by Mark DiSalvo, CSCS
When push comes to shove, there shouldn’t be many competitors at any belt level who wouldn’t want to optimize their body composition at their weight class. It helps lead to strength gains, better overall health, and in most cases, big performance improvement. It also just so happens that one of the lowest hanging fruit I see for grapplers is the ability to improve their body composition and this is true of the professional down to the amateur competitor. For the pro, the stakes are obvious, but for the hardcore amateur practitioner: just because you aren’t making any money doesn’t mean you don’t want to show up and show up looking the part of a fighter. Whether it’s losing weight or putting on solid mass, there’s a way to do it even when training jiu jitsu with a high frequency.
GPP First, Body Comp Goals Second
Jiu Jitsu is a skill-heavy sport. The people who reach a high level in it are very proficient at their game and the overall movement literacy of jiu jitsu. With that “literacy” comes efficiency, and that efficiency can mask true fitness and athleticism. That’s why you’ll hear or see guys on the mat that are good at jiu jitsu (think purple belt and above), but they’re red in the face after just a round or two of rolling with someone of equal or more skill. They couldn’t rely on their efficiency of technique alone (the way a black belt plays with an under-belt like a cat), so they started tapping into their other athletic qualities, which are a finite resource. These are usually the guys whining about their gas tank too – and they’re actually onto something…
These guys have no GPP. What do I mean? General Physical Preparedness (GPP) is your overall fitness and back end physical ability. This includes your general aerobic capacity, your basic agility, balance and jumping ability among other qualities. Along with strength, it’s a building block of athleticism.
Now, strength and hypertrophy training can take you a long way, but it’s not likely to happen unless you first take care of your GPP. One reason is that those who have good GPP generally will be leaner or at a more ideal body composition for their size. It’s always easier to gain muscle while being lean (think insulin sensitivity).
An athlete with a solid GPP base is also one that tends to understand how to move their body more efficiently and will have better technique in the weight room. Barbells, dumbbells, and compound movements all are more computable to the athlete who has a good working knowledge of their body. Better technique will translate to better improvements and better progress.
This is one reason that exercise selection for grapplers who only really have physical experience in grappling and no other sports or pursuits is so important: you have to find things their bodies understand and they can process. If you can diversify their understanding of their body, you can use more tools in the weight room.
Be Lean First, Build Muscle Second
I mentioned it above, but the best way to gain muscle is to already be lean. That is to say, if you have a lot of weight to lose, lose it first. Muscle mass is best gained when the body is insulin sensitive, and you can use the hormone insulin to your advantage while you’re working out and eating the right amount of carbohydrates. Those who are insulin resistant are blunting their ability to use the hormone during workouts or to have the proper response to carbohydrates. Once you’re in the relatively lean territory: if you train jiu jitsu 4-5x per week, calibrate upwards on your strength training, slowly.
You’ll need about 10 sets per week per body part to spark growth if you have a little gym experience already. If you’re new to lifting weights, then you’ll actually need less in your first 6 or so weeks. Studies show as little as 5 and as many as 9 sets being optimal*. Before the body builders in the room groan at me, remember, the jiu jitsu athlete is already doing hard training each day on the mats, and we aren’t trying to overtrain them.
If you have a long lifting and athletic history before jiu jitsu you can push it, but listen to your body. Remember that even if your muscles feel fine, you also have connective tissue to consider that tends to not let you know you’re having problems until it’s too late. Add to the fact that submissions are aimed at ripping that same connective tissue apart, and you see why you should be smart.
*I define “relatively lean” as not obviously obese or overweight. There are a lot of ways to measure body fat percentage, and a lot of them vary wildly from individual to individual, which is why I hesitate to give you a body fat percentage range as a rule. Traditionally, people would say get to 10-12% in men or below 20% in women, but I have seen guys who read at 15% and a bit higher who adequately and effectively gained muscle mass. The point is to simply eliminate very obvious excess fat before trying to deliberately gaining muscle.
Work with Tempo and Long Time Under Tension
The best body recomposition programs include two very important variables: work volume and TUT (Time Under Tension). The good news is this translates very well to jiu jitsu, as there is a huge isometric (high constant tension) component to many jiu jitsu techniques. Using slow tempos and isometric exercise help train this quality in the weight room.
The bad news? You’ll be pretty sore at first, but if you’re doing it right, you’ll likely only end up this way the first week of each new workout cycle, and progressively less for the next month. For both those losing weight and gaining mass: volume and time under tension are good ways to optimize your lean muscle while dieting appropriately.
Don’t Serve Two Masters
In the end, you can only seriously pursue one major goal at a time. Otherwise, you’re diverting your efforts and diluting progress. If getting serious about your body composition is important to you, prioritize it!
You may need to take a reduced jiu jitsu training schedule while you pursue some serious body composition goals. Consider rolling less and rely more on drilling for a few weeks at a time when your workout schedule is particularly intense. Alternatively, if you take a lot on at once, remember to de-load and take rest days/weeks every once and a while. Remember, the athlete who can keep training is the one that gets better. Getting hurt = not training = not improving!
Don’t Forget to Eat
Jiu jitsu athletes tend to be open minded towards diets and many different ideas on eating get passed around the mats on a regular basis. One eating strategy that is quite popular is intermittent fasting, which has a lot of promising literature around it. I have used it with clients looking to drop weight with success too. While fasting has been around as a remedy for many ailments since the beginning of time, it’s not always the right performance, weight gain, or even weight loss strategy. This is my way of saying that nutrition is very individualized and you would be wise to consult a nutritionist familiar with the high output of sports like jiu jitsu. Depending on how much you train, your nutrition strategy will become all the more important and play a major role in your efforts. Most importantly, you need to make sure you’re properly fueled, especially if you’re looking to add muscle. Remember, there are many ways to skin a cat!
I used many of these methods last year with Rehan Muttalib, all while he trained hours each day at Cobrinha’s in L.A. and completed my strength workouts in the afternoon in preparation for IBJJF Worlds 2018. His before and after shots are indicative of great progress and show you that this is quite possible at a high level and without injury.
Keep these principles in mind and you’ll be able to apply any sensible training program with great results. I have never bought the excuse that jiu jitsu is too calorically demanding to make meaningful body composition changes and I think the recent impressive transformations of the top athletes in the sport are great proof of this.
Mark DiSalvo, CSCS, is New York City based strength and conditioning coach and owner of DiSalvo Performance Training. He specializes in work with grapplers and works with some of the highest level athletes in the sport at all belt levels and ages. He can be found at disalvotraining.com.