The Fundamental Principles of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

The Fundamental Principles of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

This is a primer in the fundamental theories that BJJ is built on. Those of us who have been training for any length of time may take these lessons for granted, but new students are signing up everyday somewhere in the world, and to these fresh white belts, these lessons can be a revelation.

Ranges of Combat

Hand-to-hand combat is divided into three main ranges:

  1. Standing or free movement
  2. Clinch
  3. Ground

Standing is how most fights or matches start. When combatants can throw punches and kicks, this is also called the striking range. Kickboxing, boxing, and most striking arts spend practically all their time in this range. Grappling arts also start their matches from standing, but usually go very quickly into the next range, the clinch.

The clinch is when the combatants are grabbing and holding on to each other while still standing. You could also call this standing grappling. Martial arts like Muay Thai kickboxing, Greco Roman wrestling, judo, and sambo specialize in this. Depending on the situation, the goal of the clinch can be to stop or soften punches, to set up takedowns and throws, to set up strikes from the clinch, or to block takedowns until you can break away to move freely and strike again.

Ground fighting is when one or both combatants are no longer standing (usually both). Some martial arts consider it a major failure to end up on the ground, while others try to take the fight there on purpose. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specializes in ground fighting, and other grappling arts like Judo, Sambo, and wrestling spend significant portions of their time here, too.

Why does BJJ spend so much time on ground fighting?

Fights that go on longer than a few moments often naturally go into the clinch, and from there, many end up on the ground, whether intentionally or not. Sometimes this is because of a deliberate takedown or even a schoolyard tackle, or because of a loss of balance, like tripping or getting rocked from a punch.

The Gracies made their name on the premise that if they could keep from being knocked out standing and get ahold of their opponent, with just some crude takedowns, they could take the fight to the ground where they knew how to take advantage of most people’s ignorance of the range.

In our sport, we do not have many resets to standing like in other arts, and we do not outright win by pinning like you can in wrestling and judo, so we became biased towards ground fighting because it is where many matches will go and stay if you just let the match go its natural course.

Hierarchy of Positional Dominance

The theory of positional dominance or positional hierarchy is at the core of what we do in BJJ. This is the idea that certain positions are better or worse than others, and by knowing what these are and what to do from them, we can make sense of what is happening in a fight that goes to the ground and protect ourselves or even win the fight from the ground.

Assuming you are on the top or dominant side, the hierarchy is traditionally as follows:

Rear mount
Side control
Half guard
Open Guard
Closed guard

When you are on the bottom or bad side of those positions, the hierarchy flips: the worst position is at the top, and they get less bad as you work your way down.

What makes a position dominant?

A dominant position is one that:

Is easier to maintain than it is to escape
Grants you mechanical advantages and leverage against your opponent
You are relatively safe from strikes and submissions
You are better able to end the fight with strikes or submissions

The point scoring system for sport BJJ is based on this theory, and it rewards points for progressing through dominant positions on the ground.

Rear mount - 4 points
Mount - 4 points
Passing the guard - 3 points
Knee-on-belly - 2 points
Takedown from standing - 2 points
Sweep from guard - 2 points

Why does BJJ focus so much on the guard?

Guard is a special kind of position that few other martial arts spend as much time on as we do in BJJ. Unlike most other positions where you’re on the bottom, from guard you can have more submissions than the top fighter and potentially more ways to end the fight. You can control the distance between yourself and your opponent using your legs, and you can use guard to sweep them over or to get back to your feet. Guard gives the bottom person the ability to protect themselves and even launch attacks against the top person.

Position Before Submission

The mantra of old school BJJ: “position before submission”. This means that recognizing your current situation per the positional hierarchy and establishing safe and secure positions is more important than going for submissions that disregard your positioning or risk losing it. For example, you do not try to do submissions from under bad positions or inside someone’s guard, and you do not jump or fall into armbars that have a good chance of failing and putting you underneath someone.

This “rule” becomes more flexible as you get more skilled, because you may be sure of your defenses and escapes so that even if your submission attempt fails, you are confident you can recover and try again or go for something else. But as a beginner, it's safer to stick to the tried and true safest plan.

Maximum Efficiency with Minimum Effort

Borrowing from judo (the granddad of BJJ), we get the principle of “maximum efficiency with minimal effort. This is also stated as “maximum result with minimal effort”. In the ideal world, the smallest amount of strength and energy would be exerted to achieve a desired result. When we say “use technique”, this is what we mean.

Think as though you lost beneficial physical attributes -- all your strength, size, weight, speed, flexibility, etc. -- and still had to win a fight. How would you do it? You would need to find a way to redirect forces without completely stopping or opposing them. You would need to prevent or avoid major threats before they become unstoppable. You would want to see the critical moments of weakness or the flaws in your opponent’s actions so you could do something to take advantage of them.

In the reality of a match or a self defense situation, we expect fighters to use their physical strengths to their full advantage, but while learning the art of BJJ, you should be focusing on the techniques and how to most efficiently and effectively perform them.

If you want to continue your education in the underlying principles of BJJ, I recommend you read my other posts, The Four Stages of BJJ, and The Four Corners of BJJ.