Pretty much everyone that has done jiujitsu has heard their sensei or some higher belt say, “technique beats strength.” However, everyone that has trained jiujitsu has been beaten at some point by someone bigger and stronger than them. I’ve seen plenty of high level wrestlers with no jiujitsu experience give high level jiujiteiros a really hard time. Jiujitsu is a physical practice. Martial artists, including jiujiteiros, love to talk about martial arts as having magical or mystical powers, but all physical practices are still governed by physics and physiology, not magic. So when you want to discuss things like strength, leverage, force, technique and mass (size) you cannot separate those things from the laws of physics and physiology.
“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” Socrates
The first thing we need to do is define some of these terms. Technique is the movements or positions used to accomplish a task. Read more here. Whether the task is a sweep or an armbar, there many techniques that will get the job done. The better technique will accomplish the same task while expending less energy. We understand that when we see newbies using 100% effort to perform the simplest move on someone compared to a blackbelt performing the same move with their eyes closed and talking to someone else seemingly expending next to no energy.
We often view strength as mere contractile potential and a factor that is separate and at odds with technique. That is wholly wrong. Strength is not merely the size and force of your muscles. In reality, strength is the productive application of force: applying the right amount of force at the right time and right direction. True strength is inseparable from technique. If strength were merely about size, you would determine the winner of strength competition by the size of their muscles. If strength were purely about how hard you could contract your muscles, you might see the leg press as a contested event. Strength is directly correlated to the task you are trying to complete. Thus the squat, deadlift, bench, clean & jerk are all separately tested events and the winner of one lift does not necessarily win the others.
Here’s another example: when performing a classic juji gatame armbar, you point your opponent’s thumb to the sky as you pull back on the wrist and bridge up with your hips. The same amount of force (contractile potential) applied with the thumb facing sideways will be ineffective at breaking the arm. Similarly the right technique applied with too little force will also be ineffective. For example, a 5-foot tall, 100lb female trying to armbar a 6-foot, 5-inch tall male athlete that ways 250lbs will likely be ineffective no matter how proficient her technique.
To a large degree, mass moves mass. And to deny that would be ridiculous. This is why we have weight classes in sports. Too large a discrepancy in size and strength cannot simply be overcome with technique. If you want to be competitive, you should not neglect the value of getting stronger. Do not conflate increasing strength with becoming slow and inflexible which is a myth that kept many sports lagging behind the curve for years. Gone are the days when skinny Brazilians can enter the octagon wearing a gi and whoop three people in one night. We now have to train like real athletes and increase our speed and power and strength to be competitive.
You want to start lifting but don’t know where to begin.
Do you want to be stronger? Do you want to have healthier bones, joints and muscles? Do you want to increase your metabolism and improve your body composition? Do you want to dominate people on the mat? Then you want to start strength training and lifting them weights. #gainz
Maybe you are a jiujitiero or maybe not. Maybe you have lifted weights before or maybe you haven’t. Maybe you have taken a long hiatus from the gym or maybe you’ve never been in a gym before. Whatever the case, you are looking to get stronger but don’t know where to begin. Here’s a simple, quick, and effective program for you to get you back on the #gainztrain.
The general rule to getting stronger is that you have to lift heavy three to five days per week at loads at or above 80% of your one rep max (1RM). However, rules were made to be broken! I have found that most jiujitsu players find it challenging to do a linear progression program like 5/3/1 or Starting Strength on top of their regular jiujitsu training.
They complain that they are simply too tired and sore to roll after a long lifting session. That makes sense because those lifting programs are for people that are only lifting and not doing a second sport.
So I want to dodge that whole problem with a program that will allow you to start lifting and getting results without derailing your jiujitsu training.
What I recommend is a few sets of 8×8. If you google “German volume training” or go to Thundrbro.com you will find lots of cool articles and lots of variations of this program. But most of the articles on it will prescribe this as a high volume training for intermediate to advanced athletes. Recently I rediscovered this through my friends at Thundrbro.com and started modifying it for myself and a few of my athletes and love the way it works.
I like this method of training because: 1) it builds strength; 2) it builds muscle; 3) it strengthens connective tissues; 4) it is fast and efficient; and 5) it uses lighter weights. The reason you are using lighter weights is that you are doing longer sets, you are under tension the entire time, and you are doing a lot of eccentric work. This creates a huge training stimulus. I additionally like starting newer lifters with lighter weights and having them move slower because they can focus on the quality of their movement more. Beginners love to rush, this program does not allow rushing. The lighter weights means you do not have to do a lot of warm up sets to get to your work weights. A quick general warm up and a couple of sets of the exercise as you work toward your weight for the day is plenty and you can get right to work.
Here is all you have to do. You will take an exercise and perform 8 sets of 8 repetitions. Each repetition is performed with a 3 second negative and a slight pause. Take approximately 30 seconds of rest between sets. If you do this correctly, each set should take between 30 and 40 seconds. Sets can start every minute or every 70 seconds. The total time for the 8 sets (64 reps) is under 9 minutes which makes for an intense session. If you do two exercises per lifting day, you will be able to finish in 30 minutes with a warm up and cool down. That’s efficient. I recommend 2 or 3 sessions per week. That is plenty on top of a normal jiujitsu training schedule.
