When to start a Strength and Conditioning Program?

There is a long debated question on the ideal time to add a Strength and Conditioning program to your training regimen. At it’s backbone, BJJ says that the smaller man (or woman) can win. That technique can beat strength. That we aren’t limited by our physical ability. Although many of the current professionals are extremely athletic, this age-old belief still holds true.

You probably see it every day in your academy, when the new guy gets towelled up by one one of the tiny purple belts. This is a display on how important movement economy is. It comes with lots of mat time, and means you use just the right amount of energy to pull off a technique. It is developed with time.

The guy that got towelled up, was a result of poor movement economy (amongst other things like strategy, technique diversity etc.). Regardless of his baseline ‘fitness’ level, there will be a threshold he crosses where it doesn’t save him. This doesn’t have to be a purple belt, it could even be a brown belt (rare). But, there is a point where his raw physical characteristics will be trumped by technique. That technique can beat strength.

Whether he got past a blue, purple or brown belt (and assuming he isn’t a BJJ prodigy), he will most likely be using his fitness as a ‘weapon’. If he were to engage in a Strength and Conditioning program to increase his fitness level, it won’t lead to an improvement in movement economy (that comes with mat time). Progress in his game will take place – the use of fitness as a strategy becomes validated and encouraged. It probably won’t look very pretty, and partners most likely won’t be lining up for the next roll.

Contrast this with someone who has developed a higher level of movement economy, let’s call him ‘Athlete B’. Two things have happened:
1. They now understand how to minimize wastage and understand the tactics and strategy of the sport (has developed movement economy)
2. The metabolic demands of training have decreased, and it now takes more intensity to evoke the same training response compared to someone who’s movement economy isn’t as good. This typically increases as your belt colour goes up (unless you have only train with black belts). Simply put, better movement economy means less calories burned.

At this point, if we employ a Strength and Conditioning program it will probably serve Athlete B well. It will fuel his technique, tactics and strategy. And because his training sessions are less physically demanding, a supplementary program will make sure his fitness level can continue to improve.

But, Athlete X did Y before they started Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Yes, there are many instances where previous experience in a sport and/or high level physical abilities enhanced the ability to excel. We’ll cover the purpose of specificity in-depth, but as a general rule, it says ‘you get good at something by doing something’. A transfer of learning from skill to skill does exist. But it is highly dependent on the previous activity. That is, the effects of transfer of learning can be negative, zero, positive or direct. Nothing is more valuable when you begin training than mat time, and you wouldn’t want to invest time into something that could have a negative or zero effect.

An exception to the rule.
Exceptions to the rule are normal. It’s why there is no one size fits all approach. Eastern bloc countries were known for increasing the General Physical Preparedness of an athlete, before skill specialisation (increasing all facets of conditioning so they could be better exploited in sport – the reverse of what most of us do). It does make sense that with more physical ability, your potential to excel will be enhanced. But, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is different. The first thing is, it is a different type of competitive. ‘Leave your ego at the door’ is a common term thrown around, but most people on the mat are looking to advance position and submit. That being said, there are some instances when using a Strength and Conditioning program for a beginner does make sense.

Instance #1
If you have mental discipline to use your fitness only when necessary, and your primary objective is technical and strategic development. Employ a strength and conditioning program whenever you want.

Instasnce #2
If you have a low level of fitness. There is a minimal fitness requirement to start BJJ. This goes in direct contrast to the specificity approach of ‘get fit at something by doing that something’. If your baseline fitness level is poor, you won’t be able to sustain a desired intensity to evoke a response. That is, if you are too unfit to last more than one five-minute roll in a night, it will take many nights for your ‘mat-fitness’ to improve and you will be in for a long ride.

Take home:
1. Start Strength & Conditioning when you have a decent game
2. Unless you don’t use your fitness as a weapon, and are focused on improving Mat IQ
3. Unless you are unconditioned and have a low baseline fitness level