Category: How To Study Jiu-Jitsu

Articles and opinions on how to make the most of your jiu-jitsu training.

Are you making excuses or making progress?

Two new posts written by yours truly are up on the Inverted Gear blog. I’m proud of both and you should check them out:

I’ll be at Reilly Bodycomb’s 3-day Rdojo sambo camp in NJ this weekend along with Nelson and Hillary from Inverted Gear, so you can expect a write-up on that experience in the near future!


Flipping the BJJ Classroom with Bruce Hoyer

Last week a friend directed me to a video called “How I teach BJJ” by black belt Bruce Hoyer. In the video, Bruce explains how he has converted his school to the “flipped classroom” model, inspired by a recent movement to reform education made popular by organizations like Khan Academy.

In an academic setting, a flipped classroom has students watching online videos of lectures on their own, then coming to class to do their practice problems, group discussions, hands-on projects, etc. with the teacher going around to give one-on-one attention. Bruce has adopted this for his BJJ classes at Next Edge Academy in Sioux Falls, SD. Watch his explanation:

Watch “How I teach BJJ” on Youtube.

As you read through the Q&A with Bruce below, you’ll see mixed in videos by cognitive scientist Robert Bjork as he talks about the science of learning that supports Bruce’s approach to teaching.

Q: As an instructor, did you have any mental blocks that made it difficult to get away from the classic class model?

A: The biggest mental block I had to overcome was the fact that I had yet to see anyone teach this way so I assumed it must not be a proper way to instruct. I kept researching and researching and finally I just decided to take the leap because much of the information I read about learning pointed to this style of teaching. I made sure to keep one group learning the traditional way just to see the difference in the two groups.

Q: How much work was it to film the techniques and set up the online components? What would have made this easier?

A: The first step was building a curriculum. So far I have about 300 5-minute videos that I have filmed for the curriculum and they are kind of ever-evolving, so I am constantly making changes.

My first stab at this had things broke down into systems and I quickly realized this was a bad idea because the student could go a long time without learning basic positions and fundamentals.

The second version of my curriculum had techniques more widely scattered which worked better. The mind tries to make sense of everything so sometimes putting things in systems can, in my opinion, actually hurt people’s progressions because they are not coming to the conclusion on their own. Essentially I am giving them the dots and asking to connect them, rather than me showing them how they are connected. From everything I have read, if they come to this conclusion rather than having it given to them they will retain it better.

The third version I added moves before and after the move to help with association. So say the move is kimura from guard. The first class you would learn kimura from guard — that’s it. The second class would then be getting into guard and doing a kimura — so maybe you are escaping side and going into guard. The third class in this sequence, which is actually about 10 classes later, would be getting into the guard, doing a kimura then something after the move fails, maybe a guillotine or hip bump sweep. They get to pick the techniques before and after for the most part so they get to influence their game, so they start to associate the new move with moves they already know. I also purposely put it 10 classes after because that will force them to recall a move from a few weeks ago. The more they have to think about it, the better chance it will stick.

So long story short, to date that’s the best possible system I could come up with that and I would try to mimic that, but once the curriculum is set the videos don’t take long. Keep them short, 5-6 minutes per class tops so the person can review easily before class. Also on review days you don’t need to show the move again. Those review videos in my curriculum are me just talking about the concepts of the moves.

Q: Have you run into any unexpected problems implementing the flipped classroom model?

A: With a flipped classroom the problem I was surprised with was how quickly you have to convey to everyone what they are doing. Often I will yell out what everyone is doing that round and I only give myself 1 minute to do it in. If I have a class of 25 that’s a hard task to tell 13 people what move they are doing. The TVs helped with that. Now everyone can look but I still yell them out just as a confirmation that they understand.


In this system, the higher belts have to know the name of the moves by heart so they can help. This was difficult in the beginning too. All of our higher belts had to go back through the white belt curriculum so they knew what I meant. This is tough for new students from other schools coming in that were blue or purple belts already. I feel that it is necessary though.

The other big one is keeping up on lesson plans. It doesn’t take long, maybe 10 minutes tops for a class of 25 people, but sometimes you get sidetracked and the students are like “Hey, where is my lesson plan!?” The nice part is at least you know they care!

Q: I have seen concern that this method doesn’t suit the student who just wants to show up and not put in extra time outside class. Is this a concern you share?

