Category: How To Study Jiu-Jitsu

Turn Your Open Mat into a BJJ Laboratory

I’m going to make a bold assumption: You want to get better at BJJ. (I must be a mind reader.) Open mat can be a secret weapon in your training if you use it right. These tips will help make sure you do.

Go in with a purpose

What makes open mat good is also what makes it bad: you can do whatever you want. Without someone running class, it’s all too easy to waste time, goof off or simply not know what to do. Go in prepared giving yourself a goal.


– Improve move X.
– Improve my escapes.
– Improve my conditioning.
– Try out this new guard.
– Review my basics.

Try picking a topic—a certain position, submission, guard or even concept—and set your mind on exploring and learning it in depth. It’s easier to stay focused when you know what you’re focusing on.

It’s time to experiment

Now is your chance to put that encyclopedic knowledge of every BJJ instructional to use. Is there a move that’s been making waves in competition that you want to learn? You could bring a laptop or iPhone to watch instructionals then drill them.

Forget this piece of advice if it doesn’t line up with your goals. Sometimes drilling those same basics you’ve known forever is the right thing to do (at least it’s never wrong.)

Don’t get technique overload

Just because you’re free to do whatever you want doesn’t mean you should pull out every technique you’ve ever Youtubed. Get two experienced guys on the mat and it can quickly turn into technique show and tell (“Hey, check this out!” “That reminds me of this…” “You gotta see how I do it…”) Keep your goals in mind and don’t get too far off track (unless it’s really something worth checking out.)

Put in the reps

Once you’ve figured out what you want to work on, start drilling. Then keep drilling. Discipline yourself to put in a healthy number of repetitions. No skimping on your reps because you don’t have an instructor keeping his hawk eyes on you. I’m sorry if this is boring but it’s good for you.

Find the right training partner

Who you train with can make or break an open mat. If they aren’t as motivated as you, it’s a pain to force them to drill when all they want to do is talk and spar a bit. You’re better off with a white belt that has a good worth ethic and is eager to learn than a lazy purple belt that doesn’t really feel like breaking a sweat. Finding the right person to team up with can give you a serious boost and make grappling R&D really fun and rewarding.

Do live drills

Take whatever you working on and make up live drills AKA isolation sparring for it. This is an fantastic training method that a lot of people overlook. Your drills can be as simple as starting from a specific position over and over again to running a series of situational exercises that increase in complexity as they go. (Message me on Facebook if you want some example drills.)

Take sparring seriously

Nothing bugs me more than two guys rolling for 1 minute before someone taps then spending 2 minutes talking about it. Save the discussion for later. Quick bits of advice or showing someone how to stop a move they’ve got caught in a couple times is OK. But you’re there to spar. Now is a good chance to push your endurance and forget time limits and go until you are absolutely dead.

Film your sparring

If you’ve got a camera and a tripod (or a willing third person), try getting your sparring sessions on video and watching them afterward. You’ll often be surprised by the things you do (and don’t do) that you never realized.

Want more tips? Add me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.

Image credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


10 Quick Tips for White Belts

  1. How to get good isn’t a big secret. Get on the mats, get good instruction and do conditioning, drilling or sparring. Gameplans, flow charts, notebooks, journals and instructionals are gravy. Training is the meat and potatoes.
  2. Spar with everyone you can. Force yourself to go with guys who intimidate you. Experience is what counts, not mental tallies of who tapped who. And always finish the round, no matter how tired you are.
  3. Escaping submissions and bad positions isn’t easy. And it’s not supposed to be. That’s kinda the point. But that’s also what makes it good when you’re on the winning side.
  4. The best answer to a problem is usually “don’t let it happen in the first place.” That’s always disappointing to hear but it’s unfortunately true. Of course learn the escapes and counters but also become aware of what mistakes got you there in the first place. Boxers don’t ask “How do I get unpunched?”
  5. The difference between gi and no-gi is only as big as you make it. Do whichever you enjoy. Try both. And do whichever is appropriate to prepare for competition. Just don’t be that guy who wastes time arguing one over the other.
  6. Feeling stupid or uncoordinated when trying a new move is a good thing. It means you’ve got something to learn and your body gets to gain a new skill.
  7. Being technical doesn’t mean being lazy. Being aggressive doesn’t mean being a meathead. But it will take a lot of training and mat time to balance the two.
  8. You’ll think you’re “getting it” at about 6 months. Then at 12 months you’ll realize how wrong you were before and how now you’re really getting it. Then 6 months later you’ll actually start getting it.
  9. Getting your blue belt is good but don’t blow it up too big in your mind or you risk losing motivation when you get promoted. Don’t be one of those guys who races to his blue belt then disappears forever.
  10. When you do get your blue, don’t worry too much if you feel like you don’t deserve it yet. That’s normal. Just do what it takes to grow into it.

