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Original Research

Optimal Load for the Peak Power and Maximal Strength of the Upper Body in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Athletes

da Silva, Bruno Victor C.1,2; de Moura Simim, Mário A.1; Marocolo, Moacir1; Franchini, Emerson3; da Mota, Gustavo R.1

Author Information
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: June 2015 - Volume 29 - Issue 6 - p 1616-1621
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000799
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Abstract

Introduction

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a grappling combat sport in which technical skill and tactical strategies are the main performance determinants. Nevertheless, physical and physiological characteristics are important aspects that support the athlete's actions (1,2). In grappling combat sports, strength endurance is the main component for the sustained actions involved in the grip domination or in controlling the opponent (13,14), whereas maximal strength is important for groundwork techniques (especially when athletes try to perform or escape from an immobilization technique), and power is associated with explosive moves that allow the grapplers to attack and defend faster against a resisting opponent resistance (20,24). Therefore, training aimed at strength and power improvements is essential for these athletes.

The design of training regimens with the goal of improving the maximal strength is already well established in the literature (16,25,29). With respect to the power development, the following 3 main strategies have been proposed: (a) the use of optimal loads, represented by the load where the highest power output is achieved (10,21); (b) the use of heavier loads—normally above 60 up to 80% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM), which is represented by loads that would activate high activation threshold motor units (12,21); and (c) a mixed approach in which a variety of loads are used to optimize the power output (12,21).

For grappling combat sports athletes' power development, the use of heavier loads has been suggested during the precompetitive period in combination with optimal loads during the tapering phase (24). Therefore, the use of optimal loads would be crucial for power development during the final phase of BJJ training periodization.

Previous studies have demonstrated that the optimal load for the peak power output (PPO) during the bench press throw (BPT) ranged from 30 to 70% of 1RM (11,21). However, the optimal load can be affected by many factors, such as the athletic level, maximal strength, and types of exercise (28). Regarding the level of the athlete and maximal strength, Baker (3) reported that professional players were significantly stronger and more powerful than college-aged rugby league players. Another issue is the types of exercise used, and previous studies (11,23) demonstrated that the BPT condition produced a significantly higher peak power compared with the bench press (BP), which included holding onto the bar at the end of the concentric phase.

Additionally, at present, we know of only 1 study on grappling combat sport that determines the percentage of 1RM that maximizes the muscle power output for BP, comparing elite with nonelite wrestlers (15). However, they used the traditional BP instead of the BPT for the exercise. In this sense, Newton et al. (23) demonstrated significant differences in the kinematics, kinetics, and muscle activation between the exercises.

The maximal strength has been documented in the grappling matches for other sports, such as wrestling (15) and judo (14), and it influences the peak power (11). However, there is a lack of information approximating the 1RM in the BP and PPO in BJJ athletes. Therefore, the aims of this study were the following: (a) to determine the optimal load for PPO during the BPT in a group of BJJ athletes, (b) to compare PPO for different intensities (30–60% of 1RM) between the advanced (AD) and nonadvanced (NA) BJJ athletes, and (c) to compare the maximal BP strength between the AD and NA athletes. We hypothesized that the 1RM strength and PPO could differentiate BJJ athletes with different competitive levels and that PPO would be achieved in the same relative load.

Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

The subjects of this study were BJJ athletes and medalists at state, national, and international competitions. This study was performed during a training camp placed in the final week of the precompetitive mesocycle. None of the subjects increased or decreased their body weight by more than 1% during the week of assessments. We tested the maximum upper-body strength using 1RM during the BP and PPO during the BPT with various loads to determine the optimal load for the PPO.

Subjects

Twenty-eight male BJJ athletes participated as volunteers in this study. All athletes were over 18 years-old. They were allocated into 2 groups according to their belt ranks: AD (black and brown belt) and NA (purple and blue belt). The performance in tournaments (medals) and time of BJJ training—the time followed the criteria of the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation—were used to classify the subjects between their belt ranks. The subjects' physical characteristics and training background are presented in Table 1. The inclusion criteria were the following: (a) engaged in resistance training programs for a minimum of 2 years, (b) familiar with the exercises and tests used in the experiment, (c) 3 or more years of BJJ training with a technical level ranging from blue to black belt, (d) training a minimum of 4 times per week, and (e) no intake of exogenous anabolic androgenic steroids, drugs, medication, or dietary supplements with potential effects on physical performance. All of the inclusion criteria were evaluated using a questionnaire. Subjects were informed of the purposes and inherent risk associated with this research, and then the subjects provided their written informed consent. Additionally, subjects fasted for 1 hour before the experimental procedures; then, to exclude any residual effects of previous exercises or feeding, they were required to refrain from strenuous exercise and consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine 48 hours before and between the testing sessions. This study was approved by local Ethics Committee (UFTM/Brazil process No. 51.1889) and was performed in accordance with the international ethical standards.

Table 1
Table 1:
Characteristics of BJJ competitors.*

Experimental Procedures

Testing was completed for all BJJ athletes on 2 consecutive days: day 1, anthropometric and 1RM test; day 2, PPO tests. No strenuous exercise was undertaken 24 hours before the tests, and all subjects were already familiar with the exercises.

