Inverted Gear Blog / Nelson Puentes
When I started BJJ I was 185 pounds. I have drifted upward since then (I don’t regret a single taco), and for the most part I have been considered one of the big guys in the room. As someone that has spent most of his BJJ career on the 200+ pounds range, these are some of the rules I follow in order to train in a way I can both develop my game and keep my training partners happy.
1. As someone blessed with extra gravitational powers, you can apply more pressure than most of your training partners. This does not mean you need to roll like a maniacal steamroller, flattening anything in your path. If there is a big weight or skill discrepancy between you and opponent, you don’t have to apply all of your pressure. Sure, use enough pressure to finish whatever pass you are working on or to hold a top position, but try to move, improve your position, go for subs, and be mindful of the build and frame of the person beneath you.
2. Ask yourself the question, “Did I get that sweep/submission/escape because my technique was right or because I am a giant panda?” I often encounter big guys that grow accustomed to being the only big guy in their gym and develop bad habits because of it. These habits become apparent when they meet someone of similar size or an equal or higher skill level. It’s an eye-opening experience when a big part of your game is suddenly nullified because you are no longer the larger grappler.
3. Don’t neglect your bottom game. While as a larger guy passing and takedowns can become your comfort zone, you will find yourself on the bottom eventually, and having a guard game that can handle a bigger opponent is important. Yet again don’t fall into bad habits here. Develop a game with an opponent your size in mind. Look at guys like Pe de Pano or Bernardo Faria for guys with great guards. While guard is important, make sure you work on your escapes as well. While rolling with a 260 pound black belt recently, I was painfully reminded that I had been neglecting to work on my mount escapes, and it is now something I will be working on for the next few months by starting my rolls from there as often as I can.
4. Work on your mobility and flexibility. Newcomers to BJJ are often stiff as a board, and this is especially true for bigger guys, even more so if they spent years in a less than ideal strength training routine. Pay attention next time Americanas are taught. It is very easy to spot the big bench pressers in the room. Tight hips, legs, and back muscles may keep you from performing certain things like triangles, inversions, or dynamic movements, but if you keep training and working on your flexibility, you will be able to do them down the road. When I started BJJ, my hips were so tight I had a really hard time getting triangles. I even injured my knee once adjusting one on a bad angle.
There is nothing wrong with being one of the bigger guys in the room. It’s not like you have much of a choice in most cases. What you can choose is how you approach your training and how you think about your body and your training partners. If you are diligent about being technical and develop self-awareness as to your habits and your own weaknesses, you can refine your technique to the point that you can both take care of smaller training partners and handle the challenges that a larger opponent presents. Hopefully this can help some big guys starting out in BJJ.
A little over two years ago, Hillary and I closed the small gym we had opened, sold our mats, and decided to travel as much as possible. 2 years and 20 countries later, we have more than accomplished this goal. Thanks to BJJ, I have gotten to have amazing experiences around the world. I felt like I was on an episode of the travel shows I loved so much. I jumped in the freezing ocean in Greenland, I fed a kangaroo at the Steve Irwin zoo in Australia, I learned to snowboard on the Austrian Alps, I surfed for the first time in Costa Rica a few weeks later, I went off-roading at night in Guam, and I paddle-boarded around Roman ruins in Sardinia.
More exhilarating and more rewarding than any of those things, though, was getting to meet and train with a kaleidoscope of people. We shared this common thread of jiu-jitsu, but the range of styles and cultures and perspectives we encountered on the mat was just as much an adventure as anything we did as tourists off the mat.
Through our travels, I got to learn a lot about the BJJ community. Here are some of my observations:
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu will open many doors. It never ceases to amaze me how embracing the BJJ community is. Whether it was being invited to grab drinks after training, home cooked meals after seminars, or airport pick-ups in the middle of the night. Having a friend in common, gotten a roll in at a camp, or taken one of my classes in the past was enough to be treated like longtime friends. I am truly grateful for all the people we have met along the way, you have made the last two years unbelievable.
BJJ can take root anywhere. No matter what remote area of the world we headed BJJ had managed to blossom, from a gym in the community center in Nuuk, Greenland to a small garage gym in the south of Chile, to gyms on small islands in the Caribbean, Mediterranean or Pacific. BJJ was there and thriving. No matter how small the population of the place, it seems that someone bit by the bug got some mats and started convincing friends to roll around on the ground with them.
Modern BJJ spreads like wildfire. With YouTube and all the grappling PPVs available these days, it seems like anywhere I went the modern game was present—berimbolo fans, crazy lapel guards, or fans of the modern leg lock game. Developments that took years to spread before now seemed to happen almost automatically now due to the overwhelming amount of not only footage but also online instructionals. A willingness to research and competent training partners will get you pretty far in adding material to your game.
