Inverted Gear Blog / Matt Kirtley
A reader of the Inverted Gear blog recently asked me if I could do a series of posts that define BJJ terms, much like a visual dictionary.
With the aid of my hand model Nelson and the power of GIFs, let's look at the right and wrong ways to do hand-to-hand grips.
Somewhere along the line, BJJ took to calling this palm-to-palm configuration the "Gable grip," after the famous wrestler Dan Gable. The wrestlers who I have asked about it do not use his name, for what that's worth. This is sometimes mispronounced as the "cable grip." You see this grip used ubiquitously, from bodylocks to defending armbars to attack with straight armlocks--any time you need to put your hands together to do a technique.
A variation on the Gable grip is to reach further across and grasp your forearms. The goal is to have the bends of wrists hook against each other to add to the strength of the grip. You see this used when a grappler gets double underhooks and wants to close the circle of their arms extra tight, such as in Greco throws or half guard.
Mistake: Thumb Out
The most common mistake made with the Gable grip is leaving the thumbs sticking out. This weakens the integrity by putting strain on the fingers and wrists and leaving a gap between the palms. To feel the difference for yourself, try both ways and fight yourself to keep the grips while pulling your arms apart.
A variation on the palm-to-palm grip is to stick the thumb between the index and middle finger. You will find this sometimes used in moves where it is important to bring the elbows together without the grip slipping apart, such as Darce chokes and Japanese neckties. I first saw Jeff Glover teach this. Nelson credits Gokor, so we went with that name. If you know a better nickname, please tell us. Update: We're told this is called the three finger grip or the Lebell grip, after grappling OG Judo Gene Lebell.
When an opponent is too big for your arms to wrap enough to go palm-to-palm, you may be able to hook fingers-to-fingers in a s-grip. You can also use this when defending armbars, but make sure the arm that is being attacked is turned so the palm is away from you.
Seat Belt Grip
The seat belt grip is used most commonly from back control or the front headlock, as well as anklelocks and guillotines. As a rule, you want to hide the "choking" hand under the other hand so you make it harder for your opponent to grab and pull away, and to reinforce the choke or footlock when you go for the submission..
Mistake: Grabbing the Fingers
Don't make the mistake of grabbing your own fingers and squishing them. This puts too much strain on the fingers instead of the stronger wrist and forearm.
I cannot think of a single use of this grip* but new students will sometimes do it not knowing any better. Nelson and I included it here because we get infuriated when we see it in grappling.
*Okay, I can think of a single use:
Enjoy the combination of text and GIFs to explain BJJ? Then check out Artechoke Media, where Nelson and I both have released entire instructionals built around them with everything also taught in videos too. Nelson just released From Chile with Love and I made Mastering the Crucifix.
Over the years, I have seen BJJ students run into many common problems. I am guilty of many of these myself, and now when I work with my students I try to steer them away from making this mistakes as well. My thinking is that if I can help you skip over the obstacles that slowed my own progress, you can learn more and advance faster than I did. Here are the top 3 pitfalls I talk to my students about:
Becoming a technique collector.
As a white belt, your biggest problem is usually that you simply don’t know what to do. Your instructor comes along and shows you a move for a certain situation. Now you know when you’re in a certain spot, you do that. So by that logic, you just keep learning every possible move you can do in every position, and then you will have it all figured out.
The fix here is to realize you can only be good at so many moves and to pick the main ones you want to work on. Cut out the rest (for now). You may incorporate more techniques later, but you have to start with something.
Trying to be too unique and original.
This problem usually strikes at blue or purple belt. This is when you are getting getting some skills, and nothing feels better than doing a cool move no one saw coming. Like the technique collector, you think success is having more techniques, especially strange ones that no one knows how to stop.
The fix is to cut back to basics and work on your foundational skills that will have the broadest applications. These are likely the first moves you learned. Look at the classics in greater depth instead of chasing after the next hot move.
Being afraid to try moves you are not yet good at.
The pendulum swings both ways, and instead of trying too much, you may be afraid to try anything at all. Fear of looking stupid and failing is common, but you need to overcome that if you want to keep improving. People with this problem will often become “good” at stalling and count not tapping as a measure of success.