pdf_iconDownload “10 Quick Tips for White Belts” as PDF

More by Stephan Kesting

Stephan Kesting

Stephan Kesting of Grapple Arts just launched an awesome new BJJ resource, Beginning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (

Signing up for the e-course gets you a free e-book, A Roadmap for Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. After reading it, my first thought was “I wish I’d had this when I started.” It’s a superb starting reference, presenting the right lessons and concepts for a beginner. The e-mails that come with the e-course are the same great quality all of Stephan’s work is.

If you run a gym, this would be a perfect to give to new students. I’m thinking of printing out a copy and bring it into the gym and telling the beginners to check it out. It presents the right mindset for learning and improving as a beginner.

Check out


Rethinking Position

Rickson once said he admires Nino Schembri for “how he looks at positions in new ways”. (He also might not have said that. The quote is probably inaccurate since I read it years ago and can’t find the source any more.)

That idea stuck with me. As a beginner at the time it struck me, “How many ways can you think about a position? When is mount not just mount? When is guard not guard?” Those questions have become a kind of mind-clearing Zen koan. It opened me up to thinking about a lot of things in new ways and a lot of good has come from it.

What happens when I think of mount as “guard from the top?” I get omoplatas.

What happens if I think of leglocks as a part of open guard? I use them as sweeps and don’t sacrifice position to get them.

What if I look for the harness grip and not just rear mount and two hooks? I can attack the back from everywhere.

What if I see how long I can hold on to an armbar or triangle position without finishing the submission? I see how people will try to escape while learning how to control them and transition to other moves.

It is true about Nino, even if I got the Rickson quote wrong (or made it up in a fever dream). You see this in his DVD. Nino isn’t content to simply use the omoplata as a sweep or submission like the rest of us. He camps out there. He meets the locals and takes in the sights. He can maintain it and control them despite their efforts to escape. He’s got a array of alternative ways to finish them. Sometimes he treats it like the crucifix and attacks the neck. Other times he attacks the far arm, simply using omoplata as his basecamp to launch attacks. Hanging off them with his leg tangled around an arm is a desirable and perfectly normal spot for him.

Look at other innovators and you’ll see something similar. They found a position (or a few) that they liked. It could have been part of something we already know, something they invented, or something they stole from wrestling. It worked for them and so they kept at it and figured out the elements that made it tick. They reduced these down to concepts and principles (or at least absorbed an understanding of these into their head somewhere). They learned the control points, where to grip, how to adjust, the leverage, timing, momentum, etc. They found how to get to it from other positions and fit it into their game. And maybe this new positions leads them to more new ones and further innovation.

My personal pet project has been the reverse omoplata (seen here).

People complain that it’s too complicated and hard and has too many steps, that it only works no-gi (or gi, depending on who you ask), that you couldn’t get it on someone experienced, that it doesn’t work on someone bigger or stronger, that you have to rely on speed and surprise… Et cetera.

They’re all wrong.

But they are a little less wrong if they don’t really take the time to get good at it and learn how to deal with those potential issues, which is like saying the secret to success is success, but let me explain.

I learned the reverse omoplata on my first no-gi class ever. That was about 4 weeks into training. My instructor gave a little talk after people huffed and shook their heads while he was demonstrating it. “I know you’re all looking at this and thinking it’d never work,” he said. “But ask any of the brown belts and they’ll tell you I get this on them all the time.”

Being the naive and pure-hearted white belt I was, I took it on good faith and drilled it like any other technique. It wasn’t any more confusing than anything else at the time since I was still trying to wrap my head around the upa escape and scissors sweep. It was just another technique to learn and drill and try out.

While doing so, I ran into all of the complaints people had about it.

Is it really too hard? Well, each step makes sense by itself so it also makes sense that they stay good when you string them together.

It is complicated and has a lot of steps. How will I remember them all? If each step makes sense and I drill it enough to have them down smooth, it’s not an issue.

Does it work on a bigger, stronger guy? Yes, you just need to make sure you are doing everything right and know a few ways to deal with their attempts to power out.

Can they slip out no-gi? Yes, they’re always slippier no-gi, but there are ways to keep it tight.

Can they use the gi to defend it? Yes, but you can still deal with that.

