From Powerlifting to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: 7 Things I’ve learned about Strength, Conditioning, and Athletic Performance

From Powerlifting to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: 7 Things I’ve learned about Strength, Conditioning, and Athletic Performance

In June 2015, after three years of successful Elite-level competition and over 20+lbs of weight gain, I competed in my final powerlifting meet. Despite finishing with a 660lb deadlift, I felt overweight, unathletic, and unhealthy. 

Over the last two and half years, my fitness and athletic pursuits have been focused primarily on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (“BJJ”), a grappling-based martial art with roots in judo, traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu, and wrestling. BJJ renewed my passion for health, fitness, and movement, and I’m glad to say that I’ve greatly improved my health, body composition, and athleticism. 

Training for BJJ differs substantially from training for powerlifting, and I’ve learned some important lessons over the last few years. Here some takeaways that I’ve found personally valuable:  

1. Relaxation is just as important as tension- Tension is the fundamental way that a muscle expresses force; the sport of powerlifting is based very much on tension-generating techniques. 

The great Pavel Tsatsouline teaches us that tension and relaxation are two sides of the same coin, and notes that great athletes are just as good at relaxation as they are at tension. 

In BJJ, this is extremely important. While tension can be useful at times in order to lock the body into position or apply slow grinding force, relaxation is also paramount. Relaxation is a prerequisite for speed. Relaxation also allows the BJJ athlete to use technique rather than strength, thus conserving energy. 

So much of traditional strength training is focused on tension-building, and relaxation is easy to overlook. A few ways you can train the ability to relax include kettlebell swings and their variations (the quickness requires that you let go of tension during the backswing), skipping rope, or “fast & loose” drills (you can find an introduction here:

2. The importance of the Minimum Effective Dose- While powerlifting is typically based on using as much weight as possible (after all, that’s the point of the sport), jiu-jitsuka’s should take an opposite approach, instead asking themselves “what is the least amount of weight/volume that I can use while still accomplishing my goals.” 

While BJJ athletes benefit tremendously from being strong, they can accomplish their strength goals typically at a lower level of exertion (both intensity and volume) than a pure strength athlete. This lets the BJJ athlete be more consistent in his training, reduce the chance of injury on the mat, and be more recovered in order to train BJJ more often and more effectively. 

3. Aerobic Cardio can be very useful- Slow cardio gets a bad rap these days, and in many ways, that’s warranted. For most people, weight training and higher intensity cardio is more effective at building muscle and burning fat. 

However, the aerobic system is incredibly important for the grappler. Training sessions typically last for 90-minutes or more and can feature at least half an hour of sparring with minimal rest periods. Additionally, proper aerobic training will improve the body’s ability to recover effectively in between workouts. For me, swimming, even just 1-2x per week, has dramatically improved my stamina during training, as well as reducing the amount of fatigue and soreness I feel on a weekly basis. 

This point is very individualized – as a former powerlifter, my aerobic system was probably underdeveloped when I began BJJ. If you’re a competitive triathlete making the transition to BJJ, you’ll likely see a lot less benefit from continuing to train aerobically, and probably would be better served by improving strength and power. 

4. Breathing Matters- If you’ve been following Catalyst for any period of time, you’ve probably already heard us talk about breathing. It’s just so important. As grapplers, our necks and shoulders already work so hard, it’s important that we don’t put additional stress on them through faulty breathing patterns. 

Furthermore, controlling the breath during sparring reduces exertion and stress, allowing for better stamina. 

A few good places to start your breathing training: Quiet Breathing w/ Dr. Kathy Dooley, Intro to Buteyko Breathing

5. Scapular mechanics are crucial for neck and shoulder health- Paying attention to the action of my shoulder blades has delivered tremendous benefit to my shoulder and neck health. In grappling, we do a lot of pulling, but it’s typically not through a full range of motion. We tend to shrug our shoulders to protect our neck from strangles, and make short movements to limit the amount of space our opponent can gain, or to avoid exposing our arms to attack. 

The result can often be dysfunctional scapular mechanics. A few exercises that can be useful for improving these mechanics include: landmine pressing, Turkish get-ups, planchet work, crawling, and full-range rowing movements. 


6. Unilateral work is a fantastic way to build strength while minimizing recovery stress- While bilateral work such as squats and deadlifts are still reign supreme for building strength, muscle, and improving body composition, they can take a significant toll on our body’s ability to recover. These movements are so effective because they allow so much weight to be used, but these large loads also place much stress on our metabolic, neurological, and hormonal systems. 

Unilateral work such as single-leg deadlifts, Bulgarian split squats, kettlebell floor press, and landmine pressing are a great way to build muscular strength without placing as much systemic stress on the body. 

However, if your goal is to gain a maximum amount of muscle or strength, traditional bilateral work can still be very valuable. 

7. Grappling is three-dimensional and highly unpredictable – alignment can change in an instant-One of the things that’s surprised me most in training BJJ consistently is how much my alignment and movement quality can change on a week-to-week basis. For example, I might find that my shoulder mobility varies significantly, that my rotation may be impeded in one direction or another, or that I’m more stable on one leg than the other.  

Catalyst Co-Founder and world-renowned clinician Dr. Kathy Dooley often says, “pain is the last thing to arrive at the dysfunction party.” Therefore, it’s so important that we exercise with mindfulness and be aware of what our bodies are telling us. For example, if I’m performing Turkish Get-ups and find that one side feels significantly different than the other, I know that I need to explore this further and rectify this issue before it turns into an injury. 

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