Strength Training for BJJ: Avoid These 8 Common Mistakes

Ask 10 different jiu jitsu coaches about strength training for BJJ and you’ll get 10 different answers.

Unfortunately, 5 of those answers might be, “you don’t need it, just go hard on the mats” (we’re looking at you, Marcelo Garcia). 

If you’re reading this, you’re probably on board with the idea that strength training will give you the edge over your competitors. It’s not a magical pill that will make you better at jiu jitsu. But it will help you lay the pressure on your opponents, stay out of pain, and bounce back from injuries faster.

So, what should you actually do? There’s a lot of conflicting information out there. It’s true that your approach will depend on your goals. Someone training for ADCC will train differently than a hobbyist. And it’s true that there are a lot of ways to get stronger. We’ll get into those soon.

But first, there are some things that everyone – no matter the age or experience level – should avoid. These things will keep you spinning your wheels without actually getting stronger. 

Some of the things on this list might surprise you. Even people who have been lifting weights for years are in danger of making these mistakes. In fact, if you’re an experienced weight lifter, you might be more likely to make some of these mistakes (especially #6 and #7), not knowing they are hindering your jiu jitsu progress.

Let’s get into it.

Mistake #1: Not Strength Training for BJJ at All

BJJ is a combat sport. The goal is *literally* to break joints. If only there was something you could do that would make it harder to break your joints… (spoiler: it’s strength training).

Strength training makes you less likely to get injured.1 It does this by strengthening your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. The bones become stronger because of the load placed on them during training. The ligaments become more flexible and better shock absorbers. This protects the bones and joints while moving or under impact and keeps the body in alignment. 

With stronger, more stable joints and better alignment throughout the body, you’re less likely to, for example, tear your meniscus when you tweak your knee the wrong way during a roll. 

Strength training also makes you more mobile and flexible.2 Want to hit those positions you’ve been trying to hit? How about survive a joint lock long enough to escape? Lifting weights is pretty much loaded stretching. When you lift weights, you lengthen your muscles under load, sort of like partner-assisted stretching. You don’t have to spend hours each week stretching after class to get more flexible. Strength training will do the trick. 

And then there’s the most obvious benefit of strength training: getting stronger. You might have heard that strength is not a substitute for technique in jiu jitsu, and that is true. But strength amplifies technique. And if two people have the same technique, the stronger one typically wins.

When you don’t boost your BJJ with strength training, you’re pretty much asking for an injury. Being stronger might not stop you from getting injured completely. But it lowers the chance of injury and speeds up recovery time. 

Mistake #2: Training Too Much

What happens in your body when you train? In the simplest terms, getting stronger requires two steps: “stimulus” and “adaptation.” 

For example, when you lift weights, you break down muscle. That’s the stimulus. Then, the body responds by rebuilding that muscle even stronger. That’s the adaptation.

Adaptation (a.k.a. the actual body change) happens during recovery time. So, no recovery means no adaptation. You have to give your body a chance to catch up, or else you’ll just keep breaking down muscle without building it back up. You’ll get worse, not better, because you’ll get injured or not have enough energy to do the things you want to do. 

I know you want to smash your opponents and get better at jiu jitsu. The temptation is strong to go 100% every day. But training is only one part of the equation. If you don’t have the other part, you won’t get what you want. 

If your schedule permits, I recommend that you “consolidate stressors”. This means you should try to strength train on the days that you train the hardest on the mats. That way you don’t stack up too many high intensity days in a row without recovering. And on your low intensity days, when you just roll light or drill, you have more time to recover.

Mistake #3: Not Tracking Your Progress

How do you know if you’re getting better? Is what you’re doing working? If you’re going to spend precious time off the mats, you have to know for sure that it’s making you better. That’s where progress tracking comes in. 

In any effective strength training program, you’ll set performance goals. For example: deadlifting twice your bodyweight, getting your first chin up, or increasing your ankle mobility by 3 inches. And we know that recording your progress makes you more likely to achieve your goals.3

To track your progress, you have to know what you’re starting with. You need an accurate picture of where you are now before you can make a plan to get you where you want to be. That’s why the first step of our program starts with a strategy session. We assess strength as well as joint function and mobility. If you’re doing this on your own, make sure to record baseline data for the movements on your program.

After gathering your baseline data, tracking numbers like reps and weight lifted cuts the guesswork and keeps your view crystal clear. It will show you exactly where, how, and by how much you improve from week to week. And it will push you to do more than you would otherwise.

My favorite benefit of tracking progress is the confidence you gain when you see exactly how much you’ve done. It’s rewarding to look back at all your past workouts and see in numbers how much stronger you’ve gotten. Nothing beats the dopamine hit of seeing a higher number next to a lift than you saw last month. Don’t deny yourself this joy! 

train heroic strength training for bjj
A screen shot of Train Heroic, the app that VHP athletes use to track their progress.

Mistake #4: Not Following a Program 

When I ask most people what they do in their strength training for BJJ, they usually name a few exercises. Something like, “pushups, pull-ups, bench press, back squats.” They throw out a random number of reps that they heard they should do. Sometimes they’ve been doing the same workout for years. They’re maintaining strength but not getting stronger.

The first huge problem with this is that there’s no long term vision. Training without a bird’s eye view of where you want to be and how to get there is like wandering around a city without Google Maps. Sure, being spontaneous might be fun for travel, but it doesn’t win you more rounds in BJJ.