Does it rely on speed? Can I do it slowly? Yes, I can break down each part of the technique, each moment in the roll, and pause there and know what to grip and how to control them. In fact, doing it slower is often the better way to do it, since you have more control and can force it on a big guy.

Can I keep getting someone with it even after they’ve seen it a few times and been taught how to avoid it? Yes, if my timing, position, strategy and technique are good.

Can I get it on experienced guys? After all that work, I’ve gotten it on people of every skill level that I’ve gone with. In fact, I often get it on experienced guys who know to defend the standard positions and submissions but don’t know how to deal with me somersaulting around one of their arms instead of taking their back.

What I did wasn’t any special process. I just drilled and trained and thought about it a lot. I went for it in sparring and experimented with good training partners who wanted to learn it too. I went to my instructor for advice and to ask questions when I had problems. I checked out how other people do it and tried to figure out why they changed parts. I looked for the concepts and principles that make it work. I simplified how I think and talk about it till I could teach it to a white belt and have him doing it in a minute or two.

And now it’s one of my best moves.

The morals here are nothing earth-shattering, but they’re good ones:

Look at old things in new ways. Look at novel things and see how they make sense.


Training Hard, Training Smart and Having Fun

Check out the discussion of Three Rules for Good Jiu-Jitsu. This post stems from that discussion and others elsewhere on the internet.

The two main arguments are that “train smart” and “have fun” are more important than “train hard”. And there is truth to that, but it also depends on how you look at it.

If you don’t enjoy training, you’re not likely going to stick to it, but you have to be careful about how you define “fun” and how much priority you give “fun” things. When I see people who are too intent on “having fun”, they’re more prone to indulging in things like this:

  • Going with white belts they can toy with.
  • Not working on their weaknesses.
  • Ducking people who will make them work or give them a hard time.
  • Only doing enough reps to “get the idea”.
  • Stopping training to discuss something that happened.
  • Complaining about going with bigger or stronger guys.
  • Quitting when they get tired.

On the other end, there are a lot of things that aren’t fun but are necessary. To name a few:

  • High rep drilling.
  • Pushing your conditioning and endurance.
  • Sparring even when you’re exhausted.
  • Having competitive matches with guys who give you a lot of trouble.
  • Getting put in really bad positions and having to fight out.
  • Learning to deal with being smothered and crushed.
  • Dealing with that spazzy white belt or that tireless wrestler or heavier opponent.

Those aren’t “fun” to most people (congratulations if they are to you). I know people who purposely avoid some of those things. Now it’s perfectly within your rights to disdain things you don’t find fun or not do something that you think will get you injured. But I know my personality and know I’m prone to avoiding hard work, don’t like being competitive, don’t like discomfort (who does?) so unless I really keep my discipline in and train hard, I’ll do too much of the stuff in the first list and not enough in the second.

jandaim on The Grapplers Guide forum posted this:

I think what some people are missing is that you can still have fun, enjoy yourself, and train hard.

As an example – I train for and compete in marathons. Let me tell you, to get to the point where you can run 26 miles takes a ton of hard work. If I took every training mile like a “flow roll” there is no way I would ever reach my goal. Does that mean I don’t have any fun training? Of course not. Does that mean that every run is at 100%? Nope, I take days off and run some runs at a very easy pace just to get the blood flowing. But the majority of the time, I am working hard.

To be honest, it’s the hard work that I put in that makes it fun and the rewards are more than just a good time – there is so much more to be gained than just that.

Many people prefer “train smart” because they think “train hard” means “get injured” and I’ve got a story about that.

Recently I took about 2 months off. When I came back, I was a little out of shape and I didn’t want stress myself out or get injured. So I rolled light, played a relaxed game, let stuff happen, didn’t go with big guys, called it a night when I got exhausted, etc. Just tried to train smart and have fun.

Yet in two weeks of doing that, I sprained my ankle, hurt my knee, hurt my back, popped my elbow and injured my neck/shoulder. I never even knew how it happened. I thought I was going light and not pushing myself too hard and then I’d end the night with a new injury.

So much for training smart and having fun.

When I talked to Leo about it, he said something funny. “If you’re going to get injured, you might as well go hard and beat people while you’re at it.”

So I started rolling with a focus on imposing my game, really working, not resting, not “taking it easy”, doing matches even when I was beat, not turning down anyone. Grabbing the bigger guys and fighting them when I would have avoided them before.

Here’s the interesting part: I’m not getting injured any more. And I’ve found myself having more real fun based on real performance.