A: I do often run into are people being unprepared. Most of my students are prepared which is great. However some don’t want to put in the work. At first this upset me, but later I understood that not everyone is looking to become the best. Some people just want to train and that’s fine. Now if someone hasn’t studied before they came in, they are the last person to drill so it doesn’t take away from others’ time, then I or a higher belt will show them how to do the move. I feel that even with them not preparing beforehand, they learn a lot. I just think it would sink in more if they reviewed the 5 minute video before class and after. Some of the students make notes after each class in their online notebook that I can see, and I think that further helps cement the learning process. The goal is to not make it detrimental to those trying to learn.

Q: What advice do you have for someone interested in trying the flipped classroom?

A: It’s a lot of work in the beginning and you should prepare for your students to reject it at first. It will feel super clunky for about 2 weeks then once people get the idea they really like it. It also makes for tougher learning in the sense that you have to bridge some of those gaps I talked about earlier. So people start to get frustrated when they can’t think of a move to do before or after, but like you have learned with “training dirty or ugly,” that’s often when the real progress is made. You start to form links and force your brain to remember these things because your brain has determined that they are essential. I am a huge fan of active recall. If I can get someone to remember move associations that they have built they are far more likely to remember it rather than telling them “do an armbar, now a triangle, now an omoplata.” For me that’s the biggest part.

I want to use as much research on learning as possible to develop a system where no matter who it is, they will learn at an accelerated pace. A lot of information is out there and we as a community refuse to use it because that is the way it has been done. Does the old system work? For sure! Can it be better? I think so.

Grapplers of the 1920’s took Judo and modified it into what today is known as BJJ. They broke traditions and evolved it to fit more body types and work for everyone. I feel like the same needs to be done in teaching, not only for BJJ but in schools in the USA as well. I still feel like I am maybe just now a blue belt at this learning stuff, so I think my personal system will change dramatically the more I learn.

With that being said, people shouldn’t be afraid to try new things with teaching. The best support I get is from my students because they know the hard work I put into it. When they see that, they try harder and it makes my goal easier to achieve. You have to really take time to set it up so it won’t fail. However, if you do put in the time, your students will love it. To my knowledge, I don’t have a single student that would prefer learning the other way and that speaks volumes to me.

If anyone is interested in trying it, please let me know I would be happy to lend a helping hand and maybe you can show me a better way!


Your Practice Should Be As Ugly As Your Face

Your Drills Should Be Uglier” states the title of Marshal D. Carper’s recent article in Jiu-Jitsu Magazine, and I agree.

Marshal teamed up with Trevor Ragan of to apply modern research into motor skill development and skill acquisition from other sports to our art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Give it a read if you haven’t already.

Now let’s talk about ugly practice. In studying the fields of motor learning and sports training, you run into common themes:

  • Create a rich sensory environment that pushes the student up to the edge of their ability.
  • Students learn best through trial and error that allows for self-correction and timely coaching cues.
  • Small failures or confusions may be frustrating in the short term, but they teach valuable lessons.
  • Meaningful practice requires full focus on the present moment.

You may recognize many of these concepts from a few years back when I reviewed The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. His follow-up work, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, condensed his thesis into chewy self-help nuggets. Most of his tips are good, though a few raise a skeptical eyebrow, especially those that hold up myelin as a holy grail. (Read my review of The Talent Code if you want my criticisms.) But overall it’s full of good ideas.

In Benedict Carey’s book How We Learn, the author talks about block versus random practice, the same topic Marshal and Trevor cover in their JJM article. I will review How We Learn soon, but its explanation of block and random practice was my favorite section, so let’s talk about it now.

Carey gives the example of women learning badminton serves. The women were split into two groups to practice three serves–short, medium and long. One group practiced each serve 20 times before moving to the next type (block practice). The other group practiced by performing serves called out by the researcher, but still performed the same total number of each serve (random practice).

The initial results were what you might expect: when tested shortly after practice, the women who did block practice performed better. This would be a terrible story for proving my point if it ended there. It doesn’t, of course.

When tested again later, once the initial practice had a chance to wear off, the random practice group performed better, retaining their skills.

Many more studies have shown this same pattern: block practice gives the illusion of faster improvement in the short term, but skills gained through random practice last longer.

The explanation is that block practice quickly devolves into rote repetitions that fail to develop the other skills needed for spontaneous performance. Block practice becomes “practicing to be better at practice” or simply “practicing for practice.”