There is always a foodie in the room. I am not alone in my love for food. I was always able to find a fellow foodie to show me the best nearby spots for an after-training meal. I got to eat amazing sushi in Tokyo, an amazing charcuterie board in Rome, Harkar in Iceland, roasted Christmas duck in Denmark, fresh caught prawns in Greenland, steak in Argentina, BBQ in Korea, scweinhaxle in Munich, or the most amazing al pastor tacos in Mexico. I am glad I got to burn some calories through BJJ otherwise I would be pushing 300 pounds right now. It also lead to adventures like the time we went to a TGI Friday's in Leeds England where the waiters had fake American accents, or the time—unbeknownst to us—went on the Overeem diet by eating horse burgers in Sardinia.
You can’t escape BJJ drama. No matter how small the community was there is always some kind of drama around grown man wearing pajamas. Whether schools in small towns split and become rivals, beef with the local judo programs, or school that prohibit their students from training somewhere else, jiu-jitsu seems to breed drama by default.
Female black belts are still unicorns. Plenty of times during our travels, we met girls excited to train with Hillary. Not only had they never trained with a female black belt, but they had never met one in person. It was really amazing to see my Hillary inspire other girls to stick with the sport.
Wrestling still hard to find outside of the US and few European countries. Whenever I teach, I always asked the students present what they would like to learn. I was surprised how often I was asked about takedowns, specifically wrestling takedowns like single legs and double legs. We often hear it from foreigners, but I never fully understood how fortunate I was to not only wrestle in High school but have training partners with amazing wrestling.
Eastern Europeans still love the Kesa Gatame. Perhaps an upbringing in sports like Judo, Sambo, and different styles of wrestling where you can win by pin is the reason for this, but compare this trend to the rest of the world and you’ll struggle to find a deeper concentration of grapplers who love Kesa. Training partners with good Kesa Gatame pressure will improve your guard retention and takedown defense. There are few things in grappling worse than being stuck under someone trying to remove your head from your shoulders.
Tatamis are a luxury. Most schools in the U.S. have beautiful tatami style mats, but most of the schools I visited make do with much less. We trained on everything from puzzle mats, to wrestling mats, to tarps over shredded tires, to gymnastics mats taped together. No matter the type of surface, training was always great, but we had to think about it twice before teaching takedowns.
Jiu-jitsu nomads are everywhere. My friend Christian wrote a book about his adventures as a BJJ Globetrotter that has inspired a giant community of travelers that love to train jiu-jitsu. I have made many friends that I have seen in different part of the globe for different camps, tournaments, or while visiting local academies. The BJJ community is richer for this roaming practitioners that visit areas where black belts are scarce.
For the first time in two years, I am home, and I don't have any flights book in the upcoming months. It has been quite the adventure. I remember being a kid and playing with my globe and telling my parents all the places I was going to visit when I grew up. I have been able to get through most of my bucket list, but after we recharge our batteries by spending the summer at home we will on the road again. If you would like to host Hillary and I for a seminar you can find some info here.
I got my black belt three years ago. For the first and second anniversaries of earning my black belt, I wrote blog posts about what I had learned in year one and year two. Time flies, but Panda Nation seems to enjoy hearing about my black belt adventures and just how much learning occurs after black belt.
So here’s the third edition!
My training has been inconsistent. Hillary and I have been traveling a ton for camps and seminars and a bunch of stuff in between. Sometimes we only come home for a week or two before heading out again. My time at my “home gym” has been minimal, so I haven’t gotten to spend as much time in the lab as I would like. I have, however, been able to train with a ton of great grapplers and pick up a few tricks along the way, so it’s a tradeoff.
Even with an unusual training scheduling, my work on leg locks continues. I keep finding new spots to attack my IBJJF-approved game of tripod ankle locks and cross body ankle locks. Last year, I had a goal of working on my knee bar game. After some trial and error, I am a lot better at them. I have collected a few entries that I can hit consistently, mostly from the bottom when opponents defend sweeps or while defending some passes. I have a lot of success with controlling both legs while attacking the knee bar and being able to switch to the toe hold on the free leg when they defend.
Also, since moving to the Allentown area, I get to work on heel hooks a lot more, and my timing and proficiency has gone up with those as well.
A big part of my work on leg locks is linking them with upper body attacks. I have been working on coming up to dominant positions off my leg attacks. If I go for a foot lock and my opponent starts pummeling and re-engaging the leg attack, I am a lot better at coming up into a passing position. My friend Reilly recently changed the way I did the cross body ankle lock: by posting on one arm it is much easier to rewind into the leg drag, so that’s also been on the practice plate thanks to the last R Dojo camp.
