So given all that I really enjoyed picking Ben Zhuang’s brain for his suggestions for exercises, supplements, recovery and other information that is going to benefit you. I’ll summarize and break down our discussion into different topics.
Let’s start with a brief introduction: Ben Zhuang is a strength and conditioning coach, personal trainer, nutritionist and BJJ practitioner. He started his career as a personal trainer and has since switched his focus to training athletes.
He has also received his 1st degree black belt under Ricardo “Franjinha” Miller from Paragon BJJ Academy in 2013. Ben has 3 academies of his own in Los Angeles, US.
Here’s our complete conversation, touching on everything from BJJ specific exercises, supplements that might help with recovery, and tips for cutting weight…
You can watch the complete video of our conversation just below, or you can scroll down to the very bottom to get the information in audio-only podcast form!
Here’s my attempt to paraphrase our conversation. I tried to be careful but if anything below doesn’t match with what Ben actually said in the video or audio then the fault is 100% mine…
Exercises for BJJ Athletes
Whether you’re new to fitness or you’re an athlete, I would suggest training with a coach first. This is so you’ll have someone to teach and correct you on the proper forms of doing certain exercise movements. It is important because incorrect posture and form will lead to long term injuries.
You should pair yourself with a coach who uses critical thinking and doesn’t just take everything that somebody says despite their credibility. Find a knowledgeable person in your area. Test a trainer’s knowledge to see if they can give you a simple answer to why they’re asking you to do a certain thing. The answer should be direct and not long-winded.
Example of not using critical thinking would be listening to an advice on exercises given by the biggest guy in the gym without knowing his background or even hearing from people who did not survive from his routine. Survivorship bias discounts a variable like genetics or luck, etc. If you take 500 people and they all perform the same workout as this huge guy who could be on performance enhancers or even steroids. Maybe 5 people survives that workout and become huge.
People aren’t recognising the fact that 495 people didn’t survive that workout, didn’t get the results and are probably injured because their body could not handle that workout regime. That’s why it’s dangerous for you to follow anything blindly.
There’s so much information available but how do you choose the right exercises that is safe and effective? You must apply critical thinking skills and use evidence-based practice. How evidence-based practice relates to critical thinking is you’re using scientific research, your individual needs as an athlete, your professional expertise, and your experience. If you have neither the expertise nor the experience, make sure you read up on the scientific research that is easily available through a Google search.
What Ben meant is that you have to understand what your focus is before choosing the right exercises. For example, if you’re a bodybuilder and your focus is hypertrophy, look for exercises that has been proven by experts to be effective for maximum muscle gain. It’s a lot simpler when that is your only focus because you can measure strength and hypertrophy easily.
However, in sports performance training, the focus is much broader. It is about the strength, speed, agility, recovery time, heart rate, the ability to recover and lower your heart rate. In something like Jiujitsu or MMA, there’s many variables to consider as well because not only it’s about strength, it’s also the endurance, explosiveness, flexibility and injury prevention. These are things that take experience because you have to research each individual variable.
So how do you find evidence-based practice that isn’t just about muscular growth?
The rule of thumb is to use similar movement patterns to the sport. Matt Rhea who is an expert on transfer of training, has listed 4 concepts that improve transfer of what you do in the weight room to your sport:
- Self support: It should be a standing exercise because exercises that use external support such as a bench or machine transfer less than those that require the athlete to stabilize their body weight. If you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of sports that requires you to do athletic movements from the standing position. You’re transferring force to the ground.
- Detached hands: When you’re exercising using a bench press, your hands are attached to a grip bar. That is usually going to have less transfer to sport than if you do a push up. Go for military press vs bench press. One good exercise that transfers the most to standing combat is the landmine / anchored barbell.
- Single leg execution or split stance: Many sports requires you to stabilize while on one foot or in a staggered stance. Therefore, exercises that require the same such as lunges and split squats seem to gravitate to the top of the transfer lists for those sport skills.
