BJJ Starter’s Guide

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I grew up before it only took seconds to learn something through Googling, so learning about martial arts was not easy for me. Back then, you either had formal training, or you learned the way of the master, through the stereotypes in movies. 

Times have changed, and you don’t have to commit to the martial arts to find out more about them.

I’ve designed this guide to BJJ with those who are interested, but undecided, in mind. I’ll make all the basic BJJ concepts easy to grasp, with the hope that you’ll pursue it further, for it’s a very fun and rewarding sport to pursue.

bjj instructor student

Things to Consider Before Starting

BJJ, like most other martial art forms, will require dedication if you have any hopes of succeeding. It’s all too easy to fall for its charms. It looks cool, it’s useful in self-defense and it’s a great way to stay fit. But it’s not simple, so you need a realistic expectation of how it works.

Here is some information to answer common questions; ones that you might find useful.


What Exactly Is BJJ?

BJJ stands for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a grappling martial art that evolved from judo. BJJ has risen immensely in popularity with the rise of MMA and is a sorely misunderstood fighting style. 

It’s understandable that so many perceive BJJ as a rough sport. It’s a form of wrestling, and most people are only exposed to it through MMA, where it’s practiced in a cage by skilled, buff guys. BJJ is quite the opposite, though. 

Its founder, Helio Gracie, needed a fighting system in which his physical weakness wouldn’t leave him at a disadvantage. Brazilian jiu-jitsu techniques place emphasis on using an opponent’s size and weight against them and is one of the most diverse styles because of it. 

You don’t have to be in your prime or at peak physical condition to participate in BJJ. And even if you are, it’s unlikely that it will be advantageous. 


Is BJJ Good for Self-Defense?

Brazilian jiu-jitsu, as a grappling form, is considered one of the most effective martial arts for self-defense. The original Gracie style places emphasis on defensive jiu-jitsu techniques, rather than offensive ones. 

It’s far better than classic striking styles like karate, as those tend to teach unrealistic fighting that won’t easily adapt to real world altercations.


How Much Will a BJJ Class Cost?

A BJJ class can cost anywhere, on average, between $50 and $250 a month. It’s dependent on a number of factors including the size, location and instructor of the gym you will train with. Be sure to check with your local gyms since this range might vary.

There may be some extra costs involved too. You will need specialized attire, such as either a gi or a rash guard, or perhaps even a uniform. You might want to invest in safety gear as well.

Keep in mind that your personal circumstances could affect how much you spend on the sport. For example, if you have to pay to commute, or if your gym membership is a separate cost.



How to Prepare for Your First Class 

Speaking of classes, you don’t want to go in blind. Starting at the very beginning as a novice can be an intimidating experience. So the more you know beforehand, the more comfortable you’ll be.

white belt first bjj class

Here are some things to keep in mind:


Arrogance Won’t Take You Far

Go into your first BJJ class with a sense of humility. If you’re going into BJJ because you want to be a tough guy or girl and not because you want to learn a discipline, you’ll drown.

Every martial art starts with the mind, and you’ll have to adopt the right attitude before you don a gi or take to the mat. BJJ should not be an excuse to fight or boast about your muscles. 

Most people, regardless of previous martial arts experience, start at the very bottom when they begin BJJ. Although it’s competitive in an MMA cage, in a gym, it’s not about fuelling your ego. Don’t try to be the best, because when you’re starting out, you won’t be. 

Focus, rather, on what you don’t know, and build on that. BJJ is meant to strengthen you, not validate you. 


But Don’t Be Shy, Either

Martial arts require conviction. While you shouldn’t be forced into participating if you’re uncomfortable with it, you won’t be able to observe forever, and won’t learn much just from watching. Not only does mental strength improve your performance, it can also aid in recovery from a previous injury.

BJJ is practical, and you will have to come out of your shell. Brazilian jiu-jitsu moves will be uncomfortable and feel unnatural at first, but this is no reason to hold yourself back. All beginners will feel the same at the start, and all the Masters were there when they started too. 

Too much hesitance could stop you from enjoying your class and could prevent progress if you choose to continue the sport.


Remember That You’re There to Learn

If you don’t understand something, if you’re struggling or if you just require clarity on what you’re doing, don’t be afraid to speak to your instructor. If you’re uncertain, speak out rather than risk getting hurt or learning incorrect techniques. 