When I start to pass, whether I’m coming up from a leg lock attack or not, I have been looking for the folding pass. This has been my project for a few years now, and I’ve made a good bit of progress. Now that my training partners know what I like though, opponents have started playing with wider hips to prevent the fold, so I have been working on different set-ups for my knee cut when this happens. My passing proficiency has gone up, and I get to back step into leg locks when my opponent overcommits to defending the knee cut.
From standing, I been playing a lot more with front headlocks to set up takedowns. Front headlocks are one of the highest scoring takedowns in wrestling. They were so strong that rules needed to be changed and a shot clock added because competitors were refusing to shoot in fear of the front headlock. In a gi and no-gi context, it’s underutilized since many of us choose to jump on guillotines from the position. I have been working on getting the position and breaking my opponent down and then spinning behind, double legging when they pop up, and various chokes once my opponent is broken down to his knees. This new emphasis on the front headlock has made my singles and doubles more successful since my opponent's posture changes as I keep attacking their head.
On top of everything else, I have been working more and more on the Bernardo-style deep half guard. It’s great guard to play when I am tired and I need to tie up an overzealous lower belt while at a camp or traveling. It also feeds very well into my strong passing position to further slowdown my opponent.
This is what I been working on over the last year. A few of these items I have been working on for the last three years now, but I am always finding little details to refine them and add to them.
What have you been working on?
As I train more and more and I get a better idea of what “my game” is, I find myself using a similar principle more often. I like to call it “funneling.” What I mean when I use this term is getting to certain positions that dramatically reduce my opponent’s options. Since I am familiar with the positions, I can react accordingly, and I will pick positions where I feel I have the advantage, whether that advantage is mechanical or simply a matter of my being more experienced with the position.
It all started with closed guard. I was tired of being triangled and swept by one of my main training partners from his closed guard. I realized that while I sometimes got swept when I stood up, I rarely got submitted. Sure, I would get caught here and there in crazy omoplata scrambles, but for the most part I was able to stand up and open his guard.
So I started standing every time I found myself in closed guard.
This dramatically cut the amount of attacks I had to worry about. Triangles and armbars were almost out of the equation if I broke grips correctly and I kept my posture on my to my feet. Now all I had to worry about were lumberjack sweeps, sucker sweeps, and some kind of hail Mary omoplata attempt which could all be prevented by being aware of what my opponent’s options were and positioning my feet and arms accordingly. My success rate of passing the closed guard skyrocketed, so I started applying this principle to other areas of my game looking for options that narrowed my opponent’s options and made him more predictable.
Eventually, I started to apply this concept to my entire guard passing game and not just my response to closed guard. When I was a purple belt (and that seems like forever ago), I went to Atlanta for a Pans training camp at Alliance HQ. I rolled with Chris Moriarty, and he kept passing my guard by setting up different folding passes. Then he would choke or wristlock me repeatedly from mount.
This left an impression. My later purple belt years and brown belt years were spent funneling my passing into the folding pass position. As jiu-jitsu continues to evolve and more and more guards come into vogue I find some tranquility in being able to use footwork and grips to get my opponent to give me an angle where I can get both of his knees onto the mat and sprawl on them. Here his options are very limited, and I have an incredible mechanical advantage -- not only is all my weight pinning his hips and knees, but his knees are facing away from me, while all my big muscles are facing him.
The folding pass is a funnel for my guard passing game. I have a strong mechanical advantage, and I can consistently predict my opponent’s reactions.
Here is me teaching the folding pass at a seminar:
Today, I have built myself funnels for virtually every aspect of my game. I always enjoyed the guard for its variety, and over the years I have gravitated more toward butterfly guard and single leg X-guard variations because I can them in both gi and no-gi, they let me rest my mangled hands, and the mechanical power of these positions for sweeps consistently open the doors I need to either advance my position or attack with leg locks. I’ve also done the same for my takedown game, spending more time on tie-ups and gripping sequences that are less open-ended for my opponent and give me the control I need to press the attack.
As I simplified my game and worked so I could do similar techniques in both gi and no-gi, I am able to do same things over and over and react faster when they become available, keeping me ahead. My friend Reilly Bodycomb has been a huge influence over the last few years, not only in the stand up and leglock portion of my game but his approach to “always grappling the same.” His influence has helped me feel comfortable competing in gi, no-gi, and even sambo. Even if a ruleset bans heel hooks, I can still use my same entries for anklelocks or kneebars.
(If you haven’t checked out Reilly’s new Top Rock Turbo 2 instructional, do so now.)
Funneling can be applied at every belt level. The easiest place to start is simply insisting on getting to a position you like, like forcing half guard when you are on top trying to pass. As you get more advanced, the idea of funneling starts to look like a more complex strategy, like Bernardo Faria’s deep half guard for example, but the core principle is still the same: Get to the positions where you are comfortable and can easily predict what happens next.
What position do you find yourself funneling your opponent into? How can you build on that to improve your game?
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 Matsurfing.org. 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.