You’ll all have your own experiences and personalities and semantics to deal with on this issue, but for me training smart means to train hard. The fun is in the performance and seeing myself improve.

What takes the most importance to you–smart, hard or fun? Can you have them all? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.


Three Rules for Good Jiu-Jitsu

Eduardo has three rules for good jiu-jitsu:

  1. Train hard.
  2. Eat right.
  3. Sleep well.

That’s it.

Let’s assume you have quality instruction already. (If you don’t, you’ve got other issues). You can fuss over the details: what and how to study, gi or no-gi, drilling versus sparring, top game or bottom first, basic versus advanced and so on into infinity. But whatever combination of those you choose, you can’t get away from needing to put in serious, focused time on the mat and racking up training hours. That’s a no-brainer, yet people still miss it while searching for the secret easy path to success.

Diet is always important but especially when you’re an athlete (and that’s what you’ve become if you’re training hard). Nutrition is well researched and there’s a wealth of information out there. I’ll leave it to you to find what’s right for your body.

The importance of sleep is easy to overlook (which is why I asked if you’re getting enough). Your body needs time to rest and recover after working out. But there’s also a mental aspect that you may not be aware of but that scientists are learning more about. The superb radio program Radiolab (iTunes) did a show on sleep that you should listen to. It explains the topic better than I can. Scientific American Mind also has good articles and podcasts on sleep and its effects on learning:

If you want to discuss the details of “the secret easy path to success”, or if you have any more good sources on nutrition and sleep, leave a comment or send me a message.


Level of Detail

This is a useful yet very nerdy analogy that’s aided me when I’m teaching. It may help you when you’re trying to explain a new or complex technique to someone that you are worried won’t get it.

In video game programming, the level of detail of an object decreases as it moves further away and increases as you get closer. When something is partially concealed, they only render what you can see. Programmers can get away with this because they figure you won’t need every detail when something is far enough away (or not even in sight) and you can’t tell the difference.

You’ve likely seen this if you play video games. A tree across the map is just a blotch of green, then as you run forward it turns into a lumpy green pyramid, then it gets branches and finally it’s a complete tree. Or you see the tip of spaceship sticking out from around a corner, but as far as the game is concerned, that’s all there is to it and it’s not worth dealing with the rest yet.

Where this applies to teaching is in figuring out how much to simplify and when to add greater detail and complexity. When someone is a beginner or new to a technique, you can overload them by showing every detail and variation and counter and re-counter. These will be ignored or forgotten since they don’t have any foundation of experience to build on.

So what you do is scale it back. Teach them a simplified version of the technique. Give them the bare bones to start getting a feel for it. It may not be “the best” way to do the move but it’s what they’ve got to learn before they can process more details. Once they’ve got that level, move up to the next and flesh it out further.

Think of the students brain as a computer processor. It can only handle so much at once. You’ve got to give it the most important information first and make sure it’s in chewable amounts, otherwise it overloads and chokes. Start simple and ramp it up as needed.

You can visualize it by taking a technique and making an abstraction of it. Imagine there is an perfect way to do a move, in a Platonic idealism sense. Now imagine your perfect technique as an object, a sphere. You could have a progression of increasingly accurate representations, like this:

Levels of detail

(These spheres also lends themselves to a diamond polishing metaphor: you’re starting with a crude rock and through progressive refining and polishing you get the desired form.)

To give a specific example of this concept, look at how an armbar from mount is taught to a beginner versus how it’s done by someone with experience. With the beginner, you have their training partner stick their arms straight up into them. The beginner posts both hands on the chest, slides a knee up to the head, steps up with his other leg, stands to pass his leg over the head and falls back with the arm.

Is anyone with experience going to straighten both their arms like that? Are you going to want to be that loose and slow when you spin around the arm? Are you going to get that high to pass your leg over the head? No, but that doesn’t matter. At this point the beginner is still just learning the gross body movements and how to shift his weight and move his hips. Once he gets that, you can do a second pass and clean up the technique, making it tighter, smoother or faster and adding details.

A personal example is the difference between how I teach the reverse omoplata and how I do it. It wouldn’t make sense and they’d get information overload if I showed them my way. Instead I teach a simpler version first. That gets them familiar with it. They’ll have success with it for a bit but they’ll also start running into problems. Now that they have experience with it, I can give more details and they’ll see where they fit in, whereas before they wouldn’t have had the proper context.