I can guarantee that a BJJ gym, as with any martial arts class, school or dojo, will be a place of respect. No one will judge you, laugh at you or treat you badly if you can’t keep up. If your instructor isn’t helpful, kind and patient, the gym as a whole should be deemed unworthy, and you shouldn’t continue your BJJ journey there. 

You’re there to learn, and a true BJJ instructor will not bully you or make you feel small. 


Basic Prep Is Required

There’s no harm in arriving at your first class well-prepared. You probably won’t need a gi or official uniform if it’s your first time attending, but there will be a dress code. Try calling the gym or your instructor ahead of time to see what they recommend. 

In general, you will want to wear loose-fitting, but not baggy, clothes that you can easily move around in, and that can be grabbed or held onto during practice. Pack a pair of slippers or flip-flops to wear in the gym. Your shoes should be easy to remove, as it’s forbidden to wear shoes on the mat.

Bring a water bottle and a towel. Trust me, you will need them both, and don’t forget any protective gear you might need. 



BJJ Etiquette

Brazilian jiu-jitsuka should always practice respect. There are certain behaviors that you will have to conform to in order to honor your school, classmates, instructor and yourself.

Keep the following mind so that you don’t insult or disrespect anyone during your training.


Gym Etiquette

  • Arrive on Time: Lateness will disrupt the lesson, and you’ll miss out on warm-ups and other introductions.
  • Know Your Gym: Before you join a class, make an effort to learn the gym’s rules, history and personnel.
  • No Phones: Keep your phone outside of the gym or turn it off and place it somewhere out of sight. It might cause unnecessary and rude distractions. Do not film or photograph inside the gym without permission.
  • Greet Your Instructor: Always greet your instructor in the same manner that they greet you. In time, you’ll get to learn this method and it will become second nature.
  • No Interruptions: While your instructor is speaking or demonstrating, listen, and keep discussion, questions or comments to a minimum, or wait until they’ve finished.
  • Don’t Train With Other Gyms: It’s considered disrespectful to train with another gym behind your instructor’s back. You don’t have to keep it a secret. It’s courteous to let your instructor know.
  • Keep the Gym Clean: Wear shoes outside of the gym to avoid tracking dirt and germs onto the mat. Don’t bring food into the class. Don’t litter, and clean up after yourself. 


Partner Etiquette

  • Don’t invite higher belts to roll with you. It could be seen as a challenge or an insult. If a higher belt invites you to roll with you, declining is rude. The exemption is if you are injured or unfit to spar.
  • When on the mat, give way to higher ranks.
  • Be aware of your classmates when rolling. Accidents can be avoided so long as you remember that there are others around you.
  • Treat your classmates with respect. Do not judge them or gossip about their fights. 
  • Don’t teach. Leave that to your instructor, even if another student asks for your help.


Hygiene and Dress Code

Personal hygiene is important. Consider that you will be physically engaging other people, and if you are not well kept, you could make them uncomfortable, or even sick. 

  • Never show up for a class if you are sick. This is especially important if you have a skin ailment, like ringworm, that could easily be transferred in sparring.
  • Keep your fingernails short for the safety of those you will grapple with. 
  • Remove all jewelry before your train. 
  • Keep your hair tied up so it won’t be a hazard.
  • Have a shower before your class.
  • Wear underwear beneath your gi. 
  • Wash your gi after every session.

Now that you have an understanding of what to expect and how to behave, we can take a look at some basic BJJ moves. 



Basic Ground Positions

BJJ is a grappling art, so most of it is fought on the ground, rather than standing to strike. As a beginner, you will learn — and have to master — a few fundamental jiu-jitsu techniques.

Here’s a look at the simpler ground positions.



The Mount (Full Mount)

This is perhaps the simplest position to learn. It’s highly effective when performed properly, as it can incapacitate your opponent and give you the advantage. 

As its name implies, its method is to sit on your opponent’s chest, restraining them by pinning your knees against their sides. From this position, you can transition into other holds and submissions.


The Rear Mount (Taking the Back)

It’s seen as the most advantageous position in BJJ because, in this position, you control your opponent from behind. It gives you the upper hand because your opponent won’t be able to see you. From here, you’ll also be able to transition into a range of locks, holds, and other techniques. 


The Knee Mount (Knee on Belly)

This move is used primarily for transitioning into other positions. It involves placing one knee on your opponent’s chest to pin them down, while you use your dominant position to control their arms.

You could place a lot of pressure on your opponent in this position, and it’s often deemed the most uncomfortable position for the bottom fighter.


