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View from the Clinch: Fighter Eddie Bravo's Fitness Wisdom

By James Parker

There are as many master instructors of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as there are schools to learn it from. One of the most famous American born BJJ practitioners is Eddie “The Twister” Bravo, innovator in a style called 10th planet, which is also the name of his school in Hollywood. Eddie holds a black belt under Jean-Jacques Machado and is probably made most famous in the BJJ world from his win by triangle choke over Royler Gracie at the 2003 Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling Championships. Eddie is also infamous for his unique, and often complex, interpretations of BJJ. He uses terms like “rubber guard,” “twister,” and “mission control” to explain to his students various positions to either set up submissions or take control of an opponent. I interviewed him to get his perspective on the kinds of training a fighter needs to be prepared, and in particular, what muscle groups need the most work. I've put his remarks together with some exercises designed to hit the areas and issues he identifies.

When asked about the types of exercises he did to prepare for or even excel at BJJ, Eddie admits with a shrug, “Back then we just did Jiu-Jitsu, it hadn’t evolved to where it is now." But Eddie readily admits that in today's world of mixed martial arts, that might no loner be enough. So what muscles or areas of the body does Eddie feel are the most important to work on? Not surprisingly, the whole body needs work, but if we narrow it down we find three main areas that can be worked in addition to our regular routines.

Defending the Clinch
“Simply put," Eddie says, "the clinch is a way of controlling your opponent with your arms." It's the key to BJJ. And so it's no surprise that, when asked to pick the most important areas that need strengthening for the defense and control of the clinch, Eddie pounced on chest/triceps/rear deltoid strength—the "pushing" muscles. As Eddie says, “Using the pushing muscles can allow you not only to defend your position, but keep your opponent from cementing his by forcing his arms or body to move towards your areas of strength.” They are the key to defense and to setting the stage for a successful offense.

Many people would gravitate to the bench press to work these pushing muscles. But you might consider using Bosu and stability ball push-ups and presses instead. The position of the bench can interfere with scapula rotation during reclined pressing. During the push-up, on the other hand, there is nothing to restrict those muscle’s movements, which can relieve pressure from other joints. Using a stability ball as a replacement bench when doing dumbbell presses can also solve this problem. Furthermore, as a martial artist, you want to train in as many ways as you can that enhance the strength under balance you find in your particular style. Using equipment that gives you a fluid base instead of a solid one engages muscles in new ways, even when doing exercises that used to be familiar and easy.

On The Offense
In our conversation, Eddie next turned to the opposing muscles to those used for defense. If defending the clinch is most important, then it stands to reason that controlling it would be a close second. “Pulling for the clinch," Eddie explains, "can involve grabbing the head, neck, arms, and in the case of the 'rubber guard', pulling your own leg over your opponents back.” Sometimes this strength and endurance can stifle an opponent so severely that he won’t notice the shifting of the hips that signals doom.

Obviously, all back and biceps exercises would be important, but we can narrow this down to one particularly useful exercise—the pull-up. You can modify this basic exercise by gripping tennis balls between your palms and the bar; this not only causes instability (remember: unstable environments are always an added challenge), it can also give your hands themselves a workout as they labor to keep you on the bar. Since grip is key in most pulling exercises, and is too often neglected, this exercise can do double-duty.

You might also try an alternating rope pull up. Place a rope (or a good, sturdy towel) over the bar you use for pull-ups and, while staying suspended off the ground, give on one side of the rope as you use the other side’s back and biceps muscles to pull the rope to you. You will be in a pull-up, basically sliding the rope back and forth over the bar in a sawing motion. This exercise hits those muscles involved in gripping and also targets the muscles directly over and around the shoulder blades.

The Hamstrings
The hamstrings were the final area Eddie felt was extremely important. “Flexibility here," he said, "as well as strength, is important not just for being able to pull your leg into odd positions, but for holding and controlling your opponent’s hips as well." Leg curls are a great way to isolate and target this area, but for balance work I again use the Bosu with Romanian or “stiff-legged” deadlifts. Put the Bosu dome-side up and stand on the very top of the dome. With a light dumbbell in each hand, balance on one leg. Now, hinging at the hips, slowly lower the weight towards the floor. Some people with extraordinary flexibility can go below the knee, but that’s not necessary to get what you need from this exercise. You can also add regular “stiff-legged” deadlifts after completing your balance sets, but don't neglect the balance work—again, the unstable environment much better stimulates the kind of strength you will need in a fight.

Let me reiterate that these are but just a few things you want to do to strengthen yourself and prepare for the rigors of whatever style of mixed martial arts you train for. Don’t over -do it either—as Eddie said, when he was coming up, he just did BJJ. Just training in the style you choose is its own workout. Adding a little gym-time to enhance your performance is advisable, but not when it overshadows what you use the workout for.

Finishing Thoughts
A circuit routine is an ideal way to implement these exercises into your work week. Try doing a set of each exercise one after the next, and then repeating from the beginning until you’ve done the entire routine three to four times. With a typical bodybuilding routine you will need a full minute of recovery between sets, especially if you go to failure. However, if you decide to focus more on your athletic performance, try only doing six reps and resting only 30 seconds between sets. Go for the maximum amount of weight that you can safely balance and control through the full range of motion, stopping short of lock-out. It is believed that the short rep range can allow for better recovery in a shorter time when coupled with the change of muscles used and exercise performed. Test it out for yourself and see if you have increased endurance.

Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Recovery Notes
Bosu/Stability Ball Push-ups Pectorals, front deltoids, triceps 2 - 3 30 seconds to one minute Focus on balance, core tight, and movement steady—a continuous, balanced movement
Alternating Rope Pull-ups Middle and upper back (rhomboid, infraspinatus, teres major and minor), biceps and forearms 2 - 3 30 seconds to one minute Focus on balance, core tight, and movement steady—push and pull, do not over-rotate
Bosu One-legged Romanian Deadlifts Hamstrings, lower back, glutes 2 - 3 30 seconds to one minute Keep your back straight, focus on resisting the weight through this range of motion, especially on the down-stroke (lowering of the weight to stretch position)

About James Parker: James Parker is a certified personal trainer, mixed martial artist, mma conditioning coach, and freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.