Want to Improve Your BJJ Game? Lift Weights!

When I started BJJ, I struggled to touch my toes. This is partially due to lower back problems I started to experience at 14 years old. When I was 19, I sustained a lower-back injury while squatting. What felt like a knife stabbing into my spine turned out to be a pinched nerve. The chiropractor advised me to never put weights on my back again. I realize now, I shouldn’t have listened. 

I continued to lift weights, though very carefully, through the beginning of my BJJ journey. It was around 2013 that I realized I needed a new routine. BJJ had increased my core strength and I could finally touch my toes, but my knees were unstable, (one of them would actually clunk in and out of place while training), my back was still hurting, and I was rocking a “dad bod.” 

It was also around this time that my wife started a powerlifting program and started to learn more about CrossFit. It didn’t take a fitness expert to see that she was way more flexible than me, stronger, and looked more muscular. I thought, if I had a fraction of her attributes, my BJJ would be so much better! 

 I first started with a traditional powerlifting cycle that one of my wife’s coworkers wrote for her. I saw amazing results. I put on 10-15 pounds of muscle by following it and eating more. But I still wanted more. 

After a few months of the powerlifting program at the global gym, I got REALLY pissed waiting for the squat rack to clear. This is when I made the decision to switch to a CrossFit gym after thinking, “I’ll never have to wait for a squat rack again!” In addition to the free weight availability, I knew that the athletes were strong, flexible, mobile, and had great conditioning. In other words, it would be a great addition to my BJJ. 

So I started. Over the last few years, I have learned a lot about some of the best cross-training exercises for BJJ: 

Squats/Front Squats:

  • Increases hip mobility
  • Lengthens the time you can maintain closed-guard
  • Assists in climbing legs for submissions
  • Increases leg strength for standing in guard
  • Increases leg strength for finishing submissions (the extension) 
  • Increases core strength 
  • Helps you keep your posture upright for the top game
  • Perfect leg development for balloon sweeps

Deadlifts:

  • Increases back strength 
  • Decreases lower back pain
  • Mark Bell (Power Lifter) says it best, “if your back hurts, it’s because it’s weak.”
  • Improves top game posture
  • Improves pulling strength for guard retention
  • Improves overall lifting strength for easier stack passing set-ups
  • Increases finishing strength for submissions (the extension)

Tip: Deadlifts should, above all, train your glutes and hamstrings. If you don’t feel them working, as you’re doing deadlifts, think about pushing your butt back at the start, and squeezing it as you stand up. 

Overhead Press (strict and push press):

  • Decreases shoulder injuries by adding bulk/strength to your shoulders
  • Increases core strength more than almost ANY other exercise!
  • Increase shoulder range of motion
  • Mimics sweeps where your arms flash overhead (Shoalin Sweep, Balloon Sweep)

In general, BJJers get a lot of aerobic conditioning, so it’s best to follow a lower rep scheme (3-7 reps) to increase strength and anaerobic capacity. Aim for something between 3-5 sets. You should train at a 7-8 exertion rate. 

In other words, go heavy enough to feel it, but not so heavy you’re risking injury.  

I suggest training 2-3 times per week off the mats. 

Follow a scheme like this: 

Day 1: Deadlift 

Day 2: Press

Day 3: Squat 

Give yourself at least 3 days between your squat and your deadlift.  

Don’t forget conditioning. My favorite conditioning tool is the rowing machine.  

Rowing:

  • Mimics both the aerobic and anaerobic aspect of BJJ. 
  • Increases aerobic endurance
  • Increases overall leg strength
  • Develops a strong pull and back muscles
  • Increases range of motion

Honorable mention “accessory” exercises 

Kettlebell exercises:

  • Swings
  • Turkish get-ups
  • Single-arm snatch

Dumbbell exercises

Pull-ups

Burpees

Push-ups

Rope climbs

Box jumps