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 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.