It’s no secret that a strong core is one of the most important qualities of high-level grappling. It’s the ever so important component that generates and transfers power, stabilizes and flexes the spine, facilitates rotation, and more importantly with respect to BJJ, resists rotation. One of the great benefits of BJJ is that it significantly works and trains the core in a very functional way. With that said, there is no better training for BJJ than actual time on the mat. However here are three exercises you can do to develop and strengthen your core that will directly transfer to the mat.
First, lets look at the one of the primary functions of the core: spinal flexion. This simply means bending your spine forward like you would getting out of bed. Many experts in the health and fitness industry believe too much flexion of the spine can lead to lower back issues, such as, herniated discs, and therefore recommend against repetitive flexion exercises like crunches or sit-ups. We as grapplers get a ton of flexion work as it is playing from the bottom position, so adding in these types of exercises is overkill.
The better recommendation would be to practice low repetitions of the Turkish Get Up. This exercise (when done properly) forces a hard contraction of the core musculature, developing strength, while minimizing “over-use” issues from flexing the spine. A full write up on the benefits of Turkish Get Up can be seen here, as it has tremendous carry over to BJJ performance on the mat. As mentioned, low repetitions and heavier weight with perfect form are your best bet here.
Next, we’ll look at spinal stabilization, an extremely important function of the core musculature. Nearly all day your core is working to stabilize your spine in your body. Many times when the core muscles are weak or underdeveloped, stability of the spine is compromised and injury ensues.
The core should not be viewed in individual parts, ie the rectus abdominus (6-pack muscles), obliques (side stomach muscles), etc. and should not be trained in that way, ie. individually. The core actually includes all of the muscles of your midsection including those mentioned and also those of the lower back, upper glutes, deep core muscles near the spine, and even the lats.
All of the muscles of the core work together to stabilize the spine and should be trained together. Because these muscles must work for long periods of time to stabilize your spine, it’s best to train them for strength endurance with isometric movements. Exercises like planks and side plank holds are excellent options for this type of work, however there is a better option that not only trains core stabilization but also core anti-rotation; the pallof press.
The pallof press is an excellent option for grapplers for a few reasons. This exercise, as mentioned, hits two of the primary functions of the core, stabilization and anti-rotation, while being performed with a neutral spine. Core exercises featuring a neutral spine have gained popularity as of late for the exact reason why crunches and sit-ups have fallen by the wayside; they don’t promote injury-provoking flexion of the spine.
The pallof press requires the user to maintain a neutral spine while resisting rotation of the body. When enough resistance is used, all of the core musculature is activated including the glutes, low back, lats, and stomach muscles. In training, I’ve found the pallof press makes me much more stable on my feet in a passing position, and significantly helps me from being swept. This exercise can be performed using even tempo repetitions, isometric holds, and/or a combination of both.
Finally, the last core function we’ll cover is rotation. Simply put, rotation is a twisting of the torso. We can effectively work this movement through an extremely functional, with respect to BJJ, exercise called the sit-through. This exercise involves maintaining a tight core while rotating the lower body from a quadruped (hands and knees) position from left to right.
The reason this move is so valuable to the BJJ player is because it forces the user to maintain tension in the core while the heart and respiratory rates are elevated. Being able to maintain a tight core and breath deeply is a skill unto itself and needs to be practiced. This movement is excellent for passing and transitions on the mat, not to mention it develops excellent hip mobility, balance, coordination, and rotational abilities. Higher repetitions are suggested for this one, with an emphasis on speed and fluidity of movement.
Adding these three exercises to your arsenal will develop an extremely strong and functional midsection that will directly translate to your efforts on the mat. These exercises can be performed together in the core-training portion of your routine, or individually, on separate training sessions, which is a good recommendation to prevent injury and overtraining.
Again, with so much flexion of the spine involved with grappling, it’s a good idea to limit high-rep flexion based core exercises. Instead, make your core strong and resilient with these three exercises that will be sure to up your game on the mat.