One interesting quirk to know is that, per Carey’s book, when surveyed on which type of practice they preferred, people choose block practice. They like block practice because it’s less confusing and they can see a clear improvement from the first rep to the last. Unfortunately for them, the brain prioritizes learning how to deal with the problems caused by random practice. That sense of frustration is good for driving improvement, but not necessarily for going home full of self-satisfaction.

So how do you incorporate random practice into your training?

The good news is that “random” practice is baked right into BJJ with our daily sparring. We also love our “king of the mat” games and positional sparring. Matt Thornton has explained this as aliveness in martial arts for a long time now, and his organization Straight Blast Gym has a wealth of smart coaching/training methods that stem from this understanding of what makes good or bad practice.

The downside of using only sparring as our random practice method is that it can be difficult to get in enough “reps” of a technique, especially beginners who can’t dictate the positions of the match very well.

For those familiar with The Talent Code‘s chapter on soccer, this would be like trying to learning ball handling and passing skills only by playing full games. Yes, you may learn it eventually, but you also spend a lot of time waiting for the ball to make it to you. But games or drills that speed up the time between reps and put players’ feet in contact with the ball more often can do a better, faster job.

Try this at your next open mat:

  • Pick three or so related techniques you want to learn. Perform the techniques a few times to make sure you’re doing them right.
  • Now have your training partner call out any of the techniques at random. Perform the rep and reset back to the starting position. Do this for reps or for time.
  • Your partner doesn’t even need to call out anything if you’re working on a main technique and counters to its counters–they just need to do the counter (e.g. cross knee guard pass, cross knee to backstep, cross knee to long step).

This can be a great warm-up before free-for-all guard passing games or sparring. Give it a shot and let me know how it goes!

My next post on this topic will go over games you can run as a BJJ coach to incorporate more random practice into your classes.


How long it takes to get a black belt

Everyone is always asking how long it takes to get a BJJ black belt (and by everyone I mean white belts), so I’m going to tell you:

It takes exactly 10 years to get a BJJ black belt (give or take 3-6 years).

Here’s how I know this. Back when I did the last big BJJ gi survey, I also collected data about training habits and belt promotion timelines. We crunched the numbers and that’s what they revealed. The results are summed up by this graph. Taste the SCIENCE!

From White to Black Belt

This timeline confirms the conventional wisdom that it takes about a decade to get a black belt, though some do it faster and others take longer.

What speeds up promotions? The data tells us that too, and it’s not surprising. People who go to more classes and train the most hours get their next belt more quickly.

In other news, water is wet.

What this timeline of averages and percentiles doesn’t show are the stories of the individual people on their path to black belt. They don’t reflect the daily struggles, the medals and the losses, the injuries and recoveries. These stories can’t be easily simplified to a line on a graph, but that won’t stop me from trying!

Let’s take a look at two black belts. First is Bill Hotter.


Who is Bill Hotter, you ask? He is a long time Sherdog Grappling member, a black belt under Cesar Gracie, and an all-around cool guy. The dotted line represents a 5 year hiatus he took from training. You can get a good sense of his attitude by reading about his BJJ road trip (part 1 / part 2) and his opinion on how often to train.

Jumping to the other end of the spectrum, here’s everyone’s favorite rooster weight, Caio Terra!


Caio gave me this estimated timeline for his promotions. His secret? Candy. Nothing but candy. (He’s willing to submit to testing for that.)

As fun as it is to try to measure yourself against these timelines, remember that the speed of promotion doesn’t really matter, so don’t be sad if you’re “behind schedule.” Knowledge, skill and personal development come first, and the belts are a nice recognition for your hard work.

More graphs like these are coming soon, from world champions to blue collar black belts. I’ll also be getting more of their personal stories and their advice for people still working their way up. If you want yourself or your instructor profiled here, give me a holler. You’ll get to plug your school and your sponsors if you do!


Blue Belt Testing Requirements

After discussing belt tests with Marshal Carper, I felt like writing up what my blue belt requirements would be. These are idealized, since I don’t actually rank anyone or run a school, and I don’t know how practical all the testing would be. I’m sharing them here since the feedback from those who have read them has been positive, and they may help direct those who are having trouble figuring out what to work on.

Some people object to formal belt tests, and I understand their usual criticisms, especially if there’s a price for testing. A good instructor gauges their students’ progress and readiness for promotion through daily training. So this may just be an exercise for me laying down what I’m looking for in a blue belt, even though I may never run these tests. If it ever does become a real standard for my students, then it will remove the guesswork so my students know exactly what to expect.