What you started with and what you ended with may be very different beasts and yet they are fundamentally the same move, based on the same principles. What got you there was working up through lower levels of detail and complexity until you’re as close to the “ideal technique” as you can be.

Image from Level of Detail (Wikipedia).


Questions to Ask Yourself and Things to Try

This list is a tool I made to help keep myself motivated. It’s split into two parts: questions to ask yourself and things to try. Together they give you something to be thoughtful and introspective about and something to get out there and do. The idea is to turn to it each week (or when you’re in a slump) and see if it can’t help you improve.

Try this:

Pick out a random question and give it serious thought. Be objective and honest with yourself. Write down your answer if you need to. Did you have any new ideas?

Pick a random thing to try. Follow the instructions as well as you can. Write notes on how it went. Did you learn anything new?

If you type up your answers to the questions or if you have an interesting experience trying one of the ideas, tell me about it here in the comments or by email.

Questions to Ask Yourself

How good is your hip movement on the bottom?

What part of your game needs the most work?

What position gives you the most trouble?

What do you need to improve next?

How good is your posture in guard?

How can you improve your diet?

Are you getting enough sleep?

Is there a move you “should know” that still gives you trouble?

How well can you open the closed guard?

What is your favorite position?

What submission do you have the most trouble escaping?

Do you keep fighting from your back when you could get to your knees?

Are you confident with your closed guard?

Could you keep playing the same game if you were less athletic?

How much of your current game will stay the same as you age?

Are you confident with your open guard?

What positions do you avoid that you shouldn’t?

What moves can you do on one side but not the other?

How many rounds can you go before you’re gassed?

If your armbar fails, where do you go from there?

Are your legs really too short for the triangle or are your mechanics off?

Do you do something that goes “against the rules” (e.g. submissions from bad positions)?

What was the last submission you got caught with?

What causes you the most frustration?

Are you ashamed to pull guard?

Do you train takedowns enough?

Can you do your favorite throw while moving in different directions?

Do you prefer to pass from knees or standing?

How good are your standing guard passes?

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

Are you making the best use of your training time?

Are there “basic” moves you wish you were better at?

Are there moves you never tried because you worried they were “too advanced”?

How can you use less strength?

How can you use less flexibility?

How confident are you with the gi?

How confident are you without the gi?

How different are your gi and no-gi games?

Are you aggressive enough?

Are you relaxed enough?

Are you too passive?

Are you too defensive?

What parts of your game could you simplify?

What submissions do you never try?

Have you surprised yourself lately?

If your triangle fails, what’s your backup plan?

Why didn’t you do karate instead?

Do you hold your breath when you shouldn’t?

Do you know of a black belt with your body type to watch?

Do you use the omoplata much?

Do you have a favorite finish from each position?

Whose guard do you really admire?

What does your belt mean to you?

Why are you afraid of competing?

Are you still worried about self defense?

How good are your headlock escapes?

Is your guard “too open” and loose?

Do you have a “go to” move for each guard you use?

What’s your main attack from mount?

What is your worst skill?

How do you measure your performance?

How much have you improved in the last six months?

Where would you like to be in 6 months?

Do you really want to compete?

Can you visualize moves and positions as simple geometry?

Do you use the americana much?

How often do you get the cross collar choke from guard?

How good are your side control escapes?

How far can you push your endurance?

What is your proudest moment?

What do you regret?

How many of the people that started with you are still training?

Do you remember what it was like to be a white belt?

What would be the simplest and quickest move from each position?

Are you overlooking simpler solutions?

Do you do moves just because they look cool?

What is a “basic” technique?

How do you define the fundamentals?

Would doing things differently be wrong or just different?

Is there a move you always wished you could do better?

Are there moves you just never seem to remember when you need them?

How do you keep yourself motivated?

Are the health risks worth it?

Do you drill moves on both sides?

Do you really need that many instructionals?

Do you try a move in sparring the same day you drilled it?

Do you find drilling boring?

Do you put in enough repetitions?

How is your half guard?

Do you just stall in certain positions?

Are you always looking for the finish?

Do you worry that lower belts are catching up to you?

Is there something you always wished you were better at?

What part of competing makes you most nervous?

How can the last technique you learned fit into your game?

Do you have one really good training partner to work one-on-one with?

Do you need private lessons?

What sweeps and submissions go together?

What part of the mental game do you need to improve?

How do you deal with anxiety?

Are you afraid of losing?

Things to Try

Pick just one submission to focus on for a week.

Concentrate on how your hips are moving while sparring.

Find a way to make your hips as heavy as possible while passing.

