Jiu-jitsu, Lifting, and the Recovery Boogeyman

On the heels of the post from last week regarding Chad Wesley Smith, I thought I'd throw in my two cents on the topic of lifting and jiu-jitsu; specifically the recovery boogeyman. 

One thing about Smith's comments that I focused on was the frequency of his lifting while training jiu-jitsu, and the fact that he could still lift big numbers; squatting in the 700s, although below his all-time best, is still squatting in the 700s. 

It's important to focus on that because for whatever reason, there is a segment of the jiu-jitsu community that looks at lifting (and strength and conditioning generally) as this taboo thing, or, at the very least, should be greatly limited.  Why?  Because of the recovery boogeyman.  People get so concerned about their recovery that suddenly any level of lifting is "too much". 

That's not to dismiss the importance of adequate recovery.  However, the concerned is misplaced, and tends to lead to rather absolutist positions grounded in nothing more than one's opinion.  For instance, I recently on the interwebs and read on a comment thread about strength and conditioning for jiu-jitsu that you should not squat more than once per week.  Cannot be done because you will not be able to recover.  And I have to say, I agree with this.  Well, I mean, I did agree with the notion that a person cannot squat more than once per week and train jiu-jitsu.  Well, that is until, you know, I actually tried to squat more than once per week. 

And this is my primary problem with the approach to lifting that many in the jiu-jitsu community has; you don't know whether you will be able to recover until you try.  In the meantime, because the recovery boogeyman lurks in the minds of many, people do not do adequate volume and therefore do not make progress.  Yes, there are limits to what you can do, and I am not talking about squatting in the 700s like Smith, but just making progress on your lifts. 

Along those lines, I think one of the problems people have when it comes to lifting while training jiu-jitsu is the use of what I call cookie-cutter programs.  That is, programs that have weights/sets/reps all laid out ahead of time.  The problem is the number of variables impacting recovery are so great, especially when you are involved in two high stress activities like jiu-jitsu and lifting, it's hard to know what you will be capable of doing in terms of lifting (or jiu-jitsu, for that matter).  What's the solution?  Well, in my experience, it's incorporating auto-regulation.

Recovery and Auto-regulation in a Nutshell

As a caveat, I do not profess to be an authority on matters of lifting; I am someone who has lifted for the better part of 12 years, and has read, listened to, watched, and, most importantly, tried a slew of things related to the topic.  I undertook doing this because while unable to train jiu-jitsu with any consistency for 9 months after the birth of my daughter, I decided to challenge some of the bro-science I myself had accepted as fact; namely that high frequency training isn't possible.  I did a Bulgarianish style program, and, after returning to a consistent jiu-jitsu training schedule, continued my high frequency training, keeping my programming securely tethered to the concept of auto-regulation. 

With that said, as I understand it, and for the purposes of this piece, recovery is the time necessary to allow the body to recuperate so that it can meet or exceed the demands of the next workout.  Several factors impact recovery, such as diet, sleep, physiological stressors, age, genetics, etc.  One of the biggest factors when lifting and training jiu-jitsu is training intensity and volume.  If you roll for two hours at a high intensity, you will need a longer recovery window than if you rolled for an hour at medium intensity, or an hour at low intensity and an hour at high intensity.  This problem gets compounded when you factor in lifting, which, like jiu-jitsu, can have varying degrees of volume and intensity. 

Whether you can recover is dependent on you.  There is no magical equation that can tell you whether or not workout A will be so taxing that you cannot perform workout A the next day.  You have to experiment a little bit.  However, because training volume and intensity are not the only two variables that impact recovery (again, diet, sleep, other stressors, etc.).  So, even if you adjust your training on day 1, because of those other factors, you might not be able to adequately recover for a lifting session the next day. 

How do you know and what do you do?  Well, you'll know the next day because you either will or will not be able to perform that workout.  What do you do?  Well, this is where I think auto-regulation is crucial

In terms of lifting, auto-regulation can come in handy. 

What is auto-regulation?:

"Autoregulation, simply put, is just a structured approach for embedding a respect for individual variation within a program.

