherwise. Then as your CV Fitness improves you can push yourself harder and continue to improve your CV fitness as you do. Also, it couldn't get more specific, so it's perfect to match the energy demands of the sport.
"So, why can't I just push myself harder in training to get stronger and more powerful etc?"
The answer is; progression. Progression is covered in more detail later on, although at a high level, to continue to get stronger and more powerful you need to continue increase the load and or complexity of the exercises. Unless you're doing very specific drills, in BJJ sparring your partners weight and in general the force you need to generate to move that weight remains constant, so at a certain point you need to include off the mat training to continue to progress.
CV is different because you can progress by sparring for longer, having shorter rest periods etc and pushing yourself in order to continue to build you CV fitness
As always, there are some expectations to consider and here are just some situations where you may want to include off the mat CV training:
- You have an injury that prevents you from sparring, though does not prevent you performing exercises like running, cycling etc
- You can't make as many BJJ classes as you would like due to other commitments, e.g. a business trip
- The BJJ classes you attend are very technically focused with not too much sparring, e.g. just slow drilling of techniques
Some people may disagree, although my opinion is that unless you fall into one of these or a similar category, for most people, just try to get more sparring in on the mats and then focus your off the mat training on resistance training (strength, power etc).
There are two main forms of periodisation:
- Linear - where each block, or time period is dedicated predominantly to one focus area, e.g. strength
- Non-linear (also called conjugate) - is where the focus of the training is rotated evenly across the time period, changing focus each session. E.g. strength session one, muscular endurance session two, power session three.......then repeat
A very, very simple example to explain both could be someone with 12 weeks to train for a BJJ competition and they want to focus their strength and conditioning on strength, muscular endurance and power.
- Linear example - first 4 weeks focus on muscular endurance, second 4 weeks focus on strength, the last 4 weeks focus on power
- Non-linear example - Monday focuses on strength, Wednesday muscular endurance and Friday on Power. This pattern is then repeated for 12 weeks
Why is periodisation so important and why should you care about it?
If you remember earlier I talked about not being able to go 'all out, all of the time' when it comes to strength and conditioning, for example lifting as heavy as you can, as many reps as you can, every session, every week. Well, maybe some genetic freaks can, although the vast majority of people will just burn out, get injured, become ill or feel exhausted, meaning you can no longer train, or least not to the quality you would like. You will have reached a state of OVERTRAINING.....something you want to avoid. Periodisation allows you to continually progress while avoiding overtraining.......how?
Through a combination of varied:
- Intensity - which is how hard you're working in each session, typically determined by the load/weight you're lifting.
- Volume - which is how much you're doing each session and/or week, determined by the number of repetitions, sets and sessions you're doing.
The key idea (again this is simplified) is; as you progress through your training cycle you increase intensity and decrease volume, so you gradually reach your peak physical performance (or highest intensity) at the end of the cycle, before then tapering off before a competition in the case of a BJJ competitor.
Right at the end of this article I'll give an example training plan of how all of this comes together, for now, just consider that you need to break your training down over a year into a number of cycles where you look to achieve peak physical performance only on a number of occasions throughout the year, maybe in time for two or three key competitions OR if you don't compete just to allow your body to rest and recover and work towards ever increasing physical performance peaks.
6. Progression, progression, progression
If you perform the same exercises, the same way time over time, you will maintain your physical performance once you've reached a peak, you will plateau.....and likely get bored too.
If you keep progressing then you can improve your physical performance AND keep things interesting, so you'll be more motivated to continue with your training and the two key methods of progression I use are:
- Complexity progressions - which increases the difficulty (therefore intensity) of an exercise by making it ever more challenging by adjusting various elements such as; instability, relative angles, weight placement etc
- Load progressions - these increase the difficulty (therefore intensity) of an exercise by increasing the weight you move
BOTH METHODS will make you stronger...
Strength is your ability to exert force. Force is directly related to how much weight (or mass to be exact) is being moved. Therefore, the greater force you can exert or weight you can move, the stronger you are.
Using the bench press example, you lift more weight, you're stronger. Quite easy to understand then how load progressions make you stronger. Higher load, higher strength.