Drill a sweep you didn’t like the first time you learned it.

Take two different positions and figure out how to transition between them.

Pick one position and work on it for a month.

Try a new move today.

Pick a move you don’t use enough and drill it before class for a week.

Draw a diagram of a move that explains its mechanics.

Write down how to do the last move you learned with as much detail as possible.

Draw a flowchart of the positions you use and how you transitions between them.

Try a new move just because it looks fun.

Almost let a white belt tap you today.

See how long you can hold a “strange” position while sparring.

Let people pass your guard so you can work on your escapes.

Pick your least favorite position and work on it.

Teach your favorite move to someone who doesn’t know it.

Put together a three move combination and drill it.

Fight from top as much as possible for a week.

Don’t close your guard in sparring today.

Find a “fancy” move and see if it really is that fancy.

Drill the escapes to the last submission you got caught in.

Make a combination of three guard passes that have you go over, under and around the legs.

Ask a lower belt for his perspective on something.

Try to stand up from guard more often.

Try to take the back from everywhere.

Watch and study higher belts sparring.

Figure out how much your game changes with and without the gi.

Stretch before and after training.

Play guard as much as possible for a week.

Replay a round of sparring in your head as you’re going to sleep.

“Steal” a good move from someone else.

Coach two white belts against each other.

Make your intentions obvious and see if you can still get the move.

Focus on controlling your breathing.

Set a faster pace than normal.

Set a slower pace than normal.

Move slowly and deliberately while sparring today.

Move fast and light with sparring today.

See how long you can hold mount.

See how many transitions you can do in one round.

Find a high level competitor with your body type and try to emulate him.

Stop halfway through a move and see how long you can maintain control.

Try a dumb move today.

Spar with your eyes closed.

Try sparring two people at once.

Hold knee-on-belly for as long as you can in sparring today.

Stand to pass guard this week.

Don’t use one of your arms today.

Work on your rear mount escapes.

Try holding side control on a balance ball to develop pressure.

Compare where you are now to where you were 6 months ago.

Try not using your arms at all while sparring today.

Drill level changes and penetration steps today.

Take a minute to do as many repetitions of the armbar from mount as possible.

Do a full round of sparring from under side control.

Train transitions instead of positions.

Figure out a way to improve your scramble.

Draw a picture of how you think of a certain movement.

Pick the toughest person at your gym and spar with them.

Only use moves you learned as a white belt today.

Put in extra repetitions on your bad side.

Be single-minded in going for what you learned and drilled in class today.

Fine tune your chokes with feedback from your training partner.

See how long you can hold the triangle position without finishing the submission.

Put yourself in submissions and see if you can get out.

Approach old moves like they’re completely new to you.


Concept Map – Positions

Earlier this year, I thought it’d be an interesting experiment to start drawing concept or mind maps for BJJ. Last week, I finally got a white board and tonight I took my first crack at sketching.


View full-sized image »

This map is made up of four large sections: guard, top, escapes and passing. The red arrows represent the general flow and objective between them. Within these sections are the main positions I use or find myself in. These are connected by lines that show the most common transitions. Notes are in blue.

My plan is to reevaluate and redraw the map each week or month. It’ll be neat to see how to evolves over time.


Bridging the Gap

As I’ve said repeatedly, this journal is a reflection of my personal interests. If there hasn’t been much new material posted, it’s because I’m not working on new techniques. Rather, I’m returning to “old” stuff and working on it again, a process I started months ago.

I’ve also been working on aspects more fundamental than revisiting techniques: the training methods themselves. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how to train. I want to make the most out of the time I spend on the mats.

In a previous article, I talked about how to get the most out of drilling. But drilling will only get you so far. There is still a gulf between these static repetitions and using these moves in sparring. Making this connection, being able to get techniques in motion, can be one of the biggest problems faced in learning, especially in the beginner and intermediate levels.

Most leave it up to mat time, experience and determination to solve this. Keep showing up, drill and spar enough and it’ll sort out. That’s as it should be.

But is there an easier, smoother way to do this? Can you engineer and control this process? Make it less mysterious? Can you ease students into it without lowering standards of performance?

I think so. That’s what you’ll about read below.

But before we get into it, there are a few terms and ideas I want to review, since they’re important to understanding this topic.


Whether or not you use (or even like) the neologism coined by Matt Thornton, the concept of aliveness is one of the most important aspect of learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or any combat sports. And while I’m not a fan of making up new words by adding “-ness” to them, I am willing to forgive it in this instance since the term is very useful for my purposes.

