Strength Training Can Make You a Top Competitor…with the Body to Match

how to go from white belt to blue belt

There’s no reason jiu jitsu players can’t look like Greek gods. Just take a look at any number of the top competitors. Many look like they could fit in at a bodybuilding competition just as well as they do at a tournament. Just remember, though, that these athletes aren’t building physiques, they’re winning matches. Those wins come because of the hard work they’re putting in on the mat and in the gym.

So does that mean you should be hitting the weights? If you want to be a champion, probably. But what does that entail?

First things first, start with technique. Strength without technique is just that—strength. Technique can fill in a lot of gaps. In an interview with FloGrappling, John Danaher explained that the challenge with having strength is that you start to use strength rather than relying on technique. Focus on developing the tool belt you need to face any opponent. That’s not to say that strength doesn’t have its place in jiu jitsu. In the same interview, Danaher notes that strength makes a difference (as does speed). But if you start with technique, strength can become another tool for you to use, rather than the only card you have to play.

You’ll also want to focus on nutrition. Whether you’re cutting weight or adding size, nutrition is the name of the game. You have to fuel your body with the proper nutrients—protein, carbs, and fats. If you don’t provide your body with what it needs, you’ll never reach your goals, and you may even cause damage.

OK, with a foundation of technique and good nutrition, you’re ready to look at what you can do to build the strength you need, and the physique you want. So what are the secrets of top competitors?

Opinions are going to vary, and each athlete has their own routines. That’s because every body is different. Just because you follow his exact same program to a T doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll walk onto the mat looking like Andre Galvao. Andre has found what works for him, and you will too as you continue to work out. Be willing to adapt as you learn.

What is becoming more common in workouts, however, is the use of movements that lead to functional strength. You’re a jiu jitsu player, after all, and you’re hitting the weights so that you can have the advantage on the mat. Unless your main goal is to look good poolside or at the beach, opt for power movements over sculpting exercises. That means stick to the lifts that hit your biggest muscle groups—lats, pecs, quads. These big movements will involve smaller muscle groups out of necessity (you’ll be hitting your biceps when you’re doing heavy rows or pull-ups; your triceps when you do bench or military presses). It’s not going to hurt you to do some exercises for those smaller muscle groups, but that shouldn’t be your focus. If you watch top competitors working out in the weight room, you’ll see them doing big body movements like squats, bench, and cleans.

And they’re lifting heavy. Lifting heavy with low reps will help build strength. According to an article in Men’s Fitness, Heavy weights recruit fast twitch muscles, and that’s where your power and size reside. High reps require you to perform the exercise with lower weights, which is great for building endurance, but not necessarily strength. Medium range reps create a more anabolic state in your muscles, which will promote muscle growth. So it really depends on what you’re after. Endurance? High reps, low weight. Muscle growth? Medium reps and weight. Strength? Low reps, high weight.

Consider this when you think about what you’re after. When was the last time you had to push or lift an opponent that only weighed 20 pounds? Unless you’re competing against toddlers, light weight may not be the best bet. Slap on the plates and up the weight, unless you’re building endurance for strength that you already have.

And speaking of opponents, top competitors combine their weight work with body work. Body weight exercises are fantastic for teaching you control of your body while building strength and endurance. Bear crawls, burpees, box jumps, pull ups, dead hangs—the list goes on and on. Body weight or plyometric training is a major feature in top competitors’ workouts. They also combine that with partner workouts. Using your partner as a dead weight that you have to move around will help teach you how your opponent’s body will move and react, which is pivotal to winning those matches. Plus, a human body doesn’t move like an Olympic bar. Your opponent’s will shift and move as they bend and move. Don’t have or want to use a partner in your strength work? You might check into sand bags. They’re heavy and loose, so they simulate a body.

Workout routines are evolving, but a lot of the information out there may lead you to believe that you need to be in the gym everyday for hours at a time. Again, if you look at what top competitors are doing, they are spending hours in the gym every day, just not on the weights. They’re rolling and drilling. They’re conditioning. They hit the weights, but only a few times each week—about one to three times a week.

So far we’ve been talking a lot of generalities. Telling you exactly what to do is a challenge because you are the only you out there. Your body needs and will react to what your body needs and will react to. The only way to discover what that is, is to get into the gym and start working out. But you have to be safe. Weight lifting can be dangerous, and not just because you’re throwing metal plates around. If you don’t have good form, you can injure yourself, sometimes severely. Just like with jiu jitsu, being strong when you’re strength training can be both good and bad. If you’re relying on strength, rather than just using it, you’ll be covering up bad technique. It’s better—and safer—to start with good technique. You’ll make better and quicker gains, and you’ll prevent injury.

One of the best investments you can make in your training is in a good trainer. Personal trainers have the education and know-how to keep you safe, and to keep you progressing towards your goals. If there’s anything that’s common among the workouts of top athletes, it’s that they have a trainer in their corner. We’re not talking about your “gym bro.” Look for someone who has the certifications and education to back up what they’re telling you. And then listen. Do what they tell you. They want to keep you safe and they want to help you reach your goals.

You can be admired for your prowess on the mat, or for your awe-inspiring physique. Or you can have both. There are plenty of examples of grapplers that have accomplished that. You can, too. It just takes a lot of hard work and dedication—and a little know-how.