Using the planche hold example there are a few factors that I need to go into to fully explain the concept of complexity progressions and how they make you stronger.
- First, shifting the weight placement so more weight is being held by the body as opposed to the floor. In the planche all of the persons weight is being supported by the upper body and there is a much greater force exerted compared to someone holding a push-up in top position with their feet on the floor. Remember, strength is your ability to exert force.
- Second, the angle of the weight placement, i.e. directly through the skeleton or not changes the leverage and force exerted by the muscles. In the planche the angle of the arms is not straight up and down, therefore the muscles need to carry the weight as opposed the arms being straight in a top push-up position and the load being carried more by the skeleton. More weight on the muscles requires more force.
- Third, unstable movements require greater recruitment of the muscle fibres to hold a position. In the planche there is a HUGE amount of effort needed to over come the instability of the position requiring a MUCH greater recruitment of muscle fibres in order to perform the exercise. The more muscle fibres you can train your body to recruit, the more force you'll be able to exert.
- Fourth, complex movements require the recruitment of muscle fibres from more than just the key target area. In the planche, your body requires a HUGE amount of core strength, so you get the benefit of developing a holistically stronger body.
So just as one example, you can see how adding more complexity to the movement of a consistent mass (your body) you can make exercises ever more complex to continue developing strength.
Some more examples of complexity progressions:
- A normal push-up Vs a push-up with your hands on a gym ball
- A normal plank Vs a plank with one arm and one foot off the floor
- A normal pull-up Vs pull-ups on gymnastic rings
- A push-up with shoulders above your hands Vs a push-up with your shoulders six inches in front of your hands (i.e. like a planche)
- Balancing on one foot Vs balancing one one foot with one eye closed
Well this really depends on a number of factors, some of which I'll answer in more detail in the next section about how to choose what exercises to use, although the key question to ask here is; which is better for BJJ?
Specificity is also another key element in a good strength and conditioning program and BJJ rarely involves applying forces in a uniform fashion, your weight and your opponents weight is always shifting, the angles in which you're apply force change almost by the second. Therefore, I am a strong advocate that more and more complex exercises are more specific to BJJ and therefore more effective preparing you for the physical demands of BJJ.
That being said loaded progressions, i.e. just lifting more weight, do have their place and I use a mix of both. Upper body and core exercises are easier to develop with complex progressions as opposed to lower body exercises, there are exercises like single leg squats there are a great complex progression, although there is a limit to the adjustments you can make to continually loading the lower body. Therefore, with movements driven by the lower body, loaded progressions tend to play a bigger role than they would with upper body movements.
7. Choosing the right exercises
What this section will cover is how to choose the right exercises depending on your training goal, e.g. strength, power, etc.......although before we get into the more science based discussion, three things in exercise selection that are often overlooked in developing a program are:
- Resource - often the best routine, is the routine you are able to do most consistently. For example, if you live 60 minutes from your nearest gym and all you have at home is a pull-up bar, are you better off with a program that is purely based on bodyweight exercises or a routine with squats, deadlifts etc etc. Take into account how much time you have to work out, how many sessions per week, what equipment you have easily to hand (and know how to use) and other such factors and try to focus on developing a routine that will work with what resource you have available. If you only have a 30 minutes twice per week, pick a routine with exercises that give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of movements targeted.
- Current training status - this covers two things; 1) your training experience and 2) what your training looks like today, i.e. are you already very active or injured or have just not trained in some time. If you have very little training experience, have been injured of off for a long time, keep it simple and take it slowly, gradual progression is key. Keep the overall work volumes low (less sets) and increase over time.
- What do you enjoy - sometimes we all need to suck it up and do things we don't enjoy to progress. However, if motivation is a factor for you, then designing a program of exercises you enjoy could mean the difference between you sticking to a program or not. For example, if you absolutely hate bodyweight exercises, then this could be really off putting every time it comes to training. On the flip side, I really enjoy gymnastic based exercises and actively look forward to my strength & conditioning when they are included.
Choosing the right exercises to to develop strength, power etc?
To develop various aspects of your physical abilities you need to target certain repetition ranges, which is summarised in the below table and I'll now discuss.
