The Best Core Exercises for Jiu-Jitsu: Stop Doing Crunches and Do “Anti” Core Instead

There’s a lot of information out there on core exercises for jiu-jitsu. Popular videos and articles recommend crunches, bicycles, and even BJJ-specific moves like “hip ups”, “triangle hip ups”, “single leg x hip ups” to train your core – think shooting a triangle into the air. 

At first glance, this makes sense. If you do it a lot in the sport, shouldn’t you incorporate it into your training? Not necessarily.

In this article, we’ll get into:

  • What the core really is
  • Why it’s important
  • Why crunches are possibly harmful and definitely a waste of time
  • Exercises that train the core effectively and improve your jiu-jitsu

Beyond Washboard Abs: What is the Core and What Does It Do?

When you think about your core, you probably think about your midsection or ab region. If you’ve been to physical therapy or have been training for awhile, you might even think about your hip flexors. That’s not wrong, but it’s incomplete. 

The core is everything that is connected to your hips – glues, lats, hamstrings, spinal erectors, abs, obliques, etc. Basically, the core is everything from your nipples to your knees

The term core strength encompasses the core’s main jobs: stability and efficient energy transfer. 

Core stability is the ability to resist unwanted movement – for example, to maintain balance without falling over. In jiu-jitsu, if someone tries to sweep you or take you down, they have to move your body off balance. But if you can stay stiff using your core, you can more easily resist their attacks.

The core’s other main job is energy transfer. The core transfers energy from your lower body to your upper body. Let’s use the collar drag takedown as an example. If your core isn’t stiff when you initiate a collar drag, you won’t be able to throw your opponent because the energy can’t make it from your hips to your upper body and into your opponent. 

Why is the Core Important for Jiu-Jitsu?

Imagine trying to hit a baseball with a pool noodle. You could swing as hard as you want, but the baseball wouldn’t go anywhere, because the pool noodle would bend. The bat being solid is what allows a hitter to transfer all the energy they create with their legs, hip, torso, upper body and send the baseball over the fence.

The core’s job is to produce stability and resist forces being placed upon it – to make you less “pool noodle” and more “baseball bat.”

Here’s why a strong, stable core is important in BJJ:

Reason 1: Control and Hold Your Body Position

In jiu-jitsu, a strong core helps you avoid getting thrown, swept, passed, and ultimately submitted. If you have a strong, stable core, then it’s difficult for someone else to move you around. A strong core also helps you maintain body positions for an extended period – for example, when you mount someone and need to stay on top.

Reason 2: Generate Power and Transfer Force

Having a strong core helps you take down, sweep, and submit your opponent. If you’re going to sweep or throw somebody, you generate power from the ground up. Energy flows from your legs and hips, and your core helps you transfer that energy into the other person. If there are “leaks” in your core, then the power you create with your legs won’t make it to your opponent. This is why you want your core to be integrated and strong, not loose and jello-like.

Reason 3: Prevent Injury and Pain

Core strength and stability can also prevent injury in jiu-jitsu. When your core is weak, you overuse other muscles to compensate. This strains the muscles and joints. When you develop your core for jiu-jitsu using exercises like the ones suggested below, you’ll be able to use the stabilizing muscles when you need them. 

Why Crunches Suck and What to Do Instead 

The torso moves in three planes – forward and backward, side to side, and rotating around, like in The Exorcist. We need to address all 3 of these planes to create 360 degrees of stiffness around the spine as we move.

Most jiu-jitsu practitioners do crunches, situps, and similar core exercises because that’s what they’ve always done – in school, in sports, at the gym, and even in BJJ classes. These types of isolation exercises aren’t pointless, but they present three major problems:

Problem 1: They Only Move in One Plane 

As we’ve established, the torso moves in three planes. If you only work the forward-backwards plane, you’ll leave the other planes weak and create an imbalance. This can lead to injury and inhibit your jiu-jitsu performance. 

Problem 2: They Can Damage Your Spine

Our bodies are made of mechanical parts, just like a car. Each part only has a finite number of cycles before it breaks down.

Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the world’s experts on the spine, has found that crunches and sit-ups place nearly 750 lbs of compressive force on the spine when bent in flexion2. This force can cause the disc to bulge, pressing on nerves and causing pain

The damage is cumulative – it usually doesn’t happen in one session of crunches. But if you only have so many times that you can bend your spine forward before getting injured, you don’t want to waste those times on crunches and sit-ups outside of training. You want to save them for playing guard and bending forward in jiu-jitsu.