Aliveness tends to be ham-fistedly summed up as “resistance” or “sparring”, but that’s a crude way to look at it. It is more accurately defined as “realistic timing, energy and motion that does not follow a set pattern.” For deeper descriptions and discussions of the topic, you can read What is Aliveness? and Why Aliveness? or watch any number of videos, all by Matt Thornton of the Straight Blast Gym.

If you’re already doing an “alive” art like BJJ, it’s easy to take aliveness for granted. It’s built right in. You simply show up at class, follow directions, spar and away you go. Nothing wrong with that.

Where it becomes valuable to understand aliveness is when you want to explore the learning process and refine or improve your training methods. That’s what we’re doing here, so take the time let the idea sink in. Once you grasp the roles timing, energy and motion play in learning, they open up a lot of possibilities for creating new drills and coaching methods.


Straight Blast Gym has a few other terms and concepts I’ll borrow. Again, they’re not new inventions, but they never claimed to be. If you find yourself thinking “But that’s what we do already”, you’re probably right. It just happens that SBG used the clearest terminology to describe this process, so I’m going to stick with it for ease of description.

The I-Method is a way of teaching material in stages, each of which is conveniently an “I” word: Introduction, Isolation and Integration. They break down as follows:


Teach the technique and explain how it works. Repetitions without resistance until the students understand the move and can do it smoothly.


Have the students do live drills that focus on the material they just learned and begin adding aliveness. Work the student up through several levels of difficulty so he grasps how to apply the move against a resisting opponent.


The students are free to spar and try whatever they want (within the rules) but with the encouragement to incorporate the skills they just learned.

Of these three stages, the one most relevant to our interests (and my favorite) is Isolation. This is what fills the gap between drilling and sparring. “Reps with resistance” as some call it.

Isolation training is a simple idea, which is both good and bad.

The bad is that it’s easy to overlook, undervalue or take for granted. Like how basic techniques get blown off because there’s “not a lot to it”, this concept can get ignored. You may need to take a serious look and put it to use before you appreciate it.

The good is that with its simplicity comes versatility, making it a very powerful learning and coaching tool. With flexible thinking and creativity, you can apply it to almost anything: techniques, positions, transitions, submissions, attributes, strategies and concepts.

Once you’ve got a firm handle on it, you’ll likely find you can use the isolation stage to create drills that focus on skills that are otherwise difficult to develop. You’re able to handpick the material you want to train and quickly come up with a way to drill it against resistance.

To get the most out of this though, it helps to have several more concepts in mind.


Inherent to the I-Method is the concept of progressive resistance. Each stage naturally builds up into the next. The training partner goes from supplying little more than a warm body to offering limited amounts of resistance and ultimately all-out sparring. This can be divided into further stages of resistance.

This concept of gradual increases can also be applied to the other factors of learning and training, such as complexity, difficulty, athleticism, etc. You want to start low on the scale and ramp up, which each stage building nicely into the next.

Before we get to exploring how isolation training and progressive resistance go together, I want to first illustrate a few points.


I have found it useful to visualize the learning process as a line graph, and so I’ve plotted several below. Keep in mind that these are rough approximations but they’ll give you the general idea.

Imagined Ideal

This first graph gives an imagined ideal for how training should run.

Imagined Ideal

The training starts at a zero of complexity, resistance, difficulty, etc. then rises at a steady pace. It starts simple and easy then keeps getting more and more demanding. The dashed lines are meant to show the potential for variation, up and down.

The problem with ideals is how often they don’t translate to the real world. So while this is a useful way to think about teaching, don’t get too hung up on seeking “the perfect” way. Keep it in mind, use it as a guide line, milk it for all its worth, but don’t stress out over it.

Common BJJ

With the “ideal” as our frame of reference, we can now look at how BJJ is normally taught.


Training starts low but quickly advances into high levels of resistance. This steep cliff face is usually what makes or breaks beginners, where they have to suffer through it or quit. While it is a ruthless enforcer of natural selection, I blame this for the high attrition rates in BJJ.

There’s an argument to be made in favor of this. Many instructors and students take pride in how hard BJJ is, how it’s not for everyone. It’s a trial by fire and only the best and the toughest stick around. To do it any other way seems like a cop out, especially if you paid your dues this way. Why should anyone else have it easier? We don’t want to lower our standards.

The counter-argument is that BJJ should be for everyone. How is it supposed to work for the smaller, weaker man (like we always hear advertised) if he’s being crushed and driven away by the rougher guys at class? Is “pride” really worth a gym that limps along with just a couple “tough guys” instead of a large student body of normal men and women? But how do you have it so each type of student can train together?

