The Best Barbell Training for BJJ: Build Muscle and Strength

When it comes to strength and conditioning for BJJ, athletes have a wide range of tools available for getting stronger and increasing endurance.  Barbell training for BJJ is a popular and proven method of gaining strength, stimulating muscle growth, and improving athletic performance. 

Barbell training for BJJ is at the top of the list for BJJ strength and conditioning.  Although there are many programs available online for training with barbells, BJJ athletes must consider the needs of the sport and recovery when planning out a barbell routine.

In this article, we will cover the basics of barbell training technique and go over a few routines to get you building muscle and gaining strength for BJJ.

What is a Barbell?

Barbells are the long metal rods with thicker sections on each end you see lined up at the gym.  The most popular and useful Olympic style barbells typically weight 45lb or 20kg/44lb, depending on the specific type.  The end sections usually have a revolving sleeve with a diameter of 2 inches that allows you to load the bar with weight plates.

What are the Benefits of Barbells for BJJ?

The Best Strength and Power Gains

Barbells are one of the best tools available for building strength and power.  They allow you to lift the most overall weight compared to other typical strength tools such as dumbbells and kettlebells.  The heavier weight results in more stimulus to the muscles.  The greater stimulus results in more strength, power, and muscle gains over time.

The strength gains from barbell training include all the major muscles in the body.  You can also improve your grip strength through barbell training, particularly with deadlifts and presses.

Structural Loading for Injury Prevention

Furthermore, unlike weight-stack machines, many barbell movements involve structural loading.  Structural loading refers to any exercise that directs force directly down the spinal column.  When performed safely, structural loading trains the core musculature and results in increased bone and connective tissue strengthening compared to non-structural exercises.  In the long run, this reduces the risk of injury to the spine and improves your ability to stabilize injury-prone areas such as the lumbar region.

Given the risk of spine injury in BJJ, the stabilization and bone strength developed from barbell training offers significant benefit to grapplers in terms of strength and longevity during training.

The Downside of Barbell Training for BJJ

Barbells are a crucial tool for long-term strength gains.  The one major ‘downside’ to barbell training is that you must focus heavily on proper form and technique.  Improper technique with barbell lifts can lead to lack of gains as well as the potential for injury that can keep you off the mats.

Technique Requirements

Proper barbell technique is vital for safely performing exercises.  Barbells are far less forgiving on many of the joints compared to dumbbells and even kettlebells.  When you do the movements correctly, your joints will be fine.  However, any errors in technique result in significant strain on the joints involved, and can lead to joint strains, sprains, and tears.

Stacked Joints

Ensuring your joints are properly ‘stacked’ is vital to keeping your wrists, elbows, and shoulders safe during any pressing movements.  During these movements, your elbows should remain directly under your forearms and your forearms should generally be vertical.

Braced Spine

With structural loading, your spine should be in a braced, neutral position and your core must remain engaged.  There are a few exceptions to this in certain advanced lifting situations, however you need to avoid any movement in the spine while it is loaded under a weight.  Bulging discs typically occur then the spine bends while bearing weight.

Stable Knees

During any movements involving bend at the knees, your knees must remain in line with your toes.  Knees caving in or rotating inward – known as ‘valgus’ movement – is a recipe for ligament strains and tears as well as tendinitis.

Soft-Tissue Impact

Lifts such as the barbell back squat put pressure on the soft tissues that support the bar.  With adequate activation and mass in the trapezius muscles, this should not be a huge issue.  That said, improper bar placement or activation can risk bruising the soft tissues of your upper back.

Olympic Lifts

Advanced lifting techniques such as Olympic lifts and their derivatives (i.e. power cleans) have a significant technique component to avoid any injury risk.  When performed correctly they are a safe and effective way to improve explosive power.  Ideally, you should learn these movements under supervision from a qualified coach – a USA weightlifting certification is a good indicator your coach is qualified to teach these movements.

Basic Barbell Routines for BJJ

The best barbell routine for BJJ depends on the phase of training and individual needs of the athlete.  Athletes of all fitness and skill levels can benefit from barbell training.  However, barbell exercises are exceptionally beneficial for athletes who need a bit more muscle mass for their frame or are lacking in strength. 

