[BJJ FAQ started 20/07/2008, last update 26/12/2017
©Can Sönmez – Please do not copy BJJ FAQ online or in print without permission]
This FAQ has been going since 2008, so some links may be dead. To reactivate them, use the Wayback Machine. Also, please let me know on firstname.lastname@example.org, so I can update.
– What is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
– What should I look for in a good school?
– Where can I find a school in my area?
– What should I wear to my first class?
– How should I approach class?
– What happens in the average BJJ class?
– Where can I find some decent BJJ advice on the net?
– How about podcasts, blogs, forums, that kind of thing?
– Wow, BJJ is expensive! I’m not sure I can afford it.
– Can I learn BJJ from videos/DVDs/books?
– I’m a woman: is BJJ right for me?
– Is BJJ suitable for children?
– Am I too old for BJJ?
– Where can I find a good gi?
– What size gi should I buy?
– How should I wash my gi?
– Are there any restrictions on what kind of gi I can wear?
– What is the difference between gi and nogi?
– How long should I wait before competing?
– What are the rules in BJJ competitions?
– How often should I train BJJ, as a beginner?
– Is BJJ worth it if I can only train once a week?
– Is BJJ just a sport, or will it teach me self-defence?
– I want self defence against multiple opponents: will BJJ help me?
– What is the difference between Gracie Jiu Jitsu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
– What is the difference between Japanese Jiu Jitsu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
– What is the difference between Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
– What is the difference between SAMBO and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
– What is the difference between 10th Planet JJ and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
– I’m out of shape/overweight: should I get fitter before starting?
– Will getting stronger help my BJJ?
– I get tired quickly when sparring: what can I do?
– I’m frustrated with my lack of progress: how can I overcome this?
– What books and/or DVDs would you recommend for a beginner?
– What are the belt ranks in BJJ?
– Why do some belts have stripes?
– How do I get a blue belt?
– How long will it take me to get a black belt?
– I feel like I don’t deserve my new belt: is that normal?
– How do I avoid injuries in BJJ?
– I’ve injured myself, but don’t want to stop training: should I go to class?
– I’ve injured my arm/wrist/hand, but don’t want to stop training: can I train around it?
– I’m worried about getting cauliflower ear: how do I avoid it?
– What protective equipment do I need for BJJ?
– How soon should I train after a new tattoo?
– What are staph infections, and how can I avoid them?
– Does size matter in BJJ?
– I find it tough against bigger people: what should I do?
– I’m big: how should I approach training?
– What if I have long hair, jewellery or piercings?
– Can I train BJJ if I’m pregnant?
– What if I’m menstruating?
– What is a good style to cross-train with BJJ?
– What is the point of starting from your knees when sparring?
– Should I use ‘dirty’ (but still legal) tactics in class?
– Why are heel hooks frowned upon?
– I’m planning a trip to go train in Brazil: any advice?
– Will we ever see BJJ in the Olympics?
Introduction: If you’ve ever been in Bullshido’s Newbietown subforum or the r/bjj subreddit, you’ll recognise a lot of these. I have a text file I often copy and paste in response to common questions, so it’s about time I consolidated all that here. As with all my longer articles, this FAQ (on the off chance you don’t know what that stands for: Frequently Asked Questions) will be a work in progress, so if anyone has other good BJJ beginner questions they’d like answered, stick up a comment and I’ll see if I can help.
If you’re wondering about my experience (full background here), I’ve been training since November 2006. I got my blue belt in February 2008 from Jude Samuel, then my purple in March 2011 from Kev Capel and Roger Gracie, most recently receiving my brown belt from Kev in December 2017. I also teach at my school, Artemis BJJ in Bristol. While I still have a lot to learn myself, hopefully I’ve now learned enough that I can offer some help to those just starting out.
Also, please let me know if there are any broken links: they should all be working at the time of writing, but it’s always difficult to keep track of changes to external websites (especially as I first started this FAQ way back in 2008).
What is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
Short version: BJJ is a grappling style that grew out of judo. It emphasises fighting on the ground, specifically how to reach a controlling position, then finishing with a choke or joint lock (there are no strikes). Sparring is a major part of training, and ranking is normally based on performance.
This also means that competitions are a central part of BJJ, with some schools taking into account competitive success when grading students. However, it is certainly not compulsory: many people choose not to compete. For an example of a match, see here.
Long version: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (commonly abbreviated to BJJ) is a martial art concerned with how to fight on the ground. The object is to submit your opponent: they will indicate their submission by tapping their hand on either the floor or on you (the latter is a safer option, as it results in a quicker response).
BJJ grew out of judo, beginning when a Japanese judoka living in Brazil taught judo to a local, Carlos Gracie. Carlos then taught it in turn to his brothers, most notably Hélio. Eventually the Gracie brand of what they called ‘jiu jitsu’ (confusingly for posterity, this was a common term for judo in Brazil at the time) spread throughout the country. This was made easier by the fact that the Gracie family was and is huge: Carlos had four brothers and over twenty children.
[For a much more detailed look at the historical origins and later development of BJJ, see here. For more on the differences between BJJ and judo, see here.]
The style would later journey to the US and the rest of the world, initially thanks to two of Hélio’s sons, Rorion and Royce. Rorion set up a no-holds-barred competition, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, to showcase what was then referred to as ‘Gracie Jiu Jitsu.’ There were few rules, and those few – such as no biting and no eye gouging – only resulted in fines rather than disqualification.
Rorion’s younger brother Royce won three out of the first four of these events, bringing GJJ to a wide audience, especially in the US. Eventually the UFC, along with other promotions such as the currently defunct Pride FC in Japan, would inaugurate a new sport, mixed martial arts. Proponents of GJJ, including other members of the Gracie family, would continue to succeed in these events for many years.
[For an extensive look at that seminal first UFC, see here. For further information on the development of mixed martial arts, see here]
After some legal tangles instigated by Rorion, who wanted to trademark the name ‘Gracie Jiu Jitsu’ (in Brazil, the style is simply referred to as ‘jiu jitsu’), other schools began calling it ‘Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’. This is the name which has since become most popular outside of Brazil and the Gracie Academy. There are now schools all over the world, along with opportunities to compete at the local, national and international level.
While BJJ competitions start standing, the goal is to submit your opponent: unlike judo, even a perfectly executed throw will not win the match outright. Standing submissions are possible, but rare: the fight will almost always end on the ground, either by a joint lock or choke. If time runs out before one competitor submits the other, the decision will be based on points (e.g., achieving the mount position gets you four points, so if that was all that happened during the bout, you would win 4-0). For more on competing, read this.
Here is a video from a BJJ competition, which should give you some idea of what the sport (if you’re wondering why I’m using ‘sport’ and ‘martial art’ interchangeably, see here) looks like in action:
What should I look for in a good school?
First of all, I’d recommend you take a look at the Bullshido FAQ on finding a good martial arts school. In general, signs to look for are a competitive record, regular heavy contact sparring and ‘aliveness’ (basically, progressive resistance. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, Matt Thornton has a long article on the topic describing what it is and why it’s important: he is the man most associated with popularising the concept). Those don’t tend to be a problem with BJJ, but it would be a concern if any of those were absent.
It would also be worth taking a look at who gave the instructor their belt. Generally BJJers are proud of their rank and will be more than happy to tell you where they got it from: after all, it takes a long time to get anywhere in the sport, so people rightly see it as an achievement when they get into the higher belts. Instructors will normally be at least a purple, but there are a fair few blue belts teaching as well: again, it takes a long time to get anywhere, so there are certainly blue belts out there with a great deal of experience and plenty to offer to beginners.
If the lineage isn’t clearly listed on the school website, that would be unusual, and may be worth looking into further. For example, you’ll normally see some kind of affiliation, like Gracie Barra, Carlson Gracie, Alliance, Royce Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Roy Harris etc, and then the specific details in the instructor biography. For example, a Gracie Barra site might well state that the instructor got their black belt from Carlos Gracie Jr, sometimes with a picture.
You’ll also want to check that the class times fit with your schedule. Bigger schools will have lots of options – for example, I used to train at the Roger Gracie Academy, which offered classes every day except Sunday. That gives the students a lot of flexibility. Smaller schools may not be able to offer quite that many sessions, so check which days they have classes.
Cost is another important consideration. Often this is done on a monthly basis, sometimes with different payment schemes depending on how many times a week you want to train – for example, when I trained at Gracie Barra Birmingham, they had options for two and three times a week, along with a price for unlimited classes. With all those class options, a big school may also have a big price tag. If you’re getting instruction from a top black belt in a large city, that could be up into three figures: both Roger Gracie’s in London and Renzo Gracie’s in New York would fit that description. You’re going to get excellent training for the price, but it’s a significant financial commitment.
If the price is too high, don’t worry: you can find cheaper ways to train. I’ve got a few suggestions here.
Once you’ve decided on a school to try out, they often have a trial class in order to give you a chance to see if you like the place. That should give you the opportunity to chat to the instructor about any concerns you might have, and they’ll most likely also bring up payment options after your intro (e.g., that’s the way it worked at Roger Gracie’s, and I think Renzo’s too).
Also, while it may seem like a minor point, check the mats are clean. Hygiene is important. There are numerous dangerous infections that can be problematic in close contact grappling sports like BJJ, wrestling etc (you may have heard of staph, MRSA, ringworm etc). Dirty mats greatly increase your chances of catching something unpleasant.
Where can I find a school in my area?
There are several school databases you could try:
Gym Database (BJJ, MMA etc)
UK BJJ Map
Other custom maps on Google cover San Diego (by Caleb, from the Fightworks Podcast), Florida (by some guy listed as ‘Gary’) and finally there’s this big one simply called ‘Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Gyms’ by somebody posting as ‘Misho’, which as far as I can tell is a whole load of places around the US rather than a specific state.
You could also try forums like Bullshido. For Asia, see here.
What should I wear to my first class?
Ideally, you should wear the standard training uniform, referred to as either a ‘gi’ or sometimes, a ‘kimono’ (generally only in Brazil: if you’re interested in the history of the gi, see here). This consists of a jacket and trousers (typically cotton), designed to cope with the strain of being twisted and yanked. It also comes with a belt, to tie the jacket closed: for your first class, this will of course be a white belt (there are five main ranks in BJJ: see here for more on that).
However, if you don’t have a gi yet, it is normally ok to just wear some loose trousers and a t-shirt, or a t-shirt and shorts. Make sure that there aren’t any zips or pockets, as those could either scratch your training partners, or catch fingers and toes. You can always buy a gi later, once you’ve decided you want to stick with BJJ. For some advice on what to buy, see here. Similarly, don’t wear jewellery and tie back long hair (see here for more details).
Alternatively, you may decide you’d prefer to go to what’s called a ‘no-gi’ class. As the name suggests, this type of training is done without a gi. That means a t-shirt and shorts is fine, or better, a rash-guard and shorts. For more on the differences between gi and no-gi, see here.
How should I approach class as a beginner?
Here are my top five tips:
The biggest mistake most new people make is treating every spar as life or death, clinging on desperately trying not to ‘lose’, or using as much muscle as possible so they can ‘win’. Save ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ for competition: in class, just concentrate on improving your technique. It doesn’t matter if you get tapped along the way.
Relaxing also helps to avoid injury: if you’re so focused on ‘not losing’ that you don’t tap, you’re liable to hurt yourself. Relax, tap and start again, instead of holding on until something breaks, putting you out of training for weeks, months or even years.
2. Ask questions
Don’t be afraid to talk to people. If you’re confused by something in drilling, find the instructor and ask them to help you out: after all, you’re paying them to teach you. Similarly, after sparring, if you don’t understand what you did wrong, ask your partner. They’re in a great position to tell you.
3. Find a good training partner
Following on from the previous point, if you find somebody is particularly helpful in drilling, provides useful advice after sparring, and/or generally stays controlled and technical when rolling etc, stick with them. Good training partners will have a hugely positive effect on your progress.
Of course, a good training partner will normally be more experienced than you. Someone who spouts off without knowing what they’re talking about becomes irritating rather than helpful. Having said that, it is possible to learn from anyone, so don’t be close-minded.
4. Maintain good hygiene
I can’t emphasise this enough. Not only is it extremely skanky to train with an unwashed gi, it’s also dangerous. There are lots of nasty bacteria waiting to jump all over your skin in sweaty grappling sports, and infections can even be fatal (MRSA, staph etc).
