When we look at the conditioning and strength programs of high level grapplers, its easy to make the assumption that the way they train is surely the way you should train. What works for them must be good for me right? This piece in esquire ‘Stop working out like an olympian‘ got me thinking Its easy to forsake basics for more advanced routines. Let’s face it most of us not going to be pan-ams, ADCC or worlds champs. A silent majority of largely recreational grappling athletes needs something else. Something that will allow us to work and play for a long time. Athletes need intensity and complexity, most people are not athletes, but giving up the notion of ‘elite’ training for one of reasonableness is hard for many and causes much anxiety. I’m guilty of giving exposure to higher level training methods, mainly because I am passionate about sharing what I do. But some of these methods may well not be right for you.
Grappling is a contact sport and a potentially injurious one at that. Especially when the intent of the end game is causing injury to someone else. Most people spend most of their day sat down and then go zero to sixty in a grappling class. Most ordinary people have tissue quality like beef jerky and the movement capacity of a drunken tortoise beyond sitting standing and walking. Applying sudden dramatic forces to an already dysfunctional body is asking for trouble, when I talk to most grapplers they will have ‘something’ that hurts.
In the past I have talked about posture issues I see in grapplers “Jiu jitsu and grappling athletes also usually have what’s called flexion-dominance in the lower back and pelvis. Most training drills involve repetitive flexion at the waist causing the tightness of the hip flexors and weakness of the hip extensors. Think about how much time in a BJJ class you spend bent over or sitting, drilling hip flexion over and over.
Over time, the lower back muscles become tight while the hip flexors become shortened. This is further compounded by our habit of sitting, all the time in our day to day lives! Sitting shortens hip flexors and weakens the glutes, compounded with the flexion-dominance (active sitting, imagine sitting in guard) I mentioned earlier. Over time adaptive shortening due to sitting regularly leads to tight hip flexors.” This is an ever persistent issue that I have had clients report that they were literally unable to get out of bed in the morning after a training session, largely due to being painful through the thoracolumbar region and often lower. Another ever present issue is ‘micro trauma’, which is caused by the repeat activity, such a grabbing, pulling and twisting which applies subtle but repeated stress to tendons, joints and bones. In most situations it causes minor inflammation at a rate at which the body can overcome and adapt to. However repetitive micro trauma can develop into more serious injuries. Im sure you have all sat rubbing that bad elbow or knee while reading this.
Another consideration is age, as we age capacity for recovery drops, micro trauma accumulates, chances are you have had some sort of injury that has forced a lay off is high over your training career. As a young athlete in my early 20s I had the mentality of “why would anyone not give their training all of their time?” As a man in my early 30s and two torn LCL’s, sprained ankles and a subluxated shoulder later, I now appreciate what the old guys where telling me. Its important to ask yourself ‘if you knew how you would feel now, would you train how you did then?’ Key point is this; as we get older we should look to train more like bodybuilders, you know the guys in Do-rags and work boots you laugh at down the gym. We don’t care about rate of force development or high levels of strength. What we should care about is structural integrity and deceleration qualities. Hypertrophy is pretty useful for that particularly in the key areas of back, glutes and shoulders. What we need to do is build some Armour.
What strength and conditioning can do for you?
I’ve always maintained in the past that as bare minimum, you should engage in some sort of strength work that has largely injury prevention intent. To quote Dan John;
• ”Most adults need to strengthen the phasics and stretch the tonics.
• Next, deal with a lifetime of asymmetry issues.
• Finally, deal with too much sitting and not moving.”
I believe moving is one of the best correctives there is. Many people often when dealing with injury, stiffness, tightness or soreness, look at static solutions to a dynamic problems. So off they trot to a chiro, osteopath or doctor. Who will try to snap crack or medicate a problem, fixed at least temporarily. Too bad that you are still sitting like an orang-utan in the front of Ferrari while you work. You probably need to move and im not suggesting taking up yoga either. It’s a simple as this you need to do the following;
• Loaded Carry/bracing
And everything else
Its pretty simple right? Problem is most folks in the grappling community seem to gravitate towards deadlift (hinge) and Bench and Pull-ups (Push/Pull). Most start chasing the deadlift without an effective brace pattern and often they over extended or flexed and weak through the lower back. I have a collation of stories of grapplers who have gone to snap city due to rounded back deadlifting with good intentions, but as we know the road to hell is paved with those. For some reason they gravitate away from squatting, probably because most gyms lack squat racks (join a better gym) and because the technical and mobility requirements are higher than the deadlift, which at its simplest is just picking something up off the floor. Don’t get me wrong I love the deadlift I just think that there are simpler hinge variations that are better for the non competitive.
