This article was written by 3rd-degree Roger Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt Nicolas Gregoriades.
Recently, I saw a jiu-jitsu meme that made me laugh out loud. “Technique is invincible!” it proclaimed. You’re probably not going to want to hear what follows, but as a jiu-jitsu instructor, it’s my job to share with you what I perceive to be the truths about the art, not perpetuate falsehoods. So here goes:
Technique is NOT Invincible
General athleticism, and in particular strength, plays a huge role in jiu-jitsu performance, and can very often overcome technique. In my opinion, strength is just as important as technique. Despite what you’ve been told, great technique will not always overcome size and strength.
I’ve been training grappling for almost twenty years and I’ve been a black belt in BJJ for nine of those. I consider myself to be an extremely technical jiu-jitsu player and I focus on trying to make my movements as energy-efficient and precise as humanly possible. But here’s a secret: sometimes I muscle my way out of stuff or 'force' a technique on. I don’t make a habit of it, but because I understand the importance of strength and how to use it intelligently to aid my jiu-jitsu, I’ve earned the right to do it. I still have an ideal of a 'strengthless game' in my mind - of a time where I’m so good that I don’t need to use any exertion in the application of my jiu-jitsu. But I know that it’s just that - an ideal. Yes, the best jiu-jitsu players in the world are all super-technical. But they are all, without exception, very strong human beings too. Because of a combination of genetics and proper training these guys are ridiculously powerful and athletic. It’s been my experience that this equation holds true most of the time:
Player A (Moderate Technique + Great Attributes) > Player B (Great Technique + Weak Attributes)
A Hypothetical Example
I know you don't believe me yet, so I'll try to illustrate my point with an example. Let’s look at an imaginary scenario using two fighters, Steve and JoJo.
Steve: Steve starts training jiu-jitsu at the age of 5 years old and is coached by Marcelo Garcia, Rafa Mendes and Rickson Gracie. He learns all of their techniques and absorbs all of their wisdom about pressure, timing and body mechanics. He trains consistently 6 days per week for the next 13 years. At 18 years old, weighing 200 lbs. Steve wins the IBJJF world championships at brown belt in the medium-heavy division by decimating all his opponents and is awarded his black belt immediately after. The next year he makes it to the final of the black belt absolute bracket where he faces Buchecha and defeats him in 13 seconds using a flying-armbar.
JoJo: JoJo is a 10-year-old silverback gorilla. He weighs 400 lbs. He has never trained in jiu-jitsu or any other martial art.
The Showdown: Suppose somehow (remember, this is hypothetical) we are able to communicate to JoJo the rules of jiu-jitsu and get him to agree to an exhibition match with Steve. We even get a special primate-edition gi made up just for him. Who do you think would win that match? And if you think Steve will beat JoJo using his ‘invincible technique’ you’re delusional. (Also, I have a Dim Mak course I think you’d be interested in - send me an email.) JoJo's size and strength advantage simply cannot be overcome by using technique.
Ok, ok that was a pretty unrealistic scenario and it would never happen. But here are some real-world examples, again, from my own experience:
Example 1: In 2013 I watched with my own eyes as a world champion black belt female was taken apart by an average male purple belt of the same size as they sparred in an open mat session. The woman had absolutely no chance. She was tapped close to ten times in a 6 minute round. Now, did that happen because ‘women are not good at jiu-jitsu’ or because 'men are better than women'? Of course not. It was a simple function of physical strength. The guy had way higher levels of testosterone, and hence stronger connective tissue and more muscle mass. All other variables were equal or in the girl's favour.
Example 2: I have a friend who is 6”5’, weighs 300 lbs and is an ex NCAA linebacker. He's also a brown belt in jiu-jitsu. He can (and often does) very easily lift me off the ground using only one arm. When we roll he absolutely smashes me. There’s basically nothing I can do against him. Does this happen because his technique is better than mine? Not a f*cking chance. I have been training way longer than he has, with far more frequency and intensity. It happens because he is bigger, heavier and stronger than I am.
Example 3: My natural, healthy weight is around 203 lbs. Sometimes, for various reasons including strength training programs, creatine cycles or holiday overindulgences, that might go up to 218 or even 220 lbs. I’m on the mat all the time and I have a very keen awareness of how my jiu-jitsu is affected by this change and I can tell you straight up that the heavier I am, the easier sparring gets. I can dominate lesser players more easily and survive longer against better players.