The Side Mount (Side Control)

It’s not uncommon to find yourself in this position, as it’s one of the more instinctual BJJ moves. Rather than mount your opponent fully, you will stay on the ground beside them, using your chest to pin them. 

It’s not easy to escape from the side mount, and it’s a highly advantageous position for the top fighter. You can transition into other positions from it, and it makes it easier to perform various grips and submissions. 


The Guard

Unlike other martial arts, in BJJ, being in the bottom position is not necessarily a weak point. Using the guard, there are many offensive moves you can put into practice. In this position, you are on your back and use your legs to hold, restrain and control your opponent. 


The Half Guard

Similar in concept to the guard, in this one, you will only have hold of one of your opponent’s legs. You use your feet to lock your opponent in place, limiting their movement and range. 



Basic Grips

Grappling martial arts don’t just rely on the ground positions. In fact, if you have any hope of a successful match, you’re going to have to place a lot of emphasis on grip fighting.

A well-executed grip can make or break your control in a fight. You also use them to transition into escapes, sweeps, submissions and other jiu-jitsu moves. 

Some of the most common grips include:

  • Collar grips.
  • Pants grips.
  • Sleeve grips.
  • Arm grips.
  • Head grips.
  • Leg grips.


Gi vs No-Gi Grips

There are two variations of BJJ: gi, in which you wear a traditional martial arts uniform, or no-gi, where instead you wear modernized, or casual, fitness attire. Though other moves don’t change between the two, grips will. 

In gi style, grips are targeted to the gi, and a firm hold of your opponent’s clothing can be used to control them. In no-gi, your grip will be direct, and you cannot grip or grab your opponent’s clothing. 


Gi Grips

There are three primary targets for gripping a gi. 


Collar grips

Collar grips are used to control your opponent’s shoulder, and to keep them in a chokehold.

The most basic collar grip is performed by placing each of your fingers, but not your thumb, inside your opponent’s collar. You then hold a fist, using your thumb for support on the outside. 

You can also reverse this grip by placing your thumb inside the collar and your fingers outside of it. This proves useful in a rear mount. 


Pants Grips

When performing pants grips, you must remember not to put your hand inside your opponent’s pants. It’s a forbidden move. The technique is much the same as collar grips, except that you will grab onto the material from the outside only. 


Sleeve Grips

There are three common ways to control your opponent’s arms: gripping their sleeve’s wrist, elbow or armpit. The grip of choice here is the wrist.

As with pants grips, it’s illegal to put your hands inside your opponent’s sleeve. You will use the same technique to grip the material from the outside only. 


No-Gi Grips

The premise is the same in no-gi BJJ: grabbing a firm hold of certain targets can give you better control over your opponent. You won’t have material to grip onto though, so you’ll have to grab your opponent’s body. 


Arm Grips

A basic arm grip in no-gi BJJ involves wrapping both of your hands around your opponent’s wrist. It’s difficult for them to escape from this position.

Another simple move is to grab hold of their elbow and their wrist on the same arm. 

The second method offers much more control, and you can easily transition into other moves.

Hooks are also effective. You use your arms to control your opponent’s upper body. 


Head Grips

Head grips are achieved by having a good one-handed hold on your opponent’s arm. Your other hand goes behind their neck. You will be able to control their arms, neck, and posture. It’s a highly effective move in no-gi. 

Headlocks and their many variations are common in no-gi, as they are easy to transition from and can lead to submission. You can also use these grips to escape from chokes.


Leg Grips

Leg grips are not as effective in no-gi as they are in gi BJJ. While they can be practiced, they’re not as secure and won’t last long because they’re easy to escape from. That said, you can perform grips on your opponent’s knees, ankles, and feet. 



Basic Submissions

To have a complete look at the foundations of BJJ moves, we must move on to submissions. It’s common to associate these grappling forms with submissions, thanks to other popular sports like wrestling.

  • Rear naked choke.
  • Straight armlock.
  • The triangle.
  • The guillotine. 


Rear Naked Choke

Perhaps the most famous of all BJJ moves, the rear naked choke is performed by grabbing a tight hold of your opponent’s neck from the rear mount position. 


Straight Armlock

This jiu-jitsu move requires a little bit of technique. You can begin in a full mount, attack their neck or head, and grab hold of their arm as they try to defend. You then use your legs to hold them down and pull their arm while you fall back.

Since they are held down, and their arm will be stretched under your control, escape is unlikely. 