- Range of motion and the force that you’re generating in your exercise: Muscular overload in a range of motion that most closely mimics the range of motion involved in the sport skill will transfer more than the same exercise performed in different ranges of motion. For an example, you’re essentially doing a lunge with a forward lean in the double-leg takedown in Jiujitsu.
Ben really emphasizes on doing the research and educating yourself before believing anything that’s out in the internet. One example is power. How do you increase power? Firstly, you have to understand that to physiologically increase power, you have to increase the force output with speed.
Then, you want to look for exercises or protocols that are supported in the research literature that transfer the best to sports. There is no direct research on it. You won’t be able to pull up a paper that tells you exactly what you want to know. There’s no easy way around it. If you want to be the best at what you do, you have to put some time into it. It’s not going to happen overnight.
Another example is the Oxygen Deprivation Mask. There was a hype around this mask and the idea behind them is that it simulates training at altitude by restricting the flow of oxygen to your lungs. But there’s never been any evidence to support any benefit claims.
For the sake of the Grapplearts.com readers and myself, I’ve asked Ben to give his recommendation on the exercises that will help us.
Ben Zhuang’s recommended exercise for Jiujitsu and Combat sports:
- Hip thrust / Glute bridge. This should be obvious because there is a lot of bridging in BJJ. He has a theory that if more athletes do more hip trusts, there would be less injuries because the forward and back horizontal loading transfers to sprinting and running. Though, avoid using too much weight because the glute is comprised of primarily slow-twitch fibres.
- Rowing from standing position. Dumbbell row or kettlebell row. One of his favourite exercises is to place 2 kettlebells on the floor and row one of them while you keep one on the ground. This teaches you the concept of base. Does this movement remind you of a guard pass?
- Any type of workout that has your core engaged with you lying down on your back is going to be beneficial because when you’re playing guard, you’re activating your core. Look up Hollow Bodies and Dead Bugs.
- Lunges with a forward torso lean. Shoulders in line with knees and you’re forward leaning.
- Turkish Get-Up. It’s quite similar to an Axe guard.
- Single Leg Romanian Deadlift. The motion is like an Axe Pass and a Down Block.
- Isometric Squeezing. There’s a lot of squeezing in Jiujitsu. Grab a medicine ball, hold it and squeeze it.
- Bicep Curls & Hammer Curls. Bicep Curls have a lot of use in Jiujitsu such as Armbar Defense and the Collar-Sleeve Guard.
Barbell Hip Thrust. – Popularized by Mr. @bretcontreras1 The Barbell Hip Thrust has come under scrutiny in the last few years by well meaning but often misinformed and dogmatic trainers who may see it for more than it is. An assistance exercise that targets hip extension. Be careful loading too much weight onto the bar and keep the reps moderate to high. Use proper form by keeping your chin tucked and using posterior pelvic tilt, NOT lumbar spine extension to lockout the bar. Like every exercise, it doesn’t have to be for everyone. But when done correctly, it is a safe and effective exercise for building glutes, training the bridge motion in wrestling and jiu-jitsu, and can benefit injury prevention. Any trainer saying this exercise is unsafe under non-idiotic parameters is welcome to present empirical evidence or even a sound line of reasoning in the comments and I’ll reconsider my position. – #hipthrust #gluteworkout #glutesworkout #hipextension #barbellworkout #brazilianjiujitsu #mma #brazilianjiujitsu #martialarts #bjj #jiujitsu #health #personaltraining #personaltrainer #strengthandconditioning #strengthtraining #rehab #crossfit #workout #exercise #fitness
Alternating Plank Row. (Renegade Row) – This exercise is for core stability(anti-rotation) and coordination. You won’t likely see much hypertrophy(muscle gain) from these due to the load being too light and the exercise being unstable. But developing a strong core can help you move more load in your other exercises which can ultimately lead to more hypertrophy. For athletes I would say that this, the standing anti-rotation, and the ab wheel are at the top of the list for core exercises. The important cue here is to keep the hips from rotating during each row. @brimrob. – #plankworkout #plank #coreworkout #absworkout #abs #stabilitytraining #fitness #exercise #workout #crossfit #rehab #strengthtraining #strengthandconditioning #personaltrainer #personaltraining #health #jiujitsu #bjj #martialarts #mma #brazilianjiujitsu
If you’re not going to do a sport specific training, general strength and conditioning training is going to be very advantageous and will have a general transfer to Jiujitsu. Do exercises such as squats, deadlifts, pushes and pulls, accessory movement. Think of the movements and compound exercises as opposed to thinking about body parts.