These requirements may seem exhaustive, and the blue belt test may seem like too many techniques, but I don’t expect anyone to pass these with 100% accuracy. My reason for requiring so many techniques at blue belt is I feel that is the right time to make someone show you they are aware of the breadth of BJJ fundamentals, without worrying too much about how deep their knowledge is or how skilled their performance is. The purple belt and up are not really about what techniques you know (you’re assumed to know all the important ones by then) but other qualities like timing, use of combinations, depth of knowledge, etc.

Path to Blue Belt – Testing Requirements

The goal of these requirements is to clearly explain what is expected of you as you earn stripes on your white belt and eventually test for your blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Other important factors also play a role in your promotion, such as how long you have been training, your attendance record, your behavior in and outside the gym, your performance against resisting opponents, your tournament performance, your physical conditioning, previous martial arts experience, etc. Your instructor is already gauging these daily. The formal tests below give us a chance to ensure you are gaining the necessary knowledge and skills to build a solid foundation in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

The focus of a white belt trying to earn a blue belt should be on learning defenses, escapes, good habits (like defensive postures and good base) and self defense, and those are where the most technical proficiency is expected at testing. A basic knowledge of takedowns, positions, strategy and submissions is also needed, but a deep understanding and flawless execution is not expected or required.

If you need help learning something required for a test, you should ask your instructor or a more experienced student for guidance. Try to find a training partner who wants to put in extra work, ideally another white belt who is also preparing for their next test too.

Remember that your goal should not be to get a piece of colored cotton, but to improve your jiu-jitsu, your mind and your body. The belt represents the recognition of your instructor for your dedication and skill. It’s hard not to be eager to earn your first belt, but if you make your goal to constantly learn and better yourself, the belts will come naturally.

White Belt, 1st Stripe

What is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?

  • Explain how jiu-jitsu came to Brazil, and how it developed into an unique system.
  • Explain what jiu-jitsu translates to and its meaning.
  • What makes it different than Japanese jujitsu and judo and other martial arts like karate?
  • What is your instructor’s lineage back to the founders of Brazilian jiu-jitsu?

Basic Movements

  • Forward breakfall
  • Sideways breakfall
  • Backward breakfall
  • Shrimping
  • Reverse shrimping
  • Bridging to all fours
  • Technical stand-up
  • Box sit-outs

White Belt, 2nd Stripe

Three Ranges of Combat

Explain and demonstrate the three ranges of combat: stand-up, clinch, and ground. What are their advantages and disadvantages and what are your goals in each range? How do these change for a BJJ match, a MMA match and a self defense situation? You are not expected to demonstrate any specific techniques in detail, but need to show a basic understanding of the three ranges.

Defensive Postures

Show the correct defensive postures and grips from these inferior positions:

  • Rear mount
  • Mount
  • Knee-on-belly
  • Side control
  • Turtle
  • Half guard

You do not yet need to know how to escape these positions, just how to safely protect your arms, neck and face.

White Belt, 3rd Stripe

Positional Hierarchy

Explain and demonstrate the hierarchy of these grappling positions: rear mount, mount, knee-on-belly, side control, turtle, half guard, open guard and closed guard. You should be able to explain the advantages and disadvantages of each position from both the top and bottom, and what your basic goals are from each. You are not expected to demonstrate any specific techniques in detail, but to have a general understanding of the positions and the proper way to hold them.

Basic Positions

As you explain the positional hierarchy, also demonstrate how to properly hold these positions:

  • Rear mount (harness or double lapel grip, two hooks, why you don’t cross the feet)
  • Mount (collar grip, crossface, hands wide)
  • Knee-on-belly
  • Side control (head-and-arm, 100 kilos, cradle, how you block the guard return)
  • Side ride (top of turtle, front, back and side)
  • Half guard top (underhook and crossface)
  • Posture in closed guard

White Belt, 4th Stripe

Awareness and Self Defense

Explain the role awareness plays in protecting yourself, and how you would responsibly defend yourself and use Brazilian jiu-jitsu outside the school.

