Inverted Gear Blog / Nelson Puentes

How to Improve Without a Black Belt Instructor

In an ideal world, we would all train at a place like Marcelo Garcia’s academy in New York City or Art of Jiu-Jitsu in California with a multiple-time world champion coach and plenty of world caliber training partners. But what if you live some place more remote, and the nearest black belt is hours away? How can you improve when your only training partners are a blue belt and a bunch of white belts? Are you destined to spend your time in a car driving for hours every time you want to train?

This situation is more common than you think. When you live in southern California or anywhere near New York City, believing that there are places in the world where black belts are scarce and purple belt instructor are commodity might be hard to imagine. Through my travels and camps, I have met plenty of people in this situation, and we have traded notes. At one point, I was a purple belt instructor at a small school in New Jersey and most of my mat time was spent with white and blue belts. I would only train with my instructor Kevin once a week.

So I am familiar with the difficulties of making this work, but the good news is that it can work.

Here is what I would recommend if you find yourself in this situation:

  • Invest in your training partners. Pick a few training partners, if they are close to your weight even better, and invest time in them. Take a few minutes after every class and show them what they can improve on. Drill with them and show them how to counter and best ways to react to whatever you are working on. If you are working on triangles, show them how to recognize and kill your angles or show them how to escape it once it’s locked in. In the long run, the better they get, the better your training will be too.

  • Travel to nearby academies, but don’t burn yourself out. I had many training partners over the years that fell into the trap of long commutes to train. Eventually they hated the commute but also started to hate jiu-jitsu by proxy. Many of my friends that chose to commute long hours to NYC to train at premiere academies, for example, no longer train, even after having success competing at lower belt levels. Traveling to different academies to train is a good thing, but like anything it should be done in moderation.

  • Find what your training partners are best at and put yourself in those situations. If one of the big guys in the room has an amazing mount or side control, let him have it and spend time there. Put yourself at a disadvantage, and get meaningful reps this way.

  • Get people to visit you. Whether you set up a seminar for a local black belt or brown belt or use your spare bedroom or couch to let a BJJ traveler crash, keeping an open door is a good way to get knowledge flowing through your academy. Extra points if you live in a somewhat touristy destination, but that’s not always necessary. Check out BJJ Globetrotters and You never know what traveling black belt may drop by our academy. As I write this blog, I am traveling through the north coast of Australia teaching seminars and staying with the locals, and it’s a blast.

  • Change up your game regularly. If you can armbar everyone in the room, it’s time to switch it up. Spend some time getting to the back and finishing with chokes. If you can butterfly sweep everyone, work on half guard for a few weeks. And so on. This will not only give you a more balanced game, but it will expose your training partners to different games, which they can pick up and make part of theirs.

  • Use your vacations for BJJ camps. Whether you want to visit Europe and go to Globetrotter camp or come hang out with me in Costa Rica next year, BJJ camps are great ways to expand your game and your BJJ network. As you meet more people that like to travel and do BJJ, you have better chances of getting them to swing by your neck of the woods in the future.

  • Learn from instructionals in any form, from YouTube to DVDs to books to websites. My friends wrote great articles about this:

Living in an isolated area with limited training options is not a death sentence to your BJJ improvement. You can make progress. It may take longer than you would like, but BJJ is not going anywhere, and you might find that having to direct your own training could actually be a big advantage for your long term growth and development.

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Non-Conformity and Jiu-Jitsu

As Hillary and I were headed to Australia to meet our friend Chad and teach a few seminars, Winter Storm Stella was scheduled to hit the east coast. Our flight out of Philly was cancelled, which made us scramble to get new a flight. We decided our best option was driving to Pittsburgh, staying with friends, and flying out of there the following morning.

24 hours later, we returned our one-way rental and headed to the gate. Along the way, this book caught my attention. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. A few flights, layovers, and whiskey and sodas later I am about halfway through the book, and I can’t help but start to draw comparisons to jiu-jitsu.

I never thought about it before, but BJJ counts large numbers of non-conformists among its ranks. And some of them really have changed the way we look at BJJ. If we take a historical approach, we can identify quite a few people that had a huge impact on how the game is played today, by either coming up with new positions entirely or changing how we look at old positions.