The Triangle

This submission uses your legs to squeeze your opponent’s head. You wrap your legs around their neck to lock them in place, taking care to keep their arms down so they can’t defend. Using your knees to push on their head, you use your arms to pull them towards you. 


The Guillotine Choke

This is one of the most useful submissions to learn, as you can apply it to self-defense in a standing fight. The objective is to grab your opponent’s head and force it down so that they are bent over and cannot escape. You then lock your arms around their neck and go in for a choke. 



Conditioning Through BJJ

In BJJ, or any sport for that matter, what you do outside of the gym will impact how strong and effective you are inside of it. While you are not obligated to live a certain lifestyle to complement your training, the healthier you are, the more beneficial your training will be. 

Staying fit will also make BJJ easier for you. Grappling forms are exhausting, and you might find that you will over-exert yourself and give up sooner if you don’t stay in shape.

Grappling is not the most demanding martial art when it comes to fitness, but if you take BJJ seriously, or have any hope of competing, you’ll have to follow a somewhat rigid regimen. 


Cardio Is Important

There are two types of cardio; aerobic and anaerobic. The former is when your heart rate is steadily increased, your breathing is intensified and stamina is regulated. The latter is when you exert intense energy in short bursts. 

To paint a clearer picture of the two, jogging is aerobic, but sprinting is anaerobic. In BJJ, you should engage both. 

Aerobic exercise can increase your overall stamina and endurance. It burns fat and keeps your heart in working order. Anaerobic exercise is often used for strength. 

When you’re on the mat, you will make use of both. Often, Brazilian jiu-jitsuka rely on one and not the other to their detriment. 


Strength Training Is a Part of Grappling

Although BJJ is versatile and is just as suitable for physically weak opponents as it is for giants, grappling requires strength. The stronger your muscles are, the more effective your holds, grips, and submissions will be. For this, you’ll want to indulge in resistance training.

Don’t confuse it with bodybuilding though. The goal is not necessarily to grow your muscles, but rather to make them tougher so they’ll be able to exert more force. 

Muscle growth is a natural part of strength training, but be aware of training your muscles too much. If you’re hoping to compete in BJJ, keep in mind that you’ll be classed by weight, and your muscle mass can have a significant impact on who you are grouped with. 

One cool thing about grappling is that it’s a form of strength training. This doesn’t mean you should skip the weightlifting, though. Making an effort to train outside of the gym will make your classes easier, more successful and more fun. 


Don’t Forget About Flexibility

BJJ is probably the last martial art to come to mind when thinking of flexibility. Unlike taekwondo, where fighters fly through the air and seem to have joints made of rubber bands, BJJ is wrestling. Surely wrestlers don’t have to be able to do the splits?

Wrong. Fair enough, they don’t have to do the splits, but flexibility is just as important to grappling as it is to any other sport, perhaps even more so. In striking, flexibility means you can hit higher. In grappling, it means you won’t get hurt as much.

Take a good look at a BJJ match and notice the odd positions fighters get into. Flexibility decreases the chances of injury and makes it easier for you to free yourself from uncomfortable holds. 


What’s the Ideal Body for BJJ?

Athletes look the way they do for a reason. Whichever sport they practice will change their bodies. Their strict and intense diets, training, and exercise regimens will build muscle and strength and, in extreme cases, even inhibit hormone production. 

Think of swimmers, gymnasts, wrestlers or even ballet dancers. Often, weight limitations (or expectations) are placed on participants, and part of their fitness involves maintaining the standard. 

BJJ is not like that. One of the most important BJJ concepts is that you can participate no matter your body type. It was designed to compensate for smaller and weaker opponents to have just as much as an advantage as a more muscular opponent in a fight. This doesn’t mean that size is unimportant. 

It’s worth more to tailor how you fight in BJJ to your physique. If you have long, powerful legs, focus on them. If you’re smaller and lighter, use your opponent’s weight against them. You don’t have to undergo extreme physical changes to fit in or gain an advantage, but you should still make an effort to be fit and healthy for your own benefit.


Is BJJ Right for You?

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a popular sport that continues to dominate the martial arts. It’s useful in fitness, competition, and self-defense, and almost anyone at all can learn it. 

Still, it’s not a walk in the park, and only those who have a determined attitude will succeed in it. Your first lesson might be uncomfortable, but with patience, I’m sure you’ll come to enjoy it. The only way you’ll ever know if it’s right for you is if you give it a try. 

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