Five Tips for Programming Strength & Conditioning for BJJ

5 tips for programming strength for BJJ

-Guest post by Will Safford, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach who trains under Andre Galvao in San Diego, CA. He received is purple belt in December of 2013 and competes occasionally in the heavyweight division. Will specializes in mobility training, injury prevention, and kettlebell strength and conditioning. Visit his website at and check out his new e-book about Strength Training for BJJ: Strength Without Size.

There are a lot of ways to get strong and build conditioning. And with a connection to the internet, you literally have access to all of them. This can be extremely useful for expanding your knowledge and gaining exposure to new and trusted methods, but the giant digital archive that is the internet, also presents a few issues.

The amount of information alone can be overwhelming, and a workout in itself to sift through. The issue of discerning who knows what they’re talking about and who doesn’t presents itself. Who do you trust? Who is speaking from experience, who from scientific understanding? Who is just out there to make a buck? Finally, how do you apply the information to your specific needs, in our case, BJJ. Use the following tips to help program your strength and conditioning for BJJ, and get the most out of your time in the gym.

1. Use your time in the gym to develop qualities you can’t get on the mat.

Jiu Jitsu inherently develops many athletic qualities. Undoubtedly it increases your cardio capacity, develops strength endurance, improves flexibility and mobility, and ups your endurance and stamina. Truth be told, these are exactly the qualities you need to excel on the mat. So the best advice for improving your Jiu Jitsu performance is always to do more Jiu Jitsu!

However, there are a few qualities that BJJ doesn’t develop, which, when acquired, can give you an edge over your competition. Strength, for example, or the maximum amount of force you can apply to an object for a single effort, is best developed in the gym with near maximal loads. The same goes for power, which is strength plus speed, and is best developed by moving heavy loads quickly. Body weight is an advantage when it comes to grappling, that’s why we have weight classes. So if you need to build some muscle, you’ll have to earn that in the weight room.

The same goes for any quality in which you personally need to improve. If speed is your issue, program that quality into your strength & conditioning routine. Not the most flexible guy on the mat? Get your stretch on in yoga class. The point is, when you’re doing supplemental training for BJJ, focus on things you won’t directly work when you’re rolling and sparring.

2. Prioritize BJJ first, then strength and conditioning.

If your goal is to improve at Jiu Jitsu it must be your primary focus. Additional strength and conditioning improvements will surely help, but there is no substitute for quality mat time. When you’re planning your weekly schedule, prioritize your BJJ training first. Figure out how many classes and drilling sessions you want to have each week, then fit your strength and conditioning work around that.

For example, if you want to train BJJ five times per week, squeeze in an extra two S&C sessions on the weekend or before/after training. To prevent overtraining, the amount of supplemental sessions you perform should directly correlate to how many BJJ sessions you do. If you can only make two BJJ classes during the week due to scheduling, etc., you can probably get away with three or four S&C sessions on your own time. Remember, BJJ first, then S&C.

3. Use training programs and cycles to develop specific qualities.

Although it would be nice to go into the gym and develop your strength, power, cardio capacity and endurance, while building muscle mass all together, the truth is you can’t. You may be able to make small improvements in each if you train all the qualities together, but to get the best and fastest results, you must focus on one specific goal. You can often train the other qualities secondarily, though with diminished results, but you will at least maintain, if not marginally improve them.

Use training programs and cycles to hone in on a specific goal and attack that goal with laser like focus to yield the best results. The body seems to respond best to focused programs lasting four to twelve weeks. After that, it may stop responding as well to the imposed stresses of your program. You can extend a program by using training cycles (ie. two four-week strength cycles) with programmed de-load periods. Cycles will allow you to see continued improvements toward the same goal by varying the rep, set, volume, and load scheme over a longer period.

There are countless proven methods out there to develop different qualities. Do your homework, read reviews, and make sure you’re purchasing or following a program from a certified coach who has spent time in the gym and under the bar.

4. Program rest into your schedule.

It’s easy to over-train when you’re piling strength and conditioning sessions on top of an already demanding grappling schedule. The old mentality is to outwork the competition on and off the mat, grinding yourself down in the process. Hard work, mental toughness, and discipline, are surely part of the recipe for success, but your body makes changes and adaptations to training when it’s at rest. If you want to continue to see improvements, prevent injuries, and remain on the top of your game, you have to make rest a priority.

Schedule a minimum of one full day of rest, per week, into your routine. This means no drilling, running, yoga, etc. A short work and/or some light stretching is fine, but your goal for this day is to expend the least amount of energy possible, in order to allow your body to fully recover. One or two other “recovery” days should be scheduled with active recovery, meaning either yoga, a light jog, some foam rolling, etc. Anything to keep the body loose, without demanding too much. Listen to your body and if it’s beat up, tired, and constantly achy, take some time off to come back better than before.

5. Reduce your chance of injury closer to competition.

Your chance of getting hurt on the mat is high. Let’s face it, we do a combat sport with the goal of submitting our opponent via threat of injury. In the process of achieving this goal we contort our bodies, use speed, strength, and power to make dynamic movements, and deal with the reality of bodies of mass moving through space and time under the affects of gravity. Yea, we can only hope for just bumps and bruises. With this inherent risk it’s vitally important to reduce your chances of injury while in the weight room.

When programing, remove any exercises you’re not proficient in and may risk injury. The Olympic lifts can develop great strength and power, but if you haven’t built the requisite technique, there are safer options to develop these qualities. In fact, try to measure the risk vs reward of each exercise you choose for your program. Is the desired benefit worth the risk of performing this exercise on top of a rigorous BJJ schedule?

As you approach a tournament, remove even more potential risks from your S&C routine. Heavy barbell movements, advanced plyometric exercises, and any super demanding met-con type work should be sidelined until after you compete. Stick to basic bodyweight exercises and focus your last days and weeks on BJJ training.

In conclusion: Keep it simple. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting the perfect program with the latest exercises and most challenging workouts. We see a lot of pro fighters performing wacky exercises or wild feats of strength online, and are tempted to mimic them. The best idea is to stick to the basics. There is a reason why moves like the squat, deadlift, bench press, pull-up, swing, and plank have been around for a long time. They work.

You don’t need to overcomplicate things in the weight room, and there are almost endless ways to vary an exercise. You can play with weight, reps/sets (volume), speed, placement of load, type of load, time under load, rest between sets, etc. Or, try the many variations of the abovementioned exercises to keep your routine fresh. The point is, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make improvements. Just commit to a routine and always be sure write down and track your progress.