Ten Exercises for Guard Players
With so many demands and positions in BJJ, it can get overwhelming trying to figure out which exercises apply to a particular part of your game. Today we’ll examine 10 movements in the weight room that directly apply to playing guard. Keep in mind, this list is in no particular order, and it is hardly exhaustive.
1) Bulgarian Split Squat:
Working the legs in a unilateral fashion is a sensible practice in any strength training regimen - especially when many open guard positions in Jiu-Jitsu require each leg to work independently. Not to mention, establishing a grip with one hand while pushing with one leg has countless parallels to guard positions.
Begin this movement with the rear leg elevated at or just below knee-height. Aim to distribute as much weight as possible to the lead leg, and maintain a slight hinge to the hips to prevent arching the lower back. If you choose to load with a dumbbell, a contralateral load (opposite side of the working leg) will usually feel most natural.
As you descend, you may have to drift backwards slightly to ensure that weight remains distributed throughout the heel of the lead leg. As long as the heel remains on the ground, do NOT fear the knee “passing the toe.” This is a dated and misplaced stigma.
2) Hip Thrust
While terminal hip extension may not be ideal in most guard situations, it can certainly help with guard retention (think denying double-unders or stack passes).
Begin with your shoulder blades pressed against a stable anchor for your back. A hip thruster is ideal, but you can certainly use a sturdy bench or aerobic risers. If your shoulder blades are too low against the anchor, use an Airex pad to prop yourself a bit higher.
The top position is the most important part of this movement. Make sure that your shins remain vertical, which should prevent too much contribution from the quads or hamstrings. The most important cue, is to keep your head forward and ribs pulled down toward your hips. This will prevent lumbar hyperextension, which can go hand-in-hand with a pain response. It also facilitates a posterior pelvic tilt, which will maximize contribution from the glutes.
Use of the lats to keep your elbows glued to your sides is a great way to stay safe while on bottom. In reality, most pulling motions will have some direct transfer to pulling guard.
Begin at a dead hang, but be sure to keep the lats engaged. In simpler terms, even when the elbows are straight you want to keep your shoulders pulled away from your ears.
In an ideal world, the rep won’t be complete when your chin barely gets above the bar. Referencing our initial analysis of the movement, you should aim to get your elbows glued to your sides at the top of the motion. While this may be hard to see while performing the exercise, a good rule of thumb is to aim to pull the bar to your collar bone to complete the rep.
4) Hip Abduction Variations
Hip abduction is found in many open guard variations, and is crucial for pummeling and guard retention. I would argue it is also one of the most overlooked movement patterns in the weight room.
Shown is a Band Seated Hip Abduction, one of the most straightforward ways to train this movement pattern. Wear a hip circle just above the knees, and begin with the feet 1-2 inches apart.
Drive out against the band, finishing the motion by rolling to the outside of your feet. This variation works best in a high-rep context (20+), and a noticeable burn should be felt in the glutes.
5) Inverted Row
Much like pull-ups, the inverted row makes use of bodyweight to train a pulling motion. This is sensible in any weight class based sport, and horizontal rows in particular help address the forward-shoulder posture that is prevalent in grapplers. One can set up this exercise on a Smith Machine (shown), with a barbell in a rack, or with rings/TRX straps.
The closer the bar/handles are to the ground, the more difficult this motion will be. Regardless of height, the setup should allow the arms to fully extend without the back making contact with the ground. Keep the glutes engaged, allowing the body to form a straight line and move as a single unit.
Draw the bar up to the mid/lower chest to keep the elbows from flaring too far away from the torso. Avoid looking at the bar, as this will usually cause the body to fall into a more concave shape, and prevent the body from moving as a single unit. Finish the position by drawing the shoulder blades together.
Outside of the obvious benefits of training the posterior chain, the concept of maintaining a strong grip while extending the legs can be found across many open guard variations (most notably spider guard). Given this analysis, the variation of the deadlift is not so important. We show the conventional deadlift here, but Sumo/Romanian - the list goes on - all fulfill the requirement. Find the variation that works best for you, and that allows you to train pain free.
Begin the conventional deadlift with the feet directly under the hips, and the hands directly under the shoulders. Limit how far the knees drift over the bar by adjusting the height of your hips (higher hips, knees further back and vice versa). Keep the lats engaged to ensure that the bar doesn’t drift away from the body. The bar should begin, and remain, over the mid foot throughout the entire movement.
Complete the motion by driving through the floor until the hips are directly underneath the shoulders. The arms should remain straight throughout the movement, and the spine neutral.
7) Rice Bucket
While this exercise can certainly increase endurance of the forearm muscles, we believe the greatest benefit is improved health and function of the hands. Without good grips, our guard becomes much easier to pass.
In the picture shown, we use 20 lbs of dry rice in a paint bucket. The rice adds resistance to any motion of the hand and wrist, so be sure to train every motion possible (especially the ones that are most difficult!). We generally begin our athletes with closed-fist variations, and progress to open-finger fanning. Examples of motions you can perform:
- Radial/Ulnar Deviation
- Wrist Flexion/Extension
- Flexion/Extension of the fingers (extension is particularly important to maintain balance between the muscles of the forearm)
8) DB Floor Press
Upper body pushing motions can definitely augment guard retention. Using the floor as a base to push from mimics the positions you will likely push from in training and competition.
Begin with dumbbells directly above the elbows, with the elbows positioned within 45 degrees of the torso. To help with this position, feel free to slightly angle the dumbbells as shown. To prevent the use of leg drive, perform the motion with the legs fully extended. If this bothers your back, however, feel free to place the feet flat on the ground.
Complete the motion by pressing the dumbbells directly over the shoulders. However, make sure that your shoulder blades remain pinched together, and your shoulder joint remains in contact with the ground. Too much protraction of the scaps is NOT a good position to press from.
9) B-Stance Squat
While playing guard, we require the ability to generate force while in deep knee flexion. A simple regression of the movement shown is to use a dumbbell held in the goblet position, or even simply bodyweight.
Begin with the bar placed in a high-bar position (across the traps on the upper back). The target leg will face forward, and have the entire foot flat on the ground. The non target leg will be staggered (with the toe as far back as the heel of the other foot). It will also have far less weight distributed to it, and the heel will never touch the ground.
Maintain the majority of your weight through the heel of the lead leg. This is a unilateral variation much like a lunge, where we will attempt to use the rear leg as little as possible. Do NOT completely relax at the bottom, especially throughout your torso. Keep the spine braced, and if necessary you can elevate the heel of the lead leg to help keep the back neutral.
10) Frog Pump
Training hip extension while abducted and externally rotated applies to various open guards, with De La Riva coming to mind in particular. Not to mention, the higher rep scheme that is often used while prescribing this exercise works well to train endurance of these muscles.
Begin with heels driving into each other and down into the ground. The knees will NOT be as far apart as possible, allowing the individual to achieve a greater Range of Motion. A forward head posture will help promote a posterior pelvic tilt, so many choose to prop the head with a bosu ball or towel.
Drive the hips into full extension, while making sure to keep the ribs pulled down. Focus on squeezing the glutes at the top, and as soon as they touch the ground immediately begin the next rep. Since the goal is to promote metabolic stress, we want to avoid spending too much time on the ground between each rep. People with a poor mind muscle connection to the glutes may not feel the efficacy of this exercise at first, so spend time performing the Abduction variations mentioned previously until the connection has been improved. Happy training!