A supplemental exercise plan to enhance your Jiu Jitsu.
If you’ve done any jiu jitsu you know that while jiu jitsu works, both strength and size still come into play. If two people have equivalent skills in in BJJ, the bigger and stronger person has the edge.
You may wonder what the best exercises are for improving your jiu jitsu. I’m going to focus on six things:
- Grip strength
- Biceps (pull)
- Pecs (push)
- Glutes & Hamstrings (bridging/shrimping)
Note: This workout isn’t meant to replace your overall workout routine. It is meant to be supplemental. In other words, you should continue to strengthen your entire body and its various systems, and simply add these exercises once or twice a week.
These exercises can either be done together, or you can add one to each of your other workouts throughout the week (assuming you are doing 4-5 per week).
The most effective way to customize your own jiu jitsu workout plan is to take one exercise from each group below and do 30-60 reps of each twice a week.
Grip Strength Exercises for BJJ
My three favorite grip strength exercises are the towel grip inverted row the towel grip pull up, and the alternating pull up and hang. Each of these exercises will increase the strength in your hands and your forearms, giving you extra strength and endurance when grabbing a BJJ lapel or an opponents wrists.
The Towel Grip Inverted Row
The easiest way to setup the towel grip inverted row is to hang two gym towels over a barbell that is about 3ft off the ground. You lay on the ground, grab each towel in one hand, keep your body as straight as possible, and pull yourself up. Do this 10-20 times or until you feel your grip starting to slip.
You can play around with different widths and towel thickness. Add this to your workout routine for a few weeks and you’ll suddenly notice that you have a better grip when you roll.
The Towel Grip Pullup
My favorite way to do the towel grip pullup exercise is with only one towel hanging over the pull up bar. In this scenario, one hand is grabbing the standard pullup bar and one hand is grabbing the towel. This adds some asymmetry to the movement not unlike a real world BJJ scenario.
Experiment with one towel and two towels to see what you like best.
Alternating Pull Up & Hang
So much about grip strength is forearm strength and I’ve found this to be the best way to light my forearms on fire. You simply hang on a pull up bar for 30 seconds, and then do a pullup. Then hang for another 30 seconds, then do a pullup. You continue this until you can’t maintain a grip any longer.
Bicep Strength Exercises for Jiu Jitsu
In the Gi, you’ll often find yourself holding a collar or sleave grip and when doing so, your bicep will be engaged in an isometric hold. Adding both dynamic and static strength to your biceps is important. My favorite bicep exercises for BJJ are hammer curls, the static bicep curl and the alternating 90 degree reverse grip bicep pullup and hold.
For pure dynamic strength, I’ve found the hammer curl to be the best bicep exercise. I recommend 2-3 seconds up and 2-3 seconds down. Come to a complete stop at the bottom to minimize the effects of momentum. I like to pick a weight where I can do 20 reps per set and the last 5 are painful.
Static Bicep Curls
I learned the static bicep curl from P90X but I’m sure it’s been around for a while and I find it especially relevant to Jiu Jitsu because it alternates an isometric hold with a dynamic curl. In BJJ you run across both situations. Fore maximum effect, pick a weight (hint: light) where you can do 5 reps per arm four times (that’s a total of 20 reps per arm).
Alternating 90 degree reverse grip bicep pullup and hold
Pretty sure I made this exercise up. Maybe it exists out there but I don’t know the name. I like it so I’m sharing it. The basic gist is that you do a standard reverse grip pull up, then you go half way up with elbow at 90 degree angle and hold for 10 seconds, then you do a reverse grip pull up, etc.
Alternatively, you can simply hold at 90 degrees for as long as possible, eliminating the pullup.
Note: While I’m not covering it extensively here, it is beneficial to BJJ to have strong lats and so lat pull downs or standard pullups are encouraged as a regular part of your workout plan.
Pectoral Strength Exercises for BJJ
The ability to create space is critical in jiu jitsu and one of the primary ways to do this is to create frames and push against your opponents body. Most of your strength in any push activity comes from your pecs. For pecs, my favorite exercises are dumbbell bench press, plyometric pushups and decline dumbbell bench press.