In addition, autoregulation has a few other philosophical underpinnings:

  1. Your readiness to train, recovery status, and resultant performance is affected by a multitude of factors independent of your current training session that you may not have full control over (such as nutrition, sleep, mood state, prior training, menstrual cycle phase, emotional stressors etc.).

  2. Lifters themselves can become a reliable source of information regarding their own readiness to train and recovery-status if they are given the proper tools and training (which is an important “if”)."

Or put another way:

In the weight room, autoregulation is a focus on providing one the ability to adjust intensities (volume & percentage of 1-RM) accordingly to their present state, and embracing their current individual readiness for the stress at hand (programmed workout). It is not a set workout plan, but a way of approaching a workout to adapt progress and variations around one’s current state without causing excessive burnout or worse, injury.

Essentially, autoregulation is the feedback loop the weight (stress) provides our body and how we then interact with it in the moment. It’s a way to self-monitor what we can handle to the best of our ability in the smartest way possible.

In other words, rather than have a set lifting program with defined sets/reps/weights, you have a general plan for the day of what you want to accomplish (i.e., hypertrophy, strength, etc.), and allow your performance to dictate sets/reps/weights

(Note I did not write 'allow how you feel' to dictate your workout, and for more on that, listen to this interview with John Broz; the title should tip you off to something).

This is where I think the cookie-cutter programs can be a problem.  They are descriptive.  Your sets, reps, and weights are all laid out for you without much variance. 

Let's use the scenario where where your workout calls for you  to deadlift 5x5 @75%.  Doable?  What if last night your kid was up half the night, and you slept for 6 hours, but at 90 minute intervals?  Still doable?  What if you had a brutal jiu-jitsu session and you're toast?  Is 5x5 @ 75% doable?  If not, what are you going to do?

This is where we get back to the advice noted above; "listen to your body."  Okay, but how, and what does that even mean?  I am a proponent of basing your workout on how you are performing, not how you feel.  Why?  Because I've had days where I felt like absolute shit during the warm-ups, and then hit a PR, and I've also had days where I felt good, but a set or two into my working sets and the bar already felt heavy and I was struggling with sticking points.  In short; performance over self-perception. 

Some programs call for you to back the weight off by 10 pounds, or 10 percent, or some measure to allow you to complete the training session if you miss lifts or are unable to hit set/rep/weight targets for the day.  Fine, but why not program so that you don't get to that point of missing lifts and then subsequently backing the weight down?  Why not allow you warm-ups and early working sets dictate the rest of the sets/reps/weights?  To me that's like saying rather than fix the leak, we'll just keep a pump running non-stop to deal with the water.  Sure, you're keeping water from accumulating, but why not just fix the leak, or int he case of lifting, adjust the programming. 

Now, before Wendler fans burn my effigy, I am not opposed to cookie-cutter programs per se.  I think that they can help new lifters develop a foundation upon which to build their knowledge and experience.  The one draw-back with auto-regulation is that it takes a fair amount of experience and honesty to properly incorporate into one's programming:

That all being said, this is where it gets tough to truly use autoregulation and reap its full benefits. Gauging your daily state and the weights being imposed on the body is a skill, and it takes a fair amount of time to develop. It requires an understanding of reps and sets at multiple intensities for a long duration of time, along with the ability to be honest with yourself and separate emotional disparity from training.

However, all things being equal, I would not advocate rigid set/rep/weight schemes for anyone training jiu-jitsu with any regularity.  I just think there are too many variables that you cannot account for, and I do think that relatively new people can incorporate some auto-regulation into their programming. 

Your Volume is not my Volume, my Frequency is not your Frequency

How much volume one person can handle is dependent largely on that person and the variables and factors note above.  As such, I am not about to tell anyone that they have to keep their volume at a certain level.  Basically, if you cannot recover, then you're volume is probably too high; if you're not progressing on your lifts, then your volume is probably too low.  These are very general statements but the point is whether volume is "too much" is dependent on you and your performance. 