First, I'll address the issue of not including any guidelines here on the load/weight you should be lifting for those of you who may be wondering why it's not included.
Typically there are also target load / weight ranges applied to these different training goals, for example if the heaviest weight you can benchpress 100 kg / 220 lb for 1 rep, then a training load on the benchpress for strength being 85% of your 1 rep max, you would assign a training load of 85 kg / 187 lb.
I have not included this because; 1) when using more bodyweight and complexity based progressions, % of 1 rep max is very hard to calculate, 2) I feel it is beyond the scope of this article to talk about the complexities of using a 1 rep max for different movements and 3) determining your 1 rep max unless training with a coach has serious safety implications.
I feel there is a much easier way....
Table showing repetition ranges for core* exercises
PLEASE REMEMBER: this table only applies to core exercises (see definition just below the table), these will be all of the exercises in the key movements EXCEPT the torso stability and torso rotation exercises and none of the supplemental exercises.
I will take the bodyweight squat as an example when choosing the right rep ranges.
If you have zero training experience then any number of bodyweight squats will make you stronger in the sense of it improving your ability to perform that movement and ability to recruit the requisite muscle fibres correctly. However, as soon as you can hit 5 reps for between 2-6 sets you are no longer developing strength in the sense of your ability to generate maximum force from that movement/muscles. If you are doing 6 to 12 reps for between 3 to 6 reps then you'll be building muscle, although once you can pass 12 reps....you'll be developing muscular endurance, THIS REP RANGE WILL NOT MAKE YOU STRONGER.
I stress this last point because I see so many 'BJJ strength and conditioning' montages where people are doing 15, 20, 25 reps of an exercise and people think this is how you get stronger for BJJ. It's not.
It will make you stronger in the general sense of being able to perform the exercise, although remember, strength is about how much force you can generate. Therefore, once you get past the required reps and sets YOU MUST INCREASE THE DIFFICULTLY OF THE EXERCISE to continue progression.
Yes, muscular endurance has it's place in a BJJ strength and conditioning program as I'll demonstrate at the end of this article, although be very, very clear of your training goals for each session and make sure you're choosing exercises that challenge you to perform the required number of reps and sets.
A special note on developing power
For developing power the reps ranges can be the same as for developing strength.....with one key difference:
To develop power you need to perform the exercise as quickly as possible and with good form.
So, while the reps may be the same, the difficulty of the exercise needs to be much easier when comparing strength versus power exercises. Strength exercises are done slowly, power exercises quickly.
Remember the bodyweight squat exercise example, another thing I see is people doing 15, 20, 25 reps of jumping squats or other 'power' exercises. Well you guessed it, THIS WILL NOT MAKE YOU MORE POWERFUL.
Power is your ability to generate the highest possible force quickly. High reps, means low force, therefore while high numbers of jumping reps will help make you somewhat more explosive in your ability to move quickly, it will not make you more powerful.
Now, there is a difference between power and plyometric exercises where plyometrics are done with higher repetitions using a very short ground contact time, although that is outside the scope of this article.
If this applies only to core exercises (exercises involving one or more large muscle group and involving two or more primary joints) what about the other exercises?
Research and literature on repetition ranges for developing areas of your body like your hand and forearms for grips, your neck etc is very, very hard to find, so I'll refer to personal experience on this area.
- Start light and build up slowly, you're working small muscles so they're easy to fatigue and injure.
- If you're doing repetitions, focus on getting into the region of 10-20 reps. Anything lower than this and it can be easy to strain the muscles and/or tendons, anything higher, its likely too easy. Keep the sets to 2 or 3.
- If doing timed holds, e.g. hanging straight armed from a pull-up bar to work your grips, work up to 1 or 2 sets of 60 seconds. Once you can hit 60 seconds, its usually safe to move on to the next progression, maybe a one arm hang from the pull-up bar in this case.
- Where possible, aim for complexity progressions over load progressions. Typically with these exercises you're training parts of your body that are not required to produce huge levels of force, therefore it is less functional to use ever heavier weights.
8. Forced rest periods in BJJ training
When I say 'Forced Rest Periods' I mean forcing yourself to take a week or more off full training to rest and recover, so you can come back to the mats and your strength and conditioning, fresh and motivated to get back to it, having allowed those little 'niggles' to heal up.
