Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Beginner Course Notes

Lesson One: Connecting to the ground, how we move the hips

As able bodied human adults we’re conditioned to be able to move efficiently on two legs: walking, standing, running, fighting etc we can more or less move around fairly instinctively. On two legs, a person’s superior size, weight and strength can be used against a smaller person without too much prior knowledge. We demonstrated this by practising shoving or pulling our training partner around in the standing up position.

Once you are on the ground however, the dynamics of size, weight and strength change remarkably. Knowing how to move around on the ground, knowing how to plant certain parts of your body onto the ground and knowing how to gauge distance as well as elevation above the ground – all of these factors give you an advantage over someone with no clue what to do on the ground, regardless of their size. To demonstrate this, we performed a drill where one person sits on the floor with feet out in front and their training partner pulls or pushes them around. This is the same exercise as when standing. We found it was much harder for the aggressor to bully the seated person around.

But sitting around on the floor is not an effective fighting strategy if your opponent is standing up! So, we drilled an exercise called the technical stand-up. From a relaxed seated position with one hand posted behind you, this technique teaches us about distance management (using that front foot as a check) and by stepping back, we are two strides away from our opponent instead of being directly in line of fire.

The drills above have one aspect in common: our ability to move our hips on the ground. The reason why bullying someone around when they are seated is harder than when they are standing, is because the seated person’s hips (and therefore centre of gravity) are connected to the floor. Another illustration of how important hip movement is: we did a drill where our training partner is on their knees trying  to ‘strangle us’ while we lie on the ground. One hip movement away from the opponent – a movement we call shrimping – was enough to bring the knee in between us and the opponent. Shrimping is a movement that we’ll use again and again throughout our jiu jitsu journey.

Just as an aside, we also looked at the other side of the equation, as jiu jitsu students we need to know how NOT to let our opponent shrimp away from us, so we saw how simply locking down on the bottom person’s hips using our elbows and bearing our weight down on their lower torso, prevented them from escaping.

Thus, this leads us to the final exercise of the day – the bridge. Very simply the bridge is the way we elevate our hips off the floor. Even with the weight of a person on top, the hips are still strong enough to lift up. Combined with the shrimp, we saw how effective it was to escape from someone trying to pin us down in this  manner.

Summary: sitting down, standing up, bridging and shrimping, all these movements focus on how we move our hips in relation to the ground and in relation to our opponent. Once you become aware of this, the dynamics of how to move on the ground won’t feel so alien as before.


When stuck on the ground, protecting and defending against attack (be they BJJ submission attacks or a no rules fight scenario) is very different compared to when standing up. If someone tries to attack you when you are standing up, it is instinctive to move away. But on the ground without the use of your legs, defending and escaping attacks relies on a different set of principles.

In BJJ rules, we do not strike, kick or hit our opponents. We look for two targets, the neck for strangles and the limbs for joint locks. At a very basic level, protecting your neck and elbows using the ‘Home Alone’ position is a vital posture that can be applied in all manner of different positions. By adopting this posture, it is very very hard for the attacker to reach the target areas. In the case where punches and strikes are allowed, it is only a small adaptation moving your home alone hand position to a more boxing style ‘guard’ posture.

Maintaining your defensive posture is not good enough, your attacker will reach the target eventually. This is why escape must be the paramount goal whenever you are caught in a bad position on the ground. There are as many types of escape as there are types of attack, so it would be very hard to remember every single scenario by rote learning. Instead, today I used two examples that illustrate fundamental escape concepts that you can apply to all sorts of situations:

  1. Removing the space your attacker relied on. In this concept we practised the escape from a headlock. By moving our own body out of the way the attacker (who’s own arms are occupied by headlocking you) has no way to brace the fall and he slumps into the space you just vacated. In BJJ we operate this concept in many situations.
  2. Another very common escape concept is our ability to trap the attacker’s arm or leg to prevent them from bracing out and stopping their fall as you escape. The example we used is the trap, bridge and roll escape when someone is on top of you in mount position.

Summary: the ability to protect yourself when under attack on the ground is a hugely important part of BJJ training. When you get really good at defence, the student then begins to explore ways to initiate counter attacks, feints and traps aimed at catching their opponent out. 

Lesson 3 – The Guard

The ‘guard’ in BJJ terms can be described as any scenario where you can place your legs or part of your legs in between you and your opponent. One could also include your arms as part of the guard system, but for the most part, it is your legs that most BJJ folk understand as the guard.

There are a huge array of guard systems in BJJ, some with seemingly complex and sophisticated set-ups and modes of operation. Don’t be put off by the complexity, most guard systems all follow the same logic and purpose: to act as a defensive barrier AND as a platform to attack.

In fact we’ve been using the guard since day one without really knowing it: remember that drill where we sat on our bottoms and ward off a standing opponent? Or the drill where we defended using our knee against a person strangling us? Or the drill where we removed a person sitting on us in mount position and we ended up with him between our legs? All those examples deployed the use of the guard.

Although there are many different types of guard positions, they nearly all abide by the same series of concepts. The drills we used today illustrate several of these concepts:

1 .Distance management: from the closed guard, it is possible to keep your opponent away from harming you (by extending your body or placing shins in front). The guard can also be used to draw them in tightly for a clinch. The former keeps our head out of the opponent’s reach, the latter prevents him from hitting or strangling us.