You should know what the supplements do before buying them from the store. At the very least, go to a website like www.Examine.com to look at the research review. Don’t worry, you’re not going to have to read the entire research, you’re reading a review of all the research literature written by someone.
If there is a new supplement on the market without research supporting it, don’t jump into taking it. Take supplements that have been confirmed by scientists and proven in the research literature through multiple randomised controlled trials. Look for medical analysis or systematic review which is a type of literature review that collect and critically analyze multiple research studies or papers.
Look out for supplements that have already been proven to have no effects on what it’s marketed as, for example, glutamine. Glutamine is marketed as a muscle builder and recovery but it’s actually good for the immune system, intestine and recovery from an intense workout. There’s no evidence that shows that it helps with muscle building.
Remember to keep yourself updated with as new studies get released over time. Don’t just rely on experts’ words on something that was said 10 years ago as new evidences could overthrow those results.
For example, we’ve read about how caffeine improves performance, increase strength and power but a recent preliminary research on rats say that you may not see the benefits in the work you’re doing because your body knows you’re on enhancement and it doesn’t give the physiology the same benefits when you’re not actually on caffeine anymore.
So do a little research before you spent your hard-earned money. Don’t get sucked into buying ‘miracle’ supplements. Remember the craze on the Green Coffee Bean? Research shows that it doesn’t not do anything to your body. It is completely exaggerated claims by the company.
There’s a difference between evidence-based benefits vs placebo effect. If something doesn’t actually work for you and you think it does, it can have a real effect on you and whatever it is you’re trying to do. So, it’s very dangerous for you to just listen to people who says that it works for them because if it works for them, it may not work for you. But if there’s scientific evidence that says it works, you can’t disprove it.
There’s also a ‘Nocebo’ effect which is a placebo effect which affects you negatively. Through Ben’s personal experience, he mentioned that the nocebo effect is very real and they can create pain in their clients in the form of negative talk. Many trainers overlook pain science but is necessary to understand it because you can negatively affect someone.
If you’re looking for supplements to help your performance:
- Creatine Monohydrate – It’s the cheapest form of creatine but it works. Do not go for fancy multicoloured packaging. Take 5gm a day.
- Caffeine – Be very careful with Caffeine. Caffeine pills are better because you know exactly the amount you’re taking. Coffee and other types of energy drinks is okay too. Do not take caffeine in the form of powder because the risk of overdosing is high and it will lead to a cardiac arrest. Take 3 – 6 mg per kg of your body weight. Start with a low dosage to high and see how it affects your body first because the more you take, the less effect it’ll have on your body.
- Protein – Whey Protein or plant-based protein.
If you’re looking for supplements to help your performance recovery:
- Fish oils – There has been some debunking of the extracted fishoils recently and the thought is now that it’s better to get them from eating more oily fish (salmon, mackerel, etc). This helps with lowering inflammation.
- Turmeric/ Curcumin – Decreases inflammation in the body.
- Vitamin C – Useful for the repair of muscles.
- Collagen Hydrolysate – Supplies amino acids like glycine, proline and lysine required by the body to build connective tissue to regulate cell growth. It will benefit hair, skin tissue, muscle, cartilage, ligaments and blood cell growth. A brand that he recommends is Great Lakes.
Get the Complete Audio of My Conversation with Ben About BJJ Exercises and Supplements Here
As well as a Youtube video (at the very top of this page) I also turned this conversation into a episode on my podcast.
We covered everything above as well as a few other topics (like cutting weight) that didn’t make it into this article.
(A subscription, rating, and review on whatever podcast platform you use is always super appreciated!)
Alternately you can listen to the discussion in the embedded player here: