Strength Training for the Everyday Athlete

Strength Training for the Everyday Athlete

Strength Training for the Everyday Athlete

unnamed-1Recently I have had an increasing amount of students ask me to draft strength & conditioning programs for them. Which is great and awesome, but I only have so many hours in a days in which to work. My purpose in writing this news letter is to offer you an easy approach to creating a simple and effective S&C program. The program in the article below was originally designed for BJJ but can easily be used for almost any athlete who is looking to increase their base levels of strength and work capacity. So for this of you who can’t make it to my class, enjoy the read, I know I did 😉

The below article was written by my fellow SFG Danny Clark
This past November marked my greatest athletic accomplishment of my life:

Representing Team USA at the FILA World Grappling Championships in Krakow, Poland and taking home the bronze medal.

Afterwards, Pavel asked me to write an article on my approach to strength and conditioning for the sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  “Simple enough,” I thought to myself initially.

After some more thinking, I realized the scale of the task at hand and the complexity behind dissecting and analyzing the years of cross training schemes.  I started to wonder if there really was a way to sum up my approach.  It also brought up a critical question: “Should I attribute my success to the combination of the interdisciplinary skills I learned by spending time wrestling and studying judo, sombo, jiu jitsu and other related grappling arts over the course of 20 something years or was it my lifelong dedication to physical conditioning; specifically strength training?

Of course, both played a huge role in the accomplishment.  But, personally, what really distinguished my abilities as an athlete has been my willingness to develop my physical abilities, namely my strength, hand in hand with my technical abilities.  This combination has proven to be quite difficult or my adversaries to deal with even at the highest levels of competition.

As I began to analyze my tactics over the years for developing strength, I realized that the majority of my progress resulted from plenty of time mastering a few basic movements and principals.  Every time I found a weakness over the years, either in terms of strength or range of motion, I worked on using intelligent and purposeful protocols to balance that weak link into proportion with the rest of my body.  Likewise, every time I got an injury, I used the proper (simple) protocols and sufficient recovery time to allow myself to fully heal.  Using these protocols increased my sustainable athletic ability, which then prolonged my career enough to make some significant achievements.

I think many athletes, and sometimes even coaches, wrongly believe there is a trade-off between strength and technical ability.  I believe this fallacy stems from the “bodybuilders” who enter a random grappling or wrestling tournament and gas out after 30 seconds (it’s more common that you think).  Or maybe it’s the grapplers who only show up to practice once or twice a week but spend 5 days a week in the weight room either pumping up their pecs and biceps or “building core strength.”

Another obstacle that keeps many athletes away from strength training is the false concept that building strength is too time consuming since 3-5 hours a week is supposedly needed to hit all the major muscle groups (ie chest and tri’s day, back and bi’s day etc).  The reality is that a regularly practicing jiu jitsu fighter only needs 1-2 hours of additional strength work to see big improvements in their game.

The final common excuse I hear is the infamous fear of “getting too bulky.”  If only people realized how much work (both in terms of very heavy weights and equally heavy food) is required to get “bulky” muscles, I think their anxieties would be put to rest.

True strength movements hit the entire body as a unit instead of focusing on “muscle groups” and drastically increase the strength of the hips, which power virtually every movement in BJJ.

The program below is a practical approach to strength training for someone who is interested in supplementing their BJJ game based on a formula that I have applied time and time again over the years to prepare myself and others for the toughest of martial arts competitions.

The program is designed around movements I consider “essential” and are listed below:

Hinge – Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Olympic Lifts (advanced only)

Squat – Barbell/Kettlebell Front Squat, Pistol

Press –Overhead Press, Handstand Pushup, Bench Press, Pushup

Pull – (Weighted) Pullup, Barbell/Kettlebell/Dumbell Row

Others (superset into strength work) – Turkish Get-Up, Grip-Specific Work, Abdominal-Specific Work, External Rotations, Jump Training

Finishers – KB Swings, KB Snatches, KB Goblet Squats


Improvement Season Program (No tournaments within 8 weeks):

Strength Work

Day 1 – Hinge, Pull, Finisher

Day 2 – Squat, Push, Finisher

A Great Warm Up:  Joint Mobility, 15 Hip Hinges, 10 Halos per side, 10 Goblet Squats, 10 Pushups, 10 Explosive Sit-ups (mimicking a guard attack sit up), 15 Swings, 1 light TGU per side

Sets, Reps, Load:  Complete 3-5 sets per movement, depending on time availability.  You will be cycling your reps over the course of 4 weeks and adding progressively heavier loads.  For squats/hinges start with 6 reps per set for week 1 and drop 1 rep each week until you are down to 3-5 sets of 3 on week 4.  At week 5, start over at 6 reps.

For pushes/pulls, start with 3-5 sets of 10 reps per movement during week 1 and drop 2 reps each week until you are down to 3-5 sets of 4 during week 4.

Make sure the load is appropriate relative to the number of reps performed and, of course, never compromise technique.  Never “max out” or reach failure.

Include variety with exercise choices, but stick with the same movement every week for at least 1-2 full cycles if you are a novice lifter or learning a new variation of one of the movements.  Be smart and use proper progressions for the more challenging exercises such as pistols and handstand pushups.

