Strength and Technique: Necessary or Sufficient for Jiu Jitsu Success?

I experienced the “technique vs. strength” debate almost immediately after starting my jiu jitsu journey because of my awesome “newb” strategy: grab whoever I rolled with and hold on for dear, sweet life. But I didn’t want to be “that way” so I listened when a good training partner gently suggested that I would learn more from literally letting go. So what my technique was horrible? Failing and getting passed/submitted would teach me more than clinching to save myself.

My game has evolved since then, but it seems the strength discussion really hasn’t. In my understanding, the argument goes something like this, “strength makes the difference between people of similar experience and technique” and/or “superior size and strength makes up for a modest skill deficit.” This is certainly a reasonable argument — I know I’ve used the little muscle I have to make up for some bad technique. But I think it’s time to re-frame the question– to let it go so it can evolve too.

So here’s my suggestion: break the question into two parts. First, are strength and technique necessary conditions for “success” in BJJ? Second, are they sufficient? Success means different things to different people. For the sake of discussion, I’ll define success as being competitive in local-level grappling meets. Moving on.

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Success in (sportive) BJJ

We know intuitively that there’s a difference between what you need to achieve and what’s nice to do in life. The things we need to get done on our way to our goal are necessary conditions. For example, if I want to get more money for the work I do, I need to keep my job.

Generally, keeping my job means showing up and doing my work, but just tuning in my work is isn’t going to convince someone to pay me more, so showing up is necessary, but not sufficient do my goal. Sufficient conditions are the things or circumstances that guarantee the outcome we want. These are tougher to pin down. It’s also very, very rare that any one necessary condition is also sufficient to achieving success. You may show up to work, but still get fired for reasons beyond your control.

Now, turn jiu jitsu your job. “Is technique necessary for success?” I’m fairly certain anyone reading this is going to answer yes, but if you are unsure, you could always ask former Mr. Utah Lance Batchelor how he feels about the subject. Showing up to class, learning technique, and sparring is like showing up and doing your work. You have to do it. This doesn’t mean that technique is sufficient for winning your local tournament, but your probability of success is next to zero if you have no training of any sort and regardless of other factors like strength. Technique is necessary, but not sufficient.

Is strength necessary or sufficient for success in BJJ? BJJ Life blogger Peter Baker thinks it’s at least necessary. Baker points out times when being stronger can certainly help you, but it struck me that his suggestions for the guard and being in side control referred to techniques that were necessary to use the strength. If you don’t know sweeps, having powerful legs won’t help much when you have someone in guard. It won’t hurt, but it won’t help.

If you aren’t able to maintain the guard, you end up in the next position, bottom side control. In the best case scenario your strength gets you out of side control if there’s a scramble and you are agile. But in sportive BJJ, escaping side control to a neutral position gets you a 3-0 deficit. If you win the scramble and get credit for a sweep somehow (this requires an actual sweep since there are no points for escapes or reversals), you’re still down 3-2. This still doesn’t show that strength isn’t necessary, but it certainly isn’t sufficient for success. To decide if it’s necessary you have to ask whether someone with no additional strength training could learn jiu jitsu and succeed.

Here’s what Master Helio Gracie had to say:

The Jiu-Jitsu that I created was designed to give the weak ones a chance to face the heavy and strong. It was so successful that they decided to create a sportive version of it. I would like to make it clear that of course I am in favor of the sportive practice and Jiu-Jitsu, based on rules and time limits, which benefits the heavier, stronger, and more athletic individuals.

The primary objective of Jiu-Jitsu is to empower the weak who, for not having the physical attributes, are often intimidated. My Jiu-Jitsu is an art of self-defense in which rules and time limits are unacceptable. These are the reasons for which I can’t support events that reflect an anti Jiu-Jitsu (quote courtesy of Syracuse Jiu Jitsu).

Clearly, jiu-jitsu was created to make strength insufficient for success. I’m going to do something dumb and try to push his argument farther. The quote conveys that the rules and time limits seem to favor bigger, stronger, and more athletic individuals.

I can see how they could– for example, a stronger competitor gets an advantage and is able to maintain his/her position using strength for the length of a match– but my discussion of scoring suggests that technique weighs heavier on the outcome. It’s at least unclear whether rules and time limits favor the strong. If you ask me (and you are reading my blog), strength is neither necessary nor sufficient. In fact, technique enables strength to become an advantage– it is necessary for using strength effectively.

The Only Sure Thing in Life (Even More Than Taxes)

I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in pushing the strength and technique discussions in a new direction, but I will close with something I hope you’ll think about. We all start our jiu jitsu journey with different athletic backgrounds and natural strength endowments. We may also have different reasons for starting and different destinations. Yet, there’s one thing that we all have in common when we start– we age and our strength declines.