There are no set rules of when to take time off, although a good rule of thumb would be every 8 to 12 weeks taking a week where you may train, although very lightly and only a small number of sessions per week and using lighter activities like walking, yoga, light cycling, swimming etc as forms of active recovery to help your body heal.
If you compete, then after a particularly big competition it can be good to take time off then, or over naturally slower periods in the year, e.g. during the holiday season. Your body and mind will thank you for it, don't feel guilty about it, over time your progress will likely be better than if you never take time off.
Otherwise you run the risk of the dreaded overtraining, which happens when you do not have adequate rest to properly recover from the demands of training. Training is meant to stretch you, although only just outside of your comfort zone so you can bounce back in time for you next sessions, forcing gradual progression over time.
What does overtraining feel like?
There are several well documented symptoms, although I have found the following very useful indicators that don't require any specialist measurement equipment:
- Above normal stress levels - are the small things that normally don't bother you at all, stressing you out, or do you just feel on edge and anxious
- Higher than normal resting heart rate - it can be very useful to measure your resting heart rate each morning and slow down your training if it is higher than 3 beats above average
- Mood, motivation, energy and libido - if for no particular reason you mood is low, you lack motivation, energy and sex drive, this can be a sign of overtraining
- Cold and flu like symptoms - usually at this point you've usually run into overtraining, although it can be a good sign to take a step back if you've been training hard, in particular look for aches and pains that are not the usually post training soreness
If you notice any of these symptoms then it is always worth while reducing the intensity of your training for 48 to 72 hours (not stopping completely), making sure your nutrition and hydration is on point and doing activities that lower your stress levels. Overtraining is a reaction of the central nervous system to being overtaxed, so reducing levels of stress can help you recover. If after reducing the intensity of your training for 48 to 72 hours doesn't reduce the symptoms, then it could be worth taking 48 to 72 hours off completely to recover.
9. An example training program for BJJ
What is very important to remember is that while all of this is based on science, there is also an art to bringing everything together into one program. Each individual will adapt differently and will need their program adjusted accordingly as they go, this can't be factored into a program at the start, it just needs to be adjusted as you go. I want you to take away the main concepts for example; if intensity varies from level 5 during one week to 6 the following, don't think "am I at intensity level 5 or 6, or even 7??" this is just a guide!! Think more about the concept of a gradual increase (or decrease) of intensity week after week.
What I'll now cover off is:
- A brief description of the 12 week plan
- The main differences between the linear and non-linear/conjugate plans
- Variations in volume, intensity and specificity
- A quick note on loads
- Peaking - a word of caution
- Mini breaks
- A typical weekly workout
You may follow quite easily with the images on screen, although for ease and future reference it may be worth while downloading the file here and further along in the article.
Example 12 week linear plan
The plan is broken down into a total of five phases: 1) Hypertrophy or Muscular Endurance. 2) Strength. 3) Power. 4) Peaking. 5) Tapering.
Now before you read on, forget the fact that is a 12 week program (it could easily be 10 or 16 weeks) just try to take away the key concepts of segmenting out your training program into specific focus areas. Why?
If you're taking a typical linear approach then...
- Hypertrophy or Muscular Endurance tends to be the most demanding in terms of training volumes so therefore can have quite a negative impact on your sport specific training, hence it being done at the start. Think of this as the preparatory stage of your training where you use fairly simple exercises to developing good movement patterns and a good base with which to work from. Whether you choose Hypertrophy (building muscle) or Muscular Endurance, this depends on where you are and where you need to be in your weight class.
- Strength can still be very demanding, although if you stick to the volume guidelines mentioned earlier in this article and laid out in the 12 week plan, you should find providing you 'leave a little in the tank' and don't max out on every set, you will feel fresher for your sports specific training as opposed to doing high rep range exercises. Also, another VERY IMPORTANT point is that research shows athletes who first develop higher maximum absolute strength show better gains when they start their power training. Hence placing strength before power.