Dumbbell Bench Press
Bench press injuries are common. I have three main recommendations here. First, stick with dumbells over barbells as they allow a more natural range of motion. Second, keep the weight light and focus on reps. Personally, I stay at a weight where I can do 15-20 reps and make sure the last 3-5 are a struggle. Some people also find that a slight incline helps avoid the problems of a flat bench.
Plyo pushups are good for jiu jitsu because they focus on explosive power. In BJJ, it’s advantageous to go from 0-60 in your exertion… conserving energy until the perfect moment of action. And at that perfect moment of action, you want to be explosive.
You can start off with plyo pushups on your knees. You can graduate to exploding your upper body off the ground. And then you can reach the peak by exploding your entire body off the ground with each rep.
The Decline Bench Press
Pectoral activation seems to be optimized when doing decline presses due to the angle of resistance. An easy way to create a decline if you don’t have a decline bench is to take a standard flat bench and put a few barbell plates under the front leg to lift it up.
Glute & Hamstring Exercises for BJJ
Most grappling sports require the ability to buck and bridge. A lot of this power comes from your glutes and your hamstrings. Here are the exercises I work for these muscle groups.
Most trap and roll type sweeps in BJJ involve driving your hips up to the sky as explosively as possible. One way to improve this action is to do a weighted bridge with a dumbbell or plate on your midsection.
For more of a glute focus and to handle more weight, consider the hip thrust. Very similar to the weighted bridge, this has become the staple exercise for those looking to build strong glutes. The big difference is the location of your shoulders and the weight used. In a hip thrust your shoulders will be elevated on a bench or some other support. Whereas in a weighted bridge, your shoulders remain on the ground.
For hamstring focus, it’s hard to beat a leg curl machine at the gym. If you don’t have a leg curl machine or are working out at home, you can do the swiss exercise ball version.
Core Strength Exercises for Jiu Jitsu
Core strength is key to BJJ. Ever try doing a triangle or armbar from guard with a weak core? It’s painful. Core strength is one of the most important aspects to hip mobility. So every time you hear the words “engage the hips” you’ll be using your core (plus glutes and hamstrings).
For core strength I recommend cross elbow to knee crunches, standing dumbell oblique crunch and Mason Twists.
Cross Elbow to Knee Crunches
The cross elbow to knee crunch is an old school exercise that works the majority of your abs and simulates a lot of the ab activity in BJJ. There isn’t much difference between this and a standard crunch so feel free to go back and forth for variety.
Standing Dumbbell Oblique Crunch
The standing dumbbell oblique crunch is probably the best exercises for strenghthening the abs on the side of your body (your obliques). An important note here is that you only want to use one dumbell. Using two dumbbells actually makes the exercise less efficient. You want to bend down to the side on which you’re holding the dumbbell. The work is then done by your opposite side oblique as you stand back up straight.
Mason twists have several names including Russian twists. The nice thing about these twists is that you ae controlling a weight with your abs engaged. In a BJJ match you are often having to control a weight (your opponent) with your abs engaged.
Cardio Exercises for a BJJ Workout Plan
The best way to develop BJJ specific cardio is to get out there and roll as much as possible. But it takes two to tango… so, when you can’t roll, here are the best alternatives.
The nice thing about rowing is that it’s easy on your joints and also strengthens your lats. It’s far and away my favorite BJJ cardio workout. I like to do intervals of 1 minute hard followed by 30 seconds low-key for about 10 minutes. Alternatively, I’ll go as hard as I can for a 4 minute round. Take a two minute break. And then go hard for another 4 minutes.
A stationary bike is good to get the blood flowing before you roll. To improve cardio, simulate a BJJ roll by going hard for 1-2 minutes, catch your breath, then go hard for another 1-2 minutes. Or, go as hard as you can for a full BJJ round (4-10 minutes usually).
Everytime I jog, my hips lock up for a few days so I’m not a huge fan here. However some of my jiu jitsu friends swear by their treadmill work. If it works for you, go for it. If you hate it, replace with something else. At the end of the day, when it comes to cardio, you can’t beat pure rolling. So get it at!