With any luck, intelligent use of isolation drilling, progressive resistance and gradual increasing difficulty can create a training environment where the competitor and the everyman can learn and improve alongside each other.

Gradual Stages

Gradual Steps

Here we fill the space between drilling and sparring with fleshed out isolation training. This is where we give the students a chance to try what they’re learning against a moving person and run them up through several levels of difficulty and resistance before they get to sparring. They can work on their coordination and timing and get a feel for the move before moving to a higher level.

The “steps” up through the isolation stage show how you can use a series of drills (or the same drill in multiple ways) to build up to sparring.

For example, you can simply make them start from the position you’re learning that day and tell them to start at 25%, with the person doing the moves told they can only really try what they learned that day while the training partner moves around but pretty much lets them do the moves. Then tell the training partner to go up to 50% and not let them get it as easily. Then bump up to 75% and get them both really fighting for it. Then finish out at 100%.

The success-to-fail ratio I go by is 7 out of 10, meaning the person should be able to get the move around 7 times out of 10 during the easier learning stages of isolation training. Lower and it’s too easy; higher and it’s too hard. The 7/10 ratio means they’re having enough success to get a feel for the move but still getting realistic resistance (for the stage of learning). If you see someone only getting a move only 2 or 3 times, you should probably lower the resistance or difficulty until they get it, then ramp up once they get it.

Simplicity vs Complexity

The slope of these graphs is affected by many factors — more than I’ll try to pin down right now. Simply think of all of the things that can make training easier or harder.

Two related factors can sum up a lot of variables: simplicity and complexity. These are opposite ends of the same stick (to steal another Thorntonism). You can account for a wide range of skill levels by creating drills of varying levels of simplicity or complexity.

For example, a class full of beginners should probably be kept towards the simple end of the spectrum, not just in what they learn but in the types of drills they do. They’ll most likely lack the sensitivity to go at a lower level of resistance and so (picture the graph here) the difficulty rises rapidly. You can get a handle on this and push the graph back down by limiting them to simpler isolation drills. This way you can worry less about them going ballistic since they’re not allowed to go off into strange or awkward situations (which is when many injuries occur) and their training partner can keep learning.

Specificity and Scope

People (especially beginners) sometimes have trouble sticking to the isolation drill. They get to fighting and things get crazy and they just keep going. They might get a good position or almost have a submission and not want to give it up. Likewise, someone (often a higher belt) may “fail” at their goal for the drill but keep fighting out of pride, not wanting to “lose” to a lower belt. In any case, they’re missing the point.

This isn’t sparring yet so you can keep them on a leash. Stress the purpose of the drill and the specific positions or skills it is developing so they know what they’re working on. When they start getting into strange positions, have them ask themselves “Is this within the scope of the drill?” Restart if it’s not.

Don’t be afraid to reset the position repeatedly. “Winning” and “losing” isn’t a big deal and don’t give them time to mope or gloat. Just restart and go again and again.

That said, there are times when something unexpected may happen that’s worth letting run out. It may be a new position you hadn’t thought that shows potential. It may be that someone put themselves in a bad spot and you want them to suffer a bit so they know to not do that again. Use your judgment.

More Graphs

Since I became enamored with making graphs, I drew up ones for a few more scenarios.

Traditional Martial Arts

Traditional Martial Arts

Stances, solo repetitions, forms and katas, one and two-step sparring, and highly restricted point sparring. While these can get quite complex and difficult, they don’t involve realistic amounts of resistance so they don’t reach the same level.

Flow Rolling

Flow Roll

Flow (or slow or tempo) rolling is when both training partners agree to spar at a lower intensity. They usually don’t hold on to any one positions for long, feed each other sweeps, hang out in funky positions, release submissions, etc. The idea is (as the name implies) to learn to flow, relax and explore new things. It can be a useful training tool, since it makes for a good warm-up and it’s a safe way to roll when injured. But taken to excess it can lead to sloppy technique and bad habits.

Just Sparring

Just Sparring

This graph illustrates what I consider the biggest problem with how self-instruction is done in clubs and garages. It’s usually a quick and sloppy show-and-tell of techniques from books, DVDs, the internet, etc. then a ton of sparring. While this can be quite athletic and gives you enough experience to deal with someone who knows nothing, it skips most of the learning process.

That’s it for now. Let me know how you’re able to apply this to your training and teaching.