I’d like to thank Christiaan Mattheus for this in depth look at the role of Strength training, and Crossfit in particular, in Jiu-jitsu. Christiaan is the owner of CrossFit Amandla in Christchurch and a Blue Belt at Axis Brazilan Jiu-jitsu Christchurch (coming off recent weight division and absolute National Title wins and Silver at the Japanese Abu Dhabi Grand Slam).
“Strong people are harder to kill, and more useful in general.”
THE “GENTLE ART”
UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE STRENGTH
If you’re reading this chances are you already practice Jiu-Jitsu, jūjutsu, bjj, self-defense, submission grappling or whatever else you want to call the act of tactfully disabling or disarming an opponent. For that very reason I will not spend too much of your time looming over the wonderful world of Jiu-Jitsu but instead I will attempt to showcase the importance of regular and effective strength & conditioning for Jiu-Jitsu practitioners.
THE OLD WAY
Back in the mid to late 90’s when Jiu Jitsu started to gain traction in both Brazil and the US, the Gracies would have challenge matches. Martial arts experts from all over the world would randomly show up at their schools and challenge them to a “Valetudo” match (unarmed, full-contact combat with relatively few rules). In the early days masters of karate, wrestling, kung-fu, and everything in-between would challenge the Gracies to these Valetudo matches and, because the art of Jiu Jitsu was relatively unknown and not widely practised, these matches would always end with 3 distinct steps:
1. The opponent would get taken down.
2. The opponent would have their legs passed and mounted.
3. The opponent would be striked until they turned, exposed their back, and they would be strangled.
These challenge matches served as a platform from which Jiu Jitsu was launched, soon after the UFC followed and the rest is history. Jiu Jitsu has evolved and has spread to almost every corner of the globe with countless variations and interpretations to keep us entertained. Jiu Jitsu is bigger than ever and with the mainstream exposure come mainstream thinking.
Almost every person who has done Jiu Jitsu has some sort of meaningful interpretation of the art and how to improve. You have the old school guys yelling: “It’s a lifestyle. Balance is key. Surfing helps your game. Oh, and eat your acai!”. Then you have one half of the high level comp scene yelling: “drill, drill, drill! Time on the mat and in a brazilian accent “triaaangle…””. All of this while the other half of the scene is trying to smuggle you weed with a little note saying “The key to a high level game is creativity and openness to experiences whilst allowing your body to simply react to the movement of your opponent like water – #StayWoke”.
Now I’m not some sort of Jiu Jitsu mastermind who’s going to give you “5 Ways To Become A World Champion In A Week” clickbait. I am, however, very good at getting people stronger and fitter and after many years in the strength & conditioning world I think it’s time for the Jiu Jitsu world to catch up…
Why Get Fit?
I think the best place to start is with definitions. After all, if I explain a topic and we have fundamentally different understandings of keywords all of this coffee and staining of my already sore fingers would have been for nothing.
Going forward in this article I want you to only use the definitions of the words I’ve set out below, forget what you think you know and accept the definitions I give. If you don’t like them please email my HR team and they can bin… I mean read it for me. So, let us start with some basic and very important terms.
Classical Definition: Lack of out of breathness.
Scientific Definition: Work capacity over broad times and modal domains.
(If this confuses you click here)
Classical Definition:Big muscles and school yard chokes.
Scientific Definition: Productive application of force.
GPP or General Physical Preparedness
Classical Definition: General what?
Scientific Definition: The ability to be generally prepared for any and all tasks that arise.
10 general Physical Skills
Classical Definition: Mount, back, side control, and what’s that one where you hold onto their foot?
Scientific Definition: Endurance, Stamina, Strength, Flexibility, Power, Speed, Agility, Balance, Accuracy, Coordination, Fitness, Strength
Classical Definition: Shitty pull-ups
Scientific Definition: Constantly varied, functional
movements, performed at a high intensity.
There are countless more that would be helpful to know but let’s keep it simple for part 1 of this blockbuster. Now the spiritual and “meaningful” bullshit aside, Jiu Jitsu is an expression of physicality. Even the smallest world champions uses all of the 10 general physical skills to beat their opponent. The moment you produce force against an external object, be it a barbell or a person, you are using strength (although calling it strength for most people is a bit of a stretch) and thereby alone the value of said strength cannot be ignored.
Listen, I understand the importance of technique in Jiu Jitsu, I really do, but if you think a floppy piece of rubber with the force production of a floating feather is going to overcome the power of 200kg deadlift you’ve never watched Planet of the Apes and you should get a purse to match your eyes. The marriage of physical dominance with technical competence will win everyday of the week.
Specimen A: Marcus Buchecha. Take it from someone who’s spent his life observing and training physical specimens, Marcus Buchecha is exactly that – a physical specimen and he didn’t get that way by only “flow rolling”.
Practical Application & Examples
Now that we’ve looked at a brief history of Jiu Jitsu, I would like to bring your attention to a brief history of CrossFit and why I think it’s the most effective and efficient use of time for strength and conditioning.