Stay safe by taking a shower after training, then wash your gi once you get home. I would advise owning more than one gi, meaning that you can wash your gi after every session you train. No-one wants to train with the stinky grappler, and if you come in with infections (be that fungal, like ringworm, or the really dangerous stuff mentioned earlier), you’re quickly going to become very unpopular.
Also, be sure to keep your nails short. Otherwise, you’re liable to cut people, which again is not going to impress your training partners.
5. Keep training
BJJ is a difficult sport, and that means there is a high turnover of white belts. Lots of people start, get frustrated, then quit. Accept that the first few months are going to involve a lot of you getting squashed under somebody else. Stay consistent, eventually you’ll get the hang of things.
For an excellent list of advice in a similar vein, see BJJ Grrl’s “Dos and Don’t“, or for another superb set of tips, Levo’s old piece on beginning grappling. Finally, read Georgette’s advice on staying clean.
What happens in the average BJJ class?
I started BJJ at the Roger Gracie Academy in 2006 and have since trained at many other clubs. Based upon that, this is the average class structure I have observed (see my BJJ glossary if you don’t understand the terminology):
Normally running round the room, with variations like knees up, heels up, sprints, circling the arms etc. That will generally be followed by breakfalls and/or shrimping. Some schools will then also include a two-person exercise (such as fireman’s carry, throws up and down the room, running while one person holds the other’s belt etc).
The instructor will normally show between one to three techniques (any more than that and it becomes difficult for students to retain information). These are then drilled. Some schools like to start with a takedown or some ‘self defence’ drills (such as compliantly escaping bear hugs: I don’t find these very useful, but to each their own). Every BJJ school will include groundwork techniques, unless it is a specific takedown or self defence class. The whole week or longer may be geared around similar techniques: for example, in my first week, I attended three sessions, all of which focused on a standing guard pass and a sweep. At Gracie Barra Birmingham, there was a ‘position of the month’ (an excellent system I’ve continued at Artemis BJJ), while RGA Bucks had a ‘position of the week’.
3. Specific sparring
By that, I mean the sparring is started from a particular position, such as from guard, with a predetermined purpose, such as passing the guard or sweeping/submitting, after which the spar restarts. This occasionally goes from standing, so working throws, single leg takedowns etc. If the class is only an hour, it may finish there, sometimes with a warm down and stretch. This was the case at the Roger Gracie Academy: full details of all the RGA beginner classes I attended here.
You may be free to pick your own partner, you might be paired up by the instructor, or there may be a ‘king of the hill’ system. That means you line up against the wall, a certain number of people go to the mat, then everyone still by the wall pairs up with them. Whoever achieves their goal (e.g., if it’s from guard, sweeping, passing or submitting) stays on the mat while their partner goes to the back of the line. There are other variations, but that’s the most common set-up I have seen.
4. Free sparring
The RGA advanced class (details of those here) was half an hour longer, which was made up of free sparring. You normally start on your knees, unless you’re doing competition training and keeping things as close to a tournament as possible. That is normally split into five minute rounds, but that can vary from school to school. Again, you may get to pick your partner or the instructor may pair you up (this has the advantage that they will normally account for size, skill, strength etc).
5. Warm down
Although some classes will simply finish, a well-structured class should include a warm down. Often this tends to consist of stretching, but sometimes the instructor will make it a bit more active and do some more star-jumps, tuck-jumps etc.
I’d advise bringing along a bottle of water to avoid dehydration. There will generally be points during class at which you can go quickly have a drink, or there may be designated water breaks. A good instructor will make sure their students stay hydrated to avoid injury.
Where can I find some decent BJJ advice on the net?
The below is based on a list of threads I have frequently posted up in response to that question on Bullshido. I’d especially recommend the first one, as that has been of huge benefit to me personally: I read it before I started training, and it’s effectively become my blueprint for how to approach class:
Training, Stagnation and Tapping
Maximizing what you get out of rolling
Protecting Yourself During Sparring
BJJ Rolling Guide for Beginners
Grappling Basic Principles
Tim Peterson’s Conceptual Advice for Beginners
10 Quick Tips for White Belts
First Day Lesson
And the following articles:
Starting BJJ Classes
Nuggets of Advice
Beginning BJJ (free e-course and e-book)
The Journey to Blue Belt
BJJ Grrl’s Dos and Don’ts
Finally, here are a few more you might find useful once you’ve read the others:
Learning Guard: Recommended Progression?
Full/closed guard for the smaller guy
Leg Locks = White Belt Forever?
How about blogs, podcasts, forums, that kind of thing?
Short Answer: I’ve got a list of all the ones I’m aware of, split into blogs, podcasts and forums. If anyone reading this is aware of any others, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list. 😉
Long Answer: In terms of picking out my favourites from the lists above, I would say the must-listen podcasts are Fightworks Podcast, Take It Uneasy and Aesopian.
The main forums I frequent are r/bjj, Sherdog and The Underground. The most welcoming is probably Jiu Jitsu Forums, which also has (or had, when I was there regularly) the highest proportion of women posting. The Underground has a much more right wing and occasionally ‘bro’ flavour, but it also has the most black belts posting regularly. Sherdog has a lot of trolls, mitigated by the handy ignore feature (click on the troll’s profile, then ‘Add to Ignore List’ to stop seeing their posts), while r/bjj’s up and down-voting system (it’s on reddit) can be a useful indicator of whether the link and thread is worth looking at (though sometimes misleading: pointless picture memes often get a lot of upvotes).
Finally, it is hard to pick out my favourite blogs, as there are so many and new ones are constantly popping up. So, I’ll narrow it down to six and stick to ones I’ve been reading for a long time and have consistently enjoyed: Georgette, Megan, MegJitsu, JiuJiu, Aesopian and Meerkatsu.
Wow, BJJ is expensive! I’m not sure I can afford it.
Yes, BJJ is often pretty pricey. It can be off-putting, but keep in mind that BJJ is still young, internationally speaking. Once there are more quality instructors available and the supply therefore rises to meet demand, prices will drop. To see this in action, go to Brazil: you should notice a significant decrease in cost, because BJJ has been there since 1925.
If you are concerned about cost, don’t worry: there are several options open to you. First, as BJJ is growing rapidly, there may be some less expensive schools in your area. If you’re in a big city, especially in the US, then that’s a distinct possibility, so have a look around to see what’s available.
Secondly, it may be that the school has several payment options, with costs per class reducing if you train more frequently. For example, there may be monthly options for twice a week, three times a week etc. You might also be able to pay per class, though sometimes that is the most expensive option (again, depending how much you are able to train).
Thirdly, see if there are any schools headed up by a lower belt. Purples and browns may not be black belts, but unless you happen to be a purple or brown yourself, then that doesn’t matter too much. Even if you are, there are examples of lower belts actually teaching their students to a higher rank than themselves. For example, Darren Currie was well known for this, though it’s certainly rare.
Fourth, if starting BJJ is important to you, take a good look at your budget. It may be that there are things you can cut out in order to get together the money for BJJ. For example, perhaps you are paying a high rate for your phone, or you drive when you could cycle, or you spend a lot on drinks when socialising. You might also try asking the instructor if you could get a reduced rate by helping around the school, cleaning the mats, etc.
Finally, don’t forget about other grappling styles. If BJJ proves to be out of your price range at the moment, then judo is an excellent substitute. You won’t normally get the same amount of groundwork, but a good judo school will split their time equally between tachiwaza (throws) – the main strength of judo – and groundwork (newaza). Judo is the parent art of BJJ, so there is a great deal of cross-over between the two styles (see here for more on the links between BJJ and judo). Most importantly for the question of cost, judo tends to be both much cheaper and far more widely available than its Brazilian descendant.
Judo isn’t the only possibility. There is also wrestling (if you’re in the US and in education, then I would urge you to join the wrestling team: it will be of huge benefit if you later start BJJ) and SAMBO, both of which I’d be happy to recommend to somebody looking for an alternative to BJJ. If you have the time, it’s not a bad idea to cross-train in both BJJ and a style like judo, wrestling or SAMBO, as those three arts all have great takedowns. BJJ does include throws, but not to the level of judo, wrestling or SAMBO (for more on SAMBO, see here).
You could also try taking off the gi (sparring without the gi is known as nogi, which some BJJ schools offer) and looking into submission wrestling. This has grown with the advent of MMA, and again tends to be a little less expensive than BJJ. Also, you obviously won’t need to buy a gi, which could help with the cost.
A slightly different option would be a mixed martial arts (MMA) gym (though technically MMA is a ruleset rather than a specific style), which combines grappling with striking. The few classes I’ve attended were only £5 a session, though that was some years ago. An example of a well known MMA gym would be Team Quest.
Can I learn BJJ from videos/books/DVDs?
Books/videos etc are supposed to supplement training, not form its basis – especially for beginners, it’s essential to have an instructor physically present. Unlike a DVD/book/video, they can correct your mistakes (which otherwise you’ll continue making and thereby entrain bad habits) and modify their advice depending on your particular situation: bodytype, experience, strength etc. Not to mention you could potentially injure yourself and/or others if there isn’t an experienced eye supervising.
That isn’t to say DVDs/videos etc are useless, but I find they work best when you’re refining what you already know. For example, say you can’t quite remember how that scissor sweep went last night in class, YouTube might well have something to jog your memory. However, even when going down that route, your instructor (or failing that, a senior student who’s willing to help out) should always be your first port of call. That’s both for the reasons above and the fact that you’re paying them to teach you, so it would make sense to get the most out of your investment.
Once you’ve begun training under an instructor and are looking for supplemental material, see here for my suggestions. Alternatively, if you absolutely insist on learning from DVD (perhaps the nearest school is hundreds of miles away), then I would suggest taking a look at Gracie Combatives, designed as a home study course. However, once again I would emphasise that DVDs will never be an adequate substitute for qualified instruction at a reputable school.
I’m a woman: is BJJ right for me?
BJJ is an excellent choice for women. In terms of self-defence, BJJ is perfect from a female perspective, as it deals with the unfortunately common self-defence situation of rape: BJJ features a lot of attacks and defences when someone is in between your legs. It is also a martial art which was designed for a smaller person to overcome a larger one, which again has clear applications for women’s self-defence (see Allie’s article on the topic).
However, while BJJ covers the ground in thorough detail, it is worth noting that it does not deal with strikes. For the complete picture, you may want to cross-train in something like boxing or muay thai (further thoughts on self-defence here).
In terms of sport, BJJ is a great work-out (see the Fightworks Podcast for a good discussion, along with this story of a 42 year old mother of two: other awesome women into or past their 40s and training are Dagney, Fenix, Felicia, Val, Jen, Shark Girl, Cynthia and Debra), and far more interesting than running on a treadmill at the gym. Fitness is one of my big reasons for training in BJJ, as I found the gym a little dull. BJJ keeps me interested, because it’s a complex sport: there’s always something new to learn.
As I’m normally one of the smallest guys in a class, I’ll gravitate towards female training partners. For the same reason, when it comes to free sparring, if there’s a woman on the mat, she’ll be the person I pick to roll with. There’s one woman in particular, Christina (you’ll see her mentioned frequently in my RGA posts) who was an awesome training partner. I was fortunate that the Roger Gracie Academy HQ had a decent number of women, so I normally got to roll with at least one each class, sometimes as many as three or four.
It is true that comparatively speaking, there aren’t many women in the sport at present, so it’s likely you will have to spar with men. However, I don’t think that’s a cause for concern: in my experience, the women at RGA have no trouble training with the men, particularly when the man in question is a small guy like myself.
Then there are inspiring examples like Penny Thomas: she has both competed and won against men, earning a silver medal in the men’s brown belt division at the 2007 Triple Crown. You can see from her pictures that she is not a hulking mound of muscle: she won through technique. The idea that women are somehow “inferior” to men in BJJ (or indeed anything else based on skill) is utterly ridiculous, as Thomas has convincingly demonstrated.
If you’re training for self-defence, then it also makes sense to train with somebody whose bodytype is more likely to match your typical attacker: a large male. That option is open to you in a BJJ class, where training partners tend to be helpful and happy to give out advice. On a practical note, you may find this useful if you have long hair.
I would love to see more women in the sport, so I hope you’ll decide to check it out. There are even women only classes available in some places, like Gracie Barra America, though as I said, I don’t think you should have a problem training in a mixed class. As you’ll need a gi, have a look here for lots of female specific gi reviews, written by women.
