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Supplementary Strength Training for Grapplers
While there is no correct way for a grappler to do strength training, there are certainly a lot of good and bad ideas out there to choose from. Over the years I have experimented with many methods, hitting on good ideas and sometimes spending too long using bad ones.
Here I will outline a model of training which can be applied to any sport or task.
With experience, my approach to training grapplers has evolved. It now includes basic strength exercises, special exercises that develop key qualities of particular value to grapplers, and finally the more individualised exercises which each athlete does to address their specific needs.
For the sake of this discussion, I have named these three categories of strength exercises Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary.
Though we will have a look at all three categories, this discussion is primarily focused on the Secondary exercises, which develop what I call Python Strength, the isometric strength important to grapplers.
These are the main strength building exercises that apply to most people and most sports. These movements should generally have priority when in the gym. They can include:
Squatting of various types
Rowing, chin-ups, pull-ups
For the more experienced trainee I would add to this list several more explosive movements. This could mean the above exercises done for speed or else some kind of variation of the clean, snatch, a jump, or a throw. It could also include short sprints.
These exercises should be done in the spirit of moderation. They are foundational, but do not train like a lifter if you are focused on being a grappler.
There is a trend amongst strength coaches with a powerlifting or weightlifting background to promote basic heavy barbell lifts as the way to develop yourself for grappling. I have used this approach, but have since changed my mind. Powerlifting and weightlifting are linear sports; grappling is not. That kind of training does not cover all of our bases. This is why we use Secondary exercises.
Secondary Exercises (Python Strength Exercises)
These exercises are chosen specifically to help develop key qualities for grapplers. Here is what we are trying to achieve:
Holding posture under duress by training isometric strength, anti-rotation, and body tension
Training outside the groove, which means developing strength outside of our most efficient body positions and movement paths
Developing strength in the neck, hands, and wrists, all of which are important to grapplers and potentially neglected when using conventional strength training and sports preparation
If we were preparing for a different sport or task, then we would analyse the requirements and choose a training strategy to meet them.
What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but these exercises give an idea of how we approach Python Strength:
Zercher squat and Zercher lift (to specifically target holding posture against resistance and developing outside the groove strength)
Steel bending or snapping at an easy to moderate difficulty while on your back or in other common grappling positions (to help develop crushing power, bracing, as well as to strengthen the wrists and hands). (To get your feet wet with steel bending I recommend looking into the work of David Horne).
Two-handed gripper closes for crushing power and bracing (as an alternative to steel bending)
Hanging from suspended kettlebell with arms bent at elbow and kettlebell at chest level (to develop crushing power and bracing)
Vertical barbell holds (for postural strength, and for strength outside the groove)
Neck from all directions - use neck harness, hands, bands, towel, partner-assist or anything else to resist an outside force (the best all-around resource that I have seen for neck training is Bill Pearl’s book Keys to the Inner Universe).
Palof press (for anti-rotation)
Isometric holds with barbell, sandbags, odd objects (to develop postural strength and bracing)
Bearhug carries (posture, back, crushing power)
Hang, pullup, or row with towel (to develop hand strength, and especially that cloth gripping strength for judoka, and jiujitsu players, while working the pulling muscles)
Wrist in four directions including flexion, extension, radial deviation and ulnar deviation. (Training flexion and extension is not complicated. For radial and ulnar deviation try a metal bar, sledgehammer, or a kettlebell).
This third category covers all other lifts and exercises that address your personal needs or that simply interest you and will make training enjoyable. These should be thoughtfully chosen in the context of training demands, recovery, injuries, and injury prevention. Sometimes you want to challenge yourself mentally. We make a little room for all of these needs and wants within this group.
Beware the seductive power of the tool. A barbell guy will look for barbell solutions to every problem. A kettlebell gal will always favour the kettlebell. In terms of tools, it is best to be agnostic.
Strength training is secondary to skill practice. It is primarily by grappling that you will become a better grappler. Do not become distracted or fall to the allure of strength training for its own sake if your primary goal is to improve as a grappler.
There is a point of diminishing returns with strength training for martial artists. In general:
Strength is better than weakness
Strength takes time and energy that might best be used for technique training, resting, family obligations, or time with your dog.
As you get older your cardiovascular health becomes increasingly important.
The weaker you are, the more important strength training is. Conversely, the stronger you are, the less you will find strength increases transfer over to your grappling performance.
The chasing of personal records in the gym is very seductive. As a grappler, do not fall for it.
For most people, cardiovascular conditioning should be given equal importance to strength training. Stay in heart rate zone two for about 80% of your cardiovascular training time. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor then train at a nose-breathing pace to approximate zone two.
Where I would like to develop this line of thinking
My ideas about physical preparation for grappling, and other sports and tasks, are an ongoing project. For grapplers, I am now really interested in the concept of developing strength at the end range of motion. This relates to the idea of training outside the groove mentioned earlier. My initial influences in this area are the work of Michael Blevins and Grayson Strange. Check out their stuff.
Questions for the Reader
What does your approach to physical preparation for grappling look like? What changes do you want to make? How do you see your thoughts on this developing? Drop me a line.
Thanks for reading this initial post on The Path of Strength. Stay tuned for more pieces on physical and mental development, philosophy, combative arts, preparedness, and related topics. I look forward to the conversation.
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