This goes for both the competitive and non competitive grappler, we need to engage in some serious armour building to make it through the sport in one peice. This requires looking at how we can develop a solid brace pattern and a solid squat pattern. Bracing is crucial as it protects the lower back, so we need to gravitate towards exercises that improve our “Human Inner tube”
Building a program
Often attempting to apply Biff Harringtons, ‘Megabolic bench and deadlift’ method that requires 4 days a week of balls out weight training while attempting to get in 2-3 BJJ sessions a week on top usually will not end well. Most popular programs are geared towards largely powerlifting or olympic weight lifting with bodyweight only and Kb enthusiasts at the fringes. Often these programs speak to the authors biases, we need to appeal to simplicity in these instances.
I’ve mentioned before how I am fond of the Bondarchuk complex. The Complex offers straight forwards planning for 2 or 3 day strength and conditioning sessions, excellent for beginners and athletes looking to maintain and build general physical preparation. Works well in 3-4 weeks training blocks before rotating exercises. If we run this complex 2 or 3 days they will be different from each other, Monday might be deadlifts and Wednesday will be Squats for example. For the non- competitive it would be fine to repeat the workout more than once a week. I’m not going to discuss percentages or sets and reps in any great detail as that would need greater scope. Muscles can’t count but you can, when choosing loading those who have been lifting for a while can feel out what feels like a good working weight. As a rule I suggest using enough to get the prescribed reps + 1/2 in the tank. When the load starts to feel easy and your velocities improve you can look to increase weight used.
Warm-up – Prehab, mobilise, foam roll etc
A) Total Body Explosive Movement
B) Lower Body Movement (Squat/Hinge)
C1) Upper Body Press (push)
C2) Upper Body Pull (pull)
D) Weak Area (brace/everything else)
Program slots in with the idea of “big to small” in our training, biggest most neurologically demanding exercises are put first in our program. I’m in favour of a very limited movement palette, our time needs to be well used and effective rotating exercises very regularly can damage proficiency. As for rep for the main lower body movements sets of 5-8 work well and for everything else we can look at my hypertrophy oriented rep ranges of 8-12.
Exercise Selection for the non lifter
We have our basic workout structure from Bondarchuk, now we need to choose some exercises. Below is an non-exhaustive list of movements I would recommend for the non competitive grappler.
To start we can probably leave much of the explosive movement out of our training, poor movement, injured joints and the like don’t appreciate high velocities. If you want some gentle, skips, bounding or skipping be included.
Many grappler’s are not fond of conventional barbell work and or do not have access to a fully equipped gym. Exercises of choice include the Goblet squat, which a great exercise for learning the squat pattern, holding a load anteriorly encourages people to brace but also sit their weight onto their heels.
Goat Belly Swing is another Dan John idea who describes it as “an excellent way to slow down the hinge and teach the keys to the more dynamic work: pressurized breathing, the correct feeling of the swing hip, and the abdominal tightness that insures stability.”
For the time restricted I have put these two together in a combo known as the rump wrecker.
Upper Body – Push/Pull up with a twist. For non lifters on these exercises what I like to do is emphasise the eccentric and isometric components of these movements on 2 week cycles. For 2 weeks do eccentric reps 4 secs down, 2 weeks do pauses for 4 seconds at the bottom and last two weeks do higher reps to near failure. What this encourages is more stability in the chest and back, which helps with force absorption. For the chronically tight or those with shoulder issues I like to use a 2:1 pull-to-pushing ratio with those who have significant upper body muscular imbalances, often dropping pushing completely for some folks.
Weak Area – I often use this to really hammer the hinge pattern, bracing or extra upper back work. Timed Planks, side and reverse planks and or farmers walk to really help develop that bracing pattern. Farmers walks are terrific for helping develop shoulder packing and grip strength.