If you need some inspiration, you could read what some other women BJJers have written. Take a look at these blogs by Georgette (check out her female-specific gi reviews), Julia, Leslie (awesome post on training BJJ as a woman here), Skirt on the Mat, Jo (who has an excellent series of articles on her blog), Jen (also check out her awesome BJJ resources site for women, here), Shama (a top competitor at 114lbs), Felicia, Meg, Ashley (she’s put up a women in BJJ resources page, here), Bunny Jiu Jitsu (lots of advice for fellow female BJJers, including BJJ while on your period) and Val. Also be sure to read clinzy’s awesome post on training with women, whether you’re male or female.
You could also listen to this episode of the Fightworks Podcast, all about women. Then there’s this interview with the aforementioned Felicia Oh. There is also further reading on the excellent Grapplearts website, here, here and here, along with Fenom Kimonos’ piece on Kristine. Mike Calimbas also wrote a great piece on women training BJJ in Texas, with numerous contributions from the relevant women.
I’ve written some articles related to women in BJJ myself, and been fortunate enough to receive some great guest articles about women in BJJ for the site: you can find all of them here. I’d also recommend reading this awesome article about male privilege and BJJ by Julia.
I’ll finish with two videos. First, here’s a vid of some of the women at kimonogirl talking about what BJJ means to them:
Second, Kendra Jones created an awesome video about the team at Maxercise in Philadelphia, which gives you a flavour of what a class is like, as well as the thoughts of the women who train there (be sure to check out her training partner Katie’s blog, which is where I saw the video):
For more videos, see this tribute to women in BJJ and this documentary following world champion Hillary Williams at the Mundials.
I’m looking for a martial art for my daughter/son: is BJJ suitable for children?
Yes, BJJ is suitable for children. For example, here in the UK there is a fantastic instructor of children, Felipe Souza. I had the pleasure of being taught by him for a while at RGA, and I also got the chance to watch him teach the kids class, as I often arrive early. Felipe manages a good balance of games to keep the younger kids interested, along with enough discipline to stop things getting out of hand. I’ve trained with several of the kids who have been brought through the system, and been suitably impressed by their skills.
Felipe opened up his own academy during 2008, in Battersea and Willesden, having given years of good service to RGA. I can unreservedly recommend his instruction for your children (or indeed yourself, as his instruction of adults is equally good), if you live in London and find his academy’s location convenient.
If you’d rather train BJJ at home with your children, the Gracie Academy has come out with a well-regarded home study course for kids, called Gracie Bullyproof. That’s available either as a DVD, or an online curriculum, here.
Judo would also be a good choice for your child. Be sure to take a look at the Bullshido FAQ on choosing a martial art – there’s a section there on children, from which I’ll quote (there’s plenty more relevant material in the article itself):
It must be understood that there is a significant psychological difference between striking and grappling for a young child. Striking implies far more violence and anger; and the immediate emotional response to being struck will vary greatly from child to child. Striking is something that a child learns to do out of anger long before they learn to walk or talk. Striking is a primal, animal reaction to a negative stimulus, and as such will require far more emotional maturity before it can be instructed properly. Getting hit pretty much always hurts, whereas grappling tends only to hurt when a mistake is made. Pain avoidance is the average American child’s primary subconscious drive. If something hurts, most children under 10 will avoid it at all costs.
Young children adjust to grappling long before they can adapt psychologically to striking. Children invariably begin wrestling without the guidance of adults as a recreational activity anyway, so providing technique and structure for it is a fairly natural progression. For very young children (under 10) grappling styles are learned most easily and create a solid base in the most prevalent ranges of combat. For a video of young children learning how to grapple please see:
Am I too old for BJJ?
No: whatever age you are, it’s not too old for BJJ. My favourite example when it comes to this question is Tony Penny. He started training at RGA when in his eighties, earning his blue belt in 2007. There’s also Pete Griffiths, who at 69 not only trained in BJJ, but has gone on to fight in two mixed martial arts events and earn his purple belt at 72. Then there’s Ormond Morford, who three years after retiring decided to start BJJ at the age of 60.
So while it’s a cliché, it really never is too late to start. Pete has some encouragement and advice for the over 60s on Meg’s blog. Then there is Lily Pagle, who earned her black belt from Matt Thornton at the age of 61.
There’s also a good thread with discussion of training in your later years (especially how to cope with injury, arthritis etc) here. Then there’s this useful post over on Steve’s blog. I’d also recommend taking a look at some more tips from the brilliant Grapplearts website, here and here.
You could also check out the Roy Harris instructional, BJJ Over 40 (my review of that DVD, part of Roy Dean’s re-release collection The Best of Roy Harris, is here).
Where can I find a good gi?
This is a really common question, and there are a lot of different options. Personally, I would recommend the Tatami Nova as your first gi: see my review here. They’re cheap, high quality and well-fitting.
If you’re in the UK, buying from Tatami also means – for those of us in the UK – that you don’t have to deal with high shipping costs or the possibility of being hit with customs and tax (although Tatami are an international company, so that’s true for various other parts of the world too). Many gi companies are based in the US or Brazil, so the Wales-based Tatami Fightwear is a useful exception for the UK market. There are also companies like Black Eagle, Strike Fightwear and Faixa Rua.
I often hear good things about Fuji and HCK, which like Tatami are both inexpensive (the Fuji All-Around is $94). HCK also has the advantage that for an extra $10, you can buy different size trousers from the jacket. Useful if you’re tall or short for your weight.
Another option is to get a judo gi. My first gi was a basic Blitz Kokuba judogi, which cost me £20 through the university judo club. That is still in working order now. I also picked up a cheap one from Black Eagle (£26.95, last time I checked), which I’ve reviewed here.
At the more expensive end of the market, there are brands like Shoyoroll. Again speaking personally, I wouldn’t want to pay that much for a gi, as I think manufacturers like Tatami offer comparable quality at a vastly decreased price. However, that’s not to say a pricey Shoyoroll gi is bad: if you can afford it, then from all reports, they’re excellent. You could also look into ultra-light gis, like the Tatami SubZero, or the even lighter option of an all-ripstop gi (I review one of those here).
If you’re a woman, there are various manufacturers who produce gis with gender in mind: the best known is Texas based Fenom, who produce quality gis for less than $100: the Fenom Lotus is only $80. There is a large collection of female gi reviews here. For some more reviews (though most of these have been cross-posted to the aforementioned women’s gi review site), check out Georgette’s long post, where she looks at four of her seven gis.
Joker Jitsu has a huge number of gi reviews, so that may well be worth checking out too. Finally, if you want a really thorough discussion of the topic, take a look at Meerkatsu’s post.
What size gi should I buy?
Sizes can vary depending on manufacturer, though normally they are called things like ‘A1’, ‘A2’ etc. Personally, I wear an A1 in most gis: I’m 5’7 and 145lbs. There will normally be a sizing chart which lists A1, A2 etc, then a corresponding range of height and weight: for example, on the Padilla & Sons site, it states that A2 is intended for people between 5’6″ – 5’9″ and from 140- 165 lbs. However, my Black Eagle Basico and Predator gis also fit me, and those are both A1.
If you are especially tall or short for your weight, that may mean that the trousers could be too long or not long enough. Some places let you buy different size trousers to the jacket for this reason, like HCK. The best thing to do is email the manufacturer and ask them. Also keep in mind that there are not only multiple different materials a gi can be made of (e.g., cotton, hemp and even wool/polyester blends), but numerous weaves as well: Fenom Kimonos have a great post up explaining some of the varied options here.
It is worth noting that most gis need to be shrunk to fit: i.e., either in a hot wash, putting them in a spin-drier until they’ve shrunk to your size, or both. Going by the Padilla ones I’ve bought, the single weave was a relatively good fit after three washes (30 degrees celsius) and 30 minutes of spin-drying on a low heat setting. Note that it is important you don’t spin dry your gi unless you’re trying to shrink it, as spin drying can cause damage and shorten the lifespan of your gi. My Black Eagle gis were pre-shrunk and treated to prevent further shrinkage, so stayed much the same as when I first unwrapped them.
How should I wash my gi?
Once you’ve bought your gi, be careful: if you stick it in the drier or on a hot wash, it’s liable to shrink, as they’re normally 100% cotton. Often you’ll need to shrink them the first time (some come pre-shrunk, but I’ve had to shrink all of mine), but after that, avoid putting them in a hot wash and definitely don’t put them in the spin drier. Wash them at 30 degrees or less, then hang to dry. For this reason, it’s sensible to have several gis you can cycle between.
If you’d like further information on washing the gi, see Steve’s excellent post on the topic. Also be sure to check out this great interview by Megan, where she talks to a microbiologist about keeping clean in BJJ.
Are there any restrictions on what kind of gi I can wear?
As a general rule, you should wear a gi designed for grappling, like a judo or BJJ gi. If you wore a karate gi or taekwondo dobok, it would probably rip, because they are not designed for the kind of stress a lesson of BJJ or judo puts on a gi.
For example, your gi will be called upon to support your entire bodyweight at various points, such as during throws. You’ll also have people pulling on the fabric as hard they can, attempting to release your grips, control your limbs, choke you with the collars etc.
I’m not sure there is a rule against wearing other types of gi, but even if not, it would be inadvisable to do so due to the durability issue.
Some competitions will only allow certain colours of gi, but many don’t care, so you can happily wander in wearing pink, camo, green etc. The same goes for schools, some of which even insist on a specific ‘official’ club gi (such as certain Gracie Barra academies). However, in both cases, you should check with the organiser or instructor in case there are limits.
You should also be aware that if you’re going to wear a gi that makes you stand out, you may well get more attention when the time comes to spar. This is why some people wait until they feel confident in their skills before wearing a particularly flashy gi. See this thread for a related discussion.
Of course, as long as you keep within any regulations a particular tournament or club might have, there is no reason you can’t wear whatever you want.
The same applies to patches, although there are some restrictions under IBJJF rules (though remember, the IBJJF is a business, not a governing body, so their rules aren’t binding: see here for more on that). On the official website, there is a drawing of acceptable patch placement.
In terms of the actual cut, BJJ is not as strict as judo on things like sleeve length etc, but again, it is worth checking with the specific tournament or club. I personally have never had any problems, and I wear both a judo and a BJJ gi. Of course, I’ve only ever competed once so far, and only in the UK.
What is the difference between gi and nogi?
Simply put, gi training involves wearing a heavy cotton jacket and trousers, while nogi (also written as no-gi and no gi) is normally done in a combination of a rash guard or t-shirt with shorts or gi trousers.
The main difference I find between rolling with a gi and without is that for the former, it’s possible to slow things down, meaning that the spar tends to be more about technique rather than strength or speed. Physical attributes come into it a lot more with no-gi: though they’re certainly not absent in the gi, they can at least be negated to a certain extent by all the handles a gi provides. No gi is normally also, therefore, faster paced than gi.
So, as a small, fairly passive guy, I prefer gi. Though no gi is nice for a change, and means my fingers have a chance to recover from all the gripping. I’m not sure whether one or the other helps with skill development, though I’d lean towards the gi due to – in my experience at least – the lesser impact of strength and speed, meaning technique becomes more important.
Of course, I’m much more used to the gi and it’s what I started with. Most of this blog is therefore about gi training, though I do have some nogi entries here. I’ve also often rolled nogi at throwdowns.
When should I compete?
In my experience, you can enter a tournament as soon as you want. If you’re unsure, ask your instructor: most of the time they’ll encourage you to go for it, whatever level you’re at. Competition is a big part of BJJ, though it’s certainly not obligatory: many people choose not to compete (for more on the topic, read this article).
However, it is worth trying at least once, as it’s very different from sparring in class. I would say that competing is probably the best way to gauge your current level in BJJ, as unlike class, a competition guarantees that your opponent will be trying their hardest to prevent you applying your technique. In class, that may not be the case, for a whole bunch of reasons: your partner may have just come back from an injury, perhaps they want to work a specific position, maybe they’re going light because they’re much stronger than you, etc.
Indeed, I’d find it detrimental to approach training with a ‘win/lose’ mentality outside of competition: far better to focus on improving technique. If you get tapped along the way, or tap someone else, doesn’t matter.
For some good advice on preparing for a competition, see Georgette’s fantastic advice. I’d also recommend checking out The Jiu-Jitsu Brotherhood.
What are the rules for BJJ competitions?
Short Answer: The closest thing to a universal ruleset is from a company called the IBJJF, here, but that’s just one tournament provider out of many (although it is the biggest and most prestigious). Many competitions are based on giving points for dominant positions, like mount and side control, where you can therefore win either by submitting, getting more points or referee’s decision. Others are submission only, like US Grappling, where the only way to win is by tapping out your opponent. Either way, always check the rules you’re going to compete under on the website in advance and attend any rules meetings.