Half Guard

We can start by looking at half guard, which these days is as diverse and dynamic as any jiu-jitsu position. At one point, however, half guard was seen as a “stalling position” because many players would only go there to get lockdown and slow things down as they caught their breath. Gordo and Gordinho Correa completely changed that by adopting the position as their main sweeping tool. They changed the way the game was played.

By being able to re-guard to half and start attacking right away, it gave them a huge advantage since they didn't have to recompose all the way to a “full guard.” Even as Gordo and his brother succeeded, it took a few years before other people bought into it. Nowadays, the position has continued to evolve, and deep half guard and Lucas Leite style half guard are part of most competitive players’ arsenals.

Inverted Guard

Inversions were not always part of the BJJ game, either. Roleta was one of the first players to use this position in order to re-guard and use his patented “Roleta sweep” (mostly known as Tornado sweep these days since Cyborg Abreu has popularized it again). Many old school players were not fans of Roleta's style, and some didn’t even consider it “real” jiu-jitsu—he wasn't playing a normal guard after all.

His style was nicknamed esqui-jitsu (short from esquisito which means weird in Portuguese). After Roleta. it wouldn't be until a pair of blue belts started going inverted and triangling everyone that the inversion game gain popularity. Ryan Hall and my old training partner from Alliance NYC had much success catching triangles from inverted guard. At the time, many people, especially at the blue and purple belt level, didn’t even know how to pass the inverted guard which gave them a huge advantage in competition. Dave won blue belt worlds and Ryan, well, he became Ryan, accomplishing a great deal in BJJ and in MMA.


Ryan would later develop another position, the 50/50, which he would get to when opponent stood up to pass his inverted guard to avoid triangles. He would shoot his legs through his opponent’s legs and arrive at the 50/50, which was technically not a new position, but it had been regarded just as a stalling position until that point. Ryan Hall 50/50 heel hooking his way into ADCC gave the position notoriety, but it wasn’t until Bruno Frazatto and the Mendes brothers from team Atos started using the position to contain Cobrinha that the position gained popularity in the gi as well. The positioned that once frowned upon exploded as everyone started to come up with ways to pass and enter it.

The Bigger Picture of Non-Conformity

The inverted guard saw another Renaissance with the rise of the berimbolo, and there has been a whole lot of other BJJ innovation that was once against the grain but is now accepted as legitimate effective technique (or for the most part at least; looking at you leglock haters). Nowadays we have guys like Keenan who seem to come up with a different position every time he makes a taco run, changing the way we look at open guard again and again, especially when lapels are involved.

Benefiting from non-conformity doesn’t have to mean innovating on the level of Ryan Hall or Rafa Mendes. Simply being willing to try something outside of the box or to take the road less traveled can make you more likely to grow.

If you ask my mom, I have been in trouble for not conforming for a long time. I used to carry notes from my teacher almost daily during my early school years. As an adult, non-conformity is a part of my life that is evident in my grappling style and in my career path. The whole reason Inverted Gear was created was that I was not happy with the way the gi industry was heading (thank God the Affliction years have passed) and wanted to do something different

As you develop your game and go through your BJJ journey, don't be afraid to develop your own game. Maybe you are interested in a position that is not popular at the time, but don’t let that be a deterrent to creating your own game or investing time in any given position. Maybe you like passing to the right like some of us degenerates or attacking ankle locks across the body instead of the regular side. One of my friends had a knee injury and stopped playing the whole guard thing and sets up all his attacks and sweeps from side control.

The way things are done now should not dictate how they will be done in the future. Learn from the best practices of the day—fundamentals will always be valuable—but just because there is not a road already on your map doesn’t mean that you can’t make one yourself.

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The State of Panda Nation

Five years ago, I started Inverted Gear. It seems like yesterday I was ordering polybags and halfsheet labels on Amazon so I could ship the first batch of panda gis from my mom’s basement. A lot has changed since then. First of all, I met my wife and business partner, Hillary. I didn’t know how much I needed her until she saw our original design files that were sent to the factory. Here is a side by side for comparison, so you can perhaps get a sense of the potential she saw on the brand.