You have to work 3 different movement functions: squatting, pushing, and pulling. These are the three biggest movement functions that use the most muscle and have the most general carry over to all athletics. Every session should include a lower body squat or lunge and at least one upper body pull or push. You can always add more, but try to carve out enough time for two 8-minute sets. Start with the legs first and then do the upper body second. But it’s not the end of the world if you switch the order because you’re waiting for someone to finish doing curls in the squat rack.
I try to rotate through different exercises each time I do a session: front squat with kettlebells, front squat with barbell, back squat, sandbag bearhug squat, weighted step ups, rear foot elevated lunges, etc. It’s more important that you do the exercise well than you just keep trying new exercises. So get familiar with an exercise and how much load you can handle for 8×8 before you switch to a new exercise. It is extremely common to start the workout with weight that seems manageable only to find out about half way through that you can’t finish all 8 sets. You can either rest and reset, or you can chalk it up to a learning experience and come back the next day and choose a lighter weight. Better to start too light and build some confidence than grind through the hardest workout your first day in the gym and get too sore to return the next day.
If you are an experienced lifter, you should be targeting 40-60% of your 1RM on your 8×8. If you are new you should start light, work on your form and increase weights gradually every time you cycle back to a lift you have done before. On this program you add weight to your lifts once every cycle. The lower body lifts cycle every 4 weeks and you add 5 to 10 pounds per lift. The upper body lifts cycle every 3 weeks but only increase by 2 to 5 pounds. If you are an experienced lifter, cycle through program for 8 weeks and then go back to lifting heavier again. If you are a novice, try to find your one rep max on each lift after 8 weeks.
Obviously, it would be better to have access to a gym and some weights but if you are at home and only have a kettlebell or pair of dumbbells you can make it work. If the dumbbell you have is too light to challenge your legs in the squat, then do lunges or step ups so you have to lift the weight with only one leg. That will make the weight seem twice as heavy. Likewise, if you have to press or pull with one arm at a time to challenge yourself, then do that. Stop procrastinating and go get swole.
Here are two example days.
0:00-5:00 Warmup with some squats and pushups and a quick run or bike.
5:00-13:00 8 sets of 8 Goblet Squats with a 3-second negative and 1-second pause at the bottom. Start every set on the minute.
15:00-23:00 8 sets of 8 Bent Over Barbell Rows with a 3-second negative and a 1-second pause at the top. Start every set on the minute.
Do as many burpees as you can in 5 minutes.
0:00-5:00 warmup with some squats, pushups and a quick run or bike.
5:00-13:00 8 sets of 8 sandbag bearhug squats with a 3-second negative and a 1-second pause at the bottom.
15:00-23:00 8 sets of 8 dumbbell bench press with a 3-second negative and a 1-second pause at the bottom.
25:00-30:00 Grab the heaviest dumbbell or kettlebell you have and do a 1-arm farmer walk until you have to put it down, then switch hands and walk until you have to put it down. Continue for 5 minutes.
What is with the 5 minute piece at the end? Well it’s a good habit to start getting in some conditioning while you are tired. At first it will be exhausting but eventually you will condition your body to be able to keep pushing when you’re fatigued. After a few weeks of this program you will notice the difference on the mat. You will be stronger and faster and able to roll longer without getting as tired.
Being stronger is better. Period. Anybody that tells you otherwise, doesn’t know anything about being strong or about being better. Strength is not just how hard you contract your muscles nor is it how big your muscles are. Strength is the productive application of force. Strength is force applied at the right place and at the right time to complete a task. If you cannot complete the task, then you are not strong enough. No amount of stepping on the pedal or turning the wheel will make your car go forward if there is no engine under the hood. The bigger the engine the faster the car goes. There is no real world situation where strength is a disadvantage. It’s not the only important thing but you should never pass up an opportunity to get stronger and avoid people that encourage you to do so as they are not to be trusted.
Jiujitsu guys love to give lip service to technique. And you see guys complain when they get tapped that the other guy was using too much strength and their technique was bad. A tap is a tap. In the real world we don’t tap just because someone used good technique. We tap because the move worked. Technique is merely the movements or positions used to accomplish a task. There are many many different techniques that can be used to accomplish the same task. When we rate a technique as good or bad what we are really looking at is the amount of energy expended to accomplish the same task. One technique is “better” than the other if it accomplishes the same task with less energy. Both good and bad techniques can be effective and accomplish the task, but the more efficient technique will lead to better results in the long run.
I want you to have strength and technique because both of these vectors point in the same direction. We have all faced the person who has limited technical ability but they make up for it with a lot of strength and they are tough opponents and can overcome very advanced practitioners just based on their size and strength. We have also faced some tiny black belt that seems very frail yet they are able to gradually break down our defenses and submit us. However, the most formidable opponents are the ones that are strong and technical.
