Pull Training: A Guide for Better Grappling Strength

By David Scholz, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Utah State University

It’s no secret that all things being equal (and they never are), strength is definitely an asset on the mat. More and more as the sport of BJJ grows, athletes are (and should be!) adding strength and conditioning programs to their training. In BJJ, few muscles are more important than the “pull” muscles which are so critical in virtually every position and in so many techniques. Before we get into exercises, sets, repetitions, and tempo, let’s take a quick look at some of these muscle groups responsible for improving pulling strength. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Rhomboids
  • Biceps brachii
  • Brachialis
  • Brachioradialis
  • Forearm flexors

There are other smaller muscles directly and or indirectly involved in pulling movements, but training the above large groups will help improve pulling strength and power the quickest.

It must be understood that there is no one-size-fits all strength and conditioning program for everyone, nor should one program be followed all the time. The concept of periodization allows the athlete to train with various exercises, sets, reps and intensity (work performed over time) for best results in terms of peaking for a specific event or time. While “functional strength” movements involving various angles, pliometrics and various ranges of motion which better recruit stabilizing muscles are invaluable for BJJ and MMA, the merit of building an initial and underlying foundation of strength with “basic / fundamental” exercises has been proven many times to rapidly create power in the prime movers – or larger muscles. In this sense, strength is built first, than “conditioned” as it is integrated into sports specific training.

Let’s look at some foundational exercises that will effectively train your “pull” muscles in order to help you better control your opponent on the mat:

  • Chin-Ups and variations – For the purpose of this article, chin-ups will refer to using a “palms facing” or supinated grip. Pull-ups will refer to using a “palms away” or pronated grip. Without a doubt, the best exercise to improve functional pulling strength is to get your poundages up in this movement. It works all of the muscles in the upper back and it will challenge your grip, especially if performing chins with a thick handled bar. To perform a quality chin-up, hang from a bar with your arms straight. To execute, pull yourself toward the bar until your chin completely clears the top. Make a strong effort to minimize movement of your lower body.
  • Inverted Chin Ups – While chin-ups focus on elevation and depression (“raising” and “lowering”) of the scapula (shoulder bone), inverted chin-ups focus on protraction and retraction (“pulling apart” and “squeezing together”) of the scapula bones. This exercise will not only hit the middle back and posterior shoulder, but it is excellent for the lower trapezius, which is an important stabilizing muscle for shoulder function. This exercise is very similiar to a doing bent over rows with a barbell, only while hanging under a chin bar. To perform this exercise, set up a power rack as you would for a bench press – only without the bench underneath. Instead, put the bench about 5 feet away and parallel to the bar. You will be grabbing the bar from underneath (hanging) with a supinated, shoulder-width grip and put your feet up on the bench with your back straight. To begin the exerciselift, keep your body in a straight line and pull yourself up to the bar until your lower sternum touches the bar. If you cannot reach the bar, move your feet off the bench. If you still can’t get there, bend your knees and keep your feet flat. Just like the chin-up, range of motion is key.
  • Dumbbell (DB) Single Arm Rows – DB single arm rows will focus on the lats, rhomboids, posterior shoulder, and lower trapezius in a unilateral manner (one arm at a time). Make sure your lower back remains tight throughout the lift and you focus on pulling the dumbbell back toward your hip. Pulling the weight to your chest or stomach will take the focus off of the back musculature.
  • Scott Curls/Reverse Curls – Also known as preacher curls, these movements are best done using an EZ curl bar to put less pressure on the wrist. In addition to the EZ bar, you will need a Scott or preacher bench to perform the movement. For all elbow flexor movements, be sure to stop just short of lock out at both the top and bottom of the movement to keep the stress on the working muscles. Scott curls with a supinated grip will work the biceps and forearm flexors, while Scott Reverse curls will work the brachialis and brachioradialis.
  • Incline DB Curls – Another unilateral movement that will allow for great isolation of the biceps. Be sure to keep your arm as perpendicular to the floor as possible throughout the whole movement. Also, keep your elbow behind your torso. Vary the angle of the bench as needed.
  • Hammer Curls – A great exercise for the brachioradialis muscle. Be sure to keep your upper arm in line with your torso. Additionally, keep the elbows perpendicular to the ground and don’t let them flare out when executing the lift.

With these few key movements to improve pulling strength in mind, below are a few effective programs to improve help you improve your pulling strength. Note that exercises are pair (A1 and A2 for instance). That means you perform exercise A1, rest 2 min and then perform A2. When you are finished with 5 sets of each, progress on to exercises B1 and B2.

Tempo is key to getting maximum results. Throwing the weights around or “cheating” is not advised. To execute the tempo correctly, remember to take about one second to “lift” the weight (the concentric phase where the muscle is contracting), pause one second and then lower the weight (the eccentric contraction) for about 3 seconds. There should not be a pause between reps.

The program directly below is effective for building the muscles of the upper back along with the biceps and forearm flexors. I prefer to pair the movements with an antagonist exercise to save time and to increase neural stimulation to the targeted muscles:

Order Exercise Sets x Reps Rest
A1 Chin Ups 5×4-6 2 Minutes
A2 Overhead Pressing Exercise 5×4-6 2 Minutes
B1 Scott Curls 5×4-6 2 Minutes
B2 Triceps Exercise 5×4-6 2 Minutes

This is a great program for increasing relative strength, which means it will lead to gains in strength without affecting muscle hypertrophy. If you are worried about gaining weight because of a weight class restriction, stick to heavy weights with low reps. You will still get plenty strong without the size gain. Pairing inverted chin-ups with hammer curls will really challenge your grip as well:

Order Exercise Sets x Reps Rest
A1 Pull Ups 8×2-4 2 Minutes
B1 Inverted Chin Ups 3×8-10 1 Minute
B2 Hammer Curls 3×8-10 1 Minute

This is a good program to bring up the strength of the mid-back. If you have been doing a lot of chin-up work with little rowing, try a routine like this for 8-12 weeks to bring up those rowing poundages. You can add some chins at the end or on another day, but take some time to focus on these movements for a training cycle:

Order Exercise Sets x Reps Rest
A1 DB Single Arm Row 4×6-8 1 Minute
A2 1 Arm Horizontal Pressing Exercise 4×6-8 1 Minute
B1 Inverted Chin Ups 4×4-6 1 Minute
B2 2 Arm Horizontal Pressing Exercise 4×4-6 1 Minute

Pulling strength is a neglected part of many beginning training programs. However, it is essential for shoulder stability and a major advantage in all combat sports. As you increase your strength in both chin and rowing variations you, and your opponent, will feel the difference!

Dave Scholz is the the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Utah State University. He has his Master’s Degree in Health Physical Education and Recreation and he was a National Qualifying Powerlifter in the USAPL. Dave is also a Certified Sports Nutritionist by the ISSA.

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