When prescribing weights, we usually go off a 1 rep max – the theoretical maximum amount of weight you can lift with good form for one repetition on any given exercise.  Since testing for 1RM can be difficult without a trainer, testing a 5-rep max, 8-rep max, or 10-rep max is an alternative.  If you get to the given number of repetitions and cannot possibly do another rep, that is your rep-max.

Barbell Training for Muscle Growth

Building muscle is exceptionally demanding on the body and requires time and adequate recovery to see any major changes.  Muscle building is a long-haul process that occurs over months and years.  If you are a regular competitor, you should plan your muscle-building routine at least several months out from any major competition. 

You will need plenty of recovery and good nutrition to ensure optimal gains and reduce the risks of overtraining.  Muscle growth primarily occurs when doing sets of 8 to 12 repetitions with around 90% of your rep-max.  For example, if your 10-rep max (10RM) on a squat is 100 pounds, you would want to use around 90 pounds for your sets of 10. 

Follow this routine for at least 6 weeks to get going on muscle gains.  We’ve included some additional non-barbell exercises to supplement the main barbell lifts.  You should perform each lifting day at least once per week but no more than twice per week.  Take at least 1 full day off before hitting the same workout twice

Perform 1-2 warm-up sets with lighter weight before your working sets.  Take 60-90 seconds rest between sets.  You can add weight each week if the previous week’s weight feels easier.

Upper Body:

  1. Barbell Bench Press – 3 sets of 10 reps @ 90% 10RM
  2. Barbell Bent Over Row – 3 sets of 10 reps @ 90% 10RM
  3. Barbell Overhead Press – 3 sets of 8 reps @ 90%10RM
  4. Pull ups – 3 sets of 10 (or as many as you can get each set)
  5. Parallel Dips – 3 sets of 10 (or as many as you can get each set)

Lower Body:

  1. Barbell Back Squat – 3 sets of 8 @ 90% 8RM
  2. Romanian Deadlift – 3 sets of 8 @ 90% 8RM
  3. Barbell Hip Thrusts – 3 sets of 10 @ 90% 10RM
  4. Dumbbell Walking Lunges – 3 sets of 12 @ 90% 12RM

Barbell Training for Strength

Once you’ve built up a base of muscle, it’s time to home in on strength.  You will have gotten stronger from the muscle building phase.  However, dropping down to 5 reps with heavier weights will help dial in the strength and teach those newly formed muscle fibers to fully activate.

For the strength phase, we focus on lower reps with heavier weights.  Once again, adequate recovery is paramount.  You should follow this routine well in advance of any planned competition.  Additionally, every fourth week is a ‘de-load,’ where you should use ~70-80% of the previous week’s weight on all exercises.  Follow this program for at least 8 weeks with de-load on week 4 and 8.

Upper Body:

  1. Barbell Overhead Press – 3 sets of 5 reps @ 95% 5RM
  2. Barbell Bench Press – 3 sets of 5 reps @ 95% 5RM
  3. Barbell Bent Over Row – 3 sets of 6 reps @ 90% 6RM
  4. Pull ups – 3 sets of 10 (or as many as you can get each set)

Lower Body:

  1. Barbell Back Squat – 4 sets of 5 @ 95% 5RM
  2. Standard Deadlift – 3 sets of 5 @ 95% 5RM
  3. Barbell Hip Thrusts – 4 sets of 8 @ 95% 8RM (assistance exercise – should be lighter)

Conclusion: Lift that Barbell and Get Stronger for BJJ!

This program is the tip of the iceberg in terms of barbell training for BJJ.  As you advance in your lifting, you will have to change up the routine and perform different variations to keep progressing.  The full discussion of barbell training is beyond the scope of this article.

However, the routine we covered will get you well on your way towards becoming more muscular and stronger for BJJ.  Start your lifting today and we’ll see you on the mats!

Jordan Fernandez

Jordan is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, NASM Certified Personal Trainer, and 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu purple belt under Anthony Birchak. He integrates a number of training methods including barbells, kettlebells, and body weight training to help both himself and his clients build strength, muscle, and reduce the risk of injury. He trains and competes in BJJ out of 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu Tucson. When not training, lifting weights, or working with clients, he writes about all things BJJ and strength and conditioning.

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