With Hillary’s help, Inverted Gear has grown into something incredible.

I’m still amazed when I scroll through social media and get to experience panda sightings. Whether it’s a video or a picture of a seminar somewhere overseas, if you look hard enough you are sure to find a panda somewhere. I am very grateful for this. With the ever-growing amount of options out there, the fact that people keep choosing us means a lot to me and to Hillary.

In order to thank you for your support, we have worked hard over the last few years to bring you more content than ever. I have assembled what I consider the best BJJ writers out there in one team. Marshal Carper, Matt Kirtley, Daniel Bertina, Val Worthington, and TP grant—also weekly features from yours truly and the occasional post from Hillary when she gets time away from all the design work.

Also we are working hard to start bringing you more video content from both our sponsored athletes and us. We’ve been especially proud of our White Belt Wednesday videos. The best part about my job is getting to talk to people about jiu-jitsu, and these videos are a fun way for us to interact with new jiu-jiteiros around the world and hopefully help their training, even if it’s just a little bit. We have some cool projects in the works that we cannot wait to share with you as well.

On the gear side of things, we’ve been busy too. We will have quite a few announcements on the upcoming weeks. 

As much as we’re looking to do new things, there’s a lot that won’t change. We plan to continue our support of Tap Cancer Out and all the great work they do. We also plan to continue our support of grappling events in general. We have been able to sponsor the last two Polaris events, we sponsored the last Challenge (Keenan Cornelius vs. Sean Roberts), and we are pleased to announce we will be sponsoring Marianas open this year.

Finally, we are working hard to bring Inverted Gear to Europe permanently. Our friends across the pond have been patient so far, but we know that high shipping costs and rising taxes can be frustrating, so we have a European distribution hub in the works, so that we can directly serve European pandas the way we serve American pandas. Our aim is to have this completed by the end of the year.

Everything we have done over the last 5 years has been possible due to your support. Thank you again for believing in our vision. We look forward to bringing you highest quality gear possible, great content, and let’s not forget that really cool Panda logo.

Thank you, Panda Nation. You are some of the greatest people I’ve ever met.


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Why Knowing the 3 Types of BJJ Schools is Important

I got to visit a lot of schools over the last 10 years. While every school is different, I feel they all tend to fall into three categories: traditional, formal, and informal. Before I go into my criteria for these categories or why I'm even making these distinctions, I want to point out how interesting it is that the same sport—we all do the same thing, wrestle in pajamas—can produce a wide spectrum of school and teaching styles.

The amount of rules and customs some schools choose to follow can be completely foreign to a student from an informal school, and a student who has known nothing but the structure of a formal school can be equally as lost at a school where students don’t bow when they come in the door and students don’t line up according to rank.

Let's break down these categories.

  • Traditional: Lots of these seem to fall on the Gracie lineage side of things. Traditional schools have carried over many practices from traditional martial arts—bowing on and off the mat, lining up in belt order before and after the class—and some have strict rules in the way lower belts interact with upper belts. No asking an upper belt to roll, turn around in order to not face a black belt while tying your belt, keeping your belt and gi on at all times while on the mat, white gis only, call the instructor "professor" and so on.

  • Formal: Formal schools still hold on to some of the more traditional rules but are much more relaxed overall. While they may line up before and after class, you are allowed to wear different color gis, ask upper belts to roll, and you can call the instructor by his or her name. If your belt falls off during a roll, you’ll be allowed to continue and tie it once the roll is over. You can take your jacket off and stretch at the end of class too.

  • Informal: Informal schools have much more of a club feeling to them. No pictures of Helio looking out over the classroom, the atmosphere is relaxed, there are no special rules about rolling with black belts, and for the most part everyone is treated as an equal, so no need to move to make room for the upper belts next to you. 
I want to emphasize I am not criticizing any of these. Some people truly enjoy the more rigid and controlled atmosphere of a traditional school, while some choose to train at places where the culture is just the opposite. Really, most schools fall somewhere in the middle.