Long Answer: There is no unified set of rules for all BJJ competitions, but there are some companies providing competitions who are larger than others. The biggest company is the IBJJF, which sometimes operates as a de facto governing body, but is in fact a profit-driven business. The primary concern of the IBJJF is – like any other business – making money, rather than improving the sport or supporting participants.
Nevertheless, the IBJJF currently has the most prestigious gi competitions (with a price-tag to match), which means numerous BJJ schools train with the IBJJF ruleset in mind. For example, the IBJJF reserves certain leglocks for particular belt levels, as well as banning techniques like heel hooks outright. There are logical reasons for that, but many competitors take issue with the decision. Grappling’s most prestigious nogi event, the Abu Dhabi Combat Club World Submission Grappling Championship (better known simply as the ADCC), allows heel hooks and has a quite different set of rules.
It is worth knowing the IBJJF rules, as a lot of competitions take their lead from them: the rulebook can currently be found here. However, keep in mind the numerous other competition providers out there, such as US Grappling, renowned for running competitions like clockwork. They are also pioneers of the push for submission only competitions (as opposed to the points system used by companies like the IBJJF), having run numerous sub only tournaments (with no time limits, unlike a number of other so-called sub only competitions) since 2008. As the name suggests, the only way to win is to submit your opponent.
By contrast, in a points tournament, there will normally be points awarded for achieving certain positions of dominance, such as mount and side control. You may also receive points for sweeps, while some competitions controversially use ‘advantages’, for things like near-miss submissions. Depending on the size of the competition, there will also tend to be age, weight and belt categories, as well as an ‘open’ division all weights can enter. Victory is accomplished either by submissions or by receiving more points than your opponent over the allotted time. In the case of a draw, there may be a referees decision.
Whatever competition you enter, be sure to check the website and/or contact the organisers to clarify the rules under which you will be competing. If there is also a rules meeting before the tournament starts, it would be in your interest to attend. Getting refereeing experience is also a good idea, as that will further refine your understanding.
How often should I train, as a beginner?
How many days you train depends mainly on three things: time, money and fitness. Most people would advise at least twice a week if possible, but even that can be difficult depending on your job, family commitments, university/school coursework, financial situation etc.
The timetable of your school is obviously also a major factor: if there are only two or three classes on offer a week, that makes your decision for you, but at a large school like the Roger Gracie Academy, there is training available every day except Sunday. When you’re first looking for a school, the frequency of classes – especially how they fit around your own schedule – should be a major factor in your decision, assuming you have a choice of several places to train.
If like me your time is limited, make sure you get quality, as you can’t have quantity. Take copious notes, make a concerted effort to really concentrate when your instructor is showing technique, and ask as many questions as possible. There are people who have managed to win the European Championships at their belt level after only training once a week, according to a post on the now-defunct EFN (which annoyingly I can’t dredge up from the internet archive: it used to be here).
If you’re fortunate enough that time isn’t a problem, then I’d suggest between two and four classes, giving your body the chance to rest at some point during the week. Consistency is the key, so it would be better to have a smaller number of classes that you make every week, rather than bursts of intense training split up by long gaps.
Particularly when you’re just starting out, it’s easy to overtrain due to enthusiasm (remember to relax): that will be detrimental in the long run. You need to let your body get used to the level of exercise, especially if you haven’t done comparably intense physical activity before on a regular basis.
Having said that, I can think of several training partners at my academy who train every day the gym is open. Generally they’re very fit and have a lot of free time, or shifts at work that match the school timetable. So it is certainly possible to train basically all the time, but take good care of your body if that’s the route you want to go down. Get plenty of sleep, eat a good diet and don’t try to train through injuries.
What if I can only make it once a week?
Obviously that isn’t ideal, but if you make sure that once a week is high quality, then it’s worth it.
For example, if you come in with a clear plan of what you want to work in sparring, take lots of notes, then supplement it (keeping this advice in mind) with videos, books and careful consideration of what you’ve learned afterwards (I have some more tips on approaching training here).
There are a number of times when I’ve only been able to train once a week (as you can see here), but I’ve still found it beneficial. After all, I’m not in this to be better than everyone else. I’m happy as long as I can be better than the me of a few months/years ago.
Is BJJ just a sport, or will it teach me self-defence?
Short Answer: BJJ can help with self defence, but it certainly is not the complete picture. The ‘soft skills’ (verbal de-escalation, understanding legal ramifications, staying aware of your surroundings, etc) are much more important than ‘bear hug escape number 3’.
Long Answer: There are several elements to that question. First off, ‘sport’ BJJ is no less effective than what some people market as ‘self defence’ BJJ. They are the same thing: ‘self defence’ BJJ is nothing more than fundamental BJJ, which you’ll be taught at any good school. The difference is marketing rather than anything significant.
Also, being a sport does not make something ineffective. The “just a sport” argument is a common accusation levelled against certain combat sports (judo gets this criticism too sometimes). Taking part in competition (a defining characteristic of a sport) does not automatically mean a style is useless for self-defence. It merely means that it’s possible to use the techniques of that style in a regulated environment, which conversely can result in people who are capable of defending themselves using those same techniques, presuming it’s trained with ‘aliveness’ (in short, progressive resistance: if you’re not familiar with the term, read this).
This is in direct contrast to ‘self defence’ techniques, which are frequently taught in a compliant drilling environment. Certain people place great stock in statements like “that’s just a sport, whereas MY martial art is far too deadly for competition”. What they really mean is that they never train their ‘self defence’ techniques under pressure, and therefore lack any verification that what they’re learning or teaching actually works. In a combat sport like BJJ (or indeed wrestling, boxing, judo etc), you immediately get feedback on what works and what does not, because you spar against full resistance.
This argument even crops up within BJJ itself, most notably by the Gracie Academy in Torrance. They have repeatedly claimed that there is a difference between the ‘self defence’ jiu jitsu they teach, and what they refer to as ‘sport’ BJJ, allegedly taught by everyone else. If you want to read more about that aspect of the debate, see my review of Gracie Combatives. For more on the supposed split between Gracie jiu jitsu and Brazilian jiu jitsu, see here.
Either way, BJJ is not the complete picture for self-defence: it’s great for when you find yourself on the ground. “95% of real fights go to the ground” is frequently quoted as a statistic, and while it is almost certainly not that high a percentage, events like the early UFCs demonstrated that it’s a distinct possibility that even if both people involved don’t know any grappling, the fight will often end up on the ground. However, BJJ does not provide a detailed understanding of striking.
If you are looking for realistic self-defence, you should therefore also train in a stand-up style, such as boxing or muay thai. Judo would be another good option, as throws translate well to a self-defence situation. In addition (and more importantly), there are all the psychological, environmental, chemical and legal factors involved in self defence, which few martial arts even begin to cover. For that, I’d go to someone like Geoff Thompson. There is a really good discussion of self defence as it relates to BJJ by old school black belt Perry ‘shen’ Hauck, here.
See also Petter’s article, Kintanon’s post on a similar topic and black belt Rob Taylor’s thoughts, along with my article on competition.
I want self defence against multiple opponents: will BJJ help me?
To answer this one, I’ll turn to the Bullshido FAQ:
There is no evidence that striking is any safer than grappling when fighting multiple opponents. Fighting several attackers is a losing proposition for anyone, grappler or striker. It’s not impossible but it is very unlikely. People who think they can fight multiple people without getting seriously hurt tend to have watched a few too many kung fu movies.
The best defence in this situation is to run away. The second best defence is to have a weapon (or three).
Grappling and ground-fighting skills are essential in a multiple opponent scenario with weapons involved. Put simply put you need grappling/groundfighting skills to utilize a weapon effectively when escape is not an option.
A weapon is not a magic wand. It often requires time or multiple successful attacks to remove an attacker from the fight. In the meantime dog-pack tactics are likely to be employed against you. A multiple opponent scenario where escape and evasion is not possible is by definition “close quarters”.
To escape from a clinch, takedown, tackle, or pin requires personal understanding of how it is executed. It may take minutes for an attacker who has been stabbed to cease all resistance, and a bludgeoned opponent may collapse on you or pass out with a death grip on parts of your anatomy.
No part of a multiple opponent scenario is pleasant to contemplate, but whether you can run or must fight, the grappling and groundfighting skill-sets are essential if you want to live through a bad situation. Hopefully you won’t have to use them, but they are critical insurance when things go pear-shaped.
Roy Dean has an interesting post on the topic at his blog. You could also have a read of what Rickson thinks, from his old Black Belt column
What is the difference between Gracie Jiu Jitsu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? ^
Mostly marketing. Rorion Gracie trademarked the name ‘Gracie Jiu Jitsu’ in 1989, having begun teaching in the United States during the late seventies. This would result in litigation against other members of his family teaching the sport. Carley Gracie in particular got into a legal tangle: you can read the proceedings here (as far as I understand it, the trademark is no longer valid, but I’m no lawyer so could be misreading the court documents).
Later, there was another case involving Rorion’s own brother, Rickson (details of that one here). The end result is that people started using different names, like Carlson Gracie Jiu Jitsu, Renzo Gracie Jiu Jitsu, and most commonly, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. In Brazil, it’s just referred to as ‘jiu jitsu’.
There have also been claims, again mostly from Rorion and the Gracie Academy, that Gracie Jiu Jitsu is self-defence, whereas Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is just a sport. I’ve only trained once at the Gracie Academy so far, so I don’t have much first-hand experience of their teaching and training methodology. My response to the general question of sport versus self-defence is here.
However, you could have a read of Yrkoon9’s post for one opinion on GJJ versus BJJ. For another ‘sport vs self defence’ perspective, take a look at Rob T’s story of how he used BJJ in a self-defence situation.
Further emphasising that ‘sport’ vs ‘self defence’ division is the Gracie University online training, launched in early 2009. This is a continuation of Gracie Combatives, where it will eventually be possible to not only get a ‘Gracie Combatives blue belt’, but ranks all the way up to four stripe brown. Even more controversially, you’ll be able to test for these belts via video (paying $85 for the privilege, each and every belt and stripe requiring more money), without ever stepping foot inside a BJJ school. I go into much more detail here, in a review of the Gracie Combatives DVDs.
What is the difference between Japanese Jiu Jitsu/Traditional Jiu Jitsu/Ju Jitsu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
Short Answer: JJJ/TJJ is often more compliant than BJJ, as it doesn’t always include sparring against fully resistant opponents. Therefore BJJ is normally a safer bet if you are looking for quality groundwork, but JJJ/TJJ covers a lot of schools, so it’s tough to generalise.
Long Answer: ‘Jiu Jitsu’ (which has a number of variant spellings, most commonly ‘jujitsu’,’ju-jitsu’ and ‘jujutsu’) originated in Japan, the clearest date being 1532AD, when Takenouchi Hisamori founded his Takenouchi ‘ryu’ (the Japanese term for ‘school’), apparently based upon sumo (the national sport of Japan, which has a long history as a martial art). For more, see my historical summary.
As ever with history, particularly martial arts history (where there is sometimes a perceived need to present a martial art as ‘ancient’), the exact date is contentious. You’ll see people talking about the samurai using jiu-jitsu on the battlefield, while others like to claim jiu-jitsu traces its lineage back to China. There is even a popular myth that Alexander the Great is ultimately responsible: supposedly his soldiers brought pankration with them during the invasion of what is now India, after which an Indian monk brought martial arts to China, which in turn found their way to Japan. To further confuse you, many ‘Japanese Jiu Jitsu’ (JJJ) and ‘Traditional Jiu Jitsu’ (TJJ) schools have only emerged in the last few decades, founded by people in places like the UK, US and Australia.
That was especially the case after martial arts really started to take off in the West in the 1970s, thanks to Bruce Lee and the kung fu film industry his career largely helped to popularise. You also had a number of servicemen in the 1950s and 1960s who learned jiu-jitsu while on duty overseas, then brought back what they had been taught, sometimes giving it a new name. So in short, if you see a school with jiu-jitsu/jujitsu etc in the title, don’t assume it’s directly from the misty Japanese past.