Layout – for the non competitive grappler who doesn’t do barbells.
This whole workout could be with just a med-ball or single KB. I have a high level female competitor who armed with only a pair of kettles bells does this routine twice a week.
Warm-up – Prehab, mobilise, foam roll, etc
A) Skipping 3 x 1:00
B) Goblet Squats or KB front squats 3 x 10-12
C1) Press up or Ring Push up 3 x 6 4 sec eccentrics
C2) Pull up or Ring row 3 x 8-12 4 sec eccentrics
D) Goat belly Swing 3 x 15 paired with :30s side planks
Exercise Selection for the conventional lifter
Front Squat or Zercher Squat, for athletes and non competitive athletes front squat is top-dog, core bracing, lower spinal load and all the systemic benefits of the squat. Only reason I prefer regular back squat for athletes over front is due to higher intensities that can be achieved with back squat.
Floor Press/Bench Press or Overhead Press and Dips are all viable options. However press exercise selection is always going to problematic. Many grappler’s I meet are very internally rotated or impinged at the shoulder and often find issue with one or more of the above. Key is finding a pressing variation that is pain free. If you are pain free however have at it.
Pull-ups/Chest Supported Rows and Single Arm dumbbell work. With these I like to emphasise eccentric and isometric muscular actions. I’m especially fond of the chest supported row as it is very targeted and eliminates a lot of cheating.
Snatch Grip Rack Pull, Snatch Grip Deadlift or Romainian deadlift. Snatch grip rack pull is one of the exercises I use to teach the deadlift. It encourages people hinge properly from the hips, load their glutes, maintain tension in the upper back and lats due to the wide grip and keep a “neutral” spine throughout the entire range of movements. We usually progress onto the Romanian deadlift or snatch grip deadlift. This is one of my favourite bullet proofing/bad habit undoer exercises.
Deadbugs, Planks, Side Planks – I use the Deadbug quite a lot in individuals that are over extended, many have read trouble maintain good pelvic control largely due to over active hip flexors. Its also great for getting everyone in a commerical gym to think you are utterly insane. Many people diss on the plank despite probably never really giving them a concerted effort, there is a reason Dr Stuart McGill recommends plank variations. You should be able to make at least 3:00 minutes, don’t complain, the record is 3 hours, 7 minutes and 15 seconds.
Extra’s – My suggested extras would be band pull-apart variations, no monies and shoulder dislocations. Arm work would also be something you could finish with.
Conditioning As a recreational player you can probably get away with deriving fitness from actually performing your grappling sessions. If you find your conditioning isn’t up to snuff you can then look to add in conditioning as a finisher after training sessions
Layout – for the non competitive grappler who does do barbells.
Warm-up – Prehab, mobilise, foam roll etc
A) Skipping 3 x 1:00
B) Front Squats 3 x 6-10 (+warm-up sets)
C1) Bench Press 3 x 8
C2) Chest Supported Row 4 x 10-15
D) Snatch Grip Rack Pulls 4 x 8-10 paired with Planks 1:00 x 3
Extras) Thick Curls
A) Bounds 3 x 5
B) Snatch Grip Deadlift 3 x 6-10 (+warm-up sets)
C1) Over Head Press 3 x 8
C2) Pull-ups 4 x 10-15
D) Zercher Squats 3 x 8-12 paired with deadbugs
Extras) Side Planks
There is no reason why you can’t meld elements from the barbell free workout with barbell work either.
Pretty straight forwards I hope and that is precisely the point. Some of the best workouts I’ve had have included nothing more than performing the hinge/squat combo, a few sets of pull-ups and dips. The other aspect I will touch on is developing a consistent recovery routine. Progression for the non-competitive athlete is simple. As soon as it starts getting easy, start to adjust loading, sets reps and or adjusting tempo which is a very powerful way of adjusting parameters. Just remember it doesn’t have to be complicated.
This is an ongoing series of articles from guest blogger and Strength & Conditioning coach William Wayland of Powering Through, who works with UFC, Cagewarriors and other high level combat athletes based in Chelmsford, UK.