Anthropometric Measurements

A digital scale was used for the body mass and height measurements. Skinfold measurements were obtained from 7 sites (chest, mid-axillary, suprailiac, abdominal, thigh, triceps, and subscapular) and used in the equation proposed by Jackson and Pollock (19) for estimating the body density. The fat percentage was estimated with the Siri formula (27).

A person with more than 7 years of experience in this type of procedure performed the anthropometric measurements. A coefficient of variation of less than 2% and an intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC) with 0.99 reproducibility were reported between measurements within the assessment performance period.

Maximal Strength Test (1 Repetition Maximum)

The 1RM test was used to assess the maximal strength and prescribe the external resistance needed to conduct the PPO test. The 1RM test was conducted according to the methods described by Brown and Weir (6). Before the tests, the participants performed a general warm-up (3–5 minutes of light activity involving the muscles to be tested). Afterward, participants performed a specific warm-up set of 8 repetitions at 50% of the estimated 1RM, which was followed by another set of 3 repetitions at 70% of the estimated 1RM. Subsequent lifts were single repetitions of progressively heavier weights until the 1RM was determined to the desired level of precision. Rest intervals of approximately 4–5 minutes were taken between each attempt. The range of single repetitions was 3–5, and a test was considered valid if the participant used proper form and completed the entire lift in a controlled manner without assistance.

Peak Power Test

The peak power was measured using the Myotest performance measuring system (Myotest Inc., Royal Oak, MI, USA), a performance measuring system that was previously validated for power assessment (9). The Myotest was maintained in a vertical position (perpendicular to the floor) for all attempts, and the PPO for each movement was obtained from the concentric portion of the movement. Three test completions were attempted, and the highest power value was recorded for the analysis.

The BPT test used in this study followed the procedures that Bevan et al. (5) recommended. Before the tests, the participants performed a general warm-up that was similar to that conducted before the 1RM test. After 10 minutes, participants performed a specific warm-up set of 5 repetitions using only the bar (20 kg). The specific warm-up was followed by another set of 3 repetitions at 20% of the estimated 1RM. For the PPO test, subjects performed 3 throws at the following intensities: 30, 40, 50, and 60%. The subjects had 5-minute rest intervals between each attempt. As in a previous pilot study performed at our laboratory, the ICC showed excellent reliability for this protocol (0.96) for the PPO test.

Statistical Analyses

A descriptive analysis was performed, and the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test was applied to check the normality of the data. A 2-way analysis of variance with repeated measurements was used to compare the PPO in the different groups and loads. A Mauchly's test of sphericity was used to check the data compound symmetry (sphericity); with this, the Greenhouse-Geisser correction was used when needed. When significant F values were found, paired comparisons were used in conjunction with the Holm-Bonferroni method (type I error) to determine the differences. Student's t-tests were used to determine whether there were significant differences in the 1RM, physical characteristics, experience in BJJ, and resistance training. All data are presented as mean ± SD; statistical significance was set at p ≤ 0.05. The effect size (ES) was calculated to determine the meaningfulness of the difference of the performance variables (8). The magnitude of the ES was classified as trivial (<0.2), small (>0.2–0.6), moderate (>0.6–1.2), large (>1.2–2.0), and very large (>2.0–4.0) (17). To determine the load generating the maximal power, a second-order polynomial adjustment was used, considering the mean relative loads used and the generated power output. All statistical analyses were performed using Statistica for Windows 11 (StatSoft, Tulsa, OK, USA).

Results

Significant differences were observed between the AD and NA groups in age, BJJ, and strength training experience (Table 1). The AD group was stronger than the NA group (p = 0.017; ES = 1.0) (Table 2). The intensity (F = 7.7; p < 0.001; ES = 0.23) had an effect on the PPO, and there were lower values when the test was conducted with 60% of 1RM compared with when the test was conducted with 40% (p = 0.004) and 50% (p = 0.003) of 1RM. Additionally, there was a group and intensity interaction effect (F = 2.79; p = 0.046; ES = 0.10), but the differences were centered in the AD group, which achieved higher values using 40% (p = 0.001) and 50% of 1RM (p < 0.001) compared with the PPO for 60% of 1RM.

Table 2
Table 2:
Peak power in bench press throwing using different loads in advanced and nonadvanced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitors.*

Figure 1 presents the polynomial adjustment used to identify the optimal load that maximized the power output. When groups were considered isolated or whole, the optimal load was ∼42% of 1RM, and there was better adjustment for the entire group (R2 = 0.99).

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Power-load relationship and respective maximum power identification for advanced (A), not advanced (B), and both groups of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitors (C).

Discussion

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study specifically reporting the optimal load for the development of power during BPT for BJJ athletes. Our main findings are the following: the optimal load (% of 1RM) to develop maximal power was ∼42% 1RM in BJJ athletes; PPO (30–60% 1RM) did not differ between AD and NA athletes; the intensity affected the PPO when the entire group was considered or when only the AD was analyzed, which achieved higher values using 40 and 50 compared with 60% of 1RM; and AD presented with higher strength in the upper limbs than NA athletes.