2. Centre of gravity and balance. Manipulating your opponent’s centre of gravity and/or taking advantage of their position to capitalise on their balance is a key concept when trying to use the guard to sweep your opponent. The idea of sweeping is for you to end up in a more advantageous position. The hip bump sweep, for example, takes advantage of the opponent’s unstable nature when he kneeling in an upright posture. It also utilises a concept where we displace his position and a knowledge of the best angle of attack – two skill aspects that take a little time to develop.
The scissor sweep takes advantage of an opponent being low in posture with his head leaning forward. Which leads us onto the third concept:

3. Where the head points, the body will follow…the basic butterfly sweep is a good exampe of this concept in action. It also relies on many other concepts: taking away base, killing posture and balance, getting underneath their centre of gravity, making use of levers.

Summary: In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, we use our legs as the principle method to guard against our opponent. It is a platform to both defend and attack him. To use it effectively we need to understand a few simple concepts: distance management, posture disruption, getting under their centre of gravity and ability to move the opponent in the direction that their heads point.

The guard is also a platform to launch submission attacks, which we will cover in Lesson 5.

Lesson 4: Taking your opponent down and keeping them there.

BJJ ground techniques are mostly useless unless you can take your opponent down and keep him there. Today we looked at some basic principles to take downs and hold downs.

Taking someone to the ground.
In competition, all BJJ matches begin with both participants standing up. Even if you don’t intend to compete, you have to understand that ground techniques will not work unless you bring your opponent down. So at the very least, we need to learn basic throws and take downs. If you already have judo or wrestling experience then you have a good start! It is not necessary to master a huge list of throws and take downs, but it’s useful to examine how take downs work in principle:

When someone stands up, their balance can be disrupted by preventing the use of their legs and also by moving head (or hips) away from the vertical plane. A simple exercise to demonstrate this is to plant your feet to the ground without moving and have a partner move your head forward or backward until you feel you are going to topple over. Add in some force and pressure on other areas of the body, such as lifting the hips into the air, sweeping away the legs or rotating around a plane, and you can see how throws and take downs operate.

Before we can play with taking someone to the ground, we need to develop breakfalling skills. Breakfalls protect us by dispersing impact energy along non-vulnerable parts of our body. There are many breakfalls, today we covered side breakfalling and backwards breakfalling.

A very straightforward takedown is the ankle pick. With this technique, you unbalance your opponent by pulling him forwards by the head and it helps to rotate his body with your footwork. When he steps forward to compensate for the loss of balance, you can pick up that leg and push for him to fall backwards.

In the previous technique, the opponent was allowed to take a step, but many takedowns rely on you eliminating the use of his legs. The double leg takedown (as used by MMA fighters and wresters) for example is a popular technique. O goshi and related throws from judo elevate the opponent’s hips and lifts their legs clear off the ground, making defending the throw very hard once in the air. Foot sweeps, trips and many other tactics are also employed in order to take a person to the ground.

The need to know how to make someone fall is also required when you yourself are on the ground. In this exercise, we have the closed guard and our opponent stands up. The double ankle sweep attack will send our opponent falling backwards, preventing him from passing your guard andenabling us to progress to a better position.

Keeping someone on the ground – hold downs
The ability to hold your opponent down on the ground is one of the most fundamental skills needed in BJJ. Pinning someone down is not about putting your weight on top of them and hoping to squash them (although it might feel like that if you are in the receiving end!) When two players spar, it can seem that the majority of time is spent just trying to get to a dominant position and hold the opponent down.

To understand how hold downs work, one handy analogy is to view the bottom person’s torso as a four cornered box. By suppressing and allowing specific corners to lift or not lift up, you are able the control the rest of the body and prevent escape. Controlling the head is also another very important factor. Once you see how this works, using specific hold downs becomes more logical.

To illustrate this, we used the basic cross side control. One of our arms goes under his neck, the other reaches over his body and under his armpit in order to grip your own hand. Your elbows and knees are tucked tight into your opponent’s body. In this position, you have pretty much locked down all four corners. But that’s not all, our shoulder has a part to play, and by driving it into the opponent’s jaw line, you can make him look away from you, thus further diminishing his ability to escape. This basic hold down is very robust and becomes a launching pad to execute a very large array of subsequent techniques and positions.

Finally, from our newly secured side mount position, we looked at how to advance our position to top mount without losing any of that hard won top pressure on the opponent. Driving ones knee across the belly is one method, but there are many many others as those who have trained for a while can testify.

Lesson 5: Position and Submission

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu operates around the strategy of positional hierarchy. When attacking, you must first be able to get past a person’s defensive position and then establish a dominant position yourself. Only once you have established good position will a submission attack be successful (it’s a general rule, there are of course plenty of ‘bad position’ type attacks.)

In sport BJJ, the point system reflects the positional hierarchy: 3 points to pass the guard and 4 points if you secure top mount or back control. For the defender, his prime objective should be to work his way out of the defensive posture and towards attacking. Hence, the point system rewards a sweep from the guard with 2 points. The moment a submission occurs and the opponent taps, it is declared an instant win.

It is generally considered a good idea for either attacker or defender to constantly be on the move and seek opportunities from their respective positions. The drill below is a common and useful sequences that allows the top person to transition from one position to another.

DRILL 1: Side control, knee on belly, mount, high mount

Broadly there are two forms of submission attack: neck strangulations and joint pressure.
DRILL 2: repeat drill 1 and add in Americana (an example of joint over rotation)
DRILL 3: repeat drill 1 and add in armbar (an example of joint hyper extension)
DRILL 4: take the back (I demo’ed the sequence from side position), RNC attack (an example of neck strangulation) REMEMBER TO TAP



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