By David Scholz
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an exciting sport because a fight can end at any moment. One instant, combatants are feeling each other out, moving cautiously, establishing a position or grip and suddenly one technique changes the course of the match. Controlling your opponent, whether from the top or bottom requires perfect sequence and timing. It also requires a great deal of strength and stability in the extensor muscles of the upper extremity, which includes the chest, shoulder complex, and triceps. Anybody who has had been crushed in side control can tell you that.
Before looking at programs that will improve strength and power of these muscles, let’s look at some specifics regarding exercise selection for improving upper body pressing/pushing strength. Generally, when athletes want to improve in this area, the first exercise performed is almost always the bench press. While benching variations are excellent for upper body development, they can be poor exercises for shoulder health, mainly because the shoulder is not allowed to move through a full range of motion. For this reason, and because many athletes have been bench pressing their entire careers, it is my preference to begin bringing up the athlete’s numbers in the overhead press before returning to a bench press variation.
Another factor to consider is how much muscular involvement is required to complete the lift. A standing overhead press requires much more abdominal and low back stability than a bench press simply because you are standing as opposed to having your weight supported by lying down on a bench (and no, this is not meant to imply that you should start bench pressing on a bosu or stability ball instead of using the overhead press!). In BJJ, core muscles are constantly firing and providing stability for upper body power and movement – just like in the overhead press.
Now that we have addressed the benefits of the overhead press, we can get on with some exercises that will help improve upper body extensor strength.
- Barbell Overhead Press – To execute the lift, set up a barbell to the height you would to execute a squat. Walk the bar out of the rack, and maintain a 60 degree angle between the upper arm and the torso. Press the bar over your head, keeping your chin parallel with the floor. Your head should be through your arms when the bar is locked out. DO NOT USE YOUR LEGS AND DO NOT WEAR A LIFTING BELT!
- Single Arm Neutral Grip Overhead Press – For this exercise, grab a dumbbell with a grip that places your palm toward your face. Use the opposite hand to hold a sturdy support located inside your gym, such as the cage of a power rack. To execute the lift, press the dumbbell over your head, again keeping the chin parallel to the floor and working to push your head through the pressing arm. Performing the lift with one dumbbell will allow the greatest range of motion possible on the pressing arm. Also, it will allow you to address any strength discrepancies between limbs. Do not use more weight or perform more reps if you should discover that you do have a dominant limb. This will only exaggerate the problem.
- Narrow-Grip, Parallel Bar Dips – This exercise is superior for developing strength and mass on all three heads of the triceps. To perform the movement, grab the parallel bars with the narrowest grip you can comfortably handle. To execute, lower yourself down until your bicep touches your forearm – NO HALF REPS! Make sure to keep your torso as upright as possible. Using a narrow grip, an upright torso position, and a FULL RANGE OF MOTION ensures that the triceps is performing the greatest amount of work possible.
- Lying EZ Bar Triceps Extensions – Using an EZ bar (which is bent like a “w”) for this movement will help save your wrists. To execute, lie on a flat bench with the EZ bar locked out directly over the front deltoids. Lower the bar to your forehead and then press explosively toward the starting position. The critical aspect of this exercise is that the upper arm DOES NOT MOVE! Varying the upper arm position during the movement will remove the stress from the triceps and place it on the lats or the shoulders.
- Weighted Push-Ups – I know people are wondering what the difference is between a push-up and the bench press is. The answer is fairly complex and beyond the scope of this article, but believe me when I say the push-up allows for a much better range of motion and is more conducive to shoulder health than a bench press. Additionally, it will be quite a test for the abdominals and low back if you are performing the exercise correctly with a 100 lb plate – or a training partner – on your back. To carry out the push-up, start with the arms locked out directly under the shoulders. Lower yourself until your chest touches the floor, keeping your elbows as tight to the body as possible. Press the body back to the starting position. The key to performing the push-up correctly is making sure the body moves together. DO NOT MOVE THE TORSO INDEPENTLY FROM THE HIPS! If you cannot maintain proper body alignment, there is no sense in increasing the weight.
- Close Grip Incline Bench Press – This is like a little dessert at the end. Again, the bench press is a great – I repeat – a great exercise. I like the incline version because it mimics the angle at which many thrust/pushes in BJJ are given, not to mention an angle of which many punches are thrown if you are into MMA. Just be sure your shoulders are warmed up properly and are injury free before performing the movement. If you cannot overhead press, or are suffering from shoulder pain, bench pressing IS NOT the answer, and should be avoided.
Below are some programs to use for upper body pressing. To execute all the lifts, lower the bar for 3-4 seconds, PAUSE AT THE BOTTOM, and lift the weight as explosively as possible. Each set is balls to the wall! Pair lettered exercises together, being sure to rest the suggested time frame.
|Order||Exercise||Sets x Reps||Rest|
|A1||Standing Barbell Overhead Press||5×4-6||2 Minutes|
|A2||Chin Up Variation||5×4-6||2 Minutes|
|B1||Weighted Push-Ups||5×4-6||1 Minute|
|B2||Rowing Variation||5×4-6||1 Minute|
This is an excellent program that will cover all planes of upper body movement (pushing and pulling in the vertical and horizontal planes). Be sure to take the full rest for the overhead press and chinning work. If you are lifting a weight that is a true 4-6 rep max, you will need it.
|Order||Exercise||Sets x Reps||Rest|
|A1||Close Grip Incline Bench Press||3-4×3-5||10 Seconds|
|A3||EZ Bar Triceps Extensions||3-4×5-7||2 Minutes|
This tri-set is great for building mass on the upper body. Make sure to note the rest periods – REST ONLY 10 Seconds between exercises until the EZ bar extensions are completed, then rest 2 minutes before beginning the next set. Don’t worry if the reps or weight drops each succeeding set. However, once the load (your weight x your reps) drops 15-20% from your starting point, it is time to stop for the day.
|Order||Exercise||Sets x Reps||Rest|
|A1||Single Arm Neutral Grip Overhead Press||6×6-8||90 Seconds|
|B1||Single Arm DB Rows or Single Arm Chin Ups||6×4-6||90 Seconds|
This routine will help bring up a strength deficit between limbs. Be sure to perform the lifts on the weak limb first, rest 10 seconds, and then match that work on the dominant limb. Again, don’t lift more weight with the stronger arm – it will only make things worse in the long run.
Hopefully this article has given you some idea on how to improve your pressing strength. With the use of these movements and continued work on the mitts, you should be on the way to passing guard with more power, escaping side control more easily and finishing fights more quickly!
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.