Upper Body Strength Training for BJJ – Garage Strength

Upper Body Strength Training for BJJ

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a fighter’s sport. It is a combat sport. It requires supreme technique and a ton of mat time to perfect chokes, submissions, and kinesthetic awareness in numerous positions. It is a sport that requires deft movement, strength from odd angles, and a positional awareness that is nearly unrivaled. The move set-ups are more intricate than the board game Go and require a strategy more advanced than chess. BJJ is legit.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Strength

All BJJ athletes know that grip strength is of the utmost importance within the combat sport. The athletes and coaches also know that technique matters a hella mega-ton, especially in a sport with so many contralateral movements. But athletes and coaches also know there are minor ways through strength, power, and explosiveness to gain an advantage when all other things are equal.

We want to share a few upper body exercises that will take athletes’ BJJ performance capabilities to a heightened level. Let’s take a look.

4. Alternating Jump Lunge With Banded Lat Swing

Tie a band to a pull up bar. We recommend using PowerLastic bands to perform this exercise. Think about being in a stance, as if in a lunge. The idea is to do a lat swing simultaneously with the jump lunge. The arm that is pulling the band down is on the same side as the leg moving backwards in the lunge. It is a dynamic movement. Pause in the lunge with the band taught.

Be quick with the movement into the hold and squeeze. Think about being heavy on the head when performing the movement. Squeeze the gut, lats, and reinforce through the mind and body that everything is connected through the trunk. The movement will help offensively, in the guard, and being heavy on the head through being explosive and coordinating the trunk with the lats. Just be sure to get the band tension to full lockout to maximize carryover onto the mat.

3. Towel DB Row With Banded Press

It has been our experience that athletes in BJJ tend to train endurance all the time. The problem with always doing endurance is that athletes end up super-super skinny and lack explosiveness and a solid grip.

We like using a towel to mimic a Gi and help improve grip. On top of that, doing contralateral work is a key behind BJJ strength. The sport almost always has athletes pushing and pulling to get the opponent off balance.

To perform this movement, one arm will be pushing forward with a band. The other arm will grip a towel looped around a dumbbell to perform the row. The movement is performed standing. Basically, while one arm presses forward with the band, the other arm is performing an upright row, thus training contralateral movement. Make sure to switch which arm is rowing and which arm is pressing.

This movement will also really cause a feeling in the gut. Athletes can do all the crunches they want for isolated ab work. However, with BJJ, we need to do explosive style movement to optimally transfer the strength work and ab work to dominating on the mat.

2. DB Bench Press With Banded Pull Down

We love this movement because of the push and pull aspect. In combat sports there are a lot of instances in which pulling and pushing occur simultaneously. It is key to train such contralateral movements in the gym.

The key to performing this movement is to first make sure it is set up properly. Make sure the band is nice and taut and in reach. Have the dumbbell nice and tight into the body. The big factor is to make sure to squeeze the abs and squeeze the upper back. Stay nice and tight! Then go ahead and pull and push at the same time.

Start with the weak side on the push and the dominant side of the pull. Make sure to train both sides. The key factor is to try to feel the position of pushing and pulling. This will help with pummeling or when in guard and trying to move someone away. Try to really focus on the muscles in the gut and the big power being put into the dumbbell as if it is the opponent.

1. Towel Pull-Ups Looped Through Rings

This movement will help improve an athlete’s grip, no matter which grip is used, and help develop muscle coordination within the upper body to blow up an athlete’s mat strength.

The towel can be looped around anything to perform the pull ups but looping the towel between the rings makes the body focus on holding more tension. One thing with this movement is that it isn’t always necessary to go into a full lockout. There is benefit to having more tension in the lats with the arms not going into full lockout at the bottom. Focus on pulling the top of the towel into the sternum.

Athletes in BJJ need to be doing towel pull-ups at least three days a week. One day do two sets to failure. On another day do five to seven sets of five to ten reps. That third day do four sets weighted. Towel pull-ups will improve the lats, improve the grip, improve trunk control, and help athletes dominate on the mat.


BJJ is a grappling sport that demands an explosive core, a gorilla grip, and the ability to be strong performing contralateral movements--the ability to push and pull simultaneously. Training these aspects in the upper body is beneficial to heightening athletic ability levels on the mat. Make ample use of bands and dumbbells in training, specifically performing movements like the alternating jump lunges with banded lat swings, towel db row with banded press, and the db bench press with banded pull downs. Couple these movements with towel pull-ups three times a week and be amazed at the progress that takes place on the mat. Now get on the mat and make an opponent submit!


Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.

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