However, based on my experience, people can train jiu-jitsu on a regular basis and maintain a high level of volume.  I know this because I am one of them.  Before I get into that, let me first state this piece is not about periodization or anything along those lines, so I am not going to get into the nuances of that. 

However, I run a daily undulating periodization program that is focused on the squat.  The program followed a pretty simple set-up:

Day 1 - 8-12 reps x 4-6 sets @ 60-75% of 1RM

Day 2 - 4-6 reps x 4-6 sets @ 75-85% of 1RM

Day 3 - 1-3 reps X 4-6 sets @ 85-95% of 1RM

In addition, I deadlift once per week following the Day 2 set/rep scheme, with a variation (usually Romanian DL at 3 sets of 8) for a second session. Benching has been an issue because of a lingering shoulder issue, and I work in accessory on an as needed basis, but tend to keep it higher rep and lower intensity (it's accessory work after all).

To give you an idea of the volume of my lifting, here is a recent week for me (note, this does not include my deadlift day, or my accessory work):

Day 1: 305x12, 325x12, 340x10, 340x8

Day 2: 350X6, 375x6, 400x8 (I just wanted to see if I could hit 8 based on how I felt after 6), 365x6

Day 3: 405x3, 425x3, 440x3, 440x3

Again, I am not saying this is a level everyone should be at.  Some should do more, some less.  The point is the squatting volume for the week is nearly 30,000 lbs (which I've been told by some faceless dipshit on the internet that I actually can't do because, um, well . . . bro-science).  I am 38, with a full-time job, wife, kid, and all the joyous stresses that came with those things.  In addition, I train jiu-jitsu three times a week, lift 4 (some weeks 3 depending on life), and despite this volume and the variables that negatively impact my recovery, I am still able to recover and keep up this level of training.  

Now, I cannot hit this level every week for all the reasons discussed above.  Some weeks I get buried under weight I can usually handle, and other weeks I push through training cycle PRs, and auto-regulation aspect of this program has been instrumental in this--the set/rep/weight ranges that are dictated by how I am performing under the bar.  I usually go through the same warm-ups (sets of 10 at 135 and 225, a minimum three second pause squat at 275, and again at 315 and 365, depending on what day it is) and judge how the bar is moving.  How is the bar moving?  Am I hitting sticking points?

Then I get into my working sets, usually starting at or near the low end of the weight range, and do a working set.  Again, how is the bar moving?  Am I hitting sticking points?  Am I tired earlier in the set?  If I am having problems I'll stay at the same weight or go down if possible, or I will just stay near the low end of the set and rep ranges.

(As an aside, what I've described in the preceding two paragraphs is hinting at RPE, something I just started playing around, but don't have a solid grasp of incorporating into a program, so I am not going to delve into).

And one quick point about my frequency.  For whatever reason, I struggle squatting once per week.  When I've squatted with that frequency, I always felt as though I hadn't squatted in 6 weeks rather than 6 days.  Form felt like garbage, weights felt 10% heavier, etc.   Again, I am not suggesting people need to follow a high frequency programming, I am just highlighting the fact that notions that 'you cannot squat more than once a week an train jiu-jitsu' are not absolute truths.  And because those aren't absolute truths, a lot of the other notions about jiu-jitsu and weight lifting are not absolute truths.


If you're on a cookie cutter program and making progress and able to recover, good, don't change anything.  If you're struggling with recovery, or are able to recovery but not making progress on your lifts, you might want to adjust your programming.  However, because of the demands of jiu-jitsu, you might want to think about incorporating some level of auto-regulation into your program to avoid overtraining/injury/burnout/etc. 

Lastly, if you're training jiu-jitsu and are not currently on a strength program because you're concerned about the recovery boogeyman . . . stop worrying and start lifting.  Run one of those cookie-cutter programs.  You might run a program and find that it is too much and have to adjust the volume or intensity downward.  That's fine.  You haven't lost anything.  Those months you spent running a sub-optimal program you were learning what works, and what doesn't.  There's some trial and error that needs to happen in order for you to find out what works well for you.  But, you're never going to find that out unless you start.