No doubt, you need to be able to defend submissions and shouldn’t be making fundamental mistakes, but sometimes you need to try something and fail so you can figure out how to do it better next time. To get over this problem, you should set a goal of using certain techniques and go for them “win or lose.”
Each of these pitfalls relates to the techniques we choose to work on, and all can be overcome by simply changing your mindset towards how you train. If you saw yourself in any of these, take an honest look at how you are training and see if you can do better. The first step is recognizing the problem and seeing the need to change.
When you first sign up for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes, you can feel like you're drinking from a fire hose. Everyday you are bombarded with new techniques, strange movements, unknown terminology, and somehow you're expected to just figure it out while you are out of breath, sweating profusely, and being smashed by all your training partners.
To simplify things for you, here are the top 5 things you must learn at white belt:
Good Hip Movement
You will constantly hear coaching advice to move your hips better, and it turns out it's always true. That's why I created these two videos for solo hip movement drills you can do at home or as warm-ups before training:
This video explains the value of good hip movement when escaping side control and fixes one of the most common mistakes white belts make without realizing it:
Most humans (and I'm assuming you are one) have a natural instinct to push or grab their attacker. This is OK when no one really knows anything, but in a BJJ setting it means getting your arms busted and wasted your strength. Instead, you need to learn to keep your arms safe. Ninety-nine percent of the time, this means keeping your arms bent, elbows to ribs, and hands by your face AKA T-rex arms AKA boxing posture AKA Home Alone posture.
Beneath any specific techniques or positions are more basic instincts and habits. When you're a white belt and most of your time is spend in bad positions, the survival instincts are what you need to keep you alive.
These are the key survival instincts to develop:
- Not panic breathing, whether that is hyperventilating or holding your breath
- Staying mentally composed even under stressful, high pressure positions
- Not turning the wrong way to give up your back or giving away worse positions
- Defending your neck when in danger of chokes
- Keeping your arms in when in danger of armlocks
- Developing base and balance to not be easily knocked over or swept
- Always inching your way towards an escape
- Saving your strength and explosiveness for the critical moment it's needed
The sooner you learn the positional hierarchy, the easier everything else becomes. This refers to the idea that ground fighting is made up of superior and inferior positions, and knowing which one you are in tells you what to do next.
Traditionally, the positions stack up from best to neutral like this (assuming you're on top):
- Back control/rear mount
- Side control
- Half guard
- Open guard
- Closed guard
If you're on the bad side, read that list in reverse to see how it goes from neutral to worst.
You need to know the positional hierarchy by heart, and more than that, you need to recognize where you are in it throughout a match. This will give you a clearer understanding of what you should be doing and what your next goal is.
Side Control Escapes
As a white belt, you will spend most of your time in bad spots, but chief of among these is always side control. That's why you need to put in extra work learning side control escapes. The only way you'll learn is by spending a lot of time underneath it and working your way out. Escaping the other bad positions like mount and rear mount are important too, but side control is the most frustrating and common place to find yourself if you're not in a good position.
These videos will give you the basic idea of what to work on:
As a white belt, you have so many things to learn that you can become paralyzed by information overload. The cold hard truth is that BJJ is very complex and it is normal to struggle as a beginner. But now you know not everything is equally important to beginners, and you can prioritize the skills I listed here. Developing these first will save you many headaches because they will keep you safe as you develop the rest of your skills.
In this series, we shine light on the many members of the Panda Nation. Last episode we spoke to David Phimsipasom of Maximum Athletics. Now, we focus on black belt Matt ‘Aesopian’ Kirtley: computer wizard, walking BJJ encyclopedia, and unabashed Magic: The Gathering-aficionado.
Back when he was a blue belt, Matt Kirtley (32) almost broke the internet with one of the first great BJJ blogs: Aesopian BJJ, a groundbreaking resource of free online BJJ-tutorials. Ever since then, he’s been known as a highly technical and analytical instructor – who’s embraced his inner nerd.
Did you practice other martial arts before you found jiu-jitsu?
