Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is a competitive sport and self-defense art based on taking your opponent to the ground, achieving positional control, and applying joint locks or strangles. This art has gained increasing popularity in the United States since it was showcased in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. After the success of BJJ in this mixed martial arts' event, the number of practitioners increased dramatically. Today, numerous BJJ and submission grappling tournaments are held worldwide every year.
Because of the absence of a single governing body for BJJ competition in the United States, the rules can vary among tournaments. Generally, each match is 4–5 minutes in duration with some tournaments allowing slightly more time for advanced competitors. The athletes are divided according to sex, age, weight, and skill level. Separate divisions are held for those competing with a gi (jacket, belt, and pants) and without the gi (t-shirt/rash guard and shorts or wrestling singlet). Typically, tournaments are arranged in single elimination format so that to win the athlete may have several matches with a break of 5–15 minutes between.
Points are awarded for takedowns and for achieving various control positions on the mat. If a submission lock or strangle is secured and one fighter is forced to submit by “tapping out,” then the other fighter wins immediately. In the event no one submits, the winner is the athlete with the most points at the end of the match. Ties are dealt with differently at different tournaments. Sometimes judges will break the tie with a system of advantages to give the match to the competitor who was more aggressive or technically sound, and in other cases, there will be an overtime period.
Proper strength and conditioning programming for any sport must begin with an analysis of needs. An analysis of needs is the determination of the physical attributes necessary for an athlete to excel in his or her given sport (16). BJJ is a relatively new sport, and consequently, there is almost no scientific literature dealing directly with jiu-jitsu athletes. Because of the similarities between the sports, studies examining wrestling and judo can, in many cases, be extrapolated to BJJ (4,12). The needs of BJJ athletes regarding injury prevention, strength, power, conditioning, and flexibility are covered in the following sections.
Although no direct research has been performed on BJJ, analysis of similar sports, such as wrestling, suggest that the most likely areas for injury during training and competition are the neck, shoulders, elbows, and knees (8,11). All training programs for this sport should address this issue by providing adequate strength and range of motion work for these areas. Although basic lifts, such as presses, pulls, and squats, will provide supporting musculature for the elbows and knees, some additional specific work should be added for the neck and shoulder complex. Examples of supplemental neck work include manual partner resistance, head straps, 4-way neck machines, neck bridging, and exercises like shrugs that involve the trapezius. For the shoulder, there are many variations of internal and external rotation exercises using bands, cable machines, and dumbbells.
Injury prevention work does not require a high volume or special day. Incorporate these exercises into the warm-up routine, pair them with primary exercises during the workout, or place them at the end of the training session (Table 1). When using these exercises during the warm-up, make sure to keep the volume and intensity low enough not to fatigue the stabilizer muscle groups during the high-intensity work to follow. Indian club swings or light kettlebell exercises make great shoulder work before heavy lifting. If you decide to pair them with primary lifts, choose exercises that will not interfere with the performance of the primary lifts. For instance, use neck extensions between sets of back squats. The best option may be to wait until all of the high-intensity work is finished before performing the injury prevention exercises.
Grappling involves a wide variety of movements and all major muscle groups. Additionally, strength in various types of contractions is required: high velocity, power for takedowns and escapes, and slow or static strength for gripping, holding, and applying submission techniques. This strength training must also be accomplished without excessive muscular hypertrophy because of the weight divisions. In short, BJJ athletes must be as strong and powerful as possible for their bodyweight particularly in the pulling muscles, core, hips, and posterior chain (8).
BJJ, unlike many other sports, requires that the athlete practice against heavy, often maximal, resistance during each skill training session. This could possibly lead to overtraining when combined with a high-volume lifting program, so the prescribed weight training volume must be lower than that for many other sports. It is also critical that the intensity and volume of the weight room work be varied to take into account what the athlete is doing on the mat during a given training phase. BJJ coaches and athletes should remember that the primary goal is increasing their grappling performance. If lifting begins to interfere with skill training, modifications must be made to the lifting program (10).
BJJ athletes can perform complex training to blend strength and power training into a single training session. Complex training involves pairing a high-load low-repetition (rep) strength exercise with low-load high-speed power exercise. For example, the athlete performs a set of 5 squat reps at 85% 1 repetition maximum (RM), waits 30–60 seconds, then performs a set of plyometric box jumps. This type of training is more efficient and is thought to take advantage of the neural potentiation provided by the high-load exercise to enhance the performance and training effect of the plyometric work (5,13). Plyometric training should only be included after the athlete has a strength foundation, and volume should be increased gradually during the training cycle. An appropriate strength foundation for the use of lower-body plyometrics is a back squat 1RM of 1.5–2.5 times the athlete's body weight. For upper-body plyometrics, a strength standard of a 1RM bench press of at least body weight for larger athletes and 1.5 times body weight for smaller athletes is recommended (1).
In addition to all around strength and power, special attention must be given to improving the BJJ athlete's grip. Both static and dynamic grip strength and endurance are vital to competitive success. Once the grip goes, the player will have little chance of properly applying takedowns or submission techniques. Exercises to improve static grip include lifts with thick bars, towel grip pull-ups, and sandbag exercises. For dynamic grip training, loaded hand gripping machines, wrist rollers, or rubber ball squeezes can be practiced.