Self Defense

  • Defending punches and haymakers
  • Defending kicks and knees
  • Achieving the safe clinch
  • Escape from front bear hug over the arms
  • Escape from front bear hug under the arms
  • Escape from rear bear hug over the arms
  • Escape from rear bear hug under the arms
  • Escape from standing front headlock/guillotine
  • Escape from standing side headlock
  • Escape from standing rear headlock/rear choke
  • Defending strikes from closed guard
  • Standing up from closed guard while defending strikes
  • Defending strikes and getting to your feet while downed versus standing attacker

Blue Belt

Of everything tested for your blue belt, escapes from inferior positions, especially side control, are the most important. Because being stuck in bad positions is the biggest problem for beginners, you will be expected to have worked hard to overcome this. You can have a rough areas still (especially submissions), but you will not receive a blue belt if your escapes are sloppy or rely too much on strength or flexibility.

Positional Escapes

Demonstrate and explain the following:

  • 2-3 escapes from side control (return to guard and getting to your knees)
  • 2-3 escapes from mount (shrimping to guard, bridging escape and reversal)
  • 2-3 escapes from rear mount (while face up and belly down)
  • 1-2 escape from knee-on-belly
  • 1-2 escape from north-south
  • 2-3 escapes from turtle (sit-outs, reversals and returning to guard)

Submission Defenses

  • Defending the guillotine from guard (protecting the neck, passing to the correct side)
  • Defending the armbar from guard (stacking and freeing the arm)
  • Defending the armbar from mount (bridging to knees and stacking)
  • Defending the rear naked choke (protecting your neck, trapping their arm)
  • Defending the collar choke from guard (protecting the neck and breaking grips)
  • Defending the collar choke from mount (protecting the neck and escaping mount)
  • Defending the triangle choke (how to avoid it, early escape and late escape)
  • Defending the kimura from guard (how to avoid it, early and late escapes)
  • Defending the omoplata from guard (how to avoid it, early and late escapes)
  • Defending the straight ankle lock (how to avoid it, how to escape)


  • Good posture, grip fighting and footwork
  • Hip throw
  • Uchimata
  • Osoto-gari
  • Uchi-gari
  • Tomeo-nage
  • Fireman’s carry
  • Double leg
  • Single leg
  • Rear takedown
  • Sprawling to defend takedowns
  • Pulling guard

Guard Passing

  • Posture in closed guard
  • 2 ways to open closed guard
  • Stacking pass
  • Double under pass
  • Over-under pass
  • Bullfighter pass
  • Cross knee pass
  • 2-3 half guard passes (underhook, facing legs, etc.)


  • Advancing from side control to knee-on-belly
  • Advancing from side control to mount
  • Taking the back from mount
  • Taking the back from side control when they turn away
  • Taking the back from the front headlock/sprawl
  • Taking the back from side ride/top of turtle
  • Taking the back from the bottom of half guard
  • Returning to closed guard from half guard


  • Scissors sweep
  • Pendulum sweep
  • Hip bump sweep
  • Double ankle grab sweep
  • Overhead (feet on hips) sweep
  • Tripod sweep from spider guard
  • Sickle sweep from spider guard
  • Hook sweep from butterfly guard
  • Armdrag from butterfly guard


  • Guillotine from standing
  • Guillotine from closed guard
  • Kimura from closed guard
  • Armbar from closed guard
  • Collar choke from closed guard
  • Triangle from closed guard
  • Omoplata from closed guard
  • Armbar from side control
  • Kimura from side control or north-south
  • Armbar from mount
  • Americana from mount
  • Arm triangle from mount
  • Collar choke from mount
  • Rear collar choke from rear mount
  • Rear naked choke from rear mount
  • Straight anklelock


You will be paired up with several partners of different sizes and experience levels (including your instructor) to do positional and free sparring. You are not required to “win” these matches, and you will not fail if you tap to submissions. The goal of this sparring is to test specific skills in live grappling, as well as your physical conditioning and endurance.

Attributes of a Blue Belt

  • Good base and balance while on top
  • Good posture and arm positioning while on bottom
  • Not committing basic mistakes or being clueless in common positions
  • Capable of defending against an untrained attacker
  • Able to maintain composure and not panic when stuck in bad positions
  • Able to skillfully perform one or more basic moves from each major position
  • Physically fit and able to complete each round of sparring without needing to stop

What’s Pareto know about BJJ?

This is my reply to The Pareto principle and progress: playing the percentages in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu by The Jiu Jitsu Laboratory. Read that first to get what I’m talking about here.