Maximal strength is associated with success in elite wrestlers, which is most likely because of its influence during the most frequently used techniques in Olympic wrestling (15). Here, we found a superior 1RM for the AD vs. NA group, and the ES indicated a moderate effect. This result is in line with data from wrestlers (15), in which 1RM for the BP was greater in elite athletes compared with the amateurs. However, a review about judo showed that the maximum strength for the BP was not different between competitive levels (14). Considering that some movements in BJJ (20) and wrestling (7) are performed on the ground (similar to BP), although judo is mainly disputed in the standing position (22), bench press maximal strength could be more specific for groundwork maneuvers compared with throwing techniques.

The highest maximal strength values obtained by the AD group could be at least partially because of the higher age (ES large) and experience in strength training (ES moderate). The age influences the maximal strength because the fiber number reaches a maximum recruitment ability at an age of ∼25 years; then, there is a decline at a rate of ∼12–15% per decade, especially when the athletes are 50 years and older (4). Because the mean age of our NA group was ∼21 years, they may not have been able to fully activate their total muscle mass, explaining the inferior performance. Furthermore, heavy resistance strength training performed over time enhances the maximal strength by neural and morphologic adaptations (26). Given that there are no differences in the anthropometric measures between groups (AD vs. NA), based on our results, it is possible to affirm that the higher 1RM test of AD athletes could be because of the previously mentioned factors (age and strength training experience).

Cormie et al. (10) mentioned that strength is a basic quality that influences the maximal power production. Without a relatively high level of strength, an individual cannot possess a high level of power. The high correlations between the maximal strength and power support this affirmation (3). Although we reported a difference in 1RM test, the PPO was not different for any of the intensities that were investigated between the groups despite the highest PPO obtained by AD. There are contradictory reports in literature (3,15) stating that elite athletes are stronger and more powerful than nonelite athletes. Our results could have been influenced by factors like the long-term strength and specific BJJ training. Three years of a periodized strength training program enhanced the neuromuscular profile, increasing the muscular power output (10). Because all of our subjects had more than 3 years of strength and BJJ training, long-term strength training would have contributed to improving the ability to produce high power. Furthermore, assuming that the ability to generate maximal power in dynamic multijoint movements depends on the nature of the involved movement (10), we suggest that specific BJJ training (as well strength training) could elicit neural adaptations that contribute to generating more force faster. This premise makes sense because many BJJ movements (e.g., hip escape from the “100 kg” and escape from “North-South” immobilization techniques) are similar to the bench press movement, and these movements are explosively performed against an opponent's force. Corroborating this assertion, Izquierdo et al. (18) revealed that handball players and weightlifters have similar muscle power in the BP despite the differences in each sport and maximal strength between the athletes. This response was cited as because of an interaction of the sport-specific training adaptations with maximal strength (18,26).

With respect to the percentage of 1RM at which peak power is achieved during BPT, we found it to be ∼42% of 1RM. A similar response was observed with wrestlers; their peak power was maximized at an intensity that was slightly inferior (34–37%), irrespective of the level (elite vs. amateur) (15). However, in rugby athletes, the PPO was obtained at 30% (5) and 50% of 1RM (3), and for athletes without 6 months of resistance training, the PPO was obtained at 50–70% of 1RM (11). Although different methodologies were used (average vs. peak), the level of strength, athletic background, type of training undertaken, and the phase of the macrocycle can influence the power response (3,21). The results indicate that specificity can shift the percentage of the maximum at which the optimal load produces peak power.

An interesting finding in this study was that the intensity affected the power production only when the entire group and AD group were studied. However, when the NA group was studied in isolation, the intensity did not affect power production. We cannot explain the exact mechanism of this result. However, a possible reason for this is the higher absolute and relative 1RM strength values obtained with the AD (115 ± 16 kg, 1.48 ± 0.15 kg per kilogram of body mass) compared with NA group (101 ± 13 kg, 1.32 ± 0.14 kg per kilogram of body mass).

Another research group hypothesized that training with the optimal load provides an effective stimulus for eliciting maximal power (21); however, there is an inconsistency in the optimal load for generating the highest power production during BPT exercises. The training at the optimal load has a large range (15–70% of 1RM) (21). This large range could be explained by several previously discussed factors (5,21). More studies that include others fights are recommended for comparative analyses.

In summary, we found that the optimal load (% of 1RM) for developing maximal power is ∼42% of 1RM during BPT in BJJ athletes. Moreover, the BP strength is useful for distinguishing between AD and NA BJJ practitioners.

Practical Applications

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a combat sport for which the ability to develop significant muscular strength and power is important (20). Our results provide values that would be helpful for the strength coaches of BJJ athletes. They could be used as a reference in diagnosing and developing individualized strength programs and for monitoring the load during periods of the training program to the upper-extremity muscles for BJJ athletes. Additionally, as an extremely practical approach, we suggest that fitness coaches follow-up measurement of 1 RM of the BP on a regular basis. Future research is necessary to investigate the lower limbs and inexperienced BJJ practitioners.

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Keywords:

grappling sports; bench press throw; combat sports

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