Problem 3: They Isolate (Instead of Integrate)

Crunches, sit-ups, and things like “triangle hip ups” target the muscles in your midsection. While we want those muscles to get stronger, that’s not the way to go about it. When you train the core by isolating muscles, you don’t engage the core in the same way that you do in sports1 and in life. Smart core training is more than just training the ab muscles in isolation – it’s training the whole “pillar” from the shoulders down to the knees to move together as a unit.

Current research suggests it’s time to let go of crunches and core exercises that isolate specific muscles1. So which core exercises should you do instead to improve your jiu-jitsu? It’s called “anti” core training.

anti core - no crunches

Solution: “Anti” Core Exercises

The term “anti” core refers to anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, and anti-rotation. For example: 

  • Anti-extension – planks
  • Anti-lateral flexion – side planks and loaded carries
  • Anti-rotation – anti-rotation presses and holds. 

Anti-core exercises teach our core to stabilize the trunk during jiu-jitsu. This is crucial for executing or defending takedowns, sweeps, passess, and submissions. Anti-core is the ONLY core work I would recommend. 

Note: These are called anti-core exercises, but that doesn’t mean I am against the movement of the spine. My goal is NOT to have everybody keep a neutral spine. My goal is to teach people how to generate stiffness around the spine so they can transfer energy from the lower body to the upper body as well as resist opponents’ attacks.

The Three Types of Anti-Core Exercises to Train the Core

Below I’ll explain the three types of anti-core exercises for jiu-jitsu and give examples of each. The examples are graded in order of difficulty, so make sure you can do the “beginner” variation as described before moving on to the next. And don’t forget to breathe!


Extension in the spine is when the back arches and the hips come forward. Some extension of the spine will happen naturally. But too much extension creates an imbalance.

Anti-extension exercises train the spine to resist arching.

Beginner: Front Plank 

Lay face down with your elbows just below your shoulders and your palms flat on the ground. Arms should be parallel. Lock your legs and glutes out, squeeze your belly, and lift yourself up towards the ceiling. Breathe and hold. 

2-3 sets, 20-30 seconds

Intermediate: Stability Ball Rollout

Set up in the tall kneeling position with your toes tucked under towards your shins and your knees under your hips. Position the ball at arm’s length in front of you on the floor, with your fingertips on the ball. Squeeze your glutes and belly. Fall forward slowly with your arms straight, and then pull yourself back in. Make sure that your lower back doesn’t arch as you fall forward.

2-3 sets, 10 reps

Advanced: Body Saw Plank 

You need sliders or socks on a slippery surface. Get into plank position with forearms parallel. Put your feet on the sliders. Lock out your knees and glutes. Brace like someone is going to punch you. Push your body back with your arms to “lengthen the lever.” Pull it forward to “shorten the lever.” Maintain a straight line from the back of your head to your heels.

2-3 sets, 20-30 seconds

Anti-Lateral Flexion

Lateral flexion is when the spine bends side to side – as in, the shoulders lean outside the hips. When this happens, it’s much harder to change directions quickly. Also, injuries to the knee, ankle, and hip become more likely. Anti-lateral exercises train the spine to resist bending to the side.

Beginner: Side Plank

Lay down on your side on the ground. Line up your elbow, hip, knee, and ankle. Make sure your elbow stays directly below your shoulder. Squeeze your glutes, lock your knees, and drive the ground away with your legs. Your head and shoulders should be in line with your hips as if you are standing up.

2-3 sets, 20-30 seconds each side

Intermediate: One Arm Loaded Carry

Hold a dumbbell in one hand by your side. Squeeze everything through your core, bracing as if someone is going to punch you. Squeeze your shoulder and arm. Walk slowly. Make sure the weight stays stable, and don’t lean over to either side as you walk.

2-3 sets, 20 yards 

Advanced: Two Arm Overhead/Suitcase Loaded Carry

With one hand, hold a kettlebell up in the air with your arm extended straight. With the other arm, hold another kettlebell down by your side. Walk.