If I understood it correctly, the Pareto principle states that 80% of the jiu-jitsu techniques are owned by the wealthiest 20% of Italians…

I liked Jiu Jitsu Laboratory’s article overall, because it raises good points about how to make the most of your training. It is easy to go flying off in every direction, and sometimes you need to be brought back down to the ground.

Jiu Jitsu Lab shares my skepticism of the 80/20 “rule” truly being a rule. Like he pointed out, it’s overreaching to apply an economic ratio for Italian wealth to every other aspect of life, BJJ included. It may have been an accurate description of the situation at the time, but it’s not a scientific principle that can be applied to everything. Hey, maybe we can make up a 99/1 ratio thanks to the current Occupy movement! Someone get Malcolm Gladwell’s agent on the phone!

What is more valuable is the idea that a small percentage often has a greater effect than the majority. Applying this to BJJ, it encourages you to find those moves that give you most of your success and investing time and attention in them. No one is going to be able to make full use 100% of the techniques they learn. They are better off finding what works for them most of the time, and then finding what details in those moves they can further improve.

Jiu Jitsu Lab’s point about the definition of “the basics” being nebulous is a good one. Everyone “knows” what the basics are, but no one can completely agree on them. We all get that some moves are more important than others, and some are better to teach to beginners than others. Maybe they are what Helio laid out as his curriculum, or maybe they aren’t.

Let’s look a move that is taken for granted as a basic in all grappling arts: the bridge. As universal as it’s assumed to be, you can find different opinions on it.

At the Carlos Machado seminar I attended, he confessed he never used the upa escape from mount. He just didn’t like it and felt it was too much work. He did a mount escape that rolled the guy over, but it was based more on sideways hip movement (circling under them) and a little bump, but not truly bridging.

Rickson, per what I’ve been shown by a few of his students, does the complete opposite. He wants them bridging all the way off the top of their head like a wrestler. This is in line with his “connect your entire body to the movement” philosophy. (Personally, my back and neck aren’t strong enough to do this.)

Like Carlos, Michael Jen made similar statements about his personal grappling system not really using a true bridge. To quote him:

You can definitely become proficient without a strong bridge. You need to be able to do a general bridging motion as far as just lifting your hips. However, you do not need to have the power bridge to bail your opponent over in order to have an effective game.

In fact, my BJJ game does not rely on strong bridging ability. It hate bridging and avoid doing it if possible. I had a bulging disc in my low back and I really lack flexibility in my back as far as bridging. When I try to arch back, my wife teases me and calls it a “broken coffee table” rather than a bridge.

When it comes to my side mount escaping system, I never bridge my opponent over. I only use small bridging motions to create space or momentum.

Yeah, I do wish that I made a better bridge. That is just like how I wish I could put both of my feet behind my head. Though developing flexibility like that would be very beneficial, I prefer to spend my time developing technique that is less attribute oriented.

Roy Harris (another Joe Moreira black belt like Jen) is the complete opposite, claiming the upa is the most important fundamental move that he built his grappling around.

Roy Harris once wrote an interesting article about how he doesn’t believe it’s possible to train without attributes, though he includes sensitivity and timing as attributes (which some debate.) Michael Jen, a peer of Harris’, makes similar points about how no one truly trains with zero strength and flexibility unless they are a corpse. The goal is, of course, to limit and reduce the amount of strength, flexibility and other physical factors as much as possible.

One definition for “the basics” that people aren’t always aware they are using is “those moves I learned first.” I actually have no problem with this approach as long it’s successful. It works if they were good moves and your instructor knew what he was doing. But it doesn’t answer why you learned them first. Did your instructor have a thoughtful reason, or was it just what he learned first too?

Leo Kirby, a brown belt under Marcelo, has a funny story about that. He had a white belt end up training with him at his “work on DVD moves” open mats because that the only time they could make it. He warned them that the techniques wouldn’t be “basic”, but they didn’t care. So they learned x-guard, armdrags, etc. from Marcelo DVDs. (Helio turns in his grave.) But later when Leo saw them in a normal class, they were doing x-guard fine against other beginners. That’s when he decided that “the basics” were just whatever you learned first.

A BJJ teacher once posted online about how he teaches the butterfly guard to beginners for their first trial class. This was controversial, but his argument was that it was less awkward than making them close guard on strangers, and it taught them to make space and safely stand up, which he felt was an important lesson especially if they never came to another class.