Matt Kitley: Nope. I roughhoused as a kid, but I never got any formal training. My only other contact with martial arts was when a Tae Kwon Do guy came to my school as a kid. He made us all do a horse stance, and that was it. I found jiu-jitsu years later when I started watching Pride on DVD. I got really into it and I wondered what those guys were doing (besides lots of ‘special sauce’). I loved Kazushi Sakuraba and of course the Gracies – who had that whole fighting family image going on. The old Sherdog forum also hosted a bunch of cool highlight videos of fighters set to hair metal, and I’d watch those fanatically. You’d have to download and watch them on RealPlayer. Those were the days.
Were you physically active?
MK: Not at all. I was a computer nerd, and my dad kept pushing me to get moving. Someone on the Sherdog forum recommended Eduardo de Lima’s school. It was Gracie Barra – I had no idea what that meant. But Eduardo happened to be located just 5 minutes from my house. I would drive by his place all the time, and I was oblivious. He had no signs up or anything.
From what I understand, Eduardo is one of those old-school grinders who sticks to a non-commercial approach.
MK: That’s very correct. The school I trained in for years – all the way to black belt – was just a sweaty room in the back of a warehouse complex. It had a rolling door, cement walls, no lobby, and no air conditioning—all in smothering 100 degree Florida weather. It took me a few tries to find the place because it was hidden in between a scrap metal shop and a storage place for air filters.
So you walked into a room with people simulating murder. Did you think: these people are insane?
MK: My first memory of the gym is seeing one of the purple belts catching his breath outside, right after training. It was huge guy with shoulders the size of my head, and there was steam rising off him. Class had just finished, and Eduardo appeared from behind some drywall to greet me. He was extremely welcoming. But I did think, is this the right place? For the first couple of months, I was always super nervous before training. Not because of any bad attitude, but just because I had never done anything like that: getting thrown around and squashed by strangers.
What do you remember about your first class?
MK: My sister, one of our friends, and I started on the same day. We all did the warm-up (which was intense, with a ton of calisthenics). And the intro class was getting pulled aside and being partnered up with a blue belt, in my case a skinny tall girl (who turned out to be in the sheriff’s department). She mounted me, and Eduardo asked us how I would get out without doing something nuts. Of course, I was flailing around like a fish out of water. And, of course, she would stay on top and eventually take my back. Eduardo would ask the rhetorical question: “Well, is that good or bad for you?” And then we reversed positions, and she escaped every single time. The whole point was to demonstrate how much you don’t know. Then, we learned the basic bridge escape. So, my first experience was getting beaten up by a skinny girl.
But did it appeal to your nerdiness?
MK: Eventually it did. As a beginner, you’re not able to appreciate the technical aspects. You barely know what’s going on, but I could tell there was a lot to figure out and that kept me coming back. The heat was killing me. I couldn’t finish a class for weeks. After rolling I would almost black-out, stumble back to the line, and walk right into the walls face-first.
Somewhere along the line, you started one of the first great BJJ blogs: Aesopian.com
MT: Well, I was online all the time. Like many people of my generation, I thought my opinion was worth sharing with the world, so I got active on all the jiu-jitsu message boards. Looking back, it was pretty weird to realize that some blue belt with no credentials or experience started posting so much about jiu-jitsu. But it seemed to have worked out okay. I just got a good start because there weren’t that many people training in BJJ that could also use the internet, make websites, and had a good camera.
Did you go to school for web design?
MK: I did a little bit of that in high-school, and straight after I got an apprenticeship under a web developer. I’ve been making websites and working on internet stuff for almost half of my life. I do a lot for Inverted Gear, and I help them with their marketing – along with Marshal Carper, he’s the adult in the room. I also run Artechoke Media with him.
What was the most difficult thing to learn?
MK: I’ll flip your question. As a beginner, most people have a problem with remembering all the moves. But I lucked out in that department: I was always really good at retaining all sorts of insane details. I watched every DVD out there, and I read every instructional thread. I got caught by the Blue Belt Curse, as I was constantly collecting techniques. It was a total information overload. For me, the hardest thing was to get away from that hoarder mentality. At a certain point, I realized that you don’t need a million techniques in jiu-jitsu. The goal is to create a solid core game and not to show off how many cool techniques you know.