The second huge problem with this is that there’s no “progressive overload” (a fancy word for increasing the weight, reps, frequency, etc.). Without a program, people tend to either do the same thing for way too long without getting stronger. Or they make up workouts on the spot. You should be improving over time, and the only way to ensure this is to stick to the plan.

When you train without a program, you’re running on a hamster wheel. It might feel like you’re doing a lot, but you’re not getting anywhere.

Mistake #5: Switching Exercises Too Often 

We’ve talked about how doing the same exercises for years isn’t helpful. However, switching up exercises too often is also keeping you from getting stronger. This could look like doing a workout one week and then a completely different one the following week. Or it could look like making up a new workout every time you hit the gym. 

When you change your workout from week to week or day to day, you’re working harder than you have to (no one wants that!) without the results to show for it. You need to give your body time to adapt to movement patterns and get good at them. 

The idea behind an effective strength program is “variation without change.” That means training the same movement patterns but changing other variables. Take deadlifts, for example. You can do conventional, sumo, trap bar, or single leg variations. You can change the tempo (length in time of each rep) or range of motion. You can do higher reps with lower weight or lower reps with higher weight. These all train the same movement pattern, but the variations challenge the body in different ways.

Mistake #6: Doing Bodybuilder Splits 

If you have some basic knowledge about bodybuilding, you might be tempted to group your workouts into bodybuilder splits, like back/biceps, chest/triceps, and “leg day.”Hey, it worked for Arnold, why can’t it work for you? 

I’m not saying that bodybuilder splits are bad or ineffective, but they present a problem for you: time. You’d have to work out 5 days a week if you want to hit all your “muscle groups”. Who has that kind of time or energy to spend outside of training on the mats? This style of exercise might serve you in a bodybuilding competition, but it’s not the most effective strength training for BJJ.

Speaking of muscle groups… There are around 650 skeletal muscles in the typical human body. You couldn’t possibly target each one on its own. It would take you forever. But if you train movements – like hinge, squat, push, pull, carry, and “anti” core – the muscles used in those movements will get stronger. That’s why a piece of our philosophy is “movements, not muscles” (and yours should be, too)

An example of an “anti” core exercise.

Mistake #7: Training Mirror Muscles Too Much 

Your “mirror muscles” are the ones you can easily see in the mirror. I know, I know. A lot of jiu jitsu athletes want to look “jacked.” And beyond vanity, it’s common to look at muscle size as a sign of strength or progress.

But when you train only the muscles you can see, that leaves out all the muscles you can’t see. This includes the posterior chain, or the back side of your body. This can neglect some essential muscles (hello, peach) for your performance. It can also lead to a strength imbalance which can cause injury. And it ignores other aspects of training that support your BJJ performance, like speed, power, and balance. 

Remember: the front is the “show”, the back is the “go.” 

The solution here is fairly simple. Train movements that use the back side of your body, like deadlifts, rear-foot elevated split squats, hamstring curls, and rows. Here’s a bonus tip: Do lots more rows than presses, because you’re already pressing a lot in jiu jitsu.

Mistake #8: Not Strength Training at All While Injured

Few things are more disappointing than getting injured. But all hope is not lost. It is still possible, and even beneficial, to train while you’re injured. Not training at all while injured can lead to a cycle of disuse and overuse.

Keep in mind that movement is medicine. Moving the body increases blood flow. Blood carries nutrients to the injured area, which help it heal. 

When training through injuries, work on what you can while you fix what you need to fix – either through rest or physical therapy, depending on your doctor’s orders. This allows you to gain strength and mobility in the rest of your body while you heal from your injury. 

This sounds unbelievable, but the injured side of your body can get stronger simply by training the uninjured side. It’s called the cross-education effect. The untrained limb can gain up to 50% of the strength that the trained limb gains!4 So if you’ve injured your right leg, you can still train the left leg while the right one heals, and it’ll get stronger. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than not training at all.

Now That You Know…

So, have you caught yourself making any of these common mistakes when strength training for BJJ? If so, don’t sweat it (pun intended). It’s never too late to start strength training, to build more rest into your routine, or to make tweaks to your program to make it more effective. A well-structured strength program at least twice a week will make a difference in your jiu jitsu. It will help you move, feel, and perform better. 


If you’d like to take the guesswork out of strength training for jiu jitsu, book a FREE strategy session today. We’ll get you started on your personalized, proven path to winning more matches and getting injured less, so you can keep doing what you love.

Sources:

  1. Lauersen JB, Bertelsen DM, Andersen LBThe effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trialsBritish Journal of Sports Medicine 2014;48:871-877. 
  2. Leite TB, Costa PB, Leite RD, Novaes JS, Fleck SJ, Simão R. Effects of Different Number of Sets of Resistance Training on Flexibility. Int J Exerc Sci. 2017 Sep 1;10(3):354-364. PMID: 28966703; PMCID: PMC5609666.
  3. Harkin B, Webb TL, Chang BP, Prestwich A, Conner M, Kellar I, Benn Y, Sheeran P. Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychol Bull. 2016 Feb;142(2):198-229. doi: 10.1037/bul0000025. Epub 2015 Oct 19. PMID: 26479070.
  4. Carroll TJ, Herbert RD, Munn J, Lee M, Gandevia SC. Contralateral effects of unilateral strength training: evidence and possible mechanisms. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2006 Nov;101(5):1514-22. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00531.2006. PMID: 17043329.
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