In Jiu Jitsu, your core strength and conditioning is paramount to your success on the mats. Just about every movement extends from the core or uses muscles that form part of the core. For example, from standing, every throw, takedown, sprawl utilises the core. Every use of your hips (e.g. shrimping, hip bumps), each escape, every submission and just about all movement that generates any leverage, whether you’re on top or bottom, stems from the core. So if your core is weak, you are going to have problems when rolling and your Jiu Jitsu is not going to grow at the rate you expect or want.
You may not be aware but the core is not just about the “six pack” (e.g. Rectus Abdominus). It is much more than that and especially for BJJ. The core includes obliques (internal and external), your lower back muscles and deep postural and stability abdominal muscles (e.g. the Transverse Abdominis or Transversus, Psoas and Iliacus). The main purpose of the Rectus Abdominis is flexion of the torso, think of the ‘sitting up’ portion (e.g. when you transition to the Sit Up Guard or actually just get off a chair). It is also the muscle that you see pressing out, making up the ‘six pack’ bulge. At either side of the Abdominis Rectus sit the external and internal obliques. Together these muscles provide rotational movement as well as stability, both are absolute necessities for all movements and transitions in Jiu Jitsu. Unknown to most practitioners, the Transverse Abdominis is the deepest muscle that runs under the abs and is in use in each and any movement your body makes. In fact, studies have shown that this muscle actually fires up before nearly any other muscle to provide overall stability, no matter what movement you make in the gym or academy. Other than supporting the body with proper posture and stability, a strong core can eliminate lower back pain and dramatically improve recovery after rolling as well.
Why Strengthen Your Core For Jiu Jitsu?
Another of the core’s functions is to transfer strength and power throughout the body. It is your link between your lower and upper body, while also providing stability throughout movement. As examples, when you are attempting an Armbar or trying to finish a Triangle Choke, a strong and well trained midsection will transfer power from other muscles in your body to the part of your body that is required most in the movement to finish the particular submission. This is true not just for Jiu Jitsu but all sports and fitness activities. Put simply, it is important to have a strong, stable and functional core and doing so will give you more leverage, and make you far more powerful and explosive. Not to mention, there is a certain level of satisfaction to have a ripped, muscular looking midsection to be proud of.
However, many people have a very limited knowledge of how to strengthen their core and perform exercises that are effective at stimulating those muscles for growth. Our past surveys indicated that the average Jiu Jitsu practitioner usually opts for a few sets of sit ups or crunches at the end of their training session, and that is the extent of their routine for core work. Doing some repetitions of sit ups once a week won’t help you get a strong core. And whilst some may say “do Jiu Jitsu to get better at Jiu Jitsu” this is a fallacy for those that want to improve their game faster (e.g. not take ten years to make blue belt) and become more effective and efficient on the mats, particularly in competition. Doing the right exercises using simple but effective equipment to rigorously stimulate strength and muscle growth in the core muscles groups is what gets results quickly.
Unfortunately the fitness industry has become “six pack” obsessed resulting in dubious equipment companies flooding the market with ridiculous and pointless contraptions that are meant to “shred your abs”. Remember the electronic abs belt or the gigantic ab crunching machines that takes up half the room? Check out a late night home shopping channel and you will be sure to see one of these absurd devices with the salesman pitching outrageous claims about what these devices can do without probably even a clue of how they actually work or exercise in general. Honestly, these devices do not work in the long run and are certainly not what you need for Jiu Jitsu. They may help a small percentage of the population get off the couch (which isn’t a bad thing) but most promote laziness and makes people believe that they can get a “six pack” with zero effort.
How to Strengthen Your Core For Jiu Jitsu
So what exercises and what equipment do you need to work on your core for Jiu Jitsu. Well, it’s quite simple and cheap at the end and that’s the beauty of it. Don’t go spending hundreds of dollars when you can buy the best core workout equipment for under $30.
We recommend a well designed 15 minute routine using an ab roller (aka ab wheel, ab carver) about 2-3 times a week. That’s pretty much all you need to work every muscle in your core. And we recommend doing the exercises at the end of your rolls or workouts so you don’t pre-fatigue your core before class or a session on the mats.
So let’s run through how the ab roller works and how to make the most of it to supplement your Jiu Jitsu training. Then we’ll run through what to look out for when buying an ab roller as there are some good ones and not so good ones to avoid.
The Abdominal Roller/Wheel
Ab rollers have been around for years and most good gyms will have them available (see pic to the left to see what they look like). However, most Jiu Jitsu academies still don’t have them available for students as most instructors still don’t fully understand the benefits and uses (which is why we wrote this post). Ab wheels are extremely cheap and most good ones can be purchased for $20-$30 only. They not only work the abdominals, but they strengthen the whole body as you will see in the video below.
Now here is how you use one.
Knees Down Ab Wheel Rollouts
When starting out it is best to begin training rollouts from the knees as they can be very challenging, even for advanced trainees. With your glutes and abs engaged, roll yourself out until your body creates a straight line, rollout as far as possible and hold that position for a few seconds. When you are ready, slowly roll back to the starting position. Quality of each rep is more important than the number of repetitions performed. Do this exercise slowly and under control while forcefully contracted your abdominals. Watch the video below from the always awesome Marcos Silva to see exactly how it’s done.
Here are some additional tips:
- Your arms should be locked out when gripping the wheel. Your shoulders should be packed and your lats should be tight. Tense your glutes hard for the duration on the drill.
- Perform a slight posterior pelvic tilt and lock your abs down. Your spine will be slightly flexed past neutral and you should be sure to maintain that position throughout the exercise.
- Go as far as possible while maintaining a good spine position. If you cannot maintain the start position, decrease how far you roll out.
When you are comfortable with the Knees Down Ab Wheel Rollout (e.g. you can do 3 sets of 20 reps with perfect form), you can then progress to the Standing Ab Wheel Rollouts. We will make another post about that in a couple of months.
What Ab Roller To Use
Not all ab rollers/wheels are made equal. You can actually pick up one at Walmart for $10 but we don’t recommend them as you will no doubt run into issue and they simply won’t last. Here are the 3 things to look out for in an ab roller:
- Rubber wheels or tracks – the wheels should be made of rubber and not plastic. Rubber wheels will mean the ab roller won’t slip and will provide additional stability. And of course, you can use the wheel on the mats as well.
- Foam or padded handles are required to give you extra grip and they will provide comfort whilst performing the exercises. This is essential for good form and not to further destroying your hands (e.g. as if Jiu Jitsu doesn’t do enough damage to our fingers already).
- High quality materials will mean that the ab roller will last your entire Jiu Jitsu journey. Plus it means the whole school can use it too if you plan on sharing it with your training partners.
The ab roller that we use is the BIO Core Ab Roller from Epitomie Fitness. It’s the best made ab wheel for under $30 and it’s pretty much the only one that ticks all the boxes and more. You can actually pick one up on Amazon.com.
So now that you know the benefits of working your core, the exercises to perform and the equipment to use, you best get training and start working that gut. Say goodbye to high repetition sit ups and crunches. It’s time to get strong by using an ab roller. All of your strength and power comes from your core, so if you are weak there you are simply setting yourself up to fail.
And lastly, apart from all the functional advantages discussed in this post, having a strong core will also decrease risk of injury, improve mobility and agility, make you faster as well as make you more powerful and efficient on the mats. So it’s pretty much a no brainer to add the ab roller to your training regime.