Are Jiu-Jitsu Concepts Actually Helping You Learn?

A few years ago, jiu-jitsu concepts became all the rage, and for good reason. When YouTube jiu-jitsu hit a critical mass, we had no shortage of individual techniques. We could find hours and hours of footage of our favorite competitors and instructors famous and obscure teaching their secrets. With the volume of knowledge going up, students naturally craved a more meaningful way to stitch them together, to zoom out and think about the art at a level higher than individual techniques.

So instructors started talking more the concepts and strategies that drive everything from biomechanics to competition strategies. For a while, this elevated jiu-jitsu learning, but now we have a similar challenge with concepts as we have with individual techniques: There are so many people talking concepts (and in so many different ways) that we almost need another level up from to help us make sense of this deluge of material.

In my mind, that level up is a learning framework, a process for taking the concepts you know and using them to accelerate your learning. For example, when you’re learning a new technique you can take what you know about biomechanics and use it to analyze the choices you’re making in the move. If you’re compromising one of your rules for effective biomechanics, you should figure out why this is the exception to the rule or perhaps correct your error.

I say all of this after having struggled with how best to do this in my own jiu-jitsu. I wanted a way to consistently reverse engineer what I was learning so I could more quickly determine what made a move “tick.” At the same time, I wanted to make sure that I could articulate anything I learned for the sake of my students. An insight was not worthwhile, to me, if it was purely intuitive. I had to be able to turn around and give it to someone else.

Here is the process I’ve come up:

1. Up and down are relative. What I mean by this is that you can find common threads in mechanics if you step back and ignore the idea of gravity for a moment. Freeze your position and rotate it like a 3-D model in a piece of software. When you do this, you realize that guard has a lot in common with mount and that the mechanics of the armbar from guard are nearly identical to the armbar from mount, except when you turn the gravity back on you get an extra mechanical boost. Suddenly, you can teach a student one technique for two positions rather than the student compartmentalizing the armbar in two different boxes.

That sounds simplistic, but finding this common ground between positions can help you problem solve and troubleshoot more efficiently. Why is your armbar from guard effective but your armbar from mount ineffective? Well, you know that from guard you need to climb up the back to pinch near the armpits and cut the angle. Are you doing that from mount? Now, whenever I learn a new position I start to flip it around in my mind to see if it has anything in common with something else I know. For example, the berimbolo made more sense to me when I saw that it had in common with the waterfall or crab ride position.

2. Most transitions are in two streets. I call this the idea the “rewind principle.” If you can enter one position from another, you can probably do the reverse. It’s not always true, but as you dissect a new position it can help you to uncover new opportunities without having to learn brand new techniques. For me, I this epiphany when I was doing an armbar from the back with my opponent turtled. I could do the same move almost step for step in reverse to take the back from a belly down armbar. Suddenly, I had a double threat where I used to think I was simply working for an armbar.

For a blue belt, this was a big deal, and it’s been a part of my learning process ever since. If someone teaches me a transition, I soon start look to start at the end and work backward to where I started. Even when it doesn’t work I walk with helpful insights. If I can’t rewind a technique, that means there is probably a point of no return, and knowing where that is helps me decision-making process during a roll just as much as knowing that I could do the same move in reverse.

3. Grapple with your bones. I picked this when I was rock climbing with a friend. He was an avid climber, and I was visiting for the weekend. When I asked him how he could climb so long without getting tired, he said that the key was to use your bones to build your structure and support rather than trying to do a pull up over and over up the side of a mountain. I almost fell off the climbing wall when I realized the implication.

Sure, we talk about building frames, but a good frame is more than making a shape with your body. A good frame puts your bones and weight to work rather than your muscles. Now, as I’m learning a new technique, I evaluate what I am using to execute the movement. If I find myself using a lot of strength to do the move on an non-resisting opponent, I know that something is not right. From there I can go over my technique and troubleshoot the problem myself, experimenting with variations in positioning to find the sweet spot where my bones do the work.

4. Move yourself, not your opponent. Where grappling with your bones helps you to think about static positions and frames, this principle is about how you move. The majority of your jiu-jitsu should hinge around how you move yourself rather than counting on being able to move your opponent. The more of a disadvantage you face in size, the more difficult it will be to move someone that doesn’t want to be moved.

And yes, this principle applies to sweeps and takedowns. If you take your favorite sweep apart and look at its component pieces, most of the work you do is about getting yourself to the right place so that you have as much leverage as possible to finish the move. If you feel like you are doing the lifting, you are either not in the right position or you are using the sweep at the wrong time.

There are dozens of additional concepts that you could incorporate into your learning, but these are my favorite because they become clear questions that I can ask myself mid-training to evaluate and refine my technique. Because of that, these few ideas have had a profound impact on my training and helped me to become a teacher at the same time. I hope they do the same for you.

If you want a full instructional on this type of thinking, my cloud instructional 3-D Jiu-Jitsu is completely free. Read it today.