2-3 sets, 20 yards


Rotational movement is an important component of athletics. Anti-rotation exercises teach the body to resist rotating at the low back. Generating stiffness during rotational movements helps transfer energy from the lower body to the upper body and into your opponent.

Beginner: Tall Kneeling Anti-Rotation Press

Tie a band around an anchor point. Sit in the tall kneeling position with toes tucked under shins. Make sure your arms are in line with the band and anchor point when they are fully extended from your body. Lock your glutes and squeeze your core, bringing your ribs down towards your hips. Press the band forward, hold for a second, and then bring the band back towards your body. 

2-3 sets, 10 each side

Intermediate: Standing Anti-Rotation Hold

Use either a cable or a band at chest height. Stand so that your arms are in line with the anchor point when they are extended. Corkscrew your feet into the ground, turn your glutes on, and brace your core. Press your hands out in front of you and hold. You should feel it in the inside glute and core as you resist the internal rotation.

2-3 sets, 20-30 seconds each side

Advanced: Standing Anti-Rotation Hold with Shuffle

Get into the same position as described above for the “Standing Anti-Rotation Hold.” While holding the band out away from your body, take small steps away from the anchor point. Then take small steps back towards the anchor point.

2-3 sets, 5 reps each side

Bonus: Anti-Rotation AND Anti-Extension

Beginner: Dead Bugs

Lay flat on the ground with your knees above your hips and at a 90 degree angle. Raise your arms to a 90 degree angle with your chest (straight to the ceiling). Extend one arm and the opposite leg at the same time. Repeat with the other arm and leg. Be sure not to arch your back when you extend.

2-3 sets, 10 reps each side

Intermediate: Anti-Extension Dead Bug (Banded) 

Attach a band to an anchor point. Place a mini band around the top and bottom of your feet. Lay down in line with the anchor point. Grab the band and pull it tight so your hands are directly above your chest and your arms are straight out in front of you. Keep your back flat on the ground without arching. Lift your knees to 90 degrees. Leave one leg in place while you extend the other foot.

2-3 sets, 10 each side

Advanced: Stability Ball Dead Bug

Find a ball that allows you to keep your hips and shoulders at 90 degrees when you’re laying flat on the ground. Press into the ball with your arms and legs while keeping your back flat on the ground. Lower one arm and the opposite leg while maintaining pressure on the ball. Return to the starting position and then do the same with the opposite arm and leg. Imagine that someone is trying to take the ball away, and don’t let them.

2-3 sets, 10 each side

Beginner: Bear Crawl with Shoulder Taps

Get into a crawling position with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Tuck your toes under towards your shins. Lift your knees a couple of inches off the ground. Bring one hand to the opposite shoulder, then back down to the ground. Repeat on the other side. Make sure your hips stay level.

2-3 sets, 10 each side

Intermediate: Linear Bear Crawl 

Get into a crawling position with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Tuck your toes under towards your shins. Lift your knees a couple of inches off the ground. Move one hand and the opposite leg forward (i.e. right hand and left leg). Then move the other hand and the opposite leg forward (i.e. left hand and right leg). Make sure your hips stay level.

2-3 sets, 20-30 yards

Advanced: Linear Bear Crawl with Kettlebell Drag

Get into a crawling position with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Tuck your toes under towards your shins. Place a kettlebell near one hand. Lift your knees a couple of inches off the ground. Move one hand and the opposite leg forward (i.e. right hand and left leg). Then move the other hand and the opposite leg forward (i.e. left hand and right leg). After a few steps, reach one hand back to drag the kettlebell across your body. Repeat on the other side. Make sure your hips stay level.

2-3 sets, 10-15 yards

The Bottom Line

The core is not just your abdominal muscles – it’s everything from your nipples to your knees. The core’s main jobs are to stabilize the spine and transfer energy between your lower and upper body. The spine moves across three planes: forward and back, side to side, and rotationally. Exercises like crunches, which only focus on the forward and back plane, don’t effectively train your whole core and can damage your spine.

Anti-core exercises train your whole core and prepare your body for the demands of jiu-jitsu. Ditch crunches and do anti-core exercises instead!

Wondering if you’re on the right track in your strength training for BJJ? Check out this blog post to see if you’re making any of these 8 common mistakes.

If you’d like to take the guesswork out of strength training for jiu-jitsu, book a free strategy session with Victory High Performance 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.

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