- Power needs to follow strength (in most cases) based on what is mentioned above, plus powerful movements are more specific to BJJ where training towards a competition and remember you want to make your training more specific to the sporting goal as you progress.
- Peaking is where you are, surprise, surprise, looking to reach your physical peak in your strength & conditioning program, i.e. you will be looking to hit close to your maximum levels of weight lifted on your power exercises, although with moderate loads. Yes, this will be more intense, although the number of sets and reps you are doing will be lower to avoid overtraining, injury and keep you relatively fresh to focus more on your sport specific training. Another VERY IMPORTANT POINT: sports specific training should be the biggest focus during these latter weeks, hence reducing the volume.
Tapering is where you reduce the intensity of your training directly leading into your sports specific goal, in this case a BJJ competition. Now, most research with regards to tapering is done on endurance sports, which doesn't directly apply to BJJ, so the following is based on a mix of personal & coaching experience, plus the research I have read. Here's the deal, everybody is different, so in many ways you'll need to work out what is best for you although I would suggest the following in the 7 days leading up to a competition:
- ~7 days out (let's call this Saturday): have your hardest training session both in terms of BJJ training and your strength and conditioning, whatever happens to fall on that day
- Rest for at least 24 hours (Sunday), with maybe some low level activity and/or mobility work
- The next three days (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday) train BJJ, although try to hold back on the intensity and focus far more on technique and drilling. MAYBE have one strength and conditioning session with low loads and low volumes on the Tuesday, although this is optional
- The next two days (Thursday and Friday) aim for complete rest with some light mobility work
- Competition day
Though remember, this is an ideal scenario and requires working towards your absolute peak, which is something you'll only do two or three times a year. If you have other competitions in between, that doesn't matter too much, just go out and go for it. Don't beat yourself up too much if you haven't had the perfect preparation, sometimes life gets in the way...
Main differences between the linear and non-linear/conjugate plans
The main difference between the linear and non-linear plans I use are that the strength and power phases are mixed together, with a low level muscular endurance maintenance sessions also thrown in, with each session rotated on a weekly basis. For example, Monday = Strength, Wednesday = Muscular Endurance and Friday = Power.
The theory of progression still applies, although you're running each in parallel. Plus, I find it provides the ability to maintain the muscular endurance while combining the strength and power work, which is otherwise very hard to do in a linear approach.
Otherwise, the early preparatory phases, peaking and tapering should still apply.
Should you use a linear or non-linear approach?
I think a non-linear approach is better applied to more experienced athletes. If you're completely new to strength and conditioning outside your BJJ training, or have not done any strength & conditioning in a while, then it makes sense to build a good base of strengthening key movement patterns over time with simple exercises, before you start working on more demanding complex exercises or power movements.
That being said, a benefit of a non-linear approach is that it allows you to adapt and adjust your program more fluidly as and when life gets in the way, plus helps to maintain gains you have made in different areas over team, making a more well rounded athlete, which is probably a bigger benefit than being at your absolute peak in certain areas.
So I guess I'm saying there is no set answer on whether a linear or non-linear approach will best for you, it really depends on your individual circumstances.
Changes in volume, intensity and specificity over 12 weeks
If you've read through the full article then hopefully the above chart makes sense, although it's worth covering again here.
First I'll make the point again, don't stress too much on whether your volume is at level 8 versus 6, or intensity is at 4 versus 9, just think of the general rule of varying each element as explained below.
- Volume - which as explained earlier, is how much you're doing each session, typically determined by the number of repetitions you're doing. The key here is that your volume will be higher at the start tapering off as you get closer to your competition. The exception being a drop off when you first introduce strength training with a gradual build up before tapering off again
- Intensity - which is how hard you're working in each session, typically determined by the load/weight you're lifting and/or how complex the exercise is (i.e. normal push-ups versus push-ups on a gym ball). Intensity needs to gradually increase until you reach your peak and then taper off.
- Specificity - this is how specific your exercises are to your given sport. Let's take a chest press using a machine (I'm not a fan of machines in most cases) which will develop upper body pushing movements, although is far less specific than doing a one armed dumb bell press with your back on a gym ball. The latter is more specific as in BJJ you are very, very unlikely to be pushing against a stable object from a stable position, you and/or your opponent is moving, therefore working an unstable pressing movement is more specific to BJJ. So what's the key message here; as you progress through your program look to introduce exercises that are more specific to BJJ.