Having said all that, I would advise you don’t get too caught up in the history. It is interesting to study from an academic perspective, but it has little impact on the practicality of any particular martial art. What is most important is the training methodology, which is where most schools under the broad terms ‘Japanese Jiu Jitsu’ and ‘Traditional Jiu Jitsu’ differ from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Many JJJ/TJJ schools do not train with what’s called ‘aliveness’ (basically, progressive resistance working up to full-contact: read this for a comprehensive introduction), unlike BJJ. Instead, they will use compliant drills, or focus on kata (a pre-arranged set of movements). BJJ, on the other hand, is focused on sparring, meaning that you are actively testing your technique on a fully resisting opponent.
However, I should note that TJJ/JJJ covers a huge array of schools, so there is considerable variation: some don’t train all that differently from BJJ (Carlos Newton, a successful UFC competitor, has a background in something called ‘Canadian Jiu Jitsu’, which certainly seemed to work pretty well for him in the octagon), while others never spar and are more interested in historical recreation (not that there’s anything wrong with that, unless the style makes claims for efficacy). TJJ/JJJ also often includes striking, something absent in BJJ, although if the striking is trained without progressive resistance, then it’s not too useful.
Given all this variation, it’s difficult to generalise, but I’d normally recommend BJJ above TJJ/JJJ for those who want to learn how to fight effectively on the ground. As ever, the only way to be sure is to check out a class and see what you think: if the TJJ/JJJ school spars regularly with a decent level of contact, teaching technique with progressive resistance, then it may well be a good place to train.
What is the difference between Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
Short Answer: Judo is great on throws, less good on groundwork, while BJJ is great on groundwork, not so good on throws. Judo also tends to be cheaper and easier to find.
Long Answer: Judo was founded by Jigoro Kano in Japan, who had studied various styles of jiu-jitsu in the late 19th century. He realised that the big problem with what he had learned was the training methodology. That resulted in Kano instituting a focus on ‘randori’ (live sparring), along with ‘shiai’ (a form of sanctioned competition). Kano also removed the so-called ‘deadly’ techniques from the jiu-jitsu he had studied (things like eye-gouges, groin strikes etc), which made randori and shiai much more viable.
That had the end result of considerably increasing efficacy: because those early judoka (judo practitioner) could train ‘non-deadly’ (in the sense that you don’t have to fully crank an armbar, lock on a choke etc, as your opponent has the option of tapping before serious damage) techniques full-contact, they became highly proficient, and in fact more ‘deadly’ than their non-sparring contemporaries in what might be called ‘self-defence’ orientated styles. As John Danaher puts it in Mastering Jujitsu, “the deadly techniques favored by so many traditional martial arts have only a theoretical deadliness with little practical deadliness.” (pp17-19). For more, see my historical summary.
Since Kano’s innovations, judo has grown to become one of the biggest martial arts in the world today. There have also been changes to the average judo club’s syllabus: thanks in large part to its inclusion in the Olympics, high amplitude throws are now the main focus of judo (as that is what wins competitions: the rules are geared toward throwing your opponent rather than grappling them on the ground). This means there is less time for ‘newaza’ (groundwork), although a good judo school will try to divide teaching equally between ‘tachiwaza’ (throws) and newaza. Most importantly, judoka still train randori against fully resisting opponents, so they get that essential feedback on whether their technique is effective or not.
A judoka, Mitsuyo Maeda (he’s known by various names, but that’s the most common), brought the art to Brazil in the early 20th century, where he taught it to the Gracie family. At the time, the name ‘judo’ wasn’t set in stone, with people still referring to Kano’s style as things like ‘Kano jiu-jitsu’. Hence in Brazil, the term ‘jiu-jitsu’ stuck.
From judo, the Gracies developed their own variation of the style, which has become known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (in Brazil, it’s normally just referred to as ‘jiu-jitsu’). Unlike judo, BJJ focused more on groundwork, so the evolution of the sport went in the other direction, with highly developed groundfighting, but less attention to throws. BJJ also retained the approach to live rolling, so as in judo, you test your technique against fully resisting opponents.
Judo has spread all across the world over the course of the 20th century, so there are numerous high level judoka teaching pretty much everywhere. That means that supply is high compared to demand, so you can normally find good quality judo relatively cheap. BJJ, on the other hand, has only got going internationally since Royce Gracie showed his stuff in UFC 1 back in 1993. BJJ instructors are therefore far less common, meaning that it’s a lot more expensive than judo (unless you’re in Brazil, in which case BJJ has been there since 1925, so less costly).
If you can, it’s ideal to train both judo and BJJ, as that way you get great takedowns combined with awesome groundwork. However, if you have to choose between one or the other, your decision should depend on whether you prefer standing up or staying on the ground. Also, judo is usually more formal than BJJ, so if you don’t like bowing and using Japanese terminology, judo may be a bad idea. They’re both great grappling styles.
What is the difference between SAMBO and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
Short Answer: SAMBO, a Russian system, grew out of judo, so contains well-developed throws. It differs from judo and BJJ in its focus on lower-body submissions. Also, in SAMBO the typical training equipment is not the same as its parent art: practitioners wear shoes, a jacket (called a ‘kurtka’, comparable to a gi top) and shorts rather than a gi. Sport SAMBO does not include chokes, whereas the version known as ‘combat SAMBO’ does.
Long Answer: The story of SAMBO has certain similarities to the origins of BJJ, as like BJJ, SAMBO developed out of judo, but in Russia rather than Brazil. The individual responsible was Vasili Sergevich Oshchepkov, born on Sakhalin Island in 1892. In 1906, he was sent to a Russian Orthodox mission in Japan, later finding his way to the Kodokan during 1911. He would eventually earn his second dan in judo, and after three years, moved back to Russia. That same year, Oshchepkov opened the first ever Russian judo club, in Vladivostok.
In 1921, Oshchepkov went to work for the Red Army, introducing judo to Moscow eight years later. He organized Russia’s first judo tournament during 1932, then the following year published judo’s first Russian language rules. Unfortunately, a proposed competition between the Moscow and Leningrad teams in 1936 was prohibited by the Leningrad Sport Committee. Outraged, Oshchepkov wrote protests to various government offices, which led to his arrest. He was charged with being a ‘Japanese spy’ and sent to prison. In October 1937, he died from what was officially termed a “fit of angina.” His students took the hint, and in November 1938, Anatoli Arcadievich Kharlampiev announced the invention of ‘Soviet freestyle wrestling,’ which coincidentally looked a lot like Russian-rules judo.
Following World War II, Stalin decided that the USSR would compete in the Olympics. Since the Olympics already had freestyle wrestling, in 1946 Soviet freestyle wrestling was officially renamed SAMBO (an acronym for “self-defense without weapons”: in Russian, that is SAMozashcita Bez Oruzhiya). The chokes from judo were not included in what came to be known as ‘sport SAMBO’: according to this article, the reason may have been a desire to distance SAMBO from its Japanese origins.
The term SAMBO was thought up by Vladimir Spiridonov, who had studied catch-as-catch-can, Greco-Roman, and Mongol wrestling. Spiridonov had been developing a martial system concurrently to Oshchepkov, but the two strands later merged into what would become SAMBO. Spiridonov’s background in various native wrestling styles meant that his version of the sport shifted from Oshchepkov’s judo influences. That was further compounded by an injury Spiridonov had sustained in the past, leading him to favour low rather than high amplitude throws. While Oshchepkov could be said to be the father of sport SAMBO, Spiridonov is behind the military version, known as ‘combat SAMBO’. This included chokes, along with weapons and striking. Despite his contributions, as he had been an officer in the Tsarist army, his major importance to SAMBO was later downplayed.
Between 1921 and the present, SAMBO has diverged significantly from judo. For example, SAMBO players wear tight jackets (‘kurtka’), shorts and shoes (‘sambovki‘). In addition, they use mats instead of tatami: according to Kronos, this caused SAMBO coaches to stress groundwork and submission holds rather than high throws. Kronos also mentions the shift in philosophical emphasis from character development to sport and self-defence.
There has been some cross-over between SAMBO and BJJ, thanks to people like Rolls Gracie, who competed in SAMBO tournaments. The most important contribution has been SAMBO’s emphasis on leglocks, submissions which for many years were frowned upon in BJJ. Instructors like Roy Harris learned from SAMBO, seeking to incorporate leglocks into the curriculum of their school: this has continued to his students, like Roy Dean.
It should be noted that by unfortunate coincidence, ‘sambo’ has been used as an offensive racist term in the past, meaning that the sport is sometimes instead referred to as ‘SOMBO’. Alternately, because the Russian spelling in cyrillic characters is CAMБO, the term ‘CAMBO’ has also been used. See here for further discussion.
What is the difference between 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
Short Answer: A BJJ black belt called Eddie Bravo gradually moved away from the gi during his rise up the ranks. This led him to build up a series of techniques around a bottom position he calls ‘rubber guard’, for which flexibility is very important. Bravo also has a method for the top game, as detailed in his book, Mastering the Twister.
Bravo’s approach to the top and bottom positions in BJJ has become so intricate that he’s given the whole system its own name, 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu: it is also the name he uses for his growing organisation of schools. Unlike BJJ, 10th Planet JJ never uses the gi jacket, and Bravo also has his own separate terminology for all the techniques.
Long Answer: 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu is a system developed by a Machado black belt named Eddie Bravo, centering around a position he calls the ‘rubber guard’, drawing heavily on Bravo’s attribute of considerable flexibility (on that point, Calibur makes some interesting arguments here).
There is some debate about how much of this Bravo actually invented himself: Nino Schembri is often brought up as somebody who was using rubber guard years earlier. Bravo is also known for ‘twister side control’, building off what used to be his favourite submission, ‘the twister.’ This top game is explained in his book, Mastering the Twister.
Others have argued that Bravo is only successful because of his 2003 victory over Royler Gracie in Abu Dhabi. After defeating the legendary Brazilian, he then lost to Leo Viera in the next round. However, while that is certainly his most impressive achievement, the “one-hit wonder” accusation is a little unfair, because Bravo had a long and successful competition history preceding that event (as extensively detailed on his old DVD, The Twister). In 2014, Bravo fought Royler again at Metamoris III. Though the fight ended in a draw, Bravo was dominant: his performance impressed many, with repeated sweeps and some deep submission attempts.
Bravo’s main contribution is not creating new techniques, but rather arranging them into a complete system, which is cleverly strung together in his well-organised book, Mastering the Rubber Guard (though you may want to ignore the amusingly bizarre introduction, in which Bravo waxes lyrical about the dubious pleasures of marijuana). Beginning in half guard, Bravo shows you exactly how he would then move through to rubber guard, demonstrating numerous sweeps and submissions along the way, along with a few other positions (like butterfly guard) and troubleshooting for ‘what-if’ scenarios.
10th Planet JJ is exclusively nogi, which is one major difference to BJJ (though it is worth keeping in mind that as I mentioned, Bravo earned his black belt in ‘traditional’ BJJ, from Jean Jacques Machado). This is slightly complicated by Bravo’s insistence that you need to wear gi pants and knee sleeves for friction, but there are no techniques involving a jacket.
Another point of diversion is the way in which Bravo names techniques. Whether or not he created any of them, he does give all of his techniques unusual names, like ‘kung fu move’, ‘the truck’ and ‘the electric chair’. This also brings up one of the reasons Bravo is controversial, as along with his advocation of smoking pot, he also has techniques named things like ‘crack head control’, which some have found offensive.
Bravo’s ranking system is something else which has resulted in controversy, most notably in 2009. That year, two of his first affiliate instructors, Brandon Quick and Ari Bolden, came under heavy scrutiny. The lineage of Quick’s brown belt was revealed as false, and after lots of back-and-forth discussion on the internet, he quit the 10th Planet JJ organisation and then set up on his own (for more on that drama, see here and here).
Ari Bolden, known for the ‘Submissions 101’ videos, received a purple belt (or shirt, depending on who you ask) from Bravo. His lineage was not so much the problem, as Bravo has officially judged him a purple. Nevertheless, there have been lots of questions on Bolden: for yet more drama, see here, here and here. Like Quick, Bolden also left 10th Planet. As of early 2013, he has essentially been disowned by Bravo, ostensibly because Bolden is now focused on the gi (in which he is controversially ranked a brown belt).
Marketing is another issue, as the manner in which 10th Planet JJ is sometimes represented as a ‘revolution’ in grappling, with any who disagree discounted as ‘haters’, can be rather obnoxious. Whatever your views on Brandon Quick, Ari Bolden, Submissions101 or various other contentious elements related to 10th Planet, Eddie Bravo’s system of techniques is an interesting addition to BJJ. It is worth exploring if you happen to be flexible, especially if you like nogi. However, I personally think that 10th Planet JJ should be treated as more advanced techniques, to be left until later in your BJJ training. I would strongly recommend that you first master the fundamentals of BJJ before attempting what you’ve seen in Bravo’s books and DVDs.