To separate strength from technique is actually a fallacy and cannot be done. Strength and technique both point toward task accomplishment, i.e. getting the job done. An athlete that has good technique will appear stronger because the techniques they use will maximize the force they can apply to an opponent. Conversely, a stronger athlete can overcome technical deficiencies with their strength and pull off moves that a weaker athlete would not be able to.
Choose strength and use that strength to bolster your techniques.
Taking twelve years away from Brazilian jiu-jitsu (“BJJ”) was not good for my skills on the mat. However, I used that time to do a lot of training and coaching and worked with thousands of athletes around the world teaching CrossFit, kettlebells, weightlifting, mobility and gymnastics seminars. While it could be said that I’ve dabbled in too many fields, I like to think that doing everything from yoga to strongman training has given me a lot of perspective when it comes to training. As the saying goes, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I find that yoga teachers think that yoga is what’s missing from everyone’s training and weightlifters think that everyone needs to get stronger and lift more weight. Most blackbelts and people who have achieved success at something tend to advocate for whatever worked for them. It’s only natural. So when I lay out the things that I think are most important to BJJ athletes to help their training, I imagine my viewpoint might go against what other people have said. And that’s okay. I am just here to help.
Coming back to the mat after 12 years, it’s taken me a few months to get back to my former level but I feel like I’m there. In some ways I’m better than I was 12 years ago and in some ways I still have a lot of the same bad habits that I have to work to undo. But what is important to remember is that now, at 46 years of age, I am in better shape than I was at 34 and I am smarter about taking care of my body. So while I am an old purple belt and am not some world champion blackbelt or a CrossFit Games athlete, I have a lot of experience and time under tension. I also have a lot of training injuries that I’ve worked through so my recommendations come from a place of experience with an eye toward longevity.
Most blackbelts will tell you that if you want to be good at BJJ, you need more time on the mat. In order for you to log more training hours, you need to be healthy and injury free. In order to stay strong and healthy what you do off the mat is extremely important. Most blogs and magazine articles are concerned with optimal training: getting stronger, faster and being generally more awesome all the time. This thinking is essential for young competitors. That is not who my advice is aimed at (although younger athletes will do well to heed this advice). My experience is that you can take a 20-something male and throw a ton of training at them (both good and bad) and they will still continue to improve and get better. Furthermore, younger people can train through injuries just because they’re young and (think/believe) they’re invincible. I want to talk to the 30-, 40- and 50-year old BJJ athletes that are already starting to feel the wear and tear of training and advancing age. Time is a precious resource and the older you get, the less likely you are going to be pursuing a professional jiu-jitsu career, so efficiency and longevity are more important than creating an optimal program. For example, if you wanted to optimize your strength (i.e. get really strong, really fast), you might lift three to five days per week and follow some complicated periodized program and do a lot of complicated exercises. However, lifting once or twice a week and sticking with 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 big exercises and going as heavy as you can for that day will give you almost all the general strength benefits that you need for BJJ without sucking up a lot of valuable time and energy.
For myself and my athletes I first consider that training time is limited and so our training off the mat has to be efficient and effective. There are a lot of things that we could do, but there are a few things that we must do. There are four areas that need to be addressed and trained and if you give them the proper weight and allot adequate time for them it will help you stay strong and injury free and allow you to enjoy your time in the dojo.
The four elements are Joint Preparation, Assisted Recovery, Conditioning, and Strength. I listed them in what I consider their order of importance. Furthermore, these four elements have some overlap so the lines can be blurred sometimes. So doing joint preparation can also make you stronger and help your cardio. For example, doing heavy farmers carries (holding a very heavy dumbell/kettlebell in each hand and walking for distance or time) is not only a form of strength training, but it is also a conditioning workout because your heart will beat out of your chest. Furthermore, it strengthens the grip as well as the connective tissues in the hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Therefore, choosing exercises that have some crossover can be very efficient if you are short on time. Of course, it goes without saying, that nutrition is probably the most important weapon in your arsenal with regards to health and longevity, so while you read this eat a fucking salad!
I will go into greater detail in future blog posts on how to properly prepare your joints, ideas for recovery and, of course, strength and conditioning. Meanwhile, keep training and getting better.
I don’t think of myself as someone who possesses patience. I practice instant gratification.It’s worked for me generally speaking, but I strive to be more patient and to embrace the struggle.To play the long game has many advantages and there are just some things that can’t be rushed: like strength.As crossfitters, we all strive to be stronger, but our bodies can only adapt so fast.We don’t just go to 3 classes a week and suddenly squat 500lbs.That kind of strength is hard-won.I’m not suggesting we all strive to squat 500lbs, but I do think we all should put in the time and effort to grow stronger.That means you need a commitment.You need a habit.You need motivation.You need to do a lot of short-term efforts that will lead to long-term gains.
Like I said, I practice instant gratification and when I look at myself, I can say “I wish I’d been more patient. I wish I had been more diligent.I wish I hadn’t sacrificed the long-term gain for the short-term satisfaction.”Like someone that wished they had invested in the market when it was low.But there’s an old Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”I can’t change the past.I can only make a better choice right now to go and lift some weights, to do some pull-ups and to get my heartrate up.The second best time to invest your your strength is right now.