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.

Tips For Your First Jiu Jitsu Competition

Competitions are an amazing way to put what you’ve been learning into action, it can be tons of fun, rewarding…… and also make you a nervous wreck. Especially the first time.  Here are some tips to help you be ready to rock at competition.

1.  RELAX.

I can’t stress (no pun intended) this enough. It’s also one of the hardest thing to do. Especially the first time. You are standing on the mats and the person standing across from you is mean-mugging you while their friends and family are cheering and screaming á la Cobra Kai “PUT HIM IN A BODY BAAAAG!” …..well….maybe not that last part, but, I know my first competition I was a nervous wreck.  I was watching the matches before mine and thinking, “They look like they are trying to KILL each other… what was I thinking?!?”  Everyone is different so the way that I reacted to the pressure might not be the way you react, and that’s okay too, you just need to find your own personal zen.

Some people crank up the tunes before a match to chill out a bit, some people chat up their friends and family, and some people meditate, visualizing the match ahead of time every move, every step.  For me, I try to go into it looking at it like just another day on the mats training. Don’t get me wrong, I still get nervous, but as soon as I bump fists with my opponent a switch flips in my head and I am in the Jiu Jitsu zone, just like class, in my personal zen.

Just try to remember the person across from you might look cool and collected….or mean and rabid… but they are most likely just as nervous as you are… or even more! No joke.  And if you try to relax and go with it, you’ll have a better chance of hearing your coach in your corner telling you to hit that sweep or go for that sub! Not to mention…you might even have fun!

2. HYDRATE. HYDRATE. HYDRATE.

ESPECIALLY if you are cutting weight. And DOUBLE especially if it’s the first time you are cutting weight.  As a woman, I don’t need to worry about cutting weight as much. (There isn’t always a wide variety of weight classes for us ladies) But you want to be the best version of you possible, and that means fending off dehydration cramps mid match and being healthy!

3. K.I.S.S.

Keep. It. Simple. Stupid. Stick to what you know and have at least a rough idea of a game plan. Your first competition (or any competition for that matter) is NOT the time to try some flashy new move you found on youtube.  You’re best bet is to spend some time leading up to the competition drilling what you know the best and working on any trouble spots you’ve identified.  Your match will most likely not be predictable and you should keep an open mind to go with whatever is thrown your way. Don’t go crazy over analyzing ahead of time….otherwise you can’t RELAX!

4. “There is no losing in Jiu Jitsu. You only win or you learn.” – Carlos Gracie Jr.

Don’t fret about the outcome of the match.  You will either be successful and maybe take home some hardware, or you will learn some valuable lessons you can take back home to the mats and work on.  Competing is the best way to see the holes in your game. I personally get more value out of losing in a tough match, than the medal around my neck when I win.

You’ll be nervous. You’ll be going through adrenaline rushes and crashes and it will show you just what you need to work on! The next time you come back, you’ll be a better version of you! And that’s pretty awesome.

 5. Lastly, Have FUN.

Don’t forget that you are there to do the thing you love! Jiu Jitsu! Cheer on your teammates, make some new friends, and feel the energy all around you!  Competitions can be a super fun and rewarding experience if you let it.  Seriously, go out there and have a ball.  Don’t stress about winning or hitting a specific move, just go out there and be you.