I’m out of shape: should I get fitter before starting?
While it certainly doesn’t hurt to get fitter beforehand, it isn’t necessary. I’d strongly advise you to dive right in and start BJJ, as your fitness and skill level will improve through attending class regularly. If you’re holding off because you think you could do with a bit of preparation first or you’re overweight, you may never get round to actually training.
On the topic of weight loss through BJJ, see this Fightworks Podcast episode for a good discussion. BJJ is a brilliant way to get in shape, and indeed the fitness is one of the main attractions for me: it is much easier to stay motivated through an engaging, complex sport like BJJ than by running on a treadmill.
If you’re worried you’re ‘too fat’ for BJJ (short answer: you’re not), have a read through Julia’s inspiring post about what she learned on her journey (she started BJJ at 200lbs+ and has lost around 50lbs so far), ‘To The Fat Person Googling Jiu Jitsu‘.
Will getting stronger help my BJJ?
Building muscle can be a considerable benefit to your BJJ, particularly in competition. If your opponent is the same weight as you, but you’re built like a powerlifter and they are carrying a lot of excess fat, your strength will be an advantage. Size and strength make a big difference, all other things being equal.
However, you should never rely upon strength: as the old adage goes, there is always someone bigger. If your style is very strength-based, and you come up against someone even stronger than you are, you have nothing to fall back on.
Therefore your main focus should be technique, and gaining the experience to develop good timing. That has the added bonus that while strength can fade as you get older, your technique and timing should be relatively unaffected by the encroaches of age.
Also keep in mind that if the hypothetical flabby competitor happens to have much better technique and timing than you do, your strength will not be enough to overcome them.
I get tired quickly when sparring: what can I do?
As I mentioned in my tips, a common mistake many beginners make is wasting a lot of energy when they spar, using as much strength as possible. This means that they quickly become fatigued, even if they’re fit: trying to bench-press your opponent off you is not a sensible strategy.
If you find that you get tired quickly, the first thing you should do is focus on relaxing. Try to stay calm and technical, picking your moment carefully, conserving energy. Don’t panic if you’re caught in a bad position, and don’t forget to breathe. If they end up tapping you, it doesn’t matter: they’ll find it much easier if you’ve expended all your strength.
In addition, you could try working on your fitness outside of class (though remember, BJJ is a great workout in itself, so with consistent, regular training, your fitness will improve). If you have the time to add further exercise into your schedule – such as swimming, running, etc – it is well worth doing, as long as you don’t overtrain. Similarly, improving your diet and nutrition can be of great beneft.
However, if you aren’t able to relax in sparring, then better cardio will simply mean you can struggle a little longer than before. As Roy Dean puts it on his DVD, the aim is better fuel economy rather than a bigger gas tank. While in an ideal situation you would have both, learning to relax and develop good timing is the more important goal of the two.
I started BJJ recently, but I’m getting frustrated with my lack of progress: how can I overcome this?
Don’t worry: BJJ is difficult, so a lot of people get frustrated and demoralised. First thing to note is that the only person you should be measuring your progress against is yourself. Other people may train more often, have athletic ability, previous experience etc – although it’s natural to think “damn, that guy started the same time as me, I should be as good”, think instead “how would the me of today fare against the me of last month?”
Focus on a small number of techniques and concentrate on just working those in sparring. It may even just be that you steadily work one tiny part of a particular technique – perhaps where you want your hands to be at a certain point – but that all contributes to eventually getting the technique right, and in turn means you’re being constructive and have a clear goal to work towards.
I also find a technique-focused method of training helps with motivation, as it’s a useful way of ignoring ego: you’re not thinking about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, just making technical improvements. It doesn’t matter if you get tapped along the way, even if they’re a lower belt, as in Allie’s great post on the topic.
Following on from that, I’d strongly recommend keeping a training log. Personally, I’ve found doing so has been of massive benefit to my training: to copy what I wrote somewhere else, for a start it makes it easier to remember technique. The process of putting what you’ve just learned into words means you have to carefully think about exactly what you did in class. Even if your memory of it isn’t that great, that will still mean you know specifically which parts you’re unsure about, so can then ask your instructor next time you train.
That also helps with recollecting terminology, which I find can be a big problem in BJJ. Of course, that normally means you only learn the terminology used in your particular school, but still of benefit. Ideally, I’d like to be able to learn the most common terms used globally, as well as just in my school: it then becomes easier to search places like the net for hints and tips on specific techniques.
In addition to remembering technique, writing notes also means you can track your own progress, and identify what you feel you need to work on. As with writing up techniques, that then means you can concentrate on what went ‘wrong’, for want of a better word, asking your instructor and training partners how you could improve. So in effect, your notes become an action plan for the next sparring session.
Also, read this fantastic thread, if you haven’t already. This is also well worth a look.
What books and/or DVDs would you recommend for a beginner
As I advised earlier, books/DVDs should always remain supplemental to your training, rather than forming its basis. If you start trying to learn from DVDs and the like too early, you may be wasting your time, as you won’t yet have the frame of reference to benefit from the instruction. It’s best to always ask your instructor any questions, particularly as you are paying them to teach you.
Keeping that in mind, there is some instructional material available which I feel would be helpful to any beginner, presuming you’re already training at a legitimate school and regularly getting feedback from your instructor (or at least a senior student).
The first BJJ book you should pick up (if you can navigate the Kindle book buying process) is Mark Johnson’s Jiu-Jitsu on the Brain (full review here). There is no chance of Johnson overwhelming a fresh white belt with overly complex technique, for the simple reason that his book does not contain any techniques. The only photograph is on the cover. What he offers instead is much more valuable for a beginner: sound advice, from how to put on your gi to dealing with meatheads.
Another good option is Mastering Jujitsu, by Renzo Gracie and John Danaher. That has the big advantage of not overwhelming you with a bunch of complex techniques, but instead taking a detailed look at principles and theory. It also covers the history of the sport, and has general advice on training. My full review up here.
Once you’ve read that, I’d say the next book to get is Saulo Ribeiro’s Jiu Jitsu University. The first two chapters are ideal for beginners, with Saulo helpfully breaking down defence into survival and escapes. He methodically details how to work your way free, as well as common misconceptions. Later coverage of guard fundamentals is also good, with simple sweeps and submissions again described alongside typical problems. My full review up here.
Another excellent series of books to check out are the three volumes on the guard by Ed Beneville. They are a lot more technique-heavy, but particularly the first book (The Guard) still keeps things simple, starting off with basic drills, gradually showing how to apply the fundamentals of BJJ (e.g., how shrimping is applicable to certain escapes/submissions etc). Carefully laid out, clearly explained and well-presented. My full reviews here.
In terms of DVDs, I can wholeheartedly endorse Roy Dean’s Blue Belt Requirements for beginners. The 2 DVD set is a superb summary of the fundamental techniques and principles of Brazilian jiu jitsu. Dean is both eloquent and thorough, walking you through each technique while emphasising important details, before repeating the movement from multiple angles. My full review here.
A good follow-up to that would be the older Cesar Gracie instructional. That will provide you with some progression from the fundamentals you’ll learn from Roy Dean, as well as reviewing those same basics. He is especially good on offensive combinations, rounding out the material from Dean’s DVD.
Renzo/Kukuk is another option, though it hasn’t stood up as well as Cesar Gracie’s offering. Renzo and Kukuk’s teaching is great, made even more accomplished by coupling it with vale tudo footage, showing you the application under pressure. It is also cheap: for example, you can currently pick it up here for $42, which is very worth it considering you get five hours of instruction. One thing to keep in mind is that this does look dated when it comes to guard passing and takedowns: that last forty minutes should be taken with a very large pinch of salt.
On the net, I would suggest the following:
BJJ vids by Rowan Cunningham
Roy Dean’s YouTube channel
Grapplers Guide (a great resource, but note that unlike the others, this one requires paid membership)
Online sites like MGinAction and BJJ Library are great, but personally I would say they’re both a bit overwhelming for a beginner, especially MGinAction. I would suggest waiting until later before delving into them, as then you’ll have the necessary mat time to understand what you’re looking at.
What are the belt ranks in BJJ?
Everyone starts at white, after which there are four more:
There are also belts for children: grey, yellow, orange and green. Once the child has reached 16, they can become a blue belt.
The black belt has additional degree stripes, which are normally dependent on time. For example, the IBJJF mandates that once you have spent at least three years as a black belt, you can become a 1st degree. Not everyone is affiliated with that company, however, and therefore have their own system. For example, American Top Team gives out green belts to adults.
After several degrees of black belt, there is an honorary red and black belt, and finally a red belt. The highest level, 10th degree red belt, is restricted to the brothers of Carlos Gracie, as he and his siblings were the people responsible for originally developing the sport out of judo.
Why do some belts have stripes?
It takes a long time to achieve rank in BJJ (see here), the average being about a decade between white and black. Some schools break it up with stripes (normally from one to four), added to the black strip on a BJJ belt (due to the contrast between the black strip and white stripe, which therefore works for all belt colours).
Be aware that stripes are not used in a consistent fashion across all clubs (and some don’t use them at all). At RGA, stripes were mainly a matter of time, whereas in other clubs, it’s a direct reflection of skill. Also, sometimes the stripes aren’t white, but all sorts of colours. For example, I’ve been told that Rickson Gracie uses an entirely different system of stripes for his ranks, starting with a plain white belt, then a white belt with a blue stripe, blue belt, blue with a purple stripe etc.
Belts, on the other hand, are all about ability: your instructor will present you with a new belt when they can see you holding your own against the level above you in sparring. Competing can speed up this process.
How do I get a blue belt?
First off, it should be noted that a belt should never be your main goal: developing your technique is the important thing. If you get a belt along the way, that’s a bonus.
Having said that, at the average school, with regular training, it will take between 1 to 2 years to go from white to blue. Some places, like Roy Harris, have a set curriculum, but this is rare: at most BJJ clubs, promotions are not standardised, so requirements vary. However, one constant is success in sparring against those of your current level and the ability to hold your own against the level above.
Speaking personally, I started in November 2006 and received my blue in February 2008, after 131.5 hours of training. Full details on my spreadsheet, and you could also look through the rest of this blog: I have detailed every lesson, so you can see exactly what I did to reach blue belt.
My general advice (I go into more detail here) is to concentrate on the basics, relax, and don’t worry about who tapped who: in class, it’s learning, not ‘winning’ or ‘losing’. The important thing is to develop technique and keep turning up to class on a consistent basis.
How long will it take to get a black belt?
A long time: commonly, it takes between 8-10 years to get to black belt. There are some famous examples of people who have got it much quicker, most notably BJ Penn, who took only three years.
However, in every case I’ve heard, they’ve had lots of natural talent and trained pretty much all the time. There is no shortcut to grappling skill, but if you have oodles of free time and money, plus you’re sufficiently fit to train every day, it will be quicker. Be aware that it’s definitely possible to overtrain if you do that, as even if you have the time and money, your body may not be able to handle the intensity of BJJ every day.
Gracie Barra has minimum periods before promotion (though of course that is just one organisation: others have their own systems). Some people have wrongly misinterpreted the below schedule as somehow guaranteeing that you’ll get your belt upon reaching that minimum. This is a misunderstanding: the table details the fastest you could possibly get your belt (e.g., a truly exceptional student who trains every day). The majority of BJJers will take longer.
Most people train between two to four times a week. If you keep training regularly with the right approach (my tips on that here), you may not get there as fast as Penn, but you will get there eventually. I wouldn’t worry about belts: worry about developing the skill to deserve them.
I feel like I don’t deserve my new belt: is that normal?
Yes, that’s a common reaction after a belt promotion. In short, you need to trust your instructor’s judgement: if you don’t, then consider why you are still training there.
Don’t worry about feeling inadequate if you just got promoted: when I got my blue, I felt the same way. Many people don’t feel ready, but you will eventually grow into it. A few months after getting my blue, I got my first stripe, by which time I felt much more comfortable. Remember, you don’t need to be smashing all the other people at your new rank (who will most likely have been there much longer), just able to hold your own.
People also often mention the way that sometimes you feel there is a target painted on your back after a new belt: the assumption is that everyone who didn’t get promoted will now be gunning for you. If that happens, then just keep in mind that there are plenty of good lower belts able to tap higher belts. Some lower belts are on the cusp of being promoted, or may have perfected a few especially effective techniques, which means that while their overall game is incomplete, they can still occasionally catch higher belts.