Where Does this Myth Come From?
General Martial Arts BS
This misconception lies at the heart of all the other deceptions in martial arts. Telling a small or frail person that learning a secret technique will allow them to defeat the bigger, stronger, bad guy flicks some powerful switches in the human psyche. In the 20th Century, a huge industry was built upon this, with all kinds of crazy (and useless) martial arts systems being packaged and sold to gullible westerners. Even though jiu-jitsu (and what its champions accomplished) in MMA helped clear away a lot of the bullshit in martial arts, it was still affected by it.
Jiu-Jitsu Class Structure
A part of it is simply due to the nature of the jiu-jitsu academy business model. Even though there is a strong competition scene in jiu-jitsu, BJJ schools are usually built around the teaching and sparring aspects of training, so it makes sense that the early pioneers of the industry would play up those aspects of the lifestyle and downplay the others. Firas Zahabi, coach of Georges St-Pierre once said to me. “With the arrival of jiu-jitsu academies we saw for the first time ever conditioning being removed from combat sports training.” And he’s right. In the vast majority of jiu-jitsu academies, conditioning is just an afterthought. Sure, you might do a few jumping jacks and push-ups as part of the warm-up, but that’s not enough. Look at boxers and wrestlers. Conditioning is very often the largest component of their training, and sparring is one of the smallest.
Royce Gracie & the UFC
Royce Gracie’s amazing performance in the early UFC Victories in the UFC resulted in some people believing that technique really was all you needed. In my opinion, Royce won because the matches he was fighting in looked like this:
Fighter A (Moderate Attributes + Great Technique) > Fighter B (Great Attributes + No Technique)
By the second generation of MMA, the formula had already changed because guys had begun to learn jiu-jitsu. The matches started to be more like this:
Fighter A (Moderate Attributes + Great Technique) ≥ Fighter B (Great Attributes + Little Technique)
In Modern MMA what we most often see happening is something like this: Fighter A (Exceptional Attributes + Great Technique) > Fighter B (Great Attributes + Great Technique)
The Leverage Delusion
A lever is a force multiplier, not a force creator. Yes, leverage implies a more efficient use of strength, but it cannot exist without some sort of force (strength). That's why the whole idea of 'strength vs leverage' in jiu-jitsu is just ridiculous. Despite what anyone might tell you, nobody 'added leverage' to jiu-jitsu. Some smart players and coaches did (and still do) identify leverage points and then employ force (their strength) to use them to great effect.
The Good News
The good news is that jiu-jitsu sparring alone will naturally increase your physical strength to a point. And, although you will always have certain limitations on your genetics (sorry but you’re never getting any taller), your natural level of physical strength can be increased massively through intelligent and focused training. Also, it doesn't mean that smaller players are always at a disadvantage. Relative Strength diminishes as size increases. So (hypothetically) with all other things being equal, a 20 per cent bigger player is not 20 per cent stronger, but probably closer to only 12 or 15 per cent. And that also means that smaller guys who are in amazing shape usually negate the advantages of big players in average shape, and sometimes even gain an advantage of their own. More good news - strength is also one of the last attributes to diminish as a fighter gets older and can be maintained and even improved well into old age. 'Man Strength' is a real thing!
Ways to Get Stronger
Get Your Hormones Checked
If you are a male jiu-jitsu player and have the means I suggest you go to an endocrinologist and get your hormone levels checked. If you have low testosterone you're unlikely to have much physical presence no matter what you do. There are various supplemental and medicinal ways to deal with this, and a good doctor will be able to advise you.
For overall, functional strength and athleticism gymnastics are hard to beat. If I could choose just one supplemental strength training discipline to recommend, this would be it.
Another great way to improve athleticism and power that directly applies to jiu-jitsu, especially for grip strength.
Lifting weights for sports performance does not mean repping out a few sets of bicep curls and bench presses. That's bodybuilding. It means doing Olympic Lifts and Powerlifting under the supervision of a certified coach.
It's Your Responsibility
Becoming good at jiu-jitsu is about more than just having great technique. I love techniques and I find the efficiency and solutions they can provide to be fascinating and effective. Having a repertoire of quality moves is essential if you want to any chance on the mat. But it’s not enough. You can find out what else you need in this article. The true martial artist is one who is trying to become better in every way possible. This includes becoming stronger. Maximising your physical strength is one of your responsibilities if you’re wanting to be the best you can be at jiu-jitsu.