Can you describe the biggest evolution in your game?
MK: When I started to move away from just collecting techniques, I began to focus on the biomechanical concepts that underlie the moves. When you understand how to manipulate the opponent’s spine, shoulders, and neck – to make him unable to move in a certain way, you can predict the ways he can turn. Using that biomechanical framework allows you to control the opponent and guide him into traps, and it allows for faster improvisation. That’s way more efficient method than trying to remember a specific technique for each situation. This big change happened at brown belt. Weirdly enough, I feel I knew more at purple belt – in terms of volume. But I got better at brown belt by getting rid of a lot of that stuff. Now I do just enough to get one of about four of my best positions to work.
So all roads lead to the crucifix?
MK: Yeah, that’s always been a fun position to me. As a matter of fact, I put out a crucifix instructional a while back. The crucifix as a whole is considered an advanced move – because you need good leg control and sensitivity, something that a beginner might not have. But hooking your leg around someone’s arm isn’t that complicated. If you already like taking the back and clock-choking people you have most of what you need to develop that game. Once you recognize the trigger positions there are many opportunities. Then it just expands out.
Do you compete?
MK: I’m not a very competitive person, so that was never really my thing. I think I competed once in each belt up until purple, and then just I stopped caring. Every time I would train hard for a tournament I would also get sick or injured – which sucked. When I talk to fanatic competitors they all have broken bodies, and that wasn’t really the price I was willing to pay.
Who do you try to emulate in the art?
MK: I like instructors that have a deep understanding, but don’t over-explain things. There’s a guy named Jeff Rockwell who’s also been online forever. He has released a great instructional on the sit-up escape. Jeff always posts really smart things, and I’ve stolen a lot of his techniques over the years. When it comes to teaching methodology, I really like Bruce Hoyer. He’s got a cool teaching system called the ‘flipped classroom’. When you come to class, he doesn’t actually teach anything. He’s planned and filmed all his lessons, so before class you watch your lesson online, and then you step on the mat ready to practice. All the belts work together on their own moves. It’s the ultimate systemized, technology driven, and highly individual teaching method.
What’s your home base?
MK: A fear years ago my wife and I moved up to Pennsylvania. There wasn’t really any jiu-jitsu here, maybe just a couple of MMA gyms with purple belt instructors. I would either have to open up my own school – which I didn’t feel like doing – or train with other people and I would be the most experienced guy in the room – which is okay, but not ideal. By chance, Jeremy Henderson, a brown belt from Robson Moura’s RMNU, had just moved to the same area to open up a school: Zombie BJJ. I started training with him the week his school opened. He’s now a black belt under Robson. So, we’ve trained together for four years, and as the school grew I got involved with teaching classes. I also help out with the curriculum and a few things around the school.
How has teaching BJJ changed you view of the art?
MK: It makes you consider a lot more than just you own way of doing things. I won’t name names, but back in Florida I once met a black belt who was asked to show a basic side control escape. He went blank. The only thing he could show was his own, super-fancy-attribute-based version. It’s a cliché, but as a teacher you have to focus on fundamentals. Moves that work on most people most of the time, regardless of age and physical attributes. That helped me expand my understanding of the art. It’s ironic. Back in Florida I was the ‘new move guy,’ and Eduardo made sure we were doing our basics. Now at Zombie BJJ, I have the role of old-school instructor. I make them do the technical stand-ups, the punch block series, and all that. Showing the new-school competition game is Jeremy’s thing.
There’s a beauty to how cyclical it is.
MK: Definitely. It’s funny how things revolve. What people are doing nowadays to counter the De La Riva guard and the Berimbolo is to pass really low, or drop to both knees. So what’s the solution to passing on the knees? Butterfly guard, knee shield, all those moves that sort of fell out of favor. I find great satisfaction in sticking to pure 1996 jiu-jitsu.
How has jiu-jitsu influenced your life?