Avoid overtraining.  Personally, I take a week off every 12 weeks, but there are various other strategies to avoid overtraining and long plateaus.

Superset in some of my favorite “other” movements, listed below:

▪    Turkish Get-Ups – Great for shoulder health and active recovery.

▪    Abdominal-Specific Work – Hanging Leg Raises and Bar Rotations.  That’s it.

Bar Rotations are performed by sticking the end of a barbell (usually wrapped in a cloth) into a corner.  Hold the other end of the bar with a baseball bat grip.  Your top hand should be at the top edge of the end of the barbell and your hips should be as square as possible to the corner.  “Wind up” your hips away from the bar and aggressively bump the bar with your hips to set it in motion.  Ride out the kinetic energy of the bar with almost straight arms until the bar is all the way on the other side of your hips.  Centrifugal force will keep the bar far away from your body.  You will rotate slightly on your feet as you perform this motion.  When executed properly, the bar should move with speed and your mid-section should be exhausted at the end of each set; not your shoulders or arms.  Never do more than 10 reps per side.  Work up to adding a 25 pound plate to the bar.

▪    Grip-Specific Work – Bodyweight bar hangs, Front loaded barbell hangs, Farmers Walks, Pipe Rollers, etc.

▪    External Rotations – Scarecrows, Resistance band and cable external rotations.  I always include these on push days.

▪    Jumps (advanced)– Vertical jump, broad jumps, lateral jumps, never more than 4 reps per set.


Rest:  3-5 minutes of active recovery between sets and supersets

Finishers: 10 minutes of classic kettlebell workouts with respectable bell sizes (swing/snatch/goblet squat ladders, pyramids, or intervals)

More Notes:  The time commitment here is minimal while the benefits are tremendous.  Start very light and have knowledgeable coaches provide constructive criticism to refine your technique to ensure you are actually building strength and not just getting better at cheating the movement.  Focus on the bodyweight varieties if you do not have access to a gym.  Re-access your progress every 2-3 months based on your training journal (and make sure you are thinking “wow, xxx lbs. used to feel kinda heavy”).

Conditioning Work

BJJ practice and the finishers following each strength workout should be sufficient to maintain baseline conditioning.  Run at a slow pace for at least ½ hour no more than 1 x per week to maintain aerobic conditioning if not getting enough conditioning during your BJJ practice.

Bonus: Flexibility Work

BJJ rewards a degree of flexibility beyond the average grappling art.  Take away the guesswork behind adding substantial flexibility and hop into a yoga class at least once a week.  My favorite styles are Ashtanga (a structured series of postures) and Vinyasa (a more varied, free flowing style).  You will be amazed with your progress within a few short weeks given you don’t crank yourself into an injured state by rushing and forcing.  If you don’t have time for a class, pop in a beginner DVD and practice for at least ½ hour at home.  An added bonus of taking yoga is the additional breath control you gain by practicing the “ujjayi” breathing.  I find this method helps me remember to breathe deep enough during competitions.


Competition Season Program (within 8 weeks of a tournament or series of tournaments):

Strength Work

Day 1 – Hinge, Pull, Finisher

Day 2 – Squat, Push, Finisher

Sets, Reps, Load:  After warming up, I recommend doing 2 sets of 6-8 reps for each squat/hinge movement with a relatively light to moderate load.  For pushes/pulls, I recommend 2 sets of 8-10 with a light/moderate load.  Include ample variety in exercise choices, but do not try anything brand new within 4 weeks of a big competition.

Rest:  1 minute between sets/supersets

More Notes:  Yes, the training split is still exactly the same.  There is no need to complicate things.  Since the focus of the last 8 weeks during this phase will be more on conditioning, strength workouts should be much briefer (as indicated by only 2 sets per movement).  I would recommend including plenty of grip oriented varieties of common strength movements such as towel or Gi grip pullups, thick bar deadlifts, and superset in plenty of static holds such as bar hangs and farmers walks.  Additionally, superset in some “squeezing strength” drills during your strength workouts or BJJ practices.

Squeezing Strength Drills:

30 seconds squeezing a foam roller as hard as you can:

1)     Rear Naked Choke Squeeze (left and right side)
2)     Triangle Squeeze (2 foam rollers, left and right side)
3)     Guillotine/Ankle Lock Squeeze (left and right side)
4)     Guard Squeeze (2 foam rollers)

Finisher:  Same, occasionally including some higher intensity protocols such as tabatas and breathing ladders

Conditioning Work

On top of more “live” sparring during BJJ practice and some additional road work, be sure to include at least 2 short sessions per week that are designed to push your mental toughness and anaerobic conditioning.  This can be accomplished in a multitude of settings and designs but make sure someone else is there to push you beyond your “comfort zone.”  Don’t injure yourself by being reckless.


So, there you have it:  A nice formula for approaching strength and conditioning with the purpose of enhancing your BJJ game.  The biggest question is… “Will you let your ego get in the way of your training?”  99% of athletes do.  Be the 1% that is willing to do what’s needed to succeed and continue to push the evolution of the sport.