Personally, I find myself gravitating more and more towards informal side of things. I still feel weird when I am called "professor" or "sir", specially from people older than me. I don’t mind being asked by lower belts to roll, just like I don’t mind turning them down if I am nursing an injury or am too tired. And I don’t think there is a need to line up by belt color every single class when sitting around on the mat we are able to talk just as well.

When visiting a school—and this is where thinking about schools in terms of categories has been really useful for me—knowing what category they fall into makes things much easier so you know the answer to questions like "How should I address the instructor? Do we line up before practice? Can I wear a blue gi? Can I ask an upper belt to roll?" Knowing those things can make your visit much more enjoyable. You can outright ask an instructor or an upper belt at a school some of these basic questions to get a sense for the school’s decorum, or you can take a few minutes to observe and pick up on the hints that reveal what category your school for the day falls into.

This isn’t about right or wrong, as I said before. This is about being a respectful visitor. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any school style and the variety is good for the sport. If you’re visiting, however, being aware of how a school does things can save you a few awkward moments and let you focus more on training.

What category does your school fall into? What category do you prefer, and why?
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The "L Word" of BJJ - How I Started Training for Longevity

I am getting close to my 10 year anniversary with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Over the last year, I finally changed my mindset of how I look at my training, and started to think about longevity. I remember being a twenty-year-old white belt, training like a madman, often tapping too late, or barely getting out of submissions I should have tapped to. Older guys in the room would just shake their heads at me and tell me do it while you can.

Of course I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Then I turned 28, and suddenly all those little injuries from hard training and competing suddenly would not go away. It's a completely different game once you turn 30.

My knees, specifically my MCL, were sprained and partially torn more times than I care to count. My hands were a swollen mess – so much so that I had given up wearing shoes with laces on them. And my ribs seemed to never heal. Every few months I was “due” for another rib injury. Thankfully my PT friend was always ready to pop my rib back in.

So I had to start thinking about the L word, you know the one young guys like to ignore: Longevity. It was clear to me that I would be doing BJJ the rest of my life, but at this pace I was not sure my body was going to allow me to.

This is what I have been changing to improve my longevity in BJJ:

  • Started training more no-gi. I needed to give my hands a break, and training no-gi more than my typical once a week allowed my hands some rest from grip fighting while still getting my BJJ fix in. Over time I found I enjoyed no-gi just as much as I do the gi. I try to schedule my weekly training with an even split between the two.
  • Limited the amount of inversions in my game. While I never had back problems from playing inverted, I had recurring issues with my ribs. Berimbolos, rolling back takes, and inverting to re-guard had become a big part of my game. If you ever been sidelined with a rib injury, you know how painful it is. It took a bit to break out of my upside down habits, and while I have not taken them completely out of my game, I use them sparingly now, and my ribs problems have all but disappeared.
  • Developed a less grip-dependent game in the gi. I stopped playing open guard using double sleeve grips. My hands had thanked me and my game has expanded. I’ve also changed the way I pass, using my footwork and body positioning in order to set up folding passes. As an added benefit, my passing and guard game translate to no-gi much better.
  • Mobility work. My friend Matt got really deep into mobility and stretching in order to alleviate his own hip problems. I’ve been able to pick his brain, and he has helped me improve my mobility. Even though I complain non-stop when he makes me do some of the more advanced drills, he showed me how bad my hip mobility had become. Once I got that taken care of, all my knee problems disappeared. After years of recurring MCL injuries, I am back to training takedowns and leglocks without any issues.
  • Cut back on my training volume and intensity. I was training more than I should have. I wasn’t recovering correctly, and it just lead to more injuries. I have become much better at managing my intensity and training volume, and listening to my body when I need to take it easy or rest a day. I had gotten caught up in “get ready for the next tournament” cycle, and even when I stopped competing I was still in that training mindset. 

My friend Kari says that once you turn 30, you no longer get injuries, just small permanent disabilities. And I have to agree with him. Injuries that I would not even think about resting for sideline me now. They don’t magically heal now like when I was 20. We only get one body and you gotta take care of it so you can continue training. I have been very fortunate to avoid any surgeries in my 10 year run with grappling. I hope the steps I have taken keep me on the mat so that twenty years from now gray haired Nelson still has some left in the tank to roll around with his fellow old timers and the occasional young gun.

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