The sport of Jiu Jitsu (often called BJJ) is growing rapidly, and this growth has sparked many articles on how to physically prepare for it. Most authors suggest some combination of strength training, endurance training, and some “sport specific” training that may involve grip work, neck exercises etc. One problem I have found is that many authors, while excellent strength coaches, do not train BJJ themselves, and thus there are some nuances they miss in these sport specific applications. In particular I think the grip training component has not been addressed as well as it could be, especially with regards to the gi / kimono.
For the sake of gaining credibility on this topic, I should note that I am a black belt in Jiu Jitsu, and own a gym where I coach both BJJ as well as Strength & Conditioning. It is also worth mentioning that the academy I am part of has over 20 black belts and over 400 members, and even with such a high level of talent I am frequently told I have some of the strongest grips in the academy. Also, for clarity, this article will be targeted specifically to those who train in the gi, as opposed to no-gi grappling or MMA. It is focused on the strength needed to keep a grip on the gi when your opponent is trying to break it.
Most of the grip training that I see involves things like heavy grippers (Captains of Crush), farmers carries, deadlifts, pull ups and towel or gi pull ups, kettlebell swings, and sometimes some fat bar work. While all of these are great exercises and are good for “general” grip strength, none of them address the specific needs of keeping your grips during a Jiu Jitsu match or sparring session when your opponent is trying to break them. In all the exercises listed above, the resistance on the grips is A) fairly consistent, and B) focused on opening the hand straight front to back (the same direction your fingers go).
This is where some in the trenches experience with Jiu Jitsu is critical for understanding the real demands of your grip. When someone is trying to break your grip in BJJ, you would NEVER see an experienced athlete use a long, slow, steady force applied in the same direction as your fingers. It is simply ineffective, and will never get the job done. In general, there are two ways to effectively break someone’s grip in BJJ: 1) a very explosive, snappy effort – we often say “pop” the grip off, and 2) rotate the gi around their grip to turn their wrist to a weak position where they have to let go. With that said, in order for grip training to be effective, we need to address both of those styles. The exercises noted above, while all good exercises, do not address either of these two crucial components.
There are many different ways to go about this, but generally I try to be as efficient as possible and get the most bang for my buck out of my exercises. Instead of doing a handful (pun intended) of grip isolation exercises, I choose compound movements that develop total body strength and endurance that also challenge my grips in the right ways. My two favorite exercises for this are heavy Turkish Get Ups, and snatches, both performed with a kettlebell.
Most people don’t think of the TGU as a grip exercise, but it is actually my favorite exercise to strengthen my shoulder, elbow and wrist alignment. Specifically for BJJ, this prevents my opponent from breaking my grip on his sleeve by turning his wrist around mine (grip break #2 mentioned above). You see, your sleeve grip is the strongest when you hook their sleeve with your fingers on the back of their wrist and keep it on the back of their wrist. They will try to break your grip by rotating 180 degrees so you are then on inside (palm side) of their wrist, a significantly weaker position. With the TGU, one of the limiting factors is that you need to keep the spherical part of the kettlebell on the back of your wrist, without giving in to the rotational forces that try to spin it around your wrist to the palm side. You need to have your shoulder packed, elbow strong, and wrist neutral (not extended or rotated) in order to do this successfully. Assuming you are using cast iron kettlebells, the heavier you go, the bigger the dimensions of the bell, and the harder this is to do. By the time you are doing 48 kg you will have developed good strength to resist this rotation, and will have a much stronger sleeve grip when you’re on the mats. If you play a lot of De la Riva or spider guard, this is incredibly important because your opponent will probably break your grips using this style.
The other style of grip breaking, the “popping” off of the grip, is very common and is used with sleeve, collar, and pants grips. You see it a lot from the standing position working for throws and takedowns, as well as with the collar grip from the guard. To have the strength to defend your grip being broken in this manner, you need to be able to cycle between a loose grip and a very strong one quickly and efficiently. If you hold a death grip the whole time, you will quickly burn out and your grips will be toast (plus your rigidness makes you susceptible to throws). If you are loose the whole time, your grip will be easy to break. What you want is a combination of loose most of the time to conserve energy and not telegraph your strategy, but strong as a vice when you know your opponent is going for an explosive break. This is why I choose kettlebell snatches in my training. In addition to getting great benefits of general endurance, shoulder strength and stability, and hip power, it also offers this sort of “contact” strength or resisting a ballistic force for your grip, all while cycling the tension and relaxation in a way that carries over well to the mats. The hand position used for snatches is also quite similar to what is used in BJJ: a semi-open hand, with the fingers making a bit of a “hook shape.” I cycle my training using light/medium weights at moderate speed for high reps, heavy weight for low reps, and light weights done with maximum explosiveness and an overspeed eccentric. Please note that while the snatch is one of my favorite exercises, it is not a beginner exercise. You need to posses adequate shoulder mobility and stability in order to be safe overhead (Turkish Get Ups are a great starting point for this). You also need to have a strong foundation with your kettlebell swing to have a fluid, consistent hip hinge. I encourage you to find a qualified instructor to teach you, as snatches can be tricky to learn on you own.
While there are many good exercises out there for the grip as it pertains to BJJ (and grappling in general), these two are “tried and true” for me and make up a major part of my training. You could certainly make good arguments for other exercises like levering with a sledge hammer, mace work, Indian clubs, or two of my other favorites: 1) hitting a tire with a sledge hammer and 2) legless rope climbs. But, in the interest of keeping things simple in an industry that loves to overcomplicate things, my two best “bang for your buck” grip exercises for BJJ are heavy TGU’s and kettlebell snatches. The important take away is to realize how your opponent is actually trying to break your grips, take note of the angle, position, and speed at which this happens, and to train accordingly for that. Experienced grapplers will never fight you where you are the strongest; they will try to put you in a weak position (ie an extended and rotated wrist) and go for the grip break from there. Be aware of these positions, and train to 1) don’t get there in the first place, and 2) have strength to manage the situation should you find yourself there.
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– Tony Gracia | Co-Founder / Head Coach @industrialstrengthgym