CrossFit was founded by Greg Glassman in the late 1990’s, he was a gymnast in his early life and the son of a rocket scientist (not joking). Whilst studying mathematics he felt a lack of the humanities, he then tried his luck with the humanities but noticed a lack of science, so he became a personal trainer. During his career as a personal trainer he kept getting fired from Golds Gyms because he’d take all the clients from other PT’s and in the process make it so that people actually started showing up to the gym. This goes against the core business model of major “globo-gyms” and hence why he kept getting the boot. The vast majority of his clientele were police officers, firefighters, and military personnel. They told him that they needed a way to train that replicated what it felt like running up and down a burning building or carrying out a wounded comrade from the midst of battle. There was only 1 problem, no amount of leg extensions and front raises could replicate this “real life” feeling and the general training methodology for the time was as follows:
Monday: Legs Tuesday: Run Wednesday: Chest Thursday: Run Friday: Arm Saturday: Run
Glassman started to notice that this form of segmented training caused segmented results. When he asked the guys following this template to do legs (squat) then immediately turn around and run it always ended the same way, with them lying in puddle of their own sweat and vomit. Dissatisfied with the current state of the fitness industry he set out on a crusade to change it, and boy did he get it right. You can listen to his story here.
The purpose of that story was to educate you as to WHY CrossFit started, it started because real life application of fitness is not segmented. Real world capacity is not broken down into “upper body” and “lower body” days. When was the last time you spent a day ONLY using your arms or only using your legs? When was the last time you only used strength and no stamina? It doesn’t make sense when you say it out loud, does it?
“We must strive to blur distinctions between ‘cardio’ and ‘strength training’ because nature has no regard for this distinction.”
– Greg Glassman
When you first start Jiu Jitsu everything feels foreign, your body isn’t quite doing what it’s supposed to, only after a few years of practice does your movement start to improve. On the flip side you see a new guy join and within a few months he’s made the progress that you took years to make, and then the first question you ask them is: “What did you do before Jiu Jitsu?”. The reason people ask this is to try and establish why this person can progress at an accelerated rate, are they some prodigy of the art or have they spent years elsewhere teaching their bodies how to move? The latter is almost always the case. For most people when they start Jiu Jitsu it’s coming off the couch or from behind the desk, it’s been a few years since you last played high-school sport and, let’s be honest, you only participated in high-school sport because they made you. Now while you’re learning all these wonderful things within Jiu Jitsu you’re also developing another skill – your body’s kinesthetic awareness. It’s a double whammy, you have to learn the sport specific technique of Jiu Jitsu whilst building your awareness of what your body is doing – sounds tough!
Here’s where a GPP program like CrossFit comes in hand. It turns out having a good level of GPP lends itself very well to having a high level of kinesthetic awareness which, in-turn, makes it significantly easier to learn new things along with a plethora of other benefits.
In the CrossFit methodology we have 9 fundamental movements, although we do not use them exclusively they form a sort of “functional movement” platform. They are:
1. Air Squat
2. Front Squat
3. Overhead Squat
8. Sumo-Deadlift High-Pull
9. Med Ball Clean
These movements are to CrossFit what mount, back, side control, and close guard are to Jiu Jitsu. You don’t exclusively use only these few positions but a solid foundation in these will lend itself well to your overall game. When we combine these 9 fundamental movements (and their subsidiaries i.e Air Squat > Loaded Back Squat > Loaded Low-Bar Back Squat etc.) using the CrossFit methodology what we see as a result is a devastating improvement in fitness i.e your ability to perform work. When you improve your 5 rep max deadlift your ability to create a base will improve, when you improve your 2km row your ability to push hard for 5min rounds will improve. When you improve your Diane time your framing and hip escaping will improve and using that logic when your CrossFit ability improves so will your Jiu Jitsu.
I don’t want you to think that becoming physically more competent is going to magically make you a world class black belt, it’s not. What it is going to do however, is grant you insight to the other half of the coin, the flip side:
● Reduced risk of injury: A knee that can squat 200kg through full range of motion is better than a knee that can’t .
● Increased Work Capacity: You can train harder for longer which translates to more progress.
● Increased Kinesthetic Awareness: This is a fancy way of saying muscle memory, you’ll have a better awareness of what your body is doing.
● Mental Toughness: CrossFit is hard, it’s physically harder than Jiu Jitsu and when you do hard things, you become hard.
This list can go on and on but here’s the main point: Do you think you’d be better at Jiu Jitsu if you had better:
1. Cardiovascular and Respiratory Endurance
The answer is yes, and not only yes to being better at Jiu Jitsu but yes to being better at everything in life. Ask yourself this: “Would [x] be better if I improved my fitness?” You can replace “x” with anything, being a father, a electrician, a husband, a builder the answer is always the same because being more physically competent tends to lend itself to almost everything.
The reality of the matter is that the very best Jiu Jitsu athletes are strong, and place just as much emphasis on their strength & conditioning training as they do on their mat work. It has been my experience that the things in life we work the hardest to acquire, are usually the things we value the most.
I should not need to list reasons for you to get stronger – get stronger for the sake of getting stronger. After all, when everything is said and done and you’re sitting around the dinner table listing your life accomplishments to your children, do you really want to be the guy who says “Son, I could never squat 200kg. But man, I was really good at shrimping…”
“We’re driving human work capacity like a technology and we’re treating it like an engineering problem”
–Greg Glassman, Founder and CEO CrossFit
Gym owner – Strength & Conditioning Coach
Clean & Jerk: 160kg
Bench: 160kg Deadlift: 272.5kg
Owner of CrossFit Amandla. I have competed in 2 sports on an international level, 3 at national level and multiple national level CrossFit competitions.
Pretoria, South Africa
Christchurch, New Zealand