My perspective is that as long as a technique is built on the “true” basics of leverage, positioning, momentum, timing, balance (or off-balancing), etc. and it deals with situations that would realistically come up, then it is as basic as you want it to be. I’ve had white belts doing the reverse omoplata with no problems. They just need to understand how and when it works (and when it doesn’t work). Of course, just because they can do it, it doesn’t mean it’s the most important skill for them to be learning at the time.

Now to turn my logic on itself, I can’t teach “basic” concepts like momentum and leverage by standing in front of a class and saying “F = ma! M = Fd!” We’re not doing a physics class, we’re doing jiu-jitsu. Students need something to do, and that’s going to be practicing a technique (or at least a “movement” of some kind.) As an instructor, I can teach those techniques I feel best impart an understanding (or at least a practical application) of these concepts.

We can apply different reasoning to what makes certain moves “advanced” or “basic”. Let’s take Danaher’s rules for what he calls a basic technique:

  1. the technique must work for anyone at any proficiency level
  2. the technique must work for anyone who is competing at any weight class
  3. the technique must work for any body type

Per those three points, the heelhook is a basic move, at least in an abstract sense. But at the same time, few instructors would recommend teaching heelhooks to beginners because “it’s a basic”. We understand it takes a sensitivity that beginners don’t have (unless we don’t care about injuries.) To qualify as basic or not, do we need to consider more attributes like balance, coordination and timing?

I consider standing up to break closed guard a “basic” technique because I learned it my first day (as many white belts at my gym have), but it took me almost two years to be able to perform it without getting swept for trying. This breaks Danaher’s first rule, but I bet he teaches a similar move anyway (or has a way of arguing that it doesn’t break his rule.)

We could also say that a basic move should be one that is going to be needed in more fights than a nonbasic move. But then we need to look at context. Are we talking about a street fight? White belts in sparring? Purple belts in a tournament? Black belts? MMA fight?

Headlock escapes are basic moves that are needed in street fights and white belt matches that are never needed in any of those other situations.

Can an advanced move still have “basics” to it? People will call x-guard advanced, but it’s really just about using butterfly hooks and shifting your hips under their base. Does that justify teaching it to beginners or not?

The traditional standard of teaching moves that work for a weaker, smaller person against a bigger, stronger opponent is one I agree is valuable. But what are its limits? How much smaller and weaker or bigger and stronger are we talking about? Everything breaks down at some point.

But maybe we just worry about this stuff too much as nerdy white guys. Most black belts don’t care about this. Maybe they can explain underlying theories, or maybe they can’t. They just teach what they know works, and no one can argue with results.



Realistic Goals for White Belts

Too often, beginners get discouraged because they set unrealistic goals they can’t achieve in a few classes or even a couple months. They’re ambitious goals like:

  • Submit that purple belt.
  • Not tap to anyone all night.
  • Pull off this awesome submission.

This is normal, but here is what an instructors is usually looking for in their white belts:

  • Basic conditioning.
  • Improving balance and coordination.
  • Learning the names for things.
  • Persistence and regular attendance.
  • Paying attention to instruction.
  • Diligence in drilling.
  • Being willing to spar even if they think they’ll “lose.”

As a beginner, going in with unrealistic goals sets you up to feel like you “failed” even when you didn’t. When talking with beginners, I often help them see that rock bottom goals are better, since they are realistic and attainable. Big goals like “Get my black belt one day” are good too, but start with baby steps. Here are example goals for a new white belt:

  • Remembering a technique you learned in the past.
  • Not having to sit out and rest during class.
  • Finishing full rounds of sparring – no sitting out.
  • Not getting swept as quickly.
  • Not getting submitted so quickly.
  • Seeing where you could do a technique you learned (whether or not you get it.)
  • Learning a technique and using it in sparring the same night.
  • Knowing the names of the positions and techniques.
  • Escaping bad positions or at least preventing submissions.
  • Being better at a move the second time you drill it.
  • Not panicking.
  • Not holding your breath.
  • Not being too tense.
  • Not burning out your grip by holding on too tight.
  • Coming to 2-3 classes per weekly regularly.
  • Having a really hard night and still training again the next day.
  • Giving a higher belt some trouble (even if just holding him in your closed guard so he can’t pass.)

How quickly a beginner gets past these and into more fun goals like “Develop my half guard” and “Hit triangles on everyone” depends on a lot of things (mat time, previous martial arts or wrestling experience, etc.) but when 9 out of 10 people quit BJJ in their first few weeks, it seems worth looking at things from this level.


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.

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