MK: I try not to get too stressed out over things, but I guess that’s my general personality. Jiu-jitsu has mostly taught me a mindset of persistence. There will be always be challenges. But if you stick with it, you either figure out a way to deal with it, or the problem will solve itself. You don’t have to be a super genius. The only thing that’s required is commitment and the willingness to ask questions.
What do you do off the mat, to stay sane?
MK: Back in Florida I did a bunch of paddle boarding, bike riding, and kayaking. The last few years I’ve gotten really into Functional Range Conditioning, a joint mobility system by Dr. Andreo Spina. My friend Josh Vogel of Balance Studios turned me on to Spina’s work, and I also learned a lot about FRC from Sam Faulhaber, another black belt from Philadelphia. FRC is aimed at healing and strengthening connective tissues, and to improve your ability to control your joints. And it’s great to both speed up and guide your recovery. It’s not based on astrology or mystical stuff, but it relies on state-of-the-art science. In the long run, jiu-jitsu is just really bad for your body – if that’s all you do. A lot of combat sport athletes have very bad posture, and we constantly put stress on our bodies in weird ways. It’s very unnatural. If you were a caveman getting in this many fights a week, your family line would probably not have evolved… So yeah, I got super deep into FRC, got certified, and now I’m looking to do the next level of certifications.
What has kept you fascinated with the art?
MK: Usually, I tend to get really deep into a topic of interest for about three months, and then I jump over to the next thing. But that didn’t happen with jiu-jitsu. The art allows me to follow that super-focused-and-then-distracted pattern over and over again, on any sub-topic in the art. With jiu-jitsu I can constantly feed my ADHD, so I guess I’ll never need another hobby.
Daniël Bertina is a journalist & writer based in The Netherlands. He is a 1st degree black belt under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram: @joyofirony
Years ago, I read an article about video game development at Valve Software, the makers of Half-Life and Left 4 Dead, that changed how I value the feedback I get as an instructor. In the interview, Valve game developers talked about how they changed how they do playtesting.
Initially, a Valve employee would sit down with a playtester and have them give live commentary as they played the game. This lead to a lot of animated and exaggerated reactions by the player and lively interactions with the observer. The Valve observer would finish the session feeling like it was productive, but the data collected was often too superficial and did not reflect how a player would play the game on their own.
To fix this, they switched to putting the playtester in a room alone, like they would be at home, and watching with a hidden camera. The player would silently stare at the screen with a bland expression on their face--or even a look of frustration--that the observer could interpret as being unhappy with the game, but when finished the player would come out and say they had a lot of fun.
The lesson was that how someone acts when they want to show you they are having fun and how someone acts when they are actually having fun are two different things.
As BJJ instructors, we can fool ourselves by looking for big reactions from our students. We can think a class was good because students praised us for showing a cool move or going gasping with amazement when we show a key detail, when the true face of learning may look a little frustrated and need to chew on the new information a bit.
In a similar vein, as instructors or students, we can trick ourselves by thinking improving performance and improving learning are the same thing.
By “performance,” I mean performing a technique or skill in controlled circumstances, such as in drilling. Learning is acquiring a skill so it can be used at a later date in real life circumstances.
Watch researcher Robert Bjork explain the difference between the two:
(I highly recommend you watch these videos of Robert Bjork talking about many misconceptions about learning.)
Training methods that improve learning do not necessarily improve performance (and vice versa), as counter-intuitive as that is. Modern research also shows that frustration as you work to acquire new skills is usually good because it means you are pushing yourself to the edge of your ability.
Changing my mindset about this has been a challenge because I have always been a big advocate of high rep drilling. Like many, I was brought up on the mantras “drillers make killers” and “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” Repetition is and will always be necessary for learning, but how you get these reps in and how “clean” the practice looks may challenge your preconceptions.
As an instructor, once you change your mindset about the value of superficial positive feedback from students, you can disregard methods that pad your ego but fail to meaningfully better your students' learning and instead focus on what really matters.
And as a student, accepting that frustration is an important part of learning can take the string out of an especially tough night of practice. Learning is often happening when we do not know it is.
All of us can benefit from putting our emotions and preconceptions aside to reevaluate if what we like to do is really the best for us, and I hope this article has helped you do that.