Strength Training 101

If you are a competitive Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) athlete or practitioner, you’ve probably realized that, technique being equal, the difference between winning and losing, or surviving, can often come down to who is the STRONGER athlete.


Fundamentals: “White Belt” Focus

Before my BJJ journey started, I had several years of strength training experience under my belt. I’ve never been a competitive bodybuilder or powerlifter.  I’ve flirted with 2.5 – 3 times body weight lifts in the Squat and Deadlift and was often the strongest person in the gyms I frequented. This isn’t meant to toot my horn, rather to show you that I’ve always taken strength training serious, as a way of testing my human potential and making myself a better version of me.

When I was introduced to BJJ, my strength was a challenge for many.

But it WAS NOT THE SOLUTION TO THE BJJ PUZZLE.

Rather, I tired and got tapped just like everyone does when they start.

It was EYE OPENING!

Lightbulb-Moment

During my Blue Belt years, in the absence of solid technique, my strength often saved me from being completely choked out, submitted or swept by the better technician. This only solidified my thought that if I could focus my BJJ training on learning the mechanics and concepts, and focus my strength training on getting stronger, faster, and tougher with basic grappling fundamentals, I would have a one-two punch that would be powerful to contend with. It has been the pillar of my program since then and will always be.

Why? Because being weak sucks.  If you can become stronger by lifting weights, why not do it? Plus lifting heavy things is primal and helps you live longer (examples here and here).

Pouring the Concrete

There are numerous types of strength qualities that need to be developed to be a well-rounded athlete.  I’m going to keep the focus of this article to what to do if you have a white belt level understanding of strength training.

There are many great strength coaches (black belt level) out there that I recommend you spend time researching. I’ve weeded through and tried many of these coaches advice in my own program over the last dozen years or more.  In no particular order, Jim Wendler, Ross Enamait, and Louie Simmons, all have useful perspectives to offer you in your quest to become a stronger version of you.

There are common themes to these folks work. When starting out:

  1. You need to lift heavier weights to become stronger (progressive overload).
  2. You need to follow the KISS principle.
  3. You need to be willing to work hard.
  4. Consistency is key.
  5. Slow and steady progress is the approach if you want your gains to be forever.
  6. You need to eat quality food and nutrients.
  7. You need adequate rest and recovery.

 

Strength Training Focus

In the weight room, your focus should be on Maximal Strength.  This means adding weight to the bar, or adding reps to your previous best amount of reps (within the target rep ranges for strength).

Also, your program should not take away from your other technical work related to BJJ. You need to be smart about your program construction and not focusing in on too many goals at once.

I recommend that if you are already training in BJJ three (3) times a week or more, you need to evaluate the rest of your program to determine how many quality strength training sessions you should include, and whether you need to exclude other things that will take away from your main focus areas.

There is no one-sized fits all answer to this, because your rest, recovery, nutrition, stress levels, etc., all pay a part in how much you can and should take on.

Wendler

Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program is an ideal starting program for many folks. It does not have to be used in a manner to build muscle size, rather the repetition focus of 5/3/1 helps keep a balance towards the focus on building strength without excessive muscle tissue.  That’s an important consideration if you compete and need to make a certain weight class. This article contains a good overview of the program.

There are also numerous resources available online to start the program. As an example, this spreadsheet and this site will allow you to create a program for as long as you want with the weights already figured out for you to follow.  But you need to read the basics of the program in order to understand how to get your personal numbers.  I can’t do that work for you, so you’ll need to do it yourself. Trust me it’s easy and worth it.

Simmons

After you’ve built an adequate foundation of strength you may find Louie Simmons methods will extract even more of your true athletic potential, adding explosiveness to your strength and smashing plateaus.


I recommend Simmons methods once you are comfortably working with 2 times your body weight in the Squat or Deadlift and your body weight in the press (bench, military, incline, whatever your preference).  This is based off my own experience and nothing else.


 

Choosing from a large number of exercises and switching them frequently allows the body to be taxed in a variety of ways within a shorter period of time. This includes varying muscles emphasized, fluctuating loads, and altering resistance curves. Cycling exercises allow movement patterns to be varied that may otherwise be over or under-trained on program involving a limited list of exercises. It also allows adaptation to occur more uniformly. The progress brought about from a newly added movement can carry over to related exercises performed in subsequent workouts, each cascading benefit to the following set of exercises. Dropping an exercise for another can assist in restoration and make training more interesting.

Bottom line, keeping things interesting, avoiding mental and physical burn out, and working on weak points is key.

Another method Simmons popularized was the Westside Barbell Method.  The main concept behind this method is to perform workouts focusing on maximum effort (M.E) and Dynamic Effort (D.E.).  In other words, maximal strength and explosive strength.  This is where you start to add speed and power to your newly formed strength. It’s awesome stuff and you’re gains will skyrocket.

Enamait

Ross Enamait has detailed his approach in his Infinite Intensity and Never Gymless, which are both great. If you don’t have access to a commercial gym or even hundreds of pounds of free weights, these are must read texts.  These books focus on using a single dumbbell (Infinite Intensity) and resistance bands (Never Gymless) along with bodyweight exercise to create well-rounded strength training programs.

His materials have the added benefit of being focused on the combat athlete (i.e., boxing), so there are lessons that can be applied to your combat sport of choice. He also has incorporated the concepts of the Conjugate Method and the Westside Barbell Method into his methods (particularly Infinite Intensity).  On top of all of this, he includes isometric, body weight, and Olympic style lifts into the program so that you can truly benefit from a variety of options.

Since our focus is grappling/BJJ, you’ll see a lot of influence in his concepts on this web site.

Adding Layers

There are other coaches like Charles Poliquin and Dan John that are also solid to incorporate into your game.  I’ve found the most success, personally, with the three I’ve listed in this article.  As my strength training game evolves, I may incorporate more of these coaches ideas into my program.  Always in the spirit of improving.

TLDR

  1. Lift progressively heavier weights or achieve more reps with your best weight to get stronger, every time you train. The 2.5lb plates are your best friend.
  2. Focus on compound movements with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells.
  3. Use odd objects as a “fun” way to train your body from head to toe. (Sandbags, Logs, Stones, People, etc.)
  4. Keep metabolic conditioning in your program to aid in making your strength “honest”.
  5. Keep body weight movements in your program to aid making your strength “mat-transferable”.
  6. Use Olympic Lifts and Isometrics as a way to challenge the rate of force production.
  7. Get enough healthy nutrition and sleep. It’s the glue to make it all stick together.

Rollins

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