BJJ matches are usually relatively short (typically 4–5 minutes) and fast paced, so the primary conditioning emphasis should be on anaerobic endurance. However, some tournaments allow more experienced competitors up to 10 minutes per match, so aerobic capacity is important as well. Although the matches can sometimes end quickly with a submission technique, this cannot be guaranteed. A properly conditioned grappler should be able to fight at a high intensity for the duration of the match and still have a reserve in the case of an overtime round. It is absolutely critical that the athlete develop a physiological ability to buffer the acidosis produced by glycolytic lactic acid production. Additionally, the grappler must increase the psychological ability to tolerate the painful effects of extreme drops in blood pH.
The conditioning routines outlined in Tables 2 and 3 provide examples of interval training workouts. High-intensity interval training (or the alternation of bouts of maximal or near-maximal work) with periods of lower-intensity work or rest has been shown to develop both anaerobic and aerobic endurance. This is optimal in terms of sport-specificity and efficiency (2,3)
Because of the positions required for BJJ, a fair amount of static and dynamic flexibility is required for success and injury prevention. Areas of particular concern are the hamstrings, hips, lower back, and shoulders. Grappling is a contact sport, and too much flexibility might predispose the athlete to injury (9). The key is to determine if inflexibility in any areas is preventing proper movement patterns and work specifically to correct the problem. Beginning each workout with 5–10 minutes of dynamic range of motion exercises and ending it with 5–10 minutes of light static stretching should be adequate to maintain proper flexibility for athletes who have no special needs (6,7,14).
Dynamic range of motion exercises include joint swings and rotations using all areas of the body with particular emphasis on those that will be trained the hardest. Start with nonspecific movements and work gradually into more sport-specific exercises. A single set of 10–20 repetitions for each exercise is adequate. Static stretches, such as the hurdler's stretch for the hamstrings, should be done slowly and held for 4–5 repetitions of 20–30 seconds each.
BJJ competitors are grouped into weight classes at tournaments. There is a lack of standardization of rules so that the actual classes may vary, but the typical range of weight is 10–20 pounds per class. BJJ athletes should maintain a low percentage of body fat to ensure that they are not forced to compete in an unnecessarily heavy weight class. Moving into a higher class because of excess body fat will place the athlete at a disadvantage because of the greater relative strength of his or her opponent. A body fat percentage of 5–10% is optimal (15). Weight management is best accomplished by proper eating habits and the manipulation of calorie intake. Additional conditioning workouts may be added to help reduce body fat but should be added sparingly because they could lead to overtraining. Never use additional workouts to attempt to make up for a poor diet.
There is no official season for BJJ, so the standard periodization model used with many team sports is not applicable. Tournaments occur all year round, and the athlete and/or coach will have to decide which competitions to train for and which are most important. If the next upcoming tournament is several months away, then the athlete should focus his or her attention on building maximal strength, maintaining endurance, and keeping body fat low to stay close to competition weight. Because skill work is likely to be more technical and less intense during this phase of training, weight room volume can be higher. As tournament time approaches and mat training becomes more intense, the emphasis should shift to building anaerobic and strength endurance while maintaining limit strength and bringing body fat levels down to achieve proper competition weight. During this phase of training, weight training volume must be reduced to accommodate the increased intensity and volume of drilling and sparring sessions. This will reduce the risk of overtraining.
One basic periodization plan is to devote 3 months to off-season type strength and power training before each competitive period. During this preparatory period, the emphasis will be on increasing maximal strength and power while maintaining base levels of conditioning. To build both maximal strength and power, complex training is recommended. Each workout also trains the entire body but has a particular emphasis. One day is devoted to pressing, one to pulling, and another to lower body. The muscle groups not emphasized during a particular session are trained at a reduced intensity. For example, during a heavy lower body day, the upper body is worked using a lower volume and intensity. After the complex pair, the exercises are broken into circuits. The athlete should move through these circuits as quickly as possible without resting until all sets and reps are completed. The continuous activity will provide some degree of cardiovascular conditioning during each weight session.
SAMPLE WORKOUT WEEK FOR PREPARATORY PERIOD
The sets listed for the complex pairs do not include warm-up sets. When using heavy loads, athletes should always do a lift-specific warm-up. Begin with a load representing about 50% of the intended working weight, then gradually build up over several sets. Perform the paired exercise 30 seconds after the heavy exercise, then allow 1–2 minutes of recovery before the next set (5).
Complete each auxiliary circuit a total of 4 times: the first time with a relatively light weight to warm-up, then the last 3 with the working weight. Take minimal rest between circuits to maximize the conditioning effect (Figures 2,5–8).
The conditioning routines are meant to be short and intense to simulate competitive conditions. If the BJJ athlete typically wears a mouthpiece during competition, it is recommended that he or she wear it during all conditioning workouts. Mouthpieces restrict breathing somewhat, so the athlete must get used to this in training. Competitions are also usually done barefooted or with wrestling shoes. Whichever way the athlete competes, he or she should mimic this during conditioning because of the changes in foot biomechanics.
It is advisable to taper by eliminating all lifting during the week before any tournament to focus exclusively on endurance and skill training. This will allow time for full recuperation before competition. Some athletes may need a longer taper and some may make due with a shorter taper depending on the intensity of their training and the individual's recovery capacity (Figures 9–13).
SAMPLE WORKOUT WEEK FOR TOURNAMENT SEASON
As previously discussed, as tournament time nears, the volume of weight training is lowered to accommodate more demanding skill training. In this phase of training, the emphasis is on maintaining strength and power while increasing anaerobic endurance.
During the power and maximum effort sets, do 1–2 warm-up sets with a weight lighter than the work weight. Allow approximately 2 minutes of rest between work sets. Do the paired auxiliary exercise during the rest interval.
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