However, a quick note on specificity, there is a limit, you can't really do double kettlebell snatches, while standing on a gym ball and gripping the kettlebells through a pair of gi sleeves. One you'll probably break half the bones in your body, plus by making the movement more specific, you're trading off the ability to generate maximum power. Just keep in mind 'how specific is this movement to BJJ?' as a general concept.
Earlier in the article I talked about focusing on particular rep ranges rather than specific loads when training strength, power, muscular endurance etc. However, I do reference training loads in the 12 week plan. If you have the right facilities and the right coaching available to determine your 1 rep max (something well beyond the scope of this article) then you can use these percentage points so I wanted to include them as a reference point.
Also, note that 85% of you 1 rep max for a power versus a strength exercise WILL NOT BE THE SAME WEIGHT. The % of 1 rep max is specific to exercise you are using. Strength exercises are done much slower than power exercises AND you will use different exercises to train the same movement pattern. Therefore, you 1 rep max will different for each.
One example is the hip drive movement. For strength you could use a deadlift and for power you could use a power clean. Same movement pattern (mostly) although trained in a very different way. You are not going to power clean the same weight you can deadlift.....trust me!
Also use the 1 rep max %'s as a relative benchmark to know when you should be lifting your heaviest loads. If you're lifting the same weight in your tapering week, you're going wrong.
Peaking - a word of caution
As mentioned earlier, using the concept of peaking you will be looking to hit close to your maximum levels of weight lifted on your power exercises. That being said, the main premises for peaking comes from sports that are predominantly attribute based, i.e. olympic weight lifting, sprinting etc.
BJJ is predominantly a skill based sport, where your physical condition helps you better execute those techniques. So don't get too caught in having to hit personal bests across all the possible exercises, by doing so you could easily jeopardize your sport specific practice.
You should be aiming towards a physical peak just before the competition, although that does not mean you have to be at your best physical peak of all time. If you are able to hit be at your best physical peak then that's fantastic, that's not always possible though and certainly won't be possible for all people, all the time. Keep it balanced.
I've talked already about the idea of having forced rest as part of an overall periodised training program, although what I mean by mini-breaks is having a short rest from strength & conditioning during a training cycle.
For example, during a 12 week program you may want to take a break of about 3 to 4 days between the hypertrophy / muscular endurance phase where you do no strength & conditioning, where you have at least 48 hours full rest from all exercise, before heading into the next phase, for example strength training.
A program of any length doesn't need to be full throttle all the way through, it will have natural peaks and troughs and these short breaks will refresh you ready for the next phase.
A typical weekly program
So what does a typical weekly program look like?
Well providing you've taken into consideration all of the various elements mentioned in this article, each plan and program is going to vary by individual and also whether you are doing a linear or non-linear program. However, what I've done in the file and image you'll see below is an example weekly workout for a non-linear model (so you can see example exercises of each focus area). Please remember, this an example only so you get the general idea of how you'd structure each workout.
Even if you just a few elements discussed here and add them to your program, it will make a difference and be a step in the right direction and that is my main in writing this article, to chance your thinking about how you apply strength & conditioning to your BJJ training, even if only a little.
- Complement your BJJ training - remember the most important factor in improving your BJJ training is BJJ training, any strength work should help not hinder you
- BJJ specific movements - train movement patterns and target areas of the body specific to BJJ / grappling
- Metabolic demands of the BJJ athlete - ideally a BJJ athlete needs a balance between various physical facates such as strength, power, muscular endurance et
- To CV or not to CV - you may not need as much off the mat CV Fitness as you think
- Periodization - you can't go all out, all of the time. Plan and work towards pre-determined peaks throughout the year
- Progression, progression, progression - to progress you need to force adapation, this can be done by varying the intensity and volume of your training
- Choosing the right exercises - make your exercises are truly building strength, power, muscular endurance by challenging yourself to hit the right rep ranges
- Forced rest periods in BJJ training - BJJ has no real seasons, make sure you make your own......we all need a break from time to time