Even if you very strong, at some point in life strength will fail. Strong tendons will become brittle and snap. Muscles atrophy and muscle fibers will become shorter. Bones lose their density. Conditioning will become less effective because the body will replace muscle tissue with fat. In short, it’s going to suck. This is why I sincerely hope strength is not necessary in jiu jitsu. If it is, then the journey will have to end sooner rather than later.

The Three Ways We Learn: Jiu Jitsu Edition

We are always learning whether we are conscious of it or not. However, we will get the most of our jiu jitsu journey if we are more aware of the ways in which we learn and how they work together.

Let’s do this!

Hey! My name is Michael and this is my first blog post. I’ve trained jiu jitsu for two years and recently earned my Blue belt under Jon “White Trash” Friedland at Neutral Ground Milwaukee. For work, I teach international politics at UW-Milwaukee where I finished my dissertation last year. I also have the same learning/teaching philosophy I had as a ten year old. That last part is the important part and what I want to share with you now.

I played organized football for the first time in 5th grade. That year and every year until high school, our coach ended the season with the same damn speech. So for four years I heard Coach tell the team that people learn three ways in life: the books we read; the people we talk to and the questions we ask; and experience, or “the school of hard knocks.” 20 years later I’ve realized that this applies in life, at school, and especially on the mats.

What We Read and Who We Meet

Reading books seems the least applicable to BJJ, but we still do something like it. You’re doing it right now reading this blog. How many white belts have hated not knowing how to tie their belts and looked it up on YouTube? We have online resources, ebooks, blogs, and even things on paper like magazines and, well, books. This type of learning uses secondary sources of information. Secondary sources can be great—they are plentiful and relatively easy to obtain—but they have accompanying weakness. Recognize that secondary sources are someone else’s analysis of a problem or interpretation of events. When you use this type of information, actively think about what you are seeing or hearing or reading and always consider the source. Question the information. In academia there are journals, Journals, and JOURNALS—the better the journal, (hopefully) the more confident we can be about the information. Evaluating the quality of jiu jitsu resources can be tricky, and even if we are confident that we have useful information, it is best to look for corroborating sources. I’d strongly suggest pairing secondary source research with another learning method.

For example, if I am having trouble with the pendulum sweep, I could look up Jon “White Trash” Friedland’s YouTube video on the technique before trying it again, but I could also ask him. Everyone in the gym / dojo with you can be a resource if you let them. Very few people I have encountered are uncomfortable answering questions or giving you their take, but I’d guess that people other than your instructor or training partner on a given day would be much slower to offer information. So ask questions! Your brothers and sisters love jiu jitsu. They love talking about it and training. And of course, ask your instructors. Not asking robs you of an opportunity to evaluate what you know and what you gathered from secondary sources, and ultimately impedes your growth. Talking and asking questions is a form of primary source research. You are “conducting the interview” and interpreting the information you get. Still, this type of learning requires that you interpret what others have learned.

The School of Hard Knocks

When Coach gave the Three Ways We Learn speech, his goal was to encourage his young athletes to stay in school and listen to their teachers in order to avoid making regrettable decisions down the road. For us “the school of hard knocks” is the most effective, though toughest, way we learn. How many times have I decided to lie down for a short nap before class and not wake up? Enough to learn not to do it. Because of what I do for work, I think of this type of learning as experimentation. I observe myself getting my guard passed, swept, submitted, and so on and I want to change that, but I have to keep getting passed, swept, and submitted until I learn what question to ask. Asking the right question is hard because you have to understand the problem before you can look for secondary sources and ask others.

Sparring becomes the actual test of what you’ve gathered. Getting on the mat, experimenting, and modifying what you’ve gathered from other sources shows you what works and what does not for you. Later, ask for feedback. You’ll often learn that you’ve asked the wrong question and started down a different path. It helps to keep a jiu jitsu journal as a record of all your experiments, especially the failures. We all know this, but it’s worth repeating that we learn as much from our failures as our success. Most importantly, keep repeating the experiments even after you “solve” the immediate problem because jiu jitsu is always evolving.

Keep Your Eyes Wide

It’s funny how things change. In grade school I thought Limp Bizkit lyrics were profound and rolled my eyes at Coach’s speech every year. Now Limp Bizkit is a punchline, and I think about Coach and learning every day. None of this is revolutionary, but I hope this my thoughts help you become more aware of how and when we learn in jiu jitsu. It’s going to happen anyway, but I’d argue that we get more from the journey if we actively pursue all three.