“Damn, he’s only a white belt, I CAN’T tap to him!” is not a productive way to approach sparring (brilliant discussion of that problem here, by NSLightsOut). This kind of misplaced pride will lead to frustration, and quite possibly injury as well. Nobody likes to tap, but it happens, and you should cultivate a mindset that means you can smile, restart and try again. My mantra has always been that training is about learning, not ‘winning’ or ‘losing’: as long as you improve your technique, it doesn’t matter if you get tapped along the way.
Have a read of this and possibly this for some examples of people who felt the same way.
How do I avoid getting injured in BJJ?
As I mentioned earlier, the first lesson you need to learn in BJJ is relaxing when rolling. Try to treat sparring in class as a laboratory, not a proving ground: refining your technique is much more important than putting imaginary notches on your belt. If you’re overly concerned with who is tapping who, you may find yourself refusing to tap out of pride, resulting in busted joints and weeks laid up unable to train.
It is also a good idea to be careful about who you train with. While you can learn from everyone, if there is a huge white belt known for his lack of control, don’t feel you have to roll with him. If possible, observe people before you roll with them, as you can then see whether or not they’re a considerate training partner.
If you end up with somebody who lacks control, then stay very defensive and tap early. Don’t try and rise to their intensity level: instead, attempt to slow things down by staying relaxed and calm. That is not to say you should never roll hard, as a tough, competitive spar can be beneficial, but only if you feel able to trust your opponent.
Aside from that, stay hydrated, make sure you get enough sleep and watch your diet. Also, it is worth keeping in mind that BJJ is a contact sport, so even if you take all reasonable precautions, you may still get injured. Nevertheless, it makes sense to try and minimise that risk as much as possible.
For some excellent advice on avoiding injuries, read this piece by Paul.
I’ve injured myself, but don’t want to stop training: should I go to class?
Seeing a medical professional to check injuries is always a good idea before going back to class (also remember the R.I.C.E. treatment method: rest, ice, compress and elevate). Is it worth potentially messing it up further? Or alternately, wouldn’t it be better to have it heal faster? A doctor, physio etc will be able to help you get back to training quicker. When there is obviously something wrong, I’d strongly urge you to get it looked at.
Of course, I’m in the UK, so I’m not familiar with the costs of US healthcare. Nevertheless, while it can be difficult to earn back money you’ve spent, it’s impossible to get back time you could have been training: do not attempt to train through an injury, as you’ll only make things worse. Don’t try to be macho and tough it out.
Having said that, depending on the degree of the injury, there are things you can do so you don’t miss out completely on training. If it’s something minor, then it is possible to train around it: for example, say you’ve hurt the fingers on your left hand. Tape them up, then go to class but only use your right hand. That means that you’ll have to sit out when doing things like press-ups (or do sit-ups instead), and it also means you’ll have to be very careful in picking your training partners: you need people you can trust to not accidentally forget about the injury and make it worse.
If the injury is something sufficiently major that you can’t avoid aggravating it, then you could still go to class and watch, taking notes when the instructor demonstrates technique. You could also take the opportunity to do some reading or watch a few BJJ DVDs: see here for my recommendations, or you could browse through my review section.
I’ve injured my arm/wrist/hand, but don’t want to stop training: can I train around it?
Speaking from experience, yes you can. The parts I’ve injured most regularly are wrists, fingers, knees and neck. With the first two, it is very simple: you just don’t use that arm. It is definitely possible to only spar with one arm, although you need to have an understanding training partner. I’d recommend spider guard with a single sleeve grip, or the tripod sweep position (grabbing one sleeve, pushing on a hip with one foot, pulling behind their knee with the other).
When I had an injured wrist/arm/hand etc, I found I was relying on my legs a lot more than usual, mostly looking for open guard, using my non-injured hand to get a grip on their sleeve, pushing them away with at least one foot on their hip. When it was my wrist, I could still post on my elbow, so that arm isn’t completely out of commission (e.g., like it has been in the past when it was my shoulder).
Top half guard was difficult, as I struggled to get a decent level of control with just one arm. I also felt limited in closed guard, particularly as chokes were tough to attempt with one arm. Escaping side control wasn’t too bad, as long as I could get my knee in there quickly.
I’m also a fan of the drills I learned them from Kev Capel (spar from open guard tucking your hands into your belt, next round just tuck one arm, then third round open guard sparring as normal), as they’re a great way of improving your ability to use your legs, knees and feet to hook, control and even sweep or submit your partner. It’s one of my favourite drills, even when I’m not injured. I regularly teach it during my open guard classes (e.g., here).
You should also check out Aaron Lapointe, a Carlson black belt who only has one arm. He has an article up on Goatfury’s site, here, plus there is some video of him here.
I’m worried about getting cauliflower ear: how do I avoid it?
I’d recommend checking out the Fightworks Podcast interview with a doctor who also has experience in BJJ. On that same site, there was also a post put up about the same topic. See also the article on Grapplearts.
Cauliflower ear, to quote from Caleb’s post, is caused “when the ear receives a blow that shears away the ear’s cartilage from its overlying perichondrium. Liquid fills the new space between the two layers, and will harden into a hard fibrous lump if not drained.”
So in other words, any kind of heavy trauma to the ear can result in a cauliflower ear: that could be a small number of solid blows (again in that post, Robson Moura mentions that he got cauli after just one incident, so you could be unlucky), or it could be extended damage (such as driving the side of your head into someone else, as might occur when working for position in wrestling).
To prevent cauliflower ear, invest in protective equipment, like a headguard or earguards (since September 2008, I’ve used a Brute Shockwave), commonly worn in wrestling. However, some people find them uncomfortable to wear, and in certain BJJ competitions (for example) you can’t wear them.
To treat cauliflower ear, you need to get the fluid drained and then compress the area. It is important to go to a doctor as soon as possible if you can see your ear is flaring up, as without rapid treatment it can become permanent. It may help if you describe it in medically correct terms as an ‘aural hematoma’ in order to facilitate quicker treatment. See also Georgette’s post.
I’ve been training BJJ since November 2006 and haven’t had any problems with cauliflower ear so far, but as the example of Robson Moura shows, it can happen quickly, so it’s worth being careful.
What protective equipment do I need for BJJ?
Brazilian jiu jitsu is a full contact sport. In the course of a roll, limbs are flailing, there are knees flying during swift transitions, and elbows go places they shouldn’t in eager attempts to secure a submission.
That means that while BJJ is supposed to be a grappling style, you’re still going to catch a few elbows and knees every now and then. Also, grappling tends to involve throwing, which is essentially being hit by the floor. It is therefore sensible to be prepared.
The most important piece of protective equipment is a gumshield. I would strongly recommend you invest in a mouthguard and wear it every time you roll: replacing teeth will put a serious strain on your wallet.
Mouthguards can be very cheap: the one I use cost me £1 from the university shop. This budget choice is referred to as a ‘boil and bite’: you put the plastic in hot water to melt it slightly, then put it in your mouth and bite down hard. That leaves an impression of your teeth, so once the gumshield cools down, it should be moulded to your specific dental configuration.
Alternately, there are more expensive options. You can get custom made mouthguards from your dentist, and there are also various companies that will also provide the same service (quite often for rather less money).
Aside from gumshields, there are also groin guards and headgear.
For more on headgear, see here. As to groin guards, in my personal experience, they aren’t necessary. Yes, you may occasionally get struck in the groin as someone is going for a pass or in half guard, but in three years I can count the number of times on one hand.
It isn’t simply a matter of cups being unnecessary: they’re also awkward in a grappling setting. It is possible to use a groin guard as a fulcrum for an armbar, and cups can catch elbows that might otherwise slip free of submission attempts. They can also be very uncomfortable if somebody has back mount, and is pressing that cup into your spine
That relates to the other essential point, from Article 6 of the IBJJF rules:
8.3.6Use of any foot gear, head gear, hair pins, jewellery, cups (genital protectors), or any other protector fashioned of hard material that may cause harm to an opponent or the athlete him/herself is forbidden. Also forbidden is the use of head wear – be it bandages, hoods or an elastic cap.
8.3.7The use of joint protectors (knee, elbow braces, etc.) that increase body volume to the point of making it harder for an opponent to grip the gi are also forbidden
That effectively prohibits everything except gumshields, depending on how strictly the referee decides to apply the rules. So, keep in mind that if you wear headgear, cups and the like in training, you probably won’t be able to wear them in competition. Of course, the IBJJF is just one competition provider among many (more on that here): other tournaments will permit the use of cups.
How soon should I return to training after getting a tattoo?
Everyone has their own approach when it comes to healing tattoos, but the one that’s worked best for me (following the advice of the place where I get them done, Electric Vintage in Bath) is starting off with Bepanthen and wrapping it in clingfilm, securing the clingfilm with micropore tape.
Take that off about twice a day, soaking the tattoo in warm water for 10 minutes. Let it dry off (my tattooist recommends air drying, in case the towels had any dust or whatever on them), then reapply the Bepanthen and let that soak in for 10 mins or so. Put the clingfilm back on and resecure with tape. Keep doing that for the first two or three days and nights.
I then switch to Palmers Cocoa Butter (as that’s much quicker to apply than Bepanthen, although Bepanthen works too), applying that whenever the tattoo starts feeling tight. I’m generally back on the mats after a few days, but I don’t roll until at least a fortnight. Keep in mind that a fresh tattoo is effectively an open wound, which in the context of a BJJ class is at high risk of infection from nasty stuff like staph.
What is staph, and how can I avoid it?
Staph is a bacterial infection which is a particular problem for contact sports like BJJ, which involves rolling around on sweaty mats. It can potentially be fatal, so it’s important to be aware of the risk. You may have also heard of MRSA, a particularly dangerous strain of staph.
Like I mentioned in my tips, make sure you maintain good hygiene. Shower after class, and always wash your gi after every use. If you suspect infection (it normally manifests initially as raised red bumps: see the various links below for pictures), consult a doctor immediately, and under no circumstances go to training. Remember, staph is infectious, which will make you a very unpopular person at the gym.
Jason Clarke has written a very thorough, educated post on his blog: very good information in there. You could also check the Fightworks Podcast, which has a few useful episodes discussing staph, here, here and here. Caleb, the host, also put up a post about the infection, from which I’ll quote:
The fact is that MRSA is an issue for all of us on the mat. If you’re not aware of MRSA, you may’ve heard of it referred to simply as “staph”. It’s appeared on a couple seasons of The Ultimate Fighter on SpikeTV (sometimes publicly, sometimes less so) and is an especially nasty type of staph infection that is transmitted through the skin and spreads in environments where there’s a lot of close human contact, like that among wrestlers, grapplers, and other team sports environments. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as ringworm, as MRSA can kill if not treated. It’s resistant to the normal first line antibiotics prescribed by physicians, and as such is more insidious because while patients and doctors believe the normal antibiotic is working, the infection continues to spread.
See also this Bullshido thread and this one on Sherdog. Investing in some kind of anti-bacterial soap or cream may also be a good idea: personally I use Savlon on any open abrasions or cuts just in case, but there are more specific treatments out there.
Does size matter in BJJ?
Yes, a great deal. Just about every martial art advertises itself as being able to empower the weak to overcome the strong. While not exactly a lie, it is an exaggeration at best. If you are far more skilled than your opponent, then you can make up for size to a certain degree. However, if somebody is much stronger than you, the reverse is also true: they can make up for the discrepancy in skill through sheer power. To be able to deal with someone very strong, you therefore have to be extremely skilled.
The problem comes when somebody who is big also has some knowledge of jiu jitsu. It then becomes a lot harder, because you have to maintain that same large skill gap. The better they get, the more ridiculous realms of skill you have to reach in order to overcome their combined power and technical knowledge.
BJJ is especially guilty of making the claim that “size doesn’t matter.” It is codified in the myths about how Helio was allegedly a sickly weakling (he wasn’t, judging by pictures). Size does matter. There is a superb post on this topic by Chelsea, a small female competitor, here.
I’m a small person who finds it tough against bigger people: what can I do?
At 5’7 and 64kg (143lbs), I’m almost always the smaller guy, so can sympathise. Against bigger guys, you’re probably going to spend a lot of time on the bottom, especially early on. So you might as well treat that as an opportunity rather than an irritation, working your escapes every chance you get.
Once you get good at escaping, you’ll be far less worried about making an attack, because you’ll be confident you can recover if you mess it up. In other works, by building a good defence, you have a solid foundation to build a good offence.
Also, remember that in competition, you’ll be up against people your own size. After sparring with all the big people in class, that is going to feel much easier.
There is lots of good advice on the net: take a look at this and this thread, along with this and this article, for some further ideas.
Finally, I can highly recommend Leslie’s numerous excellent articles on her BJJ Grrl site, especially this. That is technically directed towards women, but much of it applies to small guys too, as we also frequently find ourselves paired with bigger, stronger training partners.
I’m a big person, so find it difficult to avoid using my strength: what should I do?
I’m a small guy, so don’t have direct experience of this, but I’d advise that you try to work your guard. From what I’ve read and seen in class, big people will frequently end up on top. As you’ve got size over your opponent, it’s easy to get comfortable with going on top and dominating your opponent.
However, with your size, you’re in a great position to develop an excellent guard. There was an Eddie Bravo video where he discusses this which I found interesting: you might find it useful (the comments I’m referring to start at about 01:40 into the video, though there is plenty of good advice in the rest of it too).
Then there’s the general advice to avoid using strength, which is something you should always keep in mind. To help you do that, you could try working your weak side, or use techniques you’re unfamiliar with. Give your partner a dominant position like mount and try to work free, or even start with them in back mount about to sink in a choke.
Finally, take a look at this thread for some further ideas.
What if I have long hair, jewellery or piercings?
Long hair will need to be tied back in some fashion. Hair ties often come undone, so you could try braiding your hair for better containment. I have trained with many people who have long hair, who contain it with varying levels of success. It can therefore become a hindrance, because it will often escape its bonds. I’d advise a shorter haircut if possible, simply because it is much easier to manage. However, there is nothing wrong with long hair in training as long as you have adequate methods to keep it under control.
For some ideas, take a look at Meg’s blog post, this thread and this blog post. Wrestling headgear can also be helpful for keeping your long hair under control, especially the types which have specific add-ons for bundling up and containing your hair. Megan uses another option called the zentai hood, which she reviews here.
Wearing jewellery in class is a bad idea. It could be caught on a finger, toe or possibly an item of clothing, meaning that either the finger or toe will be damaged, or the jewellery could be ripped out or pulled off. I would strongly advise you to take off jewellery, piercings etc before training, especially sparring. Otherwise you may cause harm to yourself and your training partners.
Can I still train BJJ if I’m pregnant?
Whether or not a woman should train BJJ if she is pregnant is one question, which is ultimately up to them. Whether or not she can is another: according to a few women, the answer is demonstrably yes, presuming they’re relating their experiences accurately on their various sites. There is lots of reading on the topic now, such as this, this, this and this.
The mighty Meg Smitley blogged all the way through her pregnancy, with advice on physical training before, during and after here. Ana Yagues has also written extensively about training and pregnancy here, based on her personal experience: she has two children. As one woman (who also trained through her pregnancy) put it on Facebook:
The book entitled Exercising Through Your Pregnancy helped me out tremendously – a book written over a 20 year study with women of all activity levels; from novice to Olympic medals – dispelling the myth that it’s normal and healthy to sit around doing nothing for 9-10 months.
What if I’m menstruating? ^
If you are on your period, there is no reason you shouldn’t keep training. Have a read of Julia’s helpful FAQ on the topic, along with Bunny Jiu Jitsu’s suggestions, then finally Shark Girl’s advice. All three agree that a menstrual cup is a good idea (there are numerous types to choose from). You might also try wearing extra underwear: as Julia puts it, you’re then literally covered. She also notes that exercise can alleviate both cramps and mood swings, which is another possible benefit of training through your period.
What is a good style to cross-train with BJJ?
BJJ will provide you with excellent groundwork, but it doesn’t cover strikes. If you want to round out your training, then I’d suggest muay thai (which you’ll also see as ‘thai boxing’), or martial arts like boxing and kyokushin karate. That’s not to say there aren’t good schools within other striking styles, but they tend to vary widely in quality. Boxing, muay thai and kyokushin are almost always reliable options. Take a look at the striking technique subforum on Bullshido for more advice.
If you want to stick with grappling, then I’d recommend taking up judo, the parent art of BJJ. That will add solid takedowns to your BJJ, which is especially useful for competition: a strong judo background will help you to control the stand-up, particularly as many BJJers are far more comfortable on the ground than they are with throws (though as more BJJers cross-train in takedown-orientated styles, this is beginning to change).
SAMBO (short for SAMozashcita Bez Oruzhiya, which means “self defence without weapons”), a Russian system which also evolved from judo, is another option. Like its parent, this style has good throws, but differs from judo and BJJ in its focus on lower-body submissions. While leg locks are present in BJJ, they are not always emphasised, so SAMBO would provide you with a different set of options.
If it’s available in your area (particularly if you’re in the US education system), I’d recommend checking out wrestling. Like SAMBO and judo, wrestling has great takedowns, but also specialises in the top position, as the goal is to pin your opponent on their back.
Alternately, you could combine grappling and striking at an MMA gym (though technically ‘MMA’ is a ruleset rather than a specific style). Examples of well known MMA gyms would be Team Quest and Miletich Fighting Systems.
What is the point of starting from your knees when sparring?
Brazilian jiu jitsu competitions begin standing up, and a self defence situation probably will too. However, due to space and safety considerations, during most BJJ classes (which will probably be structured something like this) the initial starting point for sparring is from the knees. If you go on BJJ internet forums, you’ll see that various people will complain about that being unrealistic: they would rather either start standing, or already in a position, such as mount, guard or side control.
However, fighting from the knees has its place, and not simply because of the aforementioned safety concerns. JohnnyS, an Australian black belt, lists his reasoning for teaching attacks from the knees on this Bullshido thread:
Say I escape side control and get to my knees. From there I can back off a little and then put the guy on his back with these techniques.
Say I have the guy in my guard, I can put my foot in his hip, come back to my knees and do the above techniques to put my opponent on his back.
Say my opponent and I end up in a scramble on the ground and get to our knees. We both want to be on top and start passing. These techniques show how to do that.
There is also a DVD by Roy Harris on attacks from the knees (mainly takedowns), which I’ve reviewed here.
Having said that, I wouldn’t disagree with people who feel it is more effective to just start in a position, in terms of utilising your training time efficiently. So, I mainly mention the other perspective in the interest of objectivity.
Should I use ‘dirty’ (but still legal) tactics in class?
Short Answer: If your training partners want to go at competition intensity, then they may appreciate you being just as hard on them as their opponents in a tournament would be. However, most training partners in my experience are either not like that or only train that way occasionally, so will not appreciate dirty tactics. As you want to build up a good training relationship, be mindful of your partner’s preferences. Also note that if you rely on dirty tactics, you may hinder your progress in refining technique.
Long Answer: I’d say it depends on your training partner – some people won’t mind ‘dirty’ fighting, others will. Remember, you’ll probably be rolling with these men and women for a long time to come, so it makes sense to build up a good working relationship, so to speak. You don’t want to make everyone angry, as then nobody wants to roll with you. A good training partner makes a massive difference in improving your BJJ, so you want to hold onto them when you find one.
Things may be different in competition. Although personally, in competition or in class (though I’d note here I’ve only competed once), I try to avoid anything ‘dirty’, as I want to be sure that when I manage to get anything to ‘work’ in BJJ, it’s because I’ve got the technique right, not because my stubble was raking their face.
Another common scenario is people grinding their arm into your face if they can’t get the rear naked choke, particularly if you’re defending by tucking your chin. They may also pull up under your nose or even apply the choke across your teeth. Some people want their training to be as close to a competition as possible. That kind of person might thank you for being equally aggressive and intense as an opponent in a tournament. In a competition, relying on tucking your chin to defend a choke is probably not a good idea, especially if you’re facing somebody like this.
However, most people in training are not in full-on competition mode the whole time. Therefore, they will not appreciate somebody grinding across their jaw on a regular basis. Personally I would find it annoying and I wouldn’t do it to a training partner. My goal is smooth, technical, leverage-based jiu jitsu, causing as little pain to the other person as possible. As Saulo says in my favourite BJJ quote:
You have to think that your partner, the guy that you’re training [with], has to be your best friend. So, you don’t want to hurt him, you don’t want to try to open his guard with your elbow, make him feel really pain, because jiu jitsu is not about pain. You have to find the right spot to save your energy
If I find I have no option to finish a RNC except something brutish (e.g., crushing their chin until they tap from pain or lift their head), my preference is to instead transition to a different attack, like an ezequiel, a bow and arrow choke or an armbar. In my opinion, if I get to the point where force and pain are the main routes to finishing a submission, then my set up was poorly executed.
This question has come up on Sherdog before, which is what initially got me thinking about the topic.
Why are heel hooks frowned upon? ^
Short Answer: It is a legitimate and effective technique, but there is a dangerously small gap between applying a heel hook enough for the submission and causing potentially permanent damage to the knee. Beginners should therefore stay away.
Long Answer: BJJ took some time to come to terms with leg-locks. They are undeniably an effective subcategory of submissions, as can be seen by the high number of matches won by attacking the legs, especially in nogi. The most effective leglock of all is the infamous heel hook. The reason it is infamous is because the heel hook remains controversial, due to the considerable damage it can do if applied or even defended incorrectly.
Unlike an armbar, a heel hook does not provide much time to tap before inflicting serious injury. Unlike a choke, if you hold it too long, your unfortunate training partner is probably going to require surgery and be off the mats for several months or more. Unlike most other submissions, even if you’re putting on a heel hook with lots of control, if your partner tries to escape by spinning the wrong way, they can blow out their own knee.
So if you’re going to use heel hooks in sparring, make sure that both you and your training partner are familiar with the attack and defence. For two experienced grapplers who have spent years perfecting their heel hook, that’s fine. Anybody else would be well advised to leave heel hooks until later in their journey: otherwise they could find that journey cut short.
There’s a good post on Sherdog that runs through the reasons, here.
I’m planning a trip to go train in Brazil: any advice?
I haven’t been to Brazil, but the guys from the Fightworks Podcast have: plenty of advice on there. This episode features discussion about Felipe Costa’s training camp (also mentioned here), then there are posts like this about Rio, and this conversation with Breno Sivak.
Finally, have a read of Shama’s posts here and here, and there’s a series of ten top tips for training in Brazil, split across two shows, here and here.
Several threads and blogs around on the internet too. For example, this one on Sherdog, with lots of anecdotes from a guy who trained at Gordo’s academy in Barra for several months. He also has a useful breakdown of his initial costs and ongoing living expenses in Brazil, here.
Also, be sure to check out Dave Coles’ article. He’s been out to Brazil quite a few times now over the years, and has plenty of very useful advice on training out there.
I’ve heard good things about ConnectionRio, run by a resident black belt who helps you with accommodation, transport, training etc. However, I have no personal experience of their services, and don’t know what the rates are like.
Finally, there are now even specific sites set up to give you advice about training in Brazil. The two I’m aware of are RioJiuJitsuGuide.com (which I reviewed here) [Update Aug 2015: Site currently down, so they may have gone bust] and TrainBJJinRio.com. They both have lists of academies with information like cost, location, level of English and the like.
Will we ever see BJJ in the Olympics?
Probably not, because it does not meet most of the IOC criteria to become a recognised sport, let alone an Olympic event. The IOC is also not looking to add any new events at present: on the contrary, it is looking to cut them down. Demonstration sports were discontinued after 1992, so that isn’t going to happen either. In terms of 2016, the events have already been decided. So, all the endless petitions to get BJJ into the 2016 Olympics are a complete waste of time. Of course, that won’t stop people who haven’t bothered doing any research starting yet another pointless petition and throwing it up on forums. 😉
See J-Sho’s excellent post going into greater detail here, or my brief article on the topic here. There was also an episode of the Fightworks Podcast where Luca Atalla ran through the reasons why it isn’t going to happen, along with this great post by Drew Brunning.
A general ‘grappling’ event has a better chance, and it also has the advantage that the rules of BJJ wouldn’t be affected. However, top BJJ athletes would still be able to showcase their skills in a genuinely global event to billions of people, alongside the top grapplers from SAMBO, judo, wrestling and sub grappling, among other styles.
BJJ FAQ Sources: My personal experience, Roger Gracie Academy, Bullshido, Kronos, Sherdog, Grapplers Guide, The Fightworks Podcast, Stephen Koepfer