There’s an age old argument for how to lift for jiu-jitsu. Personally, I’ve hired several coaches to help me over the years and for the most part, they all say different things. Mostly it’s a matter of training philosophy –Even personal trainers who have jiu-jitsu experience will give you different answers across the board. After a ton of trial and error, I have my own regimen based on the experience I’ve gained hiring different trainers as well as how I apply it on the mats and works well specifically for me.
One part of this regimen is how I train my arm flexion.
Arm flexion is needed in many movements such as the clinch, the guillotine, the underhook, etc. Most people will train arm flexion with bicep curls and pull ups but there are a few muscles that I focus on much more to help with the various jiu-jitsu movements. Essentially what I’m looking for are the following benefits:
-More stability of the elbow joint
-Stronger rotation of the forearm and stronger flexion with rotation
-A dangerous guillotine
There are a few oft-neglected muscles in the arm that are necessary for performing many techniques in jiu-jitsu. In order to understand why this is all important, I’ll lay out some basic anatomy and physiology. I won’t go too deep here since this is not my wheelhouse, but here are some of the basics that we’ll need for the scope of this article:
Biceps: Biceps brachii will connect from the scapula to the forearm, crossing two joints. The main jobs are to flex the forearm (bring hand, palm up to your shoulder) as well as supinate the forearm (rotate your thumb laterally/away from your body. Think: giving a thumbs up).
Biceps are usually trained and isolated by curling weight or any other arm flexion with palms facing upward (supinated).
Brachalis and Brachioradialis: The Guillotine muscles
In a deeper part of the arm, kind of underneath the biceps you’ll find the Brachalis. The muscle connects from the lower part of the humerus to the upper part of the forearm (connects at the rounded head (tuberosity) of the ulna). The main goal of this muscle is flexion and if worked out, will make your forearms look HUGE. That’s an aside for the folks who care about aethetics. For our purposes here, what we’re looking at is the ability to flex the elbow. The Brachialis differs from the biceps Brachii in that
a) it isn’t involved in the supination/pronation of the forearm and
b) it doesn’t connect to the radius bone. These facts suggest that the brachialis is actually a MUCH STRONGER forearm flexor than the biceps (Max POWER!)
Brachialis is usually trained by curling weight or any other arm flexion with palm neutral (think: holding a hammer –thumb points in direction opposite elbow)
Brachioradialis is the muscle that connects from the lower end of the humerus (near the elbow) to the distal part of the radius (near the wrist). The main job is to flex the arm primarily when the hand is pronated (rotate thumb medially/towards the body. Think: Giving a thumbs down). This is important to distinguish because when we guillotine someone, our hands are in a much more pronated position than a supinated position (almost not at all supinated). Should also note here that the brachioradialis does NOT pronate the forearm, the Pronator Teres does (so must train this too). The brachioradialis simply helps with flexion when the wrist is pronated –that is all.
Another function of the brachioradialis is to help stabilize the elbow joint. Training this muscle, therefore, is important for elbow health.
This muscle is primarily trained with the arm being flexed with palms pronated because of how the biceps brachii is not as engaged in pronation. This is the meat of this article since the hands are neutral or pronated during a guillotine choke.
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So why is this article important for you, the grappler?
Too many people will place emphasis on the biceps and not give any extra love to the brachialis and brachioradialis. This is fine if what you’re looking for is larger biceps (Though training the brachialis and brachioradialis will also better-define your arms). Personally, I only “body-build” for function. Meaning, if I’m going to place a high degree of emphasis on building a particular muscle, I want to make sure it serves a utility specific to jiu-jitsu.
When we only train the biceps, you are training a muscle that largely operates when you’re flexing the arm with the palm supinated. This challenge is that there are not many movements in jiu-jitsu that isolate arm flexion with the wrist supinated. I could argue that various clinch positions will involve supinated hands and bicep flexion BUT, this also uses a ton of lat and scapular connection. So essentially, when I think of a clinch position, I’m thinking of how the back and shoulders connect to the arms to keep a bent-arm isometric position in more of a “pulling towards you” motion. For these types of positions, I prefer to work isometric holds on chin-ups, close grip, that work into a slow eccentric motion (lower down slowly).
The guillotine is a bit different.
With the guillotine, there will be a degree of scapular and lat connection, however, it will be more based on flexion than a “pull”. In other words, once I lock my arms in place, the finish is largely flexion of the forearms towards my body in a lateral plane (sideways). We are not pulling anyone into us, but rather flexing our forearms up into the strangulation (hips are involved much more than the lats/back).
So how do I train this:
Below is an exercise I LOVE for training brachialis and brachioradialis. I’ll show a little love to the biceps since I train those too.
Bicep Curls on the Cable with a Rope attachment
Function of exercise:
My goal here is to operate the arm flexion on multiple planes (but mainly across my body). The reason why I prefer the cables over the bar is that the cables allow for a little extra non-linearity compared to the bar. Guillotines are rarely linear, especially with a person who is actively resisting so in my opinion, it is better to add a relatively dynamic component to the movement.
With the bar, your hands are fixed. In other words, there’s no real freedom to move. When grabbing the rope on a cable, there’s room for your fist to move in space. Note also, I’m using a cable. I use this as opposed to another accessory because I am trying to simulate the feel of a Gi. If you have a gi or a towel, you can also use that. Note here that yes, I understand guillotines are largely “NoGi” but I like the instability of cloth that will help strengthen my wrist as well.
A secondary goal of this is to help strengthen the stabilization of the elbow joint. Since the elbow and fist are free in space, the muscles that attempt to keep the arm steady have to work to keep things stable. Also, not only are you stabilizing the elbow, you are also stabilizing the wrist to keep a straight fist throughout the entire exercise. Note: Stabilization of ALL joints is important to keep things injury-free.
Some key notes for this exercise:
When I do this circuit, I like to do them in three directions.
- Straight in front of me
- Across my body left to right (as seen below)
- Across my body right to left
You can use double grips or a single grip (make sure it is overhand). I do both just depending on what I’m feeling –I don’t have a strict rule so long as I train this aspect.
At the top of every motion, I like to emphasize isometric tension. The reason here is that when attempting guillotines, you will likely be fighting against someone who is trying to pry your arm off. There are hundreds of other techniques and positions where you’ll have to develop isometric, bent-arm strength and this one is a prime example. Hold for as long as you can at the top, let down slowly. Also keep in mind, the guillotine is not a “fast-twitch” or explosive type exercise. It generally locks up quickly but the actual execution of the guillotine is a slow grind.
I also do regular bicep work (with palms up) for general flexion strength (complements the specific stuff we’ve discussed) and ALSO, balances out purely working the brachioradialis (need to have strong supination, not just pronation). but in my opinion, the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles are more important in jiu-jitsu because of the pronated/neutral position of the guillotine.
That being said:
PLEASE DO NOT NEGLECT THE BICEPS BRACHII
As mentioned earlier, all of these muscles work together for arm flexion and supination/pronation. You do not want any imbalances so I like to show a lot of love to both. After the above set, my biceps will be fatigued and they will be tight. My next step is going to be the incline bench for another quick superset.
The first movement is going to be a dumb-bell curl on the incline. The goal here is to get a big stretch in my biceps and work a bicep curl from a deeper range of motion (if doing it right, you’ll feel a little in the pec towards the shoulder where the bicep attaches. Lighter weight than you’re used to here).
The next movement is an easy, light-ish DB press on the incline. The goal here is just to work the triceps muscles antagonistically and get a little extra stretch in the biceps (Remember, the biceps and triceps work together with one flexing, the other extending.).
Last, I’ll do some DB raises on the incline with a much lighter weight, hands in the supinated position (palms up). This will also work the biceps and front delts through a deeper range of motion.
This is how I’ll tend to finish an arm workout (I schedule only arms after a sparring session).
As a BONUS: Also here’s an exercise often with a barbell: “Drag Curl” (Find it here at 7 minutes)
Making sure all of